Millennials in Congress: An Interview with U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik

Congresswoman Elise Stefanik
Congresswoman Elise Stefanik

Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (R-NY21) is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. She chairs the House Republican Policy Committee’s Millennial Task Force and the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, and she co-chairs the Tuesday Group. In addition, Congresswoman Stefanik serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Committee on Education and the Workforce, and she leads candidate recruitment for House Republicans. The first member of her immediate family to graduate from college, Congresswoman Stefanik graduated with honors from Harvard University.

Congresswoman Stefanik, you’re the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. What was your motivation for running for office?

I decided to run for Congress because I think, regardless of what side of the political spectrum you fall on, people feel that we need new ideas and a new generation of leadership. Particularly in the region where I’m from, upstate New York, we’ve seen a lot of young people leave for lack of economic opportunity. I believe that our region should be a place where young people invest, raise their families, and start businesses. That would help re-develop the 21st century for upstate New York.

When I first decided to run, I didn’t realize I would be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. I found out about that over the course of the campaign, and it was pretty exciting to see parents bringing their young daughters to campaign events who had never participated in the political process before, just to show their daughters a role model for what they can achieve some day.

As the youngest current member of Congress and chairwoman of the House Republican Policy Committee’s Millennial Task Force, what do you see as some of the legislative priorities for this millennial generation?

The number one issue that millennials believe is most important to them is jobs, and tied to that is the student loan crisis for our generation. The millennial generation is very exciting: we’re the most diverse generation, but we’re also the most well-educated. Making sure that what we’re studying in school actually has connectivity to jobs that are available in today’s economy is really important.

As for the Millennial Task Force, it had a few main purposes. One was to educate my colleagues of the importance of speaking to millennials. The average age of a member of Congress is 60 and I was 30 when I was elected, so I was half that. If you look at the electorate, for the first time in this past presidential election millennials made up a plurality of voters, and we’re also the largest generation in the workforce. So, engaging with millennials is important, and part of the task force was to educate my colleagues on the importance of talking to and listening to our generation.

The second purpose was to come up with policy solutions. I talked a little bit about economic opportunity and how that’s tied to education and college tuition rates. One of the issues we identified is that college completion is really important when you’re thinking about the broad challenge of student loan debt. You’re much more likely to pay off your student loans if you in fact complete your degree. One of the initiatives that I just was able to get across the finish line is year-round Pell Grants. Our college students today look very different than they did a generation ago: they’re slightly older, many of them are raising families, and some of them are working part-time. The ability to apply for Pell Grant funding during the summer in addition to the fall and spring semesters helps you graduate faster, and it increases college completion rates. So that’s an example of an idea that came from the Millennial Task Force. It’s gotten bipartisan support and was just included in the latest government funding package.

Preparing an innovative 21st century workforce has implications for national security. You chair the Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities. What are some legislative priorities that can help protect America from emerging threats?

It’s a great question—the reason why I want to be on the Armed Services Committee is I represent Fort Drum, which is in the Watertown region of New York. Fort Drum is home of the 10th Mountain Division, the most deployed division of the U.S. Army since 9/11. I’ve been really involved with army readiness issues. In terms of emerging threats, my job as the subcommittee chairwoman is to look five, ten, twenty years down the road at what the threats we would be facing are going to be.

Technology has changed the national security landscape, much like it’s changed our global economy. If you look at the use of information operations and information warfare, for example online propaganda use by terrorist organizations like ISIS, it has been unfortunately an effective recruiting tool. We need to have a strategy and we need to have policies in place to combat that. We are just wrapping our arms around that right now. There’s a lot of hearings on online propaganda—what our strategy is to counter online propaganda from being used effectively by Russia and by terrorist organizations. Additionally, continuing to monitor terrorism activities around the world and working with our allies more effectively on counter-terrorism strategies, that falls under my jurisdiction as well.

Many experts argue that the largest emerging threat for the millennial generation is environmental disruption. You sponsored H.R. 195 Expressing the Commitment of the House of Representatives to Conservative Environmental Stewardship. What made you step forward as a leader on environmental protection at a time when many of your conservative colleagues are more reluctant to address the issue?

I have to give credit where credit’s due. I actually worked with Congressman Gibson on the initial draft—he introduced the legislation in the last Congress, which I helped write. I’m proud to continue his legacy on that issue by introducing it as the Stefanik resolution in this Congress.

Again, it comes from my district. I have the Adirondacks in my district, and our environmental health is very much tied to our economic health. I also think if you ask millennials, and this is pretty interesting, regardless of what party they affiliate with, even the most conservative millennials identify environment as an important issue to them. So, it’s important politically that Republicans come up with common-sense solutions to address climate change. We can do so by innovation, we can be encouraging renewable energy, like solar, wind, biomass, hydro. There’s so much opportunity out there, and I’m pleased that we’re building a coalition. I have 19 co-sponsors currently from all across the ideological spectrum and geographically pretty diverse. We’re continuing to see more interest in tackling this issue for the long-term.

When you talk about common-sense solutions and promoting clean energy and innovation, how do you plan to achieve that?

Fostering conversations is going to be really important. In my district, you have to have a balance with our energy and environmental policies to make sure that they at the same time protect job creation and protect working families. The median income in my district is $45,000, so over the long-term we need to come up with a balanced approach that doesn’t significantly increase energy costs because that will have an impact, particularly on seniors in my district.

Investing in research and development, innovation—there’s lots of stuff happening in the private sector that we need to harness. I’m open to those conversations. I’m also part of the bipartisan climate caucus, which is really exciting. Again, when you tackle these big issues, I’m a proponent of doing so across the aisle. We’ve seen the challenges when it’s a one-party vote. The best way to come up with energy solutions is to do so on a bipartisan basis, but also do so engaging with our global competitors who are developing very quickly, like China and India, and making sure that they’re living up to the standards as well.