Washington Wednesday: Problem Solvers deal

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Washington Wednesday. December 5th, 2018. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

Last week House Democrats voted to nominate Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for speaker in January. That’s standard procedure for a party that has just won back control of a chamber of Congress.

The 78-year-old Pelosi has an unusual resume. She’s the first woman ever to hold the position of speaker, and she’s also one of the longest-serving party leaders in House history. Pelosi is finishing her 16th year and hoping for at least two more.

EICHER: That as a new generation of Democrats sweeps into Washington on promises of change. Some two dozen of them actually ran on a pledge to oppose Pelosi. Here’s Congressman-elect Ben McAdams of Utah.

MCADAMS: And in this campaign that was an issue—of whether Nancy Pelosi would become speaker of the House. And I pledged that I would not vote for her for speaker. I think that’s what many of the voters in this district want…

Democratic party rules require members to vote on the House floor for the caucus vote winner. Last week they voted, and Pelosi came out on top.

PELOSI: Scores of members of Congress who just gave me a vote—are giving me a vote of confidence. That is where our focus is. Are there dissenters? Yes, but I expect to have a powerful vote as we go forward.

Some of the 32 Democrats who voted last week say they will do it again next month—regardless of party rules.

So Pelosi is meeting with rebels one-by-one, plying them with agreements and concessions.

Challengers from her left have received most of the media attention, but she’s also had to deal with centrists to her right.

The Problem Solvers Caucus, for example. This is a group of moderates from both parties. Nine Democratic members said they would not support any speaker candidate who didn’t agree to rules changes they say will help break congressional gridlock. Last week, Pelosi granted them.

Joining me now to talk about those changes is Congressman Dan Lipinski. He’s a Democrat from Illinois, and he’s a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus.

Congressman, good morning to you.

LIPINSKI: Good morning.

EICHER: I’d like to talk about the specifics of the rules changes being proposed, but let’s start with the big picture. A person listening to our conversation could be forgiven for thinking this is just a bunch of inside baseball.

So I’d like to talk about some of the problems that the Problem Solvers Caucus is trying to solve. But I think it’s important that we first talk about why it matters.

LIPINSKI: Well, it matters because Congress is become a top-down process, essentially, where you have the speaker of the House really controls what the bills are going to look like, brings the bills to the floor that the speaker wants, tells the members of his or her party to vote for it.

Then the minority leader tells members of his or her party to vote against it. And that’s not the way the House should work.

It should be a bottom-up process just like the way we learn on the Schoolhouse Rock “I’m Just a Bill” video, where individual members should have more power to come up with ideas, take ideas from their constituents, introduce them and let them get a fair hearing, and then have the majority rule in the House.

EICHER: Well, let’s talk about some of the details, then. What are the most significant changes that the Problem Solvers Caucus is working on changing here?

LIPINSKI: Well, we had a problem this past Congress where the Problem Solvers Caucus came up with solutions on immigration and also that would have lowered healthcare premiums in the Affordable Care Act by 20 percent. But we couldn’t get them to the floor, because these were bipartisan, so it was not just coming from the majority party.

So, the rules changes are going to start to open up the process a little bit. If you can get 290 sponsors on a bill, it’s guaranteed that that bill will be brought to the House floor for a vote. If you get 20 Democrats, 20 Republicans to cosponsor an amendment to any piece of legislation on the floor, that amendment is supposed to be given a priority to be considered on the House floor. So, those are a couple of the changes that we were able to get Nancy Pelosi to agree to.

There’s more work that needs to be done, but it’s been really four decades that more and more power has gone to the speaker of the House. This is the first time that we are changing the direction of that power and bringing more power to individual members. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be. If you take power away from the individual members, you’re taking power away from the American people. This is supposed to be the people’s House, not the speaker’s house. 

EICHER: Well, now, you’ve been around Washington long enough and you don’t even really have to be around Washington all that long, you just have to read the paper from time to time to see that sometimes these changes that are agreed to early on when people are feeling good about a transition in power and thinking, well, there may be an opportunity for reform here. And it seems that you end up with that same top-down approach that you talked about right as we started our conversation.

What do you think the chances are that we will actually see the leadership stick to these changes?

LIPINSKI: Well, first thing that has to happen before the vote for speaker is these changes will be put into the rules of the House, which we will vote on right after we vote for a speaker. So, I have told Nancy Pelosi that I want to see this—what we agreed to, I want to see it in writing, in the House rules before I cast my vote for her for speaker.

So, I don’t like using the great statement when Ronald Reagan said it, “Trust but verify.” Unfortunately that’s been overused, but it still works, and that’s the way it has to be before I cast my vote for speaker.

EICHER: Let’s talk a bit about possible legislative accomplishments. You did mention immigration among other issues. What chance do you think legislation really could get through a more Republican-controlled Senate? And, I guess, more importantly, signed by a Republican president?

LIPINSKI: Well, on immigration, one thing is going to depend on what the courts do about DACA. That has a significant impact when the court stepped in and said that President Trump could not rescind DACA for the people who were brought here when they were young, the legalization, the work permits for those immigrants. That really stopped the process. We might hit a crisis again if, say, the Supreme Court rules that the president can stop that program. So that’s going to make a big difference there. I hope we can come to some compromise on that.

I’m more hopeful that we can do an infrastructure bill. That’s the first thing that I think we need to do in the House, and I’m hopeful President Trump has certainly indicated that he still wants to do an infrastructure bill and that could be the first bipartisan accomplishment that’s something all the American people want.

EICHER: It is interesting because after the election, the president was speaking favorably of Nancy Pelosi. I just wonder, perhaps there could be some bipartisan accomplishments here in the second half of the president’s term.

So, congressman, setting aside what the court does, you think possibly immigration, possibly infrastructure. What else do you see happening in the next couple of years?

LIPINSKI: Well, first of all, the big wildcard right now, obviously, is the Mueller investigation and that could throw a real wrench into bipartisan cooperation, but putting that aside, I think infrastructure would be the big one. There is a prison reform bill. If that does not get done before the end of this year, that’s something that hopefully we can get done. There’s a bipartisan bill that we passed in the House, they’re struggling in the Senate right now, but the president has endorsed that. 

And right now the Department of Health and Human Services is working on a rule to hopefully reign in the cost of prescription drugs in Medicare. So the cost of prescription drugs is something the Democrats have talked about and President Trump has talked about, and it’d be great if we could come to an agreement on that.

EICHER: I could have just looked this up, but since I have you on the phone, will we be seeing you at the March for Life this year?

LIPINSKI: Right now, I was just looking at the schedule. The House schedule just came out. The House is not in session that day. I’m waiting to hear about the plans, exactly, for the March. I’m usually there. Right now I plan again to be there, so hopefully that will work out.

EICHER: Congressman Daniel Lipinski, Democrat from Illinois. Congressman, thanks so much for your time. Have a great day.

LIPINSKI: Thank you, you too. 

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) The Capitol is seen early morning in Washington, Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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