Mr. Morelle in Washington

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Rep. Joe Morelle is one of 101 freshmen in Congress still learning the sprawling institution’s ropes. (Photos courtesy of the Office of Congressman Joe Morelle)

As I followed Monroe County’s newly elected congressional representative, Democrat Joe Morelle, last month on his Washington, D.C., rounds, it hit me: The vibe one gets navigating the congressional corridors of power is eerily reminiscent of the HBO show “Veep .”  

Threading our way through the warren of tunnels that link the Capitol to the House and Senate offices, I asked Morelle press aide Dana Vernetti whether she got the same feeling. “Oh yes,” she said. “Of course.”

On later reflection, I amended my first impression to include a soupçon of the NBC series “The West Wing.” 

What both TV shows get right about Washington is the walking. The corridors of power in the nation’s capital are at any given workday moment filled with scrums of aides moving at a brisk pace as they surround their bosses, whispering briefing points and tactical advice as they proceed at a clip to and from a seemingly endless round of meetings and hearings. 

The depiction of D.C. in “The West Wing” was a highly idealized, yet somehow believable vision of the presidential administration of Josiah “Jed” Bartlet. A liberal Democrat, Bartlet uses his unparalleled political infighting skills to make sure that he rarely, if ever, has to compromise his deeply held and mostly altruistic principles. 

“Veep’s” more comedic and more cynical take portrays the nation’s capital as a viper’s nest of political intrigue filtered through the lens of Selena Meyer, a politician of undiscernible party affiliation. Meyer can barely be bothered to hide her contempt for the electorate or her naked ambition to get and hold power for its own sake, traits she shares with allies and foes.  

That both shows ring true probably says something meaningful about Washington. And as noted by the political commentator and cartoonist Walt Kelly—who through his character Pogo Possum coined the oft-quoted aphorism, “We have met the enemy and he is us”—it also probably says something about us. 

I was shadowing Morelle, who was sworn in last November after winning a seat long held by Rep. Louise Slaughter, to try to get a sense of how he was settling in to Washington and where he might fall on the “Veep” to “West Wing” spectrum. 

Big shoes to fill

A liberal Democrat, Slaughter had held the seat for decades after wresting it from Republican Fred Eckert, a conservative Republican who won the seat after its previous occupant, Barber Conable, a widely respected gray eminence of the GOP, retired to head the World Bank after two decades in Congress.

Slaughter won narrowly in 1986. But over the ensuing three decades, she became a local and Washington institution, defeating most challengers with relative ease. Her unexpected death last year, while still in office, opened the seat to all comers for the first time in 32 years. Morelle, who was endorsed by Slaughter’s daughter, won by a comfortable margin. 

A freshman elected as part of the so-called blue wave that returned control of the House of Representative to Democrats for the first time in four years, Morelle is himself a longtime fixture in local politics. 

He had served in the state Assembly since 1990. For the six years prior to his election to Congress and up until last November when he took the congressional oath, Morelle held the Assembly’s second most powerful post, majority leader. He had ascended to the Assembly from the Monroe County Legislature, where he had served since the mid-1980s, and had served a term as head of the Monroe County Democratic Committee. A freshman Morelle might be, but Congress is not his first day out.     

My idea of observing Morelle’s congressional debut was at least partly sparked by “Mr. Morelle goes to Washington,” a piece Rochester Beacon publisher Alex Zapesochny wrote shortly after Morelle’s election to Congress. 

The column’s headline—an evocation of the Frank Capra film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”—alone had much to do with giving me the idea. The movie, a cinema classic, stars Jimmy Stewart as the eponymous title character, a political naïf who is appointed to a vacant U.S. Senate seat by scheming politicians who see him as an easily manipulated tool. 

In the film’s stirring and sob-inducing climax, the idealistic and idealized Mr. Smith filibusters the Senate to the point of exhaustion in a heroic and ultimately successful bid to shame the schemers, who are trying to kill his plan to build a federally supported national boys camp. 

The malefactors, who want to kill the boys-camp proposal so they can secretly cash in on a dam project proposed for the same site, are shamed and vanquished after Mr. Smith’s filibuster shines the light of day on their perfidy. The movie ends with Mr. Smith being lauded by the president, constituents and congressional colleagues, while the miscreants slink away in shame.   

Taking due note of the toxic partisanship that characterizes present-day politics and the pressures to fit in with one’s party leadership that bear on a new legislator, in his piece Zapesochny urged Morelle to be Mr. Smith-like, to eschew the “least risky path to attaining power and longevity in Washington: support(ing) your party in all ways possible, destroy(ing) the other side by any rhetoric possible.”

Civility across the aisle is possible and is in fact what a comfortable majority of the electorate would like to see, Zapesochny wrote, citing polls showing a clear, bipartisan hope among the electorate that elected officials would dial down partisan bile. 

Zapesochny wrote that Morelle had “in Albany … managed to rise to the powerful position of Assembly majority leader in large measure due to his loyalty to Sheldon Silver … the longtime Assembly speaker (who) ruled through the heavy-handed tactics of a political boss and was a key component in decades of Albany dysfunction.”  

Zapesochny wondered: Would the freshman representative yield to the temptation of toeing to his party’s anti-GOP line as a congressman, or would he take a higher road? 

I wondered: How easy or even possible is it for a freshly minted congressional representative to follow such advice? 

Taking the path he recommended would be the harder choice than toeing his party’s line, Zapesochny warned. That Morelle was likely “fulfilling a lifelong dream” would make the harder choice that much harder to make. 

Politically ambitious

I first met Morelle in the early 1980s. He was a newly elected Monroe County legislator. I had recently started working for WXXI as a reporter/producer and co-host of its half-hour local afternoon news program.

Morelle then was a couple of years out of SUNY Geneseo, where he had majored in political science. Before getting elected to the county Legislature, he’d been an aide to a prominent Democratic state senator, Jack Perry. 

Young, eager and seeming to me to be politically ambitious, Morelle, then 24 and fresh into his first term in any elected office, held out his hand.

I was a few years older and had suffered through more sleep-inducing sessions and committee meetings of legislatures, city and town councils, and school boards than I cared to remember. I sized up the young Morelle and said, “Hello, Congressman.” He took what I intended to be a not-unfriendly gentle jibe in stride and smiled as we shook hands. 

Over the ensuing years, Morelle and I developed less than personal but still cordial relationship. I interviewed him on various political matters from time to time and wrote a somewhat detailed profile of him for the Rochester Business Journal in 1996. We shared a running gag involving a plan for us to win the lottery by starting a syndicate that would buy every available ticket. The joke is that the odds against winning are so steep that it would be possible to spend millions and still lose. The gag was the first thing Morelle mentioned when he introduced me to his Washington staff. 

In the Assembly, Morelle sometimes was more centrist than progressive and sometimes the opposite. He is also a political survivor, adept at crossing the aisle without rankling less-accommodating fellow Democrats.

“I tried over the years to find my own way,” Morelle says.

As a relative newcomer to the Assembly in the late 1990s, Morelle sided with Republicans to favor tax cuts and reforms that many of his Democratic Assembly colleagues opposed. He also backed workers’ compensation reform closer to proposals favored by then Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican, than to the favored plan of the Assembly’s powerful Democratic leader, Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Morelle ended up winning Silver over on the tax cuts and helped broker a workers’ compensation compromise that business and liberal Assembly Democrats could live with.

Stephen Ciccone, then Eastman Kodak Co.’s director of state government, told me in 1996 that though Morelle sometimes pushed a pro-business agenda that was out-of-step with many Assembly Democrats including Silver, he saw Silver as having “a lot of respect and warmth for Joe.”  

In 2013, Silver named Morelle majority leader, a job whose responsibilities Morelle describes as mostly like a congressional whip’s, herding caucus members and mentoring new ones. The majority leader’s duties also include standing in for the speaker in the speaker’s absence.

Two years later, Silver, who had won 11 terms as speaker, was convicted on federal corruption charges, ending his Assembly career. Disbarred and sentenced to a seven-year prison term, he is free on bail and appealing the conviction.

Despite being a longtime ally of Silver, Morelle was untouched by the scandal. Silver’s successor as speaker, Bronx Democrat Carl Heastie, the first African American to hold the job, kept Morelle as majority leader. A framed photo of Heastie sits on a shelf in Morelle’s congressional office.  

Why did Heastie keep Morelle as majority leader despite Morelle’s longstanding ties to the disgraced Silver and even though Morelle had vied against him for the speaker’s job?

“Joe and I had a longstanding and tremendous friendship,” Heastie explains. “Joe mentored me when I was new to the Assembly. I’m proud that he keeps a picture of me in his office.” 

Besides, adds Heastie, “I needed Joe. I was new as speaker and he had the skills and relationships to bring people together.”  

Whether Morelle is able to bring the skills that helped him successfully navigate the sometimes-choppy waters of the state Assembly to bear as effectively in the arguably choppier waters of the 116th Congress is still an open question.

Votes at work

A few weeks ago, I tagged along with Morelle on the way from his office suite in the Longworth Office Building to a Rules Committee hearing room in the Rayburn Office building a block or so away. A gaggle of aides surrounded him.

“Let’s go outside,” Morelle had suggested, directing the entourage away from the underground passageway to an open door. “It’s such a nice day.” 

The day carried a whiff more of spring than it had in Rochester, where I’d driven from a day earlier. Morelle, who splits his time between Washington, where he has rented an apartment, and Rochester, had himself just flown in to Washington. 

As we strode down the street, an aide reminded Morelle of amendments to several bills that Republican members would be asking the Rules Committee to approve. Each of the GOP amendments were some kind of poison pill, she assured Morelle. He nodded agreement.

Morelle considers his Rules Committee seat, as well as the seats he drew on the Budget and Education and Labor committees, as plum assignments. They were all his first-choice draws, a courtesy not always extended to novice lawmakers.

Morelle does not claim to be specially favored by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who hands out assignments. Nor does he see himself as especially in the House leadership’s sights.  

“I think they’re aware of everyone,” he says. 

Still, Morelle posits that as a top legislative leader of a big and populous state like New York, his resume weighed in his favor. 

That is a reasonable calculation, but experience is not the only factor in Pelosi’s calculations as the new Democratic House majority coalesces. Pelosi and her top lieutenant, the Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer, also handed choice assignments to less-experienced incoming representatives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx. 

Ocasio-Cortez’s upset primary victory over longtime party stalwart Joe Crowley made her an instant national media star. A member of the Democratic Socialists of America and first-time office holder, Ocasio-Cortez won plum seats on two powerful committees, Financial Services and Oversight and Oversight and Government Reform.

Ocasio-Cortez has been dubbed with presidential sounding sobriquet AOC. She and other newly elected colleagues like Michigan Democrat Ilhan Omar are aggressively pushing Democrats steadily leftward.

Old-guard Democrats like Pelosi are not always comfortable with but cannot ignore the restive newcomers. Seeing an exploitable rift, Republicans are quick to point out the space between the old guard and young Turks.  

Asked what interaction, if any, he has had with the AOC contingent, Morelle is non-committal.

“I’ve seen her around,” he says.

At the Rules Committee meeting, a batch of amendments GOP lawmakers want to attach to two bills Democrats have drafted are on the agenda. The Rules Committee’s function—to say whether proposed amendments put forth in other House committees can be attached to bills—is a parliamentary procedure nerd’s meat and potatoes but less palatable to more casual observers of the political process. 

Slaughter chaired the Rules Committee from 2006 to 2011, and was known to make canny use of the position. Her portrait, the largest of several renderings of past chairs and hanging highest among them, looked down on Morelle as he took a seat on the Democratic side of the committee’s commodious hearing room, 

Amendments Republicans proposed to add to two bills—H.R. 1644, the Save the Internet Act of 2019 and H.R. 2021—were on the agenda. 

H.R. 1644 is an attempt by Democrats to reverse changes made by the Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission under FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai. A Republican who once served as Verizon’s chief in-house lawyer, Pai’s changes were made to undo an Obama administration executive order that barred internet service providers like Spectrum and Verizon from giving preferential treatment to content providers, say, favoring Netflix over Hulu or vice versa. 

Democrats see H.R. 1644 as needed to protect consumers by keeping service providers from throttling down speeds to extract higher fees from content providers that would be passed on to subscribers to streaming services and would make it harder for small players to enter the market. 

Republicans counter that the bill would restore needless regulation that would chill innovation and inhibit competition, and that such protection is not needed because no throttling occurred after the FCC scotched the Obama-era rule.

H.R. 2021 is a budget-committee bill in which House Democrats propose to allow the addition of some $700 billion over the next two federal fiscal years to caps placed by a 2011 law on federal discretionary spending. The new caps would apply equally to discretionary defense and non-defense expenditures.

Republicans, speaking in favor of proposed GOP amendments to the Democratically proposed H.R. 2021, mostly used their time to complain that House Budget Committee Democrats failed to pass a budget resolution and instead wasted time and effort on a measure that would never see the light of day. It wasn’t a very veiled allusion to the likelihood that the Democrats’ bill would never pass the Republican-controlled Senate and would be vetoed by the president if it did.  

Tasked with running the vote on both sets of GOP amendments, Morelle read them off and called for members to weigh in. With the yeas and nays falling strictly along party lines, the GOP amendments all failed to pass the Rules Committee muster. 

A Committee on Education and Labor hearing held the next day followed a similar script. Democrats were putting forward H.R. 1010, a bill that to stop Republicans from enacting so-called short-term health plans, a measure proposed by GOP lawmakers as part of their party’s ongoing larger struggle to kill the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. 

In 2016, Republicans campaigned on a promise of overturning the ACA, but even after winning control of the White House and both legislative branches, only partly succeeded in doing so. Democrats, who trumpeted their party’s efforts to keep ACA’s protections against insurers denying coverage to applicants with pre-existing conditions, believe that Republican efforts to undermine the act worked to their advantage in the 2018 midterms.  

In the committee hearing, Republicans asked why the Democrats were, in their view, inappropriately airing a health care concern in a non-health care committee. They argued that short-term plans are needed to counter premiums driven up by the ACA’s mandate requiring insurers to offer a menu of essential benefits. Less benefit-rich plans would give consumers driven out of the market by unaffordable premiums the choice of signing on to a lower-premium plan, Republicans claimed. 

Democrats derided the GOP-proposed short-term plans as “junk” insurance that would leave subscribers suffering unexpected serious illnesses or accidents without meaningful coverage.

Morelle, who for a time chaired the New York Assembly’s Insurance Committee, in a long soliloquy lectured the GOP lawmakers on how insurance coverage works, noting that New York’s insurance laws, which largely replicate the ACA’s provisions, forbid such coverage.

“I don’t know why Democrats oppose choice except when it comes to killing babies,” offered Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., in a frustrated response to Morelle’s and other Democrats’ arguments.  

As in the Rules Committee, Republicans reminded the newly ascendant House Democrats that their insurance provision would be a non-starter in the Senate, making its passage in committee or by the whole lower house a futile gesture.

Working across the aisle

Neither partisan posturing nor partisan maneuvering is new. But political commentators and politicians alike can be heard to pine for the days when the conservative Republican President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, a liberal Democrat, would snipe at each other in public but work out collegial compromises over cocktails in private.

Does Morelle see such interparty cooperation as possible today? Might he work across the aisle, say with Rep. Tom Reed, a conservative Republican whose district stretches over the Finger Lakes region, mostly rural counties including Steuben, Ontario and Yates.

“I think there definitely are things he and I can work together on. There’s a whole host of things,” says Morelle, mentioning jobs-related legislation as a possibility where two such political odd fellows might come together. 

I similarly queried Reed in an email. He replied: “We’re happy to work with anyone regardless of their party who is willing to have an honest conversation about solving the problems across New York State and our country. I’ve enjoyed working with Joe—he shares the commitment to set aside partisan bickering and focus on solving problems for the people we all care about back home.”  

All well and good, but one wonders how close Democrats and Republicans can come on core issues like health care, on which neither party seems to currently see middle ground. In an interview, Reed recently chided Democrats for failing to “say yes” to GOP proposals like the short-term health plan measure. But earlier he was one of eight House Republicans who sided with Democrats to vote for a non-binding resolution condemning White House efforts to entirely kill Obamacare. 

In the Rules Committee session I attended, I noted that one GOP member, Rob Woodall of Georgia, who also serves with Morelle on the Budget Committee, seemed to affectionately rib Morelle on several occasions.

Morelle confirmed that he and Woodall enjoy a warm relationship. But asked if he saw Woodall as potential partner in future bipartisan deals, Morelle replied that though such cooperation might have been in the cards, he believed that Woodall planned to retire from Congress when his current term is up next year.

I also queried Woodall in an email. He did not reply.

If anyone can bridge Washington’s current partisan gap, Morelle can, Heastie believes. 

Another longtime Democratic Morelle fan, Fran Weisberg, echoes the sentiment. 

Progressive, conservative, liberal or centrist labels don’t quite apply to Morelle, “the most policy-oriented politician I’ve ever met,” says Weisberg, a onetime chair of the Monroe County Democratic Committee, who has worked with Morelle in various capacities beginning when both were aides in Perry’s state Senate office.

“Joe’s a convener,” Weisberg says. “He brings people together. It’s what he’s good at. For Joe, it’s about getting results.”

After leaving the Democratic Party post, Weisberg worked for local human services organizations, heading the elder services non-profit Lifespan, Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency, which is now called Common Ground Health and most recently the United Way of Greater Rochester. She currently is a consultant, privately advising area human service non-profits.

In each of Weisberg’s career iterations, Morelle has been an invaluable but not always publicly prominent partner, working behind the scenes to connect state government and other actors and drawing on his own deep knowledge of esoteric topics like health care.

On a recent congressional break, Morelle, who splits his time between Rochester and Washington, spending part of each week in each location, capped a full day of meetings and events by participating in roundtable with area doctors sponsored by the Monroe County Medical Society. 

Doctors of various political stripes appreciated the congressman’s understanding of medical issues and saw the session as productive, says MCMS executive director Christopher Bell.

Morelle sees himself as still getting his feet wet in Congress. 

A powerful figure with years of seniority in the Assembly, he is one of 101 freshmen in Congress, still learning the sprawling institution’s ropes. 

Even so, Morelle believes that he may have a considerable leg up on some of his fellow freshman, who he’s observed “don’t seem to have a clue about how legislatures work.” 

2 thoughts on “Mr. Morelle in Washington

  1. Great article; thank-you Mr. Astor! However, here’s something I wonder about: “polls showing a clear, bipartisan hope among the electorate that elected officials would dial down partisan bile.” It’s kind of a motherhood-and-apple-pie polling question, isn’t it: “do you wish to see more bipartisanship and less bickering”? No one likes to see the bickering and insult-throwing and dirty tricks on display these days, but as for real bipartisan compromise, I don’t see the public backing truly bipartisan proposals on the rare occasions when they appear. We are truly divided over important issues, and I’m not sure how we bridge those divides.

    • I sadly do not disagree with your observation. It’s easy to talk about the benefits of compromise in the abstract but not so easy to yield to an opposing view.

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