At Har­vard’s new-law­maker ori­en­ta­tion, Democrats take on lob­by­ists, CEOs

The Washington Post - - ECONOMY & BUSINESS - BY JEFF STEIN Mike DeBonis con­trib­uted to this re­port.

The talk was not billed as be­ing about pol­i­tics. “A Dis­cus­sion with Busi­ness Lead­ers,” hosted on Har­vard’s cam­pus this week for mem­bers of Congress elected in 2018, fea­tured the CEOs of Gen­eral Mo­tors, Johnson & Johnson and Boe­ing.

But Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) said she was taken aback when, in a meet­ing af­ter the talk, GM chief ex­ec­u­tive Mary Barra sug­gested that laid-off GM work­ers who live in the Detroit area could still seek em­ploy­ment at a plant in Flint (Mich.), more than an hour’s drive away.

“I was very much try­ing to ac­tively lis­ten and un­der­stand why the de­ci­sion was made, but I pushed back when the dis­cus­sion was, ‘Well, they’re go­ing to have op­tions to work in Flint,’ ” Tlaib said in an in­ter­view. “I pushed back and said, ‘You make it sound like it’s so easy,’ and she said, ‘It’s bet­ter than not hav­ing no job at all.’ ”

Tlaib’s dis­agree­ment with Barra came amid wider crit­i­cism from sev­eral in­com­ing House Demo­cratic law­mak­ers of the Har­vard Kennedy School’s In­sti­tute of Pol­i­tics Bi­par­ti­san Ori­en­ta­tion Pro­gram, a tra­di­tion­ally un­con­tro­ver­sial af­fair that has hosted more than 700 mem­bers of Congress since 1972. (Tlaib’s ac­count was con­firmed by Rep.-elect Andy Levin, an­other Michi­gan Demo­crat, who was at the meet­ing. A spokesman for GM con­firmed that Barra told in­com­ing law­mak­ers that laid-off em­ploy­ees could ap­ply to the Flint plant.)

Har­vard’s ori­en­ta­tion for new mem­bers of Congress is pitched as a way for in­com­ing law­mak­ers to learn about life on Capi­tol Hill, but some new Democrats broke with prece­dent and crit­i­cized it. The crit­i­cism by the fresh­man Democrats, in­clud­ing Rep.-elect Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (N.Y.), re­flect the left­ward pull in the party, as well as the in­com­ing representatives’ re­jec­tion of some prac­tices usu­ally re­garded as part of the bi­par­ti­san con­sen­sus.

Af­ter din­ner Tues­day, law­mak­ers at­tended a ses­sion where they in­tro­duced them­selves. The event in­cluded re­marks by for­mer con­gress­man Bill De­lahunt (D-Mass.), who was de­scribed in an itin­er­ary pro­vided to The Wash­ing­ton Post by Har­vard as vice chair in the In­sti­tute of Pol­i­tics and a for­mer mem­ber of Congress. De­lahunt also founded a lob­by­ing firm, the De­lahunt Group, which in 2018 lob­bied for Fu­els Amer­ica, a bio­fuel lob­by­ing group, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Re­spon­sive Pol­i­tics.

On Wed­nes­day, new law­mak­ers also at­tended “White House Con­gres­sional Re­la­tions: How to Ad­vo­cate for Your Pri­or­i­ties.” The panel listed as speak­ers Dan Meyer and Anne Wall, pres­i­dent and vice pres­i­dent, re­spec­tively, of the Du­ber­stein Group. The Du­ber­stein Group, a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar lob­by­ing firm, has rep­re­sented the Bank of New York Mellon, Com­cast, S&P Global and the Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal Re­search and Man­u­fac­tur­ers of Amer­ica, and other large cor­po­rate in­ter­ests, the Cen­ter for Re­spon­sive Pol­i­tics says.

The for­mer law­maker’s ties to lob­by­ing firms were not dis­closed on the cal­en­dar of events pro­vided to The Post by the Har­vard In­sti­tute of Pol­i­tics. In a text mes­sage, a spokesman for Har­vard’s In­sti­tute of Pol­i­tics said fresh­man law­mak­ers “get a bin­der upon ar­rival that in­clude lengthy bios of all par­tic­i­pants, in­clud­ing their busi­nesses.”

On Thurs­day, Oca­sio-Cortez crit­i­cized the event for in­clud­ing four cor­po­rate CEOs but no la­bor lead­ers or ac­tivists to talk to the new mem­bers. Barra, the CEO of GM, at­tended a “dis­cus­sion with busi­ness lead­ers” at which she was joined by Alex Gorsky, chair­man and CEO of Johnson & Johnson, and Den­nis Muilen­burg, chair and CEO of Boe­ing.

Mark Gearan, di­rec­tor of the Har­vard In­sti­tute of Pol­i­tics, con­firmed in an in­ter­view that no la­bor lead­ers were rep­re­sented on panel dis­cus­sions.

“Lob­by­ists are here. Gold­man Sachs is here,” Oca­sio-Cortez said on Twit­ter, a ref­er­ence to pan­elist Gary Cohn, a for­mer Gold­man Sachs ex­ec­u­tive who was a top eco­nomic ad­viser to Pres­i­dent Trump. “Where’s la­bor? Ac­tivists? Front­line com­mu­nity lead­ers?”

Rep.-elect Haley Stevens (DMich.), a for­mer Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial, said she used her time with ex­ec­u­tives at the event to stress the im­por­tance of hav­ing la­bor rep­re­sented.

Other in­com­ing Democrats, in­clud­ing a mem­ber of the Con­gres­sional Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus, ap­plauded the pro­ceed­ings, while Har­vard of­fi­cials also said they wel­comed the feed­back of the crit­ics.

“I thought this fo­rum was out­stand­ing, and it rep­re­sented a broad spec­trum of views,” Levin, of Michi­gan, told re­porters. “I think, you know, we re­ally heard from a wide range of views and peo­ple who think we need to move very ag­gres­sively to trans­form the power struc­tures in this coun­try, and peo­ple who, to some­one like me, would seem like their main func­tion in life is to keep the power struc­ture in this so­ci­ety just how they are. So it was a big breadth of views that were rep­re­sented, to me.”

Har­vard’s Gearan told re­porters that the point of the ori­en­ta­tion was not “to push any agenda,” adding that the pro­gram was re­spon­sive to feed­back from in­com­ing law­mak­ers. The ori­en­ta­tion sched­ule was crafted with in­put from Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can House lead­er­ship, Gearan said.

“Our in­ter­est is cre­at­ing a space for Repub­li­cans and Democrats, as I think you heard the mem­bers­e­lect say, to re­ally have that con­ven­ing so that they can build the bonds of friend­ship in this dis­course,” Gearan said. “This is a univer­sity. Any good univer­sity re­views its cur­ricu­lum, re­views its course­work, and thinks the ways we might want to go for­ward.”

The event listed as col­lab­o­ra­tors the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, a con­ser­va­tive think tank; the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, an­other think tank; and the Con­gres­sional In­sti­tute, which of­ten spon­sors re­treats for law­mak­ers.

For­mer con­gress­man Paul W. Hodes (D-N.H.), who now cam­paigns against money in pol­i­tics, said he did not re­call ac­ri­mony over the Har­vard fresh­man ori­en­ta­tion he at­tended af­ter be­ing elected in 2006. But he said the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic threats have changed since then, as has the na­ture of the Democrats elected to con­front those threats.

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