By her own admission, Rep. Katie Porter is “pretty well-known” for not tipping her hand while she’s questioning witnesses on Capitol Hill. So the Congresswoman was all the more flummoxed when Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was unable to answer a question on coronavirus testing that she had, in a rare move, sent his office a week in advance. Her staff even re-sent the question the night before he testified on the Hill.
“We let the CDC know that we would be asking Dr. Redfield to make this commitment to the American people that testing will be available regardless of insurance,” Porter told Marie Claire in an interview the day after Redfield's testimony. “And yet, he thought he could come to the American public and simply bob and weave and use words to obfuscate his duty to protect the public health, and I wasn’t having any of it. And the American people shouldn’t be standing for that, either.”
The scene of Porter, whiteboard and dry erase marker in hand, pushing Redfield to commit to free coronavirus testing for all Americans (he did), and grilling DHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response Robert Kadlec on whether he knew how much those tests cost (he did not), went viral—a video on Twitter of the moment has since amassed 26.8 million views. Porter’s methodical and targeted questioning of the men, peppered with phrases like “not good enough” and “reclaiming my time,” wasn’t a fluke. She and her staff had practiced with that whiteboard, gaming out the strategy and diligence it would take to get Redfield to commit under oath.
“I think too often members of Congress wander into hearings and simply read off a piece of paper. We really try to dig in and fully engage the witnesses that come before us, whether we’re asking them to teach us or whether we’re holding them to account,” Porter said.
Porter’s win came as the coronavirus threat took a new turn in America. Last Wednesday night, President Trump announced a ban on travel from Europe for most people during an address from the Oval Office. Hours earlier, the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. Graphs of U.S.-based infections shot up like hockey sticks.
The Trump administration remains under fire for the lack of testing kits available in the face of the crisis. (They’re currently being used on high-risk patients, while otherwise healthy people showing flu-like symptoms are encouraged to self-quarantine.) Porter’s math showed that if someone without insurance got tested, they’d be hit with a $1,331 bill. Research shows that nearly 40 percent of Americans can’t cover a $400 unexpected expense and 33 percent put off medical treatment due to costs last year.
"Nobody symptomatic should be afraid or unable to get testing because of the financial consequences," she said, reiterating her point from her whiteboard.
As a freshman member of Congress, Porter is one of the record number of women who was elected during the 2018 midterms. That wave of wins by women is credited with securing Democrats a majority in the House of Representatives. Hailing from Orange County, California, Porter defeated a Republican incumbent to flip her district from red to blue—the first time that’s ever happened in her district’s history. On Friday—as President Trump was preparing to declare a national emergency—Porter spent the morning answering her own phones and waiting for House leadership to hash out a multi-billion dollar bill to blunt coronavirus' impact. (On March 18, five days after we spoke with Porter, a relief package that included free coronavirus testing, as well as unemployment benefits and food and medical aid to people effected by the pandemic, was signed into law by President Trump. The Senate passed the bill, 90-8, earlier in the day, according to The New York Times.)
"I think we’re all really concerned about the difficulty in getting this bill to the House floor and called for a vote," she explained. "We’ve had very few updates from House leadership, and so I’m largely sitting there."
Asked what’s at stake, Porter didn’t mince words.
“Lives,” Porter said, taking a beat to let that sink in. “Look, I’m a mother. I am a daughter of parents. I’m a Cub Scout leader. I’m a professor. I care about my community. There are tools available at the disposal of this administration that can be used to slow the spread of this pandemic and save lives.” Beyond ensuring free testing, Porter mentioned the importance of providing paid sick leave and delivering food via school lunch and Meals on Wheels—some of the aims of the sweeping coronavirus relief bill that’s making its way through Congress.
“We need Trump administration officials to step up and use the tools they have and then let us know what more they need so we can act quickly. Not turn this into an ideological battle,” she added.
Amid being hailed as a hero in the Twitterverse, Porter is quick to share credit with her current staff members, as well as those who worked in previous administrations and crafted the laws and regulations they’re relying on now. She also spoke about the importance of creating an office culture that encourages staff and the public to speak up with their ideas—a responsibility she thinks is shared by women at all stages in their careers.
“Building a strong team culture is something that’s on each of us, I think especially as women,” Porter said. “It makes us more effective leaders and there’s an obligation on all of us to try to do that.”
Part of her own strength as a leader and a lawmaker on Capitol Hill is her reliance on a skill she hones in everyday life: listening. Whether that means parsing expert testimony on the Hill or sussing out her kids’ and students’ white lies.
“I think that’s something that women, frankly, and teachers, and mothers—and I am all three of those things—have to be really good at,” Porter said. “So you know, when I ask my kids, ‘Did you brush your teeth?’ and they say yes, I can tell when they really didn’t brush their teeth. When I call on students and they give a bad answer, and I say, ‘Did you do the reading?’ and they say, ‘Uh, yeah,’ I know that that’s not true. And so it’s just really using that skill set from my life to benefit the American people.”
This story was updated to reflect the details of the relief package that was passed into law.
For more stories like this, including celebrity news, beauty and fashion advice, savvy political commentary, and fascinating features, sign up for the Marie Claire newsletter.