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Busy times with Stefanik in D.C.

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, left, speaks with two representatives of the Alzheimer’s Association — Cathy James, the CEO of the Central New York chapter, and Beth Smith-Boivin, CEO of the North Eastern New York chapter — in her Washington office in April. (Provided photo — Abraham Kenmore, Watertown Daily Times)

WASHINGTON — It was the peak week for cherry blossoms.

During the first week of April, while the North Country was barely beginning to bud, the trees around Capitol Hill were resplendent in pink and white blooms. Outside, tourists posed for just the right Instagram photo. Inside, U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, joined her House colleagues in the daily business of governing.

“Like many policy makers I start my day by reading the news, consuming the news, and also getting an update from staff members on any pending issues or constituents that have reached out,” Stefanik said. “Usually the first meeting is at eight, but again, I’ve read the media and am up to speed beforehand.”

Once past the obligatory security check, it is easy to not set foot outside again for the rest of the day. The shiny marble exteriors and airy committee meeting rooms of the Capitol and congressional offices are connected by a sub-basement of mundane tunnels, all cast concrete and overhead pipes. There are cafeterias, drug stores and coffee shops branching off, like some subterranean airport terminal.

Business in Washington is split between two main kinds of meetings: committee work, the process by which almost all bills come to the floor, and constituent meetings.

“I’d say committee work takes up about 60% of the time in Washington, and that’s a way to make sure members remain focused and are able to become experts in certain areas,” Stefanik said.

Committee meetings are generally like committee meetings anywhere, and members during hearings may come and go, check their phones or speak to aides while waiting for their allotted five minutes of questioning.

On April 2, Stefanik joined the House Armed Services Committee for the Fiscal Year 2020 defense authorization requests from the Air Force and Army, hearing from the secretary and chief of staff of the Army — Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley — and the secretary and chief of staff of the Air Force, Heather Wilson and Gen. David Goldfein.

Each member of Congress had his or her own area that they wanted to focus on: NATO allies, audits, climate change, robotic fighting vehicles, the border wall. Tennessee Democrat James Cooper pushed both Wilson and Goldfein on their support for the proposed Space Force.

“I want to know whether the Air Force will be enthusiastic about the Space Force proposal, or are you being dragged, kicking and screaming, to support this?” he asked. “I am hearing some gritting of teeth.”

“There is no gritting of teeth here,” Goldfein replied.

Stefanik used time yielded to her by another member to ask Esper and Milley about why upgrades to Fort Drum’s railhead were not included.

“Can you explain why infrastructure projects such as this railhead at Fort Drum did not make it into the budget request and what you are doing in the interim to ensure units like the 10th Mountain Division can rapidly deploy?” she asked.

Esper and Milley said it was related to risk assessment.

“It was just below the cutline on the $182.3 (billion requested), but if additional monies became available … we would like to see it funded if possible,” Milley said.

With 30 seconds left in her time, Stefanik asked for written replies later to a question about the Defense Health Agency. Later, she asked a question about research and development collaboration between the Army Futures Command, focused on modernizing the Army, and universities and business.

In the afternoon, Stefanik met with three representatives of the Alzheimer’s Association: Cathy James, the CEO of the Central New York chapter, Beth Smith-Boivin, CEO of the North Eastern New York chapter, and Joan Tarantino, the Alzheimer Ambassador from Glens Falls.

Tarantino’s father was diagnosed with Alzhiemer’s in the early 1990s.

“My mom kept him at home, so our entire family was affected,” she said. “Six of his nine siblings had Alzheimer’s.”

As an ambassador, Tarantino reached out to Stefanik’s office with concerns throughout the year, as well as during this annual legislative visit to D.C.

It was a cordial visit, and one with a group that Stefanik clearly had a history of supporting. The advocates had three legislative requests: an additional $350 million in National Institute of Health funding for Alzheimer’s and co-sponsoring the Improving HOPE for Alzheimer’s Act and the Younger-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease Act. Stefanik quickly agreed to all three, and had already helped introduce the last bill, which allows younger people with Alzheimer’s to receive the same benefits as older Americans.

“Thank you for talking to other offices about this, because the more co-sponsors we have, the better chance we have to get this through,” Stefanik said.

With the quick agreement on the legislative agenda, the three visitors and the congresswoman talked about the expanded programming from the Alzhiemer’s Association.

“I’m just amazed at the (Alzheimer’s) walk; it continues to grow every year,” Stefanik said.

“We had 1,250 this year,” Boivin said.

Stefanik said most of the non-committee meetings she has in D.C. are meetings like this, from lumber retailers to veterans’ groups.

“The policy I like to use is if we’re in session and I’m in D.C. and I’m not in committee, and sometimes even if I am in committee, I always like meeting with constituents in person if they’re advocating on a particular policy issue,” she said. “I also like greeting families. There was a young family that was here from Potsdam today.”

The days are punctuated with votes on the floor, which are announced with a buzzer, giving members 15 minutes to hurry down elevators and through the tunnels to the Capitol to cast their votes.

“But the vote times shift throughout the day, so as much as we like to predict it, sometimes it’s two hours after the fact, or it’s earlier votes,” Stefanik said, adding with a laugh — “that was something I had to get used to.”

Then there are caucus meetings — Stefanik co-chairs five and is a member of 29 others — and constituent services, in addition to her own legislative agenda.

“My best ideas come from the district, and they come from constituents,” she said.

“So you think about northern border issues, a lot of those ideas come from the North Country Chamber of Commerce, or they come from visits I’ve done at various border crossings. If you think about the railhead issue at Fort Drum, that stems from visiting Fort Drum and hearing the priorities at that installation.”

To support all this work, Stefanik has a staff of 10 in the office. Of these, two staffers are focused on military issues, including Maj. Cheryl Shefchik, a defense fellow from the Army. They are the ones who take the ideas from district visits and translate it into policy.

“I work with my legislative team here,” Stefanik said. “I work with the legislative counsel, a nonpartisan part of Capitol Hill that actually helps write the laws so that you’re able to get the language in the way it needs to be written. And then we try to build coalitions of support.”

The hectic schedule leaves little time for socializing in D.C., although Stefanik does look forward to the Library of Congress dinners, held every six weeks for all members of Congress, where an author will come and speak about a book. But even for coffee, Stefanik does not usually leave the Capitol complex.

“I go to Dunkin’ Donuts in Longworth House Office Building; my order is an iced coffee with skim milk and two pumps of coconut caramel,” she said, laughing. “So a very specific order. They used to only have the Girl Scout flavors for a certain time of year, but I think they’ve made coconut caramel permanent, which I’m excited about.”

Adding to the mayhem is the fact that there is no coherent thread between any two subjects. The day after the Alzheimer’s Association meeting, Stefanik started her morning at a 9 a.m. Education and Labor Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment hearing on accountability in higher education. She ducked out of the meeting for about 20 minutes before re-appearing to ask a question about the growth of non-traditional students returning for career specific education.

“You discussed in your testimony how states are looking to hold institutions accountable for the performance of specific student subgroups in meeting the states’ post-secondary career goals,” she said. “What do some of these efforts look like in practice?”

After a brief answer from Noe Ortega, deputy secretary at the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Stefanik yielded back her time.

At 11:10 Stefanik was in the Capitol for a rare joint meeting of the House and Senate to hear an address from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking ahead of the 70th anniversary of the alliance the next day. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence welcomed the secretary at the front of the House.

“Our alliance was created by people who had lived through two devastating world wars,” Stoltenberg said as he laid out the history of the alliance to frequent applause. “They made a solemn promise, one for all and all for one.”

Stefanik appeared to be the first member of Congress to rise from her seat to give that statement a standing ovation.

Stoltenberg went on to deliver a hawkish speech on Russia and to explicitly echo President Donald Trump’s call for more spending by allies outside the United States. But he ended on a message of unity.

“We are stronger and safer when we stand together,” he said. “Madame Speaker, Vice President, it is good to have friends.”

Stefanik joined the final standing ovation.

Later that day, Stefanik addressed the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities, where she serves as the ranking senior Republican, during the open half of a hearing on countering weapons of mass destruction.

“Inside the Department of Defense and especially within the special operations command we often hear of no-fail missions, and I can think of no mission more appropriate for this designation than countering weapons of mass destruction,” she said. “This is especially appropriate in recent years as Syria, North Korea and Russia have all used chemical weapons.”

Her committee questions here were about the intelligence of the inter-agency alphabet soup tasked with countering weapons of mass destruction. Then it was off to a closed-door meeting with the same agencies for further questions.

“I think in my first term I learned so much, I compared it to drinking from a fire hose,” Stefanik said. “As I look at my new colleagues who are freshmen, I can sort of see it, a familiar look. They’re drinking from a fire hose. They’re adjusting to this job.”

And yet, Stefanik keeps returning. She won re-election last November by a solid margin and plans to run again in 2020.

“Well, there’s so much work to be done; there’s important priorities that we need to get done, on behalf of the region,” she said. “And I have a lot of constituents who have encouraged me because of the job I’ve done representing them. I mean, if you look back, electorally, at 2009, 2010 or 2012, this was a district that had very, very close elections with very slim margins. I’m very proud of our very large margins.”

As for how long she will do the job, Stefanik said she’s taking it term by term. She initially promised to run for just five terms and said she still believes in term limits, but is unsure of how long she will do the job.

“I think there’s a balance. There are members who have been here 20 years that I deeply respect,” she said. “But I do think that, institutionally, if you want Congress to be reflective of sort of new-generation ideas, turnover is a good thing in Congress.”

Stefanik said she has no specific ambitions after she leaves the House, whenever that may be.

“I don’t know. I want to have a family, in terms of kids. I hope to have a fulfilling job, and I hope public service will be part of that — I’m not sure in what respect,” she said. “Politics is hard to predict.”

As long as the days are in D.C., visits back to the district can run just as long — especially in New York’s 21st District, where breakfast meetings may be a three-hour drive away. Stefanik thinks there is more interest in Washington among the constituents she meets with now than when she was first elected.

“It gets their attention on a daily basis, I would say more so than my first term,” she said. “I do have a lot of constituents who watch network news, a lot of Fox News viewers in my district, so often times they’ll reference the news that’s on TV, and I’m happy to answer those questions. But I also find that there’s a lot of important bipartisan work getting done that’s not on the network news and doesn’t gain coverage.”

Stefanik prides herself on the bipartisan work she has been able to do and included it prominently in her campaigning material last year, even alongside nakedly partisan attacks on her Democratic opponent.

It is true that few reporters turn up to the committee hearings. It appeared that the Watertown Daily Times was the only news organization in attendance during the subcommittee hearing on weapons of mass destruction, but it is this daily grind that keeps the legislative wheels and the national politicking going.

For Stefanik, her time as a legislator is her second stint in D.C. — she first worked in the city as a staffer for the George W. Bush White House. Now, as a legislator, she said the city has lost some of its shine.

“In terms of how I like to spend my time from when I was a young staffer to now,” she said, chuckling. “I much prefer spending time outside of Washington, in the district.”