Rep. Brindisis visits CSG Hemp in the Southern Tier region of New York in May, 2019.
Rep. Brindisis visits CSG Hemp in the Southern Tier region of New York in May, 2019.

The freshman congressman looks back on his first year in office.

COURIER is sitting down with freshman members of Congress to get their take on what their first year was like, what they wish they knew when they started, and what surprised them most. Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.) represents New York’s 22nd District, which stretches from Binghamton to Lake Ontario and leans Republican.

He previously served in the New York State Assembly and unseated one-term Republican Claudia Tenney in the 2018 U.S. House elections.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Sentences in italics provide additional context.

COURIER: You’ve had four pieces of legislation signed into law by the president in just a little over one year in Congress. That’s well above average compared to freshman members of the majority party in past Congresses. What’s your secret?

(The average freshman in the majority party in the 115th Congress had less than one bill signed into law, according to the Center for Effective Lawmaking. Four of Brindisi’s bills, including legislation requiring the military to buy American products, a bill to repeal a tax on health insurance premiums, and a measure to prevent suicides among veterans, have been signed into law.)

Anthony Brindisi: I think, first and foremost is find bills that you think will gain bipartisan support, and then sit down with colleagues on both sides of the aisle. You can try to convince them of why it’s a good policy, and then find some friends in the Senate that will also help advance your legislation in that house.

So is finding bipartisanship your first step, generally?

Key. It’s the number one thing that we do. 

Every bill that I introduce is bipartisan. And I think it’s important given the divisions in our country that we work on legislation that has support from both parties, ‘cause I think it will have more staying power and more acceptance in the general public.

Has that consensus building been about as difficult you expected, or as easy as you expected, or what’s that been like? 

I don’t think it’s really been that difficult. I do a lot of listening. I think that’s the number one quality of any legislator, to be able to sit down with colleagues on the other side and hear out their concerns. And in the case of a couple of our bills, it too me actually going around the floor and trying to convince members to  support them. So I’m not afraid to put in the leg work. 

Among legislation you’ve sponsored, or ushered, or been a big part of so far, what would you say is your proudest accomplishment?

Each bill we’ve worked on has a special place for me, but I’ve really made the issue of veterans suicide a top priority and getting our Suicide Prevention Coordinators Act passed was a proud moment. And I think the other one that comes to mind is the SPOONS Act

(The SPOONS Act requires the Department of Defense to purchase American-made flatware and dinnerware for service members.)

I’m not sure how familiar you are with this legislation, but,  this is a bill that had been introduced by my predecessor. It failed twice on the House floor. So when I took office, we had to pick up the pieces and continue to work with members on both sides to get this passed and ultimately were successful getting it included in the National Defense Authorization Act.

My next question is, walk me through a normal day in the life of Anthony Brindisi. What’s a normal day on the Hill look like for you?

AB: Well, you definitely get your steps in here.

Do you wear a fitbit?

I have an iWatch so sometimes you’ll be just walking from meeting to meeting and it’ll say to you, ‘it looks like you’re working out’ when you’re really not working out, you’re just going into the next meeting [laughter].

But my days are very busy. You know I think being in a seat like ours, you’re constantly on the go, working with the staff to get legislation or amendments included, trying to get to know people on the Hill. You know, we’ve done a lot of listening sessions, and I have an open door policy in my office. I’m not quick to sign on to legislation because I want to give everyone an opportunity to be heard before we decide whether or not to co-sponsor a bill. So we do a lot of listening in our office and I think that has created a lot of goodwill. 

If you could go back in time to just before you were sworn into Congress and give yourself one piece of advice headed into your new job, what would you say?

I would say be prepared to take shots from both sides of the aisle. Not everyone’s interested in bipartisanship here, I can say, and that is both sides. I truly do believe that in order to move this country forward, we’ve got to get stuff done that’s going to have the support of both parties, because it will have more acceptance with the general public.

You were in the New York State Assembly. When it comes to moving legislation, what’s the biggest difference between the state House and Congress?

Probably the biggest difference for me is the amendment process. In the state  legislature, someone couldn’t amend my bill unless they had my approval. [laughter] 

Yeah, That’s very different. 

Whether the sponsor likes it or not, it happens. So that’s, that’s a big difference. But I think there’s also a lot of similarities and coming from a legislative background, I think that’s why we’ve been so successful getting bills passed and signed into law. And we haven’t taken a confrontational approach with the administration. We’ve really tried to look for areas where we can work with the administration and, and get new laws put on the books.

(In congressional committees any member can typically introduce an amendment to any bill being considered. And members can also sometimes offer amendments on the floor. This process differs from some state legislatures like the New York State Assembly, where amendments would have to be approved by the original sponsor of the bill before they could be appended to the legislation.)

What’s one topic that you get too many questions about?

… I’ll break it down into two areas. On a policy standpoint, the number one question is around the cost of prescription drugs. That’s the top concern for constituents, at least in my district.

From a more political standpoint, the number one question I get is, ‘are you a Democrat or Republican?’  I guess I like to keep people guessing, but I always answer it by saying, ‘I’m an American, first.’ We should all keep that in mind when we’re voting here, because ultimately our responsibility is to the American people, not a political party.

Let me flip that around. What’s one topic you wish that — well, let’s stick with reporters — what’s one topic you wish reporters would ask you more questions about? 

Look, I respect the media here, And they do a great job. I do think sometimes we get wrapped up in impeachment or other partisan issues … I do wish that there were more questions about what people are thinking in your district. Because when I do town hall meetings, I don’t hear a lot about impeachments or other issues like that. I hear a lot about infrastructure and drug costs and rural broadband — things like that. So I do wish there were more questions like that, but as one reporter told me when I first got here, the reason the more moderate members don’t get covered as much is because we’re boring.

Yep, that’s the truth.

I think my constituents would rather I be boring though. 

In terms of legislation you’ve got on the table right now, what have you made the most headway on?

This year we’re really focused on healthcare issues and specifically mental health care in rural communities. I represent a largely rural district, and the suicide rate in rural America is, according to the CDC, 45% higher than in urban communities

(According to the Centers for Disease Control, “In the United States, suicide was responsible for 44,193 deaths in 2015, which is approximately one suicide every 12 minutes … Suicide rates are higher in rural America than in urban America. The gap in suicide rates between rural and urban areas grew steadily from 1999 to 2015. Since 2007, the gap began widening more quickly.“)

I think that a lot of attention sometimes gets paid to the larger metropolitan areas, which is important, but I want to make sure that the needs of rural communities are not left behind. So I’m working on a bill — myself and Congressman John Katko in the House, and then Senators, Grassley and Tester — … called the Seeding Rural Resiliency Act, which would help address some of the mental health needs in rural communities. 

DB: [With that bill and you work on suicide prevention for Veterans] What’s the background on that, how did you become interested in these mental health issues?

AB: I think it’s something that I really started to see during my time in the state legislature and, and having family members who have struggled with mental health issues. I definitely believe that there is a gap in the level of treatment that we are giving right now and there’s not enough attention paid to mental health concerns. A lot of that has to do with the stigma that surrounds mental health, and many people are reluctant to come forward and get help. I want to make sure that from a policy standpoint, I’m doing whatever I can to help break down that stigma because it’s no different than any other disease.

(Read more about the largest mental health disparity no one is talking about in Courier.)

DB: What’s your top priority for 2020?

AB:  I would say the probably the mental health issues, a continued focus on that. I’m on a new committee now, I just got onto the Armed Services Committee. 

DB: Congratulations.

AB: Thank you. So I’m really going to drill down on the Defense Authorization Act. 

We had some good wins in last year’s NDAA  and I want to try and build on some of the successes that we had, particularly when it comes to things like, ‘buy America,’ which is really the basis of my SPOONS Act that got passed. I think we really kicked the door open a little bit with that legislation. I do believe it is a national security issue, because if we have a domestic supply of a product and it’s being offered at a competitive price, in my estimation, there’s no reason why the Department of Defense should not be buying from American companies who ultimately pay taxes in this country as opposed to buying goods from Chinese companies,  which will just go to support the Chinese economy and ultimately their military. 

DB: Well, for what it’s worth Congressman, I don’t think you’re boring.

AB: Thank you.