What is the state of our union? Asked to appraise the country using a single word, Americans have recently chosen to describe it as “awful,” “chaotic,” and a “mess.” Republicans still experiencing a case of the vapors from Sunday’s Grammy Awards might reach for “evil” or even “demonic.” When he addresses a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, President Joe Biden will — if he’s anything like other every president of the last 35 years — stick with an old standby, deeming it “strong.” But for Rep. Delia Ramirez, freshman congresswoman hailing from Illinois’ 4th district, the only way to describe the state of our union today is “complicated.”
Ramirez, a member of the Working Families Party, will deliver the progressive response to Biden’s speech. “It’s not a rebuttal to the president,” she stresses. “He has delivered for working people on things like pharmaceutical prices, on infrastructure, electric vehicles … [But] it is our responsibility to always push for more.” And, on a night that functions as the unofficial kickoff to Biden’s 2024 re-election campaign — and with the president’s approval rating still stubbornly underwater — it’s a moment for progressives like Ramirez to remind the Democratic Party of its obligations to voters who want more than just an alternative to Trump.
“I can’t be a rubber stamp person that says ‘We’re doing an amazing job!’ And then watch people starve. That’s why I think its symbolic and critical that the American people tomorrow, hear someone that has lived their experiences every day, who knows what it’s like to be the wife of a DREAMer, to have a mother that’s a homecare worker on Medicaid, and a father that depends on his Social Security so that my parents can keep their home,” Ramirez says. “I represent everyday people. And that’s who they need to hear from to know that we have their back and we’re fighting for them, because I am fighting for them and I’m fighting for my family.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A new WaPo/ABC poll found 62 percent of U.S. adults say Biden has accomplished “not very much” or “little or nothing.” You’ve faulted the Democratic Party in the past for failing to show working people how they benefit from having Democrats in office. Where do you think that disconnect is? What should Democrats be doing?
The reality is that Democrats have delivered in many ways, to our best ability, these last two years. But to walk around, knocking on people’s doors, telling the American people “You are doing great!” — that would be an absolute disconnect with the reality of what people are experiencing.
We have to start by recognizing that people are hurting right now. People who have a mortgage are struggling between the mortgage and health care coverage. People who are renting are so scared that the cost of their lease is going up, and that the fear of the rent doubling is coupled with their light bill going up. People are thankful that, in some cases, we have been able to cancel up to $20,000 of student debt. But a lot of people have said to me, “I still have $45,000. I still want to go back to school. I can’t afford it.” We’ve done some good work, but we have so much more to do.
What do you think the Biden administration could be doing today to ease the burden of student loan debt?
Call me a radical crazy lefty, but I think what we should all be talking about is getting to a place where we cancel all student debt, and recognize that by canceling student debt we are addressing the issue of inflation in the economy because we are giving people a fresh start. But while we are addressing the debt we have, we have to talk about how we, in the richest country in the world, can provide real access for all people to be able to enter higher education. That means, to me, we should have free college.
But, the second thing we have to recognize is: a number of people don’t want to go to a four-year university anymore — because it’s too expensive, because they want a job that’s going to help them begin generating a pension. People want to be able to go into a field where they’re able to, hopefully, retire at 55 and 60, unlike most Americans who are in their 70s and still can’t afford to retire with dignity.
Last week, a coalition of nine states asked the government to end DACA protections for Dreamers. Your husband is a DACA recipient. What has it been like for you both to live with the stress and uncertainty as this program remains in legal limbo?
It’s been emotional. Being a congresswoman, I have privileges that my friends and people in my district don’t have access to, and even with that, we are in the midst of a process for his DACA renewal that’s taking too darn long. I’m hearing calls from constituents who are saying, “I submitted my DACA renewal four months ago, and I still have no response. I lost my job because my work authorization expired.” It becomes paralyzing for people. It’s so draining. And it’s unacceptable because neither party has delivered a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.
Two years ago, my husband said to me, right before the election, “Why go through the adjustment status process? That takes so long, it’s so expensive. Let’s just wait until Democrats take the White House because I am convinced that if they do, there will be an executive action that will create a pathway to citizenship for those of us who have lived here almost all our lives.” How do I look into his eyes and tell him, “Oh, honey, I don’t think it’s gonna be that easy”? You know what I did instead? I said, “Okay,” and then I heard about it for about a month, how my party isn’t delivering. So it’s really personal. That is, in part, why I’m here. We need people like me who live these experiences every single day. That is why it is so important that a Democrat like me deliver a response to the Democratic president, affirming the experiences that everyday people are living right now.
Is Biden capable of doing that? Do you think he should run for reelection next year?
It’s a tough question. I think it’s a little too soon for me to be able to tell you if I think he should be running for reelection or not. What I know is that it is so important to partner with Congress and to partner with people who have lived this experience, like members of the Working Families Party in Congress.
The reason why it is so difficult for me is because I keep thinking — and a big number of us keep thinking — what will we be doing in Congress to take back the House? Things would have been different [if not for a few races in] New York, or in Florida. So taking back the House, to me, feels like the absolute priority. Without doing that, in some ways, it feels like the White House becomes secondary.
That slim Republican majority has already made this session of Congress one of the most dysfunctional in recent memory. What has your experience been like so far? How are members feeling that dysfunction?
We knew that it would be chaotic right from the start when it took us almost four days to get sworn in because the Speaker couldn’t get his votes. He just kept negotiating, and making deals, even if those deals overlapped with another deal. It’s only by a couple votes that we don’t have the majority. It’s mind boggling, infuriating.
There are a number of Republicans — not a big number — that really understand that there is some real impact on the constituents they serve as it pertains to Social Security, Medicare, and other social service benefits. They too have people who, without [those benefits], will be living in extreme poverty and could possibly die. Unfortunately, it is the thing that they want to hold over the president. I think there are ways to work together.
[But] what I just saw, with Rep. Ilhan Omar, on Friday, was [Republican] members on the side talking about how unacceptable that was, that she shouldn’t be removed, minutes before the vote, and saying they were going to vote ‘No’ on her removal. Yet, somehow, they’re strong-armed by their leadership not to live on their values but to do what they’re told.
This issue of committee assignments has already been a big sticking point in this Congress. Marjorie Taylor Greene, for instance, who was previously stripped of her assignments, is sitting on the Homeland Security Committee with you. Do you think she should be on the committee?
Of course not. And I don’t think she should be on Oversight, but these were the deals that were cut in order for her to give her vote to Kevin McCarthy. That speaks of hypocrisy, and the threat to our democracy and to the American people that that side of the aisle is willing to [pose], just to get a darn vote for a title that really doesn’t make that much power.
Based on your experience in Congress so far, what is your biggest fear about the debt ceiling fight looming on the horizon?
There should be no negotiation on Social Security, on Medicare, on the essential programs. What I’m really worried about on the Republican side, is that they’ll say, ‘Okay, no cuts to Social Security and Medicare, but that housing relief that we’ve been providing, the mortgage assistance? Yeah, we’re gonna cut that.’ When it comes to health care? ‘We’ll protect this, but let’s cut that.’ And the list goes on: childcare, senior care. I’ll say this loud and clear: There should be no negotiation in cutting vital services that keep people alive. If we are a government that aspires to give people the ability to thrive, then “barely surviving” — which is what people often feel like — is unacceptable.