[This story was originally published in the February 11 edition of HUMAN EVENTS newspaper.]
Kristi Noem has a unique position in Congress as a member of both the influential freshman class and the powerful House leadership.
Noem was chosen by her 86 fellow freshmen to make sure their voices are heard inside the small House Republican leadership. The South Dakota Republican bridges the largest freshmen that came to change Washington and the so-called establishment leaders who are trying to enact their legislative agenda.
The Republican House leadership is a small and powerful group of 12, which includes Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.), Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Tex.), and the two freshmen elected by their class, Noem and Tim Scott (S.C.).
The leadership meets weekly to determine its legislative agenda, strategic plan, and work through problems in the various conference factions that would provide roadblocks to getting votes.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Noem looked confident and comfortable as she walked with the other Republican leaders departing the Speaker’s office. She shuffled the Diet Coke, papers, and Blackberry she carried herself before heading outside to go back to her office across the street. Noem was wearing black pants, an unstructured gray jacket, and a ruffled peach blouse.
Noem was also wearing cowboy boots. The long halls of Congress are marble, so finding comfortable shoes is a frequent topic of conversation. She said that after her first week on Capitol Hill, her feet hurt so much that she asked her press secretary for advice
“Do you think I could wear cowboy boots out here?” she asked her aide. “He said ‘sure’. But I said, ‘I don’t see anybody else wearing cowboy boots.’” In the end, Noem decided to buck conservative Washington and wear her regular footwear. “I usually wear them on the days that I travel. If you’re from South Dakota, it works.”
When asked if she would pull up her pants leg a little to see the top of the black boots, Noem paused a moment. She then shyly pulled up her cuff to expose cowboy boots made of bright turquoise leather with a cactus design scrolled up the side.
(She bought the boots at Wall Drug in South Dakota, a small drugstore founded in 1931 that is now a big tourist stop.)
The Freshmen Class Leader
Noem says that her fellow South Dakota Republican in Congress, Sen. John Thune, encouraged her to seek a leadership position. After the election, she called Boehner, Cantor, and McCarthy to line up their support for her to run for a position. She decided to run for freshman representative because she thought the job would have the most impact.
“I wasn’t really interested in filling a position that was more of a figurehead. If I was going to serve in a leadership position, I wanted to do something that would help me be more effective, but also help the freshman class stay united as a group,” she said.
The huge Republican freshman class, which came to Washington this year in a wave after the midterm elections, wields enormous power. When the members convened together for the first time at the November freshmen orientation, they decided that the size of their class warranted two representatives at the leadership table. Boehner granted their request, and the class elected Noem and Scott to represent them.
Freshman Rep. Steve Stivers (R.-Ohio) was supposed to nominate Noem for the election. “I had my nominating speech for her ready, but in the end, no one ran against her. I helped slam the vote shut and said, ‘Let’s elect Kristi and Tim Scott by acclimation,’ which we did.”
“I think the fact that no one was willing to run against her speaks volumes,” Stivers told HUMAN EVENTS. “The message she was talking about is exactly the message I want to come from Washington: Change business as usual, make government more effective, listen to our constituents, and help make sure we have a constitutional republic again.”
Noem’s role is to be a bridge between the 87 energetic freshmen and the 12 established leaders. She and Scott spend a lot of time calling and meeting with the freshmen so that they can “have a sense of what the freshman class is feeling before we go to that leadership table, so we can speak with a unified voice.”
She keeps in close contact with the freshmen to know what they are thinking and saying. She has all of their cell phone numbers programmed into her Blackberry and calls them often. Noem also talks to her fellow freshmen when they are together on the House floor for votes, in committee meetings, and walking back and forth between votes and meetings.
“All of these people were elected to represent their districts,” said Noem of her fellow freshmen. “So they need to come up here and fight for what they believe is right, to talk about what they think is important, and what their priorities are.”
How does she keep the rowdy, energetic freshmen organized? She emphasizes that they focus on the big picture and long-term goals.
“The only thing that I offer to them is that we keep our eye on the ball. We can talk all we want to, but it’s a serious situation. We need to accomplish something. We need to pass a budget. We need to cut our spending,” Noem said.
“We need to look down the road as well,” she added. “We need to make sure that we’re smart in how we are proposing this, so that we can actually accomplish our goal.”
Noem believes that the House leaders understand what is driving the freshmen this year.
“That’s one thing that we’ve been able to provide—that reminder that we didn’t come here to fall into line. We came here to change how Washington, D.C., does business,” she said.
“They appreciate just how serious the freshmen are. These freshmen are just normal, everyday people running their businesses, living in their communities,” she pointed out. “They have it fresh in their minds exactly what the people in this country want us to do.”
Noem has also found so far that the leaders are open to hearing from them. “This leadership team really does want to hear from us, the freshmen liaisons. They are letting us get into the process too,” she said.
Noem gets high marks from her fellow freshmen for representing them well so far.
“Kristi is doing a great job. She’s constantly soliciting opinions from the members of the freshman class and taking those back to the leadership table. She’s very open, and members don’t hesitate to express their thoughts to her. Kristi is the kind of person people feel comfortable around,” freshmen Rep. Cory Gardner (R.-Colo.) told HUMAN EVENTS.
Stivers says that Noem’s greatest achievement so far has been getting so many freshmen assigned to the most important committees
“Every major committee has representation from the freshmen class, which is a testament to Kristi and Tim Scott at the leadership table,” Stivers said. “Kristi was an effective advocate so that we were able to serve on committees that freshmen don’t typically serve on.”
As a former state representative, Noem also sees her job as helping the freshmen understand the legislative process.
“We have a freshmen class that has a lot of members that have never held public office before,” she said. “The legislative process is a difficult thing to grasp, and to have the patience to work through it, and be smart about how to approach it, if you haven’t been through it.”
As for the House leadership, it already values the information Noem can bring to the table.
“Kristi has a strong backbone. She knows what she believes and why,” Boehner told HUMAN EVENTS. “She’s been a substantive member of the leadership team so far and I expect even more good things from her in the future.”
“Kristi is an ideal representative at the leadership table from the freshman class,” McCarthy said to HUMAN EVENTS. “Her enthusiasm, experience, and ideas are having a significant impact on the House Republican Conference.”
This 2010 freshman class came to Washington with one primary goal: Cut the out-of-control government spending. Its first major opportunity to cut spending will be this week when the House votes on a new Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government for the remainder of this fiscal year, from March 4 through September 30.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.) filed a budget limit for the CR to cut government spending by $32 billion for Fiscal Year 2011. This baseline CR would be the largest one-time discretionary spending cut in history, but has already created internal GOP controversy because it falls short of the expected cuts.
The Republicans promised during the midterm elections campaign season that, if given control of the House, they would immediately cut government spending back to 2008 levels. However, Ryan’s budget sets discretionary spending at $42 billion higher than FY 2008.
Also in their “Pledge to America”, the House GOP promised to enact spending cuts that would be “at least $100 billion in the first year alone.” While Ryan’s budget would cut a whopping $32 billion, it is far less than the promised $100 billion cut.
The amount of spending cuts in the final CR will not be known until the vote, which is planned for February 17. The House is scheduled to spend three days debating the bill, during which the leadership expects and encourages amendments to be brought to the floor to further cut spending. The final CR, though, will still have to pass a Democratic Senate and be signed by President Obama.
Asked about the spending cuts, Noem walked a careful line between representing both the freshmen and the leadership.
“What Paul Ryan has offered is a good starting point. The goal within this CR is that we’re going to get spending levels back to ’08 pre-bailout, pre-stimulus levels,” she said, echoing the words of other leaders. “From there, we’ll be able to offer more amendments, and we’ll be able to add more spending cuts.”
Noem explained the $100 billion cut issue in the same way that the rest of the leadership has, by saying that the cuts would be over a 12-month period, not the fiscal year. “I think that we are following through on what was in the ‘Pledge to America’. When you’re looking at what is essentially what’s left of this fiscal year, and you pro-rate it, it’s $100 billion,” she said.
But Noem does not toe the leadership line when asked about the amounts of cuts in the CR, however. “Could it be more? Absolutely,” she said. “There will be discussions throughout the year, and there will be more cuts that will be offered by the Congress.”
“We are in a tough, serious fiscal situation. And if we didn’t come in here and begin offering some major spending cuts, then we wouldn’t be doing what the American people told us to do this last election cycle,” Noem said.
Asked about other areas where spending could be cut this year, Noem said, “We certainly need to have conversations about every area of our government spending.”
She said that “our entitlement programs are broke,” and serious reforms must be dealt with this year.
“The frustrating thing is that we’re still caught up in the politics of all this. And nobody wants to take responsibility for fixing the problem,” Noem said. “We need to make sure that we are willing to sit down at the table and offer some real solutions and have that discussion.”
The recent years of the Democrats spending on bailouts, “stimulus,” and ObamaCare have increased the budget deficit so quickly that the United States is on course to break the statutory debt ceiling. At some point in March, the nation’s debt will hit the current limit of $14.3 trillion, so Congress will have to decide whether it will raise the debt ceiling again.
Noem views the debt ceiling as an opportunity to do more than short-term spending cuts, but to make serious budget reforms.
“For me to support that vote, it’s going to have to be tied to budget reforms that change the way we spend our dollars and how Washington, D.C., does business. It won’t just be a one-time spending cut. I’m looking for real reforms to take place to make sure that we don’t get put in this situation in the near future.”
On taxes, Noem wants to see real reform. “We need to simplify our tax code. We need to make sure that it’s not too cumbersome for people to be able to comply with. And that they don’t end up spending more money trying to file their taxes than they do actually paying in,” she said.
Last month after listening to her first State of the Union speech as a member of Congress, Noem told HUMAN EVENTS that Obama “gave a lot of insight into his goals to simplify the tax code. We’ll definitely take him up on that.”
But since the speech, Noem questions whether real reform can be achieved in the current political situation. “As much as we talk about having new leadership in the House, we still have to deal with the Senate that is controlled by the Democratic Party, and the President who has shown a lack of desire to address our tax code,” she said.
She noted also that the President called for lowering the corporate income tax, but “ultimately for the next two years, the House can’t accomplish a lot without his willingness to tackle that problem.”
On ObamaCare, Noem said that her constituents were “very disappointed” that full repeal failed in the Senate. “I don’t think it was shocking that it didn’t pass. I think people appreciate the fact that they voted, and that we know now where all those senators stand.”
Noem said that the House will work to defund and replace as much of ObamaCare as possible, under the limits of the senate and President.
“When we’re spending ourselves further and further into debt, we’ll make sure that we’re not spending money to implement a program that’s going to be hard on our families and small businesses and do nothing to improve health care,” Noem said.
To replace the unpopular health care law, Noem said that the House will “address it piece by piece.” She hopes to “address some areas that we think people have some ability to actually be covered with health care insurance at a lower rate than what essentially this bill did.”
“It’s unfortunate that we are trying to go out there and attack this huge piece of legislation piece by piece,” said Noem. “It would have been better to repeal the entire thing, and really come back in with real health care reform that would have made a difference.”
Small Business Owner and Farmer
Noem was one of four kids raised on a farm in rural Hamlin County in northeastern South Dakota. The medium-sized farm and ranch operation was a successful small business, and Noem always planned to work on the farm after college.
She wanted to go to Missouri College, she said, but her senior year in high school, she was told that she had to go to Northern State University. Asked what she meant by that, she looked at me sideways, and said, “This is kinda embarrassing.”
Pressed for details, Noem finally confessed: “I was the South Dakota Snow Queen.”
The beauty pageant was a statewide competition for the winners from 50 high schools. The winner was required to go to school in-state. Asked her talent, she said there was no competition. Was there a bathing suit competition? “No!” Noem replied, laughing.
While Noem was in college, her father was killed suddenly in a farming accident. “I had hoped that I would be able to farm with him,” she said. “But when my dad passed away, it kind of changed everything.”
At 22, she was forced to drop out of college in order to take over the farm. “We didn’t really have anyone else there who could stay and run the farm. My older brother and sister weren’t living in the state, and my younger brother was still in high school,” she explained.
Noem, who had already married Bryon Noem, moved home and took over the farm and ranch business. She was a success as a businesswoman, and over the years, all her siblings and their families moved back to the farm and helped her manage and grow it. An avid hunter, Noem added a hunting lodge to the operation, which she continues to manage.
How does being a small-business owner help her to do her job in Congress?
“I think the knowledge about how legislation really affects small businesses is extremely valuable. If you haven’t run a small business, then you don’t have this kind of knowledge about how a regulation passed or taxes increased affects your bottom line,” said Noem.
“If you recognize that every new regulation takes that much more time to comply with, requires that many more employees, then it really gives you that foundational basis to make those decisions,” she added.
From Farmer to Congress
As her siblings took over a larger share of the farm management, Noem started serving in various public service positions and associations. In 2006, she won a seat in the South Dakota House of Representatives. She quickly moved up the ranks in the statehouse and was elected assistant majority leader in her second term.
In 2010, Noem ran against two established politicians in the Republican primary for Congress. After a surprise victory in that race, she launched a tough campaign against the incumbent Democrat, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. The race was neck-and-neck, and in the end, Noem won by 48% to 45% of the vote.
Noem serves on two committees in Congress that have oversight on issues important to South Dakota and small businesses: the Committee on Natural Resources and the Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Her objectives for her home state mostly center of freeing up other small-business owners and farmers from government regulations.
“I hear about cutting the regulations every day in South Dakota,” she said. “People are imploring me that complying with federal regulations is taking up their time, taking up their dollars. And they are trying to comply, even when they don’t see a purpose to a lot of it.”
She said that even more than spending cuts, business owners want deregulation. “From the everyday person on the street, they recognize the need to cut spending and get it under control. But for the people who are the job creators, they truly are struggling with these overwhelming regulations that have come out under this administration.”
In South Dakota, she said, regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency are particularly onerous. “The EPA is coming in and even regulating dust,” said Noem. “A lot of regulations that are being proposed make it extremely difficult for South Dakota businesses.”
Noem always has one of her (cowboy-boot-wearing) feet in Washington and one at home in South Dakota. She commutes every week between the farm and Washington.
Noem’s husband owns and manages an insurance agency, so he stays in South Dakota when she travels. The Noems have three children at home, Kassidy, 16, Kennedy, 13, and Booker, 8.
Because all of her siblings live with their families on their farm, they pitch in to help with the kids when she is in Washington during the week. Her two sisters-in-law and sister share in shuttling the kids to school and activities, though her kids often just ride horses back and forth to their cousins’ houses.
How does being a mother affect her views in Congress?
“Well, I think you learn to multitask first of all and to prioritize your time,” she said. “And when you have children, you don’t have the opportunity to put yourself first. You usually always come behind them. I think that’s a good learning ground for anyone who’s in Congress to recognize, because we should never come first. The government is here to serve the people and not the other way around.”
Noem has to travel up to eight hours to commute from the farm to Washington . She usually leaves her home at 5 a.m. to make the first flight, has a two-hour layover “if there’s no de-icing,” and a second flight to D.C. She does it all over again at the end of the week.
She said that she uses the travel time to catch up on her congressional reading and to work on her college courses. Noem is finishing her final year of college now, 17 years after having to drop out to take over the farm after her father’s sudden death. She has her laptop with her all the time to complete her course work, and plans to get her degree “before the next election.”
Her college major? Political science, of course. She will likely get a 4.0.