New in Congress: Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne point to bipartisan action

Reps. Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne, Iowa’s two newest members of the delegation in Washington, have settled into life on the hill. The Daily Iowan spoke with them about what their first three months have been like.


Sarah Watson

Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Iowa, speaks in her office in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Sarah Watson, Politics Reporter

Recently elected Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Iowa, who campaigned in 2018 with a message of growing up in a working-class family, keeps a photo of her grandfather and a 16-year-old Abby on her desk.

“This is my grandfather, whom I miss a great deal,” she told three Daily Iowan reporters as she offered them a seat in her office.

At 29, Finkenauer became one of the youngest women ever elected to Congress and one of two first women elected to Washington’s lower chamber from Iowa. Now, her and freshman Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, have had three months of legislative work under their belts, and their experiences are helping to drive conversation in committees and caucuses, the pair said.

The now-30-year-old Finkenauer was sworn into Congress with around $20,000 of student-loan debt to pay off, she said, which has provided her with a valuable perspective when considering legislation.

In a small-business subcommittee hearing March 27, Finkenauer said the group had talked about the lack of secure retirement plans being a barrier to entrepreneurship. Then, the conversation shifted to discussing obstacles such as student-loan debt, which Finkenauer said makes starting a business or begin saving for retirement early difficult for young graduates.

“I had a question that I was all prepared to ask, but then the conversation really started focusing on student-loan debt, and I was like, This is my lane,” she said, hitting her hand on the coffee table in front of her. “So I was able to talk about the fact that I am still paying off around $20,000 or so.”

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Lily Smith
Iowa 3rd Congressional District-elect Cindy Axne speaks to supporters during the statewide Democratic candidates’ watch party at Embassy Suites in Des Moines on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (Lily Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Axne, a West Des Moines native who serves on the agriculture and financial services committees, said she is using her experience directing Iowa’s wind and environment plan in drafting and considering legislation when she considers environmental policies.

“I compost in the middle of winter in the Midwest,” Axne said. “That’s about as hard as you can get.”

When it comes to legislation, the two freshman Democrats emphasized bipartisan work in sectors such as roads and bridges, internet, agriculture, and health care.

In a brief interview in her office, Axne said her goals focused on “tangible solutions,” listing policy areas her office is targeting in an answer to a question about her district’s appetite in 2020 for policies such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, which some Democratic presidential hopefuls endorse as they visit the state.

“I think we are all trying to reach very similar outcomes,” Axne said, whether it includes affordable health care, lowering costs of prescription drugs, or having infrastructure like rural broadband internet.

“Those are the priorities that my district wants, and quite frankly, they’re the priorities that this country wants, and those are what I’ll be bringing back to my district.”

During Finkenauer’s time in Congress, she became the first freshman representative of the session to pass a bill, which requires senior executives of federal agencies participating in two small-business initiatives to do outreach with small businesses participating in those programs.

The focus on bipartisanship, University of Northern Iowa political-science Professor Christopher Larimer, said evidence of working across the aisle could be beneficial when re-election comes around since Iowa has a history of being a competitive state and he said voters like to say they are fed up with bickering in Congress.

Finkenauer and Axne defeated Republican incumbents in 2018, after now-President Trump won Iowa in 2016.

“Finkenauer and Axne are in very competitive districts, I don’t know if they will move too far to the left,” Larimer said. “…I don’t know that Iowa will ever have the most extreme members of Congress.”

Axne communications director Madeleine Russak said in a phone call with The Daily Iowan that the office worked closely with Loebsack and Finkenauer, and Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley had answered any questions the newcomers had had.

Ernst and Axne worked together to cosponsor insurance legislation, the Ensuring Lasting Smiles Act re-introduced in January. Ernst is an original cosponsor of the bill.

“It set the tone of working with Iowans for Iowans from Day 1,” Russak said.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to add that Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, was an original cosponsor of the Ensuring Lasting Smiles Act.