Q&A with U.S. Rep. Karen Handel: Capitol Gains
The first Republican woman to represent Georgia in the U.S. House had to win a tough election to get to Washington. She faces a daunting agenda, a contentious Congress and another campaign.
Just six days after claiming victory in a race that attracted national attention – and tons of money – Karen Handel was sworn in as Georgia’s 6th District representative. She is the state’s first Republican woman to serve in Congress, completing the term of Tom Price, President Donald Trump’s former secretary of health and human services.
Handel, who previously served as Georgia secretary of state and chair of the Fulton County Commission, ran unsuccessfully for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2010 and had a controversial tenure at Susan G. Komen, a nonprofit breast cancer foundation.
In Congress, she serves on two committees: Education and the Workforce and Judiciary.
Georgia Trend Editor-At-Large Susan Percy talked with Handel in her district office in Roswell in August. Following are edited highlights of the interview.
GT: Was it hard to jump so quickly from candidate to member of Congress?
Handel: What was difficult to absorb was just the enormity of all of it. The race was big, but more important, the obligations and responsibilities to the district are big. I’m a pretty serious individual. I want to be studious and be able to represent the district well. Add to that the obligation that came with being the first Republican woman from Georgia going to Congress – that’s a milestone for our state.
It’s less about me and more about yet another door being opened for women across Georgia. I have maybe a higher set of expectations in this role to be sure I do not just do well, but extremely well. It’s such an extraordinary privilege to represent the people of the 6th District.
GT: You took office without the customary orientation period and no time to staff up.
Handel: It was very, very quick. The first week was chaotic. There was no one – all of Tom [Price]’s people went with Tom. When we opened up the [office] door, the only thing in there were two little mice. We had to get phones going, had to get computers set up.
GT: What kind of a welcome did you get?
Handel: The members of our delegation, from the minute that I was sworn in, made sure that we had people in the office – they sent interns from their offices. In the swearing in, Congressman [Tom] Graves and Congressman [John] Lewis both did extremely warm introduction remarks to the full body.
GT: It was a pretty intense campaign, rancorous at times. Was it difficult to put that behind you?
Handel: I never really felt personally any rancor. Certainly not toward Jon. Did I think I was the better candidate? Well, obviously. I don’t take those things personally. Maybe some of that is from the Fulton County Commission, where I really had to learn not to. If I did that day in and day out, I wouldn’t be able to be effective in the job. The campaign was the job for that period of time. But then once the election was over, the job became representing the people of the district, regardless of their political viewpoints, regardless of who they voted for, regardless of whether they voted.
GT: Now that you are in office, what are your priorities?
Handel: In many instances I don’t personally drive much of the broader agenda; I have input. For issues important to the 6th District, obviously transportation, the economy and jobs, tax reform and healthcare – ultimately higher education reform. The same issues that are important to a family in California are issues that are important to people here in Georgia. There are different perspectives on the issues, but what we need to do as Georgians and what we need to do as Americans for this country are fairly aligned.
I want to make sure on the issues that come before me, whether in committee or before the full House, that I’m making sure the best interests of the 6th District and state of Georgia are represented.
GT: What are you hearing from your constituents? What do they want?
Handel: Most people simply want me to stay true to who I am and not be changed by the system or the politics of D.C. and to be engaged and transparent and communicative with the people of the district. To that end, we’ll do “Coffees with Karen” once a month on Saturdays. We’re doing constituent meetings in the district [with] mobile offices – once a month we’ll go to East Cobb, Alpharetta, Milton, Tucker – just to be able to have a presence within communities that the district encompasses.
GT: The tone in Washington has been fairly acrimonious. How does that influence your work?
Handel: Certainly the tone [affects] how issues are addressed. I see that a little bit, especially in committee work and floor speeches. Beyond tone, people talk about the need to compromise and the need to find solutions that more than one side can agree on. It has become increasingly difficult. If only one side is interested in doing that, then you can’t really move to compromise.
I think on healthcare we saw an unwillingness to even engage in conversation about what might we be able to do differently. I understand the politics of it; I’m not naïve about that. But being unwilling – this is on the Senate side – to even engage in a discussion is just irresponsible.
GT: How about in the House?
Handel: The Republican majority is bigger, but it is challenging because even among Republicans you have a spectrum of viewpoints. Still, on some of the key issues, there are often zero votes from the other side, among Democrats. Some issues might really cut philosophically, but the opioid crisis? Human trafficking? Are these not issues where we could find common ground?
GT: We hear a lot about bipartisanship, but it seems increasingly rare. Do you see any immediate hope that might change?
Handel: The opportunity for that was on healthcare. I am still holding out some sort of hope that the Senate will take the issue back up. The only way for Congress to find some sort of bipartisan solution is for the Senate to pass something, anything, to enable us to go to a conference committee, where you will have a body tasked with working [not just with] the House and Senate but also with Republicans and Democrats. Would something come out of it? I don’t know. But I think we have an obligation to at least try.
GT: What would you like to see in a final healthcare measure?
Handel: A couple of things that really do matter and that I hear from people in the 6th District – not to have Washington running healthcare, to put it back in the hands of the states, so people really do have choices. And try to take some steps where we can begin to deal with costs of healthcare.
I think it is imperative that we maintain the protections that are there for individuals with pre-existing conditions. The measure that the House passed did that. I would like to see us move to block grants on Medicaid so the states can really be the drivers of how best to deal with low-income populations within an individual state.
What we might do here in Georgia might be different than what would happen in other states, by virtue of what are [our] priority healthcare needs – not just disease and health management, but access. We have access issues that are very different from other states’.
GT: Anything else?
Handel: Roll back the taxes that are in there. People forget that the ACA was certainly the biggest tax increase in my lifetime.
GT: President Trump has been highly critical of Mitch McConnell in the Senate and House Speaker Paul Ryan. Does that make Congress’s job – and your job – harder?
Handel: Those dynamics don’t help what is a difficult situation. I even said during the campaign that having a little more moderated Twitter policy could potentially help things a lot. With that said, there is frustration between the House and Senate. The House has passed over 270 bills waiting action in the Senate.
GT: Let’s talk about prospects for tax reform, which is a Republican priority. Are you optimistic?
Handel: I have renewed optimism as we take up tax reform. Chairman Brady [Kevin Brady, R-Texas, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee] has worked hard to build consensus between the House and Senate and the White House, and I think that will help a lot.
I do think one of challenges on healthcare was that there wasn’t consensus from the beginning. Maybe that just wasn’t achievable given how complex [it is] and the differing viewpoints. But on tax reform it does seem Chairman Brady has been able to strike some agreement around a set of principles around what tax reform is going to look like. That is going to help the process, I believe.
GT: What would you like to see in a tax reform bill?
Handel: Making sure corporate relief is coupled with individual relief, because I believe firmly that middle-class Americans and middle-class Georgians need relief. Individual relief is how we ensure that smaller companies and companies organized as S corps and LLCs also are able to benefit from lower rates.
GT: What else?
Handel: Permanent repeal of the death tax. Relief for companies to be able to repatriate dollars that are sitting overseas, to get those dollars back here on the ground in the U.S. That’s investment, and investment means jobs.
GT: Immigration is looming large. What would you like to see happen?
Handel: First and foremost, we have to continue to make progress enforcing the laws that are already on the books. A tremendous amount of progress has been made. Illegal crossings on the southern border are down dramatically, but there is still a way to go.
The other side of it is reforming the visa process. Some 40 percent of individuals in the country illegally are those that came on a legal visa but overstayed. We have to get the right processes in place for that and to take a very step-wise approach. Once we’re able to do those things, then come at it from a more comprehensive approach. I think the American people are looking for some results around enforcing the law; then as people gain confidence that the federal government is indeed doing its job and starting to reduce the influx of illegals, [we can] open up the door to have conversations about what to do.
GT: Will the wall that President Trump wants to build help or hinder immigration reform?
Handel: Certainly the president very much wants dollars for the wall, and the House included [that] in one of its appropriation bills. But it’s not just that, it’s dollars for the infrastructure needed to have a secure border. So however that happens – and frankly I think it’s a combination of things – infrastructure, meaning hard infrastructure; drones; walls. But also people infrastructure, also process infrastructure, to be sure we’re coming at it from each aspect.
GT: In all these areas we’ve talked about, realistically what can you do as one newly minted member of Congress?
Handel: No question that I’m the new kid. With that said, the leadership and chairmen of various committees, they do ask and provide an opportunity for input. For example, my second or third week in D.C., Chairman Brady had a small group of us out to dinner to ask our input about tax reform. He listened; he asked questions. He wanted to know specifically what were the thoughts on the border adjustment tax [an added tax on imported goods] – what did the people of the 6th District think of the border adjustment? Well, they didn’t think so much of it in the 6th.
He was really open to that input and feedback, and I think it showed when they put out that initial set of principles for moving forward with tax reform. He said very clearly there’s not enough support around the border adjustment tax and he’s not going to let it become a poison pill to an overall tax reform bill.
GT: It sounds as though you are comfortable with the work of the House.
Handel: Making legislation is not so different than at the statehouse. The real work is not all that sexy and interesting – it’s just hard. When we take up the appropriations bills, instead of all 12 individually, we’re taking them as a package, which I think is going to help the process. There are going to be a lot of amendments. Several human trafficking bills will go to the floor.
GT: You are co-sponsoring one of those human trafficking bills, aren’t you?
Handel: My friend [Missouri Republican Rep.] Amy Wagner’s bill. It will give local law enforcement a little more latitude in how they can investigate and try to make the arrest case for predators on social media. You can imagine some of the First Amendment challenges and privacy challenges. It’s a really, really solid piece of legislation. I’d like to think it would have some fairly significant number of Democrats supporting it, so it’s a bipartisan bill.
GT: What about the re-election campaign coming up in 2018?
Handel: Let’s hope it’s not quite as big as the last one. It was so intense, and the intensity was jammed into the time between Feb. 1 through June 20. Both sides were a little bit weary. I purposely took the approach to get settled, give people a break, make thank-you calls, and that’s been the focus. In the fall, obviously we have to gear up a little bit.