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Abigail Spanberger Discusses Impeachment, 2020, Healthcare And More

Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger
Spanberger represents Virginia's 7th congressional district that includes several rural and suburban areas west of Richmond. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM)

VPM’s Ben Paviour sat down with Seventh District Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger. Among the many things they discussed are how she tries to work with Republicans in Congress, the 2020 presidential candidates, her feelings on impeachment inquires and President Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community.



Ben Paviour: From VPM news in Richmond, I'm Ben Paviour. Joining me now is Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger. She was elected last November to represent the Seventh District. She's been on the job a little over half a year, so we're checking in to see how things have been going. Welcome, Congresswoman.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger: Thank you so much for having me, Ben.

Paviour: So Congresswoman in your first few weeks in Congress, you said you wanted to make friends with Republican lawmakers. I'm wondering how that's been going?

Spanberger: There was a book that my parents used to read me when I was a kid that said... the tagline was, my name's Grover and I want to be friends with everybody, and that is sort of the approach that I have taken in Congress, and for real reasons in terms of serving my constituents. If we're going to get legislation passed and it's going to be longterm and longstanding legislation, we've got to make sure that we've got a consensus around it. So I have worked to make friendships across the aisle.I do have quite a few Republican friends, and definitely quite a few Democratic friends, but I, you know, it adds to the conversations. I can float ideas with some of the people that I've developed friendships with and professional friendships with, and you know, understand where they may be coming from. Understand the differences of perspectives that we have, and where it is that we can actually create legislation that'll get, not only get passed in the house, ideally in the Senate, and then not be something the parties fight over for years to come.

Paviour: But I also want to ask specifically, who are you talking to the most?

Spanberger: Okay. Who am I talking to the most? Let's see. There's a member from Michigan who I spent a lot of time talking to Paul Mitchell, Guy Reschenthaler from Pennsylvania, who's also a new member, Steve Watkins from Kansas, I think are probably among the Republicans I talk to most frequently. Katko from New York, Will Hurd a former CIA officer from Texas, and Brian Fitzpatrick from Pennsylvania. And, you know, I've sponsored co-sponsored bills and amendments with Fitzpatrick, with Hurd, really trying to make sure that we're bringing the best ideas forward. And Will Hurd and I have a common background as former CIA case officers, so we've partnered together on a lot of things and certainly, you know, debated policy back and forth a number of times.

Paviour: Speaking of that background, there's been some sort of leadership changes in the Trump administration's intelligence team in the past few weeks. I wondered if you had thoughts on what's been going on there and how morale might be in the agency from what you've heard?

Spanberger: So, generally speaking, I continue to see a consistent pattern  from the administration of not recognizing the vital role that intelligence can play, and the vital role that intelligence can play when it is driven by nonpartisan desire and necessity to get good information about the threats that may be facing the United States, worldwide. The fact that we continue to see the President either criticize the intelligence community when he doesn't like what it is that they have to say, or the President's efforts to try and ensure that people within the intelligence community, at least at the highest ranks, are aligned with his worldview. 

I think that's a dangerous precedent to set because we want to have the best information in the world available. Whether we like what's coming from the intelligence community or not. Recognizing this threat assessment that exists, I think is vital to our national security -- and the intelligence community should never ever be made partisan, or driven by a particular administration's priorities.

Paviour: The president named a new Acting Director of National Intelligence. It's Joseph Maguire. Do you have any thoughts on him? Do you know him?

Spanberger: No, I don't know him and I don't have any particular thoughts on him. I am very pleased that it will no longer be Congressman Ratcliffe, recognizing he had zero background in anything related to the intelligence community. I thought it was a bit of an outrageous pick that he might be the Director of National Intelligence. So, I think we're moving a little bit back in the right direction from where that nomination  was headed

Paviour: Before the recess you were one of 16 Democrats to vote against a bipartisan budget deal. What was your  thinking there?

Spanberger: So, my thinking there is we need to have good conversations about where we're going with the deficit. This bill, it was bipartisan. The budget deal was put together by leadership...both the House Democrats and House Republicans, Senate Democrats and Republicans and the President. But there's little conversation, actually no conversation, related to the actual, terrible trajectory we are on from a fiscal responsibility perspective. And so I found the fact that this conversation, the budget deal was made in a room full of just a few people with zero input from those of us who are concerned about the deficit and where we are on our spending structuring next year. 

We're going to spend more money to service our debt than we will to educate our children. And for me, that is just a striking, striking imbalance in terms of what our priorities are. And so the fact that we're not having broader conversations about the cut in revenues and our continued spending, I think is truly troubling.

Paviour: You've talked a lot about the need to improve rural broadband. How would you rate the U.S.' current connectivity and what would it take to get us to an A?

Spanberger: So I think that the real problem existed in places like Henrico and Chesterfield, we're an A and A-plus. In place in places like Louisa and Nottoway County, you know, one half of the county's, a D one half of the county's a C -- there actually isn't consistency in how bad it is or how good it is. And that's part of the problem, is that you can live in a place that has great broadband connectivity and not actually realize the challenges that exist 50 miles down the road. 

Nationwide, I think we have a mediocre level of accessibility and the impact on communities is significant. So, farmers have incredible technological tools that can help them conserve water, increase their output, but they can't use it, some of these technologies they can't use if they don't have Internet access.

We've got kids in rural communities who are having an entirely different educational experience from the kids down the road in another county with better connectivity. We've got veterans and seniors in rural communities that will not have access to telehealth technologies and direct contact with medical professionals because of lack of broadband connectivity. And then, how do you attract businesses or how do you encourage entrepreneurial efforts of people who live in rural communities if they can't actually manage their business, the day to day, billing, invoices, the things we take for granted by being able to send off an email very quickly. So I think overall the U.S. needs to do a lot more. 

There's a good program, the Reconnect Program, it's under USDA. I passed an amendment as part of USDA funding bill. My amendment passed with more than 400 votes and there's not a lot that 400 members of Congress agree on. I think the total number is 402 who voted for it. And, that passed with the larger appropriations bill to increase funding to the Reconnect Program. That's a program that allows for localities to apply for funding to help bring broadband connectivity to their areas. 

But the larger issue is, I mean for me, every time we're talking about infrastructure, when we're talking about roads and bridges and tunnels, we also need to be talking about broadband internet. It is the infrastructure of now and of the future. And if it's not in place, we're going to continue to see divides between rural and suburban and urban communities.

Paviour: There've been a number of mass shootings this summer and you've come out in favor of ideas that are popular among many Democrats like expanding background checks, adding red flag laws, banning bump stocks and assault weapons. We've also heard from some Democratic presidential hopefuls like Senator Cory Booker and Senator Elizabeth Warren who are saying we should go further and require licensing for gun owners, and raise the gun purchase age to 21, those are just a few of the ideas. Are those ideas you could support?

Spanberger: Well, I think we haven't even built the foundation yet in the House of Representatives. We passed a bipartisan background check bill that literally can't get a vote in the senate, and it can't get a vote in the Senate because the Senate won't bring it forward for a vote. I would argue that if it's a bill that they don't think is worthy of a vote, bring it forward, let it fail on its own merits. But the bottom line is it would pass. So we already are witnessing a clear, an obstructionist priority from the Senate majority leader who won't even bring this bill forward. 

If we're looking at saving lives, and that is my goal, right? To put legislation in place that will save lives. Background check bill. This is applying the same legal standard to all firearms purchases that you would have if you went to a federally licensed location. Closing the Charleston loophole. We have background checks in some places, but the Charleston loophole allows for people who may not be eligible to get a gun to get one, as was the case with the murderer in Charleston, South Carolina. 

And the other issue is when someone gets a gun who shouldn't get a gun, then we have ATF agents who have to go out and take that back, and so it's an officer safety issue as well. Red Flag laws. When we look at what happened in Parkland, people knew that that shooter was a threat and there was no action that law enforcement could take to step-in because it wasn't a crime. It wasn’t actionable for him to seem uncomfortable or for him to make threats. So a red flag laws, also gun violence restraining orders as they're known in the legal sense are incredibly, incredibly important.

And so I look at it as all of these things need to be done in a complementary fashion. There's no one solution to addressing gun violence.And be it suicide by gun violence, we have tremendous rates of suicide by it domestic violence where a gun makes it far less safe for a victim of domestic violence, typically a woman. I think that we should be having a large debate about all of the things that we could be doing, but we've also done...the Senate has not taken up our bills. So in fact, we've done nothing. 

I think that while we should be debating everything, the first thing we need to do is insist that that first step is taken. The House of Representatives, we passed a good bipartisan bill, two good bipartisan bills, and neither of them have been taken up for a vote.

Paviour: I guess in a universe where that wasn't the case and where you maybe had a more sympathetic Senate, are these ideas that you would consider and have traction? Again, that's sort of licensing for gun owners raising the age to purchase firearms?

Spanberger: I think it's a larger issue of gun owner responsibility. I used to carry a firearm. I grew up in a house with guns. I always grew up in the place where gun ownership was a responsibility. Right? It's a right, but it's a responsibility. And so, how do you demonstrate that level of responsibility?

Whether or not age limits should be changed or not, I would honestly want that decision to be data driven. Is it an issue of younger people? There are children who get their hands on guns every single day of the week and shoot themselves or siblings accidentally. So even despite what  age limits may be, it's also an issue of are people locking up their guns. Are they storing them responsibly? So, you know, I think this is a place where the larger cultural conversation that we're having about the responsibility that is gun ownership needs to expand across the board. 

I mean, I'm open to conversation that would potentially lower the number of people who are killed by guns, but I also think that we need to recognize that there are conversations in our communities that aren't happening. There's a number of good programs out there, the Be Smart program about how to talk to kids about guns, how to keep your kids safe in a house that has guns. You know, these, these are all things that we should be focusing on.

Paviour: What about the Republican idea of arming teachers or not just Republican idea?

Spanberger: I think arming teachers is the worst idea I've ever heard. Well that's a little bit hyperbolic. I think it's one of the worst ideas I've ever heard, and for a couple of reasons. 

I used to carry a firearm everyday when I was a federal agent. When you carry a firearm on your hip, it changes your dynamic with the people around you. It changes the way you interact. It changes the way you move. You physically have a firearm on your hip. And so when I think about, you know, my kids' teachers in their schools who will lean over, and you know, hold their hands in elementary school, it, it changes the dynamic. It changes the role. 

And, as a law enforcement officer I used to qualify with my firearm regularly. You know, we ask so much of our teachers already, we ask them teach them the curriculum, but to function as their counselors. To be their, you know, parents during the day practically for, for young kids. And now we're going to ask them to be trained with a firearm and know how to use it while they're also supposed to be protecting children. I mean, there's such a disconnect and I think it's a society is expecting far, far too much from teachers because it doesn't recognize what it is to carry a gun every day. It doesn't recognize that if you're actually ever going to be able to use that firearm correctly, the amount of training and skill and muscle memory required. And, I think it's just a simple version of a, well, if we just do this, it'll fix the problem. We've had school shootings where there have been armed law enforcement officers there and that still hasn't been enough. 

So I think the idea is a terrible one because it doesn't, it doesn't even acknowledge what's the heart of the problem, and it's putting the solution on teachers, and we are already asking so much of teachers.

Paviour: Turning to immigration, the Trump administration has announced plans to open a shelter for over 400 unaccompanied minors in Northern Virginia. Do you have an opinion on those plans?

Spanberger: The fact that we need to open yet another shelter for unaccompanied minors speaks to the fact that we need an overhaul in our immigration system and we need comprehensive immigration reform. There are minors who are crossing the border by themselves. They do need to be put in a safe, secure location where they have access to education, they have access to quality caregiving, while U.S. officials are trying to find family members for them where they can be reunited. When I went to the southern border, I toured one such facility where they are working to find and reunite kids with family members already here in the United States. 

But when we're talking about the larger conversation of children who might be housed because they've been separated from their families, that is something that I wholly oppose. I'm a co-sponsor of a bill, It's the Keep Families Together Act very straightforward. So, I do think it's important. The purpose of that bill is to make sure that we can't separate kids from their parents and from their families as they crossed the border. 

So for those who do cross unaccompanied, I think that we absolutely need to make sure they're housed in a safe and secure location while we're uniting them with family members. But the notion that we would be building another facility because we're going to continue to separate families, for me is just wholly unacceptable. And evident of the fact that we aren't actually addressing the larger problem that requires immigration reform from the point in time that we're providing aid in Central America, to the point in time when someone is processing through for asylum here in the U.S.

Paviour: A majority of Democrats in the House now say they support impeaching Trump, you're not one of them. What would cause you to change your mind?

Spanberger: So, for clarification sake, a majority of the Democrats in the house have said that they support an impeachment inquiry, and we're already in an inquiry. The Judiciary Committee has come out...first two weeks ago when they filed for the 60 grand jury material. The reason given there was that it was part of a potential impeachment investigation. Jerry Nadler, the Chair of the Judiciary Committee, has been very clear that we have now entered into the phase that is an impeachment inquiry. And so, everything I have been claiming from the beginning is that we have a constitutional responsibility to perform oversight, and I want to make sure that any efforts that the House of Representatives is pursuing to perform that duty of oversight is able to move forward, that we can gather facts and evidence. And along the way that has been what's happening. Now the Judiciary Committee has deemed it important to in their request for that grand jury material to say that part of it is... pursuing information relevant to a potential impeachment an impeachment potential articles of impeachment. But  you know, I'm going to have to evaluate any articles of impeachment that come forward on an individual basis to determine how I would come down on that.

Paviour: Is there a point at which, you know, Trump has said, ‘we've investigated enough here, didn't find anything. Let's move on.’ Many of his supporters would agree with that. How would you respond?

Spanberger: Yeah, so that's actually not true is how I would respond to that. In the Mueller, report for anyone who reads it, it outlines multiple cases of obstruction, efforts by the President and his associates to obstruct the investigation. In the Mueller report, it outlines that there have been 27 investigations opened out of that investigation, seven people are in jail. So there's a lot of...there are a lot of reasons to continue trying to get to the bottom of what did and didn't occur. 

One of the things that I do think is very important when we talk about those investigations is the, the links and the engagement...the links with the Russian government and certainly the interference at the Russian government executed relative to our, not just our 2016 elections, but as outlined in the Mueller report, their efforts in 2014 here in the United States. And then notably worldwide, some of the influence campaigns that they have endeavored to conduct, and also the efforts to hack our election systems. Now, the director of the FBI has said that they've allegedly attacked all 50 states in our election systems. 

So you know, I think the conversations to say that it's all it's over, everything's done doesn't allow us to address the continuing substantial threat to our elections infrastructure, and it certainly negates the constitutional responsibility that Congress has to ensure that it's fulfilling its oversight duty.

Paviour: You haven't endorsed any of the Democratic hopefuls for President yet, but I'm curious if there's one or two that you sort of feel you can relate to more than others, or sort of ideologically resonate with you?

Spanberger: You know, it's interesting, I haven't endorsed anyone because as an individual I haven't yet made a decision. It is early at this stage and there are so many candidates... on any given day, you know, I have different thoughts on different policy proposals that different candidates are putting forward. You know, I could probably narrow it down to about 10.

Paviour: So maybe taking a step back...there are sort of competing visions for the future of the Democratic Party, right? You know, there's people on the left saying we need bold vision for the future and we need to galvanize voters and that's what's going to win us in 2020. And, there's people saying people like you, you know, ‘Congresswoman Spanberger was elected on the backs of moderates who maybe switched parties or didn't vote as much.’ Where, where should the party go from here?

Spanberger: I actually disagree with that whole premise, which it's not you Ben it is the premise that everybody seems to put forward. Which is, it is bold to believe that we should have healthcare for everyone in this country. It's a matter of then we talk about how we achieve it, right? It is bold to think that we can unify this country, that we can restore our faith in our institutions. That we can restore the faith that voters have, that constituents have in those they elected. It is bold to say we need to reform our campaign finance system overall, because there's such a lack of trust that exists. It is bold to say we need from top to bottom immigration reform. And so, where I think...what I'm looking for in a presidential candidate, is somebody who is,  who's focused on getting things done, which, you know, isn't as exciting. But in fact, that's what the American people need. 

They need someone in a position of leadership. We need a president in the White House who is seeking to unify the country, who is seeking to understand the challenges that impact people, be it in rural Virginia, suburban Virginia, the middle of Idaho, the middle of California, the city of New York. What is impacting people's lives every single day? And how can we address that through the policies that we pursue? And it isn't easy. It requires getting engaged with communities. It requires, you know, understanding complex policy challenges and then speaking to people about how it could impact them. And so, I mean, overall what it is that I want to see in a presidential candidate is somebody who was looking to move this country forward. And sometimes it'll be leaps and bounds, and sometimes it'll be steps forward. But I don't, I don't buy this notion that we have to either be kind of bold and inspirational or we can be effective. We absolutely should and can do both, and you know, that's who I'm looking for in a presidential candidate.

Paviour: You can give us a couple of names out of that 10?

Spanberger: ...No, I can't. I'm focused on the 2019 elections as a Virginian.

Paviour: And you're going to be campaigning then?

Spanberger: Yes. So I've been supportive of a variety of 2019 candidates. And you know anyone listening, I think the 2019 election is incredibly, incredibly important. When we look at the, you know, we talk about all of the different presidential policies that we want to see, but our day to day lives are impacted by who is serving in Richmond, in the Virginia legislature. So wherever you fall on the political perspective and spectrum, you know, getting out there and making sure that you're voting for people who reflect the things that are your priorities is one of the top, I think, duties that we have as citizens here. And in Virginia, we get to execute on that, on that responsibility, every single year, so it's great.

Paviour: And one final question. We've covered a lot of ground. What are you hearing from your constituents?

Spanberger: Healthcare. Period. ...I was touring, I was on a farm tour yesterday in the northern portion of the district, healthcare. Farmers are small business owners, healthcare, the cost of healthcare. It impacts their ability to do their business. Families who have a child with a chronic disease such as diabetes, the ability to pay for that insulin. Individuals who have faced significant health challenges, be it cancer or be it other life threatening illnesses, the threat that preexisting conditions' protections might go away. From top to bottom, the number one issue continues to be healthcare. 

In the House of Representatives, we've passed a number of bills focused on prescription drug pricing. I actually have a bill that requires transparency of the prescription pharmacy benefit managers, the middleman between the pharmaceutical companies and your pharmacy, because there's a lot of reasons to believe that they're part of the system that's driving up prices. And so requiring greater transparency in that system I think is incredibly important to bring down prices. 

But it's... healthcare still continues to be the number one issue in our rural communities. As I mentioned, broadband Internet is a significant economic issue, and educational issue and healthcare issue as well. 

And then across the board, people want Congress to get things done, and people communicate that message in a variety of different ways. It's, you know, 'I want to see Congress working. I want to see people working together. I want to see...stop all the fighting.' You know, I've had some constituents say, 'I wish everybody would stay off Twitter and just go to work.' And so, you know, across the board people, people express that, that element of it slightly differently, but the, the number one issue I'm hearing is still healthcare.

Paviour: All right. That's, that's all the time we have today. Thanks for joining us, Congresswoman.

Spanberger: Thank you so much, Ben.

Paviour: You've been listening to our interview with Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger on 88.9 VPM news.


Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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