‘Totally overwhelming.’ KY’s sole progressive in DC on big plans, newfound power and pot

This article was originally posted by Linda Blackford on the Herald-Leader.

As the only Democrat in Kentucky’s Congressional delegation — and a progressive one at that — U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville has spent a lot of time shouting into the wind. Guns, climate change, minimum wage, over the years, he’s worked on a lot of causes that haven’t gotten very far.

Then just 50 days after President Joe Biden was elected, Yarmuth, as chair of the House Budget Committee, organized, shepherded, even wrangled the biggest piece of legislation the United States has seen in years: The American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that aims to do much, much more.

“It’s been totally overwhelming,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I’ve said to many people that it’s the best thing in my life in terms of anything I’ve done professionally. There’s nothing even close to that — the knowledge you’re affecting the lives of so many millions of the people, pulling half the kids in poverty out of poverty with this bill, so much money going to state and local governments, many of which desperately need it.”

He laughed at some GOP descriptions of the bill as a “Blue State Buyout,” given that Kentucky as the reddest of states will benefit so much. Four million Kentuckians will receive a check; parents of one million Kentucky children will receive direct aid every month.

“I had concluded we were incapable of doing anything this consequential,” he said.

Biden has surprised him, along with many others.

“I have to say I am surprised at the degree to which he appears to want to be transformative,” Yarmuth said. “I knew he had certain progressive instincts but I didn’t think he would be this ambitious. I think he really senses the urgency to do certain things, like climate change and immigration.”

Now Yarmuth will start working on the 2022 budget, which will include some of Biden’s big infrastructure and climate plans. But other big issues may depend on what Democrats decide to do with the Senate filibuster. Yarmuth and his colleague, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell traded snarky editorials in the Courier-Journal last week on the topic. Yarmuth said the filibuster’s end would be McConnell’s “kryptonite;” McConnell said it would stop Yarmuth’s “radical ambitions.”

“The interesting thing about that is that in my 14 plus years in the House, I have criticized Mitch hundreds of times, and he’s never responded to me ever before,” Yarmuth said. “He’s worried because the filibuster is the source of his power.”

He predicts the Democrats will change the filibuster — which allows any Senator to object to legislation and require a 60-vote passage for victory — for certain types of legislation, rather than get rid of it altogether. For example, they could suspend it for “fundamental rights,” which might include the House voting rights act, but that would not work for minimum wage proposals.

“The minimum wage will be tougher because there’s not unanimity among Democrats,” he said.

Can there be any movement on gun control after yet another mass shooting?

“Only if they get rid of the filibuster.”


Yarmuth is now 73 and has no concrete plans for retirement, although “I certainly see the light at the end of the tunnel.” He has also heard rumors about being challenged in his next primary, possibly by state Rep. Attica Scott, D-Louisville, although Yarmuth said she told him she doesn’t plan a challenge. (Scott did not respond to a request for comment.)

A lot depends on redistricting, which Republicans will start on in the fall once they get Census numbers. Yarmuth said he saw one map sent out by the National Republican Congressional Committee that would cut his 3rd District up into three different ones, one that goes all the way in a narrow sliver down to Tennessee.

He sees the GOP majority as more tribal than political because when you poll Kentuckians on most issues except guns and abortions, they often agree with Democrats. “But right now, they identify with the Republican party, just like they identify with UK. It’s red jerseys versus blue jerseys.”

Trump at the top of the ballot skewed Kentucky’s state elections even more red; the 6th District race between Rep. Andy Barr and Josh Hicks, for example, polled much closer than it ended up being, he said.

Does transformative legislation like the American Rescue Plan end up being transformative politically on a statewide level? According to a Politico/Morning Consult poll, the American Rescue Plan was supported by 75 percent of Americans, including 55 percent of Trump voters and 59 percent of Republicans even though not one Republican in Congress vote for it.

But here’s what would change Kentucky politics forever, Yarmuth said: “I think the one way we can change politics is if we as a party come out for recreational marijuana. I think there are non-voters who would come out and vote for people who are for recreational marijuana.”

But he hopes minds will be changed by the enormous relief in the American Rescue Plan, and other big projects from the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats aimed at jobs and economic inequality.

“Republicans have done a great job since the 1980s of convincing people that the federal government is worthless, that it can’t do anything for them,” he said. “If we do three or four big things, and say ‘it really does make a difference who you elect’ … If you can show government can work to help people, then we’d have a chance.”

Rep. John Yarmuth D-Louisville. TIMOTHY D. EASLEY AP