Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is already pulling back the curtain on the inner workings of the Capitol.
The New York Democrat, along with other incoming freshman lawmakers, is trying to usher in a culture of openness that is enabled by a vast social media following. With nearly 3 million followers combined on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, Ocasio-Cortez has used the platforms to involve her supporters during the transition period before she takes office.
Her enthusiastic and often pugnacious transparency campaign has earned her praise from inside and outside the Beltway. Yet it has also drawn criticism from several corners, including from President Donald Trump’s eldest son. Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t given any indication that she will let up, however.
In a series of pictures and videos on Instagram dubbed “Congress Camp,” she gave an inside look into new-member orientation, from choosing an office to voting for House leadership, while also showcasing the unique quirks of life on Capitol Hill.
“Guys, there are secret underground tunnels between all of these government buildings!” she whispers in one video. In another post, she polls her followers on whether she should choose an office with more space or one “close to our friends.”
But Ocasio-Cortez isn’t just focusing on the novelty of her experience. Last week, she tweeted sharp criticism of an orientation for new members of Congress hosted by Harvard. The event featured corporate CEOs but no labor representatives.
“Our ‘bipartisan’ Congressional orientation is cohosted by a corporate lobbyist group. Other members have quietly expressed to me their concern that this wasn’t told to us in advance,” she tweeted. “Lobbyists are here. Goldman Sachs is here. Where’s labor? Activists? Frontline community leaders?”
Fellow freshman member Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., echoed her criticisms. Tlaib said that Gary Cohn, former chief economic advisor to President Donald Trump and former Goldman Sachs executive, told the new members at orientation that they don’t “know how the game is played.”
“No Gary, YOU don’t know what’s coming – a revolutionary Congress that puts people over profits,” Tlaib tweeted.
‘Those little things are very real’
Ocasio-Cortez rose to the spotlight after defeating longtime incumbent Joseph Crowley in the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District, which encompasses parts of Queens and the Bronx. A self-identified Democratic socialist, she ran on a liberal platform and chose to emphasize her identity as a young woman of color. The 29-year-old’s victory in the general election anointed her as the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
Ocasio-Cortez’s comments about her new role have also renewed longstanding debates on the financial challenges facing members of Congress and their staff. She has made it personal by revealing her own insecurities about her finances during the transition period.
“I have three months without a salary before I’m a member of Congress. So, how do I get an apartment? Those little things are very real,” she told The New York Times in an interview.
Many lawmakers struggle with the cost of living in Washington, D.C., even on the $174,000 congressional salary, going so far as to sleep in their offices to save on rent costs.
Ocasio-Cortez has also made it a point to talk about the economic conditions of congressional staff. Last week, she tweeted: “It is unjust for Congress to budget a living wage for ourselves, yet rely on unpaid interns & underpaid overworked staff just bc Republicans want to make a statement about ‘fiscal responsibility.'”
Low salaries as well as the prevalence of unpaid internships, which are often the first step to a full-time role, are seen as barriers to a more diverse congressional staff. Ocasio-Cortez pledged to pay her office’s interns $15 an hour, inspiring other lawmakers to make the same commitment.
She has also shared experiences that reveal the growing pains of an increasingly diverse Congress. “People keep giving me directions to the spouse and intern events instead of the ones for members of Congress,” she tweeted during orientation.
The changing face of Congress
Ocasio-Cortez is just one of the 42 women, 38 of them Democrats, part of Congress’ freshman class. They are being heralded as the faces of a new “Year of the Woman.” Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Michigan’s Tlaib are the first Muslim women elected to Congress, while Ayanna Pressley, a Democrat, is the first black woman elected to represent Massachusetts. Ocasio-Cortez posted a picture of the four women together on Instagram last month, captioning it “Squad.”
As a result of her high profile, Ocasio-Cortez’s unabashed takes on congressional life have frequently come under fire.
Eddie Scarry, a writer for the Washington Examiner, disputed Ocasio-Cortez’s account of her financial hardships based on her clothing choices.
“Hill staffer sent me this pic of Ocasio-Cortez they took just now,” Scarry tweeted. “I’ll tell you something: that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.” The tweet has since been deleted after widespread backlash.
Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., condemned the media for what he viewed as preferential treatment in coverage of Ocasio-Cortez. As a freshman congressman in 2011, Duffy received negative reactions after telling a constituent that he struggles to pay his bills.
“Hmm which headlines and article does media give to GOP and which to a Dem?” Duffy tweeted alongside screenshots of articles referencing himself and Ocasio-Cortez.
Last week, Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, shared a doctored image on Instagram in which Ocasio-Cortez asks, “Why are you so afraid of a socialist economy?” In the post, President Trump responds, “Because Americans want to walk their dogs, not eat them.” Trump Jr. captioned the meme “It’s funny cuz it’s true!!!”
Ocasio-Cortez fired back, tweeting: “Please, keep it coming Jr – it’s definitely a ‘very, very large brain’ idea to troll a member of a body that will have subpoena power in a month.” Democrats have made clear that they plan to use their new subpoena power in the House to further investigate potential Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
The representative-elect has also received praise for revealing parts of the political system that are typically left in the shadows.
Actress Kerry Washington, who stars in the political drama “Scandal,” commended Ocasio-Cortez’s behind-the-scenes revelations, tweeting, “@Ocasio2018 speaking truth to power. Sharing the NEEDED #BTS of our democracy at work. So grateful.”
“I’m learning more details about how the House actually works over the past two weeks than I ever did in the past 20 years,” one follower tweeted in reply to Ocasio-Cortez.
“Thank you so much for giving us the window into the inside baseball of Congress,” another follower said.
Paul Musgrave, assistant professor of political science at University of Massachusetts Amherst, praised Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter for “treating voters as neither super-sophisticated DC insiders, nor as people who can’t be trusted to make up their own minds, but rather as people who are curious and intelligent but who aren’t experts in DC process.”
“Sometimes,” he added, “you don’t need a new theory of politics to make change, just a willingness to state the obvious.”