Imagine what House Speaker Hakeem Jeffries and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer could do for their home state. With Congress ruled by two Democrats from Brooklyn, New York City in particular could have a flood of funding for housing, transit, and all kinds of transformational social safety programs. It would be the dawning of a new era unlike any other in the last half-century.
For now, though, it’s just a dream, with Republicans taking control of the House next month. Schumer will have another two years as majority leader, but Jeffries, a few seats shy of a majority that, ironically, was largely lost in New York, will have to spend at least two years with Republicans deciding the course of events. (The stars may never align for Schumer and Jeffries if Democrats, facing a tough Senate map in 2024, slip out of the majority.) This limits what the two New Yorkers can do when it comes to passing legislation. Whoever the next speaker of the House will be — Kevin McCarthy is struggling to line up votes — will bottle up whatever bills the Democrats want to push. The so-called Hastert Rule will remain in effect: no bill brought to the floor unless a majority of the majority party supports it.
So what can be accomplished in the short term? Democrats have a thin Senate majority and theoretical leverage over several center-right Republicans who won districts that voted for Joe Biden in 2020. These Republicans, many of them in the city’s suburbs, could face pressure to produce bipartisan legislative accomplishments and dollars for the towns and cities they have to represent. Are there deals to be cut among Schumer, Jeffries, and the Republican Speaker of the House? Maybe.
In the Senate, at least, working across the aisle has been possible. Ten Republicans recently signed onto the bill safeguarding the right to same-sex marriage nationally. Bills of that significance, with Republicans in control of the House, may be harder to move. The best hope for Jeffries, potentially, is to secure funding for New York in the annual omnibus spending bill, which accounts for more than $1 trillion. It covers spending for all federal agencies but ropes in many other unrelated, local priorities, such as new rules for the horse-racing industry and Maine lobstermen. Jeffries should find a way to get creative for his own constituents.
If there’s one area of need for New York where federal clout could make a tremendous difference, it’s NYCHA. The sprawling public-housing system, the product of federal largesse in the depths of the Great Depression, is home to more than half a million people in the five boroughs. Many of the housing developments were built in the 1930s and ’40s, when New York had remarkable pull in Washington that will probably never be seen again. Part of this was because the most dominant president of the period, Franklin Roosevelt, used to be its governor. Just as crucial, though, was the outsize presence of New York in the House, with as many as 43 members. Today, there are just 27, as the country’s population expands in the South and West. The gains of California, Texas, and Florida have been at New York’s direct expense.
If they can never recapture the glory of the New Deal, Jeffries and Schumer may have a singular opportunity to reorient federal dollars that tend to flow elsewhere. Schumer already has been successful in securing large tranches of federal bailout funds for New York in the wake of the pandemic. Much of that money has propped up the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and helped to keep the city and state governments from a debilitating austerity regime. With this cash drying up, the MTA is facing a fiscal cliff as it struggles to reach the ridership numbers of 2019, before COVID ravaged the state. It’s unclear whether more federal cash for public transit will arrive. It may be up to the State Legislature and Governor Kathy Hochul to devise a funding solution.
The Democrat-controlled Congress already missed an opportunity to repeal the Faircloth Amendment, the long-running federal prohibition on the net construction of new public-housing units in America. Little momentum has been built up for striking down the Clinton-era law, but there are other ways Jeffries, whose Central Brooklyn district includes large numbers of public and subsidized housing, and Schumer can get creative about fixing what still amounts to a national housing emergency. They could spearhead the creation of a federal Social Housing Development Authority that could finance the construction of new social housing — the equivalent of a national Mitchell-Lama program that creates opportunities to own below-market, subsidized housing.
Jeffries and Schumer could follow the lead of one of their fellow New York congressmen, Ritchie Torres, who has been fighting to make Section 8 vouchers for affordable housing an entitlement. As of now, the federal government doesn’t fund nearly enough vouchers for all low-income tenants in New York and across America who are in desperate need of them to supplement rent. Tenants are left to scrap for what is available, many of them stuck for months and years on long wait lists.
Finally, there is the work Biden can do from the executive branch. As majority leader, Schumer successfully pressured Biden to attempt to cancel some student debt, long a priority of the progressive wing of the party. Schumer and Jeffries could team up, if they’re motivated, to push Biden to do much more on stubbornly high rent. The president can mandate that tenants in all properties financed by government-backed mortgages be protected by regulations that cap annual increases at 1.5 times the Consumer Price Index or 3 percent, whichever is lower. The Federal Trade Commission could take the step of adding excessive rent increases to its list of unfair and deceptive practices that lead to enforcement actions — a boon for New York tenants who have been hit with aggressive hikes this year. Jeffries, in the interim, will have much less power than Schumer as a minority leader. But he can, if he wants, be a punchy voice for New York in Washington, the kind of Democrat who can’t be readily ignored.