Wagner emerges as a GOP player
WASHINGTON -- The frustrations of freshman members of Congress are well documented, as most of the political big fish in their home districts suddenly find themselves reduced to mere guppies when they enter the seniority-ruled shark tank of the U.S. House.
But six months into her job, U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, has become a player of sorts on Capitol Hill. She is on the lowest rung of House GOP leadership, has become an active member of the Financial Services committee, and is a prodigious fundraiser who is working hard to recruit Republican women candidates to run for U.S. House seats in 2014.
"I feel like I've made a difference, and I've been able to contribute," Wagner said in a wide-ranging interview last week. "Yes, there are frustrations with the Washington, D.C. culture, the dysfunction and the distrust by the American people of their government. While that's disappointing, I try and channel it back to the work that we are doing."
Wagner -- a former businesswoman, ambassador and party chair who had never before held legislative office -- also has been defining her positions on some hot-button national issues that divide her political supporters and opponents.
On polarizing issues such as gun control, abortion, immigration, same-sex marriage and climate change, Wagner's generally conservative stances have rankled some voters and encouraged others in the 2nd Congressional District in St. Louis County.
Through it all, Wagner -- who boasts about spending as little time in Washington as possible -- says she has focused much of her efforts on providing constituent services and in trying to represent the concerns of individuals, businesses and organizations in her district. That's an area where some felt that her predecessor, former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, was not particularly strong.
"Casework is huge," she said, adding that her office has resolved more than two-thirds of the 135 to 150 cases that her office has opened so far. Most of those involve 2nd District residents who encounter problems in dealing with various branches of the federal government -- "whether it's an adoption issue, a veterans issue or issues with visas or Social Security."
In addition, Wagner reports that, between her office opening on Jan. 4 and the end of June, she or staff members responded to about 96 percent of the 23,911 emails, postcards, letters and phone calls she received on issues from health care to immigration and gun control.
"We hit the ground running and we haven't let up," said Wagner, 50, sitting at the desk in her office in the Cannon House Office Building. She proudly displays a sign on her desk: "Well behaved women rarely make history."
Recruiting women, sitting at GOP leadership table
In late June, a full-page article in The Hill -- an insider publication on Capitol Hill -- ran under the headline: "Rep. Wagner seeks to strengthen female voice in the Republican Party."
For Wagner, recruiting women to support the GOP and run for office is not exactly new. When she co-chaired the Republican National Committee from 2001-2005, Wagner helped organize the RNC's "Winning Women" initiative, which aimed to bolster the party's standing among women voters, in part by convincing more women to run.
"I am doing whatever I can to grow our ranks of women in Congress," said Wagner, who talks often with the other 18 GOP women in the House and has helped recruit female candidates in about 20 of the House districts that the party hopes to win next year.
"I think women are doers. We bring people together. We multitask well. I do whatever I can to support women being involved in public policy," Wagner said. "Republicans also need to keep this majority in 2014. It's important to balance the power in Washington."
As a member of the House GOP leadership -- elected to represent the 33 freshmen Republicans in the House -- Wagner is well aware of the power of the majority. Under House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, the House has emerged as a counterpoint to the Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House by launching frequent assaults on "Obamacare," taking a different course on immigration reform, and blocking prospects for significant gun-control legislation.
"Leadership is a tough job. There are a lot of people with strong ideas, strong personalities," said Wagner, who admires both Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. "While we've had some bumps in the road, I'm proud of some of our accomplishments."
In a sense, the House has presented a sort of alternate universe to the Senate, and bipartisan progress has been difficult on most issues. Wagner points to the "No Budget, No Pay" bill, which extended the debt ceiling and pressured lawmakers to adopt a budget or have their pay withheld.
Even though the draconian sequester budget cuts went into effect, Wagner says, "We were able to navigate the sequester - although it wasn't anything that we wanted, and [the House] put two replacements forward. At the end of the day, we worked in a bipartisan way with the Senate, to make sure that -- to the extent possible -- we are cutting waste and not workers."
Wagner says that representing her fellow GOP freshman has been "an eye-opener" into the workings of congressional influence. "What has impressed me most about the House is that it truly is, 'We, the people,'" she said.
She described the freshmen GOP House members she leads as a "group of teachers, doctors, plumbers, small business owners, mothers, grandparents, people who have served in the military. Each one has a unique background."
Despite ideological split, state delegation meets
Wagner also meets regularly with the other members of Missouri's delegation in Congress, which -- with the departure of former U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson in February to take another job -- is now divided between conservative and liberals, with not much room for moderates.
While Emerson was a generally moderate Republican and dean of the delegation, Wagner on most issues reflects the conservative views of the state's other five GOP House members. Meanwhile, the two remaining Democrats -- U.S. Reps. William Lacy Clay of St. Louis and Emanuel Cleaver of Kansas City -- are among the most liberal lawmakers in the House.
Despite the ideological differences, Wagner and Clay have worked together on issues such as naming the new Mississippi River bridge the "Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge."
"I get along with everybody in the delegation," said Wagner, saying she has a good working relationship with Clay on local issues, despite their sharp differences on many national issues. "I believe the only way we're going to find solutions and work together and build relationships."
While Wagner and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., differ greatly on many national issues, Wagner said she supports the senior senator's efforts to change the law to help deter sexual assaults in the military. "Claire and I share a real passion to get the bottom of the sexual assault" issue, she said.
As for the state's junior senator, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Wagner has known him for decades and served as chairman of his successful 2010 campaign for the Senate. The two of them talk often and tend to agree on many issues.
Defining big issues among 2nd District voters
In a year that started with gun control and the budget as the biggest issues, Wagner said most of the emails, letters and phone calls fielded by her office are on health care and "government trust."
"You know what we're hearing a ton about? Health care," said Wagner, who has backed House efforts to repeal or revamp the Affordable Care Act. "And right now on immigration because it was a hot issue in the Senate. And trust in government -- whether it is the IRS, the Justice Department or Benghazi."
While gun control was a hot issue early in the year, Wagner said she is "not hearing so much anymore" about the effort to limit automatic weapons and tighten gun registration. "With this 24/7 news cycle and everybody's always moving on to the next issue."
While Wagner's position on immigration reform is not as rigid as many others in the House GOP, she is a Second Amendment stalwart when it comes to gun control legislation. In fact, the Daily Show's Jon Stewart lampooned Wagner in January 2011 when she boasted -- during a debate with other candidates to head the RNC -- that she had 16 guns in her household in west St. Louis County.
With the Senate unable to approve significant gun control legislation so far this year, the House may not even take up the issue. On immigration, however, Boehner has said the House will take a different approach that the landmark legislation that the Senate passed in late June.
Wagner worries that the Senate bill is too much of a "Christmas tree" with extraneous amendments and expenses. "I see us in the House taking a much more thoughtful and incremental approach to things," Wagner said, adding that "I hate when we rush things on such an important topic."
Calling immigration "a very important issue," Wagner said "I understand the need for reform. The system is broken and, if we do nothing, it is the de-facto amnesty that we have currently. We need to do something."
Establishing a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country may prove to be a hard sell in the House. But Wagner said that revamping high-skilled visas is "a huge issue" in the 2nd District.
"Some of the things we are talking about in the House have to do with our workforce needs and guest worker visas and certainly high-skilled visas. It impacts universities, the biotech and health care industries."
Targeting Dodd-Frank in Financial Services
Wagner has added her name as a cosponsor or sponsor to more than 30 bills, but her most significant legislative achievement so far has been in the House Financial Services Committee, on which she serves with three other Missourians who have more seniority.
"Some of the best bipartisan moments have been in the Financial Services," said Wagner, citing a 44-13 committee vote in June for her Retail Investor Protection Act, which would delay a Department of Labor rule-making process on the definition of a "fiduciary."
Wagner is targeting a section of the Dodd-Frank law that authorizes the SEC to issue rules to extend the fiduciary standard of conduct applicable to investment advisers to broker-dealers when providing advice about securities to retail customers. Her bill would prevent the Labor Department from developing a new definition of a fiduciary until two months after the SEC issues its final rule relating to standards of conduct for brokers-dealers.
"This is something I've been working on for months," said Wagner, contending that her bill "is really for retail investors and consumers... I am fed up with a federal government that is promulgating so many rules and regulations -- some of them of a contradictory nature -- that business and industry are just throwing their hands up."
Wagner's criticism is aimed mainly at the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which Congress passed three years ago to make sweeping changes in the financial regulatory system, mainly in response to events that triggered the 2008 recession.
Wagner said the law eventually will result in "some 400 rules and regulations, two-thirds of which haven't even been promulgated yet. I challenge the federal agencies to do cost-benefit analysis" to show whether the regulations are really needed, and how burdensome they will be.
The committee's chairman, U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Tex., called Wagner's bill a "targeted, pragmatic" approach to "reducing red tape burdens." Another committee Republican, U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, was one of the 31 GOP members who backed Wagner's measure.
But the committee's top Democrat, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Ca., voted against Wagner's bill, saying she was "deeply troubled" by what she viewed as an effort "to bog the SEC down to the point that they are unable to put forward a rulemaking." She also complained that Wagner's provision would actually increase red tape by requiring "additional redundant, cost-benefit analysis" that would slow down the federal rulemaking process.
"There were 13 Democrats on board" who voted in committee for the bill, Wagner said in the interview. But those did not include Missouri Democratic colleagues Clay and Cleaver. Waters, a St. Louis native, was also among the 13 Democrats who voted no. Among the interest groups opposing the bill is the Consumer Federation of America.
A companion to Wagner's bill is likely to be considered by the House Education and Workforce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Labor Department, before the legislation can come to a vote in the full House. The Senate may be a tougher sell, but Wagner says "we'll work it" on that side of the Capitol, too.
She said the issue is "huge" for the St. Louis metropolitan region, where the financial services sector "involves 85,00 to 100,000 jobs. It is one of our growing economic sectors, along with life sciences and biotech and health care. So there is a lot of interest in this bill."
Hot-button issues polarize
There is also a lot of interest in Wagner's positions on hot-button issues. Last month, about two dozen environmentalists from the Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club demonstrated outside Wagner's St. Louis office to protest her stance on climate change. They complained about a letter that her office had sent to a constituent, saying in part that "there has been no global warming trend in more than 15 years."
While the protesters accused her of denying climate change, Wagner asserted in the interview that they had misinterpreted her position. "Of course the climate is changing," she said. "But I think we have a way to impact that in a positive way here in the U.S. And I'm for that."
Wagner contends - in contrast to the positions of most environmental groups - that North American energy resources can be exploited without worsening climate change. "I'm for American energy. I'm for energy independence and security. I have an 'all of the above' energy policy," she said.
"I care deeply about the environment ... At the end of the day, all I know is that what comes out of a smokestack in the U.S. is a whole heck of a lot cleaner than what's coming out of a smokestack in a place like China. We have decreased our carbon footprint here exponentially."
Wagner contends that recent attacks on her positions have been "generated by Organizing for Action" -- the former re-election campaign of President Barack Obama that is now an issues advocacy group. "So I find them politically motivated. If you go and watch what they've done, they have taken that and are raising money with blast emails.
"I am now a fundraising tool for them, with misrepresentations. I need to fundraise off of their fundraising against me, in misrepresenting my issues and views. But -- you know what? -- that comes with the territory."
On the issue of student loans, Wagner and other congressional Republicans have gone on the offensive, accusing the Democratic-led Senate of failing to stop the doubling of interest rates for new student loans that went into effect this week. Democrats say they expect to work out a retroactive solution to the problem when Congress returns from its Fourth of July break.
"It is incumbent that we get this done. The House has passed a plan that I think is very reasonable. I can't imagine why the Senate can't move on it," said Wagner. "We have an opportunity to move this back into the private sector, to help tens of thousands of students have some certainty about their loan structure and lower those rates."
But Democrats point out that the House-passed bill would not lock in the rates of loans at the time they are acquired. Instead, some Democrats want to subsidize student loan rates by eliminating some tax loopholes -- an approach the GOP opposes.
"The federal government took things over," Wagner said, "and all we have seen is [loan] rates go up, tuition go up, and students graduate and -- because of our economic climate -- without a job and with student loans due."
On two other hot-button social issues -- same-sex marriage and abortion -- Wagner said her positions have been clear and she has no plans to change. She opposes abortion and she supported the Defense of Marriage Act, part of which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional last month.
"I'm a big believer in state's rights and limited government and government that is closest to the people. I believe that marriage is between one man and one woman. I believe it is a sacrament," Wagner said.
"I recognize that others have different opinions on that. Missourians took up this issue and 70 percent of them voted along the lines of traditional marriage."
While she concedes that "12 states took a different view of this," Wagner argues that "decisions that are closest to the people are the best. I've always been very open about my personal belief and my belief in our state's decisions and wisdom."
On abortion, Wagner voted for a House-passed bill last month that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The bill will not advance in the Senate, but anti-abortion groups considered House approval to be a victory.
"I'm very consistent in my pro-life beliefs. I think my record is clear," Wagner said. "I talk about this issue in a way that I hope changes hearts and minds. I talk about heartbeats and fingerprints and at what age [a fetus] hiccuped and heard their mother's voice."
Saying that she is disappointed by the "harsh rhetoric" in the abortion debate, Wagner added: "I hope for the day, given science and technology and other things that are happening ... when it is not only illegal but unthinkable."