WASHINGTON, D.C. - Jaime Herrera Beutler, new representative for Southwest Washington in the Third Congressional District, is full of enthusiasm after her swearing in to the 112th Congress which began Jan. 3.
"I knew it would be an awesome and astounding honor to be elected and serve the people of my district," said Herrera Beutler, reached by phone from her office in Washington, D.C. "And I maintain it will be tremendously exciting, but I never had misunderstandings about living in this city."
Herrera Beutler (she added Beutler, pronounced Butler, her husband's last name, after winning the election) made a joke about her apartment. "We're living in a little apartment with a broken table, three chairs and an air mattress bed. My biggest priority was just to be close enough to the Capitol so that I could get there quickly for votes."
"My office is coming along - my biggest push was to get our phone lines up so that we can make calls and respond to people, and our e-mail is up and running. We want to make sure people can communicate with us."
"But I don't have any art on the walls," she said.
Healthcare showdown and immediate challenges
But art or no art, Herrera Beutler is ready to roll. Fulfilling a campaign pledge set before the November election, she joined House Republicans who voted unanimously last Wednesday to fully repeal the healthcare reform bill. (This vote is largely symbolic as it will likely not be taken up in the Senate.)
The tally was 245-189, with three Democrats - Dan Boren (D-Okla.), Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.), and Mike Ross (D-Ark.) - joining the vote for H.R. 2, "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act."
Herrera Beutler hopes to make healthcare one of her key issues. But as well as facing off with the President on his healthcare bill, Herrera Beutler sees other challenges ahead.
"It's funny - and I said this during my campaign too - some of the challenges I'm going to face are more within my own party. There is a whole new set of energetic Republicans but there are still a lot of folks, two-thirds of the Congress, who have been here for a long time. I knew my challenge was going to be not doing business as usual, in addition to getting our unemployment turned around."
She continued, "Access to healthcare is something that Republicans could have passed last time they had the House, the Senate, and the White House - but they didn't. Our challenge is growing from within, it's something a lot of us newcomers are dealing with."
"On the positive side we've had a tremendously warm reception. We've been told we're bringing fresh life, new blood and vision to Congress - it's good for us."
There are several specific provisions that Herrera Beutler would like to see instituted to replace the current healthcare provisions. In her first speech on the floor, Herrera Beutler stated, "The Obamacare' bill passed by the other party last year was the wrong approach. It increases the debt and the deficit to future generations while doing nothing to decrease the inflationary curve of healthcare."
"Getting this right is one of the reasons the people of Southwest Washington sent me to Congress," she said.
She sites four major pillars of reform that she would like to see: "small business health plans; ending junk lawsuits that drive up the costs of everyone's care; the expanded use of health savings accounts; and the ability to purchase healthcare across state lines."
She emphasizes that she wants everyone in Southwest Washington to have access to good healthcare. At the same time she supported the healthcare bill repeal, she does not want any healthcare plan to endanger seniors who have currently chosen Medicare Advantage.
"Half the seniors in my district have chosen Medicare Advantage, and I want them to able to keep that. But we also have around 11 percent in our state who are not insured. And there are many young people between the ages of 19 to early 30s who are uninsured. I think a health savings account would be a good solution for that group."
After the current healthcare bill passed, Washington State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler stated that the bill would be an improvement for Washington's 6.7 million residents.
Kreidler added "We have in excess of one million residents who are not covered by any health insurance policy. And we anticipate that 500,000 of those will be able to find some kind of affordable insurance in the next two years as a result of this bill. That will cut the number of our state's uninsured by half."
But Herrera Beutler feels that a different approach is needed.
"I believe we need a strong and robust safety net for those who cannot get health insurance elsewhere," she said. " But one of the problems with Obamacare is that it put too many people into this category. This should be only for those who are the most vulnerable - not everybody else."
Congressional Budget Office data
"The Congressional Budget Office [CBO] released numbers that said this healthcare bill will grow 8 percent per year indefinitely. To say it's not going to add to our national debt doesn't pass the straight-face test," she said. "I want to make insurance companies compete for your business."
According to documents on the CBO website, "CBO and the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) estimate that enacting both pieces of legislation [the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, Public Law 111-148); and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 (H.R. 4872)] will produce a net reduction in federal deficits of $143 billion over the 2010-19 period. About $124 billion of that savings stems from provisions dealing with healthcare and federal revenues; the other $19 billion results from the education provisions."
It further states that, "by 2019, the two pieces of legislation combined will reduce the number of non-elderly people who are uninsured by about 32 million, leaving about 23 million non-elderly residents uninsured."
Herrera Beutler goes on to say that she disagrees that, as stated under the current law, uninsured individuals must buy insurance or pay a fine. Twenty-five states have joined Florida in suing the federal government on this provision.
"But if we could purchase insurance across state lines, this could drop the cost by 20 to 25 percent," she said. "The individual insurance market is the most expensive one to enter right now."
It appears that committee appointments in the House follow a sometimes arcane process that is not well understood by outsiders. To date Herrera Beutler has been appointed to three subcommittees that could affect the business climate in Pacific County in important ways. She will sit on the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittees, and has been appointed to the vice-chairmanship of the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee.
The Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee has jurisdiction over several areas of interest to Southwest Washington including the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, groundwater protection, water resources policy, the Clean Water Act, water infrastructure and watershed protection programs, and invasive/aquatic nuisance species.
Herrera Beutler will also serve on the Highway and Transit; and Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials subcommittees. These committees have jurisdiction on issues related to the construction of roads, bridges and transit facilities; and will also be developing the next major authorization of surface transportation infrastructure and highway safety, as the previous law expired in 2009.
Herrera Beutler is still waiting to hear whether she will be able to take a seat on the committee dealing with healthcare reform.
"Congress is holding because the ranking members have not yet assigned everybody into committee. The Democrats have not made all their assignments yet," she said. It appears the protocol is that Democrats, who now have fewer seats to offer their members since losing their majority in the house, are given the courtesy of re-making their assignments first, before Republicans know exactly how they will fill subcommittees.
"I'm excited about both of my committees. I think these appointments can be beneficial to the folks in Southwest Washington. Having our infrastructure, having everything in the best working order, will help grease the wheels of our economy."
"Our ports, I-5, our inland water resources, that's all part of our infrastructure. But make no mistake, I'm a fiscal conservative - and everything I'm doing I'm doing with the mindset of Is this going to add to the debt?' or Will this create jobs?' I'm not about to change that perspective."
"But I do think the federal government has to have regional priorities - and ours have to be the Columbia River bridge, controlling flooding and dredging. Those are all responsibilities of the federal government. And I'm interested in using these subcommittee appointments to the best of my ability."
"I'll be asking What are we doing with taxpayers dollars and what return are we getting?'" said Herrera Beutler.
On Monday Herrera Beutler announced that she supports a U.S. constitutional amendment bill reintroduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), subcommittee chair for the House Judiciary Committee that would require the federal government to balance its budget every year. Goodlatte introduced this bill in the 110 and 111th Congress and reintroduced it this week with Herrera Beutler's co-sponsorship.
"If Congress doesn't stop the overspending, America will cease to be the land of opportunity we all know," she said. "I am supporting this strong measure because our current national debt is crippling businesses, hurting families and stifling the growth of new jobs.
"Both Republicans and Democrats share the blame for getting us to this point, but now it's time to force a fiscally responsible budgeting process. I will continue to push this measure with determined focus."
Despite the excitement of these first days in Congress, Herrera Beutler said, "I'm dying to get home to tell you the truth. I get to come home either Wednesday or Thursday, and then I'm going to spread myself as thin as I can so I can get all over the district."
"I'm going to be home for a little over a week and my staff is scheduling me for a town hall in every county," she said. "And I want people to feel free to write in or to call. I want to have a really strong communications relationship with the people I represent."
"I don't know everything I need to know yet," she continued, "but I can tell you we're going to give it our best shot."