A Q&A with the former secretaryThe Honorable Ray LaHood
(Pekin Daily Times) – Former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood sat down for an extensive interview with Peoria Journal Star political reporter Chris Kaergard about the themes contained in his forthcoming book, “Seeking Bipartisanship: My Life in Politics.”
Here’s an edited transcript of their discussion:
Q: You’re pretty up front during the beginning of the book about some of the things you had attempted, like the bipartisan retreats, that did not turn out in quite the way you hoped.
A: When we started the bipartisan retreats, we had almost 200 members of Congress, almost equally divided. We had probably 150 spouses, we had over 100 kids. It was a great, great weekend of people really getting to know one another. That was the high water mark, and things obviously went downhill from there in terms of attendance, in terms of cynicism, of people not really wanting to participate.
Things had pretty much wound down to a lot of partisan political bickering. (House Speaker Dennis) Hastert participated, but I could tell his heart wasn’t really in it, he or (House Minority Leader Richard) Gephardt.
Newt (Gingrich) was speaker for the first one, and he embraced it very enthusiastically. He really did. Gephardt was the leader (for the Democrats), and I remember trying to persuade people like Charlie Rangel, some of the old bulls, to come to it, and (got) a lot of cynicism.
For the members that came and the families, I think these relationships lasted well beyond people’s careers.
The whole notion was if you got to know somebody, it’s much more difficult to malign them, to criticize them. And it’s much easier to walk across the aisle and you may disagree, but to try to find a way to solve the problem.
I think some good relationships really did develop.
I think they worked in the beginning. If you look back at the period of Clinton and Gingrich, there was some significant things. Three balanced budgets, welfare reform — which Clinton vetoed twice but eventually came to the realization that he could work with Republicans on this — and tax reform.
If what we did in terms of our bipartisan retreats helped with that, then I feel good about it.
Q: Looking back on those retreats and some of the suggestions that came out of them, are there some things you think that even today they could implement in a heartbeat to improve that culture?
A: I’ve had members of Congress over the years call me and ask me to tell them what they could do to organize a bipartisan retreat. They haven’t happened.
Part of the problem we tried to address while we were in D.C., even though it was Tuesday through Thursday, was to try and organize some things. And what we did after the retreats was organize dinners. (Former Rep. Rahm Emanuel) and I organized once a month dinners with D’s and R’s. Those are effective. Any opportunities for those socializing activities I think are helpful.
I also think there are some committees that are bipartisan. I think the Intelligence Committee is still pretty bipartisan. I found that true when I still served on it. The agriculture committee, transportation committee. These are bipartisan committees. The ones where you tend to get more partisanship are ones that have to do with foreign policy or maybe some domestic policy issues, social issues.
I think taking a page out of our book, if people were really committed to it, could really make a difference.
Q: You talk about the “Pelosi strategy” of going it alone and not really engaging with Republicans on some of the issues early in Obama’s term — and we’ve seen the reverse with Republicans.
A: I think the advent of the tea party was really a creation of the first two years of President Obama’s term, passing the stimulus and health care. I don’t think the tea party would have gotten as fired up as they did had Republicans been involved in those debates, been involved in fashioning the legislation, been involved in putting their issues on the table and having them at least considered.
I think what happened after the first two years is the advent of the tea party and people now are in positions in Congress, whether in the House or the Senate, who don’t believe in government and came to Washington to vote no on everything and if it’s Obama’s idea it’s a bad idea — that kind of attitude. I think it’s been very pervasive throughout the last six years of President Obama’s tenure here, and will probably carry through the next year of it.
Q: What does the next president do to avoid that, whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican elected?
A: It’s not that difficult. The power of the White House, the power of the presidency is significant. I’ve always thought, looking back on a lot of different presidents, the guy who used the office to the ultimate in getting his way was Lyndon Johnson.
He did it by calling people, inviting them to the White House, inviting them to dinner. Once they were involved, if something happened, giving them credit for it and making sure they were at the signing, making sure they got a pen, making sure they got whatever headline they needed.
To me, that’s the kind of power of the presidency that’s not complicated, easy to do, but you have to be willing to spend the time on the phone, talking to people, inviting them to the White House, doing one on one’s, inviting them on Air Force One, inviting them to play golf. It’s not complicated, but it is time-consuming.
Q: Politics is relationships.
A: It is. I go back to this old-fashioned notion, and it’s really true. People who live in communities like Peoria, Pekin, East Peoria, they get involved in activities, whether it’s the church board, the library board, the school board. They have differences with people, but in the end they work them out, they solve problems. And they look at Washington and they say why can’t they do the same thing?
Q: It is relationship building.
A: Part of it is the system these guys and gals work under — the Tuesday-through-Thursday (schedule). And even when they’re there Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, they’re doing fundraising in the evening rather than having a glass of beer with somebody across the aisle. It diminishes their ability to really get to know somebody.
The leadership has an awful lot of power now, too. You’ve got to have the leaders willing to do this, i.e. Everett Dirksen — a leader — decided that he was going to take a stand on civil rights, coming from an all-white community.
Q: Arguably the hallmark of your 4½ years at Department of Transportation was safety.
A: When people say, what are you going to be remembered for, what was your priority, if you look at my testimony before the Senate commerce committee, the first line right out of my mouth was safety will be my No. 1 priority.
And it goes back to this. Every day in America, thousands of people get in their cars, on a bus, on an airplane, on a train. The one thing they don’t think about is, is this safe?
No one was talking about distracted driving when we walked in the door. I think 18 states had passed laws. Now I think almost 50 states have passed laws.
I am also very proud of the fact that the $48 billion (in transportation stimulus funds) that was spent in two years, no bad stories, no boondoggles, no earmarks, and a lot of people went to work in that two-year period. And because there was no controversy there weren’t a lot of headlines. But I do think it made a difference.