Inspired Scanlon Returns From D.C. and Points South
First term Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon returned to her district last week for her first extended visit since taking office in January. Although “district weeks” are generally built into the U.S. House schedule, the government shutdown disrupted those plans for many members of the House. During her time in the home PA Fifth District, Rep. Scanlon is also at home in Swarthmore, where with husband Mark Stewart, she recently gave a talk at the Faith and Life class following Sunday services at the Swarthmore United Methodist Church, to which the family belongs. The subject was a trip the couple made to Alabama in March with a bipartisan group of legislators, led by U.S. Congressman John Lewis.
The couple described the tour as an extraordinary experience: seeing iconic venues of the civil rights movement with Congressman Lewis, who is a living link to pivotal moments and sites in that crucial period in our country’s history … the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and First Baptist Church in Montgomery. Scanlon told the group that she was especially taken by “the importance of churches as both faith and physical sanctuaries” in those brutal and violent times.
Following the Faith and Life presentation, The Swarthmorean spoke with Representative Scanlon about her experiences and impressions of the national political landscape, and some of the areas in which she is concentrating efforts on service to the Fifth District and the wider world.
The Swarthmorean: Do you feel that Americans still see the potential for social change through public involvement, as during the civil rights movement?
Mary Gay Scanlon: Yes, I think as a country we got a little lazy, we started taking things for granted. Now there is renewed optimism. People who are organizing committees or Indivisible movements, hitting the street for the Women’s March or the Science March … are taking it seriously again. It feels like we got away from that for a while and people are now saying “No, this is important,” and whatever “this” is, they’re organizing around it to effect change, so it feels like there’s a movement.
TS: What will you be doing in your district weeks?
MGS: We’re focusing a lot on schools, but in the midst of it, on Tuesday at the Navy Yard we’re doing a field hearing for Congress, as we’re trying to build the record to pass an infrastructure bill. I think it’s possible. Today there’s a report that Mitch McConnell is laying out an agenda for the Senate as they’re realizing they can’t just keep saying “no.” … The bills are piling up outside the Senate chamber, and they’re not doing anything except approving judges. But infrastructure is on his list…In addition to the infrastructure stuff, I requested meetings with folks like the District Attorney in Philly to see what criminal justice stuff we can work on together; I’m trying to get a meeting with the DA in Delco. That’s a little trickier. In February when I was home, there was a big education reform thing at the DCIU, so I went to that; now I’m meeting with [school] superintendents.
TS: Are there areas of infrastructure locally that are important to you?
MGS: Yes, the entire Philadelphia delegation has been talking to me about schools as part of infrastructure, and needing to have investment in our schools. That’s investment both in the folks who will get the jobs, and in kids going forward. You’re trying to teach kids about a 21st century world, in 19th century schools. Even in the suburbs, people could use some help to keep the schools up. … Also, I learned this week that of the top 100 bottlenecks in the country for traffic, [with attendant impact on the cost of trucking, air pollution, etc.] four are in this area. One of them is where the Blue Route hits I-95, and then either end of 676 going through town. I think the other is where 76 hits the Schuylkill. …
Another bread and butter thing that is hot right now is the Boeing Chinook. It’s a problem because in the past, the objection has been “We don’t have enough money” but now it’s “We don’t need it.” … I’ve talked to the relevant committees; I’ve testified and keep trying to push to keep the jobs. This would be for next year’s appropriations budget. They’re saying we may want to push it off for five years, which would mean layoffs. They’ve been developing this next generation of these workhorses. We also have the Shipyard which currently has no contract, so we’re trying to get maritime academy training vessels in there.
TS: What’s going on in your committee work?
MGS: One committee I’m on is Social Justice … we’ve done civil rights, looking forward to maybe getting passage on a couple of bills that are part of HR1, which is an omnibus bill on government stuff. My original bill is about Presidential inaugural fund reform. … It would require transparency on both the donations to and the spending on inaugural funds. There are some gaps now … It’s way worse than it’s ever been before because this was the first time there were no limits on how much you could give. This bill will have a shot; there is not a co-sponsor yet. The other one is about disability voting, and in past Houses, it had co-sponsors from the other side. It was part of HR1, which was just a Democratic thing, but we’re going to start peeling them off to try to pass the constituent components of it. We’re trying to prevent problems in the future.
TS: Are you still active in rights for immigrants and refugees?
MGS: Sure, we’ve had multiple hearings about it. I’m on the immigration subcommittee of Judiciary, [where] the substantive work is in hearings.... actually I think the first hearing we had was about gun violence, the first in eight years … and we’ve had a number of hearings dealing with the border and immigrants, because it’s such a flashpoint for this administration, including hearings on family separation at the border and whether it’s still occurring ... which it is.
TS: Were you able to observe that on your trip to the border in February?
MGS: Yep, in El Paso and the adjoining rural district in New Mexico, we could see the differences in different places. We saw the holding cells, we spent 5 or 6 hours with customs and border patrol and they were saying “We don’t have enough people; we don’t have enough facilities to process the people who coming across now.” The facilities were built for 20 year-old Mexican men looking for work, not families fleeing violence.
We also had a hearing on the national emergency law and it what it might mean to become more effective. It was drafted with the idea you should give the President maximum flexibility but we now seem to have exceeded the usefulness of that. … That was the most bipartisan and civil hearing that I’ve seen so far, and it had to do with the fact that the fact that everybody agrees that we’ve gone too far towards the executive.
TS: So are you cautiously optimistic about the future of bipartisanship?
MGS: I think there’s a prospect. It’s difficult; it’s not going to happen easily, because so many people who were moderates in the middle are gone right now. The Dems picked up 60 seats, but a lot of the reasonable Republicans went out, so you are left with the harder core. I think a lot of people came in wanting to work together, from very moderate, purple districts, but it’s hard to work with folks who may not want to. But issue by issue? The First Step Act passed on Criminal Justice Reform, and it’s called First Step because it’s the just the beginning. So there may be some prospects there.
Among many engagements during her time in her home district, Congresswoman Scanlon will help with an Earth Day (ish) cleanup of the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge on Saturday, April 20, from 9 a.m. to noon. She will speak around 11 on the importance of environmental issues to our district.