The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Rep. Steny Hoyer, a model leader in Congress, steps down but not out

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) in his office in D.C. in 2018. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Amid the many causes for cynicism that colors Americans’ view of Congress, a gold-plated exception is warranted for Rep. Steny H. Hoyer. The No. 2 Democrat in the House of Representatives — and a beloved, admired giant on Capitol Hill — announced last week that he is stepping away from leadership in this, his fifth decade on the job.

Mr. Hoyer, 83, the House majority leader, had his formative experiences as a Maryland congressman during an earlier era, when lawmakers were expected to manage at least a veneer of decorum and mutual respect, even as they waged their political and ideological battles.

As the culture of Capitol Hill transformed around him to something far rougher, Mr. Hoyer continued to be a model lawmaker: serious, pragmatic, conscientious, persistent, civil. Beyond his role as Nancy Pelosi’s second-in-command in the Democratic caucus for nearly 20 years, Mr. Hoyer has achieved big and consequential things, both for the nation and for his district in the D.C. suburbs. He has often done so in concert with Republican colleagues; some of his biggest legislative accomplishments were signed into law by GOP presidents.

That was the case for the Americans With Disabilities Act, a monumental civil rights bill, shepherded through the House by Mr. Hoyer, that established facilities and accommodations that have eased and enriched the daily lives of millions of Americans in tangible ways. At the time the bill was enacted with the signature of President George H.W. Bush in 1990, it was widely seen as almost radical. The law had a vast reach that altered the rules of the United States’ public architecture and outlawed discrimination against disabled individuals in schools, places of employment, transportation and elsewhere. Today much of it is taken for granted, including the features it made part of the landscape, such as sidewalk curb cuts for wheelchairs (not to mention baby strollers and bicycles).

As a leader of House Democrats, Mr. Hoyer has been a stalwart voice for fiscal responsibility, which has sometimes meant challenging an increasingly liberal caucus. He has argued against unaffordable, never-ending tax cuts and for trimming entitlement spending — for Social Security and Medicare — before a crisis materializes and cuts become unimaginably painful. When, in the midst of the debate over the Affordable Care Act, Ms. Pelosi and many other Democrats insisted on a “public option” — a government-created health plan, similar to Medicare, for those who lacked employer-provided benefits — Mr. Hoyer demurred. “I’m for a public option, but I’m also for passing a bill,” he said. The Affordable Care Act became law with no public option.

He has also been a tireless champion for Maryland’s 5th Congressional District, which he has served since 1981. Under his wing, Metro’s Green Line got built; the University of Maryland expanded and thrived; and Naval Air Station Patuxent River grew to encompass more than 17,000 active-duty service members, civil servants, defense contractors and military dependents. His constituents have repaid the favor. In the 22 congressional races he has won, just one Republican challenger managed to come within 10 percentage points. That was Larry Hogan, now Maryland’s governor, in 1992.

Mr. Hoyer, easily reelected this month, plans to stay in House for the coming term — thereby continuing his tenure as a credit to Congress, and to the country.

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