Turlock native Josh Harder hosted an Election Night party on Nov. 8, 2016, complete with cookies in the shape of each U.S. state — treats that the Democrat planned to cover in both blue and red icing as state delegates reported their votes throughout the evening.
It was on that night, when eventually there were more red cookies than blue, that Harder decided he would run for office. The then-30-year-old announced in May 2017 that he would run against Incumbent Republican Jeff Denham to represent California’s 10th Congressional District, joining a crowd of challengers who also sought change.
Twenty months, one grueling campaign and a flipped district later, Harder took the oath of office on Thursday to begin his term in the 116th Congress with his wife, mother, father and brother by his side.
“It feels good, and it’s pretty humbling to be part of such a historic Congress,” Harder said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C., on Thursday.
Harder joins the most diverse Congress ever, and the group also holds the record for most women to have served. What stands out the most to Harder, he said, is the number of first-time politicians.
“These are people who never ran for office ever before, but ran because they were frustrated by something happening in their community. I think above all else that gives me a lot of hope because it means people elected in this Congress — people like me — were not elected because this was their age-old dream to be in this institution, people were elected because they wanted to get stuff done,” Harder said.
Now, Harder added, he and other Congressional freshmen finally have that opportunity. Things got started quickly for Harder on Thursday, as he and the rest of the House voted to elect Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House and passed a rules package that has sparked debate between some Democrats and a few of their more-progressive counterparts.
A pay-as-you-go provision in the rules, known as PAYGO, was opposed by a small group of progressives — three of whom voted against the package: Reps. Ro Khanna of California, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. PAYGO requires legislation that would increase the deficit to be offset by spending cuts or revenue increases, and many progressives feel the provision will interfere with their goals of passing costly legislation like a “Medicare for All” program or free college.
According to Harder, who voted to approve the rules package, he has had conversations with Democratic leadership who assure him there are ways to waive the provision and that it would not “handcuff” the government from passing any bills. However, he does believe that if new bills are being passed, the House should make sure there is adequate funding.
“The principle behind PAYGO is to make sure we’re paying for any new bill that comes up, and I’ve heard a lot of concerns from my constituents who are frustrated by that provision because they feel like it unnecessarily handicaps the government,” Harder said. “The Republicans had a much stricter provision when they were in charge and they ended up not even using it when they passed the tax cut — they totally waived it.
“The reality is, these rules are more stated principle.”
After electing Pelosi and passing the rules package, Harder and Congress got to work later that day to end the partial government shutdown, which was in its 13th day at the time. House Democrats approved legislation that both rejected President Donald Trump’s demand for $5 billion in new border wall funding and would reopen other shuttered parts of the federal government via six, full-year spending bills.
While the key argument in the shutdown battle has been funding for border security, Harder believes the border will be most secure once the government is up and running again.
“It’s pretty shocking to me that some folks want to keep our government closed and keep not paying our border agents, all in the name of border security,” he said. “I think if you really care about keeping our border secure, you should be making sure that the people who are doing that are getting their paychecks and aren’t having to worry about where their next rent check is going to come from.”
Despite the House’s action on Thursday, there is no end to the shutdown in sight. The White House issued a veto threat ahead of the vote, and Pelosi said Democrats don’t plan to budge from their refusal to provide wall funding.
On Friday, Harder became a co-sponsor to the first piece of major legislation undertaken by the new Congress which aims to keep dark money out of politics while strengthening voting rights and instilling stronger codes of ethical conduct in Congress.
Harder called H.R. 1, known as the For the People Act, “ambitious,” but said it was what the moment calls for as the “corrupting influence of big money in politics has been the single biggest obstacle in getting things done.”
The For the People Act would require Super PACs and other dark money organizations to disclose their donors and establish a public matching system for citizen-owned elections. It would also expand conflict-of-interest rules, close loopholes on lobbyists and foreign agents and institute tougher standards on members of Congress serving on boards and working as lobbyists. Automatic voter registration would also be instituted under the bill, election protection rules would be modernized and partisan re-districting could be reversed.
“It’s what the Central Valley deserves,” Harder said. “Because at the end of every day, our democracy should be open to every American.”
Despite his first days in office taking place in the midst of a shutdown, Harder said that the transition into public office has been enjoyable. He still lives in Turlock, he emphasized, and will be staying home in the District as often as his new job allows.
“My goal is to stay as close to the community that elected me as I can,” Harder said, pointing out complaints from constituents when Denham was in office that the Congressman wasn’t accessible enough. “I don’t want to make that same mistake — I want to make sure that I’m showing up and listening to people, and we’re going to do that pretty continually.”
He has learned a lot during just two days in Congress, he added, like the fact that accomplishing even the simplest things in government takes time. Looking ahead, it’s likely something he will have to keep in mind as the government shutdown continues.
“It’s been a lot of fun getting to know this new class, and I’m looking forward to getting the government moving again,” he said.