First-term lawmakers arriving on Capitol Hill after the 2018 midterms got a wild ride as soon as they grasped the reins of political power.
They were sworn-in amid the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. They then hurtled into the deeply divisive impeachment of President Trump.
Before the term was up, they would vote on the largest economic recovery in U.S. history and get locked out of Congress by an unprecedented public health crisis.
The Washington Times spoke to five freshman House members about the experience.
Rep. Greg Steube
Rep. Greg Steube said the issues he ran on — tax reform and immigration — had to take a back seat to the nonstop crises.
“My whole first year was impeachment hearings all day long,” he said. “I didn’t really feel like I knew what it was to have a normal congressional schedule until January of this year.”
And that didn’t last long.
“So you had about one or two months of that and then, boom, we’re into 100% coronavirus,” the Florida Republican said.
Working through the pandemic has completely shifted how lawmakers, like many Americans, do their jobs.
Mr. Steube is on the phone pretty much all day, between party leadership conference calls, briefings from the White House and reaching out to help constituents adjust to life under lockdown.
“It’s affected the way that we’re trying to get information to our districts,” he said. “You can’t go and do a town hall in person, or I can’t go down to my local hospitals.”
While some members see the shift from impeachment to a pandemic as a good for fostering bipartisanship, Mr. Steube said he was disappointed by what he sees as Democrats using the crisis to push their political agenda.
“People just want help from their government, and they don’t want the typical partisan bickering,” he said.
Rep. John Joyce
Rep. John Joyce described his initiation to Congress as a whirlwind of surprises.
“I never anticipated that I would enter Congress during the longest government shutdown in our nation’s history. And then, in quick order face an impeachment process, and an impeachment vote,” he said. “And then, face the largest infectious violation of our country.”
One silver lining he found was Congress’ ability to turn — in just a few weeks — from the bitterly divisive fight over impeaching Mr. Trump to passing massive coronavirus spending bills with near-unanimous support.
“Our nation is now united in a shared fight against the coronavirus,” the Pennsylvania Republican said.
While all four spending bills have passed on a strong bipartisan vote, the negotiation process was embroiled in partisan bickering.
The rescue packages, which total nearly $3 trillion, were the product of intense legislative work, much of it done while members remained in their home districts because of the social distancing guidelines.
Mr. Joyce, a dermatologist, said his office has labored to help businesses owners in his district avail themselves of the federal aid, such as the Paycheck Protection Program that provides loans for small businesses to make payroll.
Rep. Pete Stauber
The biggest lesson for Rep. Pete Stauber in his first term has been the importance of getting beyond partisan gridlock.
He highlighted the government shutdown and impeachment as two situations that he said were historic in the level of partisanship on display.
“That shutdown, it was born out of partisan disagreement,” the Minnesota Republican said. “And now this pandemic was born in another country, and through no fault of our own we’re in this situation. The most important thing is how we respond as a nation. That’s what matters the most. We come together.”
Moving forward, Mr. Stauber believes Congress is going to emerge from the pandemic with a new focus on ensuring the American supply chain is independent and reliable, so the country is better prepared to weather any unpredictable disaster like the coronavirus.
“The defining moment is the exceptionalism of the American people and the compassion that so many Americans are showing every day during the pandemic, the willingness of our manufacturing facilities in every community in this nation coming together to support one another,” he said.
Rep. Steve Watkins
Rep. Steve Watkins said that when he started in Congress he wasn’t sure what to expect from his colleagues.
Coming from the military, where he served in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Kansas Republican said he found a similar spirit of teamwork on Capitol Hill and a “phenomenal” cohesion within the Republican Party.
“It’s been challenging but I think that I truly believe that it’s those challenging moments that develop courage and wisdom and strength,” he said. “And perhaps at times, reveal it. And so I actually feel grateful that we were faced with those challenges. I mean I’ve chosen to do and pursue tough work and tough places in my career.”
However, Mr. Watkins stressed that while there are strong partisan tensions on Capitol Hill — he noted his frustrations with the impeachment process — work on veterans and defense issues has been bipartisan.
“There’s this siblinghood or a brotherhood that runs thick,” he said. “It’s been more positive than one might think, just from the news.”
He hopes that spirit will continue as Congress tries to navigate both a massive health crisis and an unprecedented economic spiral with the coronavirus.
“We’re traveling dangerously close to a global economic meltdown. So we’ve got to, we’ve got to steer the festival between that narrow pass, and not hit the shores on either side,” he said.
Rep. Elaine Luria
Ms. Luria came into office as one of the Democrats’ majority-making red-to-blue district winners.
The Virginia Democrat helped make Rep. Nancy Pelosi the speaker of the House, but Ms. Luria has shown her allegiance to her conservative-leaning district by bucking party leadership a handful of times.
Ms. Luria said the government shutdown was a bit of trial by fire for her.
One of the first bills she introduced would have allowed federal employees to borrow funds from their savings plans without penalty during a shutdown. She also spearheaded a bipartisan letter to try to bridge the gaping partisan divide blocking a deal.
“There was a huge sense of urgency like we need to get the government to essentially pay the people who are protecting our country,” she said. “When your team has to show up on day one and get to work on something as critical as reopening the government there was no time to sit back and try to learn.”
She said that most of her experience in Washington, particularly working on defense and military issues, has been nonpartisan.
The big exception: impeachment proceedings.
Ms. Luria and several other moderate Democrats were thrust into the national spotlight when they wrote a letter calling for a formal impeachment inquiry into allegations Mr. Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate political foe Joseph R. Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
The letter served as a watershed moment for the Democratic Caucus, spurring a majority of the party to call for an investigation that was quickly set up by Mrs. Pelosi, leading to the impeachment of Mr. Trump and ultimately acquittal by the Senate.
One of the bills that Ms. Luria is most proud of is the Gold Star Family tax fix. It fixed a glitch in the 2018 tax cut overhaul that led to big increases in the tax bills for families of fallen soldiers.
She brought one of the Gold Star widows as her guest to last years’ State of the Union address.
“Here’s a real person that we were able to pass legislation to help,” she said. “It was meaningful to show to me that the process can work. You can hear a problem, you can craft legislation, you can move it forward and find a solution.”