Rep. Maxine Waters had toiled 28 years in Congress for the moment last month when she presided over the powerful House Financial Services Committee for the first time as its chairwoman — and she wanted to make sure everything was perfect.
So the Los Angeles Democrat cleared her throat, prepared her notes and adjusted a thin microphone before declaring, “the committee will come to order.”
But after quickly promising a “new agenda” under her leadership, Waters made a subtle move to defuse a potential obstacle to her success — a crop of high-profile, freshmen panel members intent on shaking up the Washington establishment that Waters has navigated to reach her important committee chair.
Waters took a few minutes at the Jan. 30 meeting to specifically single out the new Democratic committee members, introducing each one by highlighting their backgrounds. She expressed her desire to work with “members on both sides of the aisle on commonsense solutions to benefit hardworking Americans and protect vulnerable families.”
“The issues before this committee are critically important for the economic well-being of millions of Americans and our whole economy,” Waters said.
The 80-year-old lawmaker has become known as “Auntie Maxine,” a leader of the liberal resistance to President Trump and one of his most frequent public targets of derision. At the same time, she wants to burnish her reputation as a lawmaker by passing bills to reduce homelessness, increase affordable housing and improve consumer protection.
But seeking that legislative compromise was made trickier by the very election that vaulted her into her powerful post. Now she must balance the concerns of liberal freshmen such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), Katie Porter (D-Irvine), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.).
They arrived in Washington after successful campaigns last year bashing Wall Street and disavowing contributions from corporate political action committees that have flowed freely for years to Waters and many members from both parties on the Financial Services panel.
The new social media-savvy lawmakers could pull Waters further left as she tries to strike bipartisan deals to advance legislation in a divided Congress, including important re-authorizations of national flood insurance, terrorism risk insurance and the federal bank that provides export assistance to U.S. companies.
Those who have worked with Waters said her liberal bonafides and political skills made her well-positioned for the challenge of dealing with the committee’s upstart freshmen.
“Maxine has been fighting very hard for everything they’ve been fighting for and understanding how best to do it and what the opposition is,” said former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who chaired the committee from 2007-2011. “I believe they’re going to figure out pretty soon that she’s an ally and they should be working with her.”
At the committee’s first meeting, Ocasio-Cortez praised Waters for her leadership and her “graciousness.” Then she came to Waters’ defense as committee Republicans pushed to codify that they would get 48-hour notice from Waters when she exercises her unilateral authority as chairwoman to issue subpoenas or launch investigations.
“We should hold you and give you the same exact discretion that the previous chair was given as well,” said Ocasio-Cortez, the media darling of the House Democratic freshman class, from her seat three rows down from Waters’ high perch.
Waters knows what it’s like to be a newcomer on one of the largest committees in Congress: 60 members, seated by seniority in four rows in the hearing room.
“It’s going to be very frustrating sitting down there,” Waters said during an interview in her Capitol Hill office before that first meeting.
“There will be moments of misunderstanding. There will be times they really think that they have a point of view that’s not been appreciated,” she said. “There will be all of that. My job is to manage that.”
Waters’ office, filled with awards, books and photos of her with President Obama, Nelson Mandela and other famous figures, is a stark contrast to the spartan accommodations of freshmen such as Porter.
Serving on the Financial Services Committee was the first choice for Porter, a UC Irvine law professor who has focused on consumer issues, because she said its work is “at the heart of our capitalist economy.”
“I have every confidence in Chairwoman Waters,” Porter said as she sat in her office, where the only decoration so far was a blue-and-white tapestry.
“She is an experienced leader. She knows these issues. She has strong staff and she has made very clear that she wants enthusiastic, hard-working, engaged committee members,” said Porter. “And that’s exactly what I intend to be and that’s what I expect from my colleagues.”
The priorities of Porter and the other high-profile freshmen align with the agenda Waters has laid out. And they all have bashed Wall Street frequently.
In her first speech as chairwoman at a liberal think tank last month, Waters promised the committee will be “keeping an eye on the big banks and their activities, including by holding many hearings.”
As the top Democrat on the committee since 2013, Waters has been a persistent critic of big banks. And she intends to push bills on housing and other issues even though she admits they probably won’t get approved by the Republican-controlled Senate or signed by Trump.
“I think it’s important for this committee to come up with legislation that defines who we are and what we care about and what we think is important to the people of this country and how we feel about government’s role in assisting families and children,” Waters said. “The president can say whatever he wants to say. We’re not going to be deterred from our mission of fashioning legislation in the best interests of the people. We’ll fight for it.”
Waters plans to introduce legislation that would undo some of the industry-friendly changes made by Trump administration appointees at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, including restoring enforcement powers to the agency’s fair lending office and establishing a new office dedicated to policing student lending. Waters has similar legislation to reverse changes made by Ben Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, that she says have undermined fair housing protections.
And Waters wants to tackle the problem of homelessness. The committee held a hearing Wednesday on that topic, and she is readying legislation that would provide $13.3 billion over five years in new funding to federal programs and initiatives that seek to prevent homelessness.
She’s likely to get strong support from committee freshmen on those types of bills. But Waters also has been an unlikely champion of the business community on some key issues, including playing a pivotal role in reauthorizing the federal Export-Import Bank, which helps U.S. companies sell their products abroad.
That’s where she could run into problems with liberal freshmen.
In addition, some of them are at odds with Waters and many committee veterans about how to handle campaign contributions from the financial industry. In past years, a committee seat has been one of the most sought-after in Congress because of the campaign contributions that flow to its members from industry executives and corporate PACs.
During the 2018 election cycle, Financial Services Committee members raised an average of $2.3 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan research group that tracks campaign contributions and lobbying. That was the fourth-most for any House committee.
“These millions of dollars are a relatively small investment to make compared to the potential returns they’ve enjoyed,” Sheila Krumholz, the center’s executive director said of financial industry executives. “If anyone gets investing, they do. And they’ve done very well with it.”
Corporations are prohibited from contributing to congressional candidates. But they can pool money from employees into PACs and distribute it in contributions to candidates. Last year, some Democrats running for Congress rebelled against that long-time practice.
Ocasio-Cortez, Porter, Pressley and Tlaib were among the newly elected freshmen who refused to accept PAC contributions. That trend made the Financial Services Committee less desirable among freshmen than in the past, said Ed Mills, a Washington policy analyst for financial services firm Raymond James.
“Wall Street money is politically toxic in Democratic primaries,” he said.
Rep. Porter said that there were only a handful of freshman who made a seat on the committee their top priority this year.
“I think it reflects the fact that when you have representatives who are not taking corporate PAC money, then people pick committees based on what they’re really passionate and knowledgeable about,” she said. “If you don’t take corporate PAC money, that diminishes the rationale” for being on Financial Services.
Porter believes that each member must make the choice of whether to accept the contributions. She noted she has worked before with Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York), a 13-term veteran who will chair one of the panel’s subcommittees this year, and has “no idea if she takes corporate PAC money or not.”
“I’ve seen that she’s committed to doing right by consumers,” Porter said.
Maloney accepts corporate PAC money and agrees it should be personal decision.
“That’s their philosophy. The younger ones don’t take it.” Maloney said. “They have a lot of energy and a lot of passion and a lot of desire to help the people they’re representing, and I think they’ll bring in some new ideas.”
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Porter Ranch), who has served on the committee with Waters for 22 years, said the decision should be up to each candidate. The topic hadn’t caused any tensions between Democrats, he said.
And Sherman is confident that Waters, who he called a “wily congressional operator,” can navigate that and any challenges as chairwoman.
“She’s served a lifetime on the committee,” he said. “She understands the issues. She understands the players. She understands how to get things done.”