Luisa and Rosa DeLauro

Big smiles last week from Heaven’s Hall of Fame for prominent Italian Americans.

Surely the biggest was from Luisa DeLauro. She died three years ago at age 103 after an amazing life which included working in New Haven’s sweatshops as a youngster and then serving for decades on the New Haven City Council.

Toby Moffet

Last week her daughter, Congresswoman Rosa Delauro, became the  first Connecticut member ever to chair the powerful House Appropriations Committee. In fact, since the panel was created in 1845, only one New Englander has led it, a Massachusetts lawmaker who was chairman for two years in the mid-1800s.

Also peering down approvingly from his celestial perch was former U.S. Rep. Bob Giaimo who represented the New Haven area for more than 20 years.

Giaimo was the chairman-in-waiting on Appropriations for decades but never got to lead the committee. In those days, the conservative southern Democrats had a simple rule for keeping a chairmanship once they had it: “till death do us part.”

Congresswoman Delauro has been waiting too. She’s been in the House for 30 years.  But, unlike Giaimo, she benefited from rules changes requiring an election for a new chair. She beat two other Appropriations members, both formidable challengers.

Since Democrats regained the majority in 2019, she has chaired the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services.   That panel controls spending for most of the country’s non-defense budget.     It was a natural for DeLauro, given her focus on social service programs, especially those for children, particularly poor ones.

But her performance ten years earlier, when she chaired a different subcommittee, might be more relevant as to how she’ll lead the full committee now.  Beginning in 2007, she chaired the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture and Rural Development.   Not a perfect fit for one who grew up in the Wooster Square area. But Rosa, as chairwoman, became an expert on complicated issues like farm credit, commodity prices and rural electrification. She won broad respect stretching from farm advocates to champions of the school lunch program.

She’s never met a learning curve she didn’t relish taking on. A little more than a year ago, she convened a dinner discussion with Steve Coan, the CEO of Mystic Aquarium and a handful of others. For nearly three hours, they discussed ocean conservation,  the impact of climate change on Long Island Sound and STEM education on oceans issues for disadvantaged children.  The congresswoman was looking for new ideas on how federal spending could be more impactful in those areas.

The committee she’s about to run has massive reach into every government department, agency, nook and cranny.  It oversees roughly $1.4 trillion in spending. There’s a reason that even the subcommittee chairs are respectfully called “cardinals” by their colleagues.

There’s already plenty of conjecture —and optimism— about how the chairwoman’s new role  might benefit Connecticut.  All states are hurting, and it will only get worse in the months ahead.    Rosa will naturally look for ways to help her home state, but she now has the whole country’s priorities to fund.  What might we expect?

Of course, Rosa will be attentive to Connecticut institutions –colleges and universities, public and private schools, museums and tourist attractions.  She’ll fight for subsidies for hard-hit sectors such as restaurants. And for unemployed workers who need a boost to get back in the job market.

But, given her track record, her attention will always be tilted towards those who have lost the most or those who have never had a real opportunity.  In other words, those with the least political power.

Just look at what her focus has been in these past couple of weeks, before and after she wrapped up the chairmanship. She chaired a hearing on why poor pregnant women are being denied abortions that more well-to-do women have no trouble getting. She called it addressing the “racist” foundation of the “Hyde Amendment” prohibiting federal funding for poor women’s right to choose.

She then turned to attacking the Trump administration’s cruelty in denying mental health services to immigrant families that were brutally separated at the border.

There is no reason to expect her sense of outrage and the tough questions it produces to subside now. With more political power, she’ll be more adamant about addressing threats to the most vulnerable of our citizens, even if it means she is less politically secure.

In 1933, a young woman, a descendant of Italian immigrants,  presciently wrote in a Democratic Party newsletter, “We are not living in the Middle Ages when a woman’s position was merely to serve a master in a home.”  Luisa Delauro continued with this exhortation: “Come on girls!  Let’s make ourselves heard!”

Rest in peace Luisa.  Your daughter is carrying on.

Toby Moffett is a former member of the Congress from Connecticut.

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