PHOENIXVILLE — U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th Dist., chose Phoenixville's historic Colonial Theater as the place to hold her first town hall of 2020.

Held Thursday evening, Jan. 23, it differed from the town halls she held in 2019, the most of any Congressional representative from Pennsylvania, in that it was not devoted to a single subject.

Pennsylvania's 6th Congressional District includes all of Chester County and part of southern Berks County, including the City of Reading.

Calling it the "State of the Sixth," Houlahan instead covered a broad range of topics before taking written questions from the audience.

Those subjects ranged from working to save jobs at the Sikorsky helicopter plant in Coatesville; working across the aisle to get a new trade pact with Mexico and Canada; steps to stem the opioid epidemic; legislation to drive down prescription drug costs; climate change; protecting pensions; education; paid parental leave and more.

Houlahan said she had kept her pledge to hold one town hall a month throughout the district in 2019, noting that she is now among four new Pennsylvania female representatives to Congress where previously, there had been none.

And together those four women held "20 percent of all the (Congressional) town halls in Pennsylvania. She added that there are now 127 women in Congress, 106 of them are Democrats, and women now represent 24 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives.

"Hopefully, we'll get to 51 percent because that's what percent of the population women represent," Houlahan added.

The 116th Congress has so far passed 400 bills, 275 of them bi-partisan, and 70 have been sent to the Senate and signed by the president.

"We're working to get more bills out of the Senate and onto the president's desk," Houlahan said.

In her first year in office, she said, her office has received roughly 9,000 phone calls, 3,500 letters and 73,000 emails "and we respond to everyone."

Running that office, she said, costs taxpayers $1.3 million per year but, by her calculations, her efforts and those of her staff have brought $1.8 million federal dollars back to the district, meaning "you're getting a 38 percent return on your investment."

That does not count the 500 jobs she and others worked to save when Sikorsky abruptly announced in June it would close its Coatesville helicopter plant by year's end, a decision which was ultimately reversed.

Nor does it include the 477,900 Pennsylvania jobs that were supported by a new trade pact negotiated with Mexico and Canada.

Houlahan, who often talked about the need to sidestep partisanship and find compromise, said she supported the deal negotiated by President Trump because "two-thirds of Pennsylvania's exports go to Mexico and Canada."

She said she was reluctant to vote to impeach Trump because "our country is damaged. As you've hopefully heard in this conversation, our mission is to heal our country, and our community as well. In the beginning, I felt what was going on would only hurt the country even more."

However, "when the Ukraine situation and investigation came up, I and six other members of the freshman class, all of whom had served in the military or intelligence communities in the past, really felt like this was a different animal," Houlahan said.

Answering a question later about why she voted to impeach President Trump "when you know he's going to be acquitted," Houlahan said "because I take my oath seriously and there are some things that should not be permitted. I believe strongly that elections have consequences, but when you're playing with future elections, that's where I draw the line. It needed to be said that 'this shouldn't stand' and the vote allowed us to learn more about what we don't know."

"These are clearly challenging times," said Houlahan.

Houlahan said her most pleasant surprise once she got to Washington "was the quality of the people working there. They are really public servants, working really hard," she said. "They might be working at cross purposes, but that's what we elected them to do. But that may be why it looks like nothing is getting done."

She said the picture painted by the media makes it look like Washington is a city of the extreme right and the extreme left, "but there really is a strong middle and you never hear about that."

Houlahan said she is a member of several caucuses, including the "New Dems," whose members are trying to find common ground with Republicans.

"I wish we could find compromise, find solutions and knock off the nastiness. I hear things like 'they started it,' and it comes from both sides of the aisle," Houlahan said. "They sound like 5-year-olds sometimes. We're so fractured. There's no room for empathy or disagreement."

As an example, she pointed to the H.R. 1, the first bill passed after the new Congress convened, a "huge bill" that called for campaign finance reform, "dealt with Citizens United issues" of anonymous campaign funding, "and ethics in government."

But the bill's preamble was "largely partisan" and Republicans could not support that language "which is not super helpful."

Nevertheless, something needs to be done and perhaps it's better to address those issues in smaller doses, she said.

"This is a broken system, a deeply broken system. My colleagues and I are raising resources all the time and some of the smaller parts of that bill are being pushed forward," she said.

Houlahan ended by recalling a ceremony for the anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shootings and observing "tomorrow isn't promised to anyone."

And so the nation should work harder to work together, she said, showing a picture of a quilt that hangs in her office. "We are that quilt. Stitched together for common purpose," she said, adding "and it can be stitched back together."

Quoting Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address, she concluded "we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection."

This article first appeared as a post in The Digital Notebook blog.

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