President-elect Joe Biden and his transition team are making collaboration between the executive branch and Congress a priority, with early and extensive outreach to the legislative branch.
The Biden transition team has already reached out to more than 300 members of the House and almost everyone in the Senate, according to a transition official. The objective will be to reach every one of the 535 lawmakers before Inauguration Day.
The early reviews of the efforts have been positive, at least from the Democratic side of the aisle, where there’s been very little interaction during the administration of President Donald Trump.
“I have no idea who my legislative affairs liaison was” during the Trump administration, said House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio.
That’s emblematic of the problem the Biden team will have an opportunity to fix: The Oregon Democrat presumably would have had significant jurisdiction over the mythical infrastructure package that was often discussed as a priority of the outgoing president.
And regardless of the eventual makeup of the Senate after the January runoff elections in Georgia, transition officials say they will need GOP support for both nominations and legislative business, given the narrow margins in both chambers.
Biden’s three senior appointments in legislative affairs are known entities on Capitol Hill, with Louisa Terrell, who worked for Biden as deputy chief of staff when he was a senator and more recently as the first Senate chief of staff to Sen. Cory Booker, D- N.J., heading up the legislative affairs effort for the transition, as well as in the White House.
Shuwanza Goff, who will be the deputy director and lead House liaison, and Reema Dodin, who will occupy the same role for interactions with the Senate, are well known among lawmakers and senior staff from both parties. Dodin has overseen floor operations for Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, with Goff having worked in a similar role for House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.
“My whole staff has enjoyed working with her, and especially on those areas where we agree — the CARES Act and USMCA come to mind as recent major accomplishments that this legislative body has done together, Republicans and Democrats — and she, I know, has been that conduit who works with our staff on the Republican side. We considered it a true joy to work with her,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said during a colloquy on the House floor last week.
“She doesn’t schedule every bill I ask her to schedule, but I will blame that on the majority leader, not on Shuwanza,” Scalise said.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., highlighted the important role of having “people who know this place and know the institution, and then the communication channels.”
Cantwell, ranking member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said Wednesday that there has already been direct contact and discussion about priorities in the panel’s jurisdiction. She said she didn’t recall a similar level of engagement during recent presidential transitions.
“I’m not saying it didn’t, but I’m not sure it did, like in the Obama administration,” Cantwell said. “It definitely didn’t happen in the Trump administration.”
“I don’t think anybody sent down in a missive to everybody saying, ‘We’re going to have a day where we want to hear input on the areas of your jurisdiction,’ like that happened with these guys,” Cantwell said.
Transition officials also told CQ Roll Call that they are aware of the important role of congressional correspondence in relations between the executive branch and the legislative branch, with Biden himself having been chairman of the Foreign Relations and Judiciary committees.
A senior Senate aide noted on Wednesday that the Trump officials also have been flouting some statutory reporting requirements for congressional committees, and the expectation is that the Biden-Harris administration will be more “by the book” when it comes to compliance.
Jeff Michels, who is chief of staff to Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, said in an emailed statement that the level of interaction was unlike anything he had seen before.
“The Biden-Harris transition team has been the most responsive our office has ever dealt with. They’ve already reached out more in a month than the Trump administration did in four years. And they have always been open to talking about issues, even when we might not agree,” Michels said. “It all starts with President-elect Biden’s approach to leadership, and making smart moves like hiring veteran Hill staffers like Reema Dodin to run outreach.”
Martin Paone, a former party secretary for Senate Democrats who was Senate liaison for the last two years of the Obama-Biden administration, said in an email that he had no doubt Dodin and company would be able to keep in touch with Senate offices, but he said some of the usual incentives that a legislative affairs team can offer may not be available. Coffees and lunches are of course complicated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m sure they will be liberally using the phone lines, emails and texts to keep up with their assigned Hill offices. Offering a Representative or Senator a trip with the President on AF 1 will also have to wait for post covid times,” Paone said in the email.
The most crucial function for the legislative affairs team early on will be working to ensure timely consideration of nominations in the Senate. Transition officials are well aware that hearings for Trump nominees took place during the period between Jan. 3 and Jan. 20, 2017, before Trump was inaugurated. Virtual meetings with Biden’s planned nominees and senators are already well underway.
The president-elect himself still has some former colleagues left in the Senate, but since he resigned from the chamber in 2009 to become vice president, there has been substantial turnover. So his and his team’s approach may be out of respect for the role of the legislature itself and matter more than the relationships themselves.
“It’s not the same Senate personnel that I knew when I left the Senate,” Biden said in a CNN interview last week.
Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.