Freshman U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright has been a congressman for almost two weeks, but his office in the Longworth Building in Washington remains sparsely decorated. Wall hangings are nowhere near the top of his to-do list.
He faces a session that will include heavy agenda items including banning assault weapons, raising the federal debt ceiling and protecting jobs at the region's largest employer, The Tobyhanna Army Depot.
But Cartwright, D-Moosic, believes that before those issues are tackled, it's imperative members of both the Republican and Democrat parties work together for the good of the nation.
Since he defeated Republican challenger Laureen Cummings in November in the 17th District, Cartwright has made it a goal to reach out to fellow House members of both parties to get to know his colleagues and to express his belief that putting aside the rancor and partisanship is not only a novel idea but also a necessity.
The big problem I want to tackle first is addressing the tone in Congress, Cartwright said in a recent phone interview. There has been a lot of undue animosity, partisanship and bickering, and people don't like it.
Cartwright said he has been doing what he can to introduce himself to fellow House members, and his recent election by the 49 fellow freshman Democrats to freshman class president was a culmination of those efforts.
I made it clear when I circulated my name (for that position) that my top goal is to end the toxic atmosphere in Congress, and that starts with us (the freshmen), he said.
He noted his freshman class president counterpart on the Republican side, U.S. Rep. Luke Messer of Indiana's 6th District, has been receptive and like-minded on the matter.
We understand that we're not going to agree on a lot of policy matters, but we need to get to know each other, Cartwright said.
At a three-day seminar for all 84 freshmen House members hosted by the Congressional Research Service and held in Williamsburg, Va., Cartwright and Messer took the podium together and talked about this joint aim of getting together on a social level with regularity, and that's the first step toward a more civil Congress, Cartwright said.
It's hard to demonize somebody that you know, Messer noted in a phone interview.
He said he has had discussions with Cartwright about forming weekly social gatherings among freshmen including dinners and other events that could include families.
But Messer said the events won't be enough to fix Washington so quickly.
We're not going to change the world overnight with some dinners, Messer said, laughing, but it's a start, and their class offers a tremendous opportunity for changing Washington's battered image. A recent Gallup poll showed the body's approval rating at 14 percent.
What Cartwright, Messer and other freshmen are doing is great, according to U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, who's now in his second term.
Cartwright has started to develop a relationship with Barletta, who represents the adjoining 11th Congressional District that used to serve portions of what is now the 17th District.
With Barletta sitting on the House Transportation Committee, a body Cartwright wanted to serve on, Cartwright said he wants to make sure the two communicate to do things in the best interest of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Barletta said they're doing what the American citizenry wants them to do, which is come together, put differences aside and work for the nation, not their party.
I commend them for that, Barletta said.
Cartwright also noted that Republican Rep. Charlie Dent, from Allentown, made it a point to walk over to the Pennsylvania Democratic Caucus corner in the House chamber to introduce himself. Dent's district also borders the 17th. Fresh off the previous Congress agreeing to avert the fiscal cliff in its last session days, the new Congress will be facing a debt ceiling issue and the matter of sequestration, across-the-board spending cuts, in the coming months.
A hot-button topic in the wake of multiple mass shootings in recent months -- an attempt to ban assault weapons sales – will come up as early as next week, Cartwright said. And he supports it.
The federal government is up against its legally allowed $16.4 trillion debt ceiling and will soon run out of ways to keep the nation within its legal borrowing limit.
Using this issue – the ability of the United States to be able to pay its bills on time – as a political issue irks Cartwright.
I think it's irresponsible to use the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip, he said. He said Congress shouldn't put the nation's reputation on the line to play partisan politics to each party's base.
The agreement to avert the fiscal cliff earlier this month included a two-month delay the sequester. It will come back into the spotlight around the same time the debt ceiling deal must be made.
It's also perhaps the issue that could impact the local economy the most because it would reduce defense spending by about $55 billion during the current fiscal year.
That spending could include contracts for work and items made and repaired at the Tobyhanna Army Depot, the military's top electronics-related depot.
The Monroe County facility employs more than 5,000 and Cartwright said that while he would fight to keep the depot open, he does believe some defense budget cuts are necessary.
The military budget needs to be modestly trimmed, Cartwright said, but to take a butcher's knife and just lop off 10, 12, 13 percent is no way to cut. That's what sequestration would force the government to do and it's going to be forced to take place unless the government can agree to a deal to stave off the automatic spending reductions.
U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright has opened one of his four promised district offices. The Scranton District Office will be located at 226 Wyoming Ave. He said locations in Pottsville, Easton and Wilkes-Barre are also being eyed but he had no time frame on when they'll be selected and when they'd open.