The freshman class of the 116th Congress — America’s most diverse class in years — was quickly thrown into the deep end of the legislative pool. It has been a baptism of fire, from the government shutdown they were sworn in under to a once in a lifetime pandemic.
And in between? Russian election interference, the Mueller Report, Iran and the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump among other things. It’s been quite a lively two years in office for Democratic Reps. Jason Crow and Joe Neguse.
“I knew to basically be prepared for the unexpected, which is exactly what happened,” Crow said. “There's no playbook for what's happened the last two years. You know, I jokingly say that I've been in Congress for two years going on 20.”
It’s been a steep learning curve and not all the lessons have been fun or encouraging. In an early interview as a new member of Congress, Neguse admitted he had a dim view of it. Standing outside at the base of the steps of the U.S. Capitol, he said it stemmed from seeing Congress “incapable of resolving the shutdown.”
“The speed in which, and with which this body responds to problems,” Neguse said. “It just, things move at such a glacial level.”
Most recently, his frustration with congressional intransigence is focused on the inability of Congress and the White House to agree on another coronavirus relief package. It’s a tangible example of how Washington has the power to resolve or to prolong problems that affect the lives of every Coloradan.
Crow isn’t immune to that frustration either. It’s a constant refrain heard from many, including lawmakers that have served for decades.
“There is still a culture in this town that’s antithetical to the change and the bold action that we need,” he said.
“I’m Just A Bill” can probably be considered the gold standard of civics education films. The Schoolhouse Rock! short about a scrappy piece of paper “sitting here on capitol hill” is burned into the mind of a cross-section of generations. Crow’s son recently played the catchy little ditty about the legislative process for him. What’s not included, Crow noted, is the role of big money and special interests that can gum up the process.
None of that, however, discourages Crow. He gets his encouragement from fellow freshmen — that they all answered the call to public service during such a time of division.
For Neguse, his faith was restored by the political system the founding fathers created, and more importantly, the resilience of the American people.
“My faith in the American people and in the people of our state, in particular, has certainly been reaffirmed.”
His moments of frustration are balanced by the “awe” he has of the founding fathers’ vision of government.
“Their ability to create a system that would ensure that our basic safeguards and norms for our democracy could be left intact,” he said. “And I think of the example I would offer would be, you know, during the very contentious impeachment hearings.”
Neguse serves on the Judiciary Committee, which investigated impeachment and then decided to present charges to the full House of Representatives. Crow served as one of the House impeachment managers who then pressed the case in the Senate. It was probably the height of partisanship in Washington.
Both men admit the partisanship that is stretching the fabric of our democracy is also a real force in Congress. But they add they try to get to know a person behind the political label.
“What I try to do is not question people's motivations, not necessarily buy into the, you know, the image of somebody that might be fed to me through public sources and actually just get to know the person first,” Crow said.
It’s helped both men form friendships and working relationships with Republicans that have flourished over the last two years. Neguse pointed out that many “would be surprised to learn that Republicans and Democrats actually get along quite well.”
“While I disagree with them on a host of different issues and policy matters, I respect where they're coming from,” Neguse said of his cross-aisle colleagues. “I try not to question their motives or impugn their motives and try to have good faith in guest discussions with them. And, my hope is that we could do more of that in the coming years.”
If you ever turn on C-SPAN, sometimes you’ll see a congress member speak to a very empty chamber. Both Crow and Neguse gave their first chamber floor speeches on the shutdown. Crow on its impact on veterans, Neguse on its impact on families in his district.
Neguse remembers being nervous, after all, he and his other freshmen colleagues were following in the traditions of James Madison and Abraham Lincoln. But the speech that stood out in his mind was the first time he spoke to a packed chamber. The subject was the American Dream and Promise Act.
“I was very nervous for that because the entire chamber — it was pre COVID, of course — in the gallery watching and on the floor.”
You could hear cheers and applause from one side of the aisle and jeers from the other in that speech. It stands out because it is such a rare moment for the House to be that full and listening to debate, especially these days. The bill passed the House, but like many others was not taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The two have taken different tacts within Congress and the democratic caucus itself.
Neguse has been part of leadership, as co-freshman representative in the 116th, and will be a co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee when the 117th Congress convenes. Two of his mentors also serve in leadership: Majority Whip James E. Clyburn and Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries.
Crow is part of a group of moderate, national security-focused congressional members who served in the military, like Crow, or in intelligence. He was one of about a dozen Democrats that did not vote for Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker in the 116th. Crow did vote for her to retain the gavel in the 117th — as did the rest of the state’s Democratic representatives.
Despite the glacial pace and the pile-up of House-passed bills the Senate has not and — most likely — will not vote on, both men have had a busy legislative session. Crow was the primary sponsor of 27 bills, with three eventually becoming law. Neguse has been the primary sponsor of 51 bills with five becoming law.
It gives them bragging rights and something to run on, but the payoff, they say, is really the opportunity and ability to make a positive difference in someone’s life.
For Neguse, that’s best summed up by a bill he introduced called Ally’s Act. A 10-year-old Broomfield girl wrote him a letter explaining how a hearing device that would help her is not covered by insurance. He introduced the bill in December of 2019, and in September 2020 Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Shelley Moore Capito introduced a companion bill in the Senate.
“It meant a great deal to me to be able to, to communicate back to her family, that we had heard her, that we listened, that we got her letter and we decided to do something about it,” he said. “I just hope that we can get it done next year.”
Despite what TV, movies or books may say, the life of a congress member isn’t all that glamorous. It's a lot of time traveling. It's a lot of time away from family. Both Crow and Neguse have young families. But with all the challenges the members of the freshman class have faced, Crow said it has opened the door to new possibilities.
“You know, one of the few benefits of crisis — and there aren't many— of the last couple of years is we do have an opportunity to reimagine things in a better way,” he said.
“I still believe in the American project, the American idea,” he said. “And that is the idea that is difficult as it might be, and as messy as that might be, and as divided as we might be right now, there's still a path forward. And there are still ways of improving ourselves in our nation and working towards that — that more perfect union.”
Crow and Neguse will embark on a second chapter — unwritten and still full of opportunity — when the 117th Congress is gaveled in on Jan. 3, 2021. The challenge then will be how they take what they learned in the first two years to keep pushing forward.
“I'm always filled with this sense of gratitude and gratefulness and humility about the fact that I get to have this opportunity to serve in this body,” Neguse said. “It's been quite an experience.”