Center for Effective Lawmaking

Discussing Legislative Effectiveness with Representative Abigail Spanberger

Discussing Legislative Effectiveness with Representative Abigail Spanberger

 Representative Abigail Spanberger (D-VA7) spent her freshman term in Congress on a variety of high profile initiatives. In a conversation with Professors Craig Volden (UVA) and Alan E. Wiseman (Vanderbilt University), Co-Directors of the Center for Effective Lawmaking, Representative Spanberger shares valuable insights into what it takes to be an effective lawmaker in Congress. 

Join us as the Congresswoman answers questions on how she approaches her job, such as how she seeks to build bipartisan coalitions, how a legislator tries to cultivate a policy agenda that reflects her priorities, and her best advice to students who are beginning to think of their years after graduation.

Transcript of the recording as follows:

Alan E. Wiseman (00:00):

Well, good afternoon. Thanks so much for joining us today. Um, I’m Alan Wiseman and one of the co-directors for the center for effective lawmaking, which is a joint research enterprise, headquartered at the university of Virginia and the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, as well as Vanderbilt University. And myself and my co-director Craig Volden are very excited to welcome Representative Abigail Spanberger, uh, to have a discussion with us about her experiences, both, uh, serving in Congress in the broad sense, as well as her personal experiences in terms of trying to navigate her policy agenda forward. As many of you know, Congresswoman Spanberger as a proud University of Virginia alum she currently represents the seventh district of the state of Virginia and has a substantial track record in public service. Both serving as a postal inspector as well as, uh, many years serving in the Central Intelligence Agency for the United States. So thank you so much for coming here and spending a little bit of time with us today, Congresswoman. We’re really excited to talk with you about your experiences.

Rep. Spanberger (01:04):

Thank you for having me.

Alan E. Wiseman (01:05):

Really it’s our pleasure. And, uh, you know, Professor Volden, and I, Craig and I, had come up with that broad list of questions we were hoping we could talk with you about, so really just to dive in, um, just given your experience in Congress thus far, we were curious from your perspective, when you first arrived as a freshman in Congress, what really were your biggest challenges or some things that, you know, to some degree shocked to you about the institution?

Rep. Spanberger (01:29):

So I think the biggest challenges were just getting used to the fact that there is lot of this is the way it’s done mentality that existed in Congress. Uh, it’s an institution that is focused on tradition, which in many ways is an excellent element of the, of the history and of the process. But that mentality, I think also stops us from at times, getting creative or really pushing on things we should be pushing on. And even just some of the like basics of things, for example, the first term members, uh, who are called freshmen though, as a UVA alumni have issues with that, that just doesn’t resonate with me. Right? The, the first year members, when we come from orientation, there’s a Republican bus and a Democratic bus. And so even at the most, the earliest stages, there, there is this tradition of, of separating us.

Rep. Spanberger (02:29):

And I, I frankly don’t know how long that tradition I guess is, has been in place, but I found that to be actually really challenging because I wanted to come to Washington, and work with people across the spectrum. And, you know, the first week here I had to actually just get on the Republican bus in order to, uh, to, to meet some members across the aisle. So I think there’s some, in depth, just the way things run that, and that I think sometimes makes it harder for us to come together on issues, particularly straightforward issues. And so just learning the ropes, of, uh, of a place that I, I think could perhaps benefit from some changes in the systems and the processes.

Craig Volden (03:19):

It sounds like up front, you were given a lot of advice and this is the way things are and so on. Um, some of which you thought was not quite right. Um, but was there also some pieces of advice you wish you had been given in those early days as you were starting out?

Rep. Spanberger (03:37):

Um, I think pieces of advice that I wish I had, or that I had been given would be just to learn the rules of the House and how the actual process occurs. You know, I think that ultimately I was able to hire and assemble a really excellent team that had spent time on the Hill. Uh, but I, I wish that in that time between election and actually getting here, we have our big book that they give us of the rules of the House and parliamentary procedure. I wish I had actually boned up on my parliamentary procedure, uh, quite a bit, but I actually had been given excellent advice, which I will mention, but it, wasn’t your question, by former fifth district Congressman, uh, Tom Perriello, who said, when you go to Washington, just be very clear in your mind of the votes that are worth taking, regardless of any consequence.

Rep. Spanberger (04:36):

And so if you know, what, what you think is worth losing for, or not returning to Congress over, um, that will help you have the clarity to always vote in the way that you know, is, is dictated by your principles. And then he said, you know, there are many worse things than being a one or two term Congressman. So that’s a little bit of levity that I think recognizing that I’m here to do a job and I’m going to do it the best I can. And that the consequences of that, uh, really shouldn’t matter if I’m doing the right things.

Craig Volden (05:12):

How many of the votes that you take, do you think are that type, are those really tough ones and how quickly did they come when you first arrived was a day one?

Rep. Spanberger (05:20):

it came pretty quickly, uh, all of a sudden, you know, you spend all of your time campaigning on healthcare. Uh, at least in our district, I did healthcare, healthcare, healthcare, and then we get here and it’s, you know, there are members who had been in Congress for, you know, been waiting to be in the majority for a decade. And so there’s a laundry list of bills that had never been on my radar that were suddenly coming up for, for votes and on the issues that I hadn’t along the campaign trail taken the time to really dig into, or to kind of understand the nuance or even in some cases to get a feel for what it would mean the ground in my district. And so some of those endeavors came really, really quickly, which, uh, was kind of a jolt on a whole host of different priorities.

Craig Volden (06:11):

Looks like you’ve gone the wrong direction on that one.

Alan E. Wiseman (06:18):

Now, can you hear me now? Okay. Uh, related to that point then, and I actually want to pick up a point you raised about your staff, um, with so many issues really just swirling onto your radar so quickly. I’m just curious, I’m really nuts and bolts perspective. How did you go about setting up your staff when you first came into the office? You know, was it important for you to try to find people that had substantial legislative experience on the Hill? Or are you interested in people that you had closer or professional ties with prior to coming up to the Capitol?

Rep. Spanberger (06:51):

So I was interested in a little bit of a mix of both from my campaign team, uh, which is not uncommon that folks will transition from the campaign team to the congressional team. Initially we had in our district office, uh, so the, the folks who were working in constituent services and focused on the needs within the district, uh, we had a couple of people come over from the campaign team and they were great fits because they know so many of they know the area they’re from the district, all three of them actually, yeah, individuals joined our, uh, constituent service team, and had spent a lot of time just being crisscrossed around the district. So that was a really good fit to bring people over from the campaign. Ultimately, um, in our Washington office, we had two women come over from the campaign, uh, but for a short period of time to help get the office up and running.

Rep. Spanberger (07:47):

And so they’ve both gone back into the campaign world and were more, spinning up the operations. So we, in our DC office, it was important to me to bring together talented people who are focused on some of the issues that are really important, within our district and in particular agricultural related issues, and healthcare related issues. And, and people who have some experience on the Hill, it’s incredibly valuable. And when, what they don’t tell you is that when you’re newly elected, the resumes just come from everywhere. And so it was pretty interesting again, having no Hill experience, not necessarily knowing all of the things I should be asking and looking for. But I think we have assembled a really excellent team. We’ve hired, uh, entry level folks while I’ve hired entry level folks, who’ve risen up in the ranks, a couple who have gone on to other teams where they’ve risen up the ranks there.

Rep. Spanberger (08:46):

Um, but it, when you don’t know what you don’t know about the legislative process, it’s actually a pretty interesting challenge to try and determine who’s the right fit. But, uh, you know, our chief of staff was, was with me day one when we opened our doors and she was in a legislative role. Um, and then came, uh, ultimately I promoted her into the chief of staff role and she’s a phenomenal fit, and didn’t have prior Hill experience, but had worked for nonprofits internationally. And our legislative director for example, has been in legislative roles for quite some time. So we’ve got a little bit of people who have the right skill set, but learn the job is, is the case with our Chief, but then people who have been in the Hill environment and, and rising up the ranks and learning, there is also a, an element of it.

Craig Volden (09:37):

You mentioned coming in and, and, uh, the district focused on healthcare and on agriculture. And so that’s kind of the district part. I’m wondering about kind of, how do you think about your personal background and what you’re passionate about in just terminating what you do in setting your legislative agenda?

Rep. Spanberger (09:54):

So I, I do have a background in national security. It is my area of passion and my area of expertise. And so when I was applying for, and that’s what you do, you write a letter essentially, petitioning to be on particular committees. And I had two choices. I wanted to be on the agriculture committee, so I could best serve my district, which is majority agricultural and landmass. And I wanted to serve on the foreign affairs committee where I could bring my background of national security experience. And so I think having those two viewpoints and those two priorities in terms of my committee engagement, I think, has been helpful. I know that my engagement on the foreign affairs committee has brought in an important perspective. I would, I would say. Um, and, and frequently it’s been a wonderful opportunity with colleagues to be, you know, among a couple of us who have served overseas when people really have, what is the, on the ground experience of this thing that we’re discussing, or, you know, in the time that you were overseas, what was this like?

Rep. Spanberger (10:55):

And I think that that adds adds value. It’s also allowed me to focus on things like trade, and tariffs, which is really the intersection of agriculture and foreign relations and international relations. And, and then on some of the larger issues that matter to people, immigration of course, is an issue that is related to agriculture when you think workforce. But also in the broader discussion about how do we contend with the challenges of increasing numbers of people coming to the Southern border, looking to come to the United States. And so that’s a place where with my intelligence background, I was able to partner with another former intelligence community colleague to address some of the issues related to the root causes of, of, uh, people fleeing their homes and ultimately coming to the U.S. In attempt to file for asylum.

Alan E. Wiseman (11:52):

I’m really just given your perspective, especially speaking as someone who had really substantial foreign policy experience or expertise coming into Congress, I’m wondering, you know, I having been there now and interacted with a wide range of colleagues at different experiences, do you think members that enter Congress with either a prior military or intelligence experience just generally see the policymaking process differently than those who might not have had military experience or experience of the intelligence community? I mean, independent of issues dealing directly with foreign policy?

Rep. Spanberger (12:24):

I, in a broad brush way, I would say yes, absolutely. And I think that’s particularly true for, um, in this new class of freshmen, there are quite a few of us on both sides of the aisle who have military or intelligence experience, quite a few of us who had never thought or had it in our minds to run for office. And I think that part of why our perspective might be slightly different is because, uh, we spent time and, you know, depending upon the length of service that someone had in nonpartisan organizations where your mission focused, where you are driven by the goal and the mission of what it is you’re set to achieve, and, uh, people rally around making that successful. And so there’s a lot less individualism in that, and particularly on the intelligence side and the intelligence community, part of our practice, and this might be a little bit different than the chain of command set up within the, um, within the military is part of what we would do routinely would be to question one another and try to run through scenarios.

Rep. Spanberger (13:32):

How do we make this, you know, this is what we think we’re going to be doing. Is this the best way to do it? What are the potential threats? What are the, how, how could this go wrong? All of the ways that somebody planned could go wrong and you spent a lot of time, uh, playing devil’s advocate. And so I think even that mentality where it’s ingrained in you, that you don’t ever have the perfect or the singularly perfect idea. And that feels very comfortable to say, well, you know, this is what I would do. And then a bunch of people disagree with you and that’s a comfortable thing. And so I do think that that’s an added benefit for those of us who’ve been mission focused and also, uh, quite comfortable having people disagree with us regularly, or at least challenge our ideas regularly.

Craig Volden (14:15):

That’s really interesting. When you come to Congress, you essentially are taking on many, many different jobs. It feels like. Um, so some is constituency service, helping the folks back home, others are oversight or in the policy arena, it’s writing laws, but also researching the laws of other people and maybe trying to stop some that you don’t agree with. Uh, and so on, across that whole portfolio, how do you think, you know, you’re spreading yourself? Are there some areas you’re more interested in than others? Is there something that sets you apart as a Congresswoman?

Rep. Spanberger (14:52):

My office has tremendously strong constituent services in terms of the support that we’ve given to individuals in, in the needs that they have with, um, uh, federal agencies. And in some cases we’ve helped with state agencies, particularly with the dairy margin program. We sent out letters to every dairy farmer in our district, advising them of some of the changes in the notification time or the signup timeframes. With COVID, we kept putting together resource guides and pushing that out. And, and I, I give those examples because I think we’ve been highly effective, but a lot of that, I drive it in principle, but it’s about having a good team that’s going to follow through and actually take the day to day action. So while we have a strong team, uh, that’s been an issue of me continually prioritizing it. And, um, you know, occasionally coming up with an idea that I think we should run with, but most of the time that’s, uh, those successes are a result of having a really strong and engaged team.

Rep. Spanberger (15:46):

On the legislative side, you know, the successes and the focus that we’ve had on district specific legislation, uh, is a result of our legislative team, our constituent service team, and then me as the one who’s frequently meeting people who have a particular need or who want to advocate for something, uh, either me bringing it to the legislative team or, um, or a whole team meeting together and us discussing, well, we met with a constituent who had this particular problem, let’s dig into this because surely he can’t be the only one. And then when you find the surely he can’t be the other one, then you’re on, you know, or this constituency group is doing this really great thing. How do we broaden the impact? Is there a framework that we could come up with to provide, uh, to the, is there a framework that we can come up with that kind of engages the federal government?

Rep. Spanberger (16:38):

And so we’ve been able to do that on the new district focus legislation. Um, and then beyond that, I have legislative assistants focus on various different buckets. And I’ll give the example of our healthcare policy person. He is just exceptionally good on issues of healthcare policy. So he is constantly tracking what’s happening in the Senate. What other members are, um, or working on. And that comes through his engagement with staff of those other members. And so we’re able to join efforts in those sorts of scenarios and then in a normal circumstance outside of the pandemic, there’s a lot of time where, uh, there’s, there’s a lot of inefficiency in Congress, which is sometimes very problematic, but the inefficiency between vote series, when you call for a vote, they leave it open. There’s like one or two people who are running late, and everybody stands around waiting for the next vote to be called that time, if you’ve got your laundry list of legislation, you want to kind of heckle people about can be really effective. And so I spend a lot of time with my little lists of names and my flyers of the different types of legislation I’ve been working on, uh, running around, and, and tagging people, seeing if they’ll get interested in the legislation. So it’s, it’s a little bit of a mix. It’s a, it’s a lot of reading. It’s a lot of teamwork, frankly, across our district team and our legislative team, and a lot of engaging with other members just to say, you know, what are your areas of interest? Because, um, you know, just today I was on a call with the Virginia delegation and one of the members said, I think this has been an issue related to schools and broadband internet, I’m working on a bill.

Rep. Spanberger (18:22):

And so then, you know, having those constantly open lines of communication, it’s a, it’s a little slice of a problem that I’ve been working on for quite some time. And so I immediately came back to my team and said, Oh my gosh, Rob’s working on this. You know, let’s, let’s go ahead and join forces with him on this because it’s a, it’s a fix to a small part of a problem that, you know, I had been looking at a bigger piece of it. But his fix is actually gonna be really impactful if it moves forward quickly.

Craig Volden (18:51):

Uh, and taking that a step further, there’s a couple of bills that you’ve sponsored that you’ve been able to shepherd all the way through the house already. Uh, the Secure 5G and Beyond Act of 2020, uh, and the Public Disclosure of Drug Discounts and Realtime Beneficiary Drug Cost act. Um, now most freshmen don’t get anything moving forward. How are you able to get extra traction on those issues? And what can you tell us about them?

Rep. Spanberger (19:16):

So I think part of it is about…so I’ll, I’ll talk about the prescription, uh, the drug transparency bill. So this is a bill that would require a transparency in a pharmacy benefit manager, discounts and vouchers, and you know, there’s a lot of work that’s occurring within the prescription drug space related to lowering the cost of, of drugs. And I’ve been very supportive of a variety of different issues and close spot. And I led introduced to particular bills, this being one of them. And so to get this one to the floor, essentially, part of the pitch that I made that I made with, uh, colleagues within the house, and certainly with, uh, the leadership of the relevant committees is this is a foundation piece. This is – passing this bill is actually a larger element. It was the first step towards greater transparency and understanding that the landscape in prescription drug pricing,

Rep. Spanberger (20:14):

it doesn’t pivot us towards one solution or the other, It doesn’t pivot us towards one policy or another. It’s actually just transparency and how PBMs do their pricing. Um, and so wherever, you know, people want to go and whatever bills might take priority, our bill does not, um, negatively impact. In fact, it lays the groundwork for those bills now, and that was of course, a unique selling point for this bill. But part of it was recognizing that this is a selling point that should be made. And so that bill did pass the House. The 5G that you mentioned, um, you know, this was a bill that we worked in partnership with the Senate office. So Senator Cornyn was the lead, uh, from Texas on the Senate side. Um, and Senator Warner, uh, was the colead there. And so I worked, I mean, we, I worked and then my team worked directly with Cornyn’s office for quite some time kind of just always raising this as, this is a really important bill, especially as everyone’s talking about China, especially as everyone’s talking about 5g, we need a plan. And so that one was just sheer persistence. Uh, and the fact that our bill did pertain to something that I think is, um, from a wholly bipartisan point of view, people have been talking about the threat of Chinese technology. Well, what are you gonna do about it? And this bill is one of the elements of what we’re going to do about it. So I think it helps to have a bill that’s relatively, um, in front and center of, uh, some of the things that are important to people

Craig Volden (21:51):

On that latter one, you talked about kind of how Senate, uh, working together, uh, similarly on the first one, just the, uh, does that have good, good chance of moving through the Senate?

Rep. Spanberger (22:01):

So the, the five GI bill is right.

Craig Volden (22:04):

No, the second one, the transparency,

Rep. Spanberger (22:06):

Uh, the transparency. So a little bit, um, that has ebbed and flowed a bit. We’ve heard that they’re, um, they want to pull it into a larger prescription drug package. And that was sort of the path that it was going to take, um, is that it was gonna get pulled into a larger drug package in the Senate side, but that was how they were planning for it back in March. Um, I think at this point, because of where we are with COVID, that, that it won’t move this Congress, but initially they were going to roll it into a package on the Senate side is what had been the plan.

Craig Volden (22:42):

Things have changed since March.

Rep. Spanberger (22:44):

That’s right.

Alan E. Wiseman (22:45):

That’s an understatement. Um, I’m curious. I mean, I really appreciate the way in which you’re able to articulate your own legislative priorities and how they’re tied to both your district, as well as your own personal background and professional experiences. And I’m wondering, um, either thinking about yourself and the way you’ve structured your time, or thinking about other members in your cohort or other cohorts, I was curious to know if you see any obvious trade offs between choosing to specialize in a relatively narrow set of issues or single policy areas, or possibly gaining quite a bit of expertise in that area versus developing a broader, and in some cases, quite broad legislative portfolio, across many different issue areas. Do you see advantages to one perspective versus the other either based on your own experiences or just observations?

Rep. Spanberger (23:33):

So I, I think it would perhaps depend on one’s preference and maybe even one’s background. I will happily make an argument that anything and everything is actually a national issue. So I bring my background, you know, preschool education is a national security issue, from my perspective, as an example, um, you know, I think that there’s benefit in being broader overall because at the end of the day, we have to vote on all of the bills. And so for those who are highly, highly specialized, that may be beneficial in the area that they pursue legislation, but it is a bit more limiting. And I think there’s different ways that one can prioritize one’s time. And how that sort of overarching strategy of what you focus on, uh, can be decided upon. But I, but I do think that in a job where we have to be voting on things just across the broadest of spectrums all the time, um, having exposure either through choosing to cosponsor or co-lead, or lead legislation kind of across the spectrum is important. Um, but that becomes this, you know, those who choose to be on the Appropriations Committee or the Ways and Means Committee there’s a, there’s a whole different type of scope, uh, in, in, in those particular committee assignments as well where they’re, again, focus on a whole array of issues, but from the funding and the financing side of things,

Craig Volden (25:12):

I want to turn back to that, uh, initial discussion you had of being put on the Democrat bus versus the Republican bus, uh, and building those coalitions. Um, by many accounts you’ve been classified as a fairly moderate Democrat. Yet as political scientists, we’ve kind of seen the center fallout in Congress that there aren’t that many moderate Democrats or moderate Republicans, compared to where they used to be, a lot of party polarization. How have you found the institution, uh, since you’ve arrived and is there room for bipartisan compromise today?

Rep. Spanberger (25:44):

So I like to classify myself as a very passionate pragmatist. It is not catching on as a as a title, but, or as a, uh, as a naming convention, but I’m going to keep pushing with it or for it. You know, I, I think one of the largest issues facing our country is the issue of gerrymandering. I work with many, many people who their only electoral concern is whether or not they have a primary. Um, and if you were in a D plus 20 district or an R plus 20 district, and your electoral concern is whether or not you’re making your party base happy, that becomes limiting in the sorts of choices that you do or do not make for the country and for your broader electorate. I think that the Congress would be a lot more effective and would get along a lot better if the entire composition, at least half the composition of Congress, had members who came from districts like ours, where, you know, I was on a conference call and, and, and had a little bit of an argument with a colleague who said, you know, who made a point and said something about the rep… You know, that’s just the Republicans in your district and to the, a broader group in, and I spoke after him. And I said, I’m going to argue that point fiercely because I represent the Republicans in my district and I represent the Democrats in my district and the independence and the people who are not registered and everyone else, and what they all think of this particular topic matters to me greatly. And so I do think that the hyper partisanship is highly detrimental to our ability to govern. But I do think that there are people who are really, really rejecting it. Again, it gets back to that earlier conversation of the way things have always been done when you have some of my critical mass, in terms of numbers of people who don’t come from an elected background, all of a sudden the party structure, and all of a sudden the way you’re supposed to do things is a little bit less relevant for some of us.

Rep. Spanberger (27:56):

And so there are places where if you want to seek out the level of bipartisanship that I think is important and valuable, uh, that exists. And so I am a member of a bipartisan group called the Problem Solvers Caucus. It’s 25 Democrats, 25 Republicans. and it’s, we’re not capped at 50. That’s just where we are in terms of, uh, you’ve got to join with a member of another party, and we’ve got, we’ve got a couple more Democrats waiting to find, a willing Republican in order to join our ranks in our commitment to each other, is we get together when we’re in person outside of a pandemic, we get together for breakfast once a week when we’re in town, usually coffee and somebody usually always forgets the creamer. So black coffee is our breakfast when we’re together. And then when we’re back in our districts, we do at least a conference call or a zoom meeting a week.

Rep. Spanberger (28:48):

And it is very, very valuable time. It’s valuable in that the whole purpose of why we’re together is talk about bill ideas, talk about bills we’re working on gain traction and bipartisan support for initiatives, but also to talk through what our ideas are. And it’s incredibly valuable to have someone who comes from a far more conservative mindset, you know, and the true, not the partisanship that the actual true conservative ideology say, well, I disagree with you on this and these are the reasons why, and to be able to ask questions, not just to have someone tell you why they disagree with you, but for me as a Democrat, as somebody who’s, you know, aligned with the democratic party because of the principles and the ideas that matter to me, that’s the party where I find my ideological home, but being able to say to someone across the aisle, we’ll walk through this with me.

Rep. Spanberger (29:42):

What do you dislike about this? Or how are you thinking about this has been incredibly valuable to me to understanding not just the thought process of my colleagues, but in fact, the thought process of many of my constituents, who would align more ideologically with some of my colleagues then than they do with me. And I think it creates an opportunity and the ability to be able to speak to issues that matter to more people. And so, you know, I, in Problem Solvers, I’m working with a colleague named Don Bacon from Nebraska, who’s a Republican and we’ve led, we were just talking about this morning, we’d fled, uh, a climate related bill. And so, you know, there’s some on the Republican side of the aisle who say, Oh, it’s a climate related bill. But what we, and …. but he came to the table willingly, cause we said, well, what’s the bucket.

Rep. Spanberger (30:33):

We both agree that climate change is an issue. What’s the bucket where we want to talk about that most fiercely? And it’s in the agriculture space because in the agriculture space, you know, he has an agricultural district. I have a fairly agricultural district or majority in land mass and your health of your soil matters. The cleanliness of your water matters to your output and your ability to, um, support yourself in the agricultural industry. But there’s also tremendous opportunity to recognize – I had a farmer once telling me, you know, farmers are the original conservationists. And so, which I think was a great line and a great point. And so we introduced this bill and we’ve brought such a coalition together, the, you know, the farm Bureau supports it. And then Ocean Spray and Land O’Lakes and all of these sort of industry folks supported, uh, League of Conservation Voters support it.

Rep. Spanberger (31:27):

And, and what it is is it’s allowing our foresters and our farmers to participate in carbon markets and to set up under USDA, a framework for quantifying what would be the carbon sink levels of a particular farm, and allowing farmers to be part of in a coordinated formal framework, one element of addressing the challenge of climate change in the space of dealing with carbon in our focus on sequestering carbon or eliminating carbon. And so, you know, in our partnership on that is really a result of the fact that, um, he said, well, you know, I’m interested in climate issues, but some things are not “climate issues” to him. And so we had a conversation about where can we go from here and what can we do? And we, that’s where the bill is. And then right now, today, actually Problem Solvers introduced a COVID relief package framework because conversations have stalled within the house and the Senate and the White House.

Rep. Spanberger (32:41):

And the way we approached it was everybody’s arguing about a number. So the Democratic leadership wants this number , Senate leadership wants this number, White House leadership basically wants whatever leadership wants, but it’s all a little bit murky. Why are we arguing about a number that means nothing to the American people when we could be talking about the programs that are important and deciding which programs are necessary for us to help our economy and help people? And so that’s what we did. And we put together a program based package recognizing that where we might be in six months might be in a better place. And perhaps we don’t need all of the programs or for as lengthy of a time period, as you know, from a, not from an economic standpoint, but from a pandemic standpoint, if we’ve gotten COVID under control by March of next year, which wouldn’t that be a wonderful position to be in, then we may not need the same level of engagement and investment that if we are in the exact same spot in March of next year, that we are right now.

Rep. Spanberger (33:43):

So we introduced that today. And it’s interesting cause it’s actually getting at least from, you know, a number of members, a fair amount of traction, where people are just excited at the idea that we’re continuing to say, this conversation cannot stop and we shouldn’t just be arguing over numbers. So I think the bipartisanship still exists. It takes a certain level of intentionality and frankly it takes a willingness to say it’s important. And particularly at a time when we are as polarized as we are, being able to say, yes, I disagree with that individual on 9 out of 10 things, but shouldn’t, I want to try to find what that one thing is. And that’s how I approach things rightly or wrongly. And I think it’s been valuable in my ability, not just to govern and get things done here, but also to serve my constituents who mirror the same spectrum that I, that I have in my colleagues.

Alan E. Wiseman (34:44):

Thanks for that. Um, I’m curious, this might touch on similar themes that 2020 is, you know, represents or not represents, it IS the hundredth anniversary of women’s right to vote in the United States across all the United States. Um, I’m curious, you know, does that anniversary have any special significance to you as well as, uh, the other women with whom you serving in the United States Congress, both within your cohort, as well as more senior cohorts across the house and the Senate?

Rep. Spanberger (35:16):

I think it’s, it was pretty powerful that a lot of the narrative about 2018 was all of the women who were, who were running and then winning, I think, well, I know data show that when women run, they win at similar rates to men, the challenges, not nearly as many women run. And so we still see Congress right at a quarter of the house of representatives members are women. And so I think in, in this year 2020 in recognizing that we’ve had the right to vote for a hundred years and that was a right, that was granted after fierce advocacy, by generations and of women focused on what that right would mean to them, I hope that it continues to demonstrate, I hope that we can continue to demonstrate a commitment to that same level of advocacy and engagement so that a hundred years from now, or hopefully not a hundred, but sooner than later, we can have greater participation across the board and, and more gender parity within the House of Representatives and certainly within the Senate.

Craig Volden (36:35):

So the, the work that we’ve done at the center kind of has two messages about women in Congress. One is that, um, by our metrics, women seem to be more effective than men all else equal in moving their bills forward, generally. But then on the other hand, we find that a lot of issues that women care the most about that they sponsor more frequently than men, that a lot of those issues aren’t moving forward, they get kind of caught up, uh, in committees and not have much success there. Can you help us sort of resolve that? Are there differences that you find between, um, what women are experiencing and what men are experiencing in Congress?

Rep. Spanberger (37:12):

So I think, I think some of the, some of the way that I, and maybe this goes back to the way that we’re raised and the way that women are taught in school and everything else, I think there is a greater notion of coalition building, a little bit less, uh, confrontation. And I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way, but, than we might see with some of our male counterparts. I think there’s a little bit more of a desire to just see good ideas move forward. And many of my women colleagues are inclined to be supportive of those efforts and whether they lead the charge or whether or not they play a supporting role, if good efforts are moving forward that matter then they’re willing to play whatever role is most effective. I think that, you know, that might be somewhat of a changing, I hope it’s a changing element of politics.

Rep. Spanberger (38:14):

I don’t know if it’s completely gendered, but when you have a job where you’re supposed to walk around and literally your ability to maintain your job is your ability to say all the great things you did. That’s, it’s a little bit of a weird dynamic for a woman who might be maybe more cooperatively minded. And, and frankly, it is more of a difficult thing, a man who might be more cooperatively minded, because it doesn’t also fit the stereotype and the notion that people have of what it is to be a politician, right? People think that you’re supposed to walk in and you know, you say, this is what we should do, and this is how we fix things. And frankly, I think to some degree, women can play a slightly different role or be a slightly different thing because you’re already not that idea of what a politician is.

Rep. Spanberger (39:07):

Like if I was to say, think of your member of Congress from Virginia, most people, and maybe I’m totally wrong. I hope I’m wrong. But your instant vision of like the perfect politician is most likely a man. But empirically looking at the numbers of who has been a politician, it would be right for you to conjure an image of a man, and conjure all sorts of images related to what that man is and who he’s, and what he’s prioritizing and things. And so I think because there’s already a little bit of a disruption in people’s expectation that women who are more focused on, not all women are, but women who choose to be focused on coalition building or kind of getting things done are able to run races and win perhaps in a way that men who might have similar personality types may not when they’re held to the mental standard and idea of what a male politician is. So I’ve spent a lot of time musing on this, because I think it’s an interesting idea. But I, I don’t know how right I am or how wrong I am with my theories on that. But I think I might’ve missed part of your question when I started going on a little bit of a tangent.

Craig Volden (40:28):

Well, the other thing – that was great and I appreciate it. The other part was just sort of, um, the issues that are moving through Congress. Do you think those natural, what either, what Americans generally care about with what women in America care about or how does that play out?

Rep. Spanberger (40:45):

I think that at times, no, I think that there’s this… There’s this ever running tally of the things that are supposed to be important and the things that take priority. And at times when you… Part of what makes that discussion interesting, or those priorities rise to the top, are people who are talking about them and some of the issues like daycare and access to daycare or access to maternity leave, and these aren’t women’s issues, these are family issues, these are children’s issues, right? Because a child’s ability go to a quality daycare or quality preschool that will impact that child for the rest of their life. But they are targeted as sort of women’s issues after a while. But I think as we continue and we’re starting to see this, at least I’m starting to, I am seeing it as increasingly the trend to view these issues as actually economic issues.

Rep. Spanberger (41:58):

So a woman’s ability, I was sitting down with an economist a bit ago, running through all these numbers, a woman’s ability to take parental leave is directly correlative to whether or not she’s still in the workforce five years later. And so when you’re looking at the strength of the workforce and we’re looking at the strength of our economy, and we see women pivoting out of the workforce, who might otherwise not do so of course, many women choose to pivot out of the workforce either permanently or for a time, but when your experience is you have a child and you cannot take the quantity of parental leave that you think is necessary to go back to the workforce, you know, ready for that, knowing that your child is in a situation that you’re comfortable with, that helps off ramp many, many women from the career trajectories that they would otherwise continue on.

Rep. Spanberger (43:00):

And so I think that as we continue to view some of these challenges facing women and families as actual just economic issues – What does it mean to our GDP if 25% of the women who leave the workforce would have otherwise stayed there? – I think it’s an important question for us to ask each other and ourselves .What does it mean if there’s no quality daycare available in a particular rural community? What does that mean for that generation, for that community’s workforce 18 years later? And you know, the same with schools, this is, I mean, our investments in schools are an investment that we do or do not make in essentially the 18 year later economy of a local area. Boiling it down, of course.

Alan E. Wiseman (43:52):

That’s, that’s a really constructive to think about. I mean, just as a quick side note, Craig and I are engaged in many of these similar discussions at a more local level, thinking about academic career trajectory and, trying to engage with broad leaky pipeline problems at all levels of the academy, which are directly tied to many of the points you’re talking about.

Alan E. Wiseman (44:16):

I know we’re running a little short on time, so, but you know, Craig and I were also just sort of interested translate from a boots on the ground perspective. Given the ways 2020 is truthfully notably different from any other year in a variety of ways, especially the COVID-19 pandemic., many people that we’ve spoken to both office holders, as well as people who’ve worked in these office and really compared running a congressional office to essentially being a mini CEO, running a small business and the like, and the two of us have really been curious to know, and I’m sure many other people also be curious to know, has it felt to you that you’ve been facing the same types of challenges that small business managers or owners have been during this COVID-19 pandemic? Or do you find it distinctly different in a variety of ways, given the demands on your time and the broader demands on your job in general?

Rep. Spanberger (45:08):

So I would say it’s distinctly different because the people who are dependent on me for their employment, so the 18 people in my congressional office, never spent a minute worried about whether or not they would get paid. They never spent a minute concerned about how they would pay their rent or their mortgage or feed their kids. And I never spent a minute worried about whether or not the people who depended on me would be able to meet their basic needs. Where there is a different sort of feeling is the fact that instead I have 750,000 people who are dependent on what I do or do not do. And during COVID, I have the honor and the responsibility and frankly, sometimes the heartache of knowing just how bad it is in our district, because people typically call their member of Congress’s office when something’s really good, or when something is devastatingly awful.

Rep. Spanberger (46:17):

And the number of calls from people who just have nowhere else to turn and don’t know what to do calling us has been very, very challenging. And particularly for my constituent service team, the folks who are answering the calls and talking to people, business owners, losing their business and families who just don’t know how to make ends meet it’s really, really, um, it’s really, really hard, but it is also incredibly motivating because if they didn’t have even just the smallest shred of hope that we could be helpful, right?, and that is in fact what my job is supposed to be, then they wouldn’t be calling. And so it’s humbling to know that you’re the lifeline call that people make so that you can understand just how bad it is. But then the responsibility is to do something with that. And so, you know, I mentioned earlier, the work that we’ve done with Problem Solvers to put out a new COVID package that’s because I don’t feel that I could ever look a constituent in the eye and say, Oh, but four months ago, the House passed a bill.

Rep. Spanberger (47:26):

And so, you know, we’re just gonna wait, cause we really liked that one. Nobody functions that way. No business,, nobody gets to say, well, I really liked what I did four months ago, so I’m not going to do anything else to fix the problem. Uh, you know, my roof is leaking, but I fixed it four months ago. I’m sure it’ll turn out and be okay someday. It’s just, it’s just not how things work. And so, because I have the experience of all of these stories and knowing just how hard it is, that’s what keeps me motivated to keep trying to get us to a point where we’ll have a package. And certainly sooner than later. In normal times though, outside of a pandemic, the feeling of running a small business is very real. And what I think people don’t realize is every member of Congress, it is essentially like a little tiny business.

Rep. Spanberger (48:26):

There’s no standard set of anything. So we determine how much leave we give people. We determine everything. We determine everyone’s salary. There’s no standard pay grades for people. We determined what days the offices are or are not open. We determine the type and the scope of positions and they say, Oh, make sure you give your staff and employee handbook, but you have to write your own employee handbook. So it’s a pretty interesting adjustment and they give you a budget. The craziest thing really is you are elected, you start trying to hire staff and they say, you’ll get your budget sometime in the new year. So you’re making salary offers to people. We didn’t get our budget until March. So our office, apart from the fact that I was fully staffed up, I basically just went super conservative on what I thought would be the MRA, the member representational account. And then mid-March, we get this letter in the mail, your annual MRA will be X amount of dollars.

Craig Volden (49:36):

That does sound like a small business challenge.

Rep. Spanberger (49:41):

With a weird Congressional overlord that, like, doesn’t keep you informed.

Craig Volden (49:46):

I’m hoping we have time for one last question? Since the Center for Effective Lawmaking is located at the University of Virginia, as well as at Vanderbilt, we wonder if you have any reflections to share from your time at UVA, maybe something that set you on the path to public service, or maybe advice that you have for current UVA students.

Rep. Spanberger (50:08):

So the advice that I would have for current UVA students: don’t be so focused. This is what I’ll say. Don’t be so focused on what you think is the singular path that you plan on taking. And I say that as someone who was kind of on a singular path – I always wanted to be in public service. I always wanted to work at CIA. And then I did that. And then I thought… Back in 2014, my husband and I had three children, we were looking at where we’re going to go next for our next overseas assignment. And our oldest daughter just said, Oh, we should go to Virginia, to which we kind of laughed it off, and said, no, no, we’ll never go back to Virginia with mommy’s job. That’s just not a thing. Or at least not to Richmond.

Rep. Spanberger (50:50):

She wanted to go to Richmond, which is where we’re from. And then it kind of got in my mind as a, as a strange idea. And we started, my husband and I started joking and he’s a UVA alum. We are both from the Richmond area. And we started joking about everything from, you know, housing prices that are affordable in Richmond, to wouldn’t it be great if we could have a grandparent babysit, you know, when the kids were driving us crazy. And then we actually decided on a real leap to have me leave the Agency, we moved back to Virginia, and our plan was, we’ll do this for five years. And if it’s not working, if I just miss CIA, we can always pivot back. I was a case officer. I did all this training. I knew people who had left and come back.

Rep. Spanberger (51:37):

That was our path. And I think as somebody who had always been pretty regimented and fairly Type A, I would classify myself, that felt like a huge leap for me. But in fact, it was right at the time. It was not in sort of my life plan. And I went with it. And what I think is interesting is, then a couple years later, we moved back to Virginia 2014, in 2017 is when I got my employment declassified and I started thinking about politics and about service and what it meant in politics. And so from there, I had this very windy path towards deciding to run for Congress. So I would say to all of the UVA and, and Vanderbilt students, make lots of great plans and then do not be afraid to be very, very adventurous.

Rep. Spanberger (52:33):

My husband, who is a very engaged engineer, when he made the decision to marry me and then move overseas with me, that was a crazy pivot in his life. And I think one he would say was a great decision. And then in terms of my reflections on my time at UVA, some of the best experiences I had at UVA, where I think I learned the most about myself and other people, would be between classes. And so I would say, and I’m going to sound like a pretty old lady at this point, put down your phones and just talk to people in the halls. Don’t check email, just talk to people and just bump into people, and ask people questions about their lives and who they are, because there’s such an amazing array of people that you have the ability to just encounter. And if you’re open to those brief conversations while you’re waiting for the class to open, or the brief conversations as you’re waiting for the cup of coffee, and I know that gets all very complicated during COVID, that’s where I think you’ll learn the most about the possibilities that exist in the world. And think through kind of who you are based on learning about how interesting and exciting kind of other the other people around you truly are. So those are the things that I would say.

Craig Volden (53:58):

Wonderful. Thanks so much.

Alan E. Wiseman (53:59):

Thanks so much for that. We’re really sorry that we have to wrap up right now, but we really appreciate you spending the time with us.

Rep. Spanberger (54:05):

Well, I appreciate the invitation and I look forward to some time in the future, visiting campus in person.

Craig Volden (54:12):

That’d be great. Thanks so much.

Alan E. Wiseman (54:13):

And we’d be glad to have you in Nashville, take care.

Rep. Spanberger (54:15):

Thank you.


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