The first-term congresswoman who held the most town hall meetings in 2019 was forced to adjust her approach amid a pandemic, but not even a public health crisis will keep her from connecting with constituents.
Because no one can meet her at a coffee shop, community center or conference room, Iowa Rep. Cindy Axne and her staff have been on the phone all week with business leaders, elected officials and local health care executives across the 3rd District to get a sense of how they are dealing with the coronavirus and how Congress can help.
“The deal here is that everything keeps moving forward as the disease spreads itself and becomes more active in Iowa, at the same time as our policy that we’ve put in place becomes more important for us to use, it’s really valuable for me to be on the phone and doing these events with people who are on the ground implementing them,” Axne told Starting Line Thursday afternoon.
Last year, Axne’s first year in office, she visited multiple communities in her 16-county district every month. The district tours were a mix of public town halls (she held 57) and one-on-one meetings with the business community.
Axne’s “Virtual District Tour,” launched Monday on a conference call with the Southwest Iowa Planning Council in Atlantic, also will cover all 16 counties.
For today’s #IA03VirtualTour stops, I spoke to mayors & local business leaders from Page & Mills County about how their local economies have been hurt by #COVID19 & how we can fix issues with the Paycheck Protection Program to help provide the loans our businesses need. #IA03 pic.twitter.com/olKW6ji7Fn
— Rep. Cindy Axne (@RepCindyAxne) April 8, 2020
Conference calls with constituents is one of many adjustments that Axne, and all members of Congress, have made as the majority of U.S. House and Senate members now work from home.
“I’ll tell you, it definitely takes some getting used to, really because so much of this job is face-to-face discussion with people, being able to work on projects together with other colleagues of mine, and being able to touch base with them at a much more convenient level,” Axne said.
“For instance, when I’m in the House chamber and asking for folks to sign onto a bill, for example,” she said. “Now it requires mass emails and then my team working on it, but me also sending it out to my colleagues that I’m very close to or colleagues that I know would be interested in this, or my freshmen class.”
Committees are still conducting business, though their work is almost exclusively centered on coronavirus relief bills. The House Financial Services Committee, of which Axne is a member, is “a key component in the economic stimulus pieces” of the federal government’s coronavirus response.
Calls with the Democratic caucus are frequent, including discussions on how Congress could conduct its business virtually, beyond coronavirus response, if it is deemed unsafe for members to be at the Capitol.
“My goodness, we’ve got to get appropriations done, and we all know the calendar that has been set for this year is really structured to have us back in district all of August so we can be working with people on the ground,” Axne said. “So we’ve got a lot of work to get done before then, and should we not get back because it isn’t safe and it’s better to conduct business virtually, if that’s what the determination is, then we better have those systems in place to that that work done.”
The House and Senate are scheduled to reconvene in Washington, D.C., on April 20, but in an interview Thursday with Politico, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi cautioned against banking on a specific date.
“Nobody can really tell you that and I would never venture a guess,” Pelosi told the reporters. “I certainly don’t think we should do it sooner than we should.”
At least two House Democrats are looking into the logistics and constitutionality of conducting congressional business from afar, Axne said.
Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, chairman of the Rules Committee, is “really understanding of the constitutional elements and the policy around how congresspeople can conduct business legally,” Axne said. And Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, chair of the Administration Committee, is examining whether current systems can support extensive remote activity given security concerns and outdated equipment still in use.
Among the several calls she held this week, Axne heard from a Chamber of Commerce leader who worried small businesses in her community would be unable to secure loans through Congress’ new Paycheck Protection Program, and a health care executive who said his rural hospital quickly was running out of money due to the nationwide stoppage of elective procedures and a sharp decline in office visits.
As Axne spoke to her constituents and listened to their concerns, she was taking notes and creating list of top needs she could bring to House leaders as they negotiate a fourth coronavirus relief bill. Policy staffers and those charged with local outreach piped in, too, so they could follow up with individual issues.
Across the board, Axne said, constituents were having trouble navigating the Paycheck Protection Program meant to help small businesses keep employees on the payroll and needed more access to personal protective equipment and COVID-19 test kits.
“These calls are important to help me identify specific issues like that,” Axne said. “And those aren’t just relevant to states like Iowa, they’re relevant all over this country. The only way you hear about them is if you actually talk to people on the ground, so I’d say that’s why these calls are so important, and that’s my job as a representative.”
By Elizabeth Meyer