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Monday, April 12, 2021

Rep. Rosa DeLauro Opens 24th Liman Colloquium with Tutorial on Making Change

Rep. Rosa DeLauro

Rep. Rosa DeLauro gave Liman Fellows guidance on bringing about a fairer world when she launched the 24th Annual Liman Public Interest Colloquium with a wide-ranging conversation on April 8, 2021.

DeLauro, who has represented Connecticut’s 3rd Congressional District since 1990 and currently chairs the House Appropriations Committee, spoke from her kitchen in New Haven via Zoom. Leading the discussion from Yale Law School was Judith Resnik, Arthur Liman Professor and the Center’s Founding Director. Some 20 Liman Fellows around the country joined them from locations including California, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawai’i, Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, and Washington, D.C. Fellows’ questions to DeLauro reflected their knowledge on topics such as housing insecurity, discrimination, environmental law, immigration, and criminal justice.

Rosa DeLauro
Rep. Rosa DeLauro launched the 24th Annual Liman Colloquium.

Law School Dean Heather Gerken welcomed DeLauro to Yale and called her “proof of what we can do when we don’t shy away from a challenge and refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer.”

DeLauro recently scored a long-fought victory when the Senate enacted a major one-year expansion of the Child Tax Credit, which analysts say has the potential to cut child poverty rates in half this year. DeLauro has championed the credit since 2003 and her goal is to make it permanent. Among DeLauro’s many fans is President Joe Biden, who when speaking about the tax credit, said that people should “listen to Rosa.” Introducing DeLauro, Resnik invited viewers to do the same.

The Child Tax Credit is just one example of DeLauro working to lift families out of poverty, Resnik said. She highlighted a pending bill of co-sponsored by DeLauro and Barbara Lee, the End Diaper Need Act of 2021. This legislation aims to develop pilot diaper distribution programs for families in need. Diapers, which are not covered by Medicaid or other food stamps, can cost families more than $1,100 per year. Most child care centers require families to supply diapers, which means families who can’t afford them also cannot go to work.

The bill has New Haven roots and a Liman connection, Resnik explained. Joanne Goldblum, now CEO of the National Diaper Bank Network, founded the New Haven Diaper Bank from her home. In 2010, the Liman Center joined the bank and the law firm Wiggin and Dana to co-host a conference, “Diaper Rights: Heath, Hygiene and Public Policy.” DeLauro introduced the first diaper bill soon thereafter.

Resnik said the bill is illustrative of DeLauro “working on the ground and seeing the big picture.”

Listeners got a sense of that on-the-ground approach when Mary Ella Simmons ’20, a Liman Fellow with the Orleans Public Defenders, asked DeLauro how to develop public policy, especially around poverty. Specifically, Simmons wanted to know how DeLauro learns what issues are important to people in poverty and how she knows she is effectively addressing those issues. DeLauro’s answer was, in short, that she listens.

“If you don’t have your ear to the ground, you’re not going to be around very long in Congress,” the veteran congresswoman said.

DeLauro described her weekend schedule, which she said is spent visiting people throughout her district, and the “case work” of her office. That includes many calls her office gets on topics from ranging from wage theft to domestic violence.

“Legislation doesn’t come out of my head but from listening and understanding the problems people are facing today,” DeLauro said.

She added that the extension of COBRA benefits in the American Rescue Plan Act is a concrete example of a response to an issue that constituents had raised.

DeLauro gave listeners an insider’s account of the legislative process when Liman Fellow Kelley Schiffman ’18 asked her to describe in real terms how legislation gets passed. Schiffman, like several other fellows, is working to make changes through legislation at the local level. She explained that she has been trying to understand certain practical realities for months “and I'm not sure I understand…any better now than I did at the start.”

“You have to have tenacity,” DeLauro said, adding that change won’t happen overnight.

DeLauro said getting legislation passed is a matter of knowing your legislation’s strengths, its opposition, and its supporters. Building coalitions is key, she noted.

DeLauro used as an example the Paycheck Fairness Act of 1997, which authorizes lawsuits when people allege that they are not paid equally for equal work. She was told that the lack of a cap on damages was keeping some Congress members from supporting the bill.

“I said, ‘Give me the weekend. I’ll find out what we have,’” she recalled.

DeLauro recounted how she then called 200 members of the Democratic caucus. She found that, at least for some, the proposed bill’s lack of a cap on damages wasn’t the problem. Talking with her colleagues, she learned that some legislators were concerned about the bill’s impact on small businesses. In response, supporters revised the bill to address concerns of those constituents, and the legislation passed.

“Don’t be afraid of opposition,” DeLauro said. “If you have enough allies, you’ll get it through.”

DeLauro also invited input from Fellows to develop legislation.

John Giammatteo ’17, a 2019–2020 Liman Fellow (and now a Catalyst Fellow) at Lutheran Social Services of New York representing asylum seekers, described how steep immigration fees have been used against his clients. He asked how the House Appropriations Committee might prevent future administrations from raising fees again to the detriment of immigrants.

A follow-up question about immigration fees came from Joanne Lee ’18, who represents undocumented immigrants who have experienced domestic violence. Lee started this work as Liman Fellows at Gulf Coast Legal Services in Florida and is continuing it as a supervising attorney there. Lee said waivers that used to be routinely granted now require a labor-intensive process and extensive documentation. That process is particularly challenging for people experiencing domestic violence because abusers often withhold needed paperwork, she explained. Lee estimates that a quarter of her time is now spent on fee waiver applications.

“Let’s see if we can translate this into legislation,” DeLauro said.

Resnik noted that the Liman Center has been involved in developing and testifying on legislation at the state level in Connecticut. This includes bills on voting by incarcerated people and on solitary confinement.

“We’ll now have to start helping to draft federal legislation as well!” she said.

Liman Center Director Anna VanCleave closed out the session by asking DeLauro how direct service lawyers can work in aid of legislators to make reforms happen.

“You can play an incredible role because of what you’re doing, and you can play that role with elected officials at every level,” DeLauro replied.

DeLauro described her visit to the border to witness children in detention, which she referred to earlier in the evening as “state-sanctioned child abuse.” The lawyers working on behalf of immigrants there helped legislators understand what was happening, she said.

“I am saying to you to engage with lawmakers in every way you can because together we can fashion the kinds of public policy initiatives to bring a remedy to people who are suffering,” DeLauro told the group. “They need to have advocates like yourself to provide those direct services and they need to have advocates like myself working in conjunction with you to empower them.”

DeLauro ended with a plea to direct services lawyers from legislators: “Help us.”

“I work for an institution that its greatest strength is its potential,” DeLauro continued. “Historically, it has changed lives in this country…You just have to push the edge of the envelope to make it work. You can help us to do that.”

This year’s Liman Colloquium, Coping with Unimaginable Challenges and Exploring New Opportunities, explored the lessons garnered from a year of pain, loss, and disruption.

The Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law promotes access to justice and the fair treatment of individuals and groups seeking to use the legal system. Through research projects, teaching, fellowships, and colloquia, the Liman Center supports efforts to bring about a more just legal system. Since 1997, the Center has supported more than 160 Yale Law School graduates as Fellows working in the public interest. The Liman Center also awards summer fellowships to students from eight colleges and universities: Barnard, Brown, Bryn Mawr, Harvard, Princeton, Spelman, Stanford, and Yale.