OPINION: Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux went up against Nancy Pelosi. Was it worth it? ‘Yes’

U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux talks during a press conference flanked by Gwinnett County Commissioner Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson (L) and County Community Improvement District Director Joe Allen (R) at the Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Combined ShapeCaption
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux talks during a press conference flanked by Gwinnett County Commissioner Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson (L) and County Community Improvement District Director Joe Allen (R) at the Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Who would have predicted when U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux flipped the 7th Congressional District from Republican-to-Democrat just eight months ago that the no-frills, first-term budget wonk would soon be at the center of a Democratic family feud as she was this week?

But there she was, featured in the Washington Post Monday morning with a band of moderate House Democratic rebels, writing an op-ed titled, “Let’s take the win. Do infrastructure first.”

Together, the group was threatening to withhold their votes from a triple-decker package of bills bundled together by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to move a Senate-passed $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, a $3.5 trillion budget framework, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act all at once.

Bourdeaux and the moderates accused Pelosi and fellow Democrats of holding the infrastructure bill “hostage” in exchange for momentum on a massive budget measure.

In response, a Washington Post writer dubbed Bourdeaux and the other eight the “the Sabotage Squad.”

Back home in Georgia, a group of a dozen progressive groups that had campaigned for Bourdeaux in 2020 fired off an open letter telling her to “vote yes in the interest of your constituents, particularly the Black and brown voters who secured your seat in Congress.”

In the end, Bourdeaux and the rest of the rebels voted yes for a different measure Tuesday, which moved the three packages forward, but also guaranteed a final vote for the infrastructure bill, which Bourdeaux said in an interview between House votes was her primary goal all along.

You certainly can’t accuse Bourdeaux of playing politics on this one, because the political upside for her is not at all clear.

The details of the legislative maneuver she opposed are so arcane, with budget implications so complex, that there is not an ad firm on Earth that can likely make most voters know, or even care about, the details of what she did and why she did it.

Bourdeaux’s totally logical reasons for gumming up the works aren’t likely to go viral, either. But they are logical nonetheless.

The larger budget bill, she said, needs time to get right.

“We need to work it through a process so that we can come up with a series of reasoned policy proposals that we put before the American people,” she said.

On the other hand, the infrastructure bill is ready for a vote.

“It is done and I don’t want the consensus around the bipartisan bill to fall apart while we’re working on this other piece of legislation.”

The entire episode was politically dicey, visually messy, and more than a little refreshing after years of top-down legislating from both parties in Washington.

By signing onto an effort that bucked Pelosi and made other Democrats so furious that a senior member shouted in a meeting Monday night, “You all have to vote for the goddamn rule,” Bourdeaux also showed a bolder instinct than she’s been given credit for.

“If you go look at what I ran on — being bipartisan, being fiscally responsible, but also addressing COVID and the economy and tackling our needs, the bipartisan infrastructure bill, checks, a lot of those boxes,” she said. “It is a really good bill for us in the district.”

Whether defying Pelosi, even for a few days, will help or hurt Bourdeaux’s chances of reelection next year is hard to say, and that’s what makes her moves this week so unusual in today’s Washington.

Not only does she not know what the electorate in Georgia will look like in an off-year election, she won’t even know what her district will look like until Republicans finish redrawing the political maps later this year. Guessing how those voters will feel about her vote today is almost impossible.

But taking a stand against the flawed Congressional budget process is consistent with who Bourdeaux was before she got into politics.

Along with being the director of the Georgia Senate Budget and Evaluation Office, where the state was legally obligated to balance the budget, she was later a professor of public management and policy at Georgia State University.

For someone used to teaching students how government is supposed to work, it might have been jarring to arrive in Congress to see the budget process that the government has actually devolved to.

But the fact that it became messy in the process was no surprise.

“I’ve worked on budgets during the Great Recession, where we were involved in very, very intense negotiations, and this felt quite similar to that,” she said.

Republicans called the modified package that moved forward Tuesday “smoke and mirrors” and “a trillion-dollar boondoggle” that even Democratic voters don’t want.

Those are the kind of sound bites that are more likely to break through in a campaign. But Bourdeaux said the horse-trading she signed on to made for better legislation in the end.

Was it worth it? “Yes.”

“I can’t predict what the future will hold. I am just trying to accomplish the very priorities that I laid out when I ran for office-- being bipartisan being fiscally responsible- and just trying to get them done on behalf of people in the Seventh District.”

It’s almost a gamble to try to live up to promises like that these days, especially the one about being bipartisan. But that’s the gamble Bourdeaux took anyway.