WASHINGTON — Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation was quite different when U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle arrived on Capitol Hill as a Democratic freshman back in 1995.
Pennsylvania’s 21 U.S. House members and two senators were men. Nearly half of the state’s congressional delegation had been in office for a decade or more.
Democrat Bill Clinton was in the White House, but the Gingrich Revolution of 1994 swept the GOP into control of the House for the first time in 40 years, catapulting some of Pennsylvania’s veteran Republican lawmakers into leadership positions.
Republican Rep. Bud Shuster took over as chairman of the coveted House Transportation Committee; Rep. Bob Walker took the gavel of the Science Committee.
Doyle got some advice from the late Rep. John P. Murtha, who had represented Pennsylvania on Capitol Hill since 1974 and was the delegation’s senior Democrat in 1995.
“He told me to find out what your passion was or what your interests were, and to try to become the expert at that,” Doyle, D-18th District, said in a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office.
Murtha, who died in 2010, was the “go-to guy on defense,” Doyle said. Murtha had been the chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee and had a military background. “He was highly respected in both parties as someone that if you wanted advice on the military, you go back to the Pennsylvania corner and sit with Jack Murtha.”
The veteran lawmaker also told Doyle to sit on the House floor and pay close attention to the nuances of parliamentary procedure. “Because once you master that, he said, then when it’s your turn to carry a bill or to speak on the floor, you’ll understand all the things you need to know.”
Doyle, 65, has assumed the role of dean — or longest-serving lawmaker — in the Pennsylvania delegation. He’s landed the committee slot he coveted from the start — a seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, where he’s now chairman of a subcommittee on communications and technology.
Earlier this year, the House approved major legislation from Doyle that seeks to reinstate Obama-era net neutrality rules that prevent internet service providers from meddling with web traffic. He’s also used his leadership slot to advance efforts to cut down on robocalls and expand broadband access.
In his district, which encompasses Pittsburgh and surrounding areas, Doyle said workforce development is a top priority. “Pittsburgh was a one-horse town back when I was a kid and steel was it,” he said. “We’ve made this transition to a very diverse economy now that still includes manufacturing.” He said he’s focused on training workers for the new economy and alleviating “some of that fear that they have that somehow they’re going to be left behind, when a lot of these jobs don’t require a computer science degree.”
‘A much younger delegation’
On Capitol Hill, it’s now Doyle’s turn to dish out advice to the rookies.
Pennsylvania’s new delegation of 18 U.S. House members includes eight freshmen — four Democrats and four Republicans — and another relative newcomer in 17th District: Rep. Conor Lamb, who won a special election in early 2018 before winning a full term in November.
Only two other Pennsylvania lawmakers now serving with Doyle have been in the U.S. House for more than a decade — Republican Reps. Glenn “GT” Thompson, of north-central Pennsylvania’s 15th District, and Mike Kelly, in northwestern Pennsylvania’s 16th District.
“It is a much younger delegation than the one that I stepped into when I first got elected,” Doyle said.
All four of the Democratic freshmen are women, marking the first time that Pennsylvania has been represented by more than two women in the U.S. House at the same time.
“They’re all very dynamic women and they’re doing a great job,” Doyle said. “I’m really proud of our freshman delegation.”
He’s given them the same advice that he got from Murtha back in 1995. He noted that they’ve snagged “great committee assignments coming out of the box,” with Reps. Mary Gay Scanlon and Madeleine Dean on the Judiciary Committee, Scanlon on the powerful Rules Committee, Chrissy Houlahan on the Armed Services Committee, and Susan Wild on the Education and Labor Committee.
Doyle said he also helped secure seats for veteran Democratic Reps. Dwight Evans and Brendan Boyle on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, the House’s chief tax-writing panel. The two lawmakers respectively represent the Philadelphia-based 3rd and 2nd House districts.
“I was pretty proud of my ability to negotiate with the speaker to get two people on the Ways and Means Committee,” he said.
Murtha used to have a rule that “if we were ever stuck here on a Friday, that he would pick up breakfast at the members’ dining room” for the Pennsylvania delegation, Doyle said.
The new delegation still gets together, sometimes informally, he said. And they’ve tried to have some bipartisan meetings, too, “because there’s a lot of issues that affect Pennsylvania that aren’t really Democratic or Republican issues.”
For the most part, “our delegation gets along pretty well,” Doyle added. He called Thompson, the dean of the House Republicans, a good friend.
Pennsylvania’s bipartisan collegiality goes back to the days of Murtha, Shuster, and longtime Republican Rep. Joe McDade, Doyle said.
“It was a different era back then.”
‘Nobody can be elected president if they can’t win Pennsylvania’
As Doyle spoke to the Capital-Star, a muted television in his office broadcast an intense debate on the House floor over whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., could accuse President Donald Trump of making racist remarks.
It was just the latest bitter partisan battle to play out in the chamber as the newly empowered Democratic majority has gone to war against Trump’s White House.
Doyle is among the dozens of House Democrats on the record advocating for the chamber to launch an impeachment inquiry against the president.
“I didn’t initially sign on to do that,” he said. “What was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me was when the administration started to tell people not to give access to documents to our committees and to ignore subpoenas.”
Doyle hasn’t met the president personally. “It’s not high on my bucket list,” he said.
Doyle has served under four presidents since he entered the House: two Democrats and two Republicans.
“This is different,” he said of Trump. “He’s not a Republican, he’s certainly not a Democrat. He’s a narcissist. He’s in the Trump party and he has co-opted the Republican Party. They, for better or for worse, have hitched their wagon to him and they realize they can’t dump him now. They’ve just got to go on this wild ride with him, and I guess we’ll see where it takes them.”
Pennsylvania helped put Trump in the White House in 2016, supporting a Republican in a presidential election for the first time since it buoyed George H. W. Bush in 1988.
Doyle thinks Pennsylvania will go blue again in 2020, but not if Democrats run like they did in 2016.
“When I think of the last election, the current president spoke to some of the economic anxiety that people were feeling in parts of Pennsylvania and parts of Ohio and Michigan and Wisconsin, and I think unfortunately our candidate didn’t speak to those issues,” he said.
“We’re not going to win by simply criticizing the president. Everybody knows what this guy is. If you don’t have an opinion about him by now, you’re like on a different planet. I think they want to know: What are you going to do? What’s your administration going to do for my family? We as Democrats better not forget that.”
Doyle hopes that whoever the Democratic nominee is will focus on kitchen-table issues, like jobs, Social Security, and health care.
“We have several candidates I think that are very, very capable of doing just that,” he said. “I think if they do that, Pennsylvania’s ready to come back.”
He pointed to Gov. Tom Wolf’s double-digit re-election in 2018 and House Democrats’ gains in the 2018 elections.
The state will be critical, he said. “Nobody can be elected president if they can’t win Pennsylvania.”