B: Congresswoman Lawrence
A: In terms of your time in Congress thus far, has it been what you expected upon taking office? And has, it been relatively easy to acclimate to your new surroundings and responsibilities?
B: Okay, well I have approximately 100 days now in Congress, it has been extremely fulfilling. I was able to put an amendment to the education bill for this year. It addresses the monitoring of academic achievement of foster children. Foster children, as you know, are a ward of the court- of the government, and we need to know if we are achieving our goals. Are they being successful? Are we educating them? If there are challenges, we need to look at that and we need to do a better job. So I am excited to say this act happened! It fulfilled me because, Dan, I want to make a difference for those who don’t have a voice. We need to pay attention to those things, and when we’re able to raise votes for those things, then I know that I am doing a good job, so I was excited about that. For the new surroundings, it took me a while to find my way around! And now around 90 days, I could still get lost if I really tried, but I do have a good sense of where I’m going. So, it is quite a grind, I didn’t think that it would be so demanding in time and activity. It is very, very active, not like you just sit in your office and chill back, so those have been some of the things that I’ve found.
. A: Alright I see, so besides that, what kind of challenges have your faced so far?
B: The challenges have been, you know, it is such a partisan environment. That has been a challenge for me. We are actually separated, when we are on the floor. So we really don’t get a chance to interact with our colleagues. Even on committees, where we are actually debating and engaging in different issues, we’re separated. That to me is a challenge because I really want to engage with those in congress; to work together, to reach some consensus on issues.
A: And what committees are you on?
B: Small business, government oversight, and I am the ranking member of the interior. The ranking member of the interior is an interesting one because we’re dealing with government oversight on clean water, the EPA, FDA, Homeland Security, all of those things fall under my committee, so it has been interesting to take on these responsibilities. What I like about oversight is that we are looking to see if the government is operating and functioning as efficiently as possible, are we funding it, are those who have the responsibilities fulfilling their requirements. It is more of an investigative committee, so you’re drilling down and really getting to know our government, I am really enjoying it. The small businesses one, I have a commitment to make sure that we are taking care of those with small businesses, they represent a crucial part of the economic engine of the United States. We want to make sure that women and minority business owners can get the resources and the training and tools they need to be successful. So I’m happy to be on that committee and make a difference there.
A: Great! So, what kinds of things have been so far, or what kind of issues have been brought up in the small business committee? Have you been able to focus on the issues within your district and, specifically, Detroit?
B: One of the things is that we have an advantage in that we’re right by Canada, so in the Detroit area, small businesses have an opportunity to do import/export, literally right across the street. So, how can we train small business to grow their business space on an international level? We are having a small business summit with OPEC and the import/export bank, so we are exciting about that, it is going to be held in Detroit. We are excited about bringing that resource here. The other thing we’re going to be doing is some veteran’s employment and job training in the Detroit area, and throughout my district to promote the hiring of veterans in our small businesses.
A: Well, I’m glad to hear that. It is obviously a big challenge in Detroit, and I actually have another class where we are talking about the question of whether or not Detroit is a “global city”- and of course, with Canada right there, being a huge port, it is.
B: Yeah, it is one of the largest ports in the country, and it is right here in our district.
A: Absolutely, well I know you talked about some of the challenges within the committees that you’re on, but I would like to hear a little bit about your appointment as Senior Whip, by the way, congratulations, but I am not too familiar with how the process works, how did that appointment come about?
B: So prior to me being sworn in, after I had been elected, I received a phone call from Steny Hoyer and he asked if I would serve as a Senior Whip, which is a group of about twenty congressmen and women from the party and we meet to discuss those issues that are coming forward. To give you an example, the agreement that is going to be presented between Israel and the United States, it was presented to US, and we got to debate it. The reason why he said I was selected is because of my district being so diverse. Almost every issue that is playing out across the US is happening in our district, other than mining and farming. On top of that, is my experience as a mayor; he said that my experience as a mayor has positioned me to have a different perspective to look at. He wanted to put that on the team so that I would be available to discuss those issues. We get to set the agenda for the Democratic Party, so we get these diverse people together and we talk about what the challenges are going to be, what is going to be the push back, how can we achieve our goals, and if something negative is happening, it is brought to us first to try to flush it out, like a think tank.
A: Right, right. And you talked about partisanship being a challenge now in your role as Representative, but how much has that changed since the time you were mayor?
B: So as a mayor, I didn’t really identify myself, although I am a strong democrat, I would just go and find someone to help me take care of my city and the needs that I had. Now, there is a democratic agenda, and a republican agenda. To give you an example in education, when I was on school board, when we wanted to talk about education we would just go and say “these are the needs that we have in education, this is what we need to do, where is the funding?” We didn’t care if it was a “democratic” school or a “republican” one. Now, when we talk about education, there are two different philosophies. So, you have to talk about those philosophies versus spending the majority of your time talking about just the issues. Here is an example, if the issue is technology in schools, can we ensure that the low-funded schools receive exposure to technology and training as well as those highly funded schools. We can’t have a digital divide and our country should not be supporting that. So, and this isn’t necessarily the official positon, but just an example, the democrats think we hould fund that through our education fund and the republicans would say “no, the school districts themselves need to find a way to do that through their existing budget, we’ve given the x-amount of money, they need to figure it out.” The democrats are saying, “no, you need to make sure its there, they do need additional resources because of their tax structure and everything else is different.” Instead of us talking about the digital divide, we’ll start talking about funding positions. So you know, that is a big difference now.
A: Yeah, and being again with the diversity of the district, there is a huge divide in the schooling, if you think about some of the Grosse Pointe schools-
B: Absolutely, I have some of the highest performing school districts in the state, and some of the worst in the country.
A: Yeah, so I feel like you’re in a unique position to talk about those issues. I don’t know how the school districts are within some of the other congressional districts, but I definitely know that Michigan’s 14th has a larger amount of inequality in regards to education. About the polarization piece though, you’re saying that locally, it does not factor in so much because you’re just focusing on solutions to problems. So you do you think that, at the federal level, the parties are becoming more polarized over time? And in effect, if that is true, it will trickle down to the state and local level making it more difficult for everyone to work, despite party issues, to find solutions?
B: Yes, you know, our state governments across the country are becoming more and more polarized. Being in politics for twenty years, I don’t recall our governments being so polarized at the state level. When you get to the county level, it almost disappears, you know, if you’re a mayor of a city, or a county executive, you’re looking out for your entire county area. You can’t segregate it. Any decision that you make, you’re gonna see immediate consequences of those decisions. In local government, you’re more accountable. People criticize congress, but they all say that their congressperson is good. They’ll send the same people back to congress all the time; there is very little turnover. We had some turnover in this last election, but it wasn’t huge. It’s just a different way of looking at things, being in local government for so many years, it is a shift in how I need to look at things and work to get results. But I am excited about it.
A: Well it is exciting and obviously brings up new challenges, but you have a lot of experience with government at every level, so that will factor in and probably make it a little bit easier. Besides, it sounds like you’re already doing a great job. I know you said that it was difficult to work across the aisle, but do you have any examples of being able to do so yet?
B: Well, I can tell you that Candice Miller, who is a Republican, and myself, co-sponsored a bill to put new technology into the roads, which I am very excited about. I don’t- and you heard me say this on the campaign- I don’t care whether someone is a Republican or a Democrat, because I know that our country was built on having a two-party system, through which we’ve fought over issues and grinded out philosophies, and we’ve created one of the greatest countries in the world; with our freedoms and our opportunities here in America, but it came from two parties grinding out issues. So, Candice Miller, I just think is a great legislator, we don’t agree on issues, you know. I am very much in support of policies that she has put forth, but you know, she still thinks we need to get rid of Obamacare. We disagree on that, but we agree on so many other things. To be able to sponsor a bill with her, to implement new technology into our roads, was just a phenomenal opportunity for me. I have been telling this story: at our new member orientation, my sister, who has some physical challenges, was in a wheelchair. There were so many people there at the swearing in, my husband was trying to navigate her through and got lost, and he was frustrated, there were so many people. Paul Ryan actually walked up to him and said, “Are you guys okay? You look like you’re lost, can I help you?” and he said, “well alright, follow me.” My husband didn’t know who he was! And he said, “you know that guy, Paul Ryan from TV? I think it was Paul Ryan!” and Paul Ryan, just out of the goodness of his heart, without knowing who my husband or my sister were, stopped, and helped, and showed compassion. I thanked him for that and told him that I really appreciated him. You know, it’s those people that you think are “bad” because they’re Republican, they’re good people. They have families, they care, we just don’t agree on philosophy.
A: Well, that is a very nice story. It can be easy to forget that some of these people are human beings, you know, you only see them on TV and it’s whatever the media has to say about them. So how willing would you say your colleagues are to work across the aisle?
B: Well, it was amazing to watch the Homeland Security process, where we fought, we debated, we whipped votes and we were able to get that bill passed. It was one of those situations where they put a “poison pill” in it, everyone was in agreement, we weren’t necessarily working across the aisle but we were working to get the same thing, which was funding for Homeland Security. It was a rough road to get there, but we did it!
A: Awesome! Again, it’s good to hear those stories of working and finding compromises to get the job done. So, I know you don’t have a ton of time left, but what can you say, in general, about the role of interest groups?
B: You know, at first, it was kind of one of those, “wow!” things. I was really surprised at the level and the intensity of the lobbying groups. It is just like your door is just constantly opening, another group, then another group. There are some days on the hill where, one time we had the blind organization, the House was packed with individuals who were impaired or were blind. We had a coalition of Jewish organizations that came to lobby, we had the automotive, air, Native American, and you just name it! They lobby you constantly! I find it informative, I don’t know if it’s because I’m a freshman or not, but I like to hear their concerns, their issues; what do they need from their government? I find it to be refreshing that American citizens, and sometimes they do it through organizations, are still engaged and understand the importance of, communicating with their members of Congress. Now, ten years from now, will I say I still enjoy it? I don’t know, but right now I find it very refreshing because I’m here for the people. I am serving the people, and if you don’t hear from them, what are you there for? What are you legislating if it is not related to a vision, Costco’s, you name it. They come and they have issues and concerns so I definitely find it refreshing.
A: That’s good that it is more informative than overwhelming because you hear a lot about the lobbying influence in Washington and how some groups may have more influence than others, but you do have to hear about all of those issues. It’s not like you just know everything when you’re coming in, so that’s good that it’s more informative for you.
B: Yeah and I’ll just say this before I get off the phone, I question those who feel that lobbyists can control your votes, and I’m speaking as a freshman! I hear all of these issues, but I have not felt that any one particular group can come in and I just have to vote their way. There are some who I do agree with, there are others who I didn’t agree with, but after listening to them, they raise some good points which help me modify- or look out of different window and say, “wow, I didn’t realize that this law would have that effect on this group. Is that my intended consequence?”