Abigail Spanberger catapults herself out of a chair, yanks on two desk drawers and pinches a stack of white notecards, plopping them onto the table between us. The gust of activity is a bit disorienting. We’ve been talking for all of two minutes, just long enough to state the preface for my forthcoming line of inquiry — whether the U.S. Congress is utterly hopeless, an irresponsible and dysfunctional body of unserious lawmakers with a talent only for self-preservation — but already the 40-year-old Spanberger seems distracted. Now she plunges both hands into her purse, grasping for a writing utensil as I venture a simple, sheepish question for the CIA operative turned freshman congresswoman: Does she realize what she’s gotten herself into?
“So many thoughts running through my mind,” Spanberger says, gazing past me with a wince, tapping her pen on the table. The Democrat representing Virginia’s 7th District, it seems, has been waiting for this sort of opportunity — to share her disgust with Washington, to unload on the laziness wrought by a tribal two-party system, to wonder aloud whether Congress can be saved from itself. Spanberger wanted to itemize her grievances on paper as we spoke to ensure nothing was overlooked. But now she is speaking in stream-of-consciousness, detailing the institutional defects she has observed from the moment she arrived for freshman orientation.
“I replaced someone who was rather ideologically driven and didn’t demonstrate pragmatism,” Spanberger says, generously, of Dave Brat, the cartoonish Republican whose comrades in the House Freedom Caucus nicknamed him “Brat-Bart” because of his obsession with the far-right website. “So, I’m going to work in a bipartisan fashion, I’m going to seek places where we can agree. And then I get here. And I realize from day one that it’s not incentivized. Literally, even at orientation, we had different buses — there’s the Republican bus and the Democratic bus. I was excited to go to [the] different dinners, all these sorts of things, this parade of events. And with the exception of I think one, they were divided. So even in the most basic relationship-forming aspect of things, there’s this division. And it becomes clear that you’re supposed to be divided.”
The division between parties, Spanberger soon realized, has a way of breeding division within them. In December 2018, a debate broke out among the 64 incoming House Democrats. They hoped to send a freshman class letter to the Democratic leadership laying out their policy priorities and strategic vision for governing. But the contents of the letter proved polarizing; the progressives scoffed at the moderates for promising to prioritize health care costs and pocketbook concerns over investigations into the executive branch, while the moderates rolled their eyes at the semantic demands made by the progressives, including a line-in-the-sand ultimatum to delete all references to bipartisanship in the letter. What began as party-unity exercise devolved into a pissing match between rival factions that had only begun to emerge. Eventually, the word bipartisan was dropped from the text altogether — “because that was not seen as a positive thing for some members of our freshman cohort,” Spanberger says, rolling her eyes — but even so, a third of the new members refused to sign their names.
Finally, a few weeks later, Spanberger realized the true depths of her political ignorance. It was the first day of the new Congress. Hours after taking their oaths of office, the freshmen representatives would cast their first recorded vote: electing the speaker of the House. Dozens of Democrats had pledged, at varying points over the previous year, that they would not support Nancy Pelosi’s return to the speakership. Spanberger, whose Richmond-area district had been held by Republicans since 1971, was one of them. But nobody seemed to take her seriously; in the days after the congresswoman-elect’s victory, every conversation she had with D.C. Democrats seemed predicated on an assumption that she would go back on her word.
“So even in the most basic relationship-forming aspect of things, there’s this division. And it becomes clear that you’re supposed to be divided” — Representative Abigail Spanberger
When the pro-Pelosi forces realized that the newcomer from Virginia wasn’t going to budge, they swarmed her. Veteran lawmakers threatened Spanberger explicitly, telling her to “enjoy your office in Anacostia” after voting against Pelosi. Fellow freshmen warned that she was throwing away her career. Her friends back in the district started a betting pool on how Spanberger would vote, with the smart money believing she would ultimately buckle to the pressure and stay in the party’s good graces. All the while, Spanberger was growing more exasperated. She had arrived in Washington with a narrow legislative wish list, hoping to forge fast alliances with her new colleagues on the issues of infrastructure, prescription drug costs and campaign finance reform. Instead, seemingly every moment in the two months between her election and her swearing-in had been consumed by lobbying related to the speaker’s vote. “Nothing about policy. Absolutely nothing,” she says. “Just all of this noise.”
Sitting inside the House chamber that January afternoon, watching a procession of her Democratic colleagues reverse themselves and pave Pelosi’s way to the speakership, a sinking feeling came over Spanberger. This was not what she had signed up for. This was not how the most important legislative body on Earth was supposed to function. This was not the behavior she expected from people who talked about changing Congress but walked in compliance with the status quo. “You’re supposed to be here, and you’re supposed to advocating for people, and you’re supposed to be fighting for things that you care about,” Spanberger says. “How do you just fall in line?”
Suddenly, as Democrats press onward with an impeachment process that will extinguish whatever glimmer of hope might have existed for productivity in the 116th Congress, Spanberger finds herself most reluctantly at center stage. On Monday, she joined with six like-minded freshman colleagues in penning a Washington Post op-ed calling for an impeachment inquiry — stunning the Democratic caucus and effectively forcing Pelosi’s hand.
It would be the unlikeliest bunch of members, legislative pacifists who had labored not to be defined by opposition to Trump, leading Congress into an era-defining clash.
How the impeachment proceedings affect an increasingly polarized nation is anyone’s guess. But it’s hard to imagine the coming showdown doing any more damage to an institution that, lawmakers in both parties will agree, was broken long before Donald Trump came to town.
The most essential branch of the United States government is collapsing before our eyes. Plagued by saleable corruption, animated by instinctive partisanship and defined by intellectual dishonesty, its disrepair grows more apparent — and somehow, more accepted — with each passing day. Its crisis of leadership and lack of qualified personnel are doing long-term damage. Its abdication of basic responsibilities levied by the Constitution makes a mockery of the Framers’ intent.
And the presidency is in bad shape, too.
Lots of Americans are losing sleep these days over the turmoil engulfing the executive branch, and not without justification: Donald Trump’s presidency is testing the stability of not only the government but of the country itself. Even Republican lawmakers who otherwise support his policies will concede this much: His belligerent personality and impetuous decision-making threaten to plunge the world into chaos at any moment, with his erratic behavior setting an alarming precedent for the nation’s highest office.
The executive branch is, however, inherently transient. The presidency is constantly changing hands between people and parties. Whether he is impeached by the House and removed by the Senate, evicted by voters in 2020, or re-elected to another four-year term, Trump will come and go with relative ephemerality — having forever altered impressions of the office, certainly, and leaving bruises on the body politic, but leaving all the same.
No such assurances are built into the legislative branch. Congress is an institution more than an office, governed as much by traditions and unwritten standards as by formal rules. In the case of the modern Congress, these norms, having been embedded slowly and stubbornly over a period of decades, are more than destructive. They are debilitating.
It’s been more than a decade since Congress’s job approval topped 30 percent, according to Gallup. For much of the past five years that number has loitered in the teens. And for good reason: The statistics related to productivity notwithstanding — fewer bills voted on, fewer laws made, more of those laws naming Post Offices or something equally inconsequential — Americans have recoiled at the senseless partisanship (government shutdowns), the lurching between deadline-imposed emergencies (debt ceiling showdowns), the promises that are never meant to be kept (repeal Obamacare).
Congress did not become a national punchline for any one specific reason, and thus its failures cannot be too broadly summarized. The institution is broken in ways apparent and ambiguous, from the capacity of the individuals charged with making the laws to the malfunctioning processes by which they are made. That said, there can be no understanding Congress’s existential plight without recognizing, at a foundational level, a basic structural problem: There are 435 districts represented with a vote in the House of Representatives — and only a few dozen of them are contested in November.
Even in a “wave” cycle like 2018, when Democrats flipped 43 GOP-held seats in a climate that was conducive to mass mobilization and unpredictable results, nine out of ten House seats remained locked down by one occupying party or the other. Despite a pair of historically disruptive midterm election cycles in the past decade (Republicans flipped 63 Democratic-held seats in 2010), the percentage of true swing districts is smaller than at any point in American history. When the overwhelming majority of lawmakers know the renewal of their job is decided not by a high-turnout, ideologically diverse November electorate but by a low-turnout, ideologically homogenous primary electorate, you have a germ of dysfunction so contagious that it can systematically cripple an entire system.
Which is precisely what is happening to Congress. Recognizing how this consolidation of power has bifurcated the voting public and reduced practically every debate to zero-sum tribal warfare, most elected officials — whether hailing from districts that are deep red or dark blue — operate according to the reality that their career is endangered primarily, if not exclusively, by extreme elements within their own party’s base. Bipartisan collaboration, no matter how worthwhile, is instinctively discouraged; partisan brinksmanship, no matter how counterproductive, is encouraged and recompensed. Telling voters what they want to hear, even if untrue or unrealistic or both, is the recipe for reelection; telling voters what they need to hear, especially when it is aggravating or inconvenient, is a ticket to the unemployment line.
I don’t think there are any silver bullets to making congress more functional” — Representative Derek Kilmer
“In Congress,” former Virginia Republican Tom Davis testified on the Hill this summer, “bad behavior always gets rewarded.”
Even before getting into the weeds of its myriad other problems — poor staff retention, centralized decision-making, generational logjams — it’s not difficult to understand why the legislative branch is struggling to function. From the moment they launch their first campaigns, future members of Congress are entering into one giant warped incentive system that deters any meaningful challenge to The Way Things Work in Washington. Most members will profess to despise The Way Things Work in Washington, of course, especially when they first get here. But it tends to grow on them over time — not because it’s working, but because it’s comfortable. Where else can someone draw a salary of $174,000; have a staff of several dozen catering to their (and their family’s) every whim; enjoy special access to information and resources at the highest levels of government; forge lucrative relationships with people of immense power and influence; take taxpayer-funded jaunts to all corners of the country and the world; and command constant attention from the local and national media — all in exchange for producing little in the way of tangible outcomes?
Once a member of Congress realizes they will never find a better job — and most of them know they will never find a better job — many will accept that some compromises will be necessary to keep it.
None of this is to say that all members of Congress are bad people who are bad at what they do. To the contrary, many of them are fine people who came here for the right reasons. And some of them are really, really good at what they do, hustling 16 hours a day to deliver for their constituents. But even honorable people with honorable intentions look out for themselves, for their families, for their careers. Members of Congress are no exception. They have wonderfully important jobs. They don’t want to lose them.
Few people come to Congress wanting to be enforcers of the status quo. Every two years, Washington welcomes a new crop of wide-eyed, idealistic lawmakers who believe — really, truly believe — that they’ve been sent to shake things up in the nation’s capital. They are going to take the tough votes. They are going to stand up to the special interests. They are going to do what’s right by their constituents, even if that means getting the boot after one term.
Naturally, that sort of idealism doesn’t last. Once a member of Congress realizes he or she will never find a better job — and most of them know they will never find a better job — many will accept that some compromises are necessary to keep it. They adjust. They adapt. They play the game. They convince themselves that a mindless vote here, or a hurtful decision there, is worth it to sustain their career. They hang around long enough to amass more power, to win a chairmanship, to exert influence over certain issues, to cash out and take a life-changing paycheck from a lobbying firm, all the while believing their ends were justified by their means.
“I won’t miss a lot of things about this place,” Raul Labrador, an Idaho Republican who agitated constantly against his party’s leadership, said prior to his retirement last year. “I think some people lose their soul here. This is a place that sucks your soul. It takes everything from you.”
What Congress is left with is a self-perpetuating crisis of personnel. The dearth of competitive districts breeds intellectual complacency and robotic partisanship; these conditions result in a steady purging of effective incumbents while making it that much harder to recruit qualified, fair-minded replacements. The good news is Congress still manages to attract some highly competent people who possess the capacity for solving problems. The bad news is these people are disproportionately concentrated in districts that are the most vulnerable to being flipped, especially in a wave environment when low-propensity voters turn out with the express purpose of removing incumbents.
All of these dynamics make the Democratic wave of 2018 that much more compelling. Spanberger is part of a freshman class unlike any Congress has seen before. Not only are the members historically diverse, but an impressive number of them are political neophytes, having campaigned as outsiders vowing to wrest Washington away from the control of corporate money, career politicians and for-profit partisans. These majority-makers are intent on avoiding the traps that surround them on Capitol Hill; they believe they have the raw numbers to succeed where so many before them have failed in advocating sweeping structural change to the legislative branch.
And yet there is nothing to suggest they will succeed. Some of these centrist freshmen won’t survive the 2020 midterm election. Of those who do, many will find themselves in a dogfight every two years for the rest of their political lives. Even those who prove to be the sharpest legislators and the shrewdest campaigners, those who inspire official Washington with their pure talents and admirable objectives, will begin to wear down. They will slowly accept that there is no saving Congress. They will reconsider whether their investment of time and energy is being wasted on a job that makes them miserable. And before long they will leave town, delighted to have their lives back but deflated to know that Congress got the better of them.
While I’m proud of my time in Congress, I can have a bigger impact on my country outside the halls of Congress” — Representative Will Hurd
“Well,” says Derek Kilmer, glancing over at Tom Graves. “That was a downer.”
It’s a muggy summer morning and the three of us are stuffed into a corner booth at Pete’s Diner, the greasiest spoon on Capitol Hill. They’ve both just listened to me formulate the proposition that, in spite of their gallant efforts, Congress is doomed. Rarely do members of opposing parties spend time with one another socially, particularly with a reporter tagging along. But for Kilmer and Graves, this buddy-buddy routine is strategically vital. Having distinguished themselves as two of the best-liked and most effectual young lawmakers in town, this year they earned an assignment that feels one-part prize and one-part punishment: co-leading the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.
In this context, “modernizing” is code for stopping the bleeding inside the legislative branch — the member discontent, the staffer exodus, the procedural abuses, the lapses in transparency and accountability, the perpetual ceding of authority to the White House and the agencies. Kilmer, a bookish, bespectacled Democrat from Washington state, led a months-long lobbying effort last year aimed at convincing House Democratic leaders that it was time to take the dramatic step of forming a select committee to study Congress’s structural breakdowns. When Pelosi acquiesced in January, naming him chairman, Kilmer quickly got to work building an alliance with Graves, a sharp, easygoing Georgian who came to Congress as a fire-breathing Tea Partier but quickly grew disillusioned with the hardliners and rebranded himself as a deal-making ally of the GOP leadership. Having initially declined the offer to serve as the select committee’s top Republican, Graves changed his mind after meeting with Kilmer, who assured him they would be equals on the project — no turf wars between staffs, no one-sided leaks, no shenanigans to undermine their shared mission. He even offered to hire Graves’s press secretary to handle all communications for the committee. Both men agreed that Congress was in critical condition and decided that they should trust each other to do something about it.
Given a one-year authorization to hold hearings, collect expert testimonies and produce recommendations to be voted out of the committee, Kilmer and Graves got to work picking the lowest-hanging fruit. Their initial round of recommendations in May focused on streamlining technology and increasing transparency — worthy recommendations, to be sure, but akin to proposing bigger squirt guns to fight an inferno. I tell them as much when we sat down for breakfast a couple of months later. They were about to introduce a new round of recommendations to be voted on, these ones a bit meatier, focused on improving staff retention rates and improving the transition process for new members. Still, none of this conveyed the urgency one might expect from a committee charged with addressing rapid institutional decline.
So I ask them: Can Congress be reformed? Modernized? Made functional again?
“Congress is not working the way it ought to for the American people,” Kilmer begins, measuring his words. “Not only is that evidenced by poll ratings that hold us in lower regard than head lice and colonoscopies; it’s evident every time there’s a legislative meltdown, every time there’s bills written behind closed doors, every time something happens to erode public faith in the institution. So, part of the driving force behind the creation of this committee was an acknowledgement of that, and an expectation that when things aren’t working the way they ought to, simply ignoring the problem is not going to make things better.”
“If you look back historically, when special select committees were created, it always was because of some crisis,” Graves adds between bites of a bagel drizzled with honey. “I think Congress has recognized this is one of those times.”
There are two problems facing Kilmer and Graves. The first is a disconnect between the leadership of both parties and their rank-and-file members. In endless conversations with their colleagues, both in testimony before the committee and in more casual settings, it’s apparent that an essential frustration for members is their lack of input in the legislative process. Never has congressional power been so concentrated in the hands of leadership; even committee chairmen, once giants on the Hill, are now often rendered irrelevant under a system in which the party’s elected leadership writes the important bills, manipulates amendments, dictates the schedule of votes and works to predetermine every outcome on the floor.
“I left because I felt I didn’t matter,” Reid Ribble, a respected former GOP congressman from Wisconsin, told the select committee during a May hearing. Ribble was one of six former representatives testifying, and each one cited the leadership’s centralization of procedural authority as a reason for their exits. Sharing how he worked for six years on a particular bill, passing it on a bipartisan vote out of the Budget Committee only for his own party’s leadership to refuse to bring it to the House floor, Ribble asked himself: “Why do I even want to be here?”
Each of the last three House speakers — Pelosi, Paul Ryan and John Boehner — pledged to do something about this, restoring a system of “regular order” that calls for a wide-open, free-wheeling process of building and debating legislation from the ground up. But in truth, the current arrangement is exactly what the leadership needs in order to govern an increasingly ungovernable institution. With the power structure flattened by the forces of outside money and social media, leadership officials still have one way of exerting control over their members — and they aren’t about to give it up.
The second problem is that Kilmer and Graves have no jurisdiction over these matters of procedural abuse. Despite hearing constant calls for a return to regular order, there is nothing they can do to change the rules by which a majority party runs the House. It simply is not within the purview of their committee.
Then again, neither are any of the major structural problems plaguing Congress: redistricting guidelines, campaign finance regulations, term limits for members or committee chairmen, bans on lobbying for ex-members. Kilmer and Graves can’t force more people to vote in the safe-seat primaries that tend to yield fringe ideologues. They certainly aren’t going to touch hot-button issues such as raising congressional pay (too easily demagogued in election season) or exploring a mandatory retirement age so that octogenarian lawmakers aren’t shaping the future of a country they won’t be inhabiting. (Consider the contrast here between corporate America, which typically demands executive retirement by 75, and a House Democratic leadership whose top three officials are all well beyond that expiration date.)
In leading the select committee — the sort of panel normally imbued with immense autonomy to color outside the lines of traditional congressional inquiry — they don’t seem eager to rock the boat. Perhaps it’s because they are thought to have bright futures, both of them viewed as leadership material themselves. Or perhaps it’s because they have accepted that small, unsatisfying, piecemeal change is better than no change at all. Whatever the reason, Kilmer and Graves are working commendably within the narrow construct of their jurisdiction, passing recommendations out of the committee with unanimous votes with hopes of passage on the House floor, believing that their targeted reforms might just begin nudging Congress however slowly in a new and brighter direction.
But beyond the hashtag accolades offered by leadership officials in both parties — a sort of pat on the head to the well-behaved members of the panel — it’s well understood on Capitol Hill that this select committee will not be reinventing Congress. After at least the fourth mention between them of something being “not within our purview,” Kilmer grows somewhat flustered. “I don’t think there are any silver bullets to making Congress more functional. I do think there’s an enormous opportunity through this committee to drive impact, so we have a Congress that works better for the American people,” he says. “Neither Tom, nor I, nor any member of this committee would be participating in this work if we thought it was an exercise in futility.”
I believe them. I can see how, to a couple of ambitious and frustrated young lawmakers, this committee represents a potential breakthrough. But I can also see how it represents a potential breaking point.
Politicians far more starry-eyed than Kilmer or Graves have thrown up their hands and walked away, convinced that nothing could improve the conditions within Congress. Graves admits that hearing the complaints of his former colleagues during their testimonies — especially that of his friend, Ribble — forced him to confront his own threadbare patience with the job. As for Kilmer, a sunny-side-up lawmaker if ever there was one, he tells me the first thing he does on his cross-country flight each week is write a letter to his young children, explaining why he’s going away and the significance of the work he’s doing to secure their futures. Kilmer says he’s never been more excited about anything than this committee, which is reflected in those letters. But implicit to this personal anecdote is a concession that if his committee’s modest efforts fail to be adopted by a full vote of Congress, there may not be a whole left to write his kids about.
“It’s very, very easy for me to come back every week and separate the wheat from the chaff” — Representative Elissa Slotkin
Sitting under a canopied bar at dusk, sipping an old fashioned with his tie loosened, Will Hurd is trying his best to be diplomatic.
“We are facing a number of generation-defining challenges. And we have to start addressing those challenges. Now,” says Hurd, a third-term Republican from south Texas. He rattles them off: China testing America’s military and financial dominance; advances in technology that threaten to displace millions of American workers in the coming decades; outdated trade policies that could kneecap entire industries of the domestic workforce; and an explosion of artificial intelligence that will pose unprecedented questions relating to ethics, economics, and regulation.
Hurd shakes his head. “These are not topics you hear about and talk about here in Washington, but these are the topics that we have deal with. We’re dealing with an adversary named China that has a one hundred-year plan. We can’t even think for a quarter, let alone 50 years, let alone 100 years,” he says. “And so, while I’m proud of my time in Congress, I can have a bigger impact on my country outside the halls of Congress.”
For the past five years, Hurd has earned a reputation as one of Washington’s best lawmakers — someone defined by professionalism, competence, pragmatism, meticulousness. He has passed loads of legislation under presidents and House speakers of both parties. He has shaken hands in every corner of his district, one of the nation’s biggest, spanning more than 800 miles of U.S.-Mexico border. He has stood up to the president of his party on matters of both policy and personal behavior, explaining to anyone who would listen that he is not an appendage of the White House but rather an elected representative from a co-equal branch of government.
“When members of Congress believe the president is their boss,” Hurd smirks, “you’ve got a problem.”
And now he is leaving.
It’s difficult to quantify, on the symbolism or the substance, just how much Congress will suffer for losing a member like Hurd. Once the class president at Texas A&M University, he was recruited into the CIA and spent a decade working undercover operations in the Middle East, “recruiting spies, stealing secrets, chasing bad guys.” Hurd was good at it. So good, in fact, that Robert Gates — who served eight presidents of both parties, with stints leading both the CIA and the Pentagon — believed Hurd might wind up running the Agency. But then fate intervened: When he was asked to brief a congressional delegation visiting Afghanistan, Hurd was floored to encounter the lawmakers’ lack of elementary knowledge about the U.S. operations abroad. Several of the congressmen didn’t even know the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
Disturbed, and suddenly convinced that American taxpayers were being represented by idiots, Hurd stunned everyone at the CIA by quitting to come home and run for Congress. (After failing to persuade him otherwise, Gates wrote the first campaign donation check of his entire life, hoping that Hurd might just end up occupying the Oval Office one day.) The newcomer lost his first campaign but won two years later, flipping a brutally competitive district that has since seen tens of millions of dollars poured into it by Democrats in hopes of unseating him. Despite owning an approval rating in the district that regularly pushed 70 percent in polling by outside groups, the congressman won reelection by fewer than a thousand votes in 2018, a photo-finish thanks to a mass mobilization of the anti-Trump vote.
Hurd insists he would have won another term in 2020. But he didn’t see the point anymore. As a trained spy oriented toward action, why re-apply to a workplace where nothing gets done? As a moderate Republican, why spend every day answering for the extremism of the party and its leader? As a forward-thinking individual who wants to preempt the problems of tomorrow, why hang around a reactive institution that struggles to keep up with the problems of yesterday?
We haven’t seen the last of Hurd. A politician of his skill and initiative does not fade into obscurity. He’s going to travel the country speaking to these shortcomings in Washington. He’s going to write a book. He’s going to form a super PAC that will support diverse, results-oriented Republican candidates in primary elections. If all that sounds like the work of someone preparing to run for president one day, well, he just might do that, too. But it’s clear Hurd believes that Congress is in trouble; that only by replacing the “low-caliber” incumbents — a term he uses with a tactful grin — with real lawmakers can the institution begin to self-correct.
Of course, the only thing harder than attracting capable lawmakers is keeping them around.
It’s possible that Hurd’s decision will be validated, that he will help trigger a mass turnover on Capitol Hill that sees a renaissance of young, hungry, fed-up legislators ushering in a new era of congressional leadership. But it’s also possible that Hurd’s retirement will foretell an ugly fate for those few lawmakers like him. The Texas Republican has been such a popular mentor figure to so many of the freshman Democrats that you’d think they were color-blind. Sitting at the bar in D.C., Hurd feels a tap on the shoulder from Angie Craig, a newcomer from Minnesota who playfully scolds him for retiring. Hurd responds with a joke about how Pelosi is suddenly allowing more of his bills to move toward the House floor — really, it’s not a joke — and tells Craig to keep focused on her constituents.
She walks away with a smile. But not everyone is taking the news so well.
“Dammit,” Spanberger groaned this summer when, during a swing through her Virginia district, a staffer told her of Hurd’s retirement. “Dammit.”
Despite belonging to warring parties, Spanberger and Hurd hit it off the moment they met, marveling at how much they had in common: young, irreverent, former CIA operatives who had ousted incumbents in their purple districts with promises of bipartisanship and responsible governance. Spanberger hoped to build a strong, independent brand modeled after Hurd’s. When I ask about his departure —one certain to deliver the district back to the Democratic Party next year — Spanberger barely tries to mask her disappointment.
“I respect him immensely,” she says, shaking her head. “Maybe people don’t want to hear that; people don’t want to hear that I can disagree with him [even though] I actually really respect him immensely. I think he’s driven by many of the same motivators that I’m driven by.”
Spanberger was shaken by Hurd’s decision to quit, a fact that did not escape Elissa Slotkin, the Michigan Democrat who has become Spanberger’s closest friend in the freshman class. (Slotkin was another co-author of the Washington Post op-ed that tipped the pro-impeachment scales inside the Democratic caucus.) Like Hurd and Spanberger, Slotkin is a product of the CIA who flipped a battleground district. Unlike them, Slotkin is bullish on the prospects of a good-government revolution in Congress. Not surprisingly, she believes it starts with electing the right people — better people, she makes clear, than the ones she has encountered in D.C.
“It’s very, very easy for me to come back every week and separate the wheat from the chaff, separate the people who are really here to actually help from the people who are here to be show ponies,” Slotkin says. “You could tell within six weeks of being part of this body — and I will tell you, we have the largest number of workhorses that have been around for a long time.”
She continues, “And if you look at the crop of candidates who are running in 2020, a lot of them looked at what we did in 2018. … These are interesting, substantive people. So we’re now repeating the process, which is a good thing, because I think real change comes with numbers,” Slotkin says. “Our class isn’t just two or three Will Hurds. Will did not come in with this kind of class; Will came in as sort of an island. And I want this body to attract really capable Democrats and Republicans. We need really competent people on both sides of the aisle.”
Of course, the only thing harder than attracting capable lawmakers is keeping them around. Spanberger can’t help but empathize with Hurd’s decision. There is so much about Congress that infuriates her after just nine months on the job; who could blame him for leaving after six years?
Take, for instance, the wheel-spinning effort to reduce prescription drug costs. “We passed two good bills out of the subcommittees and then we put them on the floor,” Spanberger recalls, at which point her party’s leadership added divisive language related to the Affordable Care Act. “And then we’re shocked when they don’t pass with bipartisan support. Well, they were bipartisan coming out of committee, and we put what we knew what would be poison pills in them. Why? Is it that we don’t want to give a president a win if we sign a prescription drug bill into law under [him]? I don’t know. My suspicion is there’s a fair number of people who don’t want to give the president a win. But that’s not what it should be about.”
Or, she says, consider the disingenuous melodrama of committee hearings. “These are the two most common things you’ll see,” Spanberger explains, growing animated. “Somebody will walk in, their staffer will shove paper into their hands, and they’ll sit down. They will read the question like this” — she brings a notecard close to her nose — “so, clearly reading. Reading. They’ve never read it before, they didn’t think about it, they don’t know what they’re asking, they certainly don’t know that a guy two questioners beforehand asked the same damn question. And so, the poor witnesses that are there, hungry and drinking tiny little bottles of water that we give them, are answering the same questions over and over. There’s no follow up, there’s not depth of inquiry. You either get that, or you get somebody who wants to ask a question for four and a half minutes, followed up with, “Wouldn’t you agree?” They’re trying to go viral.”
And then there’s the matter of attendance at said committee hearings.
“If you’re in a competitive district you need to fund-raise,” she says, “and I did not realize until a couple months in that people skip hearings to go fundraise. I am not a naïve person, but I said, ‘Oh my goodness, how are you getting all this fundraising done?’” The answer she got from other members, Spanberger says, is that they like to make a show of appearing on the dais before dropping their materials, slipping away and finding a private room nearby where they can make fundraising phone calls. “I have yet to skip out on a hearing to go fundraise. Because it feels — it’s wrong,” she continues. “And people will say, ‘Well your whole job is to get re-elected.’ Why the hell am I here if I’m not actually in the here and now? When I got elected, I was given two years. Yes, I want to come back, so I need to lay the groundwork to come back. But laying the groundwork shouldn’t mean not actually doing my job.”
The question remains: Given everything that she knows about Congress now, why would Spanberger want to come back?
She glances down at her stack of notecards, all of them blank, and takes a long, pregnant pause.
“For my own personal purposes — if I were really just thinking, what do I find enjoyable? — I totally get where Will Hurd has gotten to,” she says. “And maybe there will come a point in time where the scales will tip, and this won’t be enough for me anymore. But I was at an arts and crafts fair, and we were walking around, and they had me do the introduction. And this woman comes up and she grabs both of my hands and she tells me about her husband, who’s standing right there, and his insulin cost. And we have this wonderful conversation. And she said, ‘I believe in you. I trust you. I know you’re trying to help us.’”
She pauses again. “Every frustration that I have, it’s because I’m trying to help a woman like that. And as broken as this system is, if I abandon it, what’s left for her?”