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Rosa DeLauro Hasn’t Given Up on the Democratic Agenda

“If we’ve already been lifting people out of poverty, why for heaven’s sakes would we want to throw them back in poverty?”

Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro adjusts her glasses during a committee hearing.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro

Aside from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Representative Rosa DeLauro may be one of the most instantly recognizable members of Congress. With her purple-streaked asymmetrical haircut and fashion style that might best be described as belonging to the “cool art mom” genre, it’s easy to pick out the Democrat from Connecticut on the House floor amid the sea of muted suits.

But for DeLauro, the chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, being unapologetically distinctive is more than a fashion choice. In conversation, she speaks passionately on her favorite political subjects. In an interview with The New Republic this week, DeLauro talked at length about extending the expanded child tax credit, a personal crusade of hers for years. The enhanced credit expired at the end of December, and its future is in doubt, in large part due to opposition from Senator Joe Manchin, the Democrat from West Virginia who last month torpedoed the House-passed version of the Build Back Better Act.

DeLauro argues that the Democrats’ agenda has already done much to help Americans, citing the passage of the American Rescue Plan in March, which established the expanded child tax credit in March, and the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed in November. But a final agreement on the Build Back Better Act has yet to be reached, if it happens at all. Meanwhile, Biden’s poll numbers are slinking ever-downward, and more than two dozen House Democrats have announced they will not seek reelection ahead of a midterm election in which they are structurally disadvantaged. And although the child tax credit has lifted millions of children out of poverty, it is not as popular as it could be; a December Politico/Morning Consult poll found that just 14 percent of voters said renewing the credit was one of the most important pieces of the Build Back Better Act. An October Politico/Morning Consult poll also found that just 38 percent of voters credited President Joe Biden for the credit.

DeLauro acknowledged that Democrats could improve their messaging on some of their biggest issues but argued that the benefits the expanded child tax credit had for the nation’s poorest children should allay any doubts about extending it. (With the expiration of the enhanced credit, several million children are at risk of sinking deeper into poverty.)

“When ever have we seen a program demonstrate such success in such a short space of time? Therefore, why would we not continue it? Why would it not be a flagship program to move forward on?” DeLauro said.

DeLauro also talked about the status of negotiations over an omnibus appropriations bill—Congress passed a continuing resolution temporarily funding the government through mid-February last month—and the future of the Build Back Better Act. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

To start with appropriations, as Senator Richard Shelby said [Tuesday], the appropriators on the Senate side have started discussions on a government funding bill. What is the status of negotiations on government funding from your side?

We are engaging in conversation. We will continue to do that. That’s where we are at the moment.… Basically, at the moment, it is about continuing to speak with them, and that is moving along, and I’m optimistic.

Obviously, there are a lot of potential policy differences between the two parties, particularly pertaining to the level of defense spending compared to domestic spending and the disagreements over the Hyde Amendment. So how do you reach an agreement on an omnibus when there are so many of these policy differences that you need to overcome?

Well, first of all, you’ve got to get to the table, to start to talk about it. And that hasn’t been the case until now.… The House Appropriations Committee reported all 12 annual appropriations bills out of committee. We passed nine of the 12 on the House floor before the August district work period. In October, the Senate Democrats released remaining appropriations bills after approving three bills in committee over the summer. Since November 2, the House Democrats have asked Republicans to present an offer of their own so that we can begin conference negotiations. And that is what we are waiting to see in order to be able to do that. And as I said, you know, I remain optimistic that that’s where we’re going to get to. And the way you overcome, the way you come to an agreement is by talking through these issues.

I want to ask you about the Build Back Better Act, which passed in the House but has since stalled in the Senate. Are you confident at all that Congress will eventually be able to send some version of the bill to the president’s desk?

I repeat what others who have been closer to the negotiation have said, that the opportunity continues to exist for a deal. And I have no reason to disbelieve that. So I think that we will see some iteration of Build Back Better. I don’t know what that is.…But I feel optimistic that we’re going to come to a conclusion on Build Back Better.

If we were living in your perfect world, what would your ideal version of a potentially slimmed-down Build Back Better Act look like?

Obviously, the child tax credit is first and foremost on my mind. There are childcare issues that are critically important, there are climate issues, Medicare, Affordable Care Act pieces. These are all important pieces. And from my point [of view] it’s the child tax credit that I want to see extended, and that’s what I will continue to focus on. And from the outset, I’ve been consistent in saying that we could do, I guess to use your expression, a “slimmed-down” [version] but choose to focus on those programs where we can get immediate success and more bang for the buck at the outset, and then move forward on others. You don’t leave anything behind.

I’m going to give you my best example, which is the child tax credit. The child tax credit was introduced in the American Rescue Plan in January. Passed in March. In July, we began monthly payments. And keep in mind that nobody thought that we could do monthly payments. There were so many naysayers. But we did. And from July to December, the latest November numbers were 3.8 million kids lifted out of poverty. You tell me, you have a lot of experience, when ever have we seen a program demonstrate such success in such a short space of time? Therefore, why would we not continue it? Why would it not be a flagship program to move forward on? It has already been a game changer, transformative, making a difference in people’s lives. And people are using it for clothing, for food, for health care, for diapers, for essentials.

The child tax credit expired at the end of last month, and this will be the first month since July that families don’t receive that monthly credit. So how concerned are you about this lapse in monthly payments, particularly given the surge in the omicron variant?

I’m very, very concerned about that. I think with the omicron variant, but also, if we’ve already been lifting people out of poverty, why for heaven’s sakes would we want to throw them back in poverty? Why would we want to pull the rug out from under them? And we would see a dramatic reversal of the success of this program. I can’t say enough times, and as many times that families are already saying, how tough it is going to be after this six months. There are articles already that are out there. We have a day of action coming up this Friday with members and outside groups who are participating and getting the word out.

There’s just a recent article, which is of concern.… [It says] 36 million families received a [child tax credit] paycheck through the IRS. “The CTC went away, but grocery prices haven’t gone down”—this is a quote from a single mom in West Virginia, I might add; she works as a student support specialist—“Now that I don’t have the payment, the reality of life is there will be times I won’t eat to make sure my kids can.” [DeLauro is quoting a mother who spoke with CBS News for an article published on Wednesday.]

That’s a reality. Am I concerned about that? Yes. Everybody should be concerned about that. We all should be concerned about that and the reversal of the child tax credit. And that’s just one one person. There are many others, and their stories, we’re going to tell those stories on Friday. The research is so rich. The decline in power, the decline in hunger, the use of the funds. It is overwhelming how this is a program that is meeting every dimension of what we thought it was what we thought it could do. I would probably tell you, though I wasn’t around for this, but I don’t know that social security made that kind of an impact in six months or seven months.

Would you be willing to consider a standalone bill on the child tax credit? Are there any discussions about that?

No. I mean, I think we need to move forward. It should be part of Build Back Better. And that’s where I’m going to continue.

Democrats have held the White House, House, and Senate for a year. Do you think that Democrats have done enough in that year to convince voters that you deserve to be and remain in the majority?

Think about this. The American Rescue Plan. Do you believe that the American Rescue Plan helped people in their lives? Helped industries, helped childcare, helped restaurants, helped hospitals, helped public education? I don’t know about you, but I go around my district and people tell me, “Thank God for the federal government.” I haven’t heard that for years. “Thank God for the federal government.” OK, follow onto that, the infrastructure bill. I met this morning with the department of transportation in Connecticut … talking about the jobs we’re going to create, the projects. It’s going to be $5.8 billion going to the state of Connecticut, all about rebuilding roads, bridges, infrastructure. That is also about economic activity. It’s about jobs.

Build Back Better, and I do believe we will get a Build Back Better piece of legislation—look at the child tax credits, look at childcare, look at universal pre-K, look at climate.… Look at the past decades, and calculate where federal resources went. Who did they go to? The richest one-tenth of 1 percent of people in this country. The richest corporations, most of whom do not pay any taxes, or their fair share of taxes. Look at the rescue plan, Build Back Better, look at the infrastructure bill, look at where the resources are going. This is a paradigm shift that the president has moved on to make sure that money is going to middle-class families, to working families, to the most vulnerable. That is a shift of major proportions in this country. And it is staggering. But that’s not the story being told.

Do you think that Democrats need to do a better job of communicating all of those victories that you’ve outlined?

I think we need to let people know and remind people about the American Rescue Plan. As I said, I went to businesses, big businesses, small businesses, that say, “Rosa, I couldn’t have made it without the federal government.” Let’s not forget the American Rescue Plan. Let’s communicate on the infrastructure bill, which we will do, and then let’s pass Build Back Better, which I believe we will get, and then communicate that to people. You look again at the child tax credit. You think people don’t know that the child tax credit came from the Biden administration, and what a difference it’s made in their lives? But, yeah, we can always do a much, much, much better job of communicating.