Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi was elected this week as House speaker, ending months of speculation about whether she could win back the job she held seven years ago and provide some reassurance to business that Democrats will indeed deliver on the economic promises that helped them retake the chamber in November.
Whether Pelosi can deliver on her election night promise to improve the lives of “hardworking Americans” remains to be seen, to be sure.
The California Democrat faces a real challenge in trying to carve out a pro-growth, business-friendly agenda while also trying to address calls from her party’s most liberal wing to slow President Trump’s agenda with impeachment hearings and investigations on such matters as corruption and the president’s tax returns.
However, if anybody within the 235-member House Democratic Caucus can balance the competing demands, it will likely be Pelosi.
1. A determined, groundbreaking leader
Pelosi in her roughly 30 years in Congress has, if anything, demonstrated steely resolve and a history of strong leadership.
She was elected in 2006 as the first female House speaker in U.S. history. She led the chamber from 2007 to 2011 and then served as the House’s top Democrat until this week.
Though politically vilified by many conservatives as a San Francisco liberal — to strawman proportions at times — few if any can question her groundbreaking political career and iron will, which were on full display recently in the Oval Office.
“Please don't characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting,” Pelosi told Trump after he suggested that she couldn’t negotiate publically on averting a government shutdown and funding a border wall.
2. A proven dealmaker, negotiator
Beyond her record of keeping her caucus largely in check, Pelosi has also demonstrated her abilities as a master negotiator and vote counter, having led Democrats in 2009 in passing President Obama’s signature Affordable Health Care Act, the biggest regulatory overhaul of the U.S. health care in roughly five decades.
And her return to the speakership puts her deal-making and negotiation skills front and center.
Knowing that she would need backing from some of the roughly 18 caucus members opposed to her bid, Pelosi methodically won support with promises of chairmanships, adding fresh faces to her leadership team and vowing to give more consideration to bipartisan legislation. And she eventually agreed to term limits on the speakership.
3. Challenges from within
While Pelosi’s legislative agenda will undoubtedly face opposition from House Republicans and the GOP-controlled Senate, her biggest challenges may well come from within the caucus — particularly from the newly elected members who ran on a progressive left agenda and helped win the chamber.
And their calls for middle-class tax cuts, “Medicare for All” and a special committee on climate change raise concerns about more regulations and higher corporate taxes, amid Pelosi’s pledge to reach across the aisle.
Such calls are already beyond rumblings. Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler will lead the powerful House Judiciary Committee and has already issued a white paper stating that House Democrats’ “first order of business must be to refuse to allow the normalization of Trump.”
Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Richard Neal, the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has suggested that he would, if necessary, use the chairmanship’s power to demand President Trump’s tax returns.
In addition, Neal has vowed to revisit the cap that Republicans put on state and local tax deductions in their 2017 tax law.
And similar efforts to focus on Trump by the House’s Financial Services, Oversight and Intelligence committees could mire the administration in so much legal work that the president and his team could have little time to pursue their ambitious efforts to roll back regulations that they say slow business growth.
4. The future for Pelosi, business
To be sure, Pelosi, who Trump once said had an "extreme job-killing agenda,” knows what’s at stake — for voters, the economy, Democrats and her political legacy.
She knows that voters in the next two years will demand more opportunities for better, higher-paying jobs and that her messaging into the 2020 presidential election cycle will set the tone for Democratic candidates.
Her party woefully acknowledged after the 2016 elections that it spent too much time and money on attacking Trump and his campaign, and as a result failed to articulate their economic message.
5. What’s up first?
Pelosi could get off to a fast start by proposing an infrastructure deal like the one Democrats touted in this election cycle.
The country’s roads, bridges and ports are hurting potential economic growth and thus in desperate need of repair. And Democrats have also argued that such a package would create a minimum of 15 million good-paying jobs, at least temporarily.
But Pelosi’s challenge will be how to pay for the estimated $1 trillion package.
Madame Speaker should perhaps consider a bipartisan plan that doesn’t put the full burden on corporate and individual taxpayers by raising their rates to cover the cost. And perhaps including Republicans’ proposed public-private partnerships could help Pelosi win the bipartisan support she will need.
House Democrats have some real choices to make — foremost, can they hold the oversight hearings on the Trump administration while executing a pro-growth economic agenda that resonates with the electorate without going too far with impeachment hearings?
Let’s hope the speaker will use the same leadership and legislative skills that have defined her remarkable political career to now steer Congress forward, grow the economy and make America more prosperous.
Mary Moore Hamrick
National Managing Principal, Public Policy
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