Some people anticipate that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe. v. Wade this past summer will galvanize voters to turn out for Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections.
This could help Democrats hold on to their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. But Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), who is on the ballot herself in the upcoming election, isn’t so sure this is how it’s going to play out.
“I think that one of the things that happened when Dobbs was decided, the narrative was sort of like, abortion is thrown to the states. And we live in such a polarized environment, where state laws are so different, that people are like, ‘Well, I’m in California, so I’m good.”
But the federal legislative branch is also facing a number of internal, structural problems that don’t encourage public trust, Porter candidly told the audience at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit on Wednesday. “It’s been tough being in Congress. I was a law professor…Now I have the same popularity as the American cockroach. They’ve done polls. Congresspeople and cockroaches have the same popularity.”
So how do you fix both public perception and the internal dysfunction of this storied institution? It’s achievable, Porter said. “I believe in it, and so I feel like I have a duty to try to make it better and to fix it,” she explained.
It might, however, just start with getting smartphones into the hands of more of her colleagues. “There is still a vibrant informal flip phone caucus in Congress,” Porter joked.
Porter has said in the past that if Congress had a motto, it would likely be something like: “Solving yesterday’s problems tomorrow, maybe.” All joking aside, Porter said she sees part of her duty as a member of Congress to step back from the policymaking of the moment, or the controversy of the moment, and ask herself and those around her about what’s happening in this institution—what’s working and what’s not?
One example of this is congressional committees. “We have no committee that is squarely dedicated to technology,” Porter said. “That’s scattered among about three or four different committees, even as it has been the dominant force reshaping our society and our economy now for like 40 years.”
Another issue is what Porter calls the “Did you know?” mentality that is pervasive in Congress. “So you’re standing on the House floor, there’s a lot of pushing and shoving. It’s kind of like a bad cocktail party vibe, where everyone’s trying to get to the bar, except the bar is just the ability to vote,” she said. And while waiting, she regularly hears colleagues ask the same question.
“‘Did you know that childcare costs more than college?’ Yes. ‘Did you know that that thinking is $8 a pound?’ Yes,” Porter said to laughs from the audience. “These people have just discovered these problems. I encounter them every minute of every day, just because of who I am and the life that I lead.”
But closing the gap between the issues everyday Americans face and when Congress “discovers” them is worth focusing on. “When we can close that, it really helps us spring into action faster,” Porter said.
The makeup of lawmakers also could use some work, Porter admitted, noting she’s the only single mom left in the House at the moment. “I do think that representation matters. I think we have a lot of diversity in our Congress. It has improved a lot,” she said. But there are still aspects of diversity that Congress is lacking, particularly around generational diversity.
“We need more younger voices, more early-career voices,” Porter said. “We need that in the Democratic Party, by the way, more so even than the Republican Party, actually.”
When Porter got to Congress four years ago, she said she thought Republicans were the party of “old, rich white men.” Turns out, only the white man part was correct. “Democrats actually have a big problem with economic diversity, and with age diversity, and generational diversity, just as much as Republicans,” Porter said. And that’s a problem, she explained, because lawmakers can’t solve what they can’t see.
Congress also needs to address its own polarization, Porter said. There’s common ground among the American people on issues ranging from abortion, to gun safety and gun violence protection measures, to bans on congressional stock trading. “What there’s not,” she said, “is very much common ground amongst the people who are sent to Washington. And that problem has gotten markedly worse, even in the four years I’ve been in Washington, and I fear it’s going to get even worse going forward,” Porter noted. “What you see in Washington is more extreme than what you see on the ground amongst the American people, in terms of middle ground.”
Part of this issue stems from gerrymandering, Porter said. “When you pack Republicans—often whiter, wealthier, whatever the demographic is—into one district, and you pack other people into another, what you end up doing is electing a very, very strong, progressive liberal and a very strong conservative Republican. And then the common ground disappears,” she said. It’s worth noting that Porter is running for reelection in a newly redrawn California district.
Whether or not she gets reelected in November, Porter said she doesn’t believe her time in public service is done—whatever that path may take. When asked what her ambitions are for the future, Porter deflected a bit. “I mean, today they went toward getting here on time,” Porter joked.
“I will say this: I try not to foreclose opportunities to myself, because I have found in my life, particularly as a woman, as someone who grew up in a rural area, as someone who’s not a person of wealth—some doors get closed in my face,” Porter said. “So I’m not going to go pulling the other ones closed.”