On February 17, 2021, Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA (Sasakawa USA), in partnership with the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (FMC), co-hosted an event on the policy priorities of the 117th Congress. Sasakawa USA and FMC welcomed The Hon. Susan Brooks (R-IN, 2013-2021), The Hon. Gil Cisneros (D-CA, 2019-2021), The Hon. Ryan Costello (R-PA, 2015-2019), and the Hon. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT, 2013-2019) to discuss current issues facing Congress including COVID-19 relief legislation, divisiveness in the United States, climate change, and national security. Mr. Peter Weichlein, CEO of FMC, provided opening remarks and moderated the event.
Mr. Weichlein began the event by asking the panelists to examine the first 46 days of Congress to discern what to expect for the next 54 days. Mr. Weichlein noted that in the previous six weeks, the 117th Congress had voted to impeach a president, switched majorities in the Senate, voted to remove a current member from all of her committee assignments, held an impeachment trial, and voted to acquit a former president following said impeachment trial. He added that it has been an active six weeks for the 117th Congress. In addition to the first question, Mr. Weichlein asked the panel what the current atmosphere of Congress is like and the likelihood of a productive 117th Congress considering all these factors and the idea that legislators assume a willingness to govern and work together towards solutions.
Rep. Esty responded first by noting that members of Congress can be very cordial with each other, but unfortunately members of the 117th Congress are facing high levels of stress and distrust between parties which is fundamentally concerning. In addition to this, Rep. Esty explained that current members and their staff are going through post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to the events of January 6th which is disrupting all aspects of their lives. Their PTSD along with ongoing struggles related to politics and COVID-19 will make it difficult to move forward, but Rep. Esty is most concerned about congressional trust issues, which she reaffirmed throughout the event.
Rep. Brooks, who had left Congress only a few weeks prior to this Sasakawa USA webinar, responded next and noted the importance of being able to be present for votes and deliberations in Congress which has not been possible due to COVID-19. Rep. Brooks explained that this has had a negative impact on the ability of representatives to meet together due to their various duties and therefore learn about one another. As a result, the new Congress with many new members will not have opportunities to work together, get to know one another, or learn the agendas of their fellow members. The attack on the Capitol added to the difficulty of COVID-19 restrictions by making it even more difficult for members to come together and develop a common understanding, which will continue to be an issue for the first 100 days and beyond.
Similarly, Rep. Cisneros had also recently left Congress and agreed that the atmosphere in Congress is suffering due to current limitations on physical gatherings, but also noted that the positive Congressional interactions of the 80s and 90s have been increasingly reduced as members of congress have reduced their time in Washington. This has made it difficult, he explained, to forge bonds both within political parties and across party lines. Rep. Cisneros explained, in his communication with current members, they currently feel as if they are in a military state due to the increased military presence and the need for fences around the Capitol, neither of which are traditionally present in Washington, D.C. In addition to this, Rep. Cisneros agreed that the inability of members to be in Washington has reduced the number of opportunities for intra and cross-party collaboration to build the important relationships that are necessary for effective legislators. Instead, members are on a two-week rotation schedule of being in Washington and their home districts. As a result, he said, what can be done on a bipartisan level is at risk.
In his opening remarks, Rep. Costello discussed three topics, how bills are sponsored, the events of January 6th, and reconciliation. First, he explained that members must be able to work with colleagues for the opposing party to get legislation moving in a bipartisan fashion. Currently, he explained, many Democrats are only willing to introduce bipartisan legislation if it is with a member who voted to certify the election on January 6th, which decreases the number of Republicans available for bipartisan legislation. January 6th was a very damaging day in U.S. history, Rep. Costello said, but it also has present-day ramifications for how members and their staffs are willing to interact with each other. Based on his own discussions with members and their staff, Rep. Costello explained that current partisan politics are at their worst. He concluded by saying that Democrats will use reconciliation for a COVID-19 relief bill, a lot of spending, tax reform, and a second bill over the summer which could include funding for infrastructure unless a separate bill solely for infrastructure is introduced. Additionally, Rep. Costello explained, the use of congressionally directed appropriations (earmarks), could have the potential to bring parties more together by putting important projects into bills that allow members to claim victories for their constituents.
Rep. Esty responded to Rep. Costello’s assessment on reconciliation by explaining that reconciliation is a one-shot deal but will be difficult due to trust issues. Continuing, she explained during his time as Vice President, President Biden observed President Obama unsuccessfully working for agreement on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2009-10, but was not able to do so in a bipartisan manner prior to Democrats losing Congress in 2010. President Biden learned from this experience and is now trying to keep together a factitious Democratic party and get some things done because of how evenly balanced the current Congress is. The likelihood that President Biden will have a Democratic House and Senate in two years is not high which intensifies the pressure to accumulate accomplishments as soon as possible otherwise nothing may get done. There is, however, a disconnect between states, local governments, and the federal government on how to use allocated COVID-19 funding. This makes it difficult to accomplish widespread goals like vaccinations, in-person schooling, open factories, and the ability to go out in public safely. Everyone wants the same things, Rep. Esty explained, but the question lies regarding the order in which it is completed. She concluded by expressing that unfortunately, the questions of who gets credit and who gets blame have become more salient than questions regarding the process.
Mr. Weichlein followed up on Rep. Costello’s point on the White House’s COVID-19 relief bill by asking what the discussion is on the Republican side regarding coronavirus relief, especially in regard to what President Biden is hoping for and what the Republicans are willing to give considering it is unclear whether Democrats have the numbers needed to secure a bill. Rep. Costello used the 2017 Republican tax reform bill as an example of reconciliation because Democrats supported aspects of the bill but could not accept the whole package. The COVID-19 bill is therefore unlikely to have Republican support, he explained, so Democrats will have to ensure widespread support within the party to pass the bill. Rep. Brooks added to Rep. Costello’s remarks by noting another difficult issue for Republicans regarding the next COVID-19 package is the hundreds of billions of unspent funds that have already been appropriated from the previously passed packages. So, until those already appropriated funds are used by state and local governments, she explained, Republicans will continue to be reluctant to add $1.9 trillion to another seemingly non-targeted approach to the ongoing pandemic.
House of Representatives Leadership and Earmarks
Looking at leadership with Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the Democratic side and Rep. Kevin McCarthy on the Republican side, Mr. Weichlein asked the panel how House leaders are handling the diverse views within both parties to create effective legislation. Rep. Brooks responded first by describing the work of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, a bipartisan committee led by Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA, 2013-2020), which developed 97 bipartisan recommendations on how to improve the House of Representatives. One of these included bringing back a form of earmarks that would be more competitive to increase collaboration between parties and reduce concerns over corruption. This would, Rep. Brooks explained, allow trust to be developed and get things done regarding infrastructure and other universal needs.
Rep. Esty echoed Rep. Brooks remarks by explaining that she had unsuccessfully tried to put forward a bill allowing for earmarks during her time as vice ranking member on the Transportation Committee. She also noted that Speaker Boehner (R-OH, 1991-2015) and the House Freedom Caucus were opposed to earmarks and most issues cannot gain traction without support from the Speaker of the House. To fix this, both parties must confront internal dynamics that prevent solutions from moving forward. Many support earmarks on both sides because they give members a reason to vote for difficult legislation by providing support for their district. Rep. Esty agreed with Rep. Brooks that something has to be done to change incentives because now fundraising is accomplished and given to candidates for taking extreme positions rather than working with the other side. Cooperation is now seen as a weakness and leads to failed reelections.
Cooperation with U.S. Partners and Allies
Mr. Weichlein moved the discussion to foreign policy and asked Rep. Costello what the opportunities are now for the 117th Congress to improve relations with U.S. international partners especially regarding what China is doing economically and from a security point of view. Rep. Costello responded by first noting that the ability to do Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) is central to any trade deal but it is very difficult for many Democrats because labor does not always view TPA favorably. Rep. Costello said he is particularly interested in how the Biden administration will more productively reduce tariffs and remain a viable trading partner in a productive manner that is both less damaging to American industries and acceptable to middle-of-the-road Republicans.
Next, Mr. Weichlein asked Rep. Cisneros if the U.S. decision to leave the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) set China up to be the driving force in the Pacific. Rep. Cisneros began by expressing the world is a better place when the United States leads but the decision to leave TPP certainly set up China to have more sway in the Pacific. He also explained that his sources within the White House plan to illustrate U.S. commitment to the Pacific and to rebuild international relationships, such as by recommitting to the Paris Agreement. Additionally, Rep. Cisneros explained that the United States needs to be more proactive by working with other countries to ensure fair trade that helps both American citizens and U.S. allies is agreed upon.
Promoting Diversity in the United States and Congress
Following the discussion on trade and security, Mr. Weichlein turned to Rep. Brooks to ask her about the diversity of the 117th Congress, the most diverse ever, including the large number of women elected from both parties over the previous two election cycles. As a result, both parties have become big tent parties that represent increasingly diverse points of view. What impact, Mr. Weichlein asked, does this have on the focus of Congress and the ability of the parties to be more reflective of the U.S. population? Rep. Brooks started by explaining that the Republican party had its largest number of women and people of color elected to Congress ever this past election cycle and that many of their primary messaging was on fighting socialism, including her successor who was born in Soviet-controlled Ukraine. Continuing, Rep. Brooks explained many newly-elected members of Congress were born in other countries or are first-generation Americans and therefore have very different experiences and stories to share which has made a difference, especially regarding growing concerns about socialism. Rep. Brooks expressed optimism that this Congress has the opportunity to come together and determine a unified strategy involving China, which is increasingly important particularly for technology and national security.
Relating to this topic, Mr. Weichlein then asked Rep. Esty and Rep. Cisneros if there were opportunities that the Democratic party missed in respect to the Latino communities, particularly in Florida. Rep. Esty responded first by stating that the Democrats absolutely missed an opportunity, particularly due to inaccurately grouping all Latinos together despite the diverse range of life experiences and cultural values within the Latino community and the greater United States. As a result, the Democratic party needs to be much more attentive to the greater diversity within the Latino community and to recognize that people want to see progress, be respected, and have more members of Congress simply learn Spanish, she explained. Rep. Esty ended her comments by expressing the importance of members of Congress to learn more about the diversity of the country and to visit one another’s districts to accomplish this. There is not enough of a sense for how well members of Congress are representing the views of their district throughout Congress, which Rep. Esty said needs to be addressed as members do not know each other well enough.
Rep. Cisneros responded next by agreeing with Rep. Esty, especially in regard to the Latino community, which is not just one group but individuals that come from countries throughout Latin America and should not be lumped together. Additionally, Rep. Cisneros explained, there are individuals like himself whose families have been in the United States for generations and do not necessarily know Spanish and therefore think very differently about the country than recent immigrants. Immigration is something that needs to be understood, he said, but a lot of Democrats fall into the trap of thinking it is the only issue of importance to the Latino community when there are numerous other issues of importance as well such as education and jobs. The same can be said for the Asian population, Rep. Cisneros explained, where issues are very different including between generations. These issues need to be understood regardless of party with more focus on the individuals than the groups.
Moderated Q&A with Attendees
Next, Mr. Weichlein opened the floor to questions from the audience, starting with a set of questions from The Honorable Iwao Horii, Member of the Japanese House of Councillors. Mr. Horii first thanked the panel for their insights on how Washington functions and then asked the panel two questions. First, in terms of economic aspects, Mr. Horii asked, now that the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) has been agreed upon and China has expressed an interest in joining the TPP, how will the current Congress and the new administration feel about getting back into the TPP? Second, regarding national security, Mr. Horii asked about the growing military power of China, which is a great concern in the region, so will there be any changes in U.S. policy regarding China’s conduct, or will it remain consistent?
Rep. Costello answered first by saying that a reset on what China policy will be is already underway. Continuing, he explained that most Americans view U.S. interactions with China through a domestic lens especially regarding the economy, and therefore do not view U.S.-China relations through a national security perspective. Regarding what the Biden administration will do concerning China, Rep. Costello explained that from a national security perspective there will not be a drastic shift from Trump administration policy, despite a likely change in rhetoric. The only aspect likely to change, Rep. Costello explained, is that decisions are likely to be more well prepared and there will be fewer surprises.
Rep. Esty also responded by noting the appointments being made, including the appointment of Kurt Campbell as “Asia czar.” Because of these appointments, there will be more officials who are experienced, have known qualities, and have been ambassadors at senior levels. As a result, there will be calmer and more predictable U.S. foreign policy, but the pivot back to Asia will be dissimilar to President Obama’s pivot to embracing China, she explained. China’s behavior, Rep. Esty said, has been such that there is now bipartisan agreement that China is a concern, but it is still the biggest market in the world so it cannot be ignored and will continue to be a challenge. Rep. Cisneros took the time to respond to the China question by reiterating Rep. Esty’s point on the size of the Chinese market and that many areas of the country depend on trade with China and were hurt by the trade war. He also noted that during his time on the Armed Services Committee it was clear that China is the greatest national security threat as well so the United States will continue to monitor Chinese military actions throughout the Indo-Pacific.
Following Rep. Esty’s remarks on China, Rep. Brooks also took the time to outline the Republican’s China Task Force Report, which presents ideas, recommendations, and findings following an investigation regarding China particularly national security, economy, and technology concerns. She explained that now is a great opportunity for Democrats to look through the report and find aspects of agreement to begin the process of moving forward on China.
The final question came from Hannah Proctor, WPS Project Specialist at Our Secure Future, who asked about the creation of the Gender Policy Council in the White House and what it will mean for gender integration throughout the Biden Administration as well as how can a gender approach also be adopted by Congress. Rep. Esty responded by first noting the representation in the cabinet and senior appointments. Rep. Esty also highlighted the influential role that Dr. Jill Biden has played in the new administration. She explained that Dr. Biden’s decision to work throughout President Biden’s time in government and her work to promote the idea of strong women playing an integral role in public policy in the United States has been influential on the cabinet decisions of President Biden. By including more women in decision making positions, Rep. Esty explained, there will likely be an effort to create policies including child tax credit and earned income tax credit, as well as childcare policies that will affect tens of millions of Americans who cannot pay their childcare and keeps women out of the workforce disproportionately, especially due to the effects of COVID. Rep. Cisneros also briefly responded by bringing up the Equality Act as something that Congress has focused on to ensure gender identity and the LGBTQ+ community receive representation. He explained that the Equality Act is currently being undertaken by Congress and it will likely receive support from the Biden Administration.
Sasakawa USA is grateful to The Hon. Susan Brooks, The Hon. Gil Cisneros, The Hon. Ryan Costello, and The Hon. Elizabeth Esty for participating in this discussion and to Mr. Peter Weichlein for moderating this event.
The summarized views of the speakers expressed herein are entirely the work of Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA and do not represent the official positions of any of the speakers.
Summarized by Benjie Canady, Associate Program Officer, Sasakawa USA
For information on Sasakawa USA’s Policy Briefing Series, go here.