Brooklyn Rep Also Reflects on Big Democratic Gains in House
Access to affordable housing and public transportation that runs on time are two of the items on the wish list of many Brooklyn residents, and U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries said he hopes to get to work on them when Congress goes into session in early January with the new Democratic-dominated House.
During a roundtable discussion with reporters in his district office in the Shirley Chisholm Federal Office Building at 55 Hanson Place Monday morning, Dec. 17, Jeffries talked about a variety of issues facing the nation, including criminal justice reform and the Affordable Care Act.
Jeffries, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Coney Island, Mill Basin, Canarsie, Brownsville, East New York, Bed-Stuy and Fort Greene, was recently elected to serve as chairperson of the House Democratic Caucus, making him the fifth highest ranking member of the House. He will also serve as a member of two high-profile committees in the House: Judiciary and Budget.
In the hour-long session with reporters, he reflected on the big gains made by Democrats in the House in the November election. The Democrats picked up 40 seats.
Closer to home, Jeffries pointed to housing and transportation as issues that need to be solved.
Brooklyn residents, like all New Yorkers, need “safe, affordable housing,” according to Jeffries, who added that his district has one of the largest number of public housing developments of any congressional district in the nation. “We need an all-hands-on-deck approach,” to solving the affordable housing crisis, he said.
Among the steps he will push for, he said, is to revisit the federal government’s Section 202 program which offers vouchers to senior citizens to help them pay their rent.
Jeffries said he is aware that the subways and buses are in sorry shape. “We have crumbling mass transportation in New York City. Everyone is suffering in different ways,” he said.
He is hopeful that a $1 trillion infrastructure bill can make it through the House and Senate in the upcoming legislative session. The bill would include hundreds of billions of dollars to fix bridges and roads as well as $70 billion to make repairs to public housing developments across the country, he said.
A major test of whether the House can pass bipartisan legislation will come as soon as this week, with Republicans still in the majority in the House, according to Jeffries, who pointed to the movement on both sides of the aisle toward criminal justice reform.
The bill, which will be voted on this week, will save taxpayers money and reduce the rate of recidivism of ex-cons, Jeffries predicted. Democrats are seeking to roll back mandatory minimum sentences and provide retroactive “relief to the incarcerated who were sentenced under unjust crack cocaine laws,” he said. In many cases, inmates convicted of non-violent drug offenses would be released from prison.
If the legislation passes, it will be a good sign that Democrats and Republicans can work together to solve the nation’s problems, Jeffries said.
The recent ruling by a federal judge in Texas that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is unconstitutional should cause congressional Republicans to sweat, according to Jeffries, who said the GOP pushed hard to repeal the law known as Obamacare and must now live with its actions.
With any new bill in the wake of the Texas judge’s ruling, “The starting point has to be strengthening the ACA,” he said.
Millions of Americans who have pre-existing medical conditions could lose their health insurance if the ACA goes out the window, he said. If that happens, “Republicans will be at risk for more dramatic losses in 2020,” he predicted.
Polls showed that health care was at the top of the list of concerns of most Americans going into the midterm election.
The seeds for the big gains Democrats made in November, when they picked up the largest number of House seats since the first post-Watergate election in 1974, were actually planted in November of 2016 with the election of President Donald Trump, Jeffries said.
Following the 2016 election, Democrats had to decide if they were going to “fold like a cheap suit or fight back in a dignified and principled manner,” Jeffries said.
The Democrats chose the latter, he said.
Mindful of the long-held belief that “Republicans talk in headlines and Democrats talk in fine print,” House Democrats stopped getting lost in numbing details of legislation and came up with a strategy to communicate to the American people with a clear, simple and concise message, he said.
For example, Democrats talked about how the GOP’s efforts to gut the ACA would harm average Americans and how 83 percent of the benefits of the much-ballyhooed Republican tax cut would go to the richest one percent of Americans.
The fight over the Republican tax cut “was a seminal moment,” Jeffries said.
The tax cut proved to be unpopular with the public, according to most polls.