Talking with Rep. Adam Smith, Part II: Democracy, Infrastructure and More

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14 mins read
Rep. Adam Smith and Infrastructure in Washington

This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Part 1 is here. This article was edited for length and clarity. 

With the 117th Congress recently passing its 100-day mark, and the Biden administration nearing the same milestone, the Indivisible movement in Washington has been holding a series of town halls with the state’s Congressional delegation to get their assessment of what’s been accomplished thus far, and to discuss what may be possible going forward. 

Congressman Adam Smith has represented Washington’s 9th congressional district since being elected in 1996. He’s the chair of the House Armed Services Committee and is a member of the New Democrat Coalition, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and the Medicare for All Caucus, among others.

On April 17, Congressman Smith sat down with moderator Stephan Cox, host of the Washington State Indivisible Podcast, for a wide-ranging discussion on foreign policy, infrastructure, democracy reform, and much more.

SC: I think a lot of Indivisibles see this as a make or break moment for our democracy, especially with what’s happening with voter suppression laws all over the country right now. How do you see it?

AS: I agree. I think we need to re-educate people on how representative democracy works and why it’s so important. Increasingly, the Republicans have decided that if democracy will work for us to advance our agenda, great. If it won’t, we’ll find something else. The value to me of a representative democracy is making sure that people have a voice and they have a chance. Then you accept the outcome. It’s never going to be perfect; not everyone’s going to vote; not everyone’s going to have an equal voice. But our system works pretty well. 

Unfortunately, we’ve sort of skipped past that accepting the outcome part. We’re like “If the outcome doesn’t go our way, then to hell with representative democracy.” Accepting the outcome is at the core of how our country functions. The normal response when you lose an election is to ask what was wrong with your message, what group of people did you fail to appeal to? Instead the Republicans are saying that we need to get fewer people to vote.

At its core, part of democracy reform comes through legislation, but I also think public pressure is appropriate. What you’ve seen from corporations and others is appropriate. Look, if you want to run on a conservative agenda, that’s fine. We’ll have a debate, we’ll have an argument, we’ll elect who we elect, and then we’ll go forward. You want to try to go out there and disenfranchise people so that you can govern in an undemocratic way? We’re not going to stand for that.

SC: The For the People Act, S1, which would address this, can’t pass the Senate without killing the filibuster. I’m wondering how you feel we can get our senators on board with this. How can we in the activist community apply pressure, and how can you apply pressure since you have a relationship with our senators?

AS: I’m not breaking any new ground here to point out that the filibuster is not part of the Constitution. You can debate whether or not it was put in place for white supremacist reasons. But regardless of why it was put in, it’s not democratic. If you win an election, you ought to be able to govern. If the majority rules, then you can hold the Senate legitimately accountable. Go back for a minute to what happened with the Supreme Court and Sen. Mitch McConnell: Why did Mitch McConnell not give Merrick Garland a hearing? Why did he push through Amy Coney Barrett? Because he could. He had the votes. And to a certain degree, I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t like the outcome. But if he’s going to do that, why the hell aren’t we? Why would we set up an artificial construct and say, “Well, we know they’d roll over us in that position, but we’re going to be good about it and we want to be fair.”

Also keep in mind that the Republicans changed the filibuster for only a couple of things: to cut taxes and appoint judges. Those are the only two things they care about. Literally. They don’t want to do anything else. If they had wanted to pass massive health care reform, they would have tossed the filibuster out the window for that too.

We want to pass health care reform. We want to pass gun safety legislation. We want to pass comprehensive immigration reform. So why would we not use all of the tools that are legally and legitimately before us to achieve those goals? I just don’t get it. I think we need to make that case.

SC: There is so much in Biden’s recently released $2.3 trillion infrastructure package.  What specifically will you be advocating for us here in Washington state?

AS: Several things. Obviously there’s roads and bridges; not only the West Seattle bridge but a bridge down in Tukwila that’s about to fall apart. But I think there are two big transformational opportunities in the infrastructure package. One is 5G telecommunications, which are so crucial to our ability to compete in the world and to increase equality of opportunity. Second, obviously, is figuring out how you get off of a fossil-fuel-based economy. If we start to support a clean energy infrastructure, this gives us huge opportunities with semiconductors and wind and solar and electric vehicles. Those are two big things.

For us here in this region, a key infrastructure piece is finishing mass transit. Buses, of course, but also we have our two ports. We need the roads and bridges necessary to enable those ports to get goods to market quickly while not bolloxing the rest of us up in traffic. We have a long list of projects that are just waiting to go that can be really beneficial to the Puget Sound region.

SC: I want to talk about the way that Biden is paying for the infrastructure package, largely by increasing taxes on the wealthy and corporations. I will just ask you bluntly: Is this an opportunity to begin to address economic inequality in America?

AS: Absolutely. The tax code is at the core of this, and it’s so frustrating. The Republicans have been really clever about this. People don’t like taxes. Nobody likes taxes. So they’ve built a tax code that has protected corporations and the wealthy. When Trump did his tax cut a few years ago, corporations were saying—as they’ve been saying forever—that the United States has the highest corporate tax rate in the Western world. No, we actually don’t, because the effective tax rate—what you actually pay after all the write-offs and deductions—is something like the second lowest in the Western world.

I think corporations and the super wealthy should pay more. I just do. I don’t see how there’s any argument otherwise. When I say this, people respond by saying that the wealthy worked hard for their money, and taxing it at a higher rate punishes success. But we built this country that helped give them these opportunities. Meanwhile, inequality is leading to a crushing homelessness problem, and to a lot of the frustration that boils out in a bunch of different directions, including people becoming white supremacists and joining the Trump movement. They don’t think society is fair, so they look for something radical. If we could be more fair, we would have a more peaceful and stable society, and the tax code is a marvelous place to start. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has some very aggressive wealth taxes which I’m supporting.

One final point on this: a lot of times Republicans will give you the history of countries that have had really high tax rates on the wealthy and talk about how this didn’t work. But what they’re talking about is countries that had 90% tax rates. The capital gains rate in the United States was 66% until John F. Kennedy cut it to 50%. If somebody comes along and proposes a 90% tax rate, I will be against that. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about moving it up a little bit. we’re talking about 35% to 45%, and we’re talking about having corporations pay more than 10%, or in some cases, pay something at all. Once you get north of 50%, then maybe we will need to have a debate. But let’s get within at least a sniffing distance of 50% before we have to listen to all these arguments about how high tax rates are creating problems. Because what our system is doing right now is creating a crushing level of inequality.

SC: Conventional wisdom says that presidents lose their majorities in Congress in midterm elections because of overreach. The narrative is that Obama lost the majority because of the ACA [Affordable Care Act]; Trump lost it because of tax cuts for billionaires…but also because he was Trump, an incredibly unpopular human being. But there’s a counterpoint now suggesting that going big on things that people actually like—the relief package, the infrastructure package, the way we’re paying for it—may actually help Democrats keep their majority in 2022. Where do you land on that?

AS: I think the reason that parties in power lose the majority is that they do not meet people’s expectations of what they’re supposed to accomplish. Now that expectation moves around a little bit, and sometimes people have unrealistic expectations, but I think setting the right expectation and then achieving it is important. I think Biden is in a unique position to do that on COVID-19, on the economy, and on some other fundamental issues. Find what’s popular, push it, and stand for it. I think President Biden and Vice President Harris are doing a really good job with this.

Image courtesy of Washington State Dept of Transportation at https://www.flickr.com/photos/wsdot/3859550725/


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Stephan Cox is a public radio and broadcasting veteran who has helmed shows for PRI, and KUSF, and has reported for NPR. He is the host of the Washington State Indivisible Podcast.

Cynthia Eller is a writer based in Los Angeles. She's really eager for term limits in Congress and ditching the filibuster.

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