Democrats say they want to prioritize legislation over impeachment. Here’s their chance

Thursday release of prescription drug pricing bill provides opportunity for messaging shift

House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairwoman Katherine M. Clark and Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries say House Democrats are most successful in communicating their policy messages directly to constituents in their districts. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairwoman Katherine M. Clark and Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries say House Democrats are most successful in communicating their policy messages directly to constituents in their districts. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 19, 2019 at 5:00am

House Democratic leaders’ plan to release a top-priority prescription drug pricing bill on Thursday presents the caucus with an opportunity to refocus its messaging on legislating over investigating — one that many Democrats say is desperately needed.

Moderate Democrats in particular are concerned that the caucus’s policy work isn’t breaking through the impeachment cloud that has overshadowed the 116th Congress.

[Democrats still not working off same playbook on impeachment]

Complicating the messaging strategy is the fact that the House Judiciary Committee is leaning more heavily this fall into its impeachment investigation. The panel on Tuesday held the first in what it is expected to be an aggressive schedule of hearings meant to educate the American public on President Donald Trump’s alleged crimes and abuse of power.

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While few Democrats are publicly criticizing their colleagues for trying to promote the impeachment investigation and share evidence against Trump with the public, they are keen to note that a lot of the legislation Democrats have passed since they’ve been in the majority is not getting much attention.

“Moderate members desperately would like to tell the story of what’s actually going right in the United States Congress. I think people would be very interested in that message,” said Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, who heads the political arm of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition. “Despite the speaker trying to get it out, it doesn’t seem to be getting out.”

To Schrader’s point, an internal Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee polling memo leaked to Politico showed that a majority of voters surveyed in the national mid-August poll perceived Democrats’ top priority to be investigating Trump. More respondents said their personal priorities were health care and immigration than respondents who perceived those issues as priorities for Democrats.

Most Democrats interviewed for this story blamed the media for the public perception that they were primarily focused on investigating and potentially impeaching Trump.

“Maybe it’s because of what you guys are writing about 24/7,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney said when asked about the DCCC poll.

The New York Democrat said he doesn’t think the intraparty debates Democrats are having over balancing their investigative and legislative responsibilities is half as bad as it’s being portrayed by the press.

“It’s just the ticky-tacky, inside-bullshit Washington,” he said. “There’s nothing inconsistent with doing good congressional oversight and having reservations about the best tactical way to hold this president accountable.”

About that gum

Some Democrats, however, are becoming more vocal about their frustrations with the messaging divide and think the caucus needs to do more to shift the narrative away from impeachment and toward legislation.

“I’m not talking about Congress not doing its job. I’m not talking about checks and balances and this and that. But I am talking about us maintaining our focus, maintaining the trust of the American people,” Rep. Max Rose said.

The New York freshman panned the phrase, “We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” that many of his colleagues use to dismiss questions about their focus or priorities, saying that it’s not often that people notice the chewing gum part.

Still, that dual focus is what most Democrats say is needed.

“We have to do both things. We have to keep moving forward on the agenda we developed. … And at the same time, we have a constitutional responsibility to do oversight,” Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline said.

As chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, the caucus’s messaging arm, and a member of the Judiciary Committee, Cicilline is happy to talk to the media about either topic. But he said his attempts to pivot conversations about impeachment to Democrats’ policy work hasn’t permeated into the news.

“Unfortunately, more of the coverage is of the hearings and investigations,” Cicilline said. “That’s just a fact of life. We have to figure out how to work around that. I think folks had a real effort with their local media, with their local newspapers, to make sure people know we’ve passed an enormous amount of legislation that will really benefit the American people, and it’s sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk.”

Although the Senate has not taken up any of the major bills the House has passed this year outside of budget and appropriations measures, Democrats are hopeful the prescription drug pricing plan Speaker Nancy Pelosi and committee leaders plan to release Thursday will lead to a bipartisan product. The Senate Finance Committee has marked up its own drug pricing bill that could eventually be reconciled with the House version, and Trump has expressed interest in doing something on the issue.

Pelosi has been visiting with the various Democratic ideological caucuses this week to brief them on the proposal to allow the government to negotiate drug prices.

Blue Dog Coalition co-chair Stephanie Murphy, whose group Pelosi briefed Tuesday, said she’s glad to see the caucus focus on lowering drug prices because it’s something she hears about from her constituents often. The Florida Democrat said her colleagues will promote the legislative effort, as they do their other policy work, but it’s not clear whether it will break through the media attention on impeachment.

“We don’t control what is carried in the papers and on TV and whatnot,” Murphy said.

Take it home

Some Democrats acknowledge that they’ll never be able to effectively communicate their message if they rely on the media to do it for them.  

“If we make a concerted effort to talk about the work we’re actually doing on all those fronts, I think we can break through on those issues and still allow the other conversations, the oversight conversations to continue,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer, who co-chairs the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

Rattling off a long list of policy issues like prescription drug pricing and trade that he hears about when he’s in his swing New Jersey district, Gottheimer said it’s how members handle those constituent interactions that is key.

“When we’re home, we should talk about what people are bringing up to us. And I think that’s essential to us not just governing smartly … but also winning,” he said.

Democratic leaders say it was their party’s successful communication on the issues that led to them taking back the House last year.

“That was something that was done in a very clear-throated way in the previous Congress, even though a lot of the popular discussion that came out of this town, related to the special counsel’s investigation and the day-to-day development,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries said. “But the election in November of 2018 was about health care. And it was about health care because we made that a priority based on what we were hearing from the people we’re privileged to represent in the context of the intimate interactions that we continue to have when we go back home.

“And as long as we continue to do that, then I think people will understand here in this country that we are working in their best interest on prescription drug pricing, on surprise billing, on protecting people with preexisting conditions, on a real infrastructure plan that fixes our bridges, roads, tunnels, airports and mass transportation system … and on fixing our broken democratic process,” the New York Democrat added.

Democratic Caucus Vice Chairwoman Katherine M. Clark agreed that constituent engagement at town halls, business and farm tours and the like are “really where the rubber meets the road.” In those interactions, Democrats are prioritizing the issues that matter to families, the Massachusetts Democrat said.

“It is why we won the midterms,” Clark said. “It is why we’re going to win in 2020.”