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Trying Out a Life on the Hill

The New York Times: Trying Out a Life on the Hill

By Susan Dominus

Last December, I was given what was, to me, an intimidating assignment: Follow two of the women newly elected to the freshman class of Congress. At the outset, I had a lot of questions — as many about logistics as about politics, given that I don’t ordinarily cover Congress (an admission I made apologetically approximately 1,000 times to sources over the course of my reporting). I needed to figure out what kind of press pass was in order, to grasp the procedural tool known as a Motion to Recommit (never mind, it’s too complicated) and to find my way to the Democratic Caucus meeting in the basement of the Capitol through a warren that still baffles no small number of security guards.

I was figuring all of that out so I could begin to explore the overarching question driving me: How would this record-breaking number of first-year congresswomen — among them, two who were ex-C.I.A., one who was a former mixed martial arts fighter, one who wore a hijab, two who were under 30 — change the institution?

I know gender essentialism is passé, but I did wonder: Would they make Congress more collaborative? More efficient? Less … fusty? A friend who has worked on the Hill for years laughed — scoffed, even! — at the thought. “Congress,” she informed me, “is an institution built on fust.”

My first challenge was to decide where to invest my energy — to find two congresswomen whose lives I’d be curious enough about to follow for many months to come. I met with several. All were impressive, but some were clearly monitoring their every utterance with an inner crisis manager, which ruled them out: Caution is the enemy of the interesting.

Then on January 10, I met Abigail Spanberger, a moderate from Virginia. While discussing the issue of trust — she does not take corporate PAC money — Ms. Spanberger, formerly of the C.I.A., told me about the time when, as a case officer, she strapped tens of thousands of dollars to her waist, put on a maternity shirt and passed off the cash to a man who signed for it with an X and a squiggle on a line. She sounded fearless; she told a good story. She was in.

The next day, I met with Ayanna Pressley. The first black congresswoman elected in the state of Massachusetts, she explained why, as she rushed to put on earrings on her way to votes, she used to feel the need to dress, as she puts it, “like an old lady,” to convey legitimacy. The insight felt intimate but also meaningful. When Ms. Pressley was in the Capitol’s elevator with her staff, they started singing “Bootylicious,” a song by Destiny’s Child, at which point I was sold: Fust-busting was clearly underway. In the past, I’d left interviews with politicians despairing at the official comments that had been doled out to me like dried peas; when I left Ms. Pressley’s office, I was already looking forward to coming back.

Ms. Spanberger and Ms. Pressley struck me as charismatic subjects, but I had other journalistic reasons to pursue them. Ms. Spanberger was a moderate from a Trump-friendly district who had flipped a red seat blue; Ms. Pressley had out-progressived a progressive incumbent in Boston and was very safe in her seat.

I did not know how their experiences would diverge in the months to come, but I suspected they might contrast in interesting ways. They also seemed to embody the tensions facing Democrats pondering the upcoming presidential election: Should the party embrace a new wave of progressive energy, or choose a more traditional candidate, one who had shown success winning over moderate Republicans?

Ms. Pressley was already, at the time, associated with the Squad, an informal crew that included fellow first-year Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar; but the phenomenon was still so new that when I started following Ms. Pressley it hardly registered on my radar. Ms. Spanberger had a day-to-day friendship with several other first-year congresswomen with military or service backgrounds, but they were only beginning to figure out how they might amplify each others’ voices.

By the time I finished reporting, the Squad was a well-known entity, having taken on meaning largely outside the control of the women in it. They became a symbol of minority power that President Trump attacked on Twitter to whip up his base, and such a locus of news media obsession that some Democrats worried they were skewing perception of the party’s positions.

Ms. Spanberger and her closest colleagues also played a fateful role in the year of the Democratic caucus; having been part of a bloc of moderates who resisted impeachment for most of the year, she, along with the group, finally reversed position following revelations about the president’s dealings with Ukraine and published a Washington Post editorial calling for the start of the inquiry — a collective move that some analysts believe broke the dam leading to the inquiry’s official start.

I obviously did not know Ms. Pressley and Ms. Spanberger would come to have such high profiles when I chose to focus on them; then again, high profiles come from strong personalities, and that was part of what drew me to them in the first place.

As I reported the story over many months, I often felt like I was living in Rashomon Congress: I was witnessing, close up, historical events from two entirely different perspectives. Issues that were of burning importance to Ms. Pressley sometimes struck moderates as distractions that would get in the way of other important party messaging; decisions moderates made that progressives perceived as insufficiently humane were, to Ms. Spanberger, moves that fulfilled campaign promises of bipartisanship — and that would help her and her fellow Frontliners, as they are known, retain their seats and thus the Democratic majority.

The article was about two women, but it was not, in the end, about women in Congress — it was about elected officials trying to reconcile competing demands, the good of the party and their own personal experiences of all of it.

I sometimes wished the three of us could go out for dinner, so I could hear the two congresswomen talk through their perspectives, with adequate time. As Ms. Pressley pointed out, the demands of Congress, and the size of the House, are such that new members sometimes get to know each other the same way the public does: through social media tidbits and news bites that do not capture the complexity of who people are.

Sometimes when I am reporting a story, I think about other lives I might have lived. I’ve interviewed neurologists so interesting they have made me wonder if I could have hacked medical school; whenever I talk to an inspiring lawyer, I wonder if I should have tried to continue with law school beyond that one year. But having spent so much time trying to understand the life of a congresswoman, I think it is safe to say: The job is not for me (not that anyone’s asking).

So much of the work of being a member of the House entails making small moves that massive forces will render moot anyway. It is messaging ideas with the hope that they might matter down the road, trying to maneuver for a little more power, a little more volume. Done right, it is not feigning interest but truly feeling interest, in the needs of so many people different from yourself. It is frequently a bore and only sometimes does the work seem to matter, which is why it is also truly a service job. It is living far from one’s family in a house, and a House, that is not a home. And it is making peace with all of the above, then fighting like hell to have the chance to do it again for another two years.

I’m now following this significant historical moment in D.C. the way most people do: from afar. Some people complain about information overload; but having had the privilege of watching two women’s political lives up close, I realize just how little we actually grasp of what is playing out behind the scenes. Instead of seeing the news as a flood of minutiae, I’m preoccupied with the human moments that the grand spectacle of the big story obscures. Those moments may not, and maybe should not, make the news — but nonetheless they matter.