Stefanik reflects on 2021
Congresswoman says constituent services, NDAA passage among feats
Last year was busy on Capitol Hill, and Rep. Elise Stefanik said she has been working hard as the north country’s congressional voice the whole year through.
In an interview Friday, Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, reflected on the work she’s done in Washington in 2021.
The congresswoman was elevated to the position of House Republican Conference Chair, making her the third-in-command in the chamber’s Republican party. Her newfound leadership — which comes as she and a large wing of the GOP retrench their support of former President Donald J. Trump — has given her a platform to advocate more forcefully for many of her positions, while pushing firmly against almost all of President Joseph R. Biden’s legislative projects.
On Friday, Stefanik highlighted the legislation she’s worked on that had support from both Democrats and Republicans in the House.
“I wanted to start by highlighting some of the key bipartisan actions that may not get a lot of coverage, but are very important,” she said.
She was the Republican leader on the Stronger Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which passed the House 345-73 in March. The bill overhauls the flagship child welfare legislation passed in 1988, known as CAPTA, authorizing $540 million for child abuse and neglect prevention nationwide and modernizing data collection processes for child abuse cases. An amendment, authored in part by Stefanik, requires the establishment of a national child abuse hotline.
“That’s important because if you talk to law enforcement offices, as you look at cases of domestic abuse, challenges within households have increased during the COVID pandemic, because it’s so unprecedented,” she said. “I believe that (with) the national child abuse hotline, we will put outside organizations on the importance of this, we need to get that done.”
The House version of the Stronger CAPTA Act has passed, but the Senate has not yet finished its own draft of the legislation. Stefanik said she is hopeful the Senate will pass it soon.
A member of the House Armed Services Committee, Stefanik was also involved in the drafting, and eventual passage, of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2022. The annual “must-pass” legislation sets aside the annual funding for the U.S. Department of Defense, and every military branch under it.
Within the this year’s NDAA, she said she was proud to see the inclusion of a number of district-specific projects that she worked on, including a $27 million grant for a railhead development project on Fort Drum; funding for the MQ-9 Reaper drone based at the military pos; and continued patronage of Med-Eng, a company that builds bomb-proof suits in Ogdensburg, The latest NDAA is the largest in history, with more than $777 billion in overall spending, even as the U.S. exits one of its longest and most expensive wars in Afghanistan. Stefanik said the additional spending, $9 billion more than the 2021 NDAA, is necessary to counter the threats posed by Russia and China.
“China is the greatest, I think, national security threat that my generation is going to face,” she said.
The NDAA includes a number of provisions to strengthen U.S. cyber-offense and defense strategies, and invest in artificial intelligence. Both are issues Stefanik advocates heavily for, as ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Cyber, Innovating Technologies and Information Systems.
The NDAA also includes a provision for an independent commission to study the war in Afghanistan.
“I think it is going to be really important for there to be an independent look back, not just on the disastrous withdraw from Afghanistan, but from start to finish,” Stefanik said.
The congresswoman has also focused on the closed U.S.-Canada border last year. After over a year of only essential travel across the northern border due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Stefanik was among the first federal officials to call for it to reopen. She said an open northern border plays a key part in life for most of her constituents, with a significant amount of the districts’ economy relying on Canadian travelers.
“It was an economic crisis, in the sense that if you talk to owners of marinas, or families that own property in Canada or Canadian families that own property in the U.S., having that northern border closed to non-essential travel was devastating to our tourism and I think to our way of life,” she said.
She met with Canadian officials, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and multiple Canadian members of Parliament. With the Northern Border Caucus and Democratic Co-Chair Brian Higgins, she said she lobbied Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer to pick up the cause as well, and sent multiple official letters to the Biden administration.
Canada reopened its border to some non-essential travel in August, but the U.S. waited until November to do the same. Cross-border non-essential travel is still restricted to vaccinated individuals only, and recent PCR tests for COVID-19 are required to cross.
“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of parity and getting back to a more normal process,” Stefanik said.
She also said she’s proud of the work she’s done to help bring north country fire departments up to the standards they require, by co-sponsoring the Fire Station Construction Act.
“A lot of times, I’ve toured many fire stations in the district, we work with them so they can apply for grants for equipment or fire trucks, but they are not able to apply for federal dollars for the actual construction of the facility,” she said.
The congresswoman said the Assistance to Firefighters grant program is a positive step to get more equipment and update training for local departments. That grant program is authorized through the NDAA each year.
Last year, the congresswoman joined with most of her Republican colleagues to vote against the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which passed Congress in November. She and her colleagues have roundly criticized the package for what they say is overall overspending, but specific under-investment in key areas. On Friday, Stefanik said she was opposed to the bill for many reasons, including the study of a “pay per mile” fee for automobile driving, and the lack of investment the infrastructure plan sets aside for rural broadband access.
“The biggest infrastructure issue I hear from the district is broadband across the board, and this bill did not prioritize rural broadband specifically,” she said.
Stefanik also opposed the environmental aspects of the infrastructure plan, which she said invests heavily in the “Green New Deal.”
“I don’t support the Green New Deal, I have a strong record when it comes to conservation and local environmental issues, but the Green New Deal will fundamentally transform America and will frankly make energy much more expensive,” she said.
She said that she has always been a strong supporter of legislation and action to invest in local infrastructure, but that the $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal does not make the proper investments for her district.
Beyond legislation, Stefanik said one of the most important aspects of her job as a congresswoman is to handle constituent services, although that doesn’t always garner headlines like legislative initiatives can.
“It doesn’t get a lot of attention in the national media, or any attention, but it’s still a lot of the bread and butter of what any effective congressional office does,” she said.
Representatives are typically the primary points of contact between citizens and the federal government, and are asked to assist with everything from applications to the country’s military academies to assistance with slow or unhelpful federal agencies. Stefanik said her office responded to over 40,000 constituent service requests in 2021, and brought $131 million in federal money back in the form of services, entitlements and assistance.
In one case, a veteran and resident of Wilton, Saratoga County, who had been working with her office to receive cutting-edge care for a disease through Medicare passed away. Stefanik said her office was able to coordinate with the family to set up a burial in the man’s hometown national cemetery on Long Island.
“He was able to be interred next to his father, where he was originally from, Long Island,” she said.
Constituent services can extend to organizations and local governments as well. Stefanik said she regularly works with local governments to address concerns with other levels of government.
“There were two school districts — Long Lake and Indian Lake — that did not qualify for COVID educational relief funding,” she said. “We worked with our state senators and state assembly members who covered that region, and it took a period of months but we worked to make sure those funds were released by New York state.”
She said constituent services have changed since the COVID-19 pandemic, with many more requests for assistance working with slowed-down federal agencies. She said passport request assistance has become a major project, as the U.S. Department of State works to catch up on a backlog of requests.
“Many of the offices for the federal government were closed, and there was really a lack of response time,” she said. “We processed more passports, I expedited more passports in 2020 and 2021 than we did in my entire 21/2 terms in Congress beforehand.”
In recent months, New York’s 21st Congressional District as a whole has seen a dramatic spike in cases of COVID-19, with thousands of new infections and more deaths recorded since November than were recorded in the first spike of the pandemic in 2020. Stefanik said her office continues to advocate for funding and development of new vaccines and treatments to prevent the spread of the disease and prevent severe illness.
“I am pro-vaccine, but I’m anti-mandate,” she said.
She said vaccination mandates, like the one the Supreme Court recently upheld requiring health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, have led to a loss of service at many hospitals, like Lewis County General Hospital in Lowville which had to temporarily close its maternity department in October after losing too many staff.
Stefanik said she was glad to see the Supreme Court rule that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cannot enforce the planned vaccine requirement for businesses with more than 100 employees.
The congresswoman has faced criticism from many voters and all of her Democratic opponents in the race for NY-21’s congressional seat over her messaging on vaccines. Those critical of her point to the lower-than-state-average vaccination rates and higher case counts in many north country counties, saying that her vocal support for vaccinations without any caveats would likely convince more people to get vaccinated and protected from severe illness.
Stefanik said she is proud of her stance on vaccinations and the work she has done to make the shots available.
“I am the only person in this race that has passed billions and billions of dollars for vaccine funding and distribution, I’m the only person in this race who has had local small business roundtables and talked about, as we work to reopen our small businesses, vaccines are an important part of that path,” she said.
Stefanik said voters in the district seem to support that same position, and she will remain vocally opposed to any mandated vaccinations.
“When it comes to getting Operation Warp Speed done, making sure that we have access, in record time, to vaccines, particularly in rural communities, I stand on my record as being the only person who has done that effectively,” she said.
The public-private Operation Warp Speed was initially funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in 2020 by the Trump administration to facilitate mass production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. The initiative was restructured in 2021 as the Biden administration’s White House COVID-19 Response Team.