Congress returns to Washington this week after a holiday break marred by a partial government shutdown. But not all is doom and gloom with the new House majority leader. In fact, Maryland’s longest serving member seems clearly a happy man.
Steny Hoyer says his chief cause for celebration is that his Democratic colleagues have regained majority control of the House of Representatives after eight years on the sidelines.
“It is exciting,” he said, “and it’s giving us an opportunity to do things as opposed to simply respond to what the majority is doing. That makes a huge difference.”
What’s more, Hoyer has been returned by his fellow Democrats to the post of majority leader, which he lost in 2011 when the Republicans took over the House.
At 79, Hoyer may never secure the long-coveted title of House speaker. But serving in the number two job behind likely speaker Nancy Pelosi assures him a key role in all legislative action and an office in some of the Capitol’s most luxurious real estate.
“It’s not like I’m in the back bench or on the trash pile,” Hoyer observed. “Being majority leader is a big deal from my perspective.”
Perhaps Hoyer’s greatest challenge in the months ahead will be retaining the support of a huge freshman class of House members whose average age is thirty years younger than his, according to Politico magazine.
Representative Jamie Raskin, of Montgomery County--who is 23 years younger than Hoyer--says the Congressman from Southern Maryland has a generational problem.
“He entered politics with John F. Kennedy as his inspiration and now he is busily trying to meet all of these junior members of Congress who came into politics inspired by Barack Obama or Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren,” Raskin said.
But Hoyer, he notes, has been through decades of political battles.
“I think he’s going to do a very good job in terms of helping us build unity through the Democratic caucus.”
Hoyer’s legislative agenda is designed to reflect concerns from all factions of the Democratic party: limiting health care costs, particularly for prescription drugs; dealing with the environment and climate change; passing what he calls “sensible gun control legislation,” including comprehensive background checks, and campaign finance reform to limit dark money in politics.
But with a Republican president and Republican controlled Senate, there are no guarantees of success.
“The issue is not whether we can pass it through the Senate,” Hoyer said. “The issue is whether we can pass it through the House because that’s all we control.”
Hoyer’s relationship with Pelosi has often had a soap opera quality.
The two met back in the 1960’s when they both worked for Maryland Senator Daniel Brewster. They were rivals for party leadership positions during the early 2000’s. But in more recent years, they have joined forces to score major legislative victories, including the Affordable Care Act.
“I think Nancy and I represent a team that can work with everybody in the caucus in a constructive and effective way,” Hoyer said.
By May, Hoyer, who was once the youngest ever president of the Maryland state Senate, will have served 38 years in the House, longer than any other Marylander.
Pelosi, 78, has agreed to back term limits for party leaders. But Hoyer says the prospect of retirement holds no appeal for him.
He likes to play golf but gets restless if the Congress is out for more than a few days.
“I think keeping your mind active and focused and expectant that you’re needed to do something the next day or something, I think is very important for your psychological and physical health,” Hoyer explained.
Given the already evident turmoil between the president’s agenda and the Democrats’ objectives, Hoyer’s legislative skills will likely be put to their toughest test yet.