Balancing work and family life can be difficult for any politician, but Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), juggles motherhood, work, and constant cross-country travel.
McMorris Rodgers, the number four House Republican (behind House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Chairman of the House Republican Conference Mike Pence), is the highest-ranking female Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives. Though she now spends a great deal of time in Washington, D.C. she grew up on the other side of the country in the other Washington—Washington state.
McMorris Rodgers grew up in Kettle Falls, the same area that she currently represents. Her family owned an orchard and fruit stand there, growing cherries, peaches, apples, pears and raspberries. “It was a great way to grow up,” she said. “Through that I learned the values of hard work, being a good neighbor [and] the value of a dollar.” Her father, who spent some time as chairman of their county’s Republican Party, instilled in her a longing to give back to her community.
She got her start in politics in 1990, with her first job after college as campaign manager for then state Rep. Bob Morton, a family friend. She stayed with him for three years until he replaced a state senator’s seat. Morton encouraged Rodgers to seek appointment to his vacant spot in the House. She did, and was appointed by a single vote. At the time she was only 24 years old.
“I kind of . . . got in the backdoor, but once I was appointed, and I got the appointment by one vote, I just headed off to Olympia, our state capital, determined to be the best representative I could be. I’ve been given many opportunities along the way and I continue to work hard for the people I represent,” she said. According to her, getting involved in politics is not as hard as it seems: “I think sometimes it’s more intimidating than it really is. I encourage people to just pick up the phone and ask if you can have a cup of coffee, and I think you’d be surprised how many elected officials would say yes, and would be willing to sit down and talk to you about what you’d like to do, what your dreams are, or even be a mentor to someone.”
Rodgers has put this talk into action: She and other female members of Congress have taken several women under their wings through Heels on the Hill, which helps young conservative women get advice from and build relationships with female members of Congress. “We’ve been doing a lot to provide more opportunities for conservative women on Capitol Hill to network. . . . We’re [also] doing individual meetings where women legislators will have coffee with young women that work on Capitol Hill, just to have the opportunity to hear those experiences and to kind of be a mentor. [We’re] really trying just to build a better network and build our influence,” she said.
Of the 242 Republicans in the House, only 24 are women. Still, even in the male-dominated field, Rodgers said she has never felt pushed around because she is a woman. “I think it’s a great time for women in general, that the doors of opportunity have been open to us like never before, and that there’s more acceptance. There’s actually, in some ways. . . . more opportunities to advance because right now within the Republican Party there is, I think, a growing recognition that it’s important that we have that broad face representing the party.”
Rodgers believes that the Republican Party is making great strides when it comes to increasing diversity among their ranks following the election of a record number of women and Hispanic members and adding two African-Americans members as well in the 2010 election. “I think it’s important we have a very broad spectrum of America. . . . We all relate to people that have had similar backgrounds or similar experiences, and so as broad a spectrum we can represent will help us reach more people and draw more people to . . . our priorities and the values that we are trying to advance.”
Rogers champions diversity, then, in order to promote the ideal that people can best flourish when free from government interference. In her home state of Washington she constantly speaks with people who tell her that the federal government is making it incredibly difficult to live their lives and run their businesses. “They’re taking the fun out of being an entrepreneur,” she said, as onerous regulation, high tax rates and constantly changing business requirements make it harder to start businesses. “Whether it is the tax burden—we have the highest corporate tax in the world—[or] whether it is the regulatory climate,” she said, “the federal government is always changing the rules, changing the requirements, and it makes it impossible to do something. It really concerns me when I hear so many successful small business owners say, ‘You know what, I couldn’t do today what I started 25 or 30 years ago.’”
The solution is an easy one—less government involvement in peoples’ lives. “I think we just have to appeal to people in a way that . . . shows compassion, but yet also the importance of freedom, and that individuals can make better decisions than the government. It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you are the welfare mom or the person who has a disability, or a small business owner. All those people can make better decisions for themselves than the federal government, and although these programs can be well intended, so often they make it more difficult and they keep people down . . . rather than unleashing them and allowing them to go out there and be all that they can be.”
According to Rodgers, the federal government is sending business to other parts of the world due to tough regulations and taxes: “[The federal government is] pushing businesses overseas. It’s pushing them out of our country, and I want America to be the country where, when people have an idea to improve our lives or improve the standard of living, or new products, new services, I want this to be the country where people come to pursue their dreams and turn that into a reality.”
Rodgers is also a great champion of protecting life. Within the last couple of years, Washington State passed legislation that made euthanasia legal. Rodgers vehemently disagreed with the law. “I want us to be celebrating life and protecting every life, and then I get really concerned when we start possibly giving others the ability to decide when someone else should die.” She also mentioned that Washington has “some of the most liberal abortion laws on the books.” For Rodgers, the first woman to give birth twice while in Congress, the issue strikes a personal chord. Her son, Cole, who was born in 2007, has Down’s syndrome. “[My son] has given me a whole new perspective as far as being a mom and serving in Congress, because I find myself more and more passionate about the value of each life,” she said.
When Cole was born Rodgers and her husband were told that they should not put any assets in Cole’s name because one day he may not be able to qualify for federal government programs that benefit those with disabilities later on in life. In response, Rodgers has pushed for the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act, or the ABLE Act, which would allow parents or other people to put money toward the cost of education, housing and other things for those with disabilities. As a legislator, a mother and a mentor, Rodgers has a bright future.