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Their employee in Washington’

NICOLE MICHELS | Friday, November 8, 2013

 

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh story in a series featuring Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s graduates serving as members of Congress. The eighth and final story will run next week. This series, titled “Trading Golden Dome for Capitol Dome,” runs on Fridays.

Seven hundred thousand, five hundred seventy-three: the number of constituents in Pennsylvania’s twelfth Congressional district, and who freshman congressman Keith Rothfus (R-PA-12) calls his employers.  

Rothfus, who earned his J.D. from Notre Dame Law School in 1994, said he has focused on constituent services during his tenure. 

“I tell everyone, I’m just the employee,” Rothfus said. “You have 705,000 employers or bosses in the district, and it’s important for people to understand that that’s the way it works now: When you go into public service you are the employee of the people.

“You’re here to represent 700,000 people, and I represent people who didn’t vote for me, I represent people who didn’t vote at all and I represent people who voted for me.”

Rothfus said he worked with his team to establish venues for his constituents to voice their concerns, including coffee shop hours and telephone town halls. 

“We’re doing a series of coffees around the district, where I will show up at a local coffee shop and we’ll just talk the issues with constituents, both the big national issues and the basic constituent issues that people might have,” Rothfus said. “Constituent service is very important to me. We’re also doing a lot of telephone town halls where I will put a call out to thousands of people in the district and they are able to stay on the line for up to an hour and ask questions of their employee in Washington.”

The overall impact

Prioritizing constituent service allows him to apply himself to solving the problems articulated by the people he represents and to advocate for better federal laws, Rothfus said.

“If I get a phone call from somebody who has an issue with [the Department of] Veteran’s Affairs, for example, I don’t care if they voted for me or not. My job is to handle that all, that’s part of customer service,” Rothfus said. “People know my principles, my values. When I have a piece of legislation to consider, I’m looking at the overall impact. I’m looking at how much money we’re spending on it and if this is going to be borrowing from the next generation, what is the path to make sure that a program is sustainable so that we’re not going to bankrupt the country on it, does the program work and does it deliver what it’s said it’s going to deliver.”

Rothfus graduated from the State University of New York (SUNY)-Buffalo with a B.A. in information systems, and chose to attend Notre Dame Law School to obtain his J.D. after working for IBM in Washington, D.C. for several years. Notre Dame’s program attracted him because of its attention to different elements of law, he said.

“I was really drawn to Notre Dame’s law program,” Rothfus said. “I wanted a law program that has the full scope of Western tradition. Notre Dame was one of those places where they talked about things, jurisprudence and the nature of law … so it was a good fit and a great place to go to law school.”

The broadly focused legal education at Notre Dame prepared him well to serve in Congress, Rothfus said.

“I think that just being at a place like Notre Dame, you get the bigger picture. Law is a very important part of our society, and you have to be very careful when you put law into place because it affects a lot of people,” Rothfus said. “Every issue that comes up, I think you have a bigger picture because of the education you get at Notre Dame.”

Delivering social services with faith

Rothfus said he practiced law in Pittsburgh, until volunteer work for George W. Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign led him to a position within the federal government.  

“In 2005 I was looking for an opportunity to get in and do some public policy and the President had a faith-based community initiative that was across the government, making sure that faith-based organizations were not discriminated against when it came to partnering for the delivery of social services,” Rothfus said. 

Rothfus said he worked at the Department of Housing and Urban Development before Hurricane Katrina highlighted weaknesses in the federal government’s response to disasters in September 2005.

“A number of issues arose with respect to the FEMA’s [Federal Emergency Management Agency] response, including its ability to fully integrate the capacities of faith-based community organizations and relief work, especially those at the ground level,” Rothfus said. “They asked if I would start up an office at the Department, to work with outside groups make sure that folks within the Department understood the proper role of these organizations: how they can help out in disaster relief, for example, and still respect the guidelines of the Constitution.”

The history of the Catholic Church in the United States and the work of the people faith to build the nation show the value of faith-based distribution of social services, he said.

“There are many people of faith in this country, and you look at the history of the Catholic Church in this country – nuns starting hospitals, nursing homes, schools – this has really been a part of the culture in excess of 150 years. … Not just the Catholic Church but other organizations. Jewish organizations, Lutheran social services, Southern Baptist, Salvation Army, this is part of the fabric of American society,” Rothfus said. “They can be very effective providers of social services, and I think the government can look to organizations such as that to make sure that individuals in need are getting the resources that can help them.”

‘The next generation’s money’

Rothfus ran for office unsuccessfully in 2010, and then executed a successful campaign for the 12th district seat in 2012. His concern for the level of debt taken on by the country during the 2000s drives him to advocate for more frugal fiscal policy, Rothfus said. 

“I think when you start taking money from the next generation, from our kids and our grandkids, that is a moral issue, actually,” Rothfus said. “I think we need to be very carefully when we’re spending the next generation’s money and making choices for them because they’re going to have to pay all of this back. When the president was elected in 2008 he talked about cutting the deficit in half in four years, but we went through some very tough time since 2008, including a $700 billion TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program] bailout.”

He disapproves of President Obama’s actions during his two tenures in office, Rothfus said. 

“I did not think that the President would be aggressively spending more money than we were going to take in, but the first thing he did in the first two weeks in his administration was put together an $800 billion stimulus package which was all borrowed from the next generation,” Rothfus said. “I have six kids. I just think it’s wrong to be having that kind of deficit. We’ve seen the national debt go up trillions of dollars over the last five years … I thought we had to say, ‘No, this is not the right way to run an economy.'”

‘At the back of your mind’

A photograph of the golden dome with an American flag in front of it hangs in Rothfus’s office.

“You think back to those days that you were there,” Rothfus said. “You think back to your trips down to the Grotto, I was there for law school but I would sneak off and go to Mass at the dorms during the weeks … whenever you go back there, there are certain things that are timeless. 

“Notre Dame is always there at the back of your mind.” 

Contact Nicole Michels at nmichels@nd.edu