Touching base with Oxfam's Legislative Affairs Lead brings more optimism and light than you'd expect. Michael Helms retains hope even in the face of a recalcitrant Supreme Court and a rancorous Congress.
Mary Babic: Mike, in 15 years with Oxfam, you’ve spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill and seen a lot of politicking. I have to say, even though the midterms were less disastrous than many expected, I still regard the 118th Congress with a jaundiced eye. I don’t see how the heck we can make any progress with a House that is, to say the very least, divided.
Still, we have to try, since federal policy has great potential to improve our reality on so many fronts. So below, a few questions for you about the year ahead.
Let’s start here: Is there anything we can do about the Supreme Court? While many of us could see the storm clouds on the horizon with this particularly zealot version of the Court, I don’t think we were expecting to get quite so drenched quite so quickly. They’re throwing a lot of lightning bolts at us.
I’m still reeling from the fact that this Court stripped women of the right to bodily autonomy, leading to many states outlawing abortion altogether. And I’m terrified of the implications from the Court disempowering federal agencies (such as the EPA). Any thoughts about short term or long term strategy to turn this around?
Mike Helms: I certainly share your concerns about the Supreme Court, which has a decidedly more conservative tilt, paired with an activist bent that seems counter to years of political handwringing about “judicial restraint.” The overturning of Roe v. Wade is just one example of the upheaval this body can introduce on American rights and policy.
That said, I certainly don’t think throwing hands up in despair is our only option. Since the Dobbs decision, we have seen protections for gay marriage pass both houses of Congress and be signed into law; numerous states have enshrined protections for the right to choose in state constitutions, and perhaps most significantly, in state and local ballot initiatives across the country–in blue states and red states–strong majorities of voters stood up to protect these long-established rights.
Mary Babic: That’s encouraging, Mike. In fact, there’s evidence to support that idea that at least one extreme decision (Dobbs) is motivating strong voter turnout, and may have accounted for the predicted red wave in the midterms turning into a light pink. Any thoughts about expanding the Court itself?
Mike Helms: My initial reaction is that such a move seems like opening a particularly dangerous Pandora’s box. Playing out the story to its end, I’m not sure a court of 13 members or 27 or 53 would necessarily solve many problems nor provide much in the way of certainty or consistency of judicial opinions.
And from a more practical seat, I’d suggest that it simply ain’t gonna happen. So, I’d advise focusing our attention elsewhere.
Mary Babic: If Congress remains deadlocked, where do we turn? While it’s been reassuring to see federal agencies step up (the proposed rule on noncompete agreements from the FTC! Growing enforcement teeth at OSHA and the NLRB! And so on), it still feels precarious (what happens if/when the White House turns over), and even temporary. But is that our recourse? If so, how do keep up the pressure on them, and celebrate progress?
Mike Helms: It is absolutely critical that we continue to both encourage and pressure the Biden administration to take necessary and bold steps to fill the gaps left by Congressional inaction. As you mentioned, the NLRB can play a vital role in supporting a wave of worker empowerment that is sweeping the country in the wake of a global pandemic that completely upended how we view and value labor across the globe.
The Securities and Exchange Commission has sweeping authority to make sure that multinational corporations are following through on lofty climate promises, while our foreign policy apparatus just secured agreement at the UN Security Council to ensure that life-saving humanitarian actors are allowed to do their work in the darkest corners of the world facing conflict.
Now, that said, I’ll disagree with your premise somewhat. While Congressional “gridlock” has become an assumed status quo in Washington, the reality tells a much more nuanced picture.
In the past year, sweeping bipartisan majorities passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, to ensure that pregnant workers will not have to choose between their livelihoods and their health and families. Overwhelming bipartisan majorities in the House reauthorized the Global Food Security Act, ensuring the continuation of programs that save lives in crisis from conflict and climate, while helping millions of people lift themselves out of poverty.
The 117th Congress–facing the narrowest of partisan margins–found compromise in passing the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, providing for once-in-a-generation investments in American broadband, water, electricity, and renewable infrastructure. Congress agreed to increased spending for life-saving foreign assistance, the NLRB, child care community grants, and emergency funding to help victims of hurricanes and wildfires throughout our country, to address the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, and $1 billion for Puerto Rico’s electrical grid.
On issues that have faced political stalemate for years, this Congress passed the most significant update to the nation’s gun laws in nearly three decades, as well as legislation to secure the process for certifying electoral votes and ensuring a peaceful Presidential transition–all with bipartisan support.
Is there the potential for increased gridlock, or partisan division, in the 118th Congress? Certainly–the Congress is split, again with extraordinarily thin margins in both chambers, and the shadow of the 2024 Presidential election looms ever present.
However, there is still space to get work done. There is opportunity to find common ground. There is incentive to craft compromise. We just need to keep working at it.
Mary Babic: Since change at the federal level seems increasingly unlikely, should we just turn all our energies to the states? To be self-referential here, each year when Oxfam releases our Best States to Work Index, we note the explosion of inequality among the states. The best states have taken constant, significant action to improve circumstances for working families (higher wages, paid leave, rights to organize), while the states at the bottom have been refusing to move, or inching backwards.
As long as Congress won’t budge, should we focus on moving state legislatures to take action?
Mike Helms: While political deadlock does seem to be amplified in national politics, the gulf between red and blue seems much less pronounced on the state level.
How often have we seen the standard political divides thrown out the window in the face of voter sentiment that does not fit neatly into the national political narrative? “Red” states passing increases to the minimum wage, protecting access to sexual and reproductive health, embracing the potential for renewable economies.
Simply put, if the Congress can’t get something done, lets push our state laboratories to fill those gaps and show DC how it’s done.
Mary Babic: Let’s talk about labor rights in the US. What’s the problem here? Historically, the US hasn’t been the most progressive place for workers–but at this point, we’re one of the worst. We’re one of a tiny handful of countries that doesn’t mandate paid leave of any kind: maternity, sick, family. Our minimum wage hasn’t been raised in nearly 14 years. The list goes on. Do you have thoughts about why we’re so regressive in the way we treat workers?
Mike Helms: This is an especially frustrating reality to face going into work every day. As a sometimes optimist I’m tempted to focus on the long game, and point to the slow but steady progress, undoubtedly achieved in fits and starts, toward better outcomes for American workers, families and those facing poverty. However, there are certainly days in which those fits and starts are seen less as the inevitable variance of a political pendulum, but an increasing bulwark against the continued accumulation of baby steps moving forward.
While a lot of blame deserves to lay with politicians–of both parties–who have denied, slow-played or otherwise pared down efforts to level the playing field, I’m very fine placing the lion’s share of culpability at the feet of Big Business–wealthy corporations who have used money and influence to capture the political gears of a machine that too often only works for the limited few at the top.
Mary Babic: Do you have any thoughts about how we fight the political capture of our legislators by the ultra wealthy and corporations? Since, roughly, the Reagan years, corporations and the ultrawealthy have invested billions of dollars in getting their candidates elected, and getting favorable laws passed, and it’s worked far too well.
The most blatant example for me is the flat out stonewalling around raising the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at the poverty rate of $7.25 for nearly 14 years. There is no explanation for that but kowtowing to big corporations; it’s keeping countless working families stuck in a cycle of working poverty.
Mike Helms: Hahaha–I swear I did not look ahead to this question! Now, this is perhaps the most difficult problem we have to solve. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Supreme Court will be changing its tune on political speech anytime soon. However, there does seem to be a political window of opportunity in our current climate.
Voters across the political spectrum almost universally agree that economic and political systems seemed rigged, in favor of wealthy elites and multinational corporations, at the expense of their day-to-day trials and tribulations. Politicians of every stripe recoil at being labeled the “party of big business” and wax eloquently about the need to work for those who have been left behind.
Easier said than done, however. The Biden Administration can certainly use its regulatory muscle to make Executive Actions. And even Congress, despite the division, could find the courage to cross the aisle and address problems that have languished for generations. Whether it is Big Oil or Big Tech, whether it is a post-pandemic recognition of the need for paid leave and worker safety–our job is to continue to push for progress in the right direction.
Mary Babic: While it’s been heartening to see more women and people of color in Congress, it still feels like a lot of power rests in the hands of white men. Any room for optimism there? I worry that when we all witness the relentless harassment of the Squad, for instance (AOC, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayana Pressley), we end up reluctant to run for office and expose ourselves to that rancor. Yet these women and their perspectives are so vitally important for the body to represent the reality of our population.
Mike Helms: And here again we run into depressing intransigence, in the face of which I could again look to the longer trends, incremental progress, and a slow but steady demographic reality that will ultimately balance the makeup of our representatives to be truly representative.
In the meantime, I find optimism (again) in the states, in cities and communities across the country where every cycle we see numerous glass ceilings shattered. I find optimism in movements–not just those organizations based in DC (like us)–but those growing in towns across the country, building leaders, and forcing those in power now to pay attention lest they be swept away much sooner than later.
Mary Babic: Do you still find politics writ large enjoyable? I’m going to make a big leap and presume that you got into this field because the legislative battle provides some snap and dazzle; and making progressive change can really impact people’s lives. But it’s gotten so nasty. How do you feel about it these days?
Mike Helms: Short answer: I do. For the reasons you stated–the process, while absolutely maddening, is a puzzle to be solved, a maze to be navigated. The hope is that one law, one sentence buried within thousands of pages of appropriations line items and riders, will help–not just one person, but will help people, communities, countries.
The long(ish) answer: Some days are certainly better than others. A healthy cynicism seems unavoidable at times; gallows humor is indispensable. At times it is nasty, or unrecognizable, or terrifying.
But somehow, 15+ years in, an optimistic core remains. I recently have spent the vast majority of my time outside of the DC bubble. I’ve found myself surrounded by political views that are truly representative of the entirety of the political spectrum. I’ve debated and argued with family and friends in garages with red flags and blue flags.
I’m optimistic because, almost without fail, those discussions at some point almost always stumble on to a moment of agreement (e.g.,“Well, Big Pharma certainly isn’t helping the little guy, amiright?!?”). And yes, there are certainly times when the gridlock is real – I’ve seen it while standing on a lawn in the middle of the country. On those occasions, however, it’s been pretty universally accepted for someone to say, “And this where we’ll need to agree to disagree.”
That the conversation moves on and the bar-b-que continues undisturbed–I guess that gives me hope and keeps me coming back into work every day.
Mary Babic: Finally, what’s giving you hope right now? This is a pretty grim landscape, is there something or someone who’s inspiring you to keep on doing the right thing?
Mike Helms: Haha, again, I promise I didn’t look ahead. What is giving me hope now? On a macro level, it’s the younger generations. They are smart and capable and ambitious; they are dealing with a society and systems that are extraordinarily chaotic and at times outright damaging to the human experience; but I have hope in them to figure it out and keep us moving forward.
On a micro level, its my great niece Avery. She’s not yet 2 years old but she’s shockingly clever, wildly funny, and innately empathetic. She’ll make a wonderful Senator someday.