Lessons From the First Year on the Hill

Congress adjourns, and a new lawmaker ponders achievements, savors 'real dinners.'

What US Rep. Anne Northup most looks forward to, now that her first year in Congress is over, is spending at least seven consecutive days in her own Louisville home, cooking in her own kitchen.

The relentless, weekly shuttle to and from Capitol Hill has been challenging for the freshman Republican from Kentucky, perhaps more so than for her husband and their high-school-age son, the only one of six children yet to leave the familial nest.

"I'm really, really looking forward to some sustained time being at home," sighs Representation Northup. "I love to be in my kitchen having a real dinner."

But this first-time congresswoman also feels her time in Washington has been well spent. For one, she's demonstrated her ability to fulfill that most fundamental duty of any representative - bringing home benefits for her district. For another, she's started to focus on issues of special interest to her, such as education policy.

Still, she admits to being frustrated by the intense partisanship of the 105th Congress, and wonders at the lack of strategic thinking on the Hill.

"I'm very interested in public policy - and not just making an adjustment," she says. "Where are we going to go in health-care delivery and insurance...? And understanding that, what incremental steps do we take to get there?" The same holds true in education, she adds: "We keep fiddling with it, and we haven't yet addressed what is going to be the state role and what's going to be the federal role."

Off and running

Northup holds a seat that had been Democratic Party turf since 1970 - winning it by a slim 1,299-vote margin. From the minute she arrived in Congress, Northup stepped into a political firestorm that began with Newt Gingrich's narrow reelection as Speaker after his reprimand from the House ethics committee. A small group of conservatives sniped at the Speaker for months afterward, culminating in an unsuccessful coup attempt. Northup stood by the Speaker both times.

She also supported the effort by Congress and the president to balance the federal budget over five years and cut taxes, a pact now heralded as perhaps the most important achievement of the year.

Of her own accomplishments, Northup says she's proudest of "the ways that I in particular helped Louisville that wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been here." She cites the highway-funding bill, in which she got money for new projects in Louisville. While the bill didn't reach the House floor, her projects will be included when the measure comes up for a vote early next year.

She also persuaded colleagues to restore money for reconstruction of a crucial lock on the Ohio River falls. (President Clinton had put off the project.) The lock allows freight to be shipped into Louisville, such as jet fuel for United Parcel Service's fleet of aircraft, based there.

As a freshman, Northup delivered 36 floor speeches on topics ranging from education to eliminating the "marriage tax" to a law to promote adoption. From her seat on the House Appropriations Committee, she got $1.5 million more than the president requested for the American Printing House for the Blind, which produces Braille books and magazines. She also used her family experience and her knowledge of the National Institutes of Health to push Congress to create a board through which NIH will share its research on learning disabilities with the Department of Education. She is bringing NIH to Louisville for a seminar to help the University of Louisville better compete for federal grants. And she helped groups in Louisville's minority community get grants to counter the threat to young people from gangs and drugs.

"My biggest disappointment is that, no matter what I do, I can't find more than 24 hours in the day," Northup says. "That is the limitation on what you can accomplish."

Need for 'honest sharing'

Another frustration for Northup is the degree of partisanship in Washington, which she says far exceeds anything she ran into when she served in as a state lawmaker. "If you [could] put partisanship to the side, there would be more discussion about issues and public policy and philosophy and an honest sharing," she says. "I would expect to learn something from the people on the other side of the aisle. Instead, there's a lot of rhetoric."

As she gains experience, Northup finds herself gravitating toward education issues, a theme of her decade in the Kentucky General Assembly. She stood with her fellow House Republicans in opposing Mr. Clinton's plan for national testing. She points to state testing that Kentucky implemented as part of its education reforms.

"We spent [more than] $100 million on it, and it's been virtually a failure," Northup says. Now she hears Education Secretary Richard Riley holding up Kentucky as a national model. "Look, I'm not sure that anybody in Kentucky ... would be at all excited about that," she says.

Northup has also opposed efforts at campaign-finance reform, especially in the bipartisan freshman caucus, which adopted reform as a "class project." She's a successful fund-raiser herself, reportedly leading all freshmen in funds raised and raising most of it from individual donations. "I guess I feel like that if the government wrote a check to every candidate for a certain amount and so nobody had to fund-raise, that this system would be a whole lot worse off," she says.

Fund-raising, she says, provides a reality check between representatives and their constituents. "When you fund-raise, you have to talk to a different group of people, people who generally are paying their taxes, people who are providing jobs or who deal with government agencies that have all the red tape.... And the public-policy balance is important."

When Northup returns to Washington Jan. 27, elections will be fewer than 10 months away. Louisville labor unions and Democrats have already made it clear they're gunning for the anti-abortion, conservative, free-trader Republican incumbent.

"The fact is there is a Democratic mayor, a Democratic county [executive], a Democratic governor. That's pretty intimidating and makes it look like the district will always be tough," she observes. "On the other hand, we have gotten really good feedback, a lot of support. We've worked very hard in the district in terms of building bridges and taking the responsibility to the community very seriously."

The good news for Northup is that Roll Call, a weekly newspaper covering Congress, rated her district "leaning Republican" in a recent survey. Running for reelection is "a process that I love," Northup says. "I'm looking forward to the campaign."

* Earlier articles in this series appeared last year on Nov. 22, and this year on Jan. 14, March 28, June 18, and Aug. 27.

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