President Joe Biden’s quest to quickly shepherd additional pandemic relief through Congress comes in the face of perilously slim Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. A key player in that effort is one of his new deputy legislative affairs directors, Shuwanza Goff.
Goff was previously the floor director for legislative operations for House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer — a behind-the-scenes yet powerful role involving coordination with members and committees to craft the floor schedule. The Biden team is hoping her extensive knowledge of the chamber and its members will make today’s fraught era of legislating a little smoother.
Democrats currently hold just 221 seats in the House compared to Republicans’ 211. The Biden team needs to juggle competing interests of Democratic Caucus members at times deeply divided over how far left the party should go, as well as a sizable Republican minority. And Biden has a slew of legislative goals, including more dollars to combat the COVID-19 pandemic by helping states vaccinate people and reopen schools, as well as a green infrastructure package and a reversal of President Donald Trump’s signature tax law.
Goff first arrived on Capitol Hill in 2008 to join Hoyer’s office as a staff assistant while she was still a graduate student at American University. She rapidly rose through the ranks, in 2013 becoming the first Black woman to serve as floor director.
She was tasked with helping to shepherd a sprawling, diverse Democratic Caucus, understanding members’ priorities and helping them turn their legislative ideas into law.
“I think I’m most excited about being able to still interact with the House, but doing it through a different sort of vantage point,” she said in December, two days after Congress passed a $900 billion relief package following a hectic week of last-minute negotiations and drama. “I expect the job to be similar to what I’m already doing … engaging with the members and knowing and understanding what their priorities are.”
Hoyer, in a statement, said he would “deeply regret” losing Goff from his staff. He cited her role in ensuring the House floor ran smoothly during the COVID-19 pandemic, when members faced new health restrictions and the House was navigating new proxy voting rules.
Goff is well known and respected among members and staff on both sides of the aisle, from freshmen to seasoned veterans.
“Shuwanza is top notch,” said Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., who worked with Goff in his capacity as chief deputy whip for House Republicans. “She fights tenaciously for their side, but she also has respect on the Republican side because she knows what she’s doing.”
McHenry added that if his party wins the House in 2022 — which he thinks is likely — Goff will be well positioned to negotiate with a GOP majority because of her longstanding relationships with Republicans.
Goff has played a key role in acclimating freshmen to the thicket of rules and procedures that come with serving in the House. Virginia Democrat Abigail Spanberger, now in her second term, first met Goff during her campaign. Goff was born in New York City but moved to Mechanicsville, Virginia, which used to be part of Spanberger’s district, with her family in the 1990s.
“I met this woman who was suddenly in our campaign office and was doing everything and anything,” Spanberger recalled. “I knew she had a really important job, but I hadn’t been in the House and so I didn’t have a full understanding of exactly what it was that she did. And when I realized she is the person who runs everything on the floor, it all came together.”
Goff pointed to COVID-19 relief as her focus for her first few months in Biden’s legislative affairs office. She works alongside deputy legislative affairs director Reema Dodin, previously deputy chief of staff and floor director for Senate Democratic whip Richard J. Durbin and legislative affairs director Louisa Terrell, a former Senate staffer for Biden and an Obama administration alumna.
“Making sure the American people are going to be the priority” would be the underlying goal of additional COVID-19 relief, Goff said. “We have a little bit of cleanup to do on that front.”
Biden supports $2,000 cash payments for most Americans, which Trump and House Democrats pushed for but did not make the December relief package. With Democrats controlling both the House and the Senate, more stimulus checks could be on the way.
Goff joins a historically diverse White House with a Black and Asian woman, Kamala Harris, holding the vice presidency, following an election cycle in which Black voters were especially key to Democratic victories. Having broken barriers in her own role years ago, she’s keenly aware of the responsibility she has to ensure that talented individuals from diverse backgrounds can succeed.
“It’s great to be the first, but really, the responsibility is to ensure that we’re not the last,” she said.
Democratic and Republican members alike said the Biden team’s selection of Goff for a legislative affairs job signals that they’re serious about working with Congress successfully.
“If history comes back and wants to find out what made Steny Hoyer successful, or Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., “I think that the answer is that every extremely successful political leader surrounds him or herself with a Shuwanza.”