As a first-term Democrat, serving in a Republican-led Congress in an era of intense partisan gridlock, Ann Kuster probably wasn’t going to accomplish a lot after being elected in 2012.
And in the four years since, Kuster has had an unremarkable run in Washington, by at least one measure: Of the 29 bills she’s introduced, just one - to rename an air traffic control tower in Nashua – was signed into law.
Then again, House Democrats on the whole haven’t had many legislative achievements since Republicans took over Congress in 2010. But according to Kuster, there’s more to her record over the last four years than meets the eye.
“I’m certainly not focused on having my name first on a bill,” she said, “and I think anybody who approaches it that way has a misconception of how you can be effective in Congress.”
Kuster’s opponent, former state Rep. Jim Lawrence, hasn’t made her record an issue during the campaign, aside from criticizing her support for the Affordable Care Act. Meanwhile, polls give Kuster a substantial lead over Lawrence, who has been dogged by stories about his consulting business, unpaid property taxes and, most recently, whether he's kept up with court-ordered child support.
For her part, Kuster has declined to pile on Lawrence, preferring to highlight her work “behind the scenes” as a member of the House Veterans Affairs and Agriculture committees.
“We’re not the party that’s in control of the [House] schedule and the calendar, so many of the bills I’ve worked on, it makes sense for the Republican to take the lead or it makes sense to have one of my colleagues who is senior to me to do it,” she said. “But I do the legwork to get the job done.”
A focus on drug policy
According to GovTrack.us, which tracks legislation and votes in Congress, Kuster is more willing to work across party lines than most House Democrats. Nearly 40 percent of the 867 bills she co-sponsored since taking office were introduced by Republicans. Fewer than 20 of those bills eventually landed on President Obama’s desk, though most of those were largely ceremonial.
But Kuster also supported Republican-led efforts to reauthorize parts of the Patriot Act. That bill - the USA Freedom Act - was opposed by New Hampshire’s other member of the House, Republican Frank Guinta. She was also a vocal supporter of a Republican bill, signed by the President in October, that creates a bill of rights for victims of sexual assault.
Kuster’s advocacy included comments on the House floor in which she revealed she had been sexually assaulted in college and again when she was a legislative aide on Capitol Hill.
But if there's one issue that sets Kuster apart from other backbenchers in Congress, it's her work on the heroin and opioid crisis.
A year ago, Kuster and Guinta formed The Bipartisan Task Force to Combat the Heroin Epidemic. The panel, which has grown to include 85 lawmakers, put forward a package of nearly 20 bills aimed at improving physician prescribing practices, expanding addiction treatment and reforming sentencing laws for drug offenses.
Kuster’s name was attached to just a handful of those bills, but she worked to promote the task force’s proposals, shuttling back and forth between Washington and New Hampshire to gather support. She hosted hearings on Capitol Hill to collect testimony from physicians, advocates and families affected by substance abuse, as well as a series of briefings back home that brought together treatment experts, local elected officials and law enforcement.
Her work on the issue led to Kuster’s selection to the conference committee that worked out the final version of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, or CARA. Kuster declined to sign off on the final version of the landmark legislation - as did every other Democrat on the committee - because it did not include funding.
But when it came time for the full House to vote on the bill, said Andrew Siddons, a Washington reporter who covers drug issues for Roll Call, Kuster was prepared to rally her colleagues. On the eve of the full House vote on CARA, Siddon said he asked Kuster about rumors that Democrats might vote against the bill, threatening its chances in the Senate.
“She seemed to have a sincere interest in making sure that folks in the party would ultimately support it,” Siddons said. “And they did, but she seemed genuinely concerned with the political game that some in the Democratic leadership were playing ahead of the vote.”
President Obama signed CARA - the first major drug-treatment and -prevention legislation enacted by Congress in more than 40 years - in August.
Kuster said many of the measures included in the bill “wouldn’t have happened had we not brought the task force together and educated our colleagues about the causes of the heroin epidemic and what steps we need to take to change laws and policy.”
Other priorities to come
Congress still has plenty of work to do on the opioid issue, Kuster said. She’s confident lawmakers will appropriate at least $600 million to fund programs under the bill before the end of the year, although she will continue to urge her colleagues to meet President Obama’s request for $1 billion.
Kuster will also try to advance a bill she introduced to launch a pilot project to reduce veterans’ reliance on opioids. A similar program has been in place at the White River Junction VA Medical Center, where opioid prescriptions are down 50 percent, she said.
“My bill will extend that to vets around the country, then get the research to demonstrate to the medical community the need to change their approach to pain management and use less opioid medication,” she said.
Kuster supports Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, and she said she looks forward to working with a “President” Clinton on paid family leave, closing the pay gap between men and women and expanding access to affordable child care. Unless Democrats reclaim control the House, getting those measures passed will likely require more behind the scenes work. But Kuster said she’s already shown constituents that she can be effective, no matter who’s in charge.
“I’m not worried about voters understanding this,” she said. “It’s a very bipartisan district - a purple district. And I promised when I ran that I would bring people together to get things done, and that’s what I have done.”