On a Friday late in November post-election, I had the opportunity to interview three staffers from the offices of Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Representative Alexia Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), to learn about some of the economic policies that were formed under these well-known public figures.

Being on the ‘digital currency and blockchain’ beat, it made sense to take their temperature first on these areas. Aya Ibrahim, Economic Policy Advisor for Pressley, helped in the drafting of the Payments Modernization Act of 2019. According to Ibrahim, “Facebook Libra’s selling point initially was that this was going to be a way to bank the unbanked and better serve the underbanked, but that wouldn’t necessarily exist had we provided the services we should had provided,” said Ibrahim.

Chastity Murphy, Economic Policy Advisor for Tlaib, highlighted the Automatic Boost To Communities Act that called for a digital dollar by 2021 as an option for Americans to receive public stimulus payments. “There is a lot of hype around blockchain technology, mostly from people who are thinking about its private sector uses. When it comes to publicly administered digital payments, the more important question is not how to create a distributed ledger managed by multiple actors, but how to create digital cash, which you can hold in your pocket, that doesn’t require a ledger at all. That’s the bigger priority, in our opinion.”

Murphy further clarified that, “Technology that may sound very convenient to the average person may have terrible implications for marginalized or historically discriminated communities.” According to Murphy, the concern of her boss and others relates to how, “…facial recognition technology is being used in majority black districts to incarcerate and discriminate against communities of color. Facial Recognition technology is an example of what happens when you separate questions of efficiency and design from questions of exclusion, access, and privacy.”

Speaking of communities of color, Claudia Pagon Marchena, Legislative Aide for Ocasio-Cortez, spoke about how she, Murphy, and Ibrahim forged a close bond on Capitol Hill in their policy work. “I think one of the things that makes our jobs easier in working with one another is the synergy that exists between our bosses and where they stand ideologically. Recurring payments is something that all three of our bosses have been pushing…” said Pagon Marchena. “We find there is strength in numbers and coordination to push these narratives and push the caucus on what a real, progressive response looks like in this time.”

Along with The Automatic Boost to Communities Act that called for a stimulus payment of $2,000 a month per individual to offer relief during Covid-19, the offices joined together to pen a letter to the Congressional leaders on the importance of recurring payments during Covid-19. According to Murphy, it was Ibrahim’s idea to seek out and include Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), now Vice President-Elect, in the letter so the effort would be on a bicameral basis.

With respect to the importance of these recurring payments, Ibrahim quoted economist Larry Summers in our interview, highlighting his point that “…economic time has stopped, but financial time has not been stopped.” Ibrahim continued, “From a policy perspective, it seemed to be just one of the most straightforward ways to provide relief and also provide stimulus on top of that.”

While Murphy is quick to credit Ibrahim on things like coordinating the letter with Harris’ office, Ibrahim is just as quick to highlight that Federal Reserve relief for state and local municipalities was something Murphy had been speaking about since day one. “Why is the Fed not buying municipal bonds?” Murphy would say to Ibrahim. “They have the authority to buy municipal bonds. The city of Detroit should not have declared bankruptcy.”

All three offices together were united in their call to the Fed for helping these state and municipalities during the economic crisis. Ibrahim pointed out, “A public sector worker is more likely to be black who is laid off. This is especially devastating to specific communities.” According to Ibrahim, services that are communal in nature tend to be neglected and are not a priority, and thus the people who need these services don’t get them.

For Pagon Marchena, this type of behavior is an example of the austerity that was imposed after the 2008-2009 Financial Crisis, where states and municipalities had to cut back on their workforce and not invest in education. Pagon Marchena had more to say on austerity too, particularly as it applied to some of the work Ocasio-Cortez did on Puerto Rico.

Claudia Pagon Marchena, Legislative Aide for Ocasio-Cortez

Claudia is an indispensable member of our team. She is extremely talented at understanding the complexities and nuances of issues that come before the Committee on Financial Services, and fully grasping the legislative actions and tools that are available to elevate what we are hearing at the grassroots level,” said Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). Ocasio-Cortez added, “Her work and approach is deeply rooted in the needs of New York’s 14th Congressional district, advocates, and frontline communities. We are lucky to have her spearheading many of our legislative efforts and wins.

With respect to her colleagues Murphy and Ibrahim, Pagon Marchena stated the, “…underlying principle that drives us all is economic justice.” According to Pagon Marchena, because the Puerto Rican government is a territory and the U.S. still has colonies, U.S. had to enact Promesa which is why this became the subject of a protest some time ago and is seen as an imposition by the island. Pagon Marchena highlighted, “Austerity has all kinds of implications for public services,” including healthcare which during Covid-19 has been extremely damaging to the community on the island.

According to Pagon Marchena, in regards to the ills of the private banking sector, her office has looked for public banks to play a role in moving to a zero carbon economy and part of the ‘Green New Deal’. The Public Banking Act was a bill introduced by Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez that, “allows for the creation of state and locally administered public banks by establishing the Public Bank Grant program administered by the Secretary of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve Board which would provide grants for the formation, chartering and capitalization of public banks.” Pagon Marchena commented one of her favorite collaborations on the Hill was with Murphy and Representative Tlaib’s office on the Public Banking Act.

Regarding what it is like to work with Ocasio-Cortez, “I am grateful the trust the Congresswoman has put in me and others in the office. When I first started this job, I was not full-time on policy. She was invested in my personal growth and gave me the opportunity. Even in doing this interview, she was incredibly supportive of it.”

On Senator Kamala Harris (CA-D), now Vice President-Elect, being the first woman of color historically in that position, Pagon Marchena stated, “Representation does matter. I think seeing a woman of color rises to the higher places of our Government, knowing that these institutions have been very hostile to people of color, I think it is very encouraging… I think there is still a very long way to go. There is a deep problem of diversity and inclusion in Congress which is why the work of the tri-caucus’ is so important. Also, in our positions is critical.”

Aya Ibrahim, Economic Policy Advisor, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA)

Statement from Rep. Pressley: 

“I am so grateful to do this work with Aya. As my dedicated Economic Policy Advisor, Aya ensures that my work in the economic and financial services space—from the bills I introduce, to the questions I ask in committee hearings, to the stakeholders my office engages with in community—centers the voices of those who are too often excluded from decision making tables,” stated Congresswoman Pressley (D-MA). Pressley further noted, “Aya’s deep understanding of these issues and her commitment to advance progressive economic policies that affirm economic justice for our marginalized communities has made her an invaluable member of my team and one of my most trusted advisors.”

With respect to the Federal Reserve and recent data showing only one out of over 400 economists at the Federal Reserve in Washington D.C. was a black woman, Ibrahim said, “Your expertise matters as much as your lived experience. You can have all of the education and the technical knowledge in the world but if you are removed from the implications of that policymaking, then what you end up with are very different results.” Ibrahim further noted that, “Unemployment is a very important metric to the Fed and key to its decision-making, but not in the way we would like to see. We need to be decision makers too.”

With respect to her work on the Payments Modernization Act, Ibrahim points out, “…this is not wonky, it is about equity and fairness. For a person living paycheck to paycheck, to have that paycheck held for three to five days, working folks have to turn to payday lenders that are exploitative.” According to Ibrahim, the Fed has one system of governance for people and another for private banks and companies. “I think what’s fundamentally frustrating is a bank is a public-private partnership that offers critical public services with a utility that should be equally accessible to all.” As mentioned earlier, the void in the payment system that is left is then filled by tech companies like Facebook, which is not ideal.

With regard to working for Pressley, Ibrahim is incredibly honored and grateful to do this work and a boss like the Congresswoman who is so open and willing to be out there on some of these issues. Ibrahim said, “…to have those uncomfortable conversations and to take a chance on a ‘Never really been on the Hill before’ candidate when she was interviewing. All of our bosses, the values that they are wishing for, they are making sure the people they are hiring reflect those values.”

On Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), now Vice President-Elect, being the first woman of color historically in that position, Ibrahim stated, “There has never been a question that any of us could do any of these jobs, right. There isn’t any question in my mind that a woman of color could be a Vice President or an amazing President and obviously it’s just a matter of others coming to that realization.”

Ibrahim was proud of some of the work her boss had done with the Vice-President Elect’s office and on a few bills and how Harris’ Senior Policy Advisor had been such a good mentor to her as well.

Chastity Murphy, Economic Policy Advisor, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI)

“I really enjoy working with Chastity on financial services and economic policy. She thinks about legislation that shifts the conversation on what progressive economic policy can look like. She consistently demonstrates foresight on identifying links between the financial system, economic development, and poverty and works to create sustainable, tangible policy solutions towards poverty reduction, especially for my district, and other districts like mine across the nation,” stated Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI). Tlaib further stated, “She’s always thinking boldly and unapologetically about policy solutions in financial services while ensuring that under-serviced communities are at the forefront of her decision-making. Her brilliance combined with her desire to free communities of color from economic oppression and inequity is what I value the most.”

Murphy’s role with the ABC Act and the way she hoped to frame the conversation around digital dollars is a prime example of a progressive policy that includes the notions of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) as well as a stark division between monetary policy at the Fed and fiscal policy at the Treasury.

On working with Tlaib, Murphy notes, “Rashida pushes me to do big progressive policy that makes sense. Working with her, at no point, have I ever felt like I wasn’t able to push forward good policy. It’s one thing for us to give the information, but it’s another to be bold and stand as the face to good policy. Rashida has never relented.” Murphy further noted that, “…knowing that she (Tlaib) trusts me enough to help her in writing her economic policy, even when it’s something that others just aren’t yet talking about, is something I will always appreciate.”

On Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), now Vice President-Elect, being the first woman of color historically in that position, Murphy stated, “Being a black woman in this country, the closest thing you get to see to yourself are people in the Administration who are heads of departments. To see that someone at the highest level of power with that amount of leverage speaks to be why we need to be more intentional about supporting women of color.”



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