As a part of IDEAL’s Congress to Campus event, former congressmen Cliff Stearns (R-FL) and Nick Rahall (D-WV) sat down for an interview with The News-Letter. The interview covered the American political system, this year’s presidential election and the role of students in politics.
Stearns served as a Florida representative for 24 years, leading an investigation into Planned Parenthood and sitting on the Energy and Commerce and Veteran’s Affairs committees.
Rahall served for 38 years as a representative for West Virginia, sitting on the Committee for Transportation and Infrastructure, where he advocated for both the coal industry and environmental protection.
Both former congressmen discussed the major problems, both foreign and domestic, facing the United States today.
Rahall emphasized the need for more job opportunities and the threat of domestic terrorism.
“Jobs, jobs and jobs,” Rahall said. “I don’t mean to diminish the threat of terrorism which is with us everyday. It’s going to be with us everyday — the home-grown type of terrorist, lone wolf type that is inspired by ISIS, maybe not directly created by ISIS, but inspired.”
Stearns spoke about the three issues he thinks the nation must address.
“The deficit is approaching 20 trillion dollars and when there’s more government spending, then the deficit takes away from the public sector. So I think in my opinion, deficit is the biggest problem long-term,” Stearns said. “Providing more expansion on the economy through job creation and incentives for industry to maximize expansion so that we get the middle class to get more of an opportunity for success. The third one would probably be foreign and domestic relations dealing with terrorism, cyber attacks and security in our big cities.”
In terms of enacting actual change and passing policies regarding these issues, Stearns and Rahall stressed that compromise within the House and Senate was essential to solving America’s problems.
Stearns noted that the issue stemmed from conflicting interests between the presidency and Congress as well as segments of the Republican party’s unwillingness to compromise.
“[The problem is] Republican control of the House and Senate and Democratic control of the White House. The president proposes and Congress does not react. Congress tries to pass bills and the president doesn’t want to pass them. We have at this point an impasse between Congress and the president,” Stearns said. “The biggest problem within Congress is within the Republican Party of the House of Representatives. There’s a segment that is not willing to compromise within the Republican party, so the party cannot compromise with the Democrats because of this core group that provide the swing votes to pass anything.”
Rahall echoed Stearns’s sentiment, adding that Congress is a mirror image of the American people.
He views American society as stubborn and unwilling to compromise.
“Congress is dysfunctional, there’s no question about it. But so are the American people, and Congress is a reflection of the American people,” Rahall said. “American people are angry, fed up, and there is a hard core in Congress that is fed up as well. They truly believe in their mission — which is not to compromise, to change the status quo, and to stop doing business as usual. They rail against the establishment, whether it’s Democratic or Republican.”
Stearns discussed his 24 years in Congress and the way politics have played out over the two and a half decades he served as a representative.
“I think the defining point was when Republicans took the majority in 1994 and Gingrich became the speaker — that changed dramatically because we became much more partisan. Gingrich restructured it and seniority was not as important, raising money was more important, [and] we had to tow an ideological line more than ever before,” Stearns said. “So the money became much more of an influence.”
Considering the upcoming presidential election in November, Stearns and Rahall spoke about the uniqueness of this year’s election and the qualifications of Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Stearns noted that this election eschewed the norm because neither Trump nor Clinton are favorable in the eye of the American public, yet they ended up as the nominees.
“We never had two candidates in which the majority of Americans, when they’re polled, don’t like either one of them. I think it’s pretty apparent that there’s a large segment that doesn’t trust Hillary Clinton, and there’s a large segment that does not trust Donald Trump,” Stearns said. “That these two people got to be the nominees and yet the majority of Americans don’t like either one of them, it’s an extraordinary phenomenon.”
Rahall emphasized that when it comes to objective hands-on experience in political affairs, Clinton is the most qualified.
“Hillary is without a doubt the most experienced, having held all the positions she’s held on the frontlines of so many of our entanglements and decision making processes. She’s tested. The question today is whether the American people care about that experience anymore,” Rahall said. “I think they will when they go into that election booth and they have to make that final decision. I’ve always felt she has an upper hand on the ground game, she knows where the key counties are in the key states, having witnessed the Obama campaign. But more and more, the question is does that matter anymore. This is such a crazy year out of the norm.”
Stearns and Rahall also addressed that public perceptions of Congress were often incorrect and dramatized by the media, stressing that bipartisan cooperation and listening to the constituency is important to members of Congress.
Rahall urged students to recognize that many members in Congress still work towards achieving compromise and understanding across party lines.
“The first [misconception] is that we’re always at each others’ throats and that we’re ready to wring each others’ necks. Bipartisanship does exist in Congress, even today. Over my 38 years in the Congress, I’ve seen high points in it and I’ve seen low points. Yeah, we’re in a low point now, but there are still good individuals on both sides intent on working for what’s in the best interest of the American people,” Rahall said. “They’re not the ones you’ll catch on the 24/7 news cycle shows because that’s not what they want on the airways. They’d rather have the screamers on the right or left in order to help polarize the American people, because polarization helps their ratings.”
When asked about whether members of congress feel internal conflict when their constituencies contradict their own beliefs in what is good for America, Stearns replied that the answer is multifaceted and that sometimes a representative must trust his own instinct.
“There’s three things that determine how [a member of congress] votes: what’s good for America, what you honestly believe and third, what your constituents believe, so you can get re-elected,” Stearns said. “Generally, I try to go and vote not for my constituents but what I honestly believe is good for America, because in the end [the constituents] didn’t elect me because of their views, but because of my views and common sense, so they trusted me to make a decision.”
Rahall strongly believes that representatives in the House have a duty to reflect and advocate for the values of their constituents, even if those values conflict with a representative’s personal interest.
“I view the role of a member of the House of Representatives as what our founding fathers envisioned, and that is reflecting the will of the people at any given moment,” Rahall said. “That may be against what you personally feel as a member of the House, [but] that’s why we’re called the people’s house. We’re the closest elected federal officials to the people, nobody ever gets appointed to the House — it’s always an election.”
Cities such as Baltimore have been fraught with racial tensions in the past year as discussions involving police brutality and equal treatment have erupted into city-wide protests. Stearns focused on the importance of creating new jobs to ease racial tensions in cities with large marginalized populations.
“I think it’s a problem particularly in cities such as Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles that racial tensions exist. I think American leaders should address this with jobs — try to create jobs and provide incentives for companies to move into these areas, because there’s too many young men that don’t have opportunities to work,” Stearns said. “With lack of work and lack of self-esteem, they go to drugs or underground economy. We do have problems and we have to create opportunities for these people without hope. I think that’s one of the things we have to do, to try to provide hope to these inner cities.”
Reflecting back on his time spent at Hopkins through IDEAL, Rahall highlighted the importance of political participation among college students.
Above all, he believes that the future of the nation rests in this generation’s hands.
“[The role of college students in electoral politics is] crucial, vital and important in every way. It cannot be understated how important it is, and what we’ve seen on this visit here to Johns Hopkins’ campus are some highly intellectual individuals that are concerned about what’s going on in the world. They have asked questions that reflect their in-depth knowledge of the issues, and it’s just exhilarating to see that in college students,” Rahall said. “We urge [students] to get involved in public service. Go back to your home communities, get involved in community projects — projects at the public and local level. Get involved with those projects and run for whatever office you care to run for, but run for public office. I think it’s vital to the future of this country.”
Rollin Hu contributed reporting.