In a fiercely contested congressional race last fall, Victoria Spartz held off her Democratic challenger to become the new representative for Indiana’s 5th District. Shortly after the election, the Ukrainian immigrant chatted with us about her unique path to Capitol Hill, our broken healthcare system, and her plans for governing in these hyperpartisan times.
You first served in public office in 2017, when a caucus of Republican officials appointed you to replace retiring state Sen. Luke Kenley. Then your inaugural run in an election was one of the country’s most closely watched House races of 2020. What was it like jumping into that fire?
Well, I’ve been in politics for a decade now in a lot of different national, state, and local races. Even if I wasn’t campaigning for myself, I understood the challenges and what needed to be done. And I knew the people on the ground here, so that really helped.
How are you feeling about splitting your time between Indiana and Washington, D.C.?
I’ve worked out of town for many jobs before, so I’m used to that. You become more efficient. When you’re trying to work from home, you have kids and family and businesses, and it can be distracting. When I’m in D.C., I can concentrate on what needs to be done there. Then when I’m back in Indiana, I can concentrate on everything else. I actually like it in some ways.
The 5th District is still considered a “red” one, but the margins have tightened over the years, and Democrats like openly gay state Sen. J.D. Ford have made headway in this traditionally conservative area. Does that change the way you talk to voters here?
Yes, I think tough races like mine in 2020 are good because you have to spend a lot of time communicating with people with diverse opinions. You have to understand issues you might not typically look into. It’s not always enjoyable and can be frustrating, but I think at the end of the day, it makes you a better representative.
What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about Congress?
Some people get very upset about certain issues and say, “Fix that.” They have good intentions, but they don’t understand that our system is not set up for one person to be able to make big changes with the stroke of a pen. You have to work with a large group of people and get them on board. It takes a lot of energy. As a businessperson, you can just decide, “Here’s what my company is going to do,” and things will get moving. The political system isn’t set up that way. You have to understand how to move the needle incrementally in the right direction.
During the campaign, you pledged to represent everyone, not just the people who voted for you. A lot of politicians say that, but what does it mean, in a practical sense?
If you look at both sides of the aisle, most of us agree on what the issues are. It’s just the approaches to solutions that are different. But you have to engage and have discussions. No one disagrees that we have some challenges in the juvenile justice system, in education, in healthcare. My goal is to make sure the solutions and policies we have can be implemented. As someone who wasn’t just a policymaker, but also executed policies and helped businesses follow them, I understand the implementation part. A lot of times, policymakers have a good intent, but they don’t understand how their ideas will be implemented or who they will affect.
It’s true that many people agree on what the issues are, but not the solutions. Healthcare is a good example. There’s consensus that the system is broken, but very different ideas about how to fix it. In a divided district like the one you represent, what’s your role in solving the problem?
One of my roles is communicating the potential solutions, because most people don’t understand the complexities. They’re not experts on healthcare policy. I wasn’t either, but as a small-business owner, I knew I had a hard time getting insurance for my family. I had to work crazy hours with two tiny kids to be able to afford it. And in my work with large corporations, I saw how the growth of healthcare prices was affecting businesses. I spent three years working with people on both sides of the aisle, including people who worked on Obamacare, and I have a very different view of what healthcare solutions should be. There is a monopoly problem in that industry, and when you have a monopoly, nobody has to compete for value. So the more competition we can foster, the more value and innovation we’ll have in the system. It’s very difficult to build the political will to do something great in this area, so everyone is looking for shortcuts. And shortcuts are expensive.
In the United States, health insurance is often tied to our place of employment, so many of the people who were laid off during the pandemic also lost their health insurance. How can you expand access so people don’t lose their coverage if they leave or lose their job?
We need better individual markets. For a lot of entrepreneurs, insurance is the barrier to starting their own business. Some people stay with their employer just for that reason, so the individual market has to be fixed so it has more flexibility and choice. Right now, the only options are expensive and it’s not helping anyone.
You publicly support term limits and have promised that you will “self-limit” your time in Congress to three terms. Why?
It takes time in politics to get things done, but it’s also good for people to avoid staying too long because you lose touch with what’s happening on the ground. Plus, this job takes so much of your energy. It’s a great honor, but it takes a toll on you as a human being because it’s a huge responsibility. And there are a lot of ways I can still be involved and serve my country after my time in Congress.
You’ll be a member of the minority party in the House. What’s your plan for working with Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats to get things done?
I think I can serve my constituency regardless of party. As a policymaker, it’s definitely challenging to be in the minority, but I can still reach out and get to know people from the other side. Even during orientation, I got to know some freshmen Democrats, and we promised to meet for coffee. There are some issues we don’t agree on, but if we narrow the scope, maybe we can move the needle on the issues we do agree on. We have to be able to advance policy and try to put pressure on the other side for a debate of ideas. Let the American people decide which ideas they like more. I think right now, people are very unhappy with our legislative branch because when it doesn’t do its work, the executive and judicial branches legislate on its behalf. And voters don’t have the ability to get rid of judges or bureaucrats.
What issue do you hope Congress tackles very early this year?
We have to address the effects of the coronavirus on businesses and the healthcare system, and try to restart our economy. And we need to make sure the vaccine is going to the right places in an effective way. We gave a lot of discretion to the states, but we need to communicate with them to make sure that what we suggested is working on the ground. A lot of times, the federal government has rules and regulations, but doesn’t look at how they’re being implemented. We need that feedback.
What concerns do you have about the most recent stimulus bill?
We really need to rethink the whole unemployment benefit system in this country. We have to make sure we don’t disincentivize people from going to work. The system was originally designed for seasonal unemployment, but in some cases today, it’s serving people who would benefit from revamping their skills. Do we have the tools to help people acquire the skills for a new economy? Do we have the education programs? How can we have the right incentives in the system and the right programs to help unemployed people skill up?
That sounds like a long-term project. What about people who are in acute financial pain right now because of the fallout from COVID? Were you in favor of another round of stimulus checks to taxpayers?
The checks don’t bother me, but we need to make sure it doesn’t disincentivize work. Because if we have a system where it’s better to stay home than go back to work, that creates perverse incentives. We have to make sure we provide assistance to the people who really need it, without creating perverse incentives that hurt small businesses.
Will you encourage residents of the 5th District to get one of the COVID vaccines when they’re widely available?
That’s an individual decision. I think you need to think through what’s best for you based on your health condition and needs. Every time you take any medication, you take some risk, but you have to look at risk and reward. If you have someone in your family who could get coronavirus and be dead any time, the risk of getting the virus probably outweighs the risk of potential side effects. But ultimately, that’s a choice that people will have to make on their own. Hopefully, for those who want it, we can provide widespread access to it soon.
Will you get the vaccine?
Depending on the timing, I have no problem with it. I’ve gotten vaccinated for other things before. I don’t know when I’ll be able to get it. By the time it’s my turn, maybe we can control the virus without me doing that. But I personally don’t have a problem with a vaccine if that’s the best solution.
You grew up in Ukraine, and you’ve spoken a lot about the difficulties of living under socialism. Before we talk about that, do you have any fond memories of your childhood there?
My parents owned a little business, so I spent a lot of time with my grandma and grandpa as a child. I helped them with their farming, and we would go fishing and mushroom gathering. I have warm memories of that. Now I don’t have any time to do any fishing or mushroom gathering. I haven’t done it for many years.
How did your early life there impact you and your desire to run for office in Indiana?
If you look at every system of government on the planet, they’re generally tilted in one of two directions: Either individuals and free enterprise make the decisions, or big government does. And in socialist countries, we know what happens. The government makes a lot of decisions, it centralizes power, and individuals have less discretion. I never believed that a small group at the top should have superiority and know what’s best for you and me. Ultimately, we’re all different people and want different things. I grew up under a system where the government decided what was best for you. They would tell you what you’re going to be and how you’re going to live. I’m a huge believer in freedom. Governments should protect our rights to life, liberty, and property. As a civilized society, we have to provide some public education and safety nets. But generally, government should have a limited role.
You told a reporter during the campaign that you have very little faith in the federal government’s ability to do the right thing. What would give you faith in it?
Government, inherently, is ineffective. Government, inherently, becomes wasteful when it gets too big. Again, it has a role to play. In education, for example, we should provide the financing for schools, but that doesn’t mean we need to centralize management. We should provide more local control, more parental control, more teacher control. When the federal government does everything, it does nothing well. We need to make sure we have a good national defense system, immigration system, interstate commerce, and protection of individual rights. Those are the things we need government to be good at.
We are living in an intensely polarized time. What can you do as a new member of Congress to bring down the heat and foster some shared sense of purpose, both on Capitol Hill and back home in the 5th District?
Sometimes people aren’t as far apart as they think. We don’t get together and have conversations about the challenging issues enough. The pandemic hasn’t helped. Once we’re past this and can have more personal contact and roundtable discussions, I’d love to convene people in the district with different ideologies for some informal conversations.
You met your husband, who grew up in Hamilton County, on a train in Europe, and decided to get engaged and move to Indiana before you had ever visited this country. What would you tell your younger self about what was ahead of you, now that you’re walking the halls of Congress?
It’s extremely difficult to move to another country. You won’t have many friends at first. You’ll have to get up to speed quickly. The best thing for immigrants to do is interact with different kinds of Americans. A lot of immigrants come to this country and live in immigrant communities and hear from the same people every day. That’s a mistake. Even though it’s hard, you have to get outside of your comfort zone. I’ve worked in several professions here, and people always valued my hard work and willingness to learn. They always helped me along the way. If you believe in yourself, the people around you will empower you. Then someday, you can do the same for others.