INTERVIEW: Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers on Women, Work, and Politics

4 years ago

Ten-year Congressional veteran Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who represents eastern Washington State, is the highest-ranking Republican woman in the House of Representatives . Last January, Rodgers delivered the rebuttal to President Obama's State of the Union address. Recently, I had a chance to interview her. Among other things, we talked about what it's like to be a working mother on Capitol Hill and about her outlook for women in the GOP.

Grace Hwang Lynch: Tell me a little about you got started in politics and how you’ve risen to being the chair of the House Republican Conference, making you the highest-ranking GOP woman in Congress?

Cathy McMorris Rodgers: I got involved in politics right out of college, working on a family friend's campaign for the state House in Washington State. He won his race, and offered me a job. That was really the beginning. What I saw was that, in politics and running for office, being involved in these issues that mean very much to your community, you can make a difference, as far as impacting people’s lives for the better and creating more opportunities at all levels of government.

And I found lot of fulfillment in working for another elected official. Three years later, my boss was appointed to fill a seat in the state Senate, and he encouraged me to seek the appointment in the state House. That was the beginning of me becoming an elected representative, and I’m very honored to serve the people. People often ask, "What inspires you?" and it really is the people. Whenever I am home in eastern Washington, it is the people who really pump me up and make me want to work harder on their behalf.

I served for 10 years in the state House, and became the minority leader for the Republicans after the 2002 elections. Serving in the state House is very part time in Washington. We’re in session from January to March or April, so I stayed involved in our family business. We had an orchard and fruit stand in Kettle Falls, north of Spokane, and it was a nice mix to be able to be at the orchard and involved in the business in the summer and fall months. And then I went back to school, got my Executive MBA—thinking that I was going to get out of politics, actually. And instead, there was an open seat for Congress, and again the former Congressman George Nethercutt called me one day and encouraged me to consider running for Congress.

GHL: I’d like to talk a little about what it’s been like for you as a woman as you’ve risen from the local level to the national level. The conversation about women, work, motherhood, and “leaning in” has really been a hot topic lately. You’re the mother of three, and you actually were serving in Congress when your children were born. What kind of support did you have to make that possible? And what kind of policies can help other women as they try to raise families and advance in their careers?

CMR: That’s a great question. I was single when I was elected to Congress. The best thing that could have happened since I was elected was getting married and becoming a mom. It is a juggling act. I don’t think it’s any different for me than millions of other working moms in the country who are balancing their careers, their responsibilities at home, and their desires to to be a good mom and a good wife and be a part of their family. So from day to day, it varies as to how well I’m doing it, but having the support of my husband, as well as my extended family and staff and supporters, is all a part of making it possible for me. And I really think every family has to figure it out for themselves.

My husband is able to stay at home with the kids, and that’s how we make it work. And I’m grateful that he can do that and be with them during those days when I’m not at home. I also so much appreciate the flexibility that this job offers. This job certainly has me more in the spotlight than other jobs in the country, but we do have flexibility, except for when we’re actually voting on the floor. But usually, I can carve out the time to help take the kids to the doctor or go to the school play, which is very important to me. That’s part of how we make it work.

As far as the policies that we’re promoting that would make a difference in people’s lives, it really is about creating more opportunities and empowering people—no matter their background, no matter where they come from—to be able to fulfill their potential and be empowered to be all that they can be. That is the bottom line of what motivates me, and I have been given tremendous opportunities in this country. I was the first to graduate from college, and that was my parents' dream for me because they wanted me to have a better life.

Getting an education, that’s very important. The policies the Republicans are promoting are the ones that are going to empower people and create a better life for them, and give them opportunities to fulfill their dreams. You see that in our education policies. I’m committed with providing parents and families options to be able to put their kids in the best schools, that are going to meet those needs.

You see us promoting legislation to update our workforce laws, the legislation that Martha Roby has introduced in Congress (I’ve introduced it in other Congresses), the flexibility in the workplace to allow hourly employees to take off instead of being paid time and a-half. I really think we need to update some of those wage and hour laws, which were written in a different time, so that they reflect a changing workplace. When you look at the last 50-60 years and the number of women in the workplace, working moms who have kids under the age of 18, it has dramatically changed the number of families where both parents are working. That’s what we’re about.

And it’s exciting to see women running businesses. They say that two out of three new businesses right now are being started by women. And some of that is being driven by technology, and the options now for people to work from home or start a business over the Internet. It gives them flexibility. And I think that is so important in giving people more options; then they can decide how best to use those options.

GHL: Are there any other topics you see on the horizon where the Republican Party might be putting forward any new legislation that would specifically be able to help women better themselves economically?

CMR: The focus that the Republicans have is creating more jobs, looking at the skills gap. There’s a lot of focus right now on long-term unemployed in this country. And the fact that it has doubled in recent years: The number of people on long-term unemployment is estimated at about 4 million people. And at the same time, we have 4 million jobs going unfilled because employers can’t find people with the skills they’re looking for. So we need to be focusing on education, on training, on making sure that we’re giving people the skills we need.

So that’s where everything’s focused on STEM—on science, technology, engineering, and math. Certainly that’s been a focal point. When I co-chaired the Women’s Caucus, my priority was to be getting more women into this field and pursuing STEM. When you look at the highest-paying jobs in America, they’re in those fields. And those are also the fields that women traditionally have not been entering, so that’s been a focus.

And the debate over healthcare is at the forefront of everyone’s minds, including women. It’s estimated that women make 85% of the healthcare decisions in this country. Themselves, their family, they’re the ones that are taking the kids to the doctor and really sitting down and figuring out how they’re going to pay for health insurance for their family. So that is certainly at the forefront of women's minds in this country.

Women are also a higher percentage of healthcare workers in America. Last month’s jobs report was the first time that we actually lost jobs in the healthcare sector, which means that women are being disproportionately impacted in a negative way because of these job losses we’re seeing.

GHL: Do you have any idea of why that is, and what can be done to bring those jobs back for women?

CMR: I would say that this one of the impacts of the president’s healthcare law. And it’s important that we are reforming healthcare in America. No one wants to go back to the way it was, but there are concerns over this law and the impact that it’s having on jobs, on the cost of healthcare, access to healthcare. It’s estimated now that 30 million Americans are still going to be without healthcare after this law is fully implemented. I think that we have a responsibility to look at how we can make sure that people in this country have access to quality and affordable healthcare, and be looking at other ways to move forward on healthcare reform.

GHL: What alternatives do you suggest?

CMR: I would suggest alternatives that put decisions back into the hands of individuals and families. What concerns me most about Obamacare is that this is a government-centered approach to healthcare reform. This is a top-down, "government knows best," one-size-fits-all approach to healthcare, and there’s nothing more personal than our healthcare.

And we need healthcare reform that is going to empower the individual and the family to make the best decisions for themselves, along with their doctor and healthcare provider. That needs to be our goal as we have this debate over how we reform healthcare in America, and then we can have the debate over what policies are going to bring down healthcare costs. And that’s where I believe competition in the marketplace are so important. That’s expanding health savings accounts, association health plans, allowing people to go outside of state boundaries to find affordable health insurance plans. So that’s one piece of it.

But I’m also concerned about the impact on quality of healthcare moving forward. Because of this law, we’re not investing in the latest and greatest research and innovation and technology. The medical device industry, for example, is an American success story over the last 50-60 years. New devices, new technology has been developed here in America—but because of the new taxes, and the new requirements that are put on the medical device industry, you have an industry that is saying they may not even be able to stay in America. Or they’re not going to be investing in the latest new innovations or research in new cures and lifesaving equipment.

That concerns me. I want America to continue to be the leader, and I want to continue to invest in research and encourage innovation within the healthcare sector. I don’t want to say this is as good as it gets, and I fear that this law is having the effect that we’re not going to be able to afford or invest in new cures or devices.

GHL: With the reality that the ACA is being implemented right now, how do you feel about the likelihood that some of these ideas that you're expressing can actually be implemented?

CMR: The ACA is being implemented right now, and we see that more people are being negatively impacted by this law than are being helped. We need to take action on bringing down healthcare costs. We need to ensure that people with pre-existing conditions can get affordable health insurance coverage. I see it as being two tracks, and I co-chair the Health Oversight and Accountability Project in the House with Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy. One track, in real-time, addressing the impact of the law as it’s being implemented. And where we can putting forward solutions that are going to help people in real time who are being negatively impacted.

The other track is to continue the debate over healthcare reform. As Republicans, we must be putting forward our ideas as to what are ways that we can reform healthcare that will address the cost drivers, so that we have high quality, and that we provide access to people in this country.

GHL: So what would be your ideal outcome? That there are ways to modify the healthcare law? Or a bigger change than that?

CMR: I’m sure you’re aware that I’ve supported efforts to repeal the law, but I also recognize that, moving forward, this law’s been on the books now for over four years, and I think we have to be constructive. Where the law is working well and where there’s agreement, let’s keep that going. But where there are ideas we have to improve healthcare reform, that’s what we want to propose.

GHL: Moving back to the discussion about women and politics… let’s talk a little about women within the Republican party, especially after the criticisms following the most recent CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference), that women weren’t given enough high-profile roles. What can you do, as a leading Republican woman, to change that impression, if not the tide?

CMR: Part of it is that we need to highlight women that are currently serving within the Republican party. We have dynamic, inspiring women in key positions. And when you look at women serving in Congress on the Republican side, as well as women in executive positions across the country, there are some really great women. And great leaders.

I think it’s important we recognize that it’s not just about getting women in these positions, but that women are providing important leadership. Four out of five women governors right now are Republican. Six out of 10 women lieutenant governors are Republican. We have another group of dynamic women that we’ve recruited to run for Congress. I think the Republican party needs to highlight these women and celebrate the progress that has been made, and the important leadership and voice that these women bring on issues, around the table. We have three women right now, out of eight, on our elected leadership team in the House. The freshman representative for the Republican freshman class is a woman. I think some of it is that we don’t always tell our story as well we should.

GHL: That could be. And stories, such as you’re telling us, are good for people to hear—the actual, lived-out experience of a woman like you.

CMR: The Republicans won the women’s vote in 2010. And I think there’s definitely a battle going on over the women’s vote. There is excitement right now over women reaching new heights. I want to encourage more women to go out there and be risk takers, seek their dreams. One of the common takeaways when you’re trying to recruit women to run for office is that they often wait for someone else to ask them. And you talked about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In—it’s still relatively new for women to be serving in Congress. I was the 200th woman ever elected to the House. And it wasn’t that long ago; that’s out of 11,000 that have served. As more women are running for office and more women are getting elected, it’s causing others to think, “If she can do it, then maybe I can do it.”

In my own experience trying to recruit women, a lot of them have never even considered running for office. I think it’s fair to say that women see life more as a balancing act. They see their responsibilities as, “I have this plate full of responsibilities, whether it’s in my home or career, my community, my volunteer activities.” For most of them, politics is just another slice of the pie, and they feel like their plate is full and they think, “How am I going to have time for politics?”

What I see changing is that women all across this country are recognizing that it’s important, and that the decisions made at all levels of government have a direct impact on them, their kids, and the country that America is today and what kind of a country America will be in the future. So women are recognizing that this needs to be a priority, they they need to be involved, and that women have something very unique to offer.

When you look just generically at what citizens are seeking in their representatives, and what women offer, women are seen as being trustworthy, they’re seen as problem solvers, they’re not as interested as much in who gets the credit, they’re about getting the job done, they’re seen as relatable, so these are all qualities that are very appealing right now. Citizens are wanting that in their representatives.

GHL: Definitely. So looking forward to 2016, do you think the GOP might be able to put forward a female presidential candidate? Or do you think that it’s something important to have?

CMR: You know, we just had Dr. Condoleeza Rice speak at a big dinner for Republicans here in Washington D.C. and there were a lot of people who walked away saying, “I wish she would run for president. So, we’ll see.”

News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs about raising an Asian mixed-race family at HapaMama.

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