By Ashley Hackett
2021 has been a dynamic year for Congress: The year began with an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol; lawmakers passed the American Rescue Plan to stimulate the economy and provide aid to those in need during the COVID-19 pandemic; the U.S. pulled out of 20 years of military involvement in Afghanistan; the delta and omicron variants surged; and an infrastructure bill passed, after years of failures.
Members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation were part of all of those events and more, and other Minnesotans played a big role in influencing national policy. Although the options are nearly endless, here are five major moments where Minnesotans made a difference at a national level this year.
1. The Minnesotans in the White House
Several Minnesotans have made their way into one of the most powerful offices in the world this year. Stillwater native Denis McDonough is Biden’s secretary of Veterans Affairs. Jake Sullivan, a graduate of Southwest High School in Minneapolis, is national security adviser.
Sullivan was a key player in the national security policy surrounding the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan this summer, while he was also responsible for leading U.S. policy on cyberattacks and an earthquake in Haiti. The New York Times called him a “figure of fascination and schadenfreude.”
Sullivan’s younger brother, Tom Sullivan, is also fairly high-up in the government: Tom serves as deputy chief of staff for policy at the State Department. And the brothers’ spouses, Rose Sullivan and Maggie Goodlander, also hold senior positions at the Health and Human Services Department and the Justice Department, respectively.
The family was intertwined in Klobuchar’s political life, too: At various points from 2007 to 2015, Jake was the senator’s chief counsel, Tom was her deputy chief of staff and Rose served as her chief of staff. Talk about a Minnesota political power family.
2. Sen. Klobuchar helped local entertainment venues with the save our stages act
When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered entertainment venues like First Avenue and the Ordway Center for Performing Arts in 2020 and the pandemic continued to rage in 2021, many businesses feared that they’d be gone for good.
After speaking with First Avenue president and CEO Dana Frank, Sen. Amy Klobuchar said she decided to introduce the Save Our Stages Act, which established the Shuttered Venue Operator Grant program. The program included $16 billion in grants to venues like concert halls, movie theaters and museums that were forced to close during the pandemic. The Save Our Stages Act was bundled into a coronavirus relief package that passed in January, and the program received additional funding through the American Rescue Plan that passed in the spring.
The distribution of the funds did not go as smoothly as many would have liked — the Small Business Administration, which was responsible for getting money in the hands of business owners, was overwhelmed by demand and the grant money was delayed by several months.
Still, the money helped many local Twin Cities venues stay afloat during the pandemic.
“One of my biggest worries is that people are going to think that this is a windfall for us,” said Christine Sagstetter, interim president and CEO of the Ordway. “But these [funds] are necessary just to get us to survive. I also don’t want to dismiss that there have been other people who’ve tried to help us survive, and we’ve been grateful. This community in the Twin Cities is very philanthropic, and it’s been so heartwarming.”
3. Sen. Tina Smith & Rep. Ilhan Omar pushed for more money for child care
Sen. Tina Smith has been a longtime advocate for getting more money into the hands of parents and child care providers, and has been doing work on this issue during the COVID-19 pandemic specifically. Smith joined with Sen. Elizabeth Warren to back a $50 billion plan aimed at helping child care providers who faced dropping enrollment that threatened the industry’s survival.
The $50 billion was delivered to Americans as part of the American Rescue Plan, and Minnesota received about $550 million in aid from the deal.
Rep. Ilhan Omar also wrote an amendment to the Build Back Better Act that would set up a system for what Democrats are calling universal child care. The system is set up in tiers, where those with the lowest family income would receive child care for free and those families making over the program’s threshold would still not pay any more than seven percent of their annual income in child care expenses.
The amendment was celebrated by child care advocates and parents, but the fate of the Build Back Better Act is still unclear in Congress, and won’t be voted on until next year.
4. Minnesota congressional staffers worked around the clock to get people out of Afghanistan
The first trickle of requests started in August, and after a week congressional offices were fielding hundreds of calls and emails from relatives and friends of those stuck in Afghanistan as the U.S. military pulled out of the country.
Third District Rep. Dean Phillips spoke to MinnPost about how a tweet he sent out with contact information that people could use to ask for help spread like wildfire on social media and refugee aid organizations. The tweet and others like it meant that Phillips’ team of mostly twenty-something junior staffers were suddenly tasked with working round the clock to help people escape from the escalating situation in Afghanistan.
“Members of Congress will often take the credit,” Phillips said. “But the truth is, the real hard work, the heavy lifting, very emotional heavy lifting in this case too, is a result of remarkable young public servants.”
Phillips’ team wasn’t the only one fielding calls and emails around the clock, though — other members of the Minnesota delegation reported getting contacted by constituents for weeks as they tried to get family, friends and colleagues out of Afghanistan.
“The extraordinarily long nights and weekends these last two weeks have been exhausting but cannot compare to the emotional toll this is taking on these families who are fearing for the lives of their loved ones,” one staffer on Phillips’ team said.
5. Rep. Emmer sets the stage for Congress to act on cryptocurrency
Rep. Tom Emmer has been focused on the burgeoning market of cryptocurrency, and he says he’s finally gotten other members of Congress to start paying attention.
For the otherwise uninitiated, cryptocurrency is digital money that gets its name from the encryption that is used to keep it secure. Cryptocurrency uses blockchain technology, a massive, decentralized network of computers that keeps track of transactions. Cryptocurrency can, in some cases, be used to buy goods and services, but in the U.S. it’s better known as an investment, functioning similarly to stock market investments, with owners buying and selling as a currency’s value rises and falls.
Now, Emmer says it’s up to Congress to set rules and regulations for the new technology, and believes that within the next decade it will be used just as much as the regular U.S. dollar.