Freshmen Democrats want the party to exercise power. House leadership is still focused on good manners.

If you tuned into cable news over the past few days, you may have seen a clip of freshman Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) tearing into JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon over the wages he pays to low-level employees.

Making a few simple points about household budgeting, Porter demonstrated how the bank’s $16.50 minimum wage is not keeping pace with basic living expenses in California ― which puts bank employees hundreds of dollars in the red every month, while the bank’s shareholders enjoy over $1 billion a month in pure profit.

It was a tough look for Dimon and another turn in the limelight for Porter, who has now embarrassed three financial executives at congressional hearings in as many months. But her exchange with Dimon was also a curious new installment in a different Capitol Hill drama ― the ongoing tension between House Democratic leadership and their all-star freshman class.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are heeding norms of decorum that undermine their power.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are heeding norms of decorum that undermine their power.
Tom Williams via Getty Images

Like any political spat, the standoff between Democratic leaders and their new colleagues is multifaceted. It is in part informed by ideological differences: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) really don’t agree on American foreign policy with respect to Israel, for example. It’s also partly generational: The old guard is simply not quite gelling with the new wave.

But often the feud is less about policies or ideas and more about decorum ― the unspoken rules of etiquette that dominate life in the nation’s capital. Twice now at high-profile hearings, some of the most liberal members of the House leadership have sided with Republicans to rebuke other staunch liberals for violations of this code of conduct.

At last week’s hearing, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) tried to derail Porter’s exchange with Dimon by interrupting her with “a parliamentary inquiry” about the whiteboard that Porter was writing numbers on. Members customarily vet any visual aids with the committee 24 hours in advance of a public hearing, and Porter had not. That gave McHenry an opening.

“I haven’t seen that in committee actually,” he snarked about the whiteboard. “I’ve seen it for a long time on TV.”

The House Financial Services Committee chair, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), reluctantly indulged him. She ruled that McHenry was “correct” about the notification norms and said that Porter would have to delay her inquiry while the committee figured out a way to get her whiteboard displayed on screens so that all members could see it. Porter said she’d just proceed without the whiteboard after all.

Committee rules don’t say anything about whiteboards. They don’t include any requirements for Democrats to give Republicans a chance to review visual materials ahead of time. There is a provision about the use of electronic visual aids, which encourages lawmakers to provide digital information to the committee a day in advance “to ensure display capacity and quality.”

In other words, the standoff was mostly a question of manners.

Of course, McHenry’s feelings were not actually injured. He was just trying to save the CEO of America’s largest bank from a viral video embarrassment. He had strategically weaponized comity in pursuit of a political goal.

There is no love lost between Waters and Wall Street, and she’s pushed back against Republican attacks on freshmen Democrats in the past. In March, when McHenry and his colleague Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) were taking veiled shots at Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Waters made no apologies about shutting them down.

But Washington is so comprehensively toxic that even people who recognize its problems can still be shaped by them. The Porter episode matters not for any lasting policy consequences, but for the way it fits into a broader pattern of behavior from Democratic leaders and their troubling approach to governing in the era of Donald Trump.

In February, when Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) called it “racist” for Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) to use “a black woman” as “a prop” to deflect from lawyer Michael Cohen’s criticisms that Trump was racist, Meadows exploded with outrage. The House Oversight Committee chair, Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), responded by carefully coaching Tlaib into an apology and a retraction, saying it was against congressional rules to “insult” another member of Congress ― in this case, Cummings’ “good friend” Meadows.

Tlaib backed down, but later that day, videos surfaced of Meadows spreading the racist birther conspiracy theory against President Barack Obama.

The point here is not that Cummings is insufficiently committed to racial justice or that Waters is too friendly with big banks. The point is that accommodating Washington’s etiquette-minders is a losing game for the Democratic Party ― because the etiquette itself is rigged against liberals and the American left.

The chief enforcers of Washington decorum ― they usually call themselves “centrists” ― do not like bipartisanship as such, but only a particular version of bipartisan cooperation. In this milieu, Republicans and corporate elites actually get to exercise power, while Democrats and liberals must ask very nicely to be allowed to participate in the legislative largesse of their betters. Democrats are applauded for playing their allotted role as essentially powerless functionaries with grace and dignity, while Republicans get to do almost anything they want.

When Democrats do find themselves in the position of a legislative majority, they are still expected to pursue Republican policies. (Obamacare was based on the health care reforms of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; Dodd-Frank’s Wall Street restrictions arose from a regulatory scheme devised by George W. Bush’s treasury secretary Hank Paulson.) Truly liberal ideas aren’t supposed to be taken seriously. It is this misplaced obsession with Washington appearances ― rather than rigorous policy detail ― that explains why Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) lectured schoolchildren about the supposed implausibility of a Green New Deal.

The freshmen in Congress are often portrayed as leftists or socialists, and some of them are. But the biggest difference between the new kids on the block and the old liberal guard is that the freshmen actually want to exercise power, while their leaders have learned to thrive in a political environment in which they have to make do with modest concessions, tinkering around the edges of a fundamentally conservative agenda.

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