CULPEPER — A current Republican talking point is that “Do Nothing Democrats” are obsessed with impeachment.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger, the centrist Democrat who represents Central Virginia’s sprawling 7th District, doesn’t buy it.
On Friday, her first anniversary as a member of the 166th Congress, Spanberger said she is proud of what she has achieved on health care, broadband access, fair trade, immigration, agriculture and election security.
“I am a hard-at-work, workhorse Democrat just trying to get stuff done,” she said in a phone interview while shuttling around the state capital between interviews at a TV studio about Iran and the Richmond Times-Dispatch about various topics.
It was business as usual. She and her staff didn’t do anything to mark the anniversary. Maybe, she allowed, she and her husband would toast the occasion after supper.
The freshman from Henrico County, who calls herself a passionate pragmatist, shared her thoughts on the year just past and her approach to the job.
“I’ve been plenty independent, and I think it has benefited the district. I’ve done things in what I consider is the right way for the people I represent,” Spanberger said. “Sometimes that aggravates Republicans, and sometimes that aggravates Democrats.”
Elected with a 2% margin in a district where a majority voted for Donald Trump, Spanberger is already facing a bevy of GOP challengers.
But she vowed to keep forging ahead, listening to her constituents, analyzing issues with an open mind, and looking for solutions — often with members of the Republican Party.
She noted that she has bucked her own party a number of times.
“I voted against Pelosi’s budget,” Spanberger said, opposing her party’s spending plan because it would have added $1.5 trillion to the national debt over 10 years.
She voted against electing Nancy Pelosi as House speaker. She has signed on to legislation and letters led by Republicans. And in her first weeks in office, trying to end the U.S. government shutdown, Spanberger worked with Democratic and Republican members of the Problem Solvers Caucus — even visiting the White House.
She continues working with that bipartisan caucus, seeking common-sense solutions, she said.
Asked to review 2019, Spanberger ticked off a half-dozen issues she is most proud of tackling.
First off, she recalled, she succeeded in a bipartisan push to protect federal funding to improve rural broadband internet access from a massive cut.
The House appropriated $605 million for the Agriculture Department’s Reconnect construction-loan program, but the Senate appropriated zilch. Spanberger rallied wide support when the bill was in conference committee, which coughed up $550 million.
“That’s not heralded. But it’s pretty significant to get the Senate from zero to $550 million,” she said. “I fought to keep that money in, garnered momentum to do so, and I’m very, very proud of that.”
Spanberger noted her work to bring transparency to prescription drug pricing and hold pharmacy benefit managers accountable. The nation’s three largest PBMs control three-quarters of the drug supply chain.
Her bipartisan bill requiring PBMs to report their rebates, discounts and price concessions passed the House by a 403-to-0 vote.
“It represents a lot of members saying. ‘This is straightforward. This isn’t political. This is allowing us to understand the problem in order to fix it,’” she said.
Lower drug prices
With other bills, Spanberger has worked to give Medicare the power to negotiate lower drug prices directly with pharmaceutical providers and, separately, to boost competition among generic drug manufacturers and increase access to lower-cost prescription drugs.
In December, Trump signed into law her bipartisan legislation, with Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., to combat the sharing of child pornography on government-associated networks.
Spanberger also expressed pride in encouraging negotiators of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, and advocating among colleagues for the trade pact, the successor to NAFTA.
“Creating the next-generation, foundational piece of trade policy is really, really important,” she said. “… I think it demonstrates where Congress is working. … Not only did we do it in a bipartisan way, but an overwhelmingly bipartisan way. …. We’ve paved a road map for future trade deals.”
She worked on it as a member of the House’s Problem Solvers Caucus, advocated for the pact within the Democratic caucus, conferred multiple times with the U.S. trade representative and his deputy, and met at the White House with Vice President Mike Pence. Only a few months earlier, many Democrats had been opposed to the pact, Spanberger noted.
“Be they cattlemen in Louisa County, greenhouses in Culpeper and Orange counties, a row-crop producer in Nottoway County, or a small paper company in Chesterfield, there are people and businesses in our district that stand to benefit from USMCA and wanted to see forward movement on trade stability,” she said.
Better border security
In December, President Trump signed into law Spanberger’s bipartisan border-security bill to combat drug trafficking and human smuggling networks in Central America’s Northern Triangle — Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico. It directs U.S. intelligence agencies to prioritize such efforts.
Spanberger, a former CIA operations officer, introduced the legislation in July with Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, also a former CIA case officer.
Hurd and Spanberger visited the U.S.-Mexico border, and came back determined to find a solution for some of the problems they saw there.
“I’m not going to look at this as a political talking point. I’m actually going to dive into this problem,” Spanberger said she resolved. “So, what is causing the challenges we are seeing at the southern border? How do we get at the heart of that? How can the U.S. provide for greater stability so fewer families are fleeing and trying to come to the U.S. for asylum? Because, frankly, no one wants to flee their home.”
Another attempt to address border issues came in her Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which the House passed in December. It would improve predictability for Central Virginia agriculture employers and reform the immigration system for farm workers, so farmers, dairymen and greenhouse operators can count on a steady — and legal — labor supply.
People are coming across the border for jobs that U.S. employers, particularly agricultural employers, want and need filled, she noted.
“So, how can we make sure employers have the workforce they need, and have a framework through which they can legally hire the folks they need to work on farms and dairies and greenhouses in the 7th District?” she said of the resulting legislation.
It will help meet the needs of year-round ag producers and relieve some of the pressure at the border, Spanberger said.
“I am proud of the fact that there is this seemingly insurmountable problem that people want to call a crisis, and I’ve been a part of saying. ‘Yes, it’s a challenge, but we need to take the next step of understanding it and trying to stop it,’” she added. “… You can’t just put up a wall and stop people from coming.”
“Let’s recognize and be earnest about the fact … that part of what drives them here is that we need agricultural workers,” she added. “Looking at policy in a thoughtful manner and actually trying to do something to help the problem is something that I’m proud of having done.”
Spanberger said she takes satisfaction in being open to all constituents and active across the 10-county district.
She has held 12 countywide town halls, plus issue-specific forums on broadband access and prescription drugs, as well as roundtables with Alzheimer’s-afflicted families, farmers, cattlemen and conservationists. In her first three months in office, her town halls surpassed the number held by her predecessor, Dave Brat, in his entire term, Spanberger said.
“I’m accessible. I’m out there in the community. I’m learning from the constituents I represent, and trying to be responsive,” she said. “I have a really engaged team, both in D.C. and the district.”
“I work for the people I represent whether they voted for me or not. … I want to hear from everyone. It doesn’t matter if you agree with me, disagree with me, or are neutral. All of you are the people I represent, and I want to hear from you,” she said, invoking phrases she utters during town-hall meetings. “It’s my job, and that helps me do my job better.”
Her constituent-services team closed more than 600 cases in its first year, returning $730,000 in Medicare, Medicaid, veterans and other benefits to 7th District residents.
“That were dollars owed to people — veterans who weren’t getting their disability payments, seniors who didn’t get their Social Security, people with disabilities and Medicare reimbursements,” Spanberger said. “Those are people who have worked for those dollars; they just needed help getting through the system.”
In 2020, Spanberger said she will continue holding town-hall meetings and issue-specific forums. Her staff plans to expand its office hours in local libraries and other venues, and to better advertise them in advance.
A civil dialogue
Representing nearly 800,000 people, she realizes she can’t get to know all of her constituents. But she wants them to know she is there for them.
“Maybe they don’t come to a town hall, but they know they could,” Spanberger said. “That’s the first step in saying, ‘That lady is there for me to ask questions. I get to ask the questions. I get to hold her accountable. I get to understand this.’”
If people feel boxed out from their government, “That’s not good for democracy, that’s not good for the individual,” she said.
The kind of conversations people have with one another and with her at town hall meetings “are so important,” provided that they are respectful, Spanberger said.
“… We should be able to argue with each other and debate with each other. That’s what a vibrant democracy is all about,” she said. “Nobody is 100% correct. You’re only able to achieve something better when you know all the options on the table.”