Congresswoman Betty McCollum is Minnesota’s most powerful member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Currently serving her tenth term, she has worked hard and built significant power in Washington to ensure Minnesotans are not just represented, but also leading in our nation’s capital. As Chair of the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee and Vice-Chair of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, she has budgetary power over the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department, the Defense Department, and other major agencies. It is astonishing to think that it was just in 2000 that Congresswoman McCollum made history as only the second woman from Minnesota elected to serve in Congress.
We were honored to speak with Congresswoman McCollum about recent increases in women’s representation, her priorities as a committee chair, stepping into her leadership, and what’s at stake in the 2020 election.
Women Winning: For years, you were the only woman from Minnesota serving in Congress. Today, five of the ten members of Minnesota’s Federal Delegation are pro-choice women and for the first time in history there are 100 women in the House of Representatives. What impact has this increase in women’s representation had?
Congresswoman Betty McCollum: When I was elected to Congress in 2000, I added a different viewpoint to the conversation. When we discussed childcare, staff wages, safe and affordable housing, the increasing cost of prescription drugs and birth control, I brought personal experience to the table. Many of my male colleagues were strong allies, but concerns that most directly affect women had not been at the forefront of the conversation.
WW: It’s not necessarily that male allies don’t support certain initiatives, but they don’t initially prioritize them.
Rep. McCollum: That’s right. Men don’t always monitor the price of birth control, because they aren’t picking up the prescriptions. Or take equal pay, for example. I know what it’s like to find out that a co-worker who has the same managerial experience, has worked for the company fewer years, and doesn’t have a college degree is making $3,000 more than me. I’ve experienced that and I remind my male colleagues that their wives, their daughters, their nieces, and their mothers experience these things. With women at the table, bringing diverse perspectives, we have a better, richer, fuller discussion and better outcomes. The impact of having more women in Congress — from Minnesota and from across the country — has been fantastic.
WW: In addition to an overall increase in women’s representation in Congress, women are serving in crucial leadership roles. Among others, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi is Speaker of the House, Congresswoman Maxine Waters is Chair of the Financial Services Committee, and you are Chair of the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee and Vice-Chair of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. What advice do you have for women about stepping into their leadership?
Rep. McCollum: The work that I did on the City Council in North Saint Paul, from working on local infrastructure improvements to cleaning up Silver Lake, helped prepare me. When I was in the State House, I worked on agriculture and environmental issues and my leadership continued to grow. Over the years, these experiences accumulated and gave me the confidence that I could chair a national appropriations committee that oversees a $37 billion budget.
Be interested in what you’re doing. Be ready to step up. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and step out of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to say “I can do this!” You may not check every box, but sometimes you have to think outside the box!
WW: Recently, we’ve seen anti-choice bills passing in state legislatures across the country, including in Minnesota. At the federal level, most recently with the elimination of Title X funding for clinics, we know that women’s rights are in jeopardy. What can we do to protect reproductive rights?
Rep. McCollum: There are always going to be those who seek to control women, and to control women’s reproductive health is one way to control women. Women should be able to plan and space their families. Access to birth control is the first step. Women must be able to make decisions about their own pregnancies and bodies. There’s no place for the government in such personal decisions.
What really infuriates me is that many of the people that want to control women’s reproductive decisions and enact abortion bans are the same people who cut funding for school lunches, who cut SNAP, who won’t vote for affordable housing. It’s outrageous. Because the Equal Rights Amendment has not passed, women’s rights are not equally protected in the United States. That’s why women have to speak up and stand up for what’s right. Our human rights depend on it.
WW: You are an outspoken champion for the environment and are focused on protecting our clean air and water, wildlands, our natural resources. What are your top priorities for your committee? How are you pushing back against the Trump Administration and its appointees who are working to eliminate environmental protections?
Rep. McCollum: My top priority is climate change. Climate change affects everything. It is something I can honestly say keeps me up at night. The sea level is rising, the Amazon is on fire, pollution is accumulating… We must do more to protect the planet for future generations. And the generations coming up behind me are so engaged. I’m trying to lay a firm foundation so that they can springboard up to tackle this issue.
But right now, I’m playing defense. One day after another, the Trump Administration is lowering fuel economy standards for cars, reducing limits on methane emissions, cutting scientific research, denying that climate change even exists. I’m doing everything I can to fight back. But the best defense against the Trump Administration is to make sure that they don’t get another four years.
WW: What are the stakes in 2020 and what must we do to ensure our country moves in the right direction?
Rep. McCollum: The stakes are high for us as individuals, they’re high for our families, and they’re high for our country. This election will determine access to reproductive healthcare. It will determine investments in transportation, education, and housing. Will we have protections for LGBTQ Americans and people of all religious backgrounds? Will we be working toward peace and stability in the Middle East? Will we tackle climate change? This election will determine if our children and grandchildren will live in a country with a vibrant democracy that creates opportunities and provides hope.
I’ll be working as hard as I can to elect candidates who share our Minnesota values at the national level and here at home. In 2018, we helped elect a lot of great women from the 4th Congressional District — it was an honor to be out doorknocking with them — and we need to make sure that their first reelections are successful…I’ll be standing shoulder to shoulder with them in 2020.
WW: There’s a lot of work to do and folks are fired up, showing up, and ready to get the job done.
Rep. McCollum: No one can run for office alone. It’s up to all of us to ensure that women — young women, older women, women of color, women veterans, women with different life experiences — are elected.
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