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Freshman Vibe Check
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Freshman Vibe Check

Taking advantage of a quiet week to catch up with Rep. Peter Meijer and Rep. Jake Auchincloss.

Good morning. Both chambers of Congress are out this week and next week. We won’t be sending Uphill this Friday or next week because we don’t think it’s necessary. There’s a running gripe in Capitol Hill reporting circles about recess stories: Reporters face pressure from their editors to come up with something—anything—to write about when lawmakers are out of town and not much is happening. Some of these stories aren’t bad at all. They include interesting profiles about members of Congress, deep dives into policy areas, and previews of coming fights on Capitol Hill. But many recess stories fall into a trap of turning something small and relatively minor into a big deal. Much of it is designed to fill an artificial news gap. We don’t want to inundate you with content when we don’t think it’s needed. If there are any major developments related to Congress over the next two weeks, we’ll have you covered in our flagship newsletter, The Morning Dispatch. In the meantime, today’s Uphill should satisfy, at least to some extent, the desire for content that’s a little more low-stakes and offbeat than we’d typically send during a busy week in Washington.

How Fare the Freshmen?

We thought it would be a good time to catch up with a couple of freshmen about their first few months in the House and how the job has gone so far. Below are two Q&A’s with freshmen—one from each party—who were willing to chat with us last week. (Thanks to their offices for agreeing to the interviews!)

First is a conversation with Rep. Peter Meijer, who represents Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District. Meijer was one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump earlier this year. He filled former Rep. Justin Amash’s seat. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Haley: Is there anything that has surprised you most in your first few months being in the House? 

Meijer: I feel like on the outside, you can only see some of the gaffes or the maybe less than sage comments that folks tend to make. And a number of folks that I’ve had the chance of meeting and working with have just impressed at how much more thoughtful I found some of the conversations to be on the one hand. But on the flip side, how I had to recalibrate my assumption that people run for office in order to advance an agenda, no matter how vain the agenda may be. And then realizing that there are some folks whose primary directive is in no way, shape, or form correlated with having an impact—and in some ways may not just be neutral towards having an impact, but actively detrimental to their conference achieving victory. And that was surprising.

Haley: You’ve displayed a willingness to be very independent from the broader House Republican Conference. Has that affected your relationship with any other House Republicans? Do you sort of feel a tension there with some of your colleagues? 

Meijer: The funniest thing is there’s a lot of folks who know my name, but whose names I don’t yet know, for better or worse. It was certainly not my intention. I think there’s folks who try to be independent in a way that’s kind of sticking their thumb in the eye of convention. And I have tried to be as thoughtful and sincere about my actions as possible. I would like to think that’s something that many of my colleagues have seen—that in those places where I do stand alone or stand in a minority it’s not just for the point of standing alone or in the minority or gumming things up, but because of a sincere and deeply held ideological or moral difference. I’ve at least felt in a majority of circumstances that that’s pretty well-respected.

Haley: What has interacting with constituents been like? Members of Congress often find themselves in the grocery store hearing from people about all kinds of topics. Has it been sort of jarring to transition to a job where everyone you meet may have an opinion about you and how you’re making decisions?

Meijer: Obviously COVID makes it more difficult, right? You don’t have the typical run-ins you might otherwise, and if you do, it’s A, harder for somebody to recognize me with a mask on, and B, harder for me to read their facial expressions in one way or another. I’ve gone on a number of tours, and I was touring a local vaccination clinic with some other county- and state-level officials. And somebody—you know, the people who were sitting there waiting for their 15-minute monitoring period—one lady said, “Hey, come over here.” And I go, and she said, “I’m an independent and my husband’s a Republican. We’re with you a hundred percent, thank you for your courage. Thank you.” And I keep walking and the next guy says, “Hey, when are you going to apologize for impeaching Trump?”

I haven’t had any really negative interactions. One of the reactions I’ve gotten more times than I would have thought is somebody kind of coming up and like, whispering to me and saying, “I think you did the right thing. I see how many people are attacking you on Facebook, and just know that the people who are quiet on Facebook, more often than not, they think like I do and support you, but we’re afraid to say so because then everyone will attack us too.” It’s been interesting. I think that there’s just a lot of passion, there’s a lot of emotion, and sometimes you need time in order to get away from the more simple narratives. And obviously it was less than ideal to have this happening within the first 10 days of being sworn into office, to put it lightly. Not the timing I would have chosen, if I could have ever chosen. I do think that the voting public in general, I hope to get to the point where even those who vigorously disagreed with the decision at least understand how I arrived at it and also appreciate that that was one vote out of many. And also not a vote that was taken lightly.

Haley: I wanted to get your thoughts on how things run in Congress. You’ve been participating in committee hearings, you’ve been voting on the floor. I’ve gotten the sense that you’re not a fan of the legislative process, like many members. What specific things have you taken issue with? And what would you do if you could help the place run better? 

Meijer: Well, number one—I think this is something my predecessor spoke about at length—just how neutered the minority is. I’m not a legislative accelerationist, and it feels like there’s a lot of accelerationists milling about, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle, who wants to press the advantage in ways that I frankly think will be to their detriment long term, and definitely to the institution’s detriment as well. I’m thinking of the effort to strip Marjorie Taylor Greene of her committee assignments. I didn’t support that because there’s no precedent for ever stripping a member of their committee assignments in the body as a whole, rather than having each party do that. And all that’s going to do is encourage a similar effort by the other party when they take the majority. These things that seem like wins in the moment, that seem like short-term wins, I think will build up into long-term losses. And I’m not a fan of undermining an institution that has more good than bad within it. 

I’d also vastly prefer some semblance of normal order. It’s been frustrating, to say the least, how often things have devolved into kind of take-it-or-leave-it propositions, especially in areas that are historically or conceivably bipartisan. I’ve kind of forsworn trying to invest any emotional or literal energy into places where I know it will solely be messaging-based. And it’s, again, a little bit dispiriting how much people invest in messaging that’s preaching to a choir and not moving any needle in any demonstrable way.

Haley: Trust and cooperation between the two parties was on the decline during the Trump years, but especially so since January 6. How are you going about navigating those relationships and working with Democrats?

Meijer: I was first saying I kind of feel a little bit like Switzerland, but I think a better analogy is I feel like Oman. Like there’s a lot of folks who will tell me things as almost an intermediary. And again, I care a lot less about shallow messaging. I mean, sometimes—and this was my intention with the DOGE plan—sometimes you have to try to message to impact the reality. But you know, a lot of the things that we’ve been working on, and the AUMF is probably front and foremost among them, is less geared towards being able to put a bunch of stuff on social [media] than making a long-term impact on our constitutional authorities and balance and achieving legislative wins that will be enduring. That’s kind of put me in a bizarre position where I don’t necessarily have people reaching out to me on symbolic gestures, but do have folks reaching out on things that don’t fit neatly into a partisan framework and saying, “Hey, you like to think thoughtfully and substantively about things. So maybe there’s an opportunity for us to work on an issue X,” that probably neither primary nor general voters care much about, but nonetheless are good policy and good for the country in the long term.

Haley: Have you kept an open line of communication with Justin Amash? Does he ever give you advice about the district or anything?

Meijer: Yeah, we have. There’s obviously plenty of areas for district comparison, but also, he’s spent a lot of time struggling with many of the same forces that I’m finding myself struggling with. I’ve really appreciated being able to learn from his experience on that front.

Haley: How have you gone about hiring staff? Some new members have a tough time with it because they want to select the right people but don’t have experience running a congressional office. Is there anything specific you’ve been looking for in job candidates?

Meijer: If there are two traits that we’ve really prioritized, and we’ve kind of discovered this in a backwards-looking fashion, is that our team values thought and curiosity. And again, my ethos is if all we’re doing is just doing things in order to be reelected, then why are we out there in the first place? There’s not yet a legislative or a congressional equivalent of YOLO, but you know, serve every term as if it might be your last and try to make as enduring an impact as you can with the time that the voters give you.

Our second interview is with Rep. Jake Auchincloss, who represents Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District. Auchincloss is a Democrat. He filled former Rep. Joe Kennedy’s seat after Kennedy left the House to run (unsuccessfully) for Senate. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Haley: Do you have any broad first impressions after working in the House for a few months?

Auchincloss: It’s a dissonance, I guess I would say, in the sense that we are coming at a time when the normal business of Congress is very impaired because of the pandemic. The in-person events, even having all the staff in the office at once, getting to walk the House floor and meeting members of Congress, the extracurricular events where you get to know people, like all of that stuff is obviously really frozen and so much more difficult to do. And you’ve got the insurrection that has thrown cold water on a lot of potential relationships. So in some sense, the mechanics of Congress are impaired. And yet in this other sense, it’s an incredibly exciting and productive time. We are coming to Washington with Democrats in control of the House, the Senate, and the White House to repair the damage of four years of the worst administration in American history. As a millennial, I feel special excitement because there’s a generational moment here, too, where climate change and gun safety, issues of a fair economy that works for everybody are coming to the fore. These are issues that I think are really going to be defining for our generation. And I see people like Pete Buttigieg in the executive branch and people like Ritchie Torres and Nikema Williams in the legislative branch with me. And there’s this sense that millennials are—I wouldn’t say we’ve taken the mantle of leadership—but we are stepping up.

Haley: Is there anything that has surprised you most during your time so far in the House?

Auchincloss: How much my life is controlled by my staff.

Haley: Just working on legislation and participating in committee hearings so far, is there anything dysfunctional about the process that you’ve noticed? Is there anything you’d do to help make the place run better? 

Auchincloss: Well, I’m still learning how Congress works, so I’m hesitant to kind of be one of those people that comes into an institution and say I’m smarter than everybody else. Especially in a virtual environment, I think really I haven’t even developed a baseline yet for how Congress works. So my only real baseline is my time as a city councillor. I was a city councillor for five years. I was the chair of a committee on the city council, and our committee work as a city council was really very productive and was, I would say, more collaborative than we see in Congress. So the chair would guide a conversation, but all eight members of the committee would participate. You’d bring in outside experts, you’d have conversations, you’d go back and forth. You’d really work on language together. And I hope that as we go back to in-person committee hearings, we’ll have more of that vibe of kind of really huddling around a piece of legislation and working on it together.

Haley: You’ve spoken to a few reporters about how you’ve grappled with Republicans who contested the results of the election. Can you just discuss more how you’re navigating those relationships?

Auchincloss: I’m not going to establish political partnerships with people who don’t recognize Joe Biden as the legitimate winner of a free and fair election. They need to kind of put that line in the sand at this point, and then, okay, we can start having conversations. That doesn’t preclude me from maintaining personal ties with members of the opposite party. And I’ve, by reasons of proximity to other offices, or because of shared veteran status, or because we met during orientation, I’ve developed some friendly relationships with Republicans. And those are the kernels, I think, of future political relationships. Things are a little bit raw right now, but relationships are the currency of politics. And so I do think it’s important to invest in those personal relationships. 

I would also say, I think it’s important also just to draw a distinction between bipartisanship and unity. A lot of us heard and took to heart President Biden’s compelling call for unity at his inauguration. We can do unifying things in Congress on a partisan basis. I’d point to two things. One, the American Rescue Plan. 70 percent of Americans think it’s a good idea. We passed that on a partisan vote. I would argue the ARP is a unifying piece of legislation, helping people who are in need, and it’s laying the foundation for a roaring jobs and infrastructure program. Number two would be gun safety legislation. Great majorities of Americans want universal background checks. Passing universal background checks in the House and the Senate, even if it was on strictly partisan lines, would be a unifying piece of legislation.

Haley: Have you spoken with former Rep. Joe Kenendy in your first few months about setting up the office and other things you may have questions about?

Auchincloss: Yes. I speak to Joe every few weeks, I would say. We’ll get on the phone.

Haley: Is there anything specific you’ve looked for in hiring staff?

Auchincloss: We hired for four core values: excellence, integrity, curiosity, and inclusive leadership.

Haley: What was your experience like on January 6? I know many members were stuck in their offices for hours while they waited for the building to be cleared. What was that like for you?

Auchincloss: The most salient memory to me is going back onto the House floor that night and walking through a Capitol that was in military lockdown and was trashed. I mean, truly was in derelict condition. Going onto the House chamber floor and seeing the Republicans stand up and contest the election results again. And the tension in that room and the palpable anger was unlike any other circumstance I’ve been in. I mean, it was like there were shock waves in the air. A fist fight almost broke out between two members, in fact. That is definitely going to stay with me the rest of my career.

Haley: I also wanted to get your thoughts on the challenge to the results in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District. Some of your colleagues have said they don’t want to vote on whether to remove the Republican who was certified the winner of the seat, Rep. Marianette Miller-Meeks. What do you think of that situation?

Auchincloss: Well, I think as Chairwoman Lofgren said, the burden of evidence is on Rita Hart.

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.