Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) hails from Long Island and previously served two terms in the New York state Senate before defeating incumbent Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY) last fall. Prior to embarking on a political career, however, he served four years of active duty service in the United States Army. Today, he is happily married with two children and continues to serve as a Major in the U.S. Army Reserves.
Zeldin, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2008, is one of several freshmen representatives to watch this session. But why, I asked him, did he feel compelled to run for federal office in 2014? Couldn’t he get more done for his constituents as a rising star in the New York state Senate?
He tells me that he ultimately decided to jump into the race for one simple reason: His growing alarm and disappointment with the gridlock in Washington.
“There’s a reason why so many Americans are so apathetic that they don’t even vote,” he lamented. “Those frustrations and emotions I was feeling as well. When you get frustrated, you want to do as much as possible to hopefully help make a difference. Running for office last year successfully gave me the opportunity to be in Washington this year and be part of positive change.”
Zeldin is refreshingly optimistic and an able spokesman for conservatism. At just 35 years old and the only Jewish Republican in the House of Representatives, he also represents a younger and more diverse faction of the party. But he didn’t suffer vicious personal attack ads during the campaign to sit on his hands for the next two years, of course. His biggest priorities are getting the federal government back up and running—“we need to start passing budgets again,” he emphasized—and addressing an issue that hits close to home: Caring for our veterans.
“I serve on three committees,” he explained: “The Transportation Infrastructure Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee, and the Veterans Affairs Committee. I’m also co-chairing the House Republican-Israel caucus. Whether it’s [serving on] those committees—and certainly on a veterans front, helping our vets with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury, [and] reducing the back-log of disability claims and appeals—[t]here’s so many ways to help move the needle in the right direction.”
One way Zeldin is moving the needle in the right direction is by introducing new legislation. He’s already co-sponsored the Hire More Veterans Act, which strips language from Obamacare counting veterans (who receive health insurance coverage already) toward the 50-person employer mandate tax. This would essentially allow employers to hire veterans full-time without crossing this threshold and thus triggering burdensome new costs. It is a bill he believes all members of Congress should support.
“It’s something that should never have been written into Obamacare in the first place,” he added, referring to the job-killing provision. He argued that fixing broken laws and helping veterans get ahead is “a win-win."
Meanwhile, he is also confident that under Republican-control, the upper chamber will finally begin taking up legislation perennially ignored by the Senate majority leader last session. One bill in particular, the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which he also cosponsored, tops the list.
“There are almost 400 bills that were passed the House that were considered dead on arrival in the Senate when Harry Reid was in charge,” Zeldin explains. “And as a result of last November's elections, there has been a shift in the balance of power. Bills like this instead of being dead on arrival—hopefully—will come to the floor for a vote and be passed by the Senate.”
“A lot happens in Congress through amendments and there’s been more amendments passed in the Senate so far this month [January] than all of last year combined,” he added. “It’s just a different dynamic.”
This new dynamic provides a ray of hope for Americans frustrated by congressional inaction. Nevertheless, despite his obvious frustrations with years of paralysis in Washington, he laments the fact that politicians are still held in exceedingly low esteem.
“It’s unfortunate that more positive work to improve our country isn’t reported on more widely by the media,” he said. “I wish that the American public knew just how many good members of the House and Senate are down here. It might sell a newspaper when a member of Congress has to resign. But when there’s a member out there fighting hard, is principled, [and] the public just doesn’t know they exist, that’s unfortunate.”
“There are times when you can be on the floor of the New York state Senate—or the floor of the House of Representatives—and you’re fighting hard to get a good piece of legislation passed,” he went on to say excitedly. “And you go back to your district and you’re attending a meeting for some local organization and they’re focused on a specific issue and they just have no idea you were advocating for that particular cause.”
Zeldin acknowledged Americans work long hours and sometimes multiple jobs. Thus, they can’t always watch floor debates or closely follow or monitor the progress of important legislation. Nonetheless, this isn’t deterring him from fighting for his constituents by helping to pass smart, common sense legislation that will fix real problems. Even if the odds are long, he said, members have a responsibility to fight for what they believe in.
“We have to try,” he emphasized. “There's a time for government and a time for politics. The elections are over. Now it’s time to govern and make a positive difference.”