Freshman Valley Rep. Matt Cartwright keeps pushing despite political gridlock
WASHINGTON — — Matt Cartwright starts this day as he has most mornings since being sworn into Congress seven months ago: two cups of coffee, two bowls of rice cereal sprinkled with flax seeds and a long jog around the Capitol.
Rounding the Capitol reflecting pool Wednesday, the freshman congressman from Scranton pauses to take in the bronze and marble statue of Ulysses S. Grant on horseback, his hat pulled low as if he's riding into a storm. It's Cartwright's favorite Washington landmark and one he draws inspiration from for the political battles he wages, and often loses, every day as a member of the minority party.
Before Congress would break Friday for a five-week recess, Cartwright would experience all the struggles that come with being a Democrat in a Republican-controlled House that accomplishes little and rarely compromises.
Before his overbooked day is over, he will get a pep talk from President Barack Obama, fail to get environmental efforts launched, lash out at Republicans over health care reform and sponsor his 16th bill with the knowledge that, like the others, it stands no chance of becoming law.
It's an ambitious start for a freshman. The only other Pennsylvania newcomers, York County Rep. Scott Perry, and Beaver County Rep. Keith Rofthus, both Republicans, have introduced five bills between them.
Like getting into the ring with a boxer and not truly understanding the pain until the punches start, Cartwright was well aware of what he was up against when he was elected to represent the 17th District, which includes Easton and other parts of Northampton County that were part of the state's 15th District for decades before redistricting.
But the blows sting more than he'd expected.
Assessing his work so far, the former prosecutor is realistic if not optimistic, saying, "It's gratifying to move along the learning curve."
In his office on the fourth floor of the Longworth House Office Building at 9 a.m., Cartwright has an unusual session penciled into his schedule: a closed-door meeting with Obama in about an hour. He spends the time leading up to it chatting with a visiting constituent from Lackawanna County and attending Mass to celebrate the feast of St. Ignatius Loyola in the Capitol basement.
Cartwright walks from Mass to the auditorium, where House Democrats wait as if at a high school assembly for the president to arrive.
Obama tells his Democratic soldiers that he wants them back in their districts in August, making the case for the party's priorities, not the least of which is the public relations push for his new health care law.
About 30 minutes into the session, as his colleagues pepper Obama with questions, Cartwright slips out of the auditorium. He already is late for two simultaneous committee meetings — one on natural resources and the other on government oversight.
Speed-walking down a long tunnel decorated with high school artwork, Cartwright arrives at his seat on the Natural Resources Committee and is immediately called upon to speak. "Timing is everything," the Republican chairman says as Cartwright shuffles through papers.
The panel is debating a Republican bill that would prohibit the federal government from forcing environmental regulations on hydraulic fracking in states that already have their own regulations. Cartwright is armed with a short speech and two proposed amendments.
Environmental issues are among his most pressing. He was supported by national environmental groups in his campaign. Given a chance to pass just one bill he says it would be the one he's dubbed the "CLEANER Act," which would regulate the waste materials generated by oil and natural gas companies.
Cartwright offers two amendments, one that would give federal government oversight of fracking safety and one that would ensure the underlying bill abides by laws protecting endangered species, the wilderness and national parks.
He delivers a well-prepared, carefully argued case in the five minutes allotted to him. And as soon as he's finished, a Republican colleague dismisses the amendments as "needless" and the committee moves on. They are later voted down along party lines.
"No matter how good of an argument I make, it's like talking to a brick wall," Cartwright says, walking to the Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing that started nearly 90 minutes before.
The topic is the Affordable Care Act, specifically subsidies for low-income Americans to help them afford health care. The Republicans running the hearing charge that the White House is issuing the tax credits more broadly than the law allows.
Cartwright missed the testimony from the witnesses and much of the back and forth between lawmakers and the experts but he blocked out time in his schedule to drop in and put his disgust on record.
"We're sitting here, wasting time and taxpayer dollars, trying to find any possible reading of the law, a technicality, to take away health care from the people who need it most," he says, his voice raised.
When the hearing wraps, Rep. Rob Woodall, a Republican from Georgia wearing a "fair tax" pin on his lapel, sidles up to Cartwright. "This is kind of a backhanded compliment," Woodall says, "but of all the Democrats on this committee, you get under my skin the most."
"Well, nice to meet you," Cartwright responds. "I look forward to working with you."
For lunch, Cartwright often walks a few blocks to the one-bedroom rented apartment where he stays during the week. On weekends and when Congress isn't in session, he's back in Scranton with his wife, attorney Marion Munley, and their college-age sons.
This afternoon, he has no time for the walk. It's after 1 p.m. and he grabs a turkey sandwich and a soda in the crowded cafeteria of his office building before heading back to Natural Resources to cast a few roll-call votes and then making his meeting with environmentalists at 2:15 p.m.
It was meant to be a late night of voting, with debate on a transportation and housing spending bill expected to go until midnight. But over lunch, Cartwright's aide informs him that the bill has been pulled. The Republicans don't have the votes to pass it because the most conservative in their caucus want deeper cuts. Cartwright is exasperated, though not surprised.
At a conference table in his office, Cartwright discusses with representatives from environmental groups like the Sierra Club his failed efforts with fracking regulations that morning. He tells them he wants to use his seat on the oversight committee to investigate what fracking companies do with hazardous waste generated in the process.
One of the environmentalists suggests Cartwright broaden his search. Ask about all waste, she says, because they may say their waste isn't hazardous.
"Right," he says, nodding.
The environmentalists encourage his approach and say they'll be interested in the companies' responses.
As the meeting ends, Cartwright assures them he wants their input preparing the investigation.
Votes on the House floor are scheduled to begin shortly and he has canceled a meeting with senior citizen advocacy groups in anticipation of them, but as so often happens in Congress, the votes are delayed several hours.
Cartwright retreats to his office, which was once occupied by a much more famous advocate for the environment, Al Gore.
While proceedings on the House floor play on a muted TV mounted to the wall, Cartwright sits on his office couch, sipping coffee from a Northampton County Community College mug, and reflects on the first quarter of his first term.
As president of the freshman class of Democrats — a distinction he jokes means only that he has to buy beer for gatherings — he's most excited about what he calls "the caliber" of the people he's met.
"I was buying into the popularized concept that most congressmen are low-caliber people, but they're not," he says.
He organizes events to bring the freshmen together that range from a pizza party to a talk by Bill Gates. The latter, he says, was one of the standout moments of his first months in office because Gates talked about his work eradicating polio worldwide, a cause Cartwright cares about from his time as a Rotary International member.
Another highlight came just last month when he scored a rare victory by rallying Pennsylvania lawmakers from both parties to vote against an amendment proposed by Ohio Republican Rep. Steve Chabot that would have ended funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission, which promotes economic development in Appalachia.
Cartwright sat on the House floor until midnight waiting for Chabot to arrive so he could challenge the amendment as soon as it was offered.
Cartwright had no idea what Chabot looks like, so he used an app on his phone that has pictures of all members of Congress. No one looking like Chabot came to the microphone. Chabot didn't offer his amendment until the next morning. And when he did, Cartwright was ready.
"I gave a long speech about how crazy this is to zero out a budget that helps the poorest counties in our nation," Cartwright says. "And we defeated it because in addition to making a speech I went around to all the Pennsylvania Congress people and they supported my side of that."
"I'm here to stick up for the people who don't have a voice," he says.
Around 6 p.m. the voting in the full House begins. Cartwright is on the winning side of two bills — one a weeks-in-the-making compromise on student loan interest rates and one on sanctions for Iran.
He uses the floor time, when all members of Congress are in the same space, to work the room and find support for his latest bill — an effort to get financial literacy in the public education curriculum. He seeks out members he knows have an interest in it. "Have a look at this bill and let me know," he encourages.
He already had around eight Democratic cosponsors and secures a dozen or so more this evening.
He's buoyed by the support even though he's cognizant of the bill's likely fate.
"You know and I know it's not going anywhere, but I'm taking the long view," Cartwright says of his volume of bills.
Someday, he reasons, when he has more seniority and the Democrats hold the majority, his bills will have their day.
After meeting with the Progressive Democratic Caucus to discuss free trade agreements, he stops in his office, where several staffers are still working. Around 8 p.m., he walks home, where he'll call his wife before turning in.