Louisa Terrell, White House director of the office of legislative affairs, is the tip of the spear of Biden’s team as she fulfills one of the most difficult jobs in a deeply divided political landscape.
n the early days of the Biden administration members of the new president’s White House legislative affairs team had a meet-and-greet with Senate Republicans’ chiefs of staff. At the head of this Democratic delegation was Louisa Terrell, Biden’s White House director of the office of legislative affairs.
Terrell, speaking to the audience of powerful Republican aides, laid out how she worked. She felt even in these politically polarized times compromise should be pursued. They wouldn’t agree on everything, but there were deals to be had. At the same time Terrell said, according to four sources with knowledge of this meeting, her team had a job to do and planned to do it.
Terrell’s speech illustrated how she is the tip of the spear of the Biden administration’s team as she fulfills one of the most difficult jobs in America’s deeply divided political landscape: Biden’s congressional fixer and legislative guide. Terrell is the leader of the team that takes a proposal from the White House and shepherds it through the winding and sometimes narrow halls of Congress so it can get back to the president’s desk to become law. She is the person who aims to get things done and who is in charge of ushering policy proposals through the congressional maze.
During his presidential campaign and, essentially, through the moment he stepped into the Oval Office as president, Joe Biden has argued that big bipartisan deals are worth pursuing and possible even now. Biden, a multi-decade veteran of the Senate, has argued his roots into both parties in Congress run deep and can produce expansive bipartisan deals.
Enter Terrell, a longtime Biden hand and former chief of staff to senators whose résumé also includes stints at some of the most establishment corners of the modern American economy – McKinsey & Company, Yahoo and Facebook among others. She may not have much of a public profile outside Washington’s corridors of power, but inside Terrell is a vital player. She has been in the room at the most pivotal moments of the major legislative initiatives during the Biden administration.
Terrell’s ties to Biden run deep, all the way back to her youth in Delaware. She did a stint as the executive director of the Biden Foundation and served as a senior adviser and director of congressional engagement for Biden’s presidential transition fund. She is a graduate of Tufts University and Boston College’s law school.
Terrell is famous around Washington DC for her effectiveness and agreeability – among Republicans and Democrats – even as she has climbed to the highest ranks of congressional power. She is one of the small elite group of Biden aides who have been going back and forth between the White House and the halls of Congress, meeting with lawmakers at some of the tensest moments of major negotiations on Covid-19 aid or, more recently, infrastructure.
“Her job is shuttle diplomacy and so she works on both sides of the equation,” said Tom Wheeler, who served as the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission when Terrell was there.
Terrell, in a rare interview with the Guardian, was realistic about finding compromise and bipartisan deals. The infrastructure bill passed but that’s more an example of the exception that proves the rule. Congress has been paralyzed by rank partisanship for years. It’s more normal for even the most seemingly commonsense policy proposals to get stuck in the morass of Capitol Hill legislating.
“You gotta be realistic. There are places where there are synergies and there are places where we’re just going to agree to disagree, so let’s just look around in the backyard and see if there are some things that we can work on,” Terrell said. “And if we can’t let’s just keep staying in touch and make sure you’re getting what you need from the agencies as you do your work. There are lots of ways of engaging even if you’re not trying to dig through a really hard policy issue.”
Senators and staffers, both Republican and Democratic, are quick to note that the Biden administration’s outreach to the Hill is noticeably different than the last two administrations.
It’s not that everyone gets what they want but lawmakers and their aides say they feel more in touch with this White House. That’s in contrast to the last two administrations. The Donald Trump administration is viewed as textbook disorganized and incapable of even the most basic congressional outreach.
“I don’t think I ever knew what was from the Trump White House,” quipped Senator Mark Warner of Virginia of that administration’s legislative affairs team.
But Democrats also say, at times, they found the Barack Obama administration’s outreach lacking.
Source: The Guardian, Louisa Terrell, right, the White House legislative affairs director, arrives at a bipartisan infrastructure meeting in Washington DC on 22 June. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images