Eastern Washington’s Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers has risen through the ranks of Congress to become the House GOP’s Conference Chair. She was a key part of Mitt Romney’s campaign, and actively combated the charge that Republican policies weren’t female-friendly.
And while her geographic neighbor, Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, has madeheadlines for occasionally defying Speaker of the House John Boehner, McMorris Rodgers has been a strong ally of Republican leadership.
Want to gauge where the mainstream Republican party is? Talk to Cathy.
I sat down with her in her office yesterday for a brief but sprawling conversation on the topics of the day. I’ve made some very small edits to my questions for clarity, and changed the order of questions slightly to keep a logical flow. But most of it remains word for word.
INLANDER: I want to get a sense of some of your priorities: If you had the power to pass or repeal any one law in Congress, what would it be?
McMORRIS RODGERS: It would be to pass a balanced budget amendment. Because I believe it’s so important no matter which government is in power, that the federal government is living within its means. The only way I see that happening is for there to be a law that forces Congress to make the tough decisions and set the priorities.
Would your ideal balanced budget amendment force the budget to be balanced immediately, or one that would, say, end the deficit within 10 years?
We could — that could be determined. I’m open to suggestions on that.
Let’s talk about balancing the budget a little bit. There’s been a lot of debate about how to control federal spending and raise enough money to pay the bills. I know that, at least rhetorically, Obama has said he’s willing to cut spending and put things like “Chained CPI” on the table. Do you see anything House Republicans are willing to do to compromise in the other direction, such as raising revenue?
On January 1st, President Obama got $600 billion in revenue.
OK, and that was something that, obviously, House Republicans fought against.
But it ultimately passed. And it was missed opportunity for us to get a more comprehensive approach to reducing deficits and cutting spending within the federal government.
What’s the status on the sequester? Are you closer to coming to an agreement on the sequester? I know you addressed the airport delay situation recently.
Well, the reason we have the sequester is because the Congress and the president failed to agree on to as to how we would cut $1.2 trillion dollars out of the budget over a 10-year period. That was part of raising the debt ceiling in 2011.
That’s why we have the sequester….
And that’s why we have the sequester. I believe that we need to reduce federal government spending. The sequester is forcing some cuts that nobody — nobody believes that this is the best way to cut spending in the federal government.
I believe that we need to agree on replacing spending cuts or other reforms that will bring down the spending in exchange for removing the sequester.
It sounds like you want the spending cut come from other areas than the current sequester? Where would you like to see the spending cut instead of the sequester?
One in my mind would be repealing some of the president’s health care law.Even if we didn’t repeal all of it, [we could repeal] some of the cost drivers that law is going to have, the additional costs that the law is going to have, not just within the federal government but on the American people.
Let’s talk health care. Republicans have been outspoken about their opposition to Obamacare, but have struggled to introduce their own reforms. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently attempted to pass a bill to shift money into “high-risk pools” to help those with pre-existing conditions. But that bill was pulled thanks to opposition from conservatives like Idaho’s Raul Labrador. Did you find yourself agreeing more with Labrador or Cantor?
I was in favor of the legislation. I still believe we’ll be able to get the votes for that legislation. We had a number of members out of town for the George W. Bush library dedication.
I think there’s a recognition that part of the health-care solutions that Republicans have put on the table for addressing health-care costs, and meeting the needs of those that found themselves without health insurance, was through the high-risk pools. And in our health-care proposal, which we did put on the table, it actually included state high-risk pools as the way to address those with pre-existing conditions.
The president, one of the key arguments that he has made for his health care laws is that those with pre-existing conditions are going to have access to health insurance. And right now, at this very time, they don’t. Because he is not putting the money into funding the high-risk pools.
I believe that this is an area that everyone recognizes: We need to make sure that those who do not have health insurance and have pre-existing conditions,that they have a means by which they can get health insurance. And that’s through the high-risk pools. I think this legislation makes sense, and I do support it.
Well, we’ll get there. I think the timing was unfortunate, in that so many members were out of town.
So you think we shouldn’t write that legislation off yet?
Well, if Cantor’s bill passes give me a call.
You’re skeptical [laughs].
There’s a lot of disagreement within the Republican party.
There’s a big debate on where to go from here on health care. There are those who want to continue to focus on repeal. There are those who are quite concerned for the president’s health care law and the impact that’s going to have on those that already have health insurance, and cost and rates, and potentially losing their health care insurance, and are advocating for a delay. Then there are those that think we should start taking some steps to at least fix some areas for an agreement.
We repealed the 1099 form — we did that last Congress — which would have required any transaction over $600 to be reported to the IRS.
There’s a lot of support for repealing the medical-device tax and I think there’s a good chance that might pass.
You have a son with Down Syndrome. What, if anything, should the government do to help children with special needs, and their parents?
I’m grateful for the laws that have been put in place,through those that have, through the years, fought for those with disabilities to have access to education opportunities and to early intervention. I’ve seen the first-hand impact of those opportunities for my son, Cole.
I’m involved now in bipartisan efforts to address employment barriers for those with disabilities, and to provide more opportunities for those in independent living. You look at the high number of people with disabilities who are unemployed. The numbers are pretty staggering. Sixty or 70 percent are unemployed, who like to work. Many of them would like to work.
Many of them find themselves on SSDI [Social Security DisabilityInsurance] and they are limited [to] $2,000 dollars of income a month or they lose their benefits. The system is such that it keeps so many with disabilities in poverty and dependent.
Through early intervention and education, we have more and more who want to live independently and want to work. That’s the next frontier for those with disabilities — for the government to make that possible.
Juggling being a parent and being a congresswoman is hard enough. If you have a son with special needs as well — how do you make that work?
I don’t think it’s that different than millions of other working moms in this country.
I have certainly responsibilities in my job, but I have the tremendous support of my family that makes that possible. I have great a staff. My husband is fortunate that he’s retired for the Navy, he’s flexible, and carries a lot of the load at home. I think the fact that Cole has special needs, it makes me abetter legislator. I’ve learned a lot because of Cole.
Another big area, where I’ve learned, is the potential for research and the impact that that can have for new breakthroughs and curing diseases and improving people’s lives. I’ve become a strong advocate for research — unlocking the mysteries, whether it’s chromosomes or the brain, so we can help millions of people.
You were one of Mitt Romney’s surrogates during his campaign. There’s a lot of debate, among both conservativesand liberals,as to why Mitt Romney lost. What are your thoughts as to why he wasn’t successful?
I think there’s a long list of things that went wrong in that campaign. But I think there’s some important lessons for the Republicans to learn. Part of it is the importance of connecting with voters, in helping people to understand who we are as Republicans and what our vision and our goals are for this country.
And talking not just from the head, from the mind uttering facts and figures, but speaking from the heart. I think we’ve allowed our opponents to define us one way, as being rich and old-fashioned and out-of-touch.
Yet, when you look at Republicans we’re very diverse — people from all different backgrounds, experiences. Right now in the House we’re younger than Democrats on average. I think the Republicans have to do a better job of communicating our message, and taking our message to every corner of this country and every demographic group.
So is it just rhetoric and marketing? Or are there policies that need to be changed within the Republican platform as well to be more effective?
I think it’s both. I don’t believe that we need to moderate. But I do believe that we need to modernize. Modernize our message, and the way we that we need to communicate, and using the tools in which people we communicate in our daily lives. But I also think we need to look at how we’re talking about — we need to look at our agenda, to make sure it’s one in which people can see clearly, in how it impacts people and their families and their opportunities within this country.
What sort of policy changes would you like to see happen?
I think it is important that we are focusing on solutions,and not just talking about what we are against but what we are for.
Do you have any specifics? It’s great to talk about solutions, and that kind of thing, but is there anything in particular? When I talk to Raul Labrador, he’s focusingon immigration. Is there anything that Republicans need to change?
Well, he wasn’t changing his position on immigration, though.
No, but he’s pursuing policies within that area.
Well, an initiative that I’m involved in is an anti-poverty initiative, for example. One where we are focusing both on policy as well as action that we can be taking that is addressing the most vulnerable and needy in this country.
During the campaign you were one of the key people attempting to rebut the idea that the GOP is waging a so-called “War on Women.” What do Republicans need to do? Is it just messaging? Or do you see policies Republicans need to change to be more successful with female voters?
I think it’s mostly how we talk about issues. You look at 2010, and we won the women’s vote in 2010. It is important that we are talking about, when women are concerned with financial security, they’re concerned about how they’re going to makes ends meet, and how they’re going to pay the bills. They’re concerned about retirement security.
I think a lot of it is making sure that they understand how our policies will improve their lives and their families and help make it easier for them to take care of their parents and their children.
You had voted against the Lilly Ledbetter [Fair Pay Act of 2009, which made it easier for women to file equal pay lawsuits].And I’m wondering about why.
It has been the law of the land — equal pay, for equal work — for decades. And Lily Ledbetter was really about opening up a treasure chest for trial attorneys. It was written for trial attorneys. I don’t believe that it’s going to benefit women.
What specific legislation do you think the House can pass that will benefit women?
We’re working on some legislation right now, Working Families Flexibility Act, that we’re bringing to the floor sometime in May. This is allowing comp-time for overtime. This is for hourly employees, so that if they work overtime they can take it in time off, rather than just in compensation. So it’s flexibility over your work schedule.
Public employees have had this option since the ’80s. We’re working on that in May.
You, like many Republicans, voted against the DREAM Act. Do you find yourself supporting the Senate’s “Gang of 8” immigration reform or are you a little more skeptical?
The reason I voted against the DREAM Act was because I didn’t think that was the right place to start with immigration reform, that we need to secure our border. We need to have a workable ag-guest worker program in place. We need to address visas. I didn’t believe [the DREAM Act] was the right place to start.
As far as the Senate’s immigration proposal, when you look at what the Senate is putting together, and the house is putting together, I think you’re going to see some similarities in the broad outline. In the House, Speaker Boehner three years ago put a group together. It doesn’t get as much media coverage as what the Senate is putting together, but we have, you know, Raul Labrador is part of that group.
In early May, the Chairman of the Judiciary committee, Bob Goodlatte, is going to start working on different pieces of immigration reform. He’s getting ready to move the ag-guest worker program, and then E-verify, and visa reform. I think that the House may approach immigration reform in a little different fashion than the Senate. But it is our goal to get these pieces — that are largely agreed upon as far as the priorities that need to be addressed — out of the House, so we can get to a conference committee and get something on the president’s desk by the end of the year.
How do you believe the House and Senate will differ?
I’m not sure the House is ready to pass a comprehensive education reform bill. That’s why I think you’re going to see the house do it in stages.
You’ve been involved in trying to fight to protect Fairchild in previous rounds of base closure. Do you believe building a Spokane tribal casino near the base will genuinely imperil it in future processes?
I do have concerns about the location. I certainly applaud the Spokane tribe for looking for those economic opportunities, for those tribal members. I have met with the tribe and Fairchild and the military leaders. I’ve looked at the flight patterns, and where the proposed development is.
I do believe the development is a clear threat both to current and future missions at Fairchild.
You’ve been pretty supportive of developing more hydroelectric power. I spent some time out at the Kalispel reservation — there’s a lot of frustration over the way that building dams has impacted the salmon population and water quality. What would you do to balance the development of hydroelectric power with the needs of tribal populations?
The legislation I’ve introduced has bipartisan support, broad support, and passed unanimously.
I’m focused, not on building new dams, but using existing infrastructure and new technology to expand hydropower.
Because of new technology, improved fish ladders, we are seeing record salmon returns. We are seeing fish come up the rivers where we haven’t seen them for many many years. And the legislation I’ve introduce has the support of the American Rivers Association, for example.
Their CEO called me after it passed the House and said they want to continue to work with me on where we can expand hydropower, recognizing how hydropower has huge potential. We can double hydropower without building a new dam. Only 3 percent of the dams produce electricity. With new turbines and new technology,there’s a lot of potential for hydropower.
It’s clean. It’s renewable, it’s reliable, it’s affordable. We have the lowest electricity rates in the country.
What’s ahead for you in the next year?
I’m hoping to do some more on energy policy, and especially with the potential of hydropower. Looking at health care, and the implementation of the president’s bill, and then also, you know — what are those next steps for health care?
I am concerned about people who are losing their health insurance, and premiums going up 50 percent on average. So I want to see if we can’t get that on the right track.