When U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler’s son was only 6 weeks old, he had a front row seat to the powerful House Committee on Appropriations.
The congresswoman’s babysitter was taking a break. The committee was in the midst of bill markups. So, there was little choice but to bring her son.
“They don’t usually give you breaks. If you’re plowing through a bill, you just plow,” she said.
Seven months ago, when Ethan was born, Herrera Beutler became part of a unique group — she is only one of three members of Congress to give birth twice while serving, according to information from her staff. There have been 10 women who have had a child while serving. Another Republican, Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, is the only person to have three children while in office.
With Herrera Beutler’s sleeping newborn next to her in committee, the challenges of balancing a career with family weren’t lost on her.
“It just reminded me of how do families work and function? I think leave and paid leave are things we want to explore more and find a bipartisan solution. … These are things most families are dealing with,” Herrera Beutler said.
Last year, the congresswoman, who was recently re-elected to her fourth term, formed the Congressional Caucus on Maternity Care with a Democratic counterpart, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard of California.
Not long after establishing the caucus, Herrera Beutler led the charge to urge the Food and Drug Administration to add folic acid to corn-masa flour. It’s long been added to wheat and rice flours, but not to corn masa, which many Hispanic families rely on. Several families in the Yakima area reported birth defects in their babies. At least 42 died from anencephaly, according to The Seattle Times, a rate far above the national average.
The hope is that adding the folic acid could prevent the birth defect.
“That was a huge win for us,” Herrera Beutler said.
New laws approved
The caucus also championed two bills recently signed into law by President Barack Obama.
One of them will require better training of Transportation Security Administration agents to ensure they understand regulations around passengers traveling with breast milk and formula.
There have been “horrific” stories from mothers across the country who have had troubles traveling with breast milk, Herrera Beutler said.
She’s had a few incidents herself, from agents’ tossing the milk to being told it must be opened. She was particularly careful with Abigail, her firstborn, who was born premature and more susceptible to germs.
“I was pretty vigilant about it staying clean. I would stand guard and tell them, ‘you can’t open that,’ ” Herrera Beutler said.
Although parents are allowed to exceed liquid limitations when it comes to breast milk, there have been stories from across the country of inconsistent treatment that has led to stressful interactions, wasted food and missed flights.
The president also signed a caucus-backed measure creating a task force to focus on researching which medications are safe for pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers.
“Moms shouldn’t have to choose between a medical condition she may have, or a mental health issue, and the health of her pregnancy,” Herrera Beutler said. “This figures out where the gaps are, both in research and practice, and what they need to do to get to the next step of development for safe medications.”
A lot of the issues the caucus has tackled in its first year are pretty straightforward, Herrera Beutler said. When the issue comes up, many members of Congress have expressed surprise it hasn’t been addressed before.
“Once people see it’s a great idea, they fly through, but like anything in Congress, someone has to get the idea bubbled up to the top. It’s getting more attention now that some of us have been pregnant in the last couple of years. I’ve brought my babies to the floor. It’s top of mind,” she said.
It wasn’t that long ago, after all, when the federal government didn’t even research women’s health issues. It wasn’t until 1990 that the Office of Research on Women’s Health was created at the federal level.
Before, testing and research was done on men and the federal government assumed women were the same as men, simply smaller versions.
“It took women who served in Congress at the time to demand women’s health concerns be looked at, separately and differently and appropriately,” said Debbie Walsh, director of Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Policy from experience
Women are only about 19 percent of Congress.
“Much of policy is driven out of personal experience,” Walsh said. “I think that’s the reason we talk about the value of diversity in our legislative institutions. Those different lived experiences enrich the policy agenda and it makes it more reflective of the needs of citizens.”
Herrera Beutler said she’s hoping the maternity caucus, which now has 16 members, will continue to grow.
The U.S. still has the highest infant mortality rate among developed countries, she said. And the caucus has a list of priorities to work on, including paid parental leave.
“Twenty five or 30 years ago, it was fine to have one breadwinner. Now, a lot of people have to have two working parents. Paid leave needs to be part of the modernized workplace in a way that doesn’t overburden small businesses,” Herrera Beutler said.
Later in the conversation, with her two children outside the room where she was chatting, both in desperate need of naps, Herrera Beutler added, “I’m a better lawmaker because I’ve had this experience of kids and a growing family.”