U.S. Rep. Jason Crow entered Congress in early 2019, during the longest government shutdown in American history. He later voted to impeach the president of the United States, served as a prosecutor in the president’s impeachment trial, and quarantined due to coronavirus exposure.
It’s hard to imagine a more hectic freshman term for a congressman.
“Maybe I have a knack for timing with public service that I end up going into government and public service work during very turbulent times. It does seem to be my history,” the Aurora Democrat said this fall, noting he joined the Army in 2002, soon after the war in Afghanistan began and just before the Iraq War.
Crow’s roommate in Washington, Rep. Joe Neguse, also entered Congress in January 2019, immediately won a position within House Democratic leadership, and worked on the committee that wrote and approved articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, all before the age of 36.
“‘Whirlwind’ is the right word for it,” the Lafayette Democrat said with a laugh.
“I don’t know if any of us in the freshman class anticipated that, upon our election, we would be sworn in during the longest government shutdown in the modern history of our federal government; that we would have very contentious impeachment proceedings, which I participated in as a member of the Judiciary Committee; and then of course, a once-in-100-year pandemic.”
There were tragedies back home too. In Crow’s district, the STEM school shooting, the death of Elijah McClain in police custody, and ongoing issues at an Aurora immigration facility. In Neguse’s, massive wildfires raged and mountain towns struggled mightily without tourists. In both, families and businesses are hurting.
“This is the wildest Congress to be a freshman in in any time in the modern era. I wouldn’t even hesitate to say that,” said Matt Glassman, a former congressional researcher who is now a senior fellow at Georgetown University.
“To me, there’s nothing comparable to this. Essentially, you have spending bills that dwarf the 2009 stimulus, paired with executive-legislative battles that are on par with Watergate or more so, and a government shutdown that dwarfs 2013’s. What else can we have here? This is just crazy.”
Pandemics have spread across America before. Polarizing impeachments have occurred before. Economic calamities have struck before. Supreme Court justices have died before. And racial unrest has certainly reared its ugly head before. But what makes the 116th Congress unique is that it all occurred in two short years.
“This Congress hasn’t had an utterly earth-shattering incident like the 13th Congress when the British were burning Washington, or the 36th Congress when secession happened, or even the 78th Congress when the (Second World) War was just starting in 1943,” Glassman said. “Those are the sort of incidents that are not comparable, but leave those cataclysmic events aside and I can’t really think of a Congress that’s had the sum total of twists and turns of this one.”
For Neguse and Crow, those twists and turns have forced them to be reactive, rather than proactive, more often than they would like. Legislative priorities have been sidelined by crises and scandals du jour, and the congressional freshmen have had to respond to the unpredictable actions of an often mercurial president.
“It absolutely has been challenging because the number of crises, and the depth of those crises, and the regularity of them, has been unprecedented,” Crow said.
“I’m certainly optimistic, particularly with the election of President-elect Biden, that it will be a return to normalcy, rationality, sanity,” Neguse said, “and the ability for our federal government to make progress on the issues that matter to the American people.”
For now, and for the foreseeable future, the top issues will involve responding to a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and shoved the nation’s economy off a sudden cliff. Democrats must do so with the smallest House majority in two decades, leaving little room for dissension in a Democratic caucus known to harbor philosophical disagreements, especially among freshmen.
“And there’s never been a time I can remember when freshmen were so powerful,” said Grossman, recalling the bygone days of 20th century Congresses, when freshmen were almost always quiet and weak, biding their time until seniority.
“Freshmen now are not sitting around, being good to the leaders, and waiting to set the agenda. They’re out there actively organizing and actively trying to shape the public agenda,” he explained. “They don’t have power internally — they’re not the committee chairs — but you can see them fighting and leveraging million-person Instagram accounts into power within the chamber.”
What lies ahead for the now-sophomore representatives from Colorado is impossible to predict, but both hope for fewer presidential tweets to respond to and more proactive work on policy priorities, such as climate change.
“By no means will it be a quiet two years in the 117th Congress,” Neguse said, before making a characteristically cheery prediction: “I do believe that now we’ll be able to return to a time when folks can actually listen to each other and exchange views respectfully and try to collaborate for the common good.”
“I’m looking forward to that, let’s just say,” he added with a laugh.
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