Congress’s Most Household-Pleasant Member – The American Prospect

This article appears in the May/June 2021 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

Elizabeth Warren first met Connecticut congresswoman Rosa DeLauro two decades ago, long before she became a senator from Massachusetts. DeLauro is famous among D.C. politicos for hosting twice-monthly dinner parties to which she invites academics, policy experts, and journalists to talk to members of Congress. “She’s always driving the debate with an intellectual energy that’s uncommon around here,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, a frequent guest, told me.

This particular evening, Warren, then a Harvard professor who had just co-authored a book about why so many American families were mired in debt, was the star of the show. “She invited me to come to dinner and she said she’d have a few people over,” Warren recalls. Instead, she found DeLauro’s living room—painted and upholstered in the kind of neon-bright colors that also hang in DeLauro’s closet—packed with members of Congress. “I was knocked back,” Warren told me. “I didn’t get a bite to eat.”

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DeLauro didn’t just have her over to give a presentation about the problem, though. “When I came to those dinners to talk about what was happening with credit card debt, Rosa would say, ‘So what do you want us to do?’” Warren said. It’s not a question academics are used to. But DeLauro wasn’t just interested in talking about what was wrong. She peppered policy experts with questions about how to fix it. That’s Rosa DeLauro: She’s not interested in hogging a microphone to hold forth on the problems of the world. She wants to get something done.

This year, DeLauro will have served in Congress for exactly 30 years. In that time, she’s been a relentless advocate for policy solutions to many of the problems the experts and academics brought up at her dinner soirees. She has struggled to get many of them done, reintroducing them year after year while reaping little reward. But some of the things that may have seemed utopian when she first started championing them years ago may now be on the verge of becoming permanently woven into the country’s policy fabric.

DeLauro first introduced a paid family leave bill in the House in 2013 and a paid sick leave bill in 2004; for the first time ever, the federal government guaranteed paid sick and family leave during the pandemic. While that guarantee is no more, President Biden has included a permanent paid family leave program in his American Families Plan. DeLauro has also been stubbornly pushing her colleagues to expand and enhance the Child Tax Credit, which gives eligible parents a tax break for each of their children. She got her wish in January, when Congress passed and Biden signed a Child Tax Credit expansion that reaches even the poorest families, increases the benefit, and sends the money out in monthly installments, all but creating the country’s first child allowance. It’s projected to cut child poverty nearly in half.

Nearly everyone I spoke to about the Connecticut congresswoman used the same word to describe DeLauro: dogged. Her weapon of choice is her phone. During every budgeting cycle Warren has experienced, she said, she’s received multiple phone calls from DeLauro hammering home what she wanted to see Warren fight for. “Morning, night, middle of the day,” Warren said. “You’re in a hearing and Rosa pops up on my phone, and I know what it’ll be about.” Sen. Michael Bennet gets the Rosa treatment too. She’ll call him “on a Friday afternoon or Sunday afternoon to say, ‘Did you do this’ or ‘Did you do that,’ ‘I called this person, did you think of calling them,’” he told me. “She never leaves any stone unturned.”

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“She’s got unrelenting, unrelenting energy and drive and ambition—not for herself, but for the people whom she fights for,” Brown said.

There’s nothing genteel about DeLauro’s passions, as she acknowledged in her 2017 memoir The Least Among Us: Waging the Battle for the Vulnerable. “I compete with Rahm Emanuel on the use of the F-word,” she wrote. (Emanuel himself has said of DeLauro, “Don’t make the bitch mad.”) She would rather, she’s admitted, have a colleague spot her in the hallway and think, “Oh God, there she comes again,” because they know she’s going to try to force them to take a position on the Child Tax Credit, than have them think of her as “someone who is safely ignored.”

Her intense style has cost her career advancements. In late 2008, after Barack Obama won the White House, she flew to Chicago to meet with him to discuss becoming his secretary for the Department of Labor. “Obama’s style is cerebral, cool, whereas I come in guns blazing,” she recalled. She knew as soon as she left the room that she didn’t have the job.

“She is willing to bang heads with her colleagues, to do whatever it takes to get more support for the families that need it,” Warren said. She went head-to-head with Obama over food stamps cuts and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. (In her book, she calls Obama both arrogant and “condescending.”) She even voted against averting a government shutdown in 2013 because the deal didn’t fund long-term unemployment benefits. During one of their many phone calls, “She’ll tell me who’s in the way and why they’re creating problems and what we’re going to do just to cut ’em off,” Warren said.

Nearly everyone I spoke to about the Connecticut congresswoman used the same word to describe DeLauro: dogged.

She’s never tried to make herself into a household name. Despite the streaks of blue, red, or purple that adorn the front of her close-cropped hair, her loud clothing, or her flashy glasses, DeLauro’s not for show. She’s a workhorse. “No job is too big or too small for her,” Bennet said. “I’ve never heard Rosa complain,” said former Connecticut senator and close mentor Chris Dodd. “Rosa thoroughly enjoys being with people. She loves a good conversation, a good debate.”

Most Americans would be hard-pressed to pick her out of a congressional lineup. But you’ll find her fingerprints all over the policy issues leading today’s Democratic Party.

DeLAURO, WHO TELLS everyone she meets to call her Rosa, grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, daughter of Ted and Luisa, two Italian immigrants who both left school before they turned 14. Her father held a number of jobs; one—which kindled a passion for economic justice—was as a researcher for a Yale University project in which he interviewed workers who’d been laid off en masse from a local shoe factory that had employed over 1,000 people. Her mother worked as a seamstress in a sweatshop where women mass-produced dresses and shirts as fast as humanly possible, not even pausing if a needle got stuck in their fingers. “God help you if you got a drop of blood on a garment, you wouldn’t get paid for it and you had to support a family,” DeLauro told me.

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Both of DeLauro’s parents eventually won seats on the city’s Board of Aldermen. “I grew up in a family that was really rooted in local politics,” she said. “They were fierce advocates for working families, low-income families.” That advocacy, she said, is what she’s modeled her own career on. Her mother urged her to “make yourself heard,” she told me. “I’ve taken those words to heart.” It’s also how DeLauro learned to campaign, trudging along after her father as he door-knocked on every house and apartment in his ward. She learned to keep a neat set of red and blue file cards to track voters, like her father did.

She also got early lessons about how easy it is for working people to fall into economic devastation. “I grew up in a family that struggled financially all of their lives,” she told me. They couldn’t afford a lot of new clothes, so her mother put her sewing skills to work making DeLauro’s dresses. Her father’s package store once went bankrupt. When she was about ten years old, her family was evicted. “All of our furniture was on the street,” she said. The family lived with DeLauro’s grandmother until they could secure their own housing.

When she was not yet a teenager, a friend’s mother died in a workplace fire when the fire escape was locked and after the company had conducted no fire drills. Her mother dragged her to the sweatshop after school to witness how grueling the work was. “Take the opportunity for an education,” her mother told her, “so you don’t have to do this.” Her mother refused to teach her how to sew, hoping to prod her instead to aim higher. DeLauro can only hem a shirt or replace a button to this day.

DeLauro learned from direct experience that “the life of people who work very, very hard every day and who do play by the rules is difficult,” she said. “People’s economic insecurity is real.”

A Catholic, DeLauro links much of what she’s focused her career on back to morals and values. At Catholic school, she learned that personal responsibility encompassed more than just individualism, but also an obligation to everyone around you. Faith, for her, demands “service to one’s neighbors,” she’s written. “[W]orking to protect the poor and the vulnerable [is] a proper vocation, essential to a life lived to the fullest.” Her pro–abortion rights positions have gotten her in trouble with the Church, but she contends that poverty and inequality are “right-to-life issues.” A Child Tax Credit, for her, is grounded in the history of Catholic social teaching.

DeLauro got her first taste of grown-up politics serving first as campaign manager and then chief of staff to Frank Logue, who took on New Haven’s Democratic Party machine to become the city’s mayor. Then, in her mid-thirties, she got a call from Chris Dodd, then a congressman who was launching a run for the Senate. A friend had tipped him off to “this woman who was working in the mayor’s office in New Haven and he thought she was a special person,” Dodd told me. He invited her to a meeting.

It was a rainy day in 1979, and DeLauro’s flight was badly delayed. When she finally arrived, they talked for three hours. At the end of the meeting, Dodd asked if she would run his Senate campaign. “It’s probably ridiculous to do it that way in retrospect,” he said. “But I just liked her. It was immediate … I could sense she had some passion for what she did.” She took the job. The two still talk on a nearly daily basis and live a block and a half away from each other in New Haven. They’ve attended each other’s family gatherings and weddings.

Dodd was one of a handful of Democrats to win Senate contests in 1980, the year of the Reagan landslide. Dodd asked DeLauro to be his chief of staff, and she became one of the few female chiefs of staff on Capitol Hill. She picked up a number of key lessons while working for him. As a new senator looking to make a difference, Dodd sought out issues to champion that other people weren’t working on. Children’s issues were the right fit, and he founded the Senate’s Children’s Caucus. “New members particularly have to learn to start somewhere, pick out some issues and then stay with them,” Dodd said. “Even when it’s not hot, people aren’t writing about it, no one’s calling you to find out what your views are—stay with them.” DeLauro would later find her own issues no one was paying attention to and hold onto them as hard as a bulldog’s clenched jaw.

DeLauro left Dodd’s staff to run Emily’s List and then, in 1990, decided to make a run of her own, winning an open congressional seat in New Haven. Dodd was with her the night she won and the day she was sworn in. “I watched her mother beaming at her,” he recalled.

THE UNITED STATES stands out for the number of its children who live in poverty: over 20 percent in 2016, higher than 17 European countries and twice as high as the share in France, Sweden, or the United Kingdom. Children are an easy group to ignore when it comes time to fight among competing priorities in Congress. “Children don’t have an army of lobbyists, they haven’t been making big political contributions,” Warren said. “But they have Rosa.”

DeLauro became interested in childhood poverty while working as Dodd’s chief of staff, and can rightly claim to have been promoting an expanded Child Tax Credit well before it was cool. She started pushing the CTC in early 2003 after meeting with and eventually befriending philanthropist father-and-son team Bill and David Harris, who have extensively studied child poverty and the CTC. She introduced an increase of $1,000 per child that would have also made it fully refundable, allowing families without tax obligations to receive it. It was defeated on a party-line vote.

“That started a legislative journey on the Child Tax Credit,” she told me. She launched what she characterizes as an “aggressive campaign” to convince her colleagues about its importance. “Every time there was a tax bill,” she said, she would “see if it was included.”

The fight for a bigger, better CTC was different from others DeLauro has engaged in. “There wasn’t so much an opposition to the Child Tax Credit as there was an indifference to it,” she said to me. It wasn’t that her colleagues were outright against it, but for years, few were willing to spend political capital on it.

It was also an issue outside of DeLauro’s jurisdiction; she was not on the Ways and Means Committee, which handles tax changes. She decided to champion it anyway.

DeLauro had won incremental improvements over the years even before the pandemic. She had the help of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with whom she was so close that, along with then-Rep. Nita Lowey, the threesome came to be known as “DeLoSi.” In the 2001 Bush tax cuts, the CTC was doubled and made partially refundable. In 2004, Congress accelerated the expansion. In 2007, to respond to the weakening economy, the credit was made available to more poor families. The threshold above which families qualify was further lowered in the TARP bill for one year. An expansion to even more poor families was included in Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus bill, which was eventually made permanent in a 2015 tax extension deal.

“I just kept at it and at it and at it,” she told me.

In the process, DeLauro made the Child Tax Credit a mainstream Democratic Party issue. “She figured out long ago how to make it good politics, a good campaign issue, and just built up this incredible head of steam,” said Ellen Nissenbaum, senior vice president for government affairs at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. So much so that it was well known that she wouldn’t let tax-related legislation come together without it.

Some of the things DeLauro’s spent her life fighting for appear closer than ever to becoming real.

Along the way, DeLauro would find compatriots for her quest in the Senate. In 2013, Brown started working with her on expanding both the CTC and Earned Income Tax Credit. Another ally has been Michael Bennet, whose interest in the credit was sparked by parents at Denver public schools telling him while he was superintendent that they worked multiple jobs and still couldn’t afford the basics. Working with DeLauro “was a joy,” he told me, especially since she was his congresswoman when he was a student at Yale Law School. In his (brief) 2020 presidential campaign, he made expanding the CTC his signature issue.

It was no surprise, then, that DeLauro spotted an opportunity in the rescue packages Congress began considering to respond to the COVID pandemic in March 2020. “We tried to get it in every CARES package that we could,” she told me. But Republicans held the Senate and Trump was in the White House, so a bigger CTC never made it in.

The political tides would turn. When Biden was running for president, she made sure to call him and press the importance upon him. DeLauro was able to secure a change in the last-minute aid deal Congress struck in December to let families calculate their eligibility based on 2019 income, allowing many more to claim it. Then a Democratic-controlled Congress and White House began putting together the American Rescue Plan in early 2021.

At first, DeLauro got word that the CTC wasn’t going to be in it. “I then just took to telephoning. I did a phone bank,” she said. She called everyone in her Rolodex: Biden Chief of Staff Ron Klain, National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, Council of Economic Advisers member and former Biden economic adviser Jared Bernstein, White House Counselor Steve Ricchetti, and Director of White House Domestic Policy Council Susan Rice. “I went into full mode of organizing,” she said. She reminded them that she had been promised legislative movement when Democrats took control of the Senate and the White House. “If not now, when?” she asked them.

The American Rescue Plan finally fulfilled DeLauro’s nearly career-long goals: It makes the CTC fully refundable, allowing even families with no income to claim it; increases the yearly benefit to $3,600 for each child under age six and $3,000 for older ones; and will eventually pay the benefits out monthly—effectively halving the nation’s rate of childhood poverty. The federal government has essentially created a child allowance akin to what many other developed countries have, albeit only for one year.

The day it passed, March 6, 2021, was “the best day of my career,” Brown said. Former Rep. (and Ways and Means powerhouse) Charles Rangel called DeLauro up to congratulate her. “Because I used to plague Charlie Rangel every day about what we could do,” she said.

The achievement was built on decades of DeLauro’s blood, sweat, and phone calls. “That’s why we stand where we stand today,” Warren said. “We’re not starting at ground zero. We’re starting in 2021 where Rosa has gotten us after nearly 20 years of backbreaking work.”

The changes, however, are set to lapse in a year. The next fight is to make them permanent, and DeLauro’s already on it.

DeLAURO LEARNED she had ovarian cancer in 1986, the very day Dodd announced he was running for re-election to the Senate, a campaign she was supposed to run. When she broke the news to him, he gave her “the response that everyone in that situation wants to hear,” she writes in her book: He told her to take the time off to get well. She took two and a half months for radiation treatment “without the added worry that my job would not be there when I returned.”

It was also the year she watched Dodd write and introduce the Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees covered workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Dodd would go on to introduce the same bill every year for eight years. Even after it managed to pass both the House and Senate twice, President George H.W. Bush vetoed it both times. “It was a tremendous lesson in taking the long view and abiding by your convictions in defeat after defeat,” she writes. President Bill Clinton would eventually sign it into law, the first bill he signed.

DeLauro wanted to take up Dodd’s torch and pass paid family leave, but in the President George W. Bush days she and the policy’s advocates decided to scale back their ambitions and push just for paid sick days. They didn’t get either. Even when Obama took office, she watched her paid sick leave bill get crowded out by other priorities.

That hasn’t deterred her. “These have been the issues that have been really critically important to me,” she said. She first introduced the Healthy Families Act to guarantee seven days of paid sick leave in 2004 and has reintroduced it constantly since. She and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the FAMILY Act to guarantee 12 weeks of paid leave in 2013. Gillibrand brought the idea for how to craft a paid family leave system to DeLauro because “I knew she’d been a champion fighting for women and children and families for three decades,” Gillibrand told me. “It was an easy ‘yes.’”

At first their goal was to make sure it would get mentioned in a 2016 presidential debate—check. Then they wanted to make sure Hillary Clinton included it in her run for president—check. Eventually, Republicans started talking about the issue, even if their plans looked nothing like the FAMILY Act. “It’s grown in importance and vitality,” Gillibrand said.

Like the expansive CTC, paid leave became part of the American Rescue Plan that Biden signed into law. DeLauro believes there is now a real opportunity to pass paid family and sick leave on a permanent basis. “The legislation I have pioneered on behalf of children and families,” she told me, is “on the cusp of becoming part of the national fabric.”

DeLauro has experienced no shortage of setbacks and outright failures over her many years in public office. Her very first legislative proposal in Congress, a middle-class tax cut, went nowhere. Instead of passing her Paycheck Fairness Act in 2009, which would crack down on gender gaps in wages, the Senate instead passed the far milder Lilly Ledbetter Act to give women more time to file wage discrimination complaints.

“Play a long game,” she wrote in her book. “Legislation that moves this country forward … takes a long, long time to pass.”

That long game may finally be paying off. After years of inching forward, these issues are now moving ahead at lightning-fast speed. “When the window opens, it stays open for a brief amount of time and closes so fast,” Dodd told me. “When these things come around, you’ve got to be ready for them.” DeLauro is more than ready.

After years in the wings, DeLauro is now closer to the spotlight. In January, she became chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, which controls Congress’s purse strings, deciding what gets funded and how much. DeLauro already knows what she might be able to accomplish from this perch. The committee is “where you have the most impact on what government does,” she wrote in her book long before she took command.

And some of the things she’s spent her life fighting for appear closer than ever to becoming real. Right now, DeLauro is pushing the Biden administration and fellow Democrats to make the expansion of the Child Tax Credit permanent. “That’s my mission of the moment,” she told me. She’s working the phones once again, pestering anyone who will listen. Biden has so far proposed extending it “at least through the end of 2025,” as he said in his address to Congress on April 28. That’s not good enough for DeLauro. “We don’t know what will happen in 2025, we don’t know who will be in charge,” she told me.

“We’re all haranguing them,” Brown said. “But we take our direction from Rosa.”

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