The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At Harvard orientation for freshman lawmakers, skeptical Democrats confront lobbyists and CEOs

Rowers paddle down the Charles River past Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., in 2017. (Charles Krupa/AP)

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

But Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), one of the incoming lawmakers, said she was taken aback when, in a meeting after the talk, GM chief executive Mary Barra suggested 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 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 protests from these freshman Democrats, including Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), reflect the left pull of the party, as well as their rejection of some practices once 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 lobbied for the Bank of Mellon New York, Comcast, S&P Global and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, and other large corporate interests, the Center for Responsive Politics says.

On Thursday, former congressman Joseph J. Heck (R-Nev.) spoke at an event called “Navigating Washington and Capitol Hill.” After losing his seat, Heck joined the firm RedRock, according to Roll Call. He has lobbied on behalf of the American Osteopathic Association; TRAX International, a government tech firm; and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The former lawmakers' 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 GM CEO, attended a “discussion with business leaders” at which she was joined by Alex Gorsky, chairman and CEO of Johnson & Johnson, the pharmaceutical manufacturer, 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 and top economic adviser to President Trump. “Where‘s labor? Activists? Frontline community leaders?

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

“I am grateful to the Kennedy school for facilitating this week of orientation. Our class absolutely would have benefited from having labor leaders at the program,” Stevens said in a text message.

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 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 both Democratic and Republican House leadership, Gearan said. New lawmakers were encouraged but not required to attend.

“Our interest is creating a space for Republicans and Democrats, as I think you heard the members-elect 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.

The Harvard event met controversy almost from the outset. On Tuesday, several freshman Democrats joined Rep.-elect Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) for a health-care rally instead of attending a talk by President Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao, according to HuffPost.

“I was not sent to Washington to play nice,” Pressley told single-payer health-care activists at the rally, HuffPost reported.

Some of the freshman Democrats also criticized remarks given by Gary Cohn, the former Goldman executive and Trump adviser. On Twitter, Tlaib quoted Cohn as telling the freshman lawmakers, “You guys are way over your head, you don’t know how the game is played.” Tlaib added in her tweet: “No Gary, YOU don’t know what’s coming — a revolutionary Congress that puts people over profits.”

One attendee at the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an off-record event, said the remark came amid a discussion about the pressure incoming members would probably face if told by congressional leadership to support a bipartisan infrastructure package. The attendee said he interpreted Cohn’s remark as meant in jest, rather than an insult of the new lawmakers. Cohn did not return a request for comment.

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 Hodes said that the political and economic threats have changed since that year, as have the nature of the Democrats elected to confront it.

“The rise of Trump has given urgency and impetus to a new and diverse generation of citizen activists,” Hodes said in an interview. “So I’m not sure ‘acrimony’ is the operative term. There is something deeper going on.”

Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.