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No first-class tickets for Congress, says Angie Craig

It’s about getting trust out of the ‘gutter,’ Minnesota Democrat says

“I do think there is growing support for reform … but there is also strong resistance to change,” says Rep. Angie Craig.
“I do think there is growing support for reform … but there is also strong resistance to change,” says Rep. Angie Craig. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Angie Craig has some ideas about how to restore faith in Congress. For starters, no one should get too comfortable.

She wants to keep her colleagues from flying in first class and end their glide paths to K Street by creating a lifetime ban on lobbying. It hasn’t exactly caught on.

“We’ll see what kind of reform-minded people are in Congress in the next, say, five to 10 years,” she says. “But we just can’t sit idly by and allow the reputation of Congress to stay in the gutter.”

For the moderate Democrat from Minnesota, it’s not just about distancing herself from party leadership in a potentially tough election year. She began calling for a ban on members owning individual stocks in 2019, for example, before the current bipartisan push to overhaul the STOCK Act.

Craig sat down with CQ Roll Call last month to talk about which goals are realistic, why professional diversity matters and what it’s like to be the first openly lesbian mom in Congress.  

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: Most Americans say they don’t trust the federal government and think it needs reform, but how do you sell these ideas in Washington?

A: It stuns me that members of Congress can actually purchase first-class flights with taxpayer dollars, so we’ve introduced legislation that would prevent that. 

I also don’t think once we leave we should be able to register as lobbyists — and, as you can imagine, that’s a little controversial.

I do think there is growing support for reform — you can see it today in the whole stock trading issue, which crosses political boundaries. But there is also strong resistance to change and a bit of a status quo mentality among leadership in both parties. So I’ll just say this: If a bill to ban lawmakers from buying and selling stocks made it to the House floor, I do think it would pass. Will it make it to the House floor? Probably not.

I’m also on Abigail Spanberger’s legislation that would require us to put [individual stocks] in a blind trust. I still think getting them out of your portfolio and maybe investing in mutual funds is the better option, but I’m open to some movement on this topic.

Q: Another top issue for you is prescription drug pricing. It felt like there was some momentum there, but what about now?

A: I actually had to run the self-insured health plan for a major Fortune 500 company before I came to Congress. It’s a different experience when you see the cost of these specialty drugs and compound drugs come in, and you’re literally the one signing off on the bills every quarter. 

So, that really propelled me to want to focus on this. We’ve done a number of things that have not been able to get across the finish line in the Senate, like a cap on the cost of insulin at $35.

I still think that if at all possible we need a prescription drug bill on the House floor, and if we have to do a reduced reconciliation this year, I’d love to see prescription drug reform be part of it. 

Q: You worked inside the medical technology sector for a couple decades. 

A: I can tell you that background has been incredibly useful. When they come into my office, the Big Pharma talking points are talking points I have familiarity with across another sector of health care. All the parade of horribles they describe if the government makes them negotiate their pricing — frankly, I call bulls—on it. 

The health care system is complex, and of course, that complexity gives each element of health care an opportunity to blame the other for rising prices and costs. And so we really do try to cut through some of that.

I was very honored to be placed on the Energy and Commerce Committee, and the health subcommittee in my second term. I think I’m the first Minnesotan in around 20 years to sit on that committee. The last one was Bill Luther.

Q: This is your second term in Congress. What have you seen change? 

A: My greatest concern is that in today’s divided political times, we’re not going to be able to get businesspeople, people with that broad background, to come into public service anymore. It’s just become so divisive. 

That would be a real shame if we didn’t have diversity of experience in the U.S. Congress. And that’s one thing I really appreciate about the class of 2018 that I came in with — there really is a diversity of not only professional experience, but life experience.

People have lost faith in this body we call Congress, and unless we’re willing to reform ourselves, I don’t know if that confidence can be restored.

Q: What moments stand out on a personal level?

A: I’m the first openly lesbian mother to serve in Congress. To be able to preside and to vote for the Equality Act was incredibly meaningful. Of course, I realize it has not passed the Senate, but it is really important to continue that work.

The truth is that I ran for Congress to fix the damn roads and lower the cost of health care, but it is an extraordinary honor to be able to represent, especially to young people, simply by being there. 

I have Republican constituents who come up to me and say, “Look, I don’t agree with you on all your policies, but my son is gay or my daughter’s lesbian, and thank you for being such a great role model.” That’s terrific. I talk about my family in the same way any politician would talk about theirs. My wife, Cheryl, and I have four sons. That’s just a fact. But I openly talk about it, and I think it does make a difference.

I guess the most revealing thing to me about my own district is when I first started running for Congress, it was an R+2 district. That district sent me openly to Congress to do the work on its behalf. The story really is that it wasn’t an issue. Welcome to the future, hopefully.

Quick hits

Last book you read? A beach novel, “One Italian Summer” by Rebecca Serle.

In politics, can the ends justify the means? No. You have to behave in an honorable way throughout.

Least popular opinion? Pineapple belongs on pizza.

If you could do anything else for work, what would it be? Oh, this one is easy. I would be a landscaper and mow lawns all day. Then I would actually see something get done.

Closest friend across the aisle? Dusty Johnson and Randy Feenstra. We work together a lot on the Agriculture Committee.

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