Episode 9: A Breakthrough on Capitol Hill?
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Welcome to Rebuilding America, produced in partnership with New Politics. We’re here to talk about national service: what is it, why do we need it, and can it rebuild America? Today, we’re on Capitol Hill.
National service is gaining traction in Congress, but what does that conversation look like? Could national service be the issue that breaks through our partisan gridlock?
I’ll talk with two legislators who have made service a major part of their platform: Congressman Don Bacon and Senator Tammy Duckworth. We’ll also hear a little more from someone whose voice you’ve heard throughout this podcast - Emily Cherniack, founder and Executive Director of New Politics.
At the very beginning of this series, in Episode 1, we heard Congresswoman Chrissy Houlahan talk about the For Country Caucus. For Country is bipartisan, comprised of veterans serving in Congress. They seek to find common ground, often centered around an ethos of service. Congressman Don Bacon, a retired Air Force Brigadier General representing Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district, is a co-founder and co-chair of the For Country Caucus. He believes that service can be a national unifier.
Rep. Don Bacon: I served nearly 30 years in the Air Force and I learned when you do that, you're an American first. You're not a Republican first or a Democrat first. I think national service, at least how it was with the military, but I think it would work just the same in other areas, say healthcare, or Peace Corps, whatever it may be. I think it binds us together as Americans and it subordinates partisanship to doing what's right for our country. More often than not. I'm not going to say it's like that all the time, but that's the goal. It works for me. And then the second part of this is our country is fractured. There's conspiracy theories, there's demonization. Just this past couple of weeks, we've just seen all these conspiracy theories and the demonization of both sides. I just think that people who serve together, who defended our country in various ways, look for ways to work together for the good of the country. And so that's what motivates me here. When I worked with people in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Korea, or worked doing nuclear alert, I never saw the other person in the room as a Democrat or a Republican. We were serving together for our country. We need more of that perspective in our country. I am a conservative, I'm a proud member of the party of Lincoln. I'm an American first. And I think the service binds us together in that way, allows us to work together across the aisle and find areas that we can get something done. We've been working for 20 years to get immigration reform, and yet we're so partisan, we can't give an inch either side of the aisle. I think people with this perspective, the For Country Caucus perspective, will say, "Hey, let's find areas we agree on. Let's get that done. Then we'll come back another day on those areas we disagree on and figure out if we can get more done." And so the For Country Caucus was designed to put us together to solve key issues so that we can move our country forward and not be locked into this gridlock that's really hurting our country terribly. Right now we have 21 members, 11 Democrats, 10 Republicans. And what motivated us was this breakdown in Congress where everything is so hyper-partisan and it's so difficult to find compromise. I find that people that have served our country want to get something done for our country and move us forward.
KH: Do you find that having veterans in Congress from the other side of the aisle facilitates that coming together? Let me phrase it a different way. Is there a baseline of trust that you assume working with somebody with whom you've shared that service experience? Do you start in a better place?
DB: I think we do because my best friends across the aisle are all veterans. Maybe there's one exception. Jim Langevin, but he was a cop, right? But Jimmy Panetta, Salud Carbajal, guys that I work with all the time across the aisle, they were veterans and we had an initial bonding right away on day one. We just got along. I think there's an affability, a trust there. Now yeah, we're on the other side of the aisle, we'll disagree on issues, but I implicitly trust both of them. In our disagreement we still like each other, and we will find ways to work together. We do all the time. I'm on so many of their bills and they're on so many of my bills. It was even like that before we formed the For Country Caucus. It was a natural partnership from day one. We came in in the same class, the 115th Congress. And I find that's true with almost all the veterans. We naturally bond and find areas that we could work together on and there's a natural trust there as well.
KH: So you have experienced that phenomenon firsthand, the ability of that shared service experience to bridge partisan divides. You experienced it in the Air Force, in Congress. It stands to reason that you have real faith that that same experience can be scaled and that Americans of all stripes, of all backgrounds can experience that same coming together, as you put it in your op-ed, that rebinding.
DB: I do. When you put people from New York and Iowa and Alabama and California together to, say, work for the Peace Corps, or maybe for a health corps, Public Health Corps, I think it gives you a more national perspective. It breaks you out of your local assumptions. You meet people from another part of the country with a different culture and a different background, and it binds us together as Americans. It surely did me. I was raised in rural Illinois. I only knew what I knew from rural Illinois. My first boss was African-American. He was a great boss and I think I learned to love the diverse culture of the Air Force. You learn to trust people from different cultures. And I think we can do that in other areas of service. It doesn't have to be the military that provides that opportunity.
KH: You mentioned the Public Health Corps. That is one of the areas that you have focused on as a Congressman, the National Public Health Corps Act specifically. What is it doing and how is it leveraging national service to address the current crisis we face?
DB: Yeah, I doubt it will get passed in this Congress.
KH: I see.
DB: We're laying the groundwork for 117th Congress, I believe. It will be something that we can build on here. We wanted to provide a different opportunity for service, not just the military. I think the pandemic shows that we can provide a Public Health Corps or a Reserve Corps to help augment the public health centers all over our country in a pandemic. It would get the training on how to respond to pandemics and get the background so that, as an emergency arises, they can fill the gaps and augment. I know for Omaha it would be critical. We have some great hospitals and we want to have the ability to expand them in a pandemic. But you may not have all the personnel you need and having a Public Health Corps coming in to augment could come in very handy in a future pandemic. Like what we've seen in the last five months.
KH: One of the challenges with Congress doing anything, apart from the internal challenges, the tribalism inside the institution, is the lack of trust outside the institution. I'm wondering about your perspective as a veteran of an American institution that has about as high level of public trust is as you can achieve. Going from the US Air Force to the US Congress and in a stroke losing that cloak of trust that your previous institution granted you and having to make the case to a much, much more skeptical audience, a much more skeptical constituency.
DB: Well, we surely do need to rebuild trust in Congress and in our political dialogue. One of the things that I see as an issue in the Congress, it's the majorities, whether it's Republican or Democrat, frankly, try to pass bills that have 218 votes from their party and they don't care about getting the minority party. We've got to change that paradigm because it's not working. What happens is it drives legislation too left or too right, and has zero chance in the Senate where we have minority right voting and they can block partisan bills. I think that the For Country Caucus mindset gets to the core of how to fix this in the House. We're interested in finding areas of consensus, Republicans and Democrats, as veterans, so that we can get a bipartisan immigration bill or bipartisan service bill, a bipartisan public fitness or health fitness kinds of legislation. If we can get that passed through the House, we'll have a very good chance in the Senate because by design it's bipartisan. We've got to start looking at how do we get 218 votes in the middle, not on the far left or the far right, and I really think the For Country Caucus is a new mindset, that if we can plant those seeds and grow it in the House, we can change the culture of the House for good.
KH: That was Representative Don Bacon, congressman from Nebraska and co-founder of the For Country Caucus.
Senator Tammy Duckworth is a little less convinced about the bipartisan potential of national service, but equally sure that service is crucial to rebuilding America. We’ll hear from her in a minute, but first, Emily Cherniack.
You’ve heard her voice in past episodes, describing New Politics and their work lifting up service leaders into elected office. But today, we’ll hear more about Emily herself in our alum testimonial - how she got started in service, how that led her to found New Politics, and why she sees politics as the answer to expanding service opportunities in our country.
Emily Cherniack: When I was graduating from college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and so someone suggested that I should look at a program called "City Year" and the website said, "Get up, get coffee and change the world," and I thought that was a cool thing to do and so I literally just signed up. I applied, I got in, and I started without having any idea what I was getting into. And that sort of service experience when I did my AmeriCorps year with City Year, it changed my life. And I think it really gave me a sense of purpose and it gave me a sense of motivation for wanting to make change in our communities. It really exposed me to the domestic challenges that people face in our communities. So I think you can study poverty academically, or you can academically study education and equity, but when you're on the front lines, seeing that every day, it is truly a transformational and important experience. It was for me, for my learning on how to really think about solving these significant systemic issues in our communities.
After I served my year in AmeriCorps, I realized that I wanted to always do work that was about making our communities better and creating change. And so my journey led me to working on national service legislation to expand opportunities for service, because I fundamentally believe that if more young people would serve for a year, whether in the military or in AmeriCorps programs, I think our country would be fundamentally different.
And then through that work, I fell into politics. And I think for me, understanding that the political system is broken and realizing that the people that were in elected office were not putting the country first and not trying to move the country forward, which really kind of connected back to my service year in when I was seeing the systemic and challenging issues that our communities were facing every day, and the community that I worked in in Boston. And so for me, the work has always centered around, "How do we make people's lives better?" And so for us, New Politics, it is about recruiting and supporting and electing servant leaders who put the country first so that they can make all of our lives better. And that is sort of at the core of our work.
I think one of the silver linings of the pandemic and the economic crisis is that there is opportunities for big ideas like national service. I think it's moment has come. Remember Roosevelt in the "New Deal" had created the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was really the first kind of model of a national civilian corps. And so I think in that time with the Great Depression, there are opportunities that happen during economic crises. And so I think for national service, because there is such a need, and for our elected leaders that have to address this problem of, "How do we put young people to work and how do we invest in our young people?" I think this is an incredible time and opportunity for national service to be scaled.
KH: There has been a swell of interest in national service recently, which has included the introduction of several bills in the House and the Senate to make national service a priority. My next guest has been at the helm of several of those, including introducing the 21st Century American Service Act in November of 2018. Tammy Duckworth is a former Congresswoman, Assistant VA Secretary, and is now a US Senator representing Illinois. She‘s also an Army veteran with a long family history of service.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth: There's been a member of my family on my Dad's side, serving in uniform during every period of conflict that our nation has engaged in going back to the revolution. In fact, pre-revolution. My great, great, I think five time greats, grandfathers were indentured servants to a British Lord who volunteered them to fight in the French and Indian War, so even before we became a nation. My own father served, my husband served, my brothers served. I actually thought I would serve in the Peace Corps or in the Foreign Service. My dream, growing up, was to become an ambassador. I was always so grateful for the privileges of being an American, especially since I had spent a lot of that time overseas, where my dad worked for the United Nations Development Programs and other organizations. So, I saw the privilege of being an American compared to where the rest of the developing world was. I knew I wanted to serve in some way from being a young child. I just never thought I would be in the military, but things happen, and then I ended up doing 23 years in the Army.
KH: Well, the military remains one of the few institutions that not only enjoys broad respect among the American people, but does it in a way that bridges partisan divides. I feel the same way about national service, and the signals that we're getting from Washington is that legislators feel the same way as well. Are you seeing that firsthand? Is national service perhaps one of these few areas of commonality that we can actually get two sides to agree on, at least the broadest sense of things, maybe not on the particulars yet, but the idea of serving the country?
TD: I hope so, and part of what I've been trying to talk to people about is that national service doesn't have to mean military service. Yes, I served by putting on a uniform and picking up a rifle. But, you can serve by picking up a piece of chalk and volunteering with Teach For America. You can serve by working at a soup kitchen or helping to build homes for the homeless. There are so many ways to serve and we all should do a little something. When I have those conversations with my Republican colleagues, I talk along those lines and they agree with me. But so far ... I first introduced my 21st Century National Service Act over, gosh, eight years ago, when I first got to the House of Representatives and I have yet to get a Republican to sign on. They understand the concept. They support it, but none of them are willing to sign on yet. My legislation is actually pretty benign. It's just one where we encourage people to serve and tell young people about opportunities to serve.
KH: What do you attribute that to, that inability to come together, even around something as benign, as you put it, but I would say as evocative of shared values as you can get? Service to this country. Why is it so hard?
TD: I think there's just a fundamental difference in priorities. I spent the last eight years trying to promote national service, working on funding and legislation to help new moms and working on healthcare. My Republican colleagues have been spending their time giving tax cuts to the richest top one-half of 1%. I mean, they did $1 trillion, almost $2 trillion in tax breaks for the very richest Americans. I think that we have just fundamentally different lists of priorities on our agenda. I would hope that they would finally come- now that they've given, trillions of dollars to the V very wealthy, maybe they can spare a little extra college tuition money for someone for Teach For America.
KH: I have been working overtime to immerse myself in the thinking of conservative commentators. Been reading David French and others. He is very compelling in his argument that the only thing that can bind a nation with such deep and widening cultural divisions is a common mission. There are clearly people on both sides who believe that. My fear is that we can no longer find that common mission. I mean, if we can't even agree on basic science, like the need to address climate change, how can we come together in common cause to advance an agenda that affects all Americans?
TD: Well, I think for the last almost four years now, we've really seen the power of the presidency, right? One man has been able to cleave divisions between us. He's been able to pick at the scab of old wounds and rip them open again, basically throw one group of Americans against another. I choose to believe in the power of leadership. If leadership can do that, then leadership can help bind us again, can help bind our wounds yet once more. We see the power of the presidency to lead the American people. We've just seen it lead the American people down a disastrous path in these last four years, and I have high hopes that we can regain our momentum and who we are and come back together.
When I travel around Illinois and I go to the Red parts of my state and I talk to voters there, all they want to hear from me is that I understand where they're at. There are- I won parts of Illinois that Trump also won, so there are Trump-Duckworth voters out there. I'll go to those parts of my own home state and say, "Hey, do you really not want other people to have healthcare, or do you just want to safeguard and make sure that you have access to healthcare?" It's usually the latter. People just want to be able to pay their mortgage, pay their rent, get their kids through school, have a little retirement when they get there. That's what most Americans are working towards. If we can convince them that the way to grow our economy and a way to help them be able to do that is by coming together, then I think that is a successful message. I talk to folks, I say, "Listen, I'm an old soldier. I'm about making my country as strong as she could possibly be, and a divided America is one that's not capable of truly leading the free world because we're too wounded from the inside." This is exactly what Russia and China want, right, and Iran. This is why all three nations are actively working to interfere with our elections by fomenting discord and fomenting arguments on the internet, on social media. This is exactly what our enemies want. The way we grow and be strong is by coming together and working together.
KH: I'm glad you're helping us end on a hopeful note because that's where my thinking is when I think of national service. When you talk to those constituents in those deep red parts of Illinois, when you reflect on that as you're having conversations with constituents in bluer parts of Illinois, do you feel like, if we can find that shared mission, if we can unite around shared service, that those two groups as divided as they may seem right now, can come together and be reminded of their shared Americanness?
TD: Of course. Of course. My own helicopter crew, the crew that I was shot down in together, included Trump voters. If we can love each other- they're my brothers, they literally carried me out of that dusty field and then refused to leave me behind. If they can be my brothers and yet still vote for Trump and I voted for Hillary, we can come together, because it's about the common goal. What is important to all of us, but what's important to all of us is generally the same thing. Making sure that we have an economy that doesn't leave people behind, making sure that we all have the access to basic human rights like healthcare, making sure that our kids can go to school. All of those things can be done, and if we just unite around a goal and keep our eyes on that, we can come together.
KH: Next week is the very last episode of Rebuilding America and we’re looking to the future. What could national service be at its best? If we invest and shift our culture to value service more highly, what could we accomplish and how could we grow as a country? I’ll ask Barbara Stewart, CEO of AmeriCorps, and Eric Garcetti, the Mayor of Los Angeles, to look forward and think big.
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Rebuilding America is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, made in partnership with New Politics. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Associate producer is Leon Pescador. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Rebuilding America, a podcast about national service.