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Will These Women Clean House?

Saturday, April 1, 1995

I f 1992 was the "Year of the Woman" in American politics, then 1994 was the "Year of the Conservative Woman." Nine women incumbents--all liberal Democrats-- lost their House seats in the November elections. Seven conservative Republican women were elected to the House freshman class, while moderate Republican Olympia Snowe moved from the House to the Senate.

The new Republican women in the House do not claim sisterhood with the so- called "women's agenda." Instead, they define the GOP's Contract with America as a "women's issue," and their campaigns centered on tax cuts, congressional reform, and reducing or eliminating scores of government programs and entire agencies. Sue Myrick, a two-term mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, was named to the House Budget Committee because of her experience controlling municipal spending. She's also a co- chairman of the GOP "freshmen task force" to eliminate the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Since the mid-1960s, she says, HUD and other federal agencies have spent $5 trillion on the War on Poverty, and poverty won.

Barbara Cubin of Wyoming and Helen Chenoweth of Idaho intend to protect women and men alike by calling for an overhaul of federal regulation. They've been active in the effort to defend property owners from intrusive federal regulators, and to give states more flexibility in controlling natural-resources development on public lands within their borders. Both Chenoweth and Cubin are on the GOP task force to reform the Endangered Species Act to protect animals and plants without jeopardizing jobs or property rights. Sue Kelly, of New York's Westchester County, is the only pro-choice woman in the crowd, and styles herself an economic conservative. She'll be pushing tax and regulatory relief for small businesses.

These women participate in the first Republican-led Congress in 40 years, which offers them unprecedented opportunities for influence. Policy Review looks at three of the new lawmakers, who should be on anyone's list of members to watch in 1995 and beyond:

Andrea Seastrand (CA-22)

For many, the death of a spouse means a time for quitting--a time when long-held hopes are wrapped up and put into storage. Not for Andrea Seastrand.

When her husband Eric, a California assemblyman, died in their 26th year of marriage, Seastrand ran for his seat and won. They were a team, "movement conservatives" devoted to making government work, by fighting bureaucracy and red tape. But it was always Eric who worked in the limelight of elected office. She was supportive, in the background, stuffing envelopes and going door to door. "I was the one writing the letters and getting others to write," she says. "I never saw myself as the one to receive the letters."

She would be receiving a lot of them. Elected in 1990, Andrea served four years in the General Assembly. Then, last year, she saw an opportunity to run for the Santa Barbara-area congressional seat vacated by Michael Huffington in his bid for the U.S. Senate. She ran on the Contract with America and immigration reform, calling for speeding up the deportation of illegal aliens convicted of and imprisoned for serious crimes. She supported Proposition 187--the state ballot initiative to end state services to illegal immigrants--because she thinks legal aliens are most likely to play by the rules and build lives for themselves and their families. "I'm a believer in immigration--legal immigration," she says. "I want to help people who are here legally to work through the red tape to become citizens more quickly."

Seastrand's political education began at the all-girls Catholic high school she attended in Chicago. During a visit to the school, a bishop who had been exiled from Lithuania explained what communism meant in his country, and described the deadening effect of a totalitarian government on its citizens. The experience made the 15-year-old staunchly anti-Communist. The nuns at school gave Seastrand what might be called a practical civics lesson: "No matter where you come from, no matter what your background, if you use your God-given abilities and talents, and work hard, the sky is the limit to what you can achieve." This simple principle has affected her views on everything from welfare reform to school choice.

The former elementary-school teacher learned another lesson from her nuns: The importance of living by example, of mentoring young people in basic conservative values of family and citizenship. Fulfilling a promise with her husband, Andrea has continued "adopting" students, taking them under her wing for national conventions and boosting their involvement in civic life. Her students typically serve as interns in her office, community volunteers, and political and neighborhood activists. One of the students she took to the Republican National Convention in 1984 is now her congressional district- office director. An immigrant from Mexico who once served as an intern is now a Wall Street banker. Another former intern is a lobbyist in California for a transportation trade association.

Shortly after the death of her husband, Andrea established the Eric Seastrand Memorial Youth Fund, using her skills at grassroots political organizing for non-political community-outreach projects. Her fund has benefitted dozens of students by providing scholarships, supporting 4-H programs, buying a wheelchair to enable a child to participate in the Special Olympics, and supplying train tickets for grade-school field trips.

Like most freshman Republicans, Seastrand's immediate objective is to pass all provisions in the Contract With America. But her top legislative priority is to free the commercial space-launch industry from the bureaucratic maze of regulation by overlapping agencies. She's sponsoring a bill that would create a single agency for oversight and regulation, and permit tax-exempt bonds to fund the conversion of obsolete military bases into spaceports.

Her plan would require no direct federal expenditures. Seastrand says her bill would help the U.S. compete in the global market for commercial launches, and create high-tech jobs in a depressed area severely hurt by base closures and declining military expenditures. As a state legislator, Seastrand successfully pushed through commercial spaceport legislation, creating the California Spaceport Authority and the first commercial spaceport in the nation at Vandenberg Air Force Base. In Congress, she has secured positions on the two committees that would handle this issue: Science and Transportation.

Linda Smith (WA-3)

The House Republican leadership calls her "the woman who wouldn't blink." When the House wrangled over the Balanced Budget Amendment, Linda Smith insisted that it include a provision to prevent Congress from raising taxes without a three-fifths majority vote. It was a daring move for a freshman, for it amounted to a rebellion against the leadership of Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey. Though the tax-limitation provision was part of the Contract, its most vocal supporters soon backed off when it became clear that it lacked broad congressional support. But not Smith and a handful of her colleagues. They convinced the GOP leadership to promise to vote next year on whether tax hikes should require a three-fifths majority.

This came from a woman who didn't even run for Congress. Ten days before the primary in her congressional district in southwest Washington, the leading GOP candidate suddenly withdrew. Smith, a state legislator, was persuaded to run as a write-in candidate because she had organized a strong grass-roots base of more than 10,000 volunteers. Smith's volunteers hit the streets and got out the vote. She won the primary as the first successful write-in candidate in state history, and then won the general election with 51 percent of the vote.

During her tenure in the state legislature, Smith launched two successful state ballot initiatives. The first, concerning campaign-finance reform, ushered in a new code of conduct for incumbent legislators, and outlawed public financing of elections.

The other, the Taxpayer Protection Act, imposed a limit on state government spending, and called for voter approval of tax increases.

That sort of lawmaking gets noticed in the new Congress: Two weeks after Smith came to Washington, Representative Jan Meyers tapped her to be chairman of the Small Business Subcommittee on Taxation and Finance. The best way to promote small business, she argues, is to get government out of the way. One of her top priorities is to reduce capital-gains taxes to lighten the load on small businesses and spur economic growth.

Years spent navigating the federal tax system motivates this agenda: Smith worked as a tax planner in Washington state for 16 years, without giving politics much thought. In 1983, after a series of tax hikes, Smith watched her state legislature double the tax rate on small businesses. That's when she decided to leave the tax-consulting business to get into the tax-limitation business. Not only did Smith, with no political experience, run for a seat in the state Assembly, but she ran against a veteran in a Democratic stronghold--the man who'd cast the deciding vote to raise taxes. Her own party assured her that a conservative woman had no chance of getting elected in her district. Nevertheless, she won in a landslide. After four successful years in the state Assembly, Smith ran for the state Senate against an incumbent considered unbeatable. Again, she shocked her political opponents. Her come-from-behind victory helped give state Republicans their first legislative majority in 33 years.

There is no way to explain Smith's political successes outside of her populist appeal. She describes her mission in Washington in the simplest of terms: "Clean up Congress, get rid of the debt, and secure our future." If Smith sponsors even half as much legislation as she shepherded in her home state, she'll be known as one of the most reform-minded House members in recent history.

In addition to tax reform, she wants to enact a campaign-finance reform plan that prohibits the transfer of political funds from one person's campaign to another. She believes that candidates alone should be responsible for their fundraising activities. This widespread practice, if outlawed, would cut against the grain of all members, regardless of party affiliation. It would mean that in a tight race, where an infusion of last-minute cash might influence the outcome, a candidate's campaign could no longer receive thousands of dollars in surplus funds from another politician's war chest.

Smith would restrict out-of-state campaign contributions to less than half of a candidate's financing. She would subject political-action committees to the same restraints currently placed on individual contributors--$1,000 per election cycle, rather than the current $5,000. She wants to prohibit incumbents from using the congressional frank for mass mailings of constituent newsletters within three months prior to an election. Believing that politicians have the million-dollar advantage over their challengers--by way of a taxpayer-funded congressional budget--Smith contends that bulk mailings unfairly boost an officeholder's name identification.

Smith is not known as a compromiser. Critics say that her stubbornness in pushing through her agenda borders on arrogance. Smith, on the other hand, likes to remind them that she did not run for office; she was drafted. She says her populist reform agenda is part of a larger movement in the newly elected House membership. "Don't break the spirit of this freshman class," she warns the GOP leadership. "This spirit is what the country needs."

Enid Greene Waldholtz (UT-2)

Ever since Utah's Enid Greene Waldholtz was elected to Congress, she has been passionately concerned about her job's fringe benefits--she wants to amend, slash, and eliminate them. Waldholtz wants all members of Congress to reduce their retirement benefits, eliminate automatic pay raises, and roll back their salaries to $89,500--a 31 percent cut--all in the name of good government.

And that's just for starters. She wants Congress to cut its own budget by 25 percent, return to its former status as a part-time legislature, and restrict the ability of lobbyists to wine and dine members and their staffs. "Everything about the federal government needs to change," Waldholtz says.

Her top priority is reform of congressional pensions. Members of Congress now receive retirement benefits that are roughly double that of individuals in the private sector. Waldholtz has co-sponsored a bill to eliminate the existing plan and replace it with a 401(k) employee-contribution plan.

Talk about putting your money where your mouth is: Waldholtz has declined to accept her own congressional pension, and she has refused government-paid health coverage. She and her husband will purchase their own coverage until Congress acts on meaningful health-care reform, including portability of insurance benefits, for all Americans. She is also trying to figure out how to reduce her annual salary or funnel the difference between her current pay and her proposed salary toward charity or reducing the debt. She specifically intends to prevent the money from returning to the House Speaker's slush fund, the current repository of all unspent funds from congressional budgets.

Although critics contend that she is feigning sacrifice, because of her personal wealth, she argues that to effect real political change on Capitol Hill, "the government must lead by example." She says it is essential that members "show that we are cutting our own budget, that we are living under the same conditions and rules that people in the rest of the country are."

Reform of congressional pay and benefits is vital, says Waldholtz, when Congress is asking sacrifices of its constituents in order to control federal spending and eliminate the deficit. Waldholtz says voters in her 2nd district of Utah understand the need for shared sacrifice; they know the budget cannot be balanced painlessly. "People in my district will support reduction in government even if it means fewer benefits to some of them," she says, "as long as they know Congress did it in a fair way, that they were not unduly penalized, or asked to take more than their fair share of the burden."

Waldholtz, a longtime conservative on social issues, was a Bush supporter in the 1980 presidential race who has since become more conservative on fiscal issues as well. She is a good listener, has the negotiating skills of a diplomat, and is well respected by both conservatives and centrists within the GOP. This is perhaps one reason why Newt Gingrich gave her a highly coveted slot on the Rules Committee, the gatekeeping body that determines which legislation makes it to the floor for debate. The first freshman appointed in over 80 years, she represents a part of a coalition charged with helping to shape legislation to appeals to a majority of the Congress.

When it comes to welfare reform, for example, such a coalition will need both her experience and her bargaining skills. While serving as the deputy chief of staff to Norman Bangerter, a Utah governor, she served as his liaison for social services and spent a great deal of time in welfare offices talking to case workers and welfare recipients. Her conclusion: "The current welfare system verges on immoral," she says. "It penalizes people for getting married, for holding a job, and for acting responsibly. It also encourages recipients to have more children out of wedlock. The system is completely backwards, and it traps people in poverty."

All of these women gained national office through more than hard work, or savvy campaigning, or the incompetence of their opponents. They were propelled by a common disgust for the status quo in Washington--a disdain shared by an overwhelming majority of the voting electorate last November. As Waldholtz puts it, "The federal government has created a hostile atmosphere for states, for communities, and for families to take care of themselves."

Undoing this state of affairs is not thought of as an issue on a women's-rights agenda. But it has become the central issue for these women, because they see themselves not only as women, but as citizens. That may make them our best hope for bringing more citizenship, and less tribalism, into our politics.