Center for Effective Lawmaking

Discussing Legislative Effectiveness with Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Discussing Legislative Effectiveness with Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen served as the U.S. representative for Florida’s 18th and 27th congressional districts from 1989 to 2019. She has been identified by the Center for Effective Lawmaking (CEL) with the distinction of being among the top ten most effective Republican lawmakers in the US. House of Representatives in the 110th, 111th, and 112th Congresses (2007 to 2013). She was also identified as the most effective lawmaker in advancing international affairs policy among both Republicans and Democrats in the 112th Congress (2011 to 2013).

CEL co-directors Craig Volden and Alan Wiseman recently sat down with Representative Ros-Lehtinen to discuss her career in public service and her effective lawmaking in Congress. Among the topics discussed were: her experience in the Florida legislature, why she became focused on international affairs, why lawmakers should be selective about the policy areas on which they work, how caucuses can be helpful for lawmaking, the importance of bipartisanship, and the value of an experienced congressional staff.

Ros-Lehtinen on constituent services:

  • “I was really a nuts-and-bolts kind of legislator. ‘Let me help you get that pothole fixed’ and ‘Let me help you not get deported.’ So constituent cases I learned from my state legislative days were very important, and that helped me become a successful member of Congress.” [Developing a legislative agenda tightly focused on district needs connects with our five habits of highly effective lawmakers]

Ros-Lehtinen on why foreign policy was important to her:

  • “I was born in Cuba, came to the United States when I was 8, lost my homeland to Communism…that’s really what drove me to Congress.” [Building upon one’s personal background in legislating connects with our five habits of highly effective lawmakers]

Ros-Lehtinen on focusing on a narrow set of issue areas:

  • “I just said ‘You can’t do everything, and you can’t have it all, and I’m just got to concentrate on Foreign Affairs.’ And it worked out very well for me.” [For more information about the benefits of specializing in limited issue areas, see our working paper]

Ros-Lehtinen on hiring congressional staff:

  • “You hire good people. I always depended on smart people who are dedicated to public service…hiring well was very important because Foreign Affairs was so important to me in DC.” [For more information about the benefits of experienced congressional staff, see our op-ed in The Hill]

Ros-Lehtinen on finding co-sponsors for bills:

  • “Be bipartisan. Talk to people who you may not agree with on everything, but you can find ways to build those bridges of understanding and ways to advance your goals. And when you file a bill, don’t just file it with 50 Republicans. Go to the Democratic side of the aisle.” [For more information on the benefits of bipartisanship in Congress, see our published paper]

See the full interview (with complete transcript) below:

Alan Wiseman (00:10):

Hi! My name’s Alan Wiseman and I’m the chair of the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University, and along with Craig Volden of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, I’m also the co-director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking. We’re very excited to welcome Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who represented Florida in the House of Representatives from 1989 to 2019, to sit down with us and have a conversation about her experiences in the U.S. House. As many of you know, the Congresswoman represented Florida’s 18th, which eventually became its 27th Congressional district, which is located in Southern Florida and consists of substantial portions of Miami, from 1989 to 2019. Prior to serving in the House, however, the Congresswoman served as a professional educator in the state of Florida, and also held office in the Florida State House of Representatives from 1983 to 1986, as well as the Florida State Senate from 1987 to 1989. In the U.S. Congress, however, the Congresswoman truly distinguished herself from her peers with regard to her engagement with the lawmaking process. More specifically, according to our data at the Center for Effective Lawmaking, Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen had the distinction of being among the top 10 most effective Republican lawmakers in the US. House of Representatives in the 110th, the 111th, and the 112th Congresses, which ran from 2007 to 2013. She was also identified as being among the most effective Republican lawmakers in Congress in her efforts to advance international affairs policy, in particular, including her service in the 112th Congress, which ran from 2011 to 2013, where she was the most effective lawmaker in advancing international affairs policy among both Republicans and Democrats alike. So, Congresswoman, thank you so much for joining us for a Center for Effective Lawmaking interview, really appreciate your time today.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (02:04):

Well, Alan, thank you so much. Wow! What a lofty introduction! I hope to live up to at least a little bit of that. And, Craig, thank you so much for your participation. I’m thrilled to be part of this interview. Thank you for the honor.

Alan Wiseman (02:18):

No, I’m sure it’s got to be outstanding. So you know, as you and I discussed in the past, the plan right now is that we’re got to ask you a series of fairly general questions over the next forty-fiveish minutes or so. And we’d appreciate your perspectives and what we’re asking. And you know the extent to which you could draw on specific examples from your time in the House or in other forums would really be welcome. So to that end, why don’t we really just start with some questions about your earlier background? And by that I mean before you were elected to the U.S. House. So as alluded to just a second ago, we’d really love to hear how your earlier career experiences shaped your time as a lawmaker. Starting with your service in the Florida State Legislature, for example, both the House and the Senate. We’d really love to hear, you know, essentially, what you feel led you to pursue elected office, and when you were first elected to the Florida State Legislature what were the issues that were most important to you at the time?

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (03:09):

Well, that’s a great way to start this interview, because never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would become a member of Congress. It just wasn’t in any of my career paths. It wasn’t anything that I thought about. We had no politicians in our family. I was not involved in student government, as so many people are in junior high or high school or college. So I wanted to be an educator, I wanted to be a teacher. And the day that I got my Florida Certified Teacher Certificate in the mail, I thought, “Wow,” dream realized. I taught at various levels in public and private schools and then started my own private elementary school in Hialeah, a working-class area of Miami-Dade County. And I would I would help the parents, who are very limited in their economic means and limited in English proficiency. So they would give me, you know, lots of papers, and they’d say, What does this mean? And I would translate, and I would help them out with immigration and housing. And one day, somebody said to me, you know, “Rather than helping Jose, Maria, y Pedro, you could run for office. You could set the policy that would enable them to not have these kinds of problems.” And I said, “What do you mean?” They said, “Well, you run for office. You get elected and you make different laws, you try to straighten out this problem.” And I thought, “Well, this is intriguing.” And that was the first time, already I was an adult and a college graduate, and thinking, “Okay, maybe this is something that I could do.” So I signed up for a campaign school run by the GOP in Orlando. I was in Miami, but it was a weekend seminar on how to run for office. My dad, who was single at the time, went with me, and he went to the campaign school on how to be a good campaign manager, and my mom: how to be a good campaign coordinator. So the three of us went to Orlando. We had a wonderful weekend and boy, I was such a great candidate. Why? Because I didn’t know how to be a bad candidate, you know, I went to school and always was a good student. They said, “Okay, this is how you do a brochure, and this is how you formulate it.” And my dad would say, “Okay, make sure the candidate knocks on 20 doors and makes 10 cold calls asking for donations.” And my mom would say, “Okay, make sure you get some volunteers that would walk door to door with her, at least five volunteers every day.” So we didn’t know how to be bad at our jobs because we didn’t know any other way. Now, the electorate is very sophisticated, people have a better understanding. But this was in the in the Stone Age, you know. I first ran in 1982. That was a long time ago. No cell phones, no computers, nothing like that. And so I knocked on a lot of doors, raised enough money and got elected to the State House, and met my husband there as soon as I got sworn in. He was a Democrat. I changed him over to Republican. Then we ran together for re-election in the State House, and then we ran together for the Florida State Senate and then went on to Congress. But that’s how I got my start. I was glad that somebody put that bee in my bonnet because I think it’s wonderful to be involved in student government. I’m not putting that down at all. I’m just saying it was not anything that I had ever thought of, but I’m glad that somebody said that to me, and I found that the campaigning was fun and legislating was fun. I’m not a doom and gloom, you know, Debbie Downer, I’m a pretty optimistic person. So I’ve had a good time no matter where I was.

Craig Volden (06:56):

So a family affair in the campaigning, and a family affair once you got into the lawmaking process, as well.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (07:01):

Craig, that’s it! It was really a family affair before, during, and after.

Craig Volden (07:06):

And so tell me a little about,  you got to the state legislature and you had the prospects of helping out a bunch of people with new policy change. Did the legislature live up to those expectations? Did you have those opportunities?

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (07:19):

That and beyond. One of my greatest accomplishments – because I was an educator – when I was in the state senate, and just think, Dexter and I were two of only 40 senators. So wow! We had a lot of sway. And we passed the Florida Prepaid College Tuition Program. There had only been one in the United States previous to that, and we copied that, along with a senator who’s since passed away many years ago, and we modeled the program after that state and passed it. Now, it’s the largest prepaid tuition program in the country and the most successful. Our daughters, one was born in the Florida House, one was born in the Florida Senate, we signed them up and they were contract number 7 and number 8. The governor, Governor Martinez, signed up his grandkids first. So, anyway, that was wonderful. I got to put my education to use a little bit, but only a little bit.

Craig Volden (08:29):

Yeah, yeah, because quickly then you went on to Congress, and so we’re very interested in were there experiences in the Florida legislature that applied in Congress? Or were they very different institutions? How did you experience that transition?

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (08:44):

Well, it was pretty much of a seamless transition in the sense that you had a lot of constituent cases, and I was always focused on constituent cases. Dexter, my husband, was more of a big picture, you know, constitutional amendments, big bills, but I was really a nuts and bolts kind of legislator. “Let me help you get that pothole fixed, and let me help you not get deported.” So constituent cases, I learned from my state legislative days, were very important, and that helped me become a successful member of Congress. Because constituent cases are very important there as well. You could pass a lot of big bills, but if you don’t help folks down home, you’re not got to get reelected. Plus, it’s the right thing to do. But one thing that was missing, Craig and Alan, from my state legislative experience was foreign affairs. I was born in Cuba, and came to the United States when I was eight. Lost my homeland to communism. So for my constituency, the area that I represented, no matter if it was in the State House or in the State Senate, I really missed Foreign Affairs, and I thought, “Gosh, I’d like Cuba to be free one day.” I didn’t become a U.S. Citizen until I was 20 because I thought, “Okay, we’re go to go back to Cuba. Cuba’s go to be free. I’m ready to help Cuba be a robust country once again.” And so, you know, Cuba I carry with me in my heart every day of service. So that’s what was missing, and that’s really what drove me to Congress because otherwise Dexter and I love the legislature. He went off to be a U.S. Attorney, and then Claude Pepper, an institution, passed away, and many generations of leaders in Miami-Dade County came and went, circling like vultures over poor Claude Pepper, waiting for him to pass away. He was a strong man. He lived till his 90s. And was just an institution and a good figure for Miami politics. It was a rough and tumble campaign, and that was in 1989. And I wouldn’t want to relive a single day of that campaign. That one was tough.

Alan Wiseman (11:00):

I mean, Congresswomen, this is fascinating. But also I want to sort of talk you up a little bit, because I think almost you’ve downplayed your education credentials, because by just saying you’re a professional educator, because you also earned a master’s degree as well as a doctorate of education. Which, you know, that level of specialized education is really substantial in and of itself. And I’d just be curious to know, I mean, sort of thinking about the ways in which your pre-legislative career mapped into your approach moving on. You know I would be curious to hear your perspectives on whether or not the process of pursuing those advanced degrees, or the knowledge you acquired, I mean you already alluded to this a little bit in terms of your advancing education policy. But do you feel, especially given that you hadn’t planned on being a politician, do you feel the skills and the knowledge you acquired by pursuing these advanced degrees helped you in any meaningful ways as you moved into legislative roles?

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (11:48):

Alan, I would say that yes because I’ve been a lifelong educator and a lifelong learner, and education doesn’t just stop when you finish taking a three-credit course. I learn every day, and I’m still learning, even though I’m an old lady now. But I decided when I got to Congress, Alan and Craig, that I would not be a member of the Education and Workforce Committee, because I found that it was a very partisan committee. You were either pro-union or anti-union. It’s changed a lot since. It’s changed a lot. But in 1989 those were the battle lines. And now not so much. And I said I, I’ve never been a very partisan person, even though I’m proud to be a Republican. But I know that they’re good ideas coming from the Democrats as well. So I think that education is a positive for anyone. There’s no bad time to get a degree. I encourage others. Even when I was in Congress, and we had interns. I would say, “Boy, just get your degree. That’s so important,” and I hope that young people both participate in electoral politics and run as candidates. I’m involved in an organization called Running Start. I’m the vice chair of that group, and we train young women in college to run for office. And we do this, this fake campaign, and they get they elect people, etc. So it’s a good exercise like the campaign school that I went to. So I encourage people to get involved in politics. I encourage them to get an education. Whether it’s a degree-seeking course, or whether it’s just because adult learning, it’s always good, it’s always beneficial. Now we have 4 adult children and 9 grandkids, that’s the same lecture that my husband and I give our kids and our grandkids every day. Just keep at it, and we’re very happy that so far nobody’s in jail, and nobody’s gotten in trouble, and they all have degrees, and they’re all earning, a living. So far, so good, too early to know.

Craig Volden (14:08):

Fantastic, congratulations on that front as well! So I’m intrigued by the reputation that these committees had when you first arrived, right? So, as a new incoming freshman member of Congress, there was already that reputation, and you knew to stay away from one committee and go towards another?

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (14:28):

See, I got elected in a special election, so I didn’t have the luxury that most members have, the overwhelming number of members. You get elected, and then you have months before you’re sworn in. You go to an orientation. Sometimes it’s at Harvard, sometimes it’s here, and you get the opportunity to build your staff. I got elected, and not hours later, but just about, I got sworn in. So I didn’t have an orientation period. I was still figuring out what kind of committees I wanted to serve on. And to show you how much Congress has changed; Dante Fascell was a conservative Democrat from Miami. And at that time, when I got elected, he was chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and he said, “Ileana, we don’t have a seat for you, but I’m go to talk to the speaker. We’ll get the ratio fixed,” which determines how many people, how many Democrats, how many Republicans. But he put in a little card table with a tablecloth and a little folding chair, and he said, “You sit here as if you’re a real member, a voting member of our committee.” I can’t imagine in our divided, toxic Congress now anybody doing that for a member of the opposite party. But those were the old days. Another example: he knew that foreign affairs was the reason I wanted to come to Congress, so he was very helpful to me. Bill Lehman, a Democratic, liberal member from Miami. He showed me how to put a mailing program together. I didn’t know about franking privileges, and that you could mail information, and so he helped me. That would not happen in today’s political environment, either. And then Don Young was the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee. And boy, he was a big booming guy. He came up to me, he said, “Look, I don’t know who you are, but we have an opening in our Natural Resources Committee, and I’ll put you on. But, you cannot vote against any bill that is related to Alaska because I’m the one who’s go to handle that issue, and I won’t vote against any issue dealing with Florida, because you’re the person on that issue,” like the Everglades, for example. And I said, “Whoa, that was a little too intense for me.” I loved Don Young, we got along really well. But there were some big personalities in the House at that time. Now it’s more member-driven, and it’s just different. But that had a reputation that if your natural resources, you know, and you’re a Republican, you better not go against the chairman. And if you go to the Education Committee, you better watch out if you’re not a diehard, true blue, Republican, anti-union person, and I was not anti-union. I sometimes voted with them, sometimes I didn’t vote with them. So I was careful to avoid those committees, and I was really interested in them. But Foreign Affairs was always my love.

Craig Volden (17:37):

Yeah, yeah. So it’s a quick learning process indeed that you were basing it on.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (17:43):

And we were in three offices. Claude Pepper was the Rules chairman, and he has this palace of an office. And I thought, “Wow, I’m go to get that office”. No, no, no, I had three little closets in different buildings, and that was my Congressional office for 2 years.

Craig Volden (18:00):

So, on Foreign Affairs. You’ve been telling us about your background, and how you grew up, and how that was important to you, as well as finding your way onto the committee that dealt with it. We often see this alignment between what members care about what committees they’re on, and also what their district seems to care about. So tell us a bit about your district at that point in time, and how foreign affairs related to to what they were thinking of.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (18:27):

Well, I was very fortunate that in the first district that I had, that was the Claude Pepper district, it was overwhelmingly Democratic! And I say I was fortunate because it was the toughest district that I ever had in my almost 30 years. And I had a big Haitian-American community. It has been growing and growing, and Haiti, unfortunately, is still a difficult country right now. But it’s our Caribbean neighbor. So I inherited a district from Claude Pepper that was quite a challenge for a Republican. So I had to navigate some tough waters there. In some sections of my district, if the polls open at 7:00, by 7:01. I probably had hundreds and thousands of votes already against me, because people were used to voting party line. For a period we got away from that. And now we’re once again in that period because politics is so cyclical and a pendulum. What happens today, you think will never change, and yet it does. So I had a Haitian-American community, but primarily a Cuban-American community, people who were like me. A Colombian American. We did not have, at that time, Venezuelans, because we had a democracy then, and now we get a lot of Venezuelans toward the last years of my tenure. Had a lot of Venezuelans, and of course, we were getting a lot of Nicaraguans, because the Iran-Contra war was very much the rage, and people were fleeing in droves. So I would say it made me a great member of Congress because I paid attention to Haitians’ concerns. I paid attention to Nicaragua and Colombian and Cubans, and then, later on, Venezuelan, but also the main bread and butter of the district were folks like like my husband, who were born there, grew up there, you know, Miami natives. So there was a good mix. Then, year by year, by the time I finished my term in Congress, my district was overwhelmingly Hispanic. But when I was first elected, that was not true. So I’ve had every corner of South Florida. I’ve represented the Florida Keys, represented Key Biscayne, Miami Beach, and Little Haiti. You name it, and I’ve represented it either in the State Legislature or in Congress. It’s it’s been wonderful. It has been a great adventure.

Alan Wiseman (21:04):

I really appreciate that Congresswoman. Also, just as a side note, Craig and I sat down with Congressman Young a couple of years ago and had a wonderful interview with him.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (21:14):

He’s delightful, too!

Alan Wiseman (21:15):

You’ll probably be unsurprised that your characterization of his management style really comes through in interviews as well.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (21:22):

That was the first day when I got sworn in. And I said, “Woah, I’d heard about this guy, and everything they say is true.” But I had the greatest respect for him because he was very fair, you know. I followed him throughout my years in Congress because Florida has not only the Everglades, we have the Miami River, we have Biscay National Park. I mean, we’re very dependent on our natural resources. And that’s what makes Florida a great destination. So we paid a lot of attention to that committee’s work.

Alan Wiseman (21:53):

No, no, I believe it. I want to revisit a point you just raised about your first election. And really the next couple of elections immediately thereafter. As you described it, you’re elected to fill Congressman Pepper’s seat after he passes away. The district is heavily Democratic both in terms of party affiliation as well as different demographic features that contribute to that. And I’d just be curious to hear your perspective on, what do you feel your constituents, when you were first elected, what were their expectations for you, given, obviously you’re being elected as a Republican? And how did you navigate those expectations? I mean, it’s obviously challenging to be in that situation. But what was your strategy?

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (22:34):

It was a tough, tough district. That was the only really difficult campaign that I ever had because the demographics showed that I should be losing. It was overwhelmingly democratic and not very Hispanic. But we were able to get some good coalitions. And I ran against, I’m using the term that he doesn’t deserve, a gentleman whose campaign theme was, this is an American seat. Now, we didn’t know quite what to make of that. “This is an American seat.” The implication was that I was not an American and that he, a true blue American because he was born here, deserves this seat. I don’t know what that was. That was a nasty campaign. We considered that a racist touch, to say the least. So that was the toughest campaign. It was very divided. So people were a little bit wary. “What is she like, you know? Maybe she’s only got to be paying attention to a certain electorate and a certain group,” and they found out pretty quickly that I’m a very fair person, that why would I shoot myself in the foot, even for pure politics? Of course, I’m got to pay attention to every part of the district, and everyone has a good idea. So we had to do a lot of constituent outreach, more so than maybe other candidates, to prove to them that I was not an ogre, that I was go to pay attention to them, and I think by and large people were pretty happy with my representation, and I hope I made them proud. It was the greatest privilege of my professional career to be a member of Congress. Then, I became Chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and ranking member. Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever to have served in Congress, and I would look at each other. He was the chairman, and I was the ranking member. He would say before every committee hearing before he gaveled it open, “Is this a great country, or what?” Why? Because he was born in Hungary. He was a naturalized American, and I was born in Cuba, a naturalized American, and here we are heading the prime committee that sets foreign policy for the United States Congress. In few countries in the world would that be allowed; that two people not born in that country would be chairing such an important committee. So I served with incredible people in the U.S. Congress. I know Congress has a bad reputation, but there are a lot of good people who serve there as well. Sam Johnson, a P.O.W. from Vietnam, such a wonderful hero. I know people know about John McCain more than him, and I love him, too. But he was a good man as well. John Lewis, somebody who marched with Martin Luther King, and I had the privilege of working with John Lewis and meeting him and talking to him for a long time about good trouble, as he called it. So there are a lot of wonderful people who have served and continue to serve in Congress.

Craig Volden (25:55):

Yeah, very heartwarming stories and connections there. I want to connect the dots. We talked about your early days, and you were very constituency-focused. And now you mentioned you got to the point of being ranking member and chair and along that path, your legislative portfolio grew and grew and grew. And you focused a lot on foreign affairs issues. As Alan mentioned in the introduction, you were, certainly on our top 10 lists, among the most effective Republicans.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (26:27):

I love all the things you said there! I’m go to play this when I get the recording and I’m go to write those down.

Craig Volden (26:34):

Make sure those a well documented, yes! But I’m wondering if you could share some secrets to success for effective lawmaking in foreign affairs or elsewhere. Do you start in the committee and build out, or how do you go about lawmaking there?

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (26:50):

Absolutely, Craig, I would say you hire good people. I always depended on smart people who are dedicated to public service because these smart people could be making a lot more money in think tanks and everywhere else, and have more free time. But they’re here in a very difficult job that’s only gotten more difficult as the margins got even tighter. But hiring well was very important because foreign affairs was so important to me. In D.C., I hired people who were interested in the Caribbean, who were interested in Latin America, interested in the Middle East. Those were the three areas that I really paid attention to because those were the people I represented. At first, my district was very heavily Jewish, and then a lot of those pro-Israel leaders moved to Boca outside of Miami. But that really shaped the way that I looked at the world, so I considered myself a pro-Israel leader, pro-democracy, pro-human rights and rule of law, and the separation of powers. Those are very important to me because they were important to my constituents. Foreign affairs were common, everyday bread and butter domestic affairs in my district. In my district, everybody was the Secretary of State, everyone had an opinion, and so that was important to me to get qualified individuals in those positions in D.C. But in Miami, I wanted people who had the common touch, more of a personal touch. Who would care that somebody’s street was messed up, that the mail wasn’t getting delivered, that their social security check wasn’t going to them, that their veteran’s benefits were not getting accomplished. So there were two different types of individuals I was looking for: The human touch down in my Miami district, and we had satellite offices as well because our district was so far-flung. But in D.C., policy-oriented individuals who really knew their stuff. They’re way smarter than I was, and I was thrilled that I was able to serve on just about every committee in foreign affairs. I chaired the Africa Committee, I chaired the Middle East and North Africa Committee, and then toward the later times in my Congressional service, I also got to serve on the Intelligence Committee, which was so fascinating for me and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed public service very much because just like being a teacher, I was able to help people. I think being a member of Congress, if you have what Jeb Bush called  – like it says in the Bible – “a servant’s heart,” you could help a lot of people as well.

Craig Volden (29:47):

Now you had mentioned that some of the committees played out differently, at least in the early days. Did you find that in foreign affairs? Was it sort of consistently bipartisan over time or some subcommittees more so, or how did that play out? And what was your style when you were chairing?

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (30:04):

That’s a great question, Craig. We’ve had times when it was very partisan, and times when it was not partisan. We’ve had Newt Gingrich. He taught Republicans that we didn’t have to be a minority forever and that we could become a majority. That changed everybody’s thinking. So he was a revolutionary leader. Leaders make a difference, and people like Tom DeLay changed our way of thinking. So that was chaotic in the sense that we were more combative, but by and large the Committee on Foreign Affairs is fairly bipartisan and has maintained that reputation of trying to move bipartisan bills, of working together more so than other committees. But I remember when Ben Gilman, a Republican from upstate New York, with the Newt Gingrich revolution, came into a markup with a baseball bat, and he was just not like that at all. He was a fairly mild-mannered man, but he was telling people, “Look, we’re go to we’re go to get tough.” So some years were difficult ones because we were trying to get through a very conservative agenda. But I think it’s moved away from that, and it tends to be more of a bipartisan committee. Gregory Meeks and Michael McCaul have been working together very well. And I think it’s much better for the country, just like Ed Royce did with Eliot Engel. So we’ve had good partnerships, and we hope that the Committee on Foreign Affairs continues to do that.

Alan Wiseman (31:54):

Congresswoman, I really appreciate the way in which you identify the ways your policy portfolio really expanded to encompass different aspects of foreign affairs as you evolved across your career. I’m diving into the weeds a little bit, but our research at the Center for Effective Lawmaking demonstrates that among members of both the House and the Senate, really the most effective lawmakers are the ones that are able to essentially put blinders on, so to speak, in terms of all the different competing pressures they have from their district, from other stakeholders and the like, and really focus the portfolios in such a way that in some cases ideally more than half of their bills deal with one specific issue area to that degree. You fit this case perfectly well given, you know, amongst so many congresses, you know more than half of your bills pertain to different aspects of foreign affairs.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (32:46):

Oh, that’s my love! That’s what drove me to Congress. That’s what kept me in Congress. I finally quit, just because 30 years is more than enough, but you’re right. I did not know the numbers, but that’s what kept me thinking and alive and well. And it’s a passion of my constituents as well, so that’s something that is rare because I don’t think that for many members of Congress, foreign Affairs would be the driving issue. Right now we have Ukraine and Israel, and people are thinking that everybody’s involved with that. But most of the time, they’re not. It’s domestic concerns. So I was glad that what I cared about were the issues that my constituents cared about as well.

Alan Wiseman (33:38):

Thinking about, really coming back to the very first days when you had just been elected to fill Congressman Pepper’s seat, given your own expertise as a professional educator, as the owner and operator of a private school, higher education and the like, I really appreciate the point you raise about how the Education and Workforce Committee, the underlying politicization of it, so to speak, pushed you away. But do you think that’s one of the biggest reasons why you ended up not specializing in education? Or were there just other competing constituency pressures that are focusing you more towards foreign affairs?

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (34:12):

Well, that’s a good question. Once I decided that I wasn’t go to be on education, and I saw the makeup of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I just said, “You know, you can’t do everything, and you can’t have it all. And I’m just go to concentrate on Foreign Affairs,” and it worked out. It worked out very well for me. For a while, I was on another committee – Government Reform – but that was also a very partisan committee. Tom Davis was the chairman for a while, and that went well. But then Dan Burton, a good friend of mine, took it over, and it got to be a little too partisan for me. And so I took myself out of the running for that and decided no foreign affairs, this is where I want to be.

Craig Volden (34:57):

I want to take it in a slightly different direction and I appreciate those. So among your many other firsts, you are the first Republican woman elected to the House from the State of Florida, and of course, across your career, the number of women in Congress rose significantly. So I just wondered if you could tell us a little bit about your early experiences as a woman in Congress and as a Republican woman. The balance has not always been there. And how those early experiences changed across your career.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (35:28):

Well, thanks, Craig. I would say that my claim to fame, although I didn’t know it at the time, is that I’m the first Latina – we didn’t use that term then – the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress. So when I die, but I have to die first, the House historian said to me, “You know, we will have a painting of you in the Capital, just like we have a painting of the first black woman, the first black man, and the first Asian American”, and he said, “you will have a painting.” I don’t have anything to do with that painting, and I have to die, so there are couple of couple of problems there. I didn’t know it when I got elected, that I was the first Latina – we didn’t use that term – the first Hispanic woman, so once I found that out, I redid my biography to say, “Oh! In the Florida House, I was the first Latina elected, in the Florida Senate, the first Latina, and in the U.S. Congress, first Latina of either party, the first Hispanic woman ever.” And it’s funny that in Florida we did have, early on, a Democratic woman elected, and at that time her district was from Jacksonville all the way to Key West because it was in the early years of Florida. And so there had been no women elected from that time to my election in 1989. So I’m the first Republican, but I’m glad that there was already a lady a long time ago who was elected to the U.S. Congress. Since then, we’ve had many women elected to Congress from Florida, and although the Democratic party has made greater strides in having far more women elected than Republican women, we are getting much better in those numbers. We have amazing leaders like Elise Stefanik, Virginia Foxx, and Kay Granger, and I’m go to stop because they’re just too many to mention; so many wonderful women leaders who are Republican and we’re go to keep on electing them. So I think the future is very bright, and if you’re a young lady listening to this interview right now, and you’re Republican, I hope that you consider running for office, because there’s a lot that you can do to improve your community and our nation.

Craig Volden (37:53):

Did you think any of the experiences of lawmaking were different for men and women during any of those eras that you were there?

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (38:03):

Well, great question. I would say that for foreign affairs, for example, I was the only woman, the only Republican woman on that committee for many, many, many years. I tried hard to get Republican women interested in becoming members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, but they tended to go to other committees. Now it’s better. We have somebody like Ann Wagner, who’s just terrific; Claudia Tenney from New York, she was there for a long time. There’s better representation now of women and of parity in all committees, and I’m glad that our Republican leadership tries to have women reflected and being a part of the major committees, whether it’s Ways and Means, Appropriations, or Veterans Affairs. Traditionally women have tended to go to certain committees, but that was in the old days. Now, those ties have been broken, and women are interested in everything, just as they should be because we’re human beings, too. We’re interested in the world.

Alan Wiseman (39:14):

Now, I really appreciate you being able to identify the ways in which certain policy focuses have changed for different groups in Congress. Turning back to some of the research of the Center for Effective Lawmaking, one finding that’s emerged from our research is that those members of the House and Senate who advance legislation under a more bipartisan perspective tend to be notably more successful at advancing their bills than those members of the House and Senate that essentially try to go it alone with their own party. Likewise, thinking back to how you were a great illustration of specialization in Congress, looking at your time in the House it’s also the case that there are definitely many markers of bipartisanship in your legislative approach. It’s clearly the case that a lot of your most successful bills were ones that had generated or attracted significant Democratic co-sponsors which is consistent with our large sample research. Having said that, I’d be curious to hear your perspective, especially given the changing demographics of Congress you observed, especially given the points you raised about the ways in which the scope of partisanship or partisan battles rose and fell over those years you were in the house. How did you see the nature and advantage – or maybe even disadvantage with the way it’s perceived now – of bipartisanship evolve over your time in Congress?

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (40:40):

Well, that’s an interesting observation, and I’m glad to hear that. And I think that you see that reflected in the leaders from Florida, South Florida especially, on foreign affairs. You have Marco Rubio who, by the way, was an intern in my Congressional office when he was a University of Miami law student.

Craig Volden (41:00):

Another great connection, yeah.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (41:01):

And he was an incredible intern then.

Alan Wiseman (41:04):

And a highly effective lawmaker in the Senate I’ll have you know.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (41:08):

Really? Yeah, I’m glad to hear that, because he follows that same pattern. I’m not saying he’s following my pattern. He was a tremendous leader and bipartisan leader. Although people identify him as very Republican, when you look at his track record, you look at his legislation, he’s very bipartisan. Mario Díaz-Balart, he’s the chairman of the State Foreign Ops Appropriations Committee, and very Republican, very aligned with President Trump, but also rules in a very bipartisan way. And Maria Elvira Salazar, the one who has now what used to be my district. She is also a very bipartisan member of Congress. So it’s interesting that the leaders we’ve had who have paid attention to foreign affairs, and I would say, those are three leading ones from our community in South Florida, they’ve also followed that bipartisan streak, so I don’t know. Is it the water that we’re drinking? I don’t know what’s up with us. But we are faithful to our party, but we understand the need and how beneficial it is to move legislation in a bipartisan manner, and I think that’s a very good thing for our community, and it’s a very good thing for our nation as well. You know, good ideas come from everybody. You can learn a lot from somebody who’s not in your party. If we just see the media that gives you no confirmation bias. “Oh, yeah, listen, because they tell me what I already know.” Then you know, your world becomes narrower and narrower. We should really expand who we listen to. And you can listen to somebody that you disagree with. And believe me, it won’t kill you. It’s go to be okay.

Craig Volden (43:03):

And so a lot of that is just sort of how do we start out building up coalitions. And do we think about those in bipartisan manners, and so on, and there are a variety of groups or caucuses that might be ways to start building those as well. Now you were a member of the Republican Main Street Partnership when you were in Congress. And so how would you describe that organization? And some of the benefits of belonging to that group.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (43:28):

That continues to be a wonderful organization, because, although the number of moderate Republicans is sort of dwindling, many of them are saying that they’re not go to run again. But that was the group that Fred Upton started, and Charlie Dent started, and they were moderate Republicans who’ve now retired, but it started being called the Tuesday Group, and then and then got built up into the Republican Main Street Partnership. It was a Republican group of moderates. And I think it was it was like therapy because it would make us feel like, “Oh, we’re not alone. Look! This person feels the same way.” And we would advance, you know, immigration reform, and would advance all kinds of…At that time, the dreamers, you know, kids who came here when they were very young through no fault of their own. They were only two or three years old, and they’ve still not been able to work out their immigration status because it’s just been by judicial decisions that they’ve been able to stay legal. But we want to codify it. And that was a big issue for many years of the Republican Study Group, but it’s still very much in operation. And it’s home to the moderate Republicans, and we try to see when we can share a meal with other like-minded members of Congress who may be Democratic. So there was a good bipartisan mix, but it was a Republican group. The Republican mainstream partnership continues to be a very strong group, and we hope that we can build up the numbers. We hope that we can get the more moderate members elected. But right now, it’s a little bit tough with our rhetoric, and there’s a lot of divisions and moderate voices don’t get rewarded very much, but things will come back, Alan and Craig. I’m optimistic that we will find our sweet spot again. I believe in the mission of that group and any other groups that want to want to elect same-minded Republicans. There’s another group, VIEW PAC, run by my friend Julie Conway, and she tries to elect more women in office. So there are a lot of good outside groups that are helping to grow the tent for the Republican Party.

Craig Volden (46:04):

Yeah, yeah. And I want to follow up on one policy element. You were saying that in that group you were working on immigration policy. And now that’s just such a tough nut to crack and to build a coalition around. I’m wondering.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (46:18):

It is.

Craig Volden (46:19):

Yeah, I wonder, how would you kind of describe the different views on what we should do on immigration over your time in Congress? And then, kind of, are there some prospects for reform into the future that you see?

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (46:30):

Well, I hope so. I hope that we can get back to that. We’ve had, you know, I’ve served in Congress with a Republican President, a Democratic President, Republican leadership in the House, Democrat leadership in the Senate, as well. So every kind of combination I’ve been under, and in none of those have we figured out what’s the magic formula for passing comprehensive immigration reform. What we do come to understand now is that when we have such bleeding at the border, when hundreds of people are coming through, those of us who are for comprehensive immigration reform understand that we will never get to pass the bill. We will never get the American people with us unless we put a stop to the migration at the border because we cannot allow so many people to come in illegally. And people think, well, “How will we ever help the people who did follow the law and who are here and want to comply and want to become citizens?” So you can’t, we just can’t have it both ways. And right now it’s a very difficult time. I congratulate Congresswoman Salazar for advancing a good immigration bill. And you have people like Congressman David Valadao of California and so many good people; Dan Newhouse of Washington State, who do want to pass solid immigration reform. But we just can’t have that hemorrhaging at the border. So right now we saw a very ugly example with poor Senator Lankford of Oklahoma being given the task of coming up with an immigration plan, and when he comes up with a plan, then he gets blasted as being a ‘R.I.N.O.,’ and you know it’s tough right now. I would say this is a tough time to be a clear-thinking Republican. But it will get back to being to sanity. I think things will work out for the best.

Alan Wiseman (48:38):

I mean, I think one thing that lots of viewers are really go to appreciate about this interview, Congresswoman, is not only that you have this amazing track record inside Congress and being able to advance real, meaningful policy change, but the ways in which you’re able to highlight what factors contributed to success. Not only yours but among members of your own party and members of the Democrats. And, for lack of a phrase, you’re so positive, so to speak, about us moving forward.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (49:04):

I’m very optimistic, you know. I believe in the greatness of America, and I believe in the greatness of individuals and the greatness of members of Congress. And I believe that if you want to help your community, you’re go to take on these tough challenges. Maybe there’s no reward in doing so, but the reward will be in your heart, and we will be in the future.

Alan Wiseman (49:28):

I mean, thinking about, I imagine you interact quite a bit with people who are earlier in their political careers, either inside or outside of Congress, and I’d be curious to know, just giving your experience your observations, especially having left the House, do you think, in general, the factors that you felt contributed to your success as a lawmaker, do you think those same factors still hold? Especially for members of the Republican Party? I mean, I really appreciate your analysis of immigration reform and just the different competing pressures. But, you know, I guess, for lack of a better phrase, you know, let’s say someone hits the ground running, they’re newly elected to Congress, either as a Democrat – but focus on Republicans given your own personal knowledge – what would you recommend to them in terms of what strategies they might want to employ? Or the things that you felt worked for you that should be just as successful for them in helping them advance their agendas and serve their constituents.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (50:20):

Well, Alan, that is an amazingly terrific question. We wish we knew the answer to how to be an effective legislator and how to accomplish your goals, and I would say, be bipartisan. Talk to people who you may not agree with on everything, but you can find ways to build those bridges of understanding and ways to advance your goals. And when you file a bill, don’t just file it with 50 Republicans. Go to the Democratic side of the aisle, and some people just don’t want to do it because they’re so worried about being called a “Republican In Name Only” that they will not talk to Democrats. And so I say this to the Republicans: seek out input from the Democratic side of the aisle. Have them be a co-sponsor of your bill rather than getting 50 Republicans to sign on to your bill. Put that time and energy into getting one Democrat to be the co-sponsor of your most important bill, and then build on that. And as you get one more Republican, try to get another Democrat and ask that Democrat to get you another. And I think that you will find that you can easily pass these bills, because at the heart of the matter, most people are not so partisan, and they’re not so blindly attached o to one party. They can see “Right now we’re you know, we’re an election year for the Presidency, and maybe somebody will be listening to this 3 years from now, and they’ll think, wow! Why did she say that? You know it doesn’t seem to be so bad.” But right now it’s it’s kind of bad, and it’s kind of toxic. But at this point, when we’re doing this interview, it’s really hard for some Republicans to reach out to Democrats and say, “Hey, look at this bill. I think, that it’s got some good points. Why don’t you read it? If you want me to make some changes, let’s work together.” It makes you a better member of Congress, and it builds some good roots for your future. Because if you want to be there for 5 or 10 years, you’re go to need those members that in your committee and in, maybe you belong to caucuses, because it’s not just committee work. They have caucuses that are, you know, the Taiwan Caucus and all kinds of caucuses that are domestic as well; the Head Start caucus. And you can build, you can build those connections, and you can build some of those bridges. So I found in my legislative career, both in the State House and in the State Senate and in the U.S. Congress, that building those relationships was always good. You will have – you will be a better member of Congress if you look at this issue from another point of view. Nobody’s perfect, only God. So maybe your point of view, you’ve never looked at it standing from somebody else’s perspective and in their shoes. So I find that you can learn good things even from awful people.

Craig Volden (53:26):

Excellent advice for new members of Congress, for new State legislators. And for my final question, I want to take it even a step back. So the Center for Effective Lawmaking is located at Vanderbilt University and the University of Virginia, and so we’re wondering if if you have any particular advice or insights that you want to share with college students today.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (53:46):

Well, I’m ready to go to Nashville. No doubt about it, and Charlottesville. I’m ready. Just let me know.

Alan Wiseman (53:51):

Well, we’d love to have you hear. It’s a great time.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (53:54):

Great cities. I know them well. I would advise your students to be fair as you analyze people. Don’t be so harsh to judge someone and have an open mind. Be true to your principles. Having an open mind doesn’t mean that you know that you don’t stand for anything, or that you don’t have principles. I believe that I have strong principles. I believe in democracy, freedom of the press, the rule of law, and all the institutions that we love. Those are things that I lost in my native homeland of Cuba, so I cherish them very much here in this, my new country. But we can easily lose them unless we have good people, like the students of Vanderbilt, like the students of UVA, sign up to become elected officials or to become campaign managers, whether it’s at the local level or at a higher level. Sometimes local level is the hardest job to have. But I’ve found that you can also have a pretty good time. Charlie Rangel wrote a book after his World War 2 experiences, he says, “Haven’t had a bad day yet,” and that’s how I feel about it. When you lose your homeland to communism, and you have this beautiful country, the United States of America, you say, “Wow, I really won the lottery,” and that’s how Tom Lantos and I felt when we chaired and helmed the Foreign Affairs Committee. So get involved in your community. Get involved in the in your area when you go back home and make your community a better place by running for office.

Alan Wiseman (55:38):

Well, thanks so much for that. Sadly, our time’s about to wrap up, but we really appreciate the opportunity to talk with you today.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: 55:45

Boy, time went by so fast.

Alan Wiseman (55:47):

I know, I know. As we wrap up, though, Craig and I really want to give you essentially a final opportunity to see if there’s anything else you want to share with us about your perspectives on effective lawmaking in Congress that we didn’t ask about, or more generally, any other topic that you feel we left out that we want to make sure you had a chance to comment on.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (56:05):

Well, I would say just one last thing. You know there are no final victories, no final defeats. And I found in my many years of public service, when you think you put an issue to bed it comes back again, and you have to fix it and refix it and alter it. And that’s just like in our lives and like in our marriages and in our families. You know, you work at it, and you try to perfect it and we want that more perfect union. And that’s a job and a homework assignment that belongs to each and every one of us. Each one of us has a responsibility to our nation to create this more perfect union and to follow what Abraham Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. And to strive every day to make this United States of America an even better country. And I hear people saying, “You know we’ve never been so divided as we are now.” And I say to them, “Have you heard about the Civil War?” You know we’ve been very divided. We were killing one another, and, you know, the bloodiest battles ever, most casualties ever combined. And so we’ve been divided and we made it through. And we’re divided right now. But we’re go to make it through. But it’s up to each and every one of us to be that difference, to be that change. When you look in the mirror, be that person that you want to be, and like that T-shirt says, be the person your dog already thinks you are. Dogs give us unconditional love, so strive for that perfection.

Craig Volden (57:40):

Well, thanks for that final comment. And really thanks so much for your insights and for taking the time with us.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (57:46):

Alan and Craig, thank you so much. I enjoyed it very much. So if it didn’t record, I’m ready to redo it.

Alan Wiseman (57:54):

Prefect! I am pretty confident it will be okay. Take care!

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (57:58):


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