NJ Herald: Gottheimer all business on the Hill
By: David Danzis
WASHINGTON — The day before the U.S. Senate publicly released its much-anticipated version of a new health care bill, the U.S. Capitol was buzzing with activity and anticipation.
And while much of Capitol Hill waited anxiously to get its first look at a piece of legislation with far-reaching effects for the entire country, the day-to-day business of the federal government carried on in the background. The three primary House office buildings that line Independence Avenue — Cannon, Rayburn and Longworth — along with the three Senate offices along Constitution Avenue — Hart, Russell and Dirksen — were filled with representatives, staffers, interns, constituents and visitors from all over the world.
It was just another day in the District of Columbia.
To get a better idea of exactly what constitutes an average day for a United States congressman and to understand just what it is our elected officials actually do, the New Jersey Herald joined U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-5th Dist., for a day.
Ready for the day
Gottheimer spends four days a week in Washington, either Monday through Thursday or Tuesday through Friday, depending on the House voting schedule. The other remaining weekday he is somewhere — often times multiple places — in his district, which includes 19 municipalities in Sussex County, 15 in Warren County, 43 in Bergen County and two in Passaic County. Saturdays are often reserved for his face-to-face meetings with constituents, known as “Cup of Joe with Josh,” or other scheduled events.
June 21 began like any other Wednesday for Gottheimer. The 42-year-old woke up sometime around 5 a.m. and got ready for a morning workout. But the former Ford Motor Company and Microsoft executive — who has an estimated net worth of somewhere between $2 million and $10 million — did not wake up in some swanky downtown hotel on a king size bed with high-thread count sheets and gourmet breakfast. Rather, for the third morning in a row, Gottheimer woke up on a box spring and mattress which lays on the floor of the small apartment he shares with two other congressmen, U.S. Rep. James Panetta, D-Calif., and U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y.
“I just got the box spring the other day,” Gottheimer said with a laugh. “I slept great last night.”
The full night’s rest he got was well-needed because on a day where temperatures reached 90 degrees and the humidity was heavy, Gottheimer did not sit still for more than 20 minutes, constantly shuffling between buildings on the Hill.
Access and opportunity
The centerpiece of Gottheimer’s day was a roundtable meeting with district mayors and representatives from various federal agencies. One of Gottheimer’s primary goals is to see a better return on investment, or ROI, for taxpayers in the district. His office actively contacts local government offices and informs them of available grant and funding opportunities to help with the cost of anything from fire trucks to substance abuse treatment.
“I’ve always said that New Jersey needs a better return from the taxpayer dollars we send to Washington,” Gottheimer said, “and (on Wednesday), local leaders helped me make that happen by connecting directly with federal experts, learning best practices and opportunities for federal grant funding and advocating for the projects and policies that will help the people we serve.”
Three mayors from the 5th District — Mahwah Mayor Bill Laforet, Montvale Mayor Mike Ghassali and Hope Mayor Tim McDonough — participated in detailed and lengthy discussions with officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, AMTRAK, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency.
All three of the mayors said it was their first time ever being invited to Washington by a sitting congressman and the small army of staffers and interns in Gottheimer’s office arranged for the mayors to feel welcome. The meetings were held in one of the Library of Congress’ old reading rooms where past members of the House of Representatives would gather in soft, plush chairs and discuss issues of the day. The room itself was designed after a “premier London men’s club,” according to a tour guide, and its seven-panel ceiling of painted silk featured nearly all of the state seals. The seal of New Jersey was on the far right panel just above one of the room’s fireplaces.
“It was great to share our insight from a micro level with these agencies that have to deal with everyone nationwide,” Ghassali said. “I appreciate the congressman’s commitment to support his constituents regardless of party affiliation.”
McDonough said Gottheimer “delivered on his commitment to support local government, regardless of party or ideology.”
“The departments and offices we met today control many of the grants that Hope has been competing for, so it was great to have an insider’s perspective on how we can leverage the federal government to support our towns,” he said.
After the meetings wrapped up, Laforet said that Gottheimer has provided him a “touchstone to government.”
“Josh is bringing this government front and center to our municipality,” he said. “We have access and we have opportunity. I think the fact that we’re here and spent the time speaks to the need.”
Laforet said after speaking with some of the various federal agencies he can return to Mahwah with direction and solutions to improve his community.
“I can go back with a better insight not only to what’s going on but how we can make it better,” he said.
Policies and regulations
Once the mayors were settled in over at the Library of Congress, Gottheimer hurried over to the Rayburn building for a Committee on Financial Services amendment markup hearing, which began at 10 a.m. Since members are afforded the opportunity to address committees based on seniority, Gottheimer was nearly the last to speak. When he arrived at 12:15 p.m., it was in just enough time to take a few sips of water before speaking on the importance of flood insurance reauthorization.
“As you know, a failure of flood insurance to be reauthorized and reformed will have a significant negative impact on homeowners, the housing market as credit seizes up, and ultimately, the economy in general,” Gottheimer said into the committee record. “Superstorm Sandy has had a devastating impact on too many of my constituents and across the state of New Jersey and many are still recovering.”
Gottheimer’s few concerns with the amendments touched on another of his primary goals: easing unnecessary and outdated regulations.
“As some of our colleagues have attested, we need to be careful of policies and regulations that benefit others with scale, especially after years of our small businesses and community banks struggling.”
Gottheimer broke from his hectic day for a few minutes and sat down with the Herald to discuss another issue that not only affects his district but offered him the chance to act another of his term goals: championing bipartisan solutions to problems facing everyday Americans.
The day before — June 20 — the Democratic co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus rallied support from three Republican New Jersey state legislators and 11 Sussex County mayors (eight of whom were elected Republicans) and sent a signed letter to the commissioners of New Jersey Transit and the state Department of Environmental Protection regarding the delays on the Andover train station project.
“As leaders of the local area, we are deeply concerned that this important project is being bogged down with delays and roadblocks,” the letter stated. “Your team has been working with local and state officials, but I cannot emphasize enough how critical this strategic project is to our constituents, local businesses and our economy.”
Gottheimer said what many of the other elected officials said about the Lackawanna Cut-Off project in Andover Township: this is not a partisan issue.
“I heard the mayors when they told me they wanted to get this done,” Gottheimer said. “I’m committed to it and we’ll keep going until we get there.”
On to the Capitol
The next stop on Gottheimer’s travels was the U.S. Capitol where he had both a floor vote scheduled and fly-in meetings with two groups of constituents.
For nearly 30 minutes prior to the House session, Gottheimer spoke with contingents representing optometrists in the 5th District and the Nature Conservancy.
Then it was on to the House floor for a scheduled vote on H.Res. 392 which would amend a portion of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.
Yet, before that could even happen a rare occasion took place on the House floor with a single member of congress being sworn in after winning a recent special election. U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., was sworn in before a majority of the 115th U.S. Congress.
When H.Res. 392 was finally voted on, Gottheimer cast his ballot against the resolution.
Immediately after the House vote, Gottheimer ran back across the street to the Rayburn building to vote on the five amendments concerning flood insurance reauthorization in the financial services committee.
The amendments passed and Gottheimer voted in favor of them, saying afterwards “I voted to protect New Jersey.”
Just another day
Before settling down for a quick lunch — a whole bag of Snyder’s pretzels — Gottheimer met with each of the three mayors prior to their return to New Jersey.
Once they had departed, Gottheimer sat down one last time with the Herald. He still had a meeting with his fellow Problem Solvers co-chair, U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., before a caucus the next day, a one-on-one with the House minority whip and a scheduled meeting with U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-9th Dist. He likely wouldn’t see his upgraded sleeping digs until after 10 p.m.
Gottheimer said it was just another day on the job.
“To me this is an opportunity,” he said. “I think to do the job well means that you’re working all the time. We have a lot of work to do and, if you take the job seriously, you’ve got to deliver.”