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Maryland Leaders Look Ahead as New Congress Convenes

Rep. Jamie Raskin greets visitors during an open house in his Capitol Hill office earlier this year. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Things were hectic in the office of Congressman-elect David J. Trone (D-Md.) on Thursday morning. Staffers were getting their emails set up and looking for thermostats to lower the temperature on a bustling day, while also searching for non-wrinkled flags and accepting deliveries including a gift of cheese from a Wisconsin colleague.

By lunchtime, Trone was on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, ready to be sworn in. By dinner, he’d cast his first votes as a congressman: for California Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D), a daughter of Baltimore, as speaker of the House, and on a series of resolutions to reopen the government.

One thing Trone did not yet know, as he settled into his suite in the Longworth House Office Building on Thursday, was the committees on which he’ll serve in the 116th Congress.

“We’re hoping for a few specific things, but I’d hate to put it out there because it might jinx us,” Trone said.

The 63-year-old first-time congressman, who largely self-funded a $16 million run to represent the 6th District, joins a freshman class that has made Congress younger and more Democratic, with a record-breaking number of women and people of color.

The new Democratic majority has robust plans for action after regaining power, including a “good government” reform package that was spearheaded by Maryland Rep. John P. Sarbanes (D).

The package includes a series of changes to strengthen voting rights, set ethical standards for lawmakers and reform the campaign finance system to undo the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that led to unlimited and largely untraceable spending on political elections.

“To do that right out of the gate as H.R. 1, I think sends a powerful message that Democrats have heard these complaints and we want to do something serious about it and that when you give the Democrats the gavel this is the kind of reform and change that you can expect to see,” Sarbanes said during an interview with Maryland Matters in his own new office on Thursday. “We certainly have a class of new members that are galvanizing people around this message of cleaning up Washington.”

Even so, Sarbanes said it’s unlikely the proposals will pass the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate or make it past President Trump’s desk.

“I think the point is we start to build momentum. If the passage in the House is greeted as we hope it will be and believe it will be with real support by the public, then it sends a message to the Senate that they need to get with the program,” Sarbanes said. “…We very much view this as launching an agenda to take back Congress and Washington for the American people. And we think anyone that stands in the way of that, whether that’s [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell or anyone else, does that at their peril. We’re going to continue to build that momentum.”

Other Maryland members will also have expanded roles during this Congress.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) is expected to become chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. Cummings announced earlier this week that the committee had changed its name — it previously had been the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform — to reflect its broader reform agenda.

“I am pleased that the House of Representatives will be changing the name of our Committee to better reflect our true jurisdiction, which covers both government and the private sector,” Cummings said in a statement. “In the upcoming session of Congress, we will investigate waste, fraud, and abuse in the Trump Administration, and we will also examine many other issues that affect the American people every day, such as the escalating prices of prescription drugs that are negatively impacting families across the country and the opioid crisis that is devastating our communities.”

Second-term Rep. Jamie Raskin (D) will serve as Caucus Leadership Representative for the House Democratic Caucus in the new congressional term. The position represents junior members – those who have served five or fewer terms – in party leadership meetings.

“This new Congress has the most magnificent diversity in it that is truly reflective of America. And these five junior classes are the heart of all the changes here,” Raskin said Thursday, in between photo ops with a line of well-wishers snaking through his office and out into the hallway of the Cannon House Office Building.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D) will serve a second stint as the majority leader, the No. 2 post in the House. He said Thursday it was “unfortunate that we begin this new Congress during a partial government shutdown” and brought to the floor a series of bills aimed to reopen the government. But Senate Republicans – who supported the measures in that chamber previously – said they would block funding bills that didn’t include money for a Mexican border wall sought by Trump.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D), who was sworn in Thursday for the ninth time since he joined the chamber in 2003, headed over to the Capitol early in the day. He said the first day of a new Congress is a lot like celebrating the new year.

“Especially when you’re in the majority. It’s a lot more fun and you get a lot more accomplished when you’re in the majority,” Ruppersberger said. “Even though I’m bipartisan.”

Freshman Rep. David J. Trone (D) in his new congressional office Thursday. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

Trone, the only freshman in Maryland’s delegation this year, was focused Thursday morning on measures that should generate bipartisan support, including legislation to address the opioid epidemic.

The first items he placed in his new office – which he picked after drawing a low number, 9, in the freshman lottery for office space – were pictures of his wife, kids and nephew, Ian, who died of a fentanyl overdose in 2016. Trone hopes to combine a 12-point plan to combat opioids that he developed on the campaign trail with other pending legislative efforts.

He said he also supports legislation to establish national rules limiting partisan gerrymandering, for which his district has been singled out. An emergency commission to redraw the lines of the 6th Congressional District will meet for the first time in Annapolis on Friday.

But Trone and Raskin – whose 8th District borders the 6th – each said the state commission is likely to have little effect until a court case challenging the district’s lines is settled. The Supreme Court is expected to announce Friday whether it will re-heard a challenge to the 6th district’s boundaries.

Raskin said he was supportive of national reform efforts, but had come to love his district after winning election in 2016, besting another self-funded effort by Trone.

“….I love my constituents from Frederick … and I love my constituents from Carroll and I love my constituents from Montgomery County. So you’re not going to get me to consent to throw away any of my constituents. But if the lines need to be redrawn, they will be,” Raskin said.

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Maryland Leaders Look Ahead as New Congress Convenes