When freshman Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing) got to Congress a little less than a year and a half ago, she was both disappointed and pleasantly surprised.
Disappointed in that members of the House don’t interact as much as those in the state Assembly, where Meng previously served. When members of Congress give speeches, she said, they’re often just for the C-SPAN cameras, with few or none of their colleagues there listening. And the lawmakers only spend about a half hour in the chamber together when casting votes, leaving little time for any interaction.
“Because of the short time it takes to vote, you aren’t sitting next to each other and talking,” Meng said.
On the other hand, the congresswoman said during an interview at the Queens Chronicle offices last Friday, she has found more avenues for bipartisanship than she expected before she got to Washington, DC. She noted that three bills she authored have passed the Republican-controlled House, though none of them has made it through the Senate, where the Democrats hold the reins.
The first measure passed the House within six weeks of Meng’s arrival. It would allow houses of worship to receive federal disaster funds to help them rebuild from the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. The congresswoman noted that more than 200 churches, synagogues, temples and mosques were damaged or destroyed by the October 2012 storm, many of them in Queens. She thought that if institutions such as zoos, museums and arts centers can get Sandy aid, houses of worship should too.
In response to concerns from the Senate related to members’ interpretation of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state, she altered the bill to stipulate that the funds could only be used for infrastructure, not for clearly religious purposes, such as buying Bibles or Korans. Despite the change, however, the bill has not made it through the upper chamber yet.
Another Meng bill that passed the House would seek to eliminate the backlog of veterans’ disability claims in New York, where, she said, the average wait for benefits is 361.8 days, almost a full year.
And the third one to be approved, drafted in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, would give the secretary of state more power to discipline personnel whose actions put diplomats in danger. Meng said she drafted it in response to a request former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made when she testified before Congress about the events of that day. It was Meng’s first hearing as a lawmaker.
(Meng also said she supports Clinton for president in 2016.)
Though none of the three bills has been approved by the Senate, as they must be before going to the president to be signed into law, Meng said they mark an accomplishment for a new member of the minority party.
“I know people see a lot on CNN and the national networks on gridlock,” she said. “I’ve been fortunate. We’ve gone out of our way to work with the other side of the aisle.”
She added that she wants “to give a lot of credit to the freshman class,” for its willingness to display bipartisanship, even if the senior members in the leadership are another matter.
Freshman women from both parties, for example, have dinner together once a month. And Meng said those events have led to more people signing on to another bill she’s promoting, one that seeks to curtail human trafficking by making it easier for law enforcement to investigate homes where people believe crimes such as prostitution are happening. She had worked with the 109th Precinct and Queens District Attorney Richard Brown’s office when she was in the Assembly on such a measure, but it never passed.
Meng also attends a prayer breakfast with, among others, Tea Party favorite Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-Tex.), and “for an hour we get along,” she said.
The congresswoman was asked about and brought up herself a number of other issues. Among them:
• She believes the administration’s “measured” approach to the crisis in Ukraine has been good so far, but that it may need to get stronger in the future. She spoke shortly before news broke of the massacre in Odessa that killed dozens. She also said members of the Foreign Relations Committee have been bipartisan in their approach to the situation, and that she would appreciate it if the administration were more forthcoming with information.
• She wants to both reduce spending and reform the tax system. On spending, she cited unnecessary military programs as a potential place to make cuts. On taxes, she said she supports simplifying the system and would consider lowering the corporate tax rate, in part so that companies stop leaving the country as a tax dodge. She noted that she has sometimes opposed her own party on such issues, but at the same time does not want to give new tax breaks to the superrich.
• She thinks some shift in military spending from hardware such as aircraft carriers — the United States has 11 — to modern concerns such as cyberwarfare may be in order.
• She’s working on a bipartisan bill to combat phone “spoofing” from abroad, in which callers can make it look as if someone from, say, a public agency, is calling, and then request money. She credited civic leader Roe Daraio with bringing the concern to her attention.
• She opposes the city’s plan to put a homeless shelter in Glendale, acknowledging it’s difficult to site such facilities, but that it should go “somewhere else.”
• She focuses on getting different groups in her district to interact more, as when she had an event bringing together the Korean and Jewish communities,
• She confirmed that she’s running for re-election this year. She has no announced opponent in either party.