U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins prepares to exit a much-changed political stage

In this file photo from Aug. 24, 2017, U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins addresses the Jayhawk Rotary Club in Lawrence, saying she plans to leave Congress after her term.

Topeka — U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins is preparing to enter her final year as a member of Congress and as a Kansas politician.

After 10 years in Washington, which followed four years as state treasurer and four years in the Kansas Legislature, the Topeka Republican will be leaving a political stage that is much different from the one she stepped onto nearly two decades ago.

Jenkins, however, isn’t going to spend too much time looking back. With another year left in office, she said during a recent interview that there was still much she would like to accomplish.

“Oh yeah, there’s still plenty,” she said. “I’d like to see us figure out a way to get the national debt eliminated in the next 20 years and get to a balanced budget; save our Medicare and Social Security programs. They’re bankrupt and on a path to elimination if we don’t step in and save them. So yeah, there’s still a lot I’d like to see get done next year, and I’m going to be working hard to make sure it happens.”

During the time she has been in office, Jenkins has witnessed a lot of changes in the political landscape, both at the state and national level. She won her first race for a state House seat in 1998, the same year Gov. Bill Graves, a moderate Republican, was re-elected in a landslide. She was elected to the Senate two years later, the same year George W. Bush was elected president and one year before the 9/11 terror attacks.

She served only half a term in the Senate, though, before she ran for an open seat in the state treasurer’s office, touting her credentials as a certified public accountant. She was re-elected to that job in 2006 but stepped down midway through her second term after she was elected to Congress from the 2nd District in 2008, defeating one-term incumbent Democrat Nancy Boyda.

During her time in Congress, Jenkins rose through the ranks of Republican leadership, ultimately becoming vice chairwoman of the House Republican Caucus in 2013. And after winning her fifth term last year, many Kansas political observers thought she was poised to run for governor in 2018.

In January, though, as other Republicans were waiting for her to announce whether she would run for governor or another term in Congress, Jenkins, who is now 54, surprised the political world by announcing her decision to step down from politics entirely and return to life in the private sector.

Jenkins hasn’t spoken in detail about the reasons for that decision. But at a Rotary Club breakfast in Lawrence in August, she did talk about the frustrations of the job, one that for her began the same year Barack Obama was elected president and one that will end midway through Donald Trump’s first term in the White House.

“I have never been so frustrated in my life,” she told the Lawrence audience.

During an interview this month, however, Jenkins sounded more upbeat, talking about the satisfaction she gets, not from passing legislation or enacting public policy but from helping constituents back in Kansas.

“You know, one of the best parts of this job is one that goes, I think, unnoticed many days of the week because folks think we only focus on public policy, but the case work is probably the most rewarding work that this office does,” she said. “Because it doesn’t matter if you’re a conservative Republican or a liberal Democrat or anything in between, if you’ve got a problem maneuvering your way through the bureaucracy of the federal government and you contact our office, we are going to go to the wall to try to help you, whatever your issue is. Sometimes we hit the wall and we’re told no, but we’ve had so many successes, stories that would bring tears to your eyes, people that we’ve been able to help, and so that’s probably the most rewarding part of this job.”

On the legislative side, Jenkins said one of her biggest accomplishments was passage of a bill in 2016 that may have gone unnoticed by many, the Mental Health First Aid Act, which provided dedicated, multiyear funding to train veterans’ advocates, law enforcement agents, first responders and others to identify and aid people in need of emergency mental health treatment.

“The mental health first aid legislation was a great accomplishment for the folks in the 2nd District of Kansas, and our office and my staff worked so hard on that. Just a whole lot of bipartisan wins when President Obama was in office, legislation that we actually got signed into law,” Jenkins said.

One issue that has dominated much of the news out of Washington in recent months, and one that may continue to dominate the news during her final year in office, is the rapidly changing cultural attitude toward sexual harassment in the workplace, whether that be in politics, entertainment or the news industry.

Speaking only a few days after Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., both announced plans to resign from office amid sexual harassment allegations, Jenkins said she thinks the change is long overdue.

“What we’re probably most shocked to learn is that taxpayer money was used to settle some of these harassment claims,” Jenkins said, referring to the practice of Congress settling claims of harassment. “That’s not acceptable, and there are several bills being introduced that will stop this practice, and I’m taking a look at those. I’m sure I’ll be signing onto one of those. So I’m confident we’re going to do what we can here in D.C. to take this head-on.”

But Jenkins was reluctant to share many details of her own experiences as a relatively young woman in politics.

“I think it’s an age-old problem that we’ve all seen for a long time,” she said, adding only that, “I have a real problem with this kind of behavior. I’m not going to make any bones about it. If a crime is committed, I think people should be prosecuted and go to jail for it.”

Looking ahead to her final year in office, Jenkins, an outspoken opponent of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, said she would still like to see reforms made to that program, although she conceded that it was unlikely Congress would pass a full repeal.

“I think the effort at full repeal failed earlier this year, so my sense is we’ll pivot to continuing to work to make the health care system better, maybe through incremental changes,” she said.