Out of the spotlight, Pennsylvania Congresswoman Susan Wild sidesteps Capitol Hill drama, so far
Congresswoman Susan Wild’s colleagues knew she was a former litigator, but most hadn’t seen her perform under pressure until one March afternoon.
The freshman Lehigh Valley lawmaker was shepherding a bill on gender pay equity for Democrats on the U.S. House floor. During the debate, Alabama Rep. Bradley Byrne, a Republican, called up an amendment Wild warned would make a key section of the bill ambiguous.
Byrne told her, in so many words, she didn’t know what she was talking about.
“Mr. Chairman, I have great respect for the lady,” Byrne said. “I don’t think she understands what that language actually means."
Byrne’s remarks quickly boomeranged around social media, but Wild appeared unruffled. She rebutted him several times over the technical aspects of how employers would or wouldn’t be able justify a pay difference between men and women. Byrne’s amendment ultimately failed.
Afterward, Wild posted on social media that it wasn’t the first time “someone has mansplained equal pay to me.”
The pay-equity debate was a rare instance during her short tenure so far on Capitol Hill in which Wild has found herself in the spotlight. And colleagues noticed, telling The Morning Call they were impressed by how she handled herself off-the-cuff that day.
“She’s one tough lady,” said U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, a Florida Democrat who has mentored Wild and other female House Democrats. “She’s small in stature, but she’s got a very big backbone.”
In an interview Wednesday in her Capitol Hill office, Wild said she’s had plenty to learn in her new job as a legislator, but her legal background means that skills like understanding a statute and arguing a position already are comfortable and familiar.
“My two favorite places are committee hearings and the House floor, especially if there is good debate going on,” Wild said, pausing to slightly rephrase: “Especially if I get to debate — that’s my favorite.”
Part of a crowded cohort of rookie lawmakers, Wild has eschewed the controversial investigations and other hot-button topics that have boosted the profiles of other freshmen, choosing to spend much of her time on issues like education, workers rights and health care.
So far, she has not joined the growing calls to begin impeachment proceedingsagainst the president, instead saying she wants to hear from the committees that would take initial steps on such an inquiry.
Two fellow Pennsylvania freshmen — Democratic Reps. Madeleine Dean of Montgomery County and Mary Gay Scanlon of Delaware County — are on the House Judiciary panel, providing them national attention at the epicenter of the drama between the Trump administration and Congress.
Wild’s committees are removed from the oversight clashes between the White House and Congress. She’s on the Education and Labor Committee, the Foreign Affairs panel, and the Ethics Committee. Wild has emphasized that her focus is on policy debates, not palace intrigue.
“We’re not all about drama," Wild said during a recent panel discussion in Allentown. “There have been a lot of bills passed in Congress this year that really need to make it to the Senate floor, that will affect the lives of everyday working Americans.”
Veteran legislators and political observers say that’s a smart approach for learning Capitol Hill, and a safer one as she speeds toward her first reelection race in a competitive district — the type that Democrats need to hold on to if they want to maintain a majority in the U.S. House.
“She’s in one of the most 50-50, flip-of-the-coin districts in the country, and someone who gives me real confidence that she’s the kind of member who can hold that seat,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Philadelphia Democrat representing the 2nd District.
Wild won two elections in November: the full two-year term that began in January, but also the special election to finish out the term of Republican former Congressman Charlie Dent, who retired early in May 2018.
Now halfway through her first year in office, Wild has introduced nine bills and had three of her bills pass the House as part of broad pieces of legislation.
She also successfully pushed for a $300 million funding boost for the Social Security Administration, which was tucked into a bill expected to clear the House this week. The new money is intended to reduce lengthy wait times in determining if someone can receive disability benefits.
One of Wild’s House-approved measures would require every state to offer early voting and was included in HR 1, the wide-ranging government ethics and elections bill that House Democrats made their first priority after taking control of the chamber.
Another she worked on with a fellow Pennsylvanian, Republican U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, seeks to improve laws on child abuse reporting, calling for the Department of Health and Human Services to study mandatory reporting laws to find the most effective ways to encourage people to report abuse.
Wild highlighted the bipartisan vote on her proposal to block the administration from making any regulatory changes that would cause health care premiums to rise. While the bill overall cleared the House on a nearly party-line vote, her amendment drew support from 78 Republicans.
“I knew it was going to be good," Wild said. "I didn’t think it was going to be that good.”
The Lehigh Valley lawmaker says she’s found Republicans who have been interested in working across the aisle, and intends to reach out to others who backed her measure on preventing premium increases to see if there are other potential areas for collaboration.
“We can’t always just be turning to Brian Fitzpatrick,” Wild said, referring to the Bucks County Republican who has repeatedly voted with Democrats this session. “There are people that I think have some degree of reasonableness that I can work with, and I’d like to identify who they are.”
She says she has particularly enjoyed her work on the Education and Labor Committee, which has ranged from discussions on segregated schools to the crisis over multiemployer pension systems, in which pension funds made up of multiple companies in an industry are at risk of running out of money.
The panel’s chairman, Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, says Wild is someone they turn to for an instant analysis on the potential ramifications of a proposed change, praising her ability to pinpoint how changes in a statute might play out in legal cases, affecting who is or is not protected by a law.
The three bills she’s gotten out of the House so far is a different pace than what she experienced in the private sector. While she worries that the swirling drama of investigations may be a drag on congressional action, Wild says it’s tough as a freshman to gauge if that’s the case.
One clear challenge is getting a bill to the president’s desk in today’s polarized era. The Republican-controlled Senate has been unenthusiastic about voting on the bills coming over from the Democratic-controlled House.
Wild finds that frustrating. Even if some wouldn’t pass, she argues, they “at least deserve a vote.”