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First Year Lawmakers Face Daunting To-do List

September 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In a discussion with Gwen Ifill, four freshmen lawmakers reflect on their experiences thus far dealing with a recession, overseas conflicts, and the health care debate.

GWEN IFILL: There are 35 Democrats and 22 Republicans in this year’s freshman class. Before coming to Washington, they were mayors, entrepreneurs, engineers, philanthropists and teachers. And once they arrived, they were immediately faced with a recession, an increasingly unpopular war, and a high-decibel health care debate.

How are they doing? We’ve invited four freshmen to join us here tonight, two Democrats, two Republicans.

Democrat Jared Polis represents Colorado’s Second District, which includes the cities of Boulder and Vail. The founder of two charter schools, he has also launched several successful small businesses.

Democrat Donna Edwards represents Maryland’s Fourth district, which includes Prince George’s County and suburban Washington. She won her seat, on her second try, by defeating a 16-year incumbent.

Republican Cynthia Lummis is Wyoming’s lone member of the House, representing the nation’s least populous congressional district. She previously served as state treasurer and in the state house.

Republican Aaron Schock represents the 18th District of Illinois, which includes Peoria. At 28 years old, he is the youngest member of the Congress. Before coming to Washington, he served in the state house and as a school board president.

Welcome to you all.

Cynthia Lummis, I want to start and ask you the question I’m going to ask everybody, briefly. What’s been your biggest surprise so far?

REP. CYNTHIA LUMMIS, R-Wyo.: Well, I’ve been surprised at how partisan Congress is. I came from a state where even though it’s dominated by Republicans, there seems to be a very good bipartisan relationship in the Wyoming legislature, where I served.

And, for example, we have more even numbers on our committees. Every bill is debated. Every bill gets a hearing in committees. We have three readings on every bill, so you have an opportunity to read the bills. There’s no incidents where a 300-page amendment is dropped on you at 3 a.m., then you’re voting on it the same day. So the partisan aspects of it have been surprising to me.

GWEN IFILL: Donna Edwards, how about you?

REP. DONNA EDWARDS, D-Md.: Well, I think, you know, I share some of what Cynthia has said. I think it’s been true that, while the policies and the politics are partisan, I’ve been able to develop, I think, really good relationships and friendships actually on the other side of the aisle. And I think that that took me a little bit by surprise, because it wasn’t what I expected just watching on television. And so it’s been a learning experience every day.

GWEN IFILL: Aaron Schock, I was surprised to hear that you were actually born in the 1980s. What has surprised you?

Bipartisanship is possible

REP. AARON SCHOCK, R-Ill.: Well, you know, I share the same sentiments. You know, I come from the president's home state. It's considered a blue state. I served in a very Democratic house and senate in Illinois and with a Democratic governor and, despite that, was able to pass legislation. We worked in a, for the most part, congenial fashion.

And I've been struck by the first nine months and how very partisan the House has operated in terms of really the minority's ability to offer thoughtful amendments and really get a hearing on the important pieces of legislation that have moved this year, the stimulus bill, cap and trade, now the health care debate.

We really haven't been as included as much as I would like to have been in that discussion. I think it's to the detriment of the American people, all of whom we represent, but also to the quality of the legislation that comes out. And I'm hoping that, as we move forward on the health care debate specifically, when it seems now that there's not a consensus on what the majority wants to do on health care, that there's going to have to be Republicans, Democrats on the health care bill, and hopefully we'll be a part of this important piece of legislation.

GWEN IFILL: What about that, Jared Polis?

REP. JARED POLIS, D-Colo.: You know, I found it to be bipartisan. Certainly in the bills that I've been working on, have co-sponsors from across the aisle. Sometimes I even have more Republicans than Democrats. And I think when people are working bills to get co-sponsors, they value both, important pieces of legislation of both.

But I've been very pleasantly surprised with is how the more senior members of the House, the committee chairs, the ranking members, take new members very seriously. And it's never been an issue.

And coming into it, you hear things about, oh, they don't give you the time of day until you've been there, you know, six years or, you know, you're not going to be able to talk to speakers or the minority leader. But they are, at least in my experience, extremely open and accessible, both on the floor and formally and informally through meetings.

GWEN IFILL: I wonder if, when you're in the majority, it feels more bipartisan than when you're in the minority. Is that possible?

REP. CYNTHIA LUMMIS: I think it is possible. I think the U.S. House is more of a winner-take-all arrangement, where the party in the majority really does control things. And that was not something with which I was accustomed.

GWEN IFILL: That said, Donna Edwards, I'll start with you. What are the priorities that you brought to Congress that you thought, "This is what I'm going there to do," that you've been able to do, and what has gotten lost in all of this activity?

REP. DONNA EDWARDS: Well, I feel I've been in a really great position. I mean, when I campaigned, I campaigned on bringing health care to the American people and developing an energy policy for the 21st century, on creating jobs certainly in my congressional district and around the country.

And although, you know, clearly, this president -- and this year we've been faced with a tremendous economic crisis, I think I've been able to get a word in edgewise on these debates, and that's been really important to me, and it's been important to the constituents in the Fourth District. So, you know, it feels really good right about now.

GWEN IFILL: It seems like getting a word in edgewise is the key for freshmen legislators, yet many of you came here talking about things like immigration. You campaigned on gay rights. You campaigned on government spending. And yet it seems like all the time is being spent on the economy and health care. What about that, Aaron Schock?

Delivering on economy, health care

REP. AARON SCHOCK: Well, I think that's on the mind of the voters. When I go back to my district in central Illinois and I ask voters, "What do you care about?" it's the economy. And people are concerned about their job, if they have one. They're concerned about getting one, if they don't. They're concerned about their 401(k) statements coming back in half.

And they're looking to the Congress and to our leaders and asking, what are you doing to help incentivize entrepreneurs, to help incentivize risk-taking and investment so that we create more jobs and we grow our economy here in our country?

And those are issues that I came to Congress to work on. I'm a small-businessperson, an entrepreneur at heart, and I truly believe, you know, knowing that 60 percent of Americans get their paycheck from a small business, if we want to stimulate the economy, if we want to put people back to work, we've got to target growing our economy.

GWEN IFILL: Jared Polis, you were a businessman when you were in Colorado. In fact, you went home during the break, August break, and what did you call them, street corner...

REP. JARED POLIS: Congress on your corners.

GWEN IFILL: Congress on your corner. What did you hear?

REP. JARED POLIS: Well, we had about 23 different town halls, Congress on your corners. Overwhelmingly, people turned out to discuss health care. That's really what was in the news.

But, you know, there's a lot of work that Congress is doing that doesn't necessarily get those same front-page headlines. We passed a wonderful bill called SAFRA, which increases aid for students to go to community college or college, provided some early childhood education funding for kids in preschool and kindergarten earlier, to prevent those learning gaps from occurring before they enter school.

So there's a lot going on. You know, the media will always focus on the most and biggest controversial elements. Certainly, that's been health care for the last few months and probably will continue to be. And, hopefully, we'll be able to get that done.

That was sort of a promise that many of us who were running made to the American people. We want to deliver on health care reform, make it more affordable, help cover the uninsured. And progress is slow, but I'm confident that we'll get there by the end of the year.

GWEN IFILL: Cynthia Lummis, is it media focus or are people as divided as it looks like when we watch footage of these town hall meetings and debates about the key issues, like Afghanistan and health care?

REP. CYNTHIA LUMMIS: In Wyoming, I have found that people are very strongly opposed to a government option or government-run health care. There's great concern that there will be increased bureaucracies, that the costs will not drop, and that we will actually have bureaucracies between ourselves and our physicians.

I've also heard physicians say that, if they're reimbursed at what are now Medicare rates, a lot of them that are my age, in their 50s, will just retire instead of accept below-cost compensation for what they do.

So I think, in a state like Wyoming, where rural health care is a big issue because of the availability of physicians, making sure that physicians are adequately compensated is a huge issue.

GWEN IFILL: Donna Edwards, obviously, you heard different things in a largely urban district than Cynthia Lummis heard in a largely rural district.

Public option debate

REP. DONNA EDWARDS: Well, I did. And, I mean, it proves exactly how different all of the 435 congressional districts are. I mean, I heard really strong sentiment in my district where, you know, 85 percent, 90 percent of people actually have health insurance already, but they actually like the idea of a government-provided health care plan that competes in the private market, because they think it's going to bring down their costs and that there will be increased competition and accountability for the system.

I heard a lot of complaints about the insurance industry and the role that insurers play in getting in between them and their doctors. So, I mean, I think we can get a lot of messages across the country in these different districts. And the challenge in the Congress, obviously, is to try to pull all of this together so that we come up with a health care plan that works for all Americans.

GWEN IFILL: Aaron Schock, what are your constituents asking of you now that you've been there for a few months, different than perhaps you thought they were asking of you when you ran for office?

REP. AARON SCHOCK: Well, I think a couple things. First of all, they're simple things. People expect us to provide good constituent work. This is not something that's slick and glossy. It doesn't involve ribbon-cuttings or ground-breakings. It doesn't require us to pass legislation.

But they want somebody -- I think they expect all of the freshman members and all 400 members to be responsive to them. When they have a problem or a concern with the federal government, they expect us to go to bat for them, to be their advocate, to be their representative at the federal level. That's a core part of our job.

A second, with legislation, they're focused on the economy, and they're also focused on health care. And to my colleague here's point, I think they expect us to work together.

When I talk to Republicans, Democrats, independents, not a one of them like to see the partisan divide. Not a one of them like to see the anger and the in-fighting that has been created over the summer break on either sides. And they're hoping that there can be some common ground and finally some solutions.

The overwhelming majority of Americans believe we need health care reform. The overwhelming majorities of the Congress believe we need health care reform. What we need to do is find that common ground, a bill that can get both sides to come together and get a majority support.

GWEN IFILL: We have represented around this table -- and I wrote this down -- rural and urban, gay and straight, young, military offspring, state house, business background, all kinds of backgrounds. So what is it that you would like to bring that's specific to your background, to your job as a member of Congress, and do you think there's a chance of being able to break through?

REP. JARED POLIS: You know, that's one of the great things about Congress as an institution. It really represents a lot of different segments of American society. And part of the reason it's difficult for Congress to get together and do something is because it's difficult for the American people to do it.

A bipartisan process, you know, it takes two to tango. I mean, the truth of the matter is, if Republicans were sincere in their opposition to, let's say, a public option in health care, if 30 or 40 of Cynthia and Aaron's colleagues or themselves said, "You know what? We're going to support it, just have no public option, get rid of the public option," it would be gone.

I'd be sorry, because I support the public option. But the Republicans have that in their ability to kill the public option and pass health care reform, but they've chosen not to, chosen to be a party of opposition.

I try to bring an out-of-the-box approach, new and innovative thinking. I've succeeded in sort of starting both a charter school, several small companies. I bring the small business perspective to the health care debate. I think what we do in health care has got to be good for small business, which is very much mainstream America, major engine of job growth, and it is, because small businesses suffer today from paying more to cover their employees than most large businesses do.

GWEN IFILL: Cynthia Lummis?

Working together

REP. CYNTHIA LUMMIS: You know, it's so nice to serve with this group of people, because I know that Jared gets it when it comes to business. He's been on the entrepreneurial front lines. He knows the needs for capital.

GWEN IFILL: Bipartisanship right here.

REP. CYNTHIA LUMMIS: Well, and -- and I sponsored some bills with my colleagues. You know, Donna went to Afghanistan. We've talked about the need to make sure that women in Afghanistan have an alternative to growing poppies. And Aaron is involved in the Transportation Committee, which is hugely important to my state, because highways are the lifeline for the state of Wyoming. We have no intrastate air service.

So every one of the people at this table brings something to my state that is important to me. And so I would seek out Jared when we're talking about entrepreneurship and venture capital and angel investors. And I seek out Aaron when we're talking about transportation issues.

And that's true with other members, as well, on both sides of the aisle. I enjoy my freshman colleagues. That has been a delight.

GWEN IFILL: So does that mean, Aaron Schock, it's not bad as it looks from the outside? You guys actually do agree on things?

REP. AARON SCHOCK: It's really not. The old adage that everybody hates Congress but they love their congressman or woman is probably true. I have found that there is much more to look up to in Congress than to look down upon.

And clearly, when you have 435 of any kind of people together, there will be your outliers who do things to get in the news and whose behavior is maybe one that you don't want to emulate.

But by and large, the vast majority of people on both sides of the aisle are here because they care passionately about their country. They're here because they want to do the right thing. And they answer the call of public service because they want to make a difference.

And that's what's so refreshing when we sit around the table, even though we disagree, maybe, on the solution, I truly can tell you that the people here and many of the people I serve with care passionately about what they believe in, and we have to learn to respect the differences, but also to try and find that common ground.

GWEN IFILL: Donna Edwards, you get the final word.

REP. DONNA EDWARDS: Well, you know, I was a lobbyist for a public interest organization when the Republicans took over in 1994, and so I remember the same sort of jockeying around this question of bipartisanship.

What I will say is that we also serve on multiple different committees. And I think that many of us have chosen to focus our work and our committee assignments, learning the issues that are in front of us, and these aren't necessarily the big issues that hit the day, but they're each important to the American people, whether it's transportation or air and space or education and labor, you name it.

And we've chosen to focus our efforts in that way to learn what we can both about the process, about our colleagues, and working together. And so I'm just looking forward to, you know, a long career in public service.

GWEN IFILL: All right. Well, I wish the same for you all. It was a pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much.