Ask Washington lawmakers what they think of Rep. Joseph Crowley and they’ll use words such as "funny," "kind," "helpful," "good listener" and "loyal colleague."
Those aren’t bad things, especially on Capitol Hill, where sincerity and generosity are sometimes in short supply. And so far, these qualities have helped get the New York Democrat where he is today: vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, D-Mass., a sophomore congressman to whom Crowley has endeared himself in a short amount of time, said there was nothing wrong with being described as a “great friend, good guy, good legislator” — and there was more to him than that.
But if Crowley wants to secure a higher-profile leadership position down the road, he’ll have to show a larger audience that he has personality and policy expertise in equal parts.
That task starts now.
On Tuesday morning, Crowley is set to roll out a major policy proposal aimed at making it easier for Americans to save. He’ll do so at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the advocacy arm of a key progressive think tank.
The appearance is a center-stage moment for Crowley, giving the New York lawmaker a megaphone to promote an ambitious agenda — he's calling it “Building Better Savings, Building Brighter Futures" — with colleagues, constituents, party standard-bearers, political operatives and donors.
Crowley, who previewed details from the speech with CQ Roll Call recently, suggested he's been working toward Tuesday his entire political career.
“I think it’s an amalgamation of my time here, the relations I’ve built here, the respect I have, I think, with CAP,” he said. “It’s new, it’s exciting. It’s a new plateau.
“When does that moment happen for every legislator? I don’t know,” Crowley continued. “But it’s happening for me right now, being in elected leadership and using this opportunity as vice chair[man] to bring forth something that I care about.”
Crowley's proposal is aimed at encouraging Americans at every stage of life to save for college, retirement or for unforeseen expenses.
At the heart of the proposal is the “USAccount,” a fund to be set up automatically upon the birth of every child, each with a starting balance of $500. Families could make yearly deposits alongside government matching contributions, all going toward college tuition or ultimately a Roth-style savings account in the child's name.
Another component would permanently extend President Barack Obama’s “myRA” program, which provides individuals a way to save for the future even if they lack long-term planning flexibility.
A third element creates a universal pension plan to guarantee every U.S. employee has a low-risk vehicle to save for retirement and the final prong of the four-part plan deals with a series of initiatives to “defend and strengthen Social Security,” including fighting against the “chained" consumer price index that results in decreased benefit checks.
Crowley doesn’t think any of these principles will be new or surprising to colleagues; each is dyed in the deep blue wool that makes up the Democratic Party’s fabric.
Nor does he suspect fellow House Democrats will be startled that he's the man behind the proposals. His peers, Crowley said, know he's active on a number of substantive policy issues, from his perch on the Ways and Means Committee to his proficiency in foreign affairs.
“Giving a major policy speech for a major policy issue is something that is new for me,” Crowley said, “but not my work on issues of consequence. Whether it’s immigration reform, which I’ve been involved with since I came here in a very central and critical way for our caucus … providing contraception for women in college, health issues … my defense of the Affordable Care Act … I think my colleagues recognize the work I’ve done, that I’ve been engaged and respected.”
He said he believes colleagues see him as more than just the former chairman of the decidedly moderate New Democrat Coalition, which is now sometimes derided and marginalized by more progressive democrats.
Crowley insisted his legislative blueprint, a left-leaning vision to be unveiled at a left-leaning organization, was in no way an attempt to rebrand himself at a time when the Congressional Progressive Caucus makes up the largest contingent of House Democrats.
"I'm very proud of every phase that I've been through and role I've played in the House over the years," he said. "I'm very comfortable within my own skin and I feel very comfortable where I am within the Democratic Caucus. I'm a Democrat through and through."
Still, Crowley’s presentation comes at a time when people are paying closer attention to ambitious House Democrats who might be angling for new opportunities inside the party leadership structure, which is due for at least a modest sea change by the end of 2016.
By that time, Crowley will have finished his second and final term as vice chairman and he’ll undoubtedly be looking for his next job — as chairman of the full caucus or maybe something more. Any major initiative undertaken by Crowley or his counterparts is bound to draw the attention of political observers looking for signs of power moves.
Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., is now running for Senate to succeed retiring Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski. But before that announcement, his sweeping economic and tax overhaul proposal he rolled out — also at CAP — was being viewed as a way to position himself in the pecking order of ascendants to the senior ranks of House Democratic leadership.
Even Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., widely considered more likely than anyone else to directly succeed Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has gone off campus to cement his status as a thought leader, traveling to Third Way in March 2014 to deliver remarks on long-term fiscal sustainability.
Crowley wouldn't discuss what he wanted to do next. "I don't know what the future holds for me," he said. "What I can tell you is what I can control and what I do know, that I'm going to continue to work at 110 percent, that I'm gonna give it my all and let the future be what the future will be."
Where he does happen to be seeking buzz and chatter, however, is around the substance of the speech.
“It’s an opportunity for me to make a proposal to speak to a real crisis in America that needs to be addressed, that will resonate with my colleagues and most importantly will resonate with Democrats within Washington and beyond,” Crowley said. “I want to be thought provoking. I want this issue to be talked about. I want to hear the criticism. I want to hear the backslapping. I want to hear that very loudly!"
"This is part of what this is all about," he said. "Taking a risk is part of, I think, becoming a mature legislator and I’m OK with that."