Congress

House Democratic women flex muscles with formal caucus, plus a political arm

On Equal Pay Day, new caucus touts expanded leadership team

From left, Reps. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa., Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., Karen Bass, D-Calif., and Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., members of the newly named Democratic Women's Caucus, hold a news conference Feb. 5 about their decision to wear white to the State of the Union. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Democratic women, armed with more numbers and the power of the majority, are getting  organized, switching their working group to a more formal caucus and launching a political action committee to help further grow their ranks.

The Democratic Women’s Caucus is the new name of the Democratic Women’s Working Group. Open to all 91 House Democratic women, the caucus will be led by an expanded leadership team of three co-chairs and two vice chairs.

“We have unprecedented numbers of women in Congress now, and the Democratic members — especially because we’re in the leadership now, in the majority — we have unprecedented, for most of us, responsibilities. And so we really felt for us to be most effective to move forward on some of the most important issues, that we needed to have an expanded leadership team,” Rep. Lois Frankel said in an interview.

The Florida Democrat served as the sole chair of the working group in the last Congress and is now a caucus co-chair, along with California Rep. Jackie Speier and Michigan Rep. Brenda Lawrence.

As the group moved to formalize itself, the members looked to leadership models in other party caucuses, Speier said.

“There’s been a trend to create leadership that is shared, and it seems like since we were reorganizing anyway, it was a good time to do that,” she said.

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The Democratic women’s effort to become more organized also includes a separate political action committee “that will be focused on electing more women to Congress, since our percentages are still woefully inadequate at 24 percent,” Speier said.

Lawrence, who also co-chairs the bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues with Arizona Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko, did not respond to an interview request.

The trio of newly elected caucus leaders, along with the vice chairs, will hold their first press conference Tuesday to mark the occasion of Equal Pay Day, the symbolic point at which women on average would have had to work into calendar 2019 to earn the same amount of wages men were paid in 2018 alone.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, actress Michelle Williams and Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, sponsor of the Paycheck Fairness Act — a measure the House passed last week designed to help close the gender pay gap — will also make an appearance.

‘More affirmative approach’

While Frankel, Speier and Lawrence will work together to set the Democratic Women’s Caucus agenda, each plans to take the lead on individual policy areas.

Lawrence will focus on issues involving health care and women of color, Speier will focus on sexual violence and women’s safety, and Frankel will focus on economic issues facing women, according to Frankel.

“With all that said, I don’t think I’ve covered every area,” she said. “In the past few years we’ve basically had to react to some bad stuff — we still do — but we want to take a much more affirmative approach because we have an opportunity to get legislation passed in the House.”

The caucus plans to start compiling an agenda based on Democratic proposals that have languished in recent years when the House was under Republican control. The agenda will include reintroduced bills on family and medical leave, affordable child care, and sexual harassment in the workplace and on college campuses.

“These are important challenges and issues that we have to try to move forward if we’re going to try to raise the wages of women, which of course helps families,” Frankel said.

The caucus will also focus on health care issues that are critical for women, like reproductive rights, pre-existing conditions, essential benefits and maternal care, she said.

Speier said the caucus is already planning a number of hearings: One hearing will focus on providing a forum for the victims of Florida multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking operation to tell their stories. Another will look at how massage parlors have become forums for underage sex and sex trafficking.

New ideas and voices

While the caucus will start on issues where groundwork has already been laid in prior Congresses, they’re also open to exploring new ideas and proposals.

Helping to ensure that the new voices in the freshman class, which account for more than a third of all House Democratic women, get heard are the caucus’s two vice chairs, freshman Reps. Veronica Escobar of Texas and Deb Haaland of New Mexico.

“A lot of our new members ran on issues that are just right in our alley,” Frankel said.

As part of its larger footprint, the caucus will also be appointing a whip team to help communicate with its expansive membership on various policy ideas it considers endorsing. And there will be a group of policy advisers who help develop those proposals.

Those positions, along with the expanded team of co-chairs and vice chairs, were created in response to a poll of the caucus about what kind of leadership positions the members wanted the group to have, Frankel said.

For now, the women’s caucus will not charge dues. It will be informally staffed by aides from the leadership members’ offices — another reason why having three co-chairs makes sense, Frankel said.

The caucus contains members from both ends of the ideological spectrum, but Speier says there’s no tension among their ranks when it comes to helping elevate women through policy changes.

“It’s not time to be moderate as a woman,” she said. “I think we were lulled into moderation for the last 50 years. It’s time to be bolder. But I think that all of us, whether we’re moderates or progressives or Blue Dogs, recognize that women need a seat at the table. And the discrimination that’s gone on so long, it’s ubiquitous. It has to be addressed.”

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