Leading in the void

U.S. Rep. Brooks took upon herself to lead tours of the Capitol during the recent government shutdown so that visitors that had scheduled trips wouldn’t be disappointed. (Submitted photo)

U.S. Rep. Brooks took upon herself to lead tours of the Capitol during the recent government shutdown so that visitors that had scheduled trips wouldn’t be disappointed. (Submitted photo)

U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks talks about the NSA, tax reform, education and what she accomplished during the government shutdown

Interview by Pete Smith

The Current recently sat down with U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks to talk about her first year in Congress and what she hopes to accomplish in the next.

Current: So what’s been most surprising to you about your first year in D.C.?

Brooks: The pace – and I have had fast-paced jobs in the past – but I will say that the pace is even faster. I know it may not look like that to the average citizens.

So when your constituents come into your office and you try and meet with them, what are the main topics of conversation?

Well it really depends. I would say the business interests that come in – and you know they could be anything from banking industry to realtors to manufacturers – so when the business people come in, they want to share with us what their thoughts are on tax reform, they usually come in and share with us which regulations are a challenge for them. You know, so like for the banking industry it would be Dodd Frank. Or for manufacturing it might be EPA.

From constituents, what’s the main topic?

When families or individuals are coming in, they’re usually coming in because we have lined-up tours for them. One thing that was really fun, during the shutdown – which was not fun – but during the shutdown, for any school group to get a tour of the Capitol, I had to be on the tour. So they couldn’t get into the Capitol unless I personally was with them during the tour. So I conducted – with staff that really knew all the facts – I conducted about ten school tours during that time – which was really fun. It was mostly eighth-graders.

Are you going to run again next year?

That’s in the gameplan – yes. I’ve certainly learned as a freshman, it’s a fairly seniority-based system. In terms of committee assignments and truly just in terms of building relationships so that you can be an influencer.

You were one of only two House Republicans that voted to end the government shutdown. Why did you vote for the compromise?

In the House. Senator Coats voted for it in the Senate. I was not pleased when it went into a government shutdown to begin with. And the voters wanted, and continue to want us to fight on (Obamacare), to be quite frank. So we fought on that. But at the point it came to bumping up against the debt ceiling, that’s what did it for me. I could not risk a continued downgrade of our country’s credit rating. I really believed over time that the stock market would drop significantly and would react.

What’s the one thing you would most like to accomplish in the next year?

I think that if we had a budget that would help us make priorities in this country as to how we want to spend taxpayers dollars. And right now that prioritization isn’t happening.

Would you support a subsidy to fund local mass transit?

Now for projects to get funded they have to go through … what I would call a competitive process within the agency. (And any money for a specific project like mass transit in Indianapolis) comes from the Dept. of Transportation. We are following it, but it clearly is a state issue at this point.

The last time you spoke with the Current you said you were going to live a sort of Spartan lifestyle in D.C. How’s that going?

Well, it is Spartan in some ways because, my daughter who graduated from college, I took her furniture. She was living with my in-laws initially when I moved out to D.C. doing a job in Philadelphia. I had all her furniture from college, but it’s a small studio apartment. It’s a nice studio but it’s a small studio. Well since September she got a job in Washington D.C. in the private sector, and she’s my new roommate. So my 23-year-old and I are living together. So we are roommates. And I didn’t realize this when I first rented the apartment, but I am one of the oldest people in my building. Ok? So I’m in a very hip, young building with all these twenty- or thirty-somethings, but I didn’t know that when I rented my studio, and so she is fitting in beautifully, making friends. I just, you know, work there and sleep there. But it is kind of fun being in a building with all these younger people – you know, young professionals or young students who might be in grad school. The building – which I didn’t fully appreciate – is a dog building probably in every third or fourth apartment.

So you’re still commuting back on weekends?

Oh yes.

Does that keep you in touch with the local communities that you represent?

Absolutely. As soon as votes are over, if we finish on a Thursday afternoon or a Friday afternoon, the D.C. team has me on the first flight I can get.

So you fly commercial?

Yes. Oh yes. We have to. Actually we’re precluded. There are ethics rules against flying private – unless you own your plane and fly it yourself. It’s an easy commute – it’s like an hour and forty minutes on U.S. Air – and that’s when I get reading done. I get good reading done on those flights. It’s a good commute. We have a beautiful airport. I love coming in to the Indianapolis airport – I mean it’s lovely. I don’t have a car in D.C., so that’s been new. So I’m a Metro user. I metro-in in the mornings to the Hill. I don’t live on the Hill. And then usually in the evenings I either get a ride or a cab.

So what’s been most surprising to you about your first year in D.C.?

A couple of things. The pace – and I have had fast-paced jobs in the past – but I will say that the pace is even faster. I know it may not look like that to the average citizens. But when I say the pace, what we try to pack into a day is even more than I kind of appreciate. And when I say what we pack into a day, any time we try, anytime constituents are visiting the Hill and request a meeting, we try and fit that in to the day. And whether or not that an individual, a family or even a school group or associations who are out talking to us about what their cause is or what they’re representing. So put it this way, I’m now starting my eleventh month and only one day since I’ve been there did the schedule not change from the day before. My schedule changes sometimes two and three times in a day. That was a surprise to me. That’s also in part because, and I didn’t know this, I don’t know until that morning what time of the day we’re going to be voting. They tell us each morning.  So my poor schedulers, but realize that’s how it works. I was surprised by that.

So when your constituents come into your office and you try and meet with them, what are the main topics of conversation?

Well it really depends. I would say the business interests that come in – and you know they could be anything from banking industry to realtors to manufacturers – so when the business people come in, they want to share with us what their thoughts are on tax reform, they usually come in and share with us which regulations are a challenge for them. You know, so like for the banking industry it would be Dodd Frank. Or for manufacturing it might be EPA. So it’s hard to say one thing, but it’s very helpful for us to hear from them because we just can’t know what all the regulations are that are being proposed or that they are concerned about. And so I would say that taxes, regulation and healthcare are the main issues.

From constituents, what’s the main topic?

When families or individuals are coming in, they’re usually coming in because we have lined-up tours for them. They’re usually on vacation or they may just want to see their member’s office – which is fun. One thing that was really fun, during the shutdown – which was not fun – but during the shutdown, for any school group to get a tour of the Capitol, I had to be on the tour. So they couldn’t get into the Capitol unless I personally was with them during the tour. So I conducted – with staff that really knew all the facts – I conducted about ten school tours during that time – which was really fun. It was mostly eighth-graders. I didn’t get to do the Carmel Middle School one, I was scheduled to do the Carmel Middle School’s, but the government shutdown ended the day before they got here, so everything opened up, so they went on their normal tours. But other groups that came during that almost three weeks, other groups didn’t get to see the museums, the Smithsonians, they didn’t get to see the monuments so we wanted to make sure they got to see the Capitol.

Are you going to run again next year?

That’s in the gameplan – yes. I’ve certainly learned as a freshman, it’s a fairly seniority-based system. In terms of committee assignments and truly just in terms of building relationships so that you can be an influencer. You go there and you have 220-some colleagues in the Republican party and 200 in the Democrat party and just having the opportunity, in part because we do all fly home on weekends, everyone’s kind of working at a pretty fast pace during the days, and so it’s hard to find those opportunities to meet people and get to know people except in the work.

You were one of only two House Republicans (along with Todd Young) that voted to end the government shutdown. Why did you vote for the compromise?

In the House. Senator Coats voted for it in the Senate. I was not pleased when it went into a government shutdown to begin with. However, when we were home in August for the August recess, we did a lot of what are called “Connect with your Congresswoman” events (open meetings in each of the counties in the fifth congressional district were anyone –whether Republican or Democrat – could attend), and the No. 1 issue, by far in August and September, was the implementation of Obamacare. And the voters wanted, and continue to want us to fight on it, to be quite frank. And so that’s why we took the fight. Was about first to fund, then delay. We kept negotiating with ourselves. What could we get done to impress upon the Senate and the president that we think it’s a failed healthcare policy.

There were people that were just so angry about so many things (at the Connect with your Congresswoman events), this was in August, people at that point were learning that their spouses might not be covered by health insurance, that they weren’t going to get to keep their health insurance, they were getting their hours cut. I mean I met a number of people who came in and said, “My hours have been cut.” And it wasn’t just in the Fifth District, it was people all across the country. So we made a decision to fight on that Hill and to tie it to the continuing resolution. And in part, that is because we’ve been so frustrated that the House and the Senate have not agreed to a budget in five years. You just can’t continue to operate government that way. And so people didn’t want us to just keep allowing the old budgets to be (approved) without having a new budget process. So we fought on that. We knew that by shutting down government we were trying to fund the most critical parts of government during that time. That’s why we passed those mini bills, what they call mini omnibus bills to pass various functions of government – ensuring department of defense, veterans issues. We actually voted to open the national parks – you know we voted to do a number of things but then they died in the Senate. And they weren’t taken up in the Senate. So we’re really at a stalemate point during those few weeks period. We received so many calls and so many letters. And it was interesting – in my district it was a real mix from, “Open the government,” to others saying, “Keep fighting until we get some reforms.” But at the point it came to bumping up against the debt ceiling, that’s what did it for me. I could not risk a continued downgrade of our country’s credit rating. I really believed over time that the stock market would drop significantly and would react. I actually spoke out in the Republican conference and said, ‘Look, people’s 401Ks have finally begun to recover from the recession, and I was concerned that if we did not fund an increase in the debt ceiling, people’s 401Ks would once again (drop) and the uncertainty in the markets, things would tank again. And I was not willing to allow that to happen. So I voted to increase the debt ceiling. And I have to be hopeful that Paul Ryan (R.-Wisc.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) are going to work together and try and come up with a budget number.

You mentioned your concern about a dip in the stock market, is there a path forward for our country to get us out of a boom and bust cycle?

I think there is a path forward if, and I’ve said this before, the president needs to lead (in regard to entitlement reforms as it relates to increasing the national debt.). In my view president Obama needs to rise above the partisan politics, and that is extremely difficult for him. And he needs to bring the Republicans and the Democrats together in true negotiations. True meetings where they are talking about common ground. In his budgets there are things that reform social security or reform Medicare but yet the Senate won’t take up or has refused to have those discussions. And so the House is trying to look at: What might the Senate agree to? What might the President agree to? Let’s use that as the beginning place for finding common ground.

Is the debt ceiling issue the one that you feel contributes most to a boom and bust cycle?

Yes, I do believe the debt ceiling discussion and where we are negotiating with respect to the debt. And there is a possibility of defaulting on our debt, I think that’s what affects the stock market.

How does the debt ceiling tie in to things like Medicare and Social Security negotiations?

That’s the largest driver of the debt. The largest portion is not driven by discretionary funding – which is what funds kind of the day-to-day operation of government. OK? It is our entitlement programs that are driving the debt. It’s Social Security, it’s Medicare and it’s Medicaid. Those are where the largest majority of our country’s debt – how we’ve incurred that much debt. And it’s not something that’s happened during the Obama administration, but the debt has increased dramatically during that time.

I think (President Obama’s) legacy could be – if he chooses to lead on this –helping us save those systems for my kids, who are 20 and 23. Because let me just tell ya, that is being taken out of their paycheck now, and because of the demographics of the country, those systems won’t be there for them the way that they are for seniors now.

Do you think your vote to reopen government will be an issue in the upcoming 2014 primary?

It may. It probably will be. However I believe it was the right vote to take, and I am happy to defend the vote and explain my rationale behind the vote. I came home the next day after the vote and actually attended a Hamilton County fall dinner. Pete Emigh, chair of the party asked if I’d like to say a few words. And I thought, “Well, we’ll see how this goes.” And it was a few hundred people, and I was overwhelmed because they gave me a standing ovation before I spoke. I felt good about it. The deal kept the sequester budget cuts that were negotiated. And with respect to Obamacare, the one positive thing we got out of it, now, when people go onto the exchange people will have to verify their income levels. Previously they weren’t going to verify income levels … and they could start getting subsidies they’re not entitled to. So hopefully that will combat fraud in the system in a significant way.

What’s the one thing you would most like to accomplish in the next year?

I believe that it would be a significant accomplishment if we actually had a budget. That will require the House and the Senate to come together on what is called the “top line number.” Because I believe that through the appropriations process, they can negotiate and come up with what makes up that budget, but unless they have an agreement as to what the top number is for funding the government, they can’t do the rest of the work. So I think that if we had a budget, that would help us make priorities in this country as to how we want to spend taxpayers dollars. And right now that prioritization isn’t happening. And I think is a huge problem for the future of the country if we continue to operate, for years and years, without budgets.

Would you support a subsidy to fund local mass transit?

Now for projects to get funded they have to go through … what I would call a competitive process within the agency. Now, the state receives an allocation of federal dollars. (And any money for a specific project like mass transit in Indianapolis) comes from the Department of Transportation. It comes from the regular appropriations process. And so (County Commissioner) Christine Altman and the group she is helping lead have been out to talk to us about the status of where they are. We are following it, but it clearly is a state issue at this point. I have asked my staff to reach out to (the offices of the Indiana congressmen who sit on the transportation committee) to find out, if it gets through the state legislature, what will our role be? … If there is a mass-transit pot of funding, then it would probably need to compete with other communities for that funding. And the question will be, and I have expressed my concern about this, and I’m not seeing with what our deficits are and what our debt is looking like, I’m not seeing huge amounts of new funding going for new transit projects. I think they’re going to be focused on trying to finish those transit projects that are already in the pipeline in other communities.

So mass transit in Indianapolis will most likely just be a local issue?

People have always thought the federal government will step up and be the largest funder of it, and I have expressed concern in meetings that the organizations maybe should not count on that because I think that a lot of the federal transit money will be given to those projects that are already in the works.

You were recently the subject of a peaceful gathering that hoped to persuade you to pass a bill in regards to immigration reform. Have you formulated a stance on that issue?

(It’s too early in the process, Brooks said, noting that the bill was only introduced the day before the recent government shutdown.) However I told the group …  that I am very practical, … and I truly doubted that bill would be taken up in the House, in part because the issue of immigration reform is so complex and has so many different issues imbedded in immigration reform that the House made the decision to take it in a step-by-step approach focused on different issues within immigration reform rather than putting it all in one bill. So I said to (the people who gathered at her office) that I did not think a one bill approach was a smart way to get it done. So border security, while it is part of the immigration problem, it ought to be a standalone bill. And it passed in my homeland security committee in a bipartisan way unanimously. So why don’t we move to the House floor and vote on that?

I know the Senate already passed a bill in regard to immigration reform. If the House divided this issue up into separate bills, how would the two be reconciled?

It could get conferenced together. I’ve been in Congress for 11 months, and when we go back we’ll have the first bills that are being conferenced in 11 months. We pass bills now and it usually either dies in the Senate or they pass it the way we passed it out of the House. So this year’s Farm Bill and the food stamp issue will be the first one going to a conference.

Did you run on a platform of creating jobs?

Of course. But honestly, government doesn’t create jobs. So yesterday I sat in a meeting with credit unions, and I asked, “What’s the No. 1 issue with your members?” They said the uncertainty of what’s happening Washington D.C. They don’t know their taxes. They don’t know what’s coming at them. They no longer know what their healthcare costs are. And all of those issues are what keep this country from creating jobs – keeping the private sector from creating jobs. And look what’s happened – IU Health laying off 800 people; St.Vincent’s laying off  800-900 people; St. Francis is laying off hundreds of people. And they all are acknowledging that part of it is because of the Affordable Care Act – which is a problem. It’s really the lack of certainty, and unfortunately D.C. is not providing that. I acknowledge that. Keeping us globally competitive is what I have been focused on, whether it’s on workforce or our taxes.

What progress has been made on that front?

If we could get tax reform done in this 113th Congress, that would be huge. And I have hopes that that can happen because the leaders in both the House and the Senate in a bipartisan way are working together on it. They are actually holding hearings, they’re doing things together. Sen. Baucus (D-Mont.) and U.S. Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.). There is a feeling that tax reform could happen and that would be huge.

Is there anything you would like to let people know about?

I’m on the education and workforce committee and I’ve actually gotten very focused on computer science and how do we infuse computer science education into our high schools and our middle schools because there are going to be so many (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) jobs and so many computing jobs in the future. And in this country we’re not keeping up with the education needs to provide those jobs. Or for young people to even think about those kinds of jobs in the future.

Is that a role for the federal government?

Yes. Because we actually got an amendment through the House in the reauthorization of the elementary K-12 bill to add computer science as a core academic subject. Which means that the federal funding that schools get can now – although it hasn’t passed the Senate yet – can now be used to improve the computer science offerings in schools, AP exams or bringing in the right teachers for computer science.

We’ve also got higher-ed reauthorization coming up. A lot of people are struggling with higher-ed costs and what they are getting from their higher education degrees. So how can we make sure that there is incredible value and that it is still affordable and accessible for people to get higher education. I think we’ve got to continue to encourage people to encourage in their education so we can compete with other countries. I love working on education issues.

I know it’s not your committee, but is there any groundswell to react to NSA wiretapping and electronic surveillance of communications?

I visited NSA last week because there is a lot of concern about what there authority is and what they’re doing. It is a huge issue in Congress. I believe (the issue) will be addressed – whether it’s reauthorization of parts of the Patriot Act. How it came up this year, it came up with respect to NSA’s funding. And I and a number of my colleagues from the Republican Party went and spent – and they do it for both parties – but chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) of the House Intelligence Committee is encouraging members to go visit NSA to ask the questions, to learn about the operations, to find out what our proper oversight should be and to find out how they’re running the agency. We spent a couple of hours there. It was very, very helpful to ask Gen. Alexander very tough questions. We got answers to questions without equivocation. They talked with us about the work they do, how they do it, what mistakes have been made, what they do to correct mistakes when those are made. And then they also shared with us details potential and probable terrorist incidents that they’ve prevented. NSA from my view is a very important intelligence agency that we need. However we need to make sure that they are not infringing on constitutional rights and that they are following an incredible amount of rules and regulations. We ask a lot of questions about the type of security their employees have and how they monitor their own employees to make sure their own employees aren’t doing thing improperly or illegally. So there is tremendous amount of oversight. The oversight is done by the intelligence committee and it’s a bipartisan committee, so part of the challenge is that we just can’t share all that we know and learn, be we are absolutely monitoring – more in a heightened way – than has probably been done in the past. But I do believe they are a very important agency in helping keep us safe. And the world’s not getting safer – let’s remember that. There are lots of bad guys out there.