Freshman Rep. Abigail Spanberger explains how she works across the aisle.
First-term members of Congress are “really learning on the job in terms of what it means to be a lawmaker,” said Alan Wiseman, co-director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking.
That hasn’t stopped former CIA officer turned Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger from making a mark in her first 13 months on the Hill. The Virginia Democrat has already moved two of her bills through the full House, a feat that’s taken freshman members of the majority party in recent Congresses their entire first two-year term to accomplish, according to CEL.
Other Spanberger policies, including measures to combat child pornography and to enhance border security, have gone farther — become law — albeit by different legislative vehicles.
As part of an ongoing series of interviews with freshman members on their experiences so far on the Hill, COURIER spoke to Spanberger about how she gets the job done.
She told us about the iPad she carries with her all day to review notes as she bounces from committee hearings to floor votes to meetings that routinely overlap. She also told us about the constant “volleying and prioritizing,” that goes along with her sometimes “maddening” schedule.
If the congresswoman revealed one thing to us, however, it’s that when it comes to lawmaking, she’s as pragmatic as they come.
“My approach is multifold,” she said, breaking it down into two components: what she does and what her team does.
For her team’s part, Spanberger said she hired a staff that’s laser-focused on advancing “legislation that moves.”
And the main way you make legislation move, she said, is to “forge strong relationships” with lawmakers and stakeholders across the ideological spectrum.
In listing off her legislative accolades in rhythmic procession, Spanberger named several instances where she’s partnered with the last person you might expect, like Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, one of President Donald Trump’s closest allies in Congress.
Spanberger and Meadows co-led a bill that aims to give law enforcement more power to stop the distribution of child pornography on government networks.
“In this case, partnering with someone who I typically wouldn’t partner with on a lot of other things is a really good way to demonstrate that we don’t have to agree on everything.”
The Spanberger-Meadows measure eventually made its way into law as an amendment to a broader defense spending bill. “Where we can find commonality, we will,” Spanberger said.
The congresswoman doesn’t just believe bipartisanship is critical to breaking the gridlock in a hyper-partisan workplace — she seems to genuinely enjoy it. One of her favorite things to do, she said, is sit down with members who she doesn’t have much in common with and sort through their differences until she can wrap her head around them.
“There’s many places where I’m never going to change someone’s mind, but it’s really valuable to have a bit of an earnest conversation about what our differences are,” she said.
Those chats and the insights she gains through her work in the Problem Solvers Caucus — a group of Republican and Democrat representatives that seeks to create bipartisan cooperation on policy issues — have helped her identify opportunities to work across party lines when it makes sense.
She referenced her work with Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX) on border security and immigration to prove her point.
Hurd votes with President Trump’s position 81% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight, which seems like it would make it hard to find common ground, let alone work together on one of the most contentious issues in Washington.
But they did. Hurd and Spanberger visited the U.S.-Mexico border in 2019, and when they came back, they pushed a bill to combat drug trafficking and human smuggling across Central America. Trump signed the bill into law in December.
To bring people to her side, Spanberger says she starts by finding the right allies. That means identifying the committee members that will play a role in seeing a bill through, and lawmakers who carry influence among blocs that otherwise might not support her initiatives.
She also looks for partners who have skin in the game. For her recently introduced bill intended to bolster healthcare protections for military firefighters, for example, she partnered with Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE). Bacon has been active on disability issues related to civilian firefighters and is also a former military officer, so he was a perfect fit.
When Spanberger can’t find the right fit, she looks for other ways to bring people to the table. She identified Hurd as a partner on border security, for example, because they both worked at the CIA.
Once she has a foot in the door, Spanberger says she looks to build an agreement that there is a problem, even if both sides define it differently. So rather than getting hung up on questions like whether the border issue should be called a border crisis or a humanitarian crisis, she opts to simply establish that there is a crisis.
With that fundamental agreement settled, she works to pin down a part of the underlying problem that both sides can agree on. With Hurd, they were able to recognize that violence, human trafficking, and drug trafficking were among the reasons more people are coming to the border and filing for asylum.
From there, she narrows-in on that underlying cause and collaborates with partners on a legislative solution.
That approach might not yield big, structural change overnight. But as with any project, she said, a clearly defined scope of work makes it “much easier” to dig through the problem you’re trying to solve and make a plan to solve it.
Spanberger thinks this more incremental strategy is useful on issues like immigration, where Congress has proved incapable of moving forward in a comprehensive way. As bills get bigger and more complex, she said, they tend to lose momentum and support.
She’s taking a similar approach to chiseling away at her “smattering across the board,” of policy objectives for 2020.
The list includes a lot: Affirming Congress’ role in authorizing the use of military force, progressing her House-passed bill that aims to protect 5G telecommunications systems from cyber threats, developing legislation on soil health, maintaining her role as a “loud and boisterous advocate” for revamping American infrastructure, pushing multiple healthcare reforms, and more.
“I anticipate we’ll be keeping a strong pace,” Spanberger said.