2019 was a historic year in Washington for many reasons, including the new makeup of the freshmen class that states like Virginia made more diverse than any others.
Freshmen lawmakers came into Washington at the start of 2019 ready to get to work. While they eventually did, they also arrived in a Washington that was largely shuttered by a government shutdown.
Freshman Virginia Republican Denver Riggleman says the year was a whirlwind, even if he wasn’t happy with much of what he was forced to become a part of.
The 5th District Republican says, "you know, it's sort of historic, right? We started with the longest shut down in history and ended with an impeachment vote, you know?”
After a year in Congress, Riggleman says he’s been surprised that Washington proved even more partisan than he imagined. But he felt the most heat back home after the Rappahannock County Republican Party censured him this fall for what they argued was “abandoning party principles” on spending and immigration. His office maintains the censure came because he officiated a same-sex marriage, and Riggelman says he has no regrets.
“We’re a big tent party," Riggleman explains. "We better be the party of Lincoln and not the party of ‘No,’ and certainly not the party of just small, insignificant blocks of people that don't want to unite and make a bigger Republican Party.”
On the Democratic side of the aisle, the state's three female freshmen lawmakers came to Washington set on strengthening Obamacare, investing in infrastructure and lowering the costs of prescription drugs. While many of the bills they passed addressing topics like those have gone untouched in the Senate, Hampton Roads freshman Democrat Elaine Luria says Congress has done a lot, like lowering taxes for the widows of veterans, securing a pay raise for the military and getting a twelve-million dollar increase in funds to restore the Chesapeake Bay.
“But I don't even have to talk about that backlog," she says. "I mean, I can talk about the stuff that the president signed into law that I've already introduced, and that we worked really hard with our colleagues on it, it's already going to benefit people.”
The end of year rush to avert another government shutdown also included some other top priorities for Virginia Democrats, like money for gun violence research. The end of year legislation also funded defense projects throughout the Commonwealth and Virginia Senator Tim Kaine even saw his provision to raise the smoking age to 21 included. But Kaine says securing paid family leave was a highlight.
“To get that in, not just for the DOD, but for the whole federal family is hugely important," Kaine explains. "And it's hard to imagine that that would have been in without a Democratic House.”
Kaine says paid family leave could ripple across the private sector.
“You do it because you want to treat federal employees right," he says. "But you're also aware that as an employer that's often in competition with the private sector, it's the kind of thing that can inspire them to do more on the family leave side.”
But even as some Virginia Democrats gush over what became a year-end grab bag, Virginia’s senior senator, Mark Warner, is frustrated over the process, because the spending bill was crafted in secret by party leaders.
“There was a lot of pent-up demand so that this end of the year bill became even bigger," Warner says. "I mean, this is not the way we should be legislating.”
When Congress returns from its holiday recess it will be an election year in Washington, and observers aren’t expecting much legislative action. So even if the process was distasteful, Virginia lawmakers are hoping voters only remember the goodies they were able to secure when people head to the voting booth in November.