During my January trip to Washington to cover the State of the Union, Senator Reed and I sat down for a half-hour interview inside the Capitol. I didn’t get around to writing up most of his comments at the time, but our discussion of polarization seemed timely this week amid the deadlock over the debt ceiling. Enjoy.
WASHINGTON – There’s no doubt in U.S. Sen. Jack Reed’s mind that Capitol Hill is a more toxic place than it was when he arrived here two decades ago as a freshman congressman.
“Over the last 20 years, everything has been much more bitterly debated – not just how to do things, but what is the proper role of government,” Reed said.
The senior senator cited a number of reasons for the Beltway’s increased polarization, including a 24/7 media environment, a shift to nonstop campaigning and a breakdown of the ideological consensus that prevailed in the postwar era.
Reed – a West Point graduate – also thinks it matters that far fewer current members of Congress served in the military than was the case with previous generations.
Those former soldiers “had a certain camaraderie, in that you had a common experience in the government that was successful,” he said. “So the notion that government doesn’t work, that there’s nothing government can do, was not as prevalent.”
Reed was unapologetic about the legislation passed during President Obama’s first two years in office, including health care reform, the Dodd-Frank finance reform law, Race to the Top and changes to the federal student loan program. Many of those laws would have been a big deal in normal times, he said, but they were “totally overshadowed” by the financial crisis.
With so many issues on Washington’s plate, though, there is a risk that a problem brewing under the radar doesn’t get the attention it deserves. ”There’s an issue of capacity with every government,” Reed said.
“One of the reasons, frankly, President Bush spoke about being blindsided by the economic collapse, is because he was obsessed with getting it right on foreign policy and the War on Terror,” he said. “That was his focus.”
“That’s what makes it so challenging for the president,” Reed continued. “It’s hard for us, but more so for the president. You not only have to deal with the crisis at the moment, but you’ve also got to have a sensitivity to what’s happening out there.”
Reed described President Obama as possessing “a remarkable personality, because he has the ability to maintain a focus and a demeanor in the worst circumstances that is truly incredible.” But the president has faced the same challenges as his predecessors.
“He’s learned a lot,” Reed said. “It’s the toughest job in the world, and it’s a job that – as well prepared as you may be – you’ve got a learning curve. You’ve got to learn a lot quickly.”
For a Rhode Island leader, no issue is more pressing than the weak economy and the state’s ongoing jobs crisis. Reed said he’s focused on maintaining the state’s defense sector and directing federal resources here, citing Quonset Point as a success story. “Infrastructure is so important,” he said.
Reed and Gov. Lincoln Chafee, another infrastructure proponent, have discussed ways they can work together on projects like the expansion of passenger rail service. ”He understands,” said Reed, who served with Chafee in the Senate. “He has a very collaborative personality. He wants to get some things done. We do, too.”
Reed also said it’s important that the state’s remaining manufacturing firms receive support. “The manufacturers in Rhode Island that have been able to hold on are terrific,” he said. “We have to expand that.”
Such a comment may not sound controversial today, but prior to the financial crisis the idea that industrial firms would continue to play an important role in the American economy wasn’t as common. Many people thought the nation could get by with financial products and leave manufacturing to other nations.
“I think one of the things that we recognized over the last decade or more is that, frankly, a country is what it produces – tangibly produces – and sells to the world,” Reed said.
“We have to recognize that there are still an extraordinary amount of talented Americans whose talents are mechanical,” he added. “If they don’t have a job, it’s not because they’re not talented; it’s because their skills aren’t in abstract thinking and computer programming. … That’s reality.”
Epilogue: Reed issued a statement last night warning of the consequences of default if the U.S. debt ceiling isn’t raised. “A federal default would be a self-inflicted wound that could exacerbate Rhode Island’s fiscal and unemployment woes at a time when the state is still coping with the recession,” he said.
“It could have a profound impact on people’s retirement savings and result in higher interest rates for families, businesses, and local governments,” he continued. “It would also increase the deficit itself because it is estimated that every 1% increase in interest rates will raise the deficit by $1.3 trillion over ten years. So simply put, we cannot afford to default – it’s bad for jobs and it’s bad for taxpayers.”