Discussing Legislative Effectiveness
with Representative Joe Neguse
Representative Joe Neguse (D, CO-2) was identified by the Center for Effective Lawmaking as one of the top-ten most effective Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. House in the 116th Congress. His high Legislative Effectiveness Score (LES) also made him the most effective freshman lawmaker in the 116th Congress; and he was also identified as the most effective Democratic lawmaker on legislation that engaged with Public Lands policies in that Congress.
Representative Neguse was elected to his first term in November 2018, becoming the first African-American member of Congress to represent Colorado in the state’s history. He serves as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, the House Natural Resources Committee, the House Rules Committee, and the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. Additionally, he serves as Chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands and Vice Chair of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship.
We had the opportunity to have a conversation with Representative Neguse about legislative policymaking, and his experiences serving in the U.S. House. Watch below as Professors Craig Volden (UVA) and Alan E. Wiseman (Vanderbilt University), Co-Directors of the Center for Effective Lawmaking, ask Representative Neguse to share his thoughts on what enabled him to be an effective lawmaker.
Transcript as follows:
Alan E. Wiseman (00:04):
Hello, my name is Alan Wiseman and I’m the chair of the department of political science at Vanderbilt University. And along with Craig Volden at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, I’m also the Co-Director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking. And we’re so excited to welcome Congressman Joe Neguse, who represents Colorado’s second district in the U S House of Representatives to spend some time with us today to talk about his experience in the House. Now, as many of you might know, Congressman Neguse was first elected to Congress in 2018, where he became the first African-American member of the US House to be elected from the state of Colorado in its history .within the 116th Congress that just recently concluded that, being the Congress that convened from 2019 to 2021, Congressman Neguse really asserted himself in many notable and impressive ways.
Alan E. Wiseman (00:55):
We at the Center for Effective Lawmaking recognized Congress Neguse as one of the top 10, most effective Democratic lawmakers in the House and overall, and then in areas pertaining particularly to policy of public lands, he was actually recognized as the most effective Democratic lawmaker in the US House. Now these accomplishments are very impressive on their face, but they’re even more notable when you remember that last Congress was Congressmen Neguse’s first session of Congress. He was a freshman. And we consider his lawmaking record to all other freshmen in his cohort and we’re able to identify him as the most effective freshman lawmaker in the 116th Congress. So with that as a very brief introduction, welcome again, Congressman Neguse. We’re so excited to have you with us today.
Representative Neguse (01:40):
Well, thank you so much for having me, Alan. And, it’s a pleasure.
Alan E. Wiseman (01:44):
Great. Now, as we talked about a little bit earlier, we, Craig and I have a collection of relatively general questions. But that being said, as you’re thinking through them and answering them, we’d really welcome you to provide any in-depth perspectives or personal examples that you could draw on from your time in Congress or in your years before Congress to speak to these ongoing discussions about lawmaking. So with that as a broad windup, I think one of the first questions that Craig and I, and I know many of our viewers would be interested in learning about is, when you were first elected to Congress and first joined the House, essentially arriving as a freshman in Washington, DC, you know, what do you feel were some of the biggest challenges you encountered and likewise, what do you wish someone had told you about before you came to Congress?
Representative Neguse (02:28):
Great questions. The 116th Congress, as you mentioned, was a very unique Congress for a variety of different reasons. And so as I think back and reflect on my time in that Congress and in particular in the days after I was sworn into the Congress, I think, perhaps one of the biggest challenges that was not necessarily clear to me when I was running for Congress, is that the diversity of the portfolio that you, as a member of the House of Representatives, to the extent you want to do your job well are responsible for managing. I had managed a fairly large agency, roughly 600 employees, before I came to the United States Congress. And so I knew that the management piece of the position was something that would be important. And I had experience in that. But just the full panoply of issues that you can and should address as a member of Congress from foreign affairs to healthcare, to education, to public lands, to the environment, to national defense, there just is a very rich diversity of issues that come before you, not withstanding obviously the focus that you may bring to the role depending on your committees of jurisdiction.
Representative Neguse (03:46):
And so that’s a piece of the job that was certainly new to me. And it’s something I’ve enjoyed, particularly as a lifelong learner. I find the experience exhilarating because everyday I learn something new about a different public policy challenge that faces us as a country. But nonetheless, that in and of itself, I think, is a challenge for every member of Congress. And it’s one of the reasons why hiring a competent and talented staff is so important, because they ultimately are your eyes and ears when it comes to reviewing so many of the policy solutions that are proposed and helping develop those solutions into ultimately legislation that can get across the finish line. In terms of what I wish folks had told me before I entered the halls of Congress, I certainly wish someone had told me just how much travel would be involved.
Representative Neguse (04:37):
And truth be told, my predecessor and others certainly warned me about that, but I don’t know that I had a full appreciation for what it means to literally live on an airplane, to be traveling once a week every week, give or take year after year. And I have a young family, a daughter who’s three years old, my wife and her live in Colorado full-time as I go back and forth. And so that presents its challenges. And it’s part of the, probably the part of the job that I like the least, and I wish someone would have warned me about that. And then the second I would say, although this was something in fact that I was advised before I got elected to Congress, but I’m glad that I was advised on this point. It’s a point that I referenced earlier. Which is how important it is to hire a capable and talented staff. At the end of the day, you are only as good as the team that you develop. And at the end of the day, politics, public policy, like so much else in life, is a team activity. It’s a team sport, and it involves developing, being able to motivate others to work towards a common goal and a shared purpose. And so I was certainly advised as much on that point before I was elected to the United States Congress. And it was certainly important for me to have that. And I’ve tried to take that advice to heart.
Craig Volden (06:05):
Great. And let me join in welcoming you the time with the Center. Really appreciate what you’ve been doing in Congress, as well as your time today. When I’m thinking about that need to build up expertise across so many different issue areas you were suggesting that staff are helping you with that, that your committee assignment is helping you along the way. I imagine that goes a long way. But it feels like a lot of it is on you and on your office. Is there an element to which Congress has organized to get its members up to speed more generally?
Representative Neguse (06:42):
Not particularly, no. In terms of how Congress is organized, I mean, the Congress still very much operates on a heavy committee structure, which has in large part and of course you all are far more, ain far better position to opine on this than I am, but that is in large part, been the story of the United States Congress since its inception, in terms of operating in a committee like format. And so, you develop an expertise and you become a subject matter expert by virtue of the committees that you serve on, because of course those issues that come before those committees of jurisdiction are going to be issues that you are addressing and resolving and hearing about, and thinking about time and time again, and over time you develop an expertise that’s very important. U.
Representative Neguse (07:33):
As I said, I think, my observation, and again, I haven’t been in Washington that long, but my sense is that most members of Congress don’t necessarily achieve the full spectrum of their portfolio. That is to say, you know, most members will engage on several different policy topics, but perhaps won’t be necessarily involved in introducing original legislation on a topic that is not within their committee of jurisdiction, from my vantage point. And we’re a very active office and aggressive in terms of wanting to try to take advantage of the opportunity that we have to represent our constituency. And so, we’ve had to work really hard to find ways in which we can play a role and introduce legislation that perhaps doesn’t come before my committee of jurisdiction. Now, of course, there are a variety of different ways in which members of Congress through educational programs, seminars, codels (so delegation trips, for example, to foreign countries as far as foreign affairs and defense and issues of intelligence are concerned) as well as codels within the interior of the country. Last year or rather two years ago, early in my tenure, I traveled for the first time to El Paso. El Paso, Texas, which gave me a great visibility into issues around our Southern border, which of course I have familiarity with, but nonetheless, I’m not as familiar as those who live and work in those areas. And so I think a lot of it is trying to define the time to be able to read more and learn more and think more about these issues that come before the Congress. I’m very excited, I should say, just recently I was appointed to the rules committee, which I’m certainly looking forward to serving on it, started serving on the committee a few weeks ago.
Representative Neguse (09:23):
And one of the reasons, because as you both know, every piece of legislation that makes its way to the House floor has to come through the rules committee. And as a result, it provides you with a greater visibility into the broad range of issues that are considered by the Congress. I would say the same with respect to serving in House leadership. As a freshman member, I was elected to House leadership, and it was a really incredible experience for me, and gave me an opportunity to elevate issues that were important to my cohort, to the freshmen colleagues that I represented at the leadership table. But it also provided me with the opportunity to learn a lot more about, again, issues that would not be coming before the house judiciary committee or the natural resources committee or the select committee on the climate crisis, which are my three primary committees.
Alan E. Wiseman (10:09):
This is really helpful. And I really appreciate the way in which you’ve noticed, noted explicitly how instrumental your staff are in helping you advance your legislative agenda. Thinking about your position and perhaps comparing it to other freshmen, either in your cohort or freshmen in the current Congress, I’d just be curious to know, was it important to you to hire staff who had substantial Capitol Hill experience? Or were you less focused on that when you’re setting up your office?
Representative Neguse (10:36):
It was, it depended on the circumstances. So it was important for us to hire, with respect to both my chief of staff and my legislative director, people who’ve had years of Capitol Hill experience because I knew very early on, I wanted to hit the ground running and that I wanted to be in the position to be able to convey back to my constituency the work that we had done early on. I had spent the better part of almost two years campaigning to have the honor of presenting the second congressional district in United States Congress. I had a pretty good sense in my view, perhaps biased, I suppose, but of the pulse of the district and the issues that they wanted to work, they wanted to see their member of Congress working on. And so when I got to Washington in November, 2018 for our orientation, I was very eager to get to work.
Representative Neguse (11:23):
And so that meant for me hiring people whom… I think one of the most important things members of Congress and frankly that the supplies, certainly the private sector when I was a private attorney, is to know what you don’t know, and to hire capable, talented people, who can help in that regard over to compensate for those areas that you might not be as familiar with. I had spent very little time in Washington, DC before I was elected to the United States Congress. I was… I had spent a lot of time in state government and the private sector in Colorado, but I had been to Washington a handful of times, perhaps three or four times in my life before I came to Washington orientation in November of 2018. I’d never been to the United States Capitol before. And so, being, you know, making sure that I had a legislative director who had in fact served on Capitol Hill for many years, who knew what it was like to draft a bill and get it to the floor in short order and various levers that need to be pulled in that process, which is still very much relationship driven, was very important as was the case for my chief of staff. However, there were other positions where, it was that we put less of a premium on experience and more wanting to make sure that we hired a team that would be hardworking and would approach the job with zeal and kind of an entrepreneurial spirit, which is consistent with kind of how we do things in Colorado. So folks who would sort of take the lead and grab the bull by the horns and take off. And so, I think we did that, and I’m very proud of my team. And certainly any of the superlatives that you all noted in your report, they deserve all the credit because they worked so tremendously hard each day, to move the ball forward down the field.
Craig Volden (13:16):
That’s great to hear. We’re also at the Center, very interested in the extent to which people build on their past experiences when they arrive in Congress. And one of those that I’d be interested in hearing your thought on is working in the Colorado’s sort of executive branch, and then bringing that to the legislative branch at the national level. How did you feel that that prior experience helped you in your lawmaking?
Representative Neguse (13:40):
Yeah, it’s a great question, Craig. A couple of ways, I’d say sort of bifurcating it into two different buckets, one being just pure policy expertise, and then the other being kind of general approaches to the job. With respect to the former, from a policy perspective, I ran Colorado’s consumer protection agency. So it’s a very diverse agency that has within it the division of insurance, regulating banking, securities financial services, real estate, the public utilities commission in our states. So the regulation of investor owned utilities, so a lot of environmental work, electrical grid and so forth. So doing that work, and having that kind of underlying understanding of various issues was certainly helpful for me in particular, in terms of our work. For example, now on the antitrust subcommittee, as a former regulator and as somebody who was leading an enforcement agency, understanding the FTCs unique role in a way that perhaps other members of Congress might not.
Representative Neguse (14:43):
And there were many other areas public policy areas that we worked on during my time leading that state agency, or prior to that, I served as a member of our state’s higher education board of directors, essentially the University of Colorado Board of Regents. So a lot of visibility into higher education and education policy more broadly. And so that has really helped inform my education portfolio in Washington and enabled our team, I think again, to hit the ground running. So that that’s the first bucket. The second bucket is more just kind of, I had never served in a legislative body per se before I was elected to the Congress, again, serving in the governor’s cabinet, it’s akin to serving in the federal cabinet. Running the SEC or CFPB or the wide variety of other federal enforcement agencies.
Representative Neguse (15:32):
And that experience was informative because now as a member of Congress, it helps me better reflect and understand the constraints that our regulatory agencies sometimes are subject to, the environment that they are operating in. And of course, when I was on the other side of the ledger, I was always very, or not always, but at times, frustrated with the legislature and working with various state senators and state representatives, who of course have their respective goals. And as a result, it has, I guess, imbued me with a different framework from which I can relate to those in the executive branch and make my case, perhaps in a more compelling way on a legislative goal that I’m pursuing. Now, of course, as you all are undoubtedly aware, the interactions between the executive and legislative are far more limited in Washington than they are at the state level. At the state level, I, as a cabinet member, I would meet with legislators on a regular basis almost every other day. In Washington, certainly in the last two years, that was not, we had very limited interactions with the executive branch, and now, we interact with the President and various cabinet agencies from time to time, but Congress is much larger in terms of scale. And so, that work, I guess, is perhaps not as,… that experience is helpful, but, probably not…I don’t want to oversell it by any means.
Alan E. Wiseman (17:02):
I mean, diving back into questions about your past experience then, at the most fundamental level, there’s questions about how one’s education maps into what they ultimately do for a living .And you, it goes without saying you’re a proud graduate of the University of Colorado, where you earned your law degree in 2009. And a question that comes up very often when we’re talking to people about what makes for an effective lawmaker is their previous education. And I’d be curious, it serves to reason that a law degree is probably quite helpful given your earlier positions in state government, but do you think a law degree’s particularly useful for someone as they’re serving in Congress and helping them to draft the laws or understand the lawmaking process?
Representative Neguse (17:42):
I think it’s certainly very useful, but it’s not compulsory by any stretch. As I think back to the founding fathers of our country, many of them had studied the law and were barristers, but at the same time, many also were citizen legislators, right? Folks who had a wide diversity of experience, and from my perspective, having served in the Congress for a few years now, while certainly having a legal background has enabled our office to be much more muscular in terms of the legislative work that we do. And, in particular with my committee assignments, if you’re serving on the judiciary committee as an example, which I do, or the antitrust commercial law committee, as I mentioned, the intellectual property committee, these are committees that are very law intensive.
Representative Neguse (18:33):
And so I certainly think having a legal background helps. And not to mention the legal training, it imparts an ability to be able to think strategically and critically to solve a problem. I often … On often occasions will use the Socratic method with my staff, which was used to a great degree during my legal studies, because it’s helpful as I think about whether to co-sponsor a particular bill to sort of understand all sides of the arguments that will be presented by various constituents, who may disagree with the position that I’m going to take. So all of that is helpful. But on balance, I would say the most important quality in a representative in terms of being able to do the job effectively is someone who truly knows their district and who has a diversity of life and career experiences that will help inform their judgment on the very diverse portfolio that they will inherit as a member of Congress.
Representative Neguse (19:37):
And I think it is one of the unique aspects of the United States Congress when juxtaposed against most parliaments in Western countries, where the path to ultimately ascending to, a seat in parliament, a part of given parliament is much more structured and less Byzantine than perhaps it is in the United States. And I actually think that that’s a good thing because it means that I get to serve in the Congress with medical doctors and folks who’ve worked in the arts and scientists and just a wide swath of America, which is a positive in my view.
Craig Volden (20:22):
So we’ve been having the initial part of our conversation around getting used to being in Congress and bringing that personal background in. But in your case, as we started out with our conversation, you hit the ground running so quickly. Our Center for Effective Lawmaking rated you as one of the top 10 Democratic lawmakers overall, and the top freshmen overall. How? What would you like to explain there? Hitting the ground running, but doing so so effectively, what advice would you give to others along the line?
Representative Neguse (20:55):
Well, I’d say three things. First luck. Much of this is being in the right place at the right time. And, timing and circumstance play a really large role. Second is staff, which I know I’m belaboring the point here, but I don’t think I can overstate the case here that it’s just critically important to hire talented staff that are hardworking and that can compensate in areas where you might not have as much experience. And so when it came to the legislative work, our legislative director and our legislative aides, we had a larger and do to this day, have a larger legislative team than some other offices in Congress. Different offices are structured in different ways. Some offices are emphasize outreach, others emphasize press, on the comms side of the ledger. For us, it was really important to have a robust legislative team.
Representative Neguse (21:54):
And so we, at one point had, four legislative aides essentially, and a legislative director. And so that gave us the capacity to be able to legislate outside of our committees of jurisdiction. Which, once you’ve done that, it opens, a really big door in terms of the possibilities as to what you can accomplish. And then third, and this is something that I’ve learned over the course of my first two years in Congress. it’s not something that you’re necessarily taught or anyone imparts to you at the beginning, or when I commenced my service. And that is that relationships really matter. Ultimately in order to, in an institution where 10,000, 15,000 maybe more bills are introduced every Congress and less than a hundred of them perhaps… it’s dangerous for me to be quoting statistics here to two gentlemen who have so much time compiling statistics, but less than a hundred, perhaps are actually marked up by every committee of jurisdiction in the Congress. You have 20 committees give or take standing and select, given that, the only way to really, move the ball and get your, ensure that your bill and your legislation is considered, is to build relationships within the institution. And that means building relationships with members across both sides of the aisle to, so that you can make the case to them on the merits of a bill that you’d like for them to co-sponsor – the more co-sponsors you have, the better chance you have of making the case to leadership or committee chair that the bill ought to be marked up or ought to be added to the suspension calendar. And so these are, those are pieces of the process that I was not familiar with before I came to the Congress. But thankfully I have a chief of staff and a legislative director and a wonderful team, that were, and that did have that experience and that understood the need for us to really invest the time into developing those relationships so that we could ultimately ensure that we had success in our legislative portfolio.
Alan E. Wiseman (24:02):
No, that’s a really insightful response in terms of providing us with some guidance as to what you think contributed to your overall success in so many different levels. Related to that point, I also want to reemphasize another highlight of your legislative record and that being that across all members of the US House, you were the most effective Democratic member of the House in advancing bills and the public lands area. A good deal that success was clearly tied to your success in sponsoring a bill that ultimately became law to expand the Rocky Mountain National Park. But one of the points that Craig and I found particularly interesting in diving into your legislative record is that not only were you focused on issues related to public lands, but across the 21 major policy areas that we analyze, you actually introduced bills in about 16 of them, which suggests you have a very expansive legislative portfolio, across many different issue areas.
Alan E. Wiseman (24:55):
And in looking at your legislative record and your rate of success, both in public lands and some other areas, we’d just be curious to know from your perspective, what do you see as being one of the benefits of having such an expansive policy agenda? Or alternatively, do you think it might be worthwhile to be more tailored and focused on certain needs? Or I guess another way of thinking about this is, what do you, what are some of the reasons that you think you were so successful in public lands, given the fact that you have such an extensive policy agenda?
Representative Neguse (25:24):
Yeah. Great questions. And it’s certainly a subject of internal debate in our office from time to time. And I suspect the same can be said for other offices as well, because there is a need in Congress, much like every other industry in the private sector when I was practicing laws, this was often a refrain that developing a specialization and developing a niche, having subject matter expertise so that you can play a leadership role with respect to that particular area and really move the ball forward is very important. And typically that area will be one that both you are invested in, for personal reasons, and professional reasons. And then of course, an issue that the district, the community that you represent is very invested in. And so from the standpoint of public lands and the work that you mentioned, I represent a district that’s over 52% public lands, one of probably within the top 10 or 15 congressional districts in terms of that percentage, some of the most iconic places in the country, I’m sure that you all are familiar with Rocky Mountain National Park, Vail, Breckenridge, Winter Park, you know, the best skiing in the world.
Representative Neguse (26:39):
And so I have the honor of representing those areas. And of course, as a Coloradan, through and through who loves his state and who grew up hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park and, and camping and skiing and snow and so forth, the public land issue, that part of the portfolio, conservation of our public lands, supporting outdoor recreation, doing more in that regard was always going to be a priority of mine. And it also is consistent with the views and the priorities of my district. And so, early on, we made a decision that it would be a focus of our work. And so we joined the natural resources committee and served on the public lands subcommittee. I selected that committee as my second, or excuse me the public land subcommittee. I worked really hard to make sure that that was the first subcommittee I was assigned to in the Congress.
Representative Neguse (27:29):
And ultimately that gave me a position that was second in seniority to the then chair, Secretary, Deb Haland who back then was the chair of the committee, which, of course in Congress, seniority is so important. And so ultimately this Congress, I now have the privilege of serving as the chair of the subcommittee. And so it was a conscientious decision that we made early on to invest significant time and resources into further developing our public lands portfolio and making sure that we were active in that space. And when I say public lands, it includes, it’s broader than simply conservation, but wildfire resiliency, wildfire mitigation, so forth, which is a huge issue. In terms of this kind of core question that you’ve posed. What do you give up by having a broad portfolio? In terms of, perhaps not having enough time or resources to invest in developing your subject matter andsubject matter expertise.
Representative Neguse (28:30):
I like to think that you can do both. I suppose, that eventually I will be disabused of that notion. I think in particular, the longer you serve in the United States Congress the more significant your committee assignments, for example, to become a chair of a subcommittee or a chair of a full committee, as opposed to a rank and file freshman member, I think the harder it becomes for members to operate outside of their jurisdictional space. And so we have not hit that wall quite yet, which I’m very grateful for because the biggest benefit to legislating out, in a broad way, is you’re able to be much more responsive to constituents. Because of course, constituents reach out to our office, not simply about public lands, but about affordable healthcare and about making our textbooks cheaper at our universities and about strengthening civil rights protections and any number of other of antitrust issues in the digital marketplace and so many other issues.
Representative Neguse (29:33):
And so from our standpoint, we never wanted to be, and I certainly never wanted to be in a position where, if a constituent coming to me with a great idea about a way in which we could solve a consequential challenge that we’re facing that we would say, well, I’m sorry, we just don’t have the bandwidth. And so we’ve endeavored to make the necessary investments in our staff to be able to kind of have that broad portfolio. But again, I’ve only been in Congress two and a half years. So time will tell as to whether or not that holds out. And I, again, I suspect the longer you serve, the more difficult that becomes.
Craig Volden (30:09):
Sure. And I’d love to take another lens on thinking about the breadth of your portfolio. This one emphasizes that, you’re a member of the congressional black caucus and the first African-American to represent Colorado in Congress and now scholars of Congress have noted that some path breakers like yourself feel some pressure to act on behalf of the African-American community more broadly in addition to representing their home districts. Is that a dual role that you see yourself playing as well?
Representative Neguse (30:40):
Look, I, I think fundamentally you are doing both, right? And so I, from my perspective, I, my job is to represent the people of Colorado second congressional district, my neighbors, the folks who live in Boulder and Fort Collins and, and Broomfield, and our central mountain communities up in Grand county and Summit and Eagle, and you open and granted I want to name all 10 counties now, so I don’t get in trouble with my constituents, but Northern Park county and Western Jefferson and elsewhere, and to do my best to exercise, good judgment in voting in favor of their interests and legislating on the priorities that matter to them. I ultimately also represent my state as a whole, the great state of Colorado. And that means representing the entire state and not simply those who represent or aresimply within my congressional district.
Representative Neguse (31:36):
I think that every member also has a duty to represent their state. I also represent, as you mentioned in Colorado, there are no people of color who serve in our federal delegation. And so I like to think that our office has a role to play in terms of representing the black community and people of color more broadly in our state, in the United States Congress, and I’m the son of immigrants. And so I also feel very passionately about speaking up the immigrants in our country and for the voiceless for those, for refugees like my parents who came to this country many years ago, so all of those parts of our, of my representation I think are important. And we certainly endeavor to try to do each one and to do each one well.
Craig Volden (32:25):
It sounds exhausting though.
Representative Neguse (32:28):
Certainly it keeps us busy. It keeps my team very busy.
Alan E. Wiseman (32:32):
Especially with so many counties in the district. We don’t want to downplay that.
Representative Neguse (32:35):
I tried to explain to my colleagues on the Eastern seaboard, that my district is bigger geographically than the entire state of New Jersey. So a lot of time in the car putting a lot of miles on the car, driving up to the, all the way up, my Liz Cheney is my neighbor, congressional neighbor to the north. So it gives you a sense of kind of scale.
Alan E. Wiseman (32:57):
Well building on the previous question as Craig noted, you’re a member of the congressional black caucus, but you’re also a member of the progressive caucus. And in thinking about the caucus memberships, a question that both academics and just general viewers might be curious about is what role do you see caucuses playing in the contemporary Congress generally. And also, you know, has your membership in these caucuses helps you facilitate your lawmaking goals?
Representative Neguse (33:21):
With respect to the latter question/ Certainly, yes. I mean, being a member of a caucus and obviously as you mentioned, there are ideological caucuses, racial caucuses, many types of caucuses within the Congress, there’s also subject matter caucuses, the ski caucus and so many others. And from my perspective, I think our service in those different organizations serves a number of different purposes. One, I think those caucuses are very helpful in terms of guiding the conversation within the Congress with respect to priorities that are expressed by that particular group, black Americans in the United States have a shared sense of different public policy issues that matter a great deal to our community across multiple congressional districts from coast to coast and in the interior of the United States. Black maternal health would be a good example, more inequities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, for black and brown communities in particular.
Representative Neguse (34:32):
And so the ability for a caucus that is structured to elevate those issues and ensure that they are given the appropriate attention by leadership within both chambers of the Congress is very important. And the ability for the ideological caucuses to apply a philosophical lens to certain issues and be an advocate for those issues and using kind of almost economies of scale, in some sense, right? When you have a large caucus of like-minded individuals, all making the case together the purchasing power, if you will, of that organization can be significant and can ultimately have a great deal of could make a great deal of difference in terms of influencing again, the agenda that’s pursued in the House and in the Senate. And then of course, with respect to individual priorities, you’re given an opportunity, for example, to make the case to caucuses in which you are a member for endorsements of a particular piece of legislation that you are pursuing. And that gives you the ability to move the ball forward.
Representative Neguse (35:43):
In addition, you develop relationships, as I mentioned by virtue of your membership in those caucuses, which can be instrumental. You know, you only serve on a few committees, I serve on four committees out of 20. And so to the extent you are wanting to introduce a bill in the agriculture committee of which we’ve introduced several, and you don’t serve on the agriculture committee, it’s going to be important to find partners on that committee and the caucuses that you mentioned, I think, provide a great platform for you to do that
Craig Volden (36:16):
In terms of partnerships and relation building, I’d like to get your insights on bipartisanship as well. You’ve been scored as a highly bipartisan in Congress, and the work that we’ve done at the Center for Effective Lawmaking suggests that more bipartisan members are more effective than are strongly partisan counterparts. How do you think about the role of bipartisanship for lawmaking? Kind of how do you adopt a bipartisan strategy?
Representative Neguse (36:45):
Well, it’s incredibly important, for us and for our office. It’s a piece of advice that my predecessor who’s now the governor of Colorado, he was a Congressman for Colorado second congressional district, gave to me when I was elected or shortly thereafter. And the advice was to remember that someone who you’re opposing on one bill could very well be someone whom you’re partnering with the next day. And it was important to keep that in mind, contextually, it’s important to develop allies and to remember that not every battle is going to be a defining one, in the sense that you’re going to want to be able to build partnerships with folks. And so we’ve taken that to heart. We worked really hard. And the first term of Congress, we don’t, in my view, I don’t believe we sacrificed our principles or our values. And, I’m a progressive lawmaker, as you mentioned, I serve as the vice chair of the progressive caucus. So I believe that we need to apply bold solutions to the challenges that we face as a country, but I’ve also done my best to try to identify partners whom I can work with to try to solve problems. And to the extent anyone is willing to approach a problem in good faith and work with me to try to solve it, we’re all ears. So that work is important. It takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. And it’s a by-product of putting in the work of really putting in the time and the effort.
Representative Neguse (38:25):
And of course, bipartisanship breeds more bipartisanship. So once you’ve successfully partnered with a member across the aisle on a legislative effort you’re more likely to partner with that member again and have even more success into the future. So I think it’s important, obviously in the political environment that we currently have, which is very vitriolic and hyperbolic, it can be difficult, and I think it’s getting more difficult actually, but it’s still something that we care a great deal about. And my constituents expect me to deliver for them irrespective of the political party of, of a given partner on an issue
Alan E. Wiseman (39:08):
That’s really helpful. I want to shift gears very slightly to think about other things that you do as a member of Congress and you in particular are one of the co-chairs of the House Democratic policy and communications committee. And in that role, you’re essentially tasked with developing a message on behalf of the Democratic party that resonates with Americans. And, Craig and I, and I know others are just curious in the broadest sense, essentially how do you think about the differences between the communication of ideas on one hand and the practice of law making on the other?
Representative Neguse (39:41):
Well, I think it’s a great question. In some respects, they go hand in hand. Ultimately at the end of the day, as a member of Congress, we’re responsible, as I said, for representing the views and the values of our constituents, legislating for the general public welfare, trying to solve problems. And then ultimately communicating back to our constituency the work that we are doing and ensuring that that communication is a two-way street, its symbiotic, so that we can intake ideas and suggestions and comments and concerns and criticisms and all that that entails. And so the messaging part of our job is important. And of course, as you mentioned, the Democratic policy communications committee, which I served as a co-chair along with Ted Lieu, Debbie Dingell and Matt Cartwright, my colleagues, is an important vehicle for trying to kind of synthesize all of the different intake that I just described from the 220 some odd members of our caucus, give or take. And then, kind of creating an output, right? Distilling all of that work, all of those accomplishments, all of the forward movement that’s described in your report, at least with respect to the House Democratic caucus, and distilling that into concise, succinct messages that resonate with the American people. And that is, as you can imagine, a very robust and at times, complex process, because we have a caucus, and a Congress that is diverse in nature in terms of representing every area of the country and different members of Congress, for the reasons that we discussed, have different subject matter expertise and different focuses in terms of the areas that they are working on. And so how you build a message that won’t just resonate with the American people, but that can apply broadly to every member of the House Democratic caucus is a heavy task. And it’s something we put a lot of, again, time and effort into. And, like so many other items that we’ve discussed today, a lot of it boils down to relationships to spending the time to listen to colleagues about what they’re hearing in their districts, what is resonating with their constituents, what their constituents are concerned about, and then trying to identify the similarities and the links between what different members within the House Democratic caucus are relaying. And I think we’ve done a good job of that. I think the DPCC historically has done a good job of that. YAnd I think that that’s reflected in the message that we’ve delivered and we’re, undertaking a process right now of fact finding of sorts as we essentially discuss with members of the caucus what I just described, what they’re hearing in their district what’s resonating, what’s not what people are concerned about so that we can both formulate the policy agenda that we will pursue in the House and then the messaging operation that will follow.
Craig Volden (42:51):
Terms of what you’re hearing in your district, we were intrigued to hear what we could about your service town hall initiatives. And we wanted to hear more about what you’re trying to accomplish with that unique approach.
Representative Neguse (43:02):
Well, we’re very excited. We just relaunched the service town hall initiative and COVID 19 of course, the public health emergency that we all experienced as a country, it’s just been devastating for so many reasons. And one of which was the inability for us to get together in person and be in the company or humans. And so being able to actually have physical in-person town halls is wonderful. And we’re excited to finally be able to transition back to that. I think maybe probably a month into my tenure, as a member of Congress, we made it very clear early on again, given the geographical nature of my district, just how large it is that we wanted to be present and we wanted to ensure that we were omnipresent if anything, that we would be in every part of the district as often as we could.
Representative Neguse (43:51):
And so we committed to having as many town halls as we possibly could hold. And we ended up holding, I think somewhere between 30 and 40 town halls within the first year of my service in the United States Congress, which was incredibly important. And we found early on, again, I represent a district that’s politically diverse and Republicans, Democrats, unaffiliated voters, people who aren’t particularly partisan in one way or the other, and at our town halls, we would sometimes the temperature could get a little hot because of the, just the nature of the politically charged environment that we find ourselves in, the atmosphere. So our thought was why not find a way kind of turn down the temperature and the best way to do that in my experience is performing a service together.
Representative Neguse (44:40):
And so we came up with this concept of service town halls, where essentially we would go out, we would do a service project, a volunteer activity, go to the Boulder homeless shelter to serve meals, or do maintenance work, do a trail restoration project up at Rocky Mountain National Park, help a local food bank with their work. And then after that service project, we would then have a town hall where constituents could ask me all the hard questions that they had planned to ask and could have essentially in a conventional town hall, combining it, we have found really does turn down the temperature because it’s hard to get mad at somebody for their views on a political topic when you’re mulching a trail together, when you’re serving, when you’re making food baskets, or care baskets for the homeless together.
Representative Neguse (45:39):
And it doesn’t mean that, I’m not suggesting that folks have changed their fundamental political views on a given topic, but I just think it’s helped to turn down the temperature. And I think, in a way, help us better understand that we’re all in it together and refocus us as a community on what matters. And so I, and it’s also helped with our town hall attendance. Our service town halls tend to be the most well attended because folks are very excited to do the service component and then to stick around and hear me say a few words.
Craig Volden (46:16):
Thanks for your innovation along that line.
Representative Neguse (46:19):
They were helpful. There are other members who have started to do the service town hall, so we’re hopeful it takes off. We’ll see. Time will tell, right?
Alan E. Wiseman (46:26):
No, it’s wonderful to hear that’s taken off so well for you and your constituents. I guess related broadly speaking to the topic of the temperature of politics or political debate in contemporary times, my expectation is many Americans might’ve first encountered you through your role as one of the House impeachment managers of the 2021 Senate impeachment trial of President Trump. And, given the events of January 6th and the subsequent impeachment battle, bluntly speaking, it seems that some members of Congress are not even really willing to talk with each other anymore, much less try to work across the aisle to try to engage with America’s policy problems. Just given your perspective in your second term of Congress, having been an impeachment manager, how bad from your perspective are such relationships right now in Congress. And likewise what do you see as some likely, or perhaps most preferred paths forward?
Representative Neguse (47:21):
I think that relationships are certainly frayed to a significant degree. The experience on January 6th was traumatic for our country and it was traumatic for the Congress. Many of us were on the House floor, myself included that day. And I think that the clearly the rift that has developed in some respects between some members on Capitol Hill is unlikely to ever abate. And I, and I think that’s, obviously I, again, I try to take a step back and offer context here because the vast majority of folks on Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats, I think you will find that there are many people working together and partnering on various different efforts. And I’ve offered a couple of examples, from our office today. There are certain members in Congress who show no interest in governing and whose dangerous rhetoric about the prior election, the perpetuation of The Big Lie, again this is my view… I guess I would just simply say that I think there are certain folks in Congress who should not be serving in the United States Congress, with the exception of those individuals, obviously, there are many other partnerships and positive relationships between Republican and Democratic legislators on Capitol Hill. And I think that, that those will continue. And I think you’ll see that. We just introduced a bipartisan bill last week, with Representative Curtis and Representative LaMalfa -the shred act. It’s a bill on trying to provide more funding for the forest service particular areas that have ski areas such as my district. And it’s a good example of a bipartisan bill that, it’s non-controversial and reflective of the commitment of folks on both sides of the aisle to try to move the ball forward.
Representative Neguse (49:23):
But yeah, I mean, obviously, the January 6th, the insurrection that day put our very democracy at risk and underminded the fundamental tenants of the peaceful transfer of power that have governed our country for the better part in the last 230 some odd years. So, I don’t think there’s any expectation that those who were complicit or supportive of the larger purposes behind that insurrection, that members of Congress would be willing or interested in working with people like that, it’s just not something that I think would be reasonable for folks to conclude.
Craig Volden (50:01):
We’ve been talking about relationships among members of Congress, but more generally, how do you perceive at present the relationship between Congress and the President both as it was under President Trump and now under President Biden?
Representative Neguse (50:14):
Well, of course I have a biased view on this point. So with full disclosure here, but I think the President is doing a remarkable job. I think he’s working in Congress in a much more effective and productive way than the prior President. And I say that not just as a Democratic member of Congress, because I think the empirical data speaks for itself, I suspect, and perhaps the Center for Effective Lawmaking can fact check me on this, that President Biden has had more rank and file members of the opposing political party over to the White House for substantive meetings on any number of different legislative topics from curing cancer to infrastructure to COVID stimulus and so forth than the prior President had probably in his four years of his entire term combined. I’ve been to the White House twice in the last several weeks, two months, to visit with the President directly, as well as with his team, he relationship between the executive agencies and the Congress, I think is robust and improving by the day.
Representative Neguse (51:18):
And certainly again, I’ve only served in the Congress for a few years, so I don’t have as much of a historical benchmark from which to compare than perhaps many of my other colleagues, but comparing the past two years in the 116th Congress, where the relationship with the executive branch was essentially non-existent to today…where I think the executive branch is very much working to try to be responsive to Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, I think is a real positive step. And I’m hopeful that that will continue. And it was always, when I arrived on the Capitol Hill, it was such a shock because, shock is probably the wrong word I obviously had read and was well aware of the difficulties with the prior administration in terms of its relationship with the Congress, but coming from state government where the governor works and the executive branch, the cabinet agencies, the cabinet officers that he appoints, or she appoints, worked so closely with the legislature. And there’s really no daylight. Yes, there’s very active and robust debates around policy between the legislature and the cabinet and the executive branch. But the idea of not being responsive from not even being able to get a call back or being able to engage thoughtfully, that just would be, it’s just not something that happens at the state level. And yet, of course, that was part and parcel to the last administration’s approach in the 116th Congress. So that’s changed for the better, and I’m very grateful for that.
Alan E. Wiseman (52:54):
Great. Well, we want to be mindful of your time. So we only have a couple of last questions, but one point that Craig and I wanted to highlight to you was the fact that the research of the Center for Effective Lawmaking has demonstrated a very robust pattern in which members of Congress who were highly effective lawmakers in their freshman term, as you clearly were, continue to be effective lawmakers and their subsequent terms in Congress. And it’s also the case that those freshmen lawmakers who were highly effective also tend to be the ones that are most to consider running for higher office. Whether it be say, Senator, governor, or even presidents in some cases. And in thinking about that, and then thinking about your ability to be such an effective lawmaker early in your professional career, we were curious, essentially how well you’re able to accomplish in lawmaking the House might influence how you think about your political aspirations down the road.
Representative Neguse (53:48):
It’s an interesting question. And it’s almost in some respects counterintuitive because I would have assumed that the data would reveal the opposite because the members who are working on legislating and spending, devoting a significant volume of their time legislating, as a result are probably not doing as much of the political activity that is necessary to run for one of those higher offices, say any of those higher offices that you mentioned. So that- I would have assumed that the inverse would have been the case, but in any event, as far as we’re concerned, I’m concerned, and I say this in all candor, our focus, you mentioned at the outset kind of a little bit about my background, as a son of immigrants, as someone whose family was given a real shot at the American dream, I’ve never taken anything for granted.
Representative Neguse (54:44):
And for me to be able to serve in the United States House of Representatives is very unique. As a result for my team it’s always been very important for me to impart to them that we take every opportunity that we can during this time that we have to be able to, as I said, move the ball forward and try to solve problems for our constituents. And that really has been the focus because I’ve never, I certainly don’t, I’m not someone who aspires to serve in Congress for 20, 30, 40 years and that sort of thing. I’d like to be able to serve, and to be able to deliver for my constituents and then eventually transition to doing something else and another person will come along with a fresh set of eyes to do this important work. So I have no plans of running for any higher office certainly not anytime soon. And it’s my focus, which I’m sure you expected me to say, is not on delivering for my constituents, but when I say it, I mean it.
Alan E. Wiseman (55:47):
We would ever suggest otherwise Congressman, come on now.
Craig Volden (55:51):
That’s right. We appreciate your perspective on that. But sadly our time is up. We really appreciate the time that, and the opportunity to talk with you, as we wrap up, however, we did want to offer you that opportunity, if there’s anything else that you wanted to convey to us or our audience about effective lawmaking that we didn’t ask you about or about your experiences, is there anything you felt that we left out?
Representative Neguse (56:17):
I would just say the only thing I left out, Craig was I missed not saying at the outset of today’s session is to say thank you to you and to Alan for your work and for the Center’s work and for your staff, because I recognize it. I’m sure it’s painstaking work that takes a great deal of time, but it matters a great deal. And it’s not just members of Congress who read and review the data at the Center for Effective Lawmaking produces. Ultimately it’s the American public and our constituents. And I think it’s incredibly important and I’d be saying that whether or not I was on the ranking or not because fundamentally, again, particularly in this political environment where so many folks have become very jaded about their federal government, it’s important for there to be neutral arbitral, excuse me, neutral and impartial arbiters. Folks like yourselves who are willing to sort of call the strikes and balls and provide to the American public a more fulsome view of the activity that’s happening in the United States Congress. So much of the coverage, as I’m sure you two are undoubtedly aware these days, is, it’s almost similar to sports coverage. It’s just who’s winning, who’s losing, and it’s a zero sum game, and there’s very little focus on the more technical aspects of the work that is done here in Congress, not understanding the huge impact that that work will have on the American public and all that that work entails. So I’m grateful to all of you for doing the report and for continuing to produce it. And I look forward to reviewing it two years from now.
Craig Volden (57:56):
Thanks so much. We really appreciate your time and your public service.
Representative Neguse (58:00):
Alan E. Wiseman (58:01):
We really appreciate it. And we’re looking forward to hopefully having you at one or both of our respective campuses now that we’re hopefully emerging from the COVID era.
Representative Neguse (58:09):
I would love that. Count me in.
Craig Volden (58:12):
Thanks so much. Have a great weekend.