Interview with (then) Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand

Interview By RAY FELICIANO in May, 2007

Q: Now that you’ve been in office almost six months, what has been the biggest surprise to you about how Congress is run?

"My biggest surprise since being elected is really the quality of the folks in Washington. I have to tell you, some of the new freshman that were just elected are tremendous. They are inspired, independent, believe in democracy, and really want to make a difference. So, I’m coming into Washington with a great group of newcomers who I think we agree on similar messages of reform and accountability and open government. And I’ve also met, since being in Washington, some senior members who really are unbelievably smart and have integrity and strength of character that I have not seen before...So, that’s the part I’ve been so delighted about.”

Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand before becoming a NY Senator

Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand [D-NY-20] took time in her busy schedule for a quick interview with TIC publisher Ray Feliciano. (Photo by Kimberly Feliciano)

Q: Does Congress still have an atmosphere of being a ‘Good Ol’ Boys Club’, or are those days over now?

“Well, the women in Congress are very strong. Even though there may be a sense that it’s very male dominated, the women members are incredibly effective. A number of the women members are now chairmen of committees and subcommittees. You have Louise Slaughter who’s in charge of Rules, and Rules determines how any piece of legislation will be dealt with in the House. It determines whether amendments can be made in advance, whether they can be made on the floor, how we will vote on it as a Congress, and she’s led in a remarkably effective way. Obviously, we have Nancy Pelosi who’s the new Speaker of the House. That creates a sense of importance in this Congress, that we as a nation have reached a level where women are in a very strong leadership position, and we as leaders have been able to bring things to Congress that distinguishes ourselves and our records. Ya know, many times women are very good at consensus building. Many times we are very good at bringing people together from all different perspectives. One of the things that I’ve been doing is trying to reach across the isle, particularly among the women. So, we’ve been hosting ‘meet and greets’ with the women members, Democrats and Republicans, so that we can begin to work together as colleagues, and in a bipartisan way, and I think that’s something women are very good at—actually getting to know each other. So, despite some folks impressions of what Congress may be, and the fact that we’re still only sixteen percent, I think the women have really begun to lead in a very significant and important way.”

Q: What about the political parties? Many people believe politicians are more caught up in serving their political parties than in honestly serving the people. Is there some truth to that?

“Well, there’s certainly no truth to it as far as I’m concerned because I believe this country wants Congress to work. They want us to work hard. They want us to work on a bipartisan basis. They want to get things done. They want us to pass real legislation that affects everyday Americans’ lives. They want us to pass education reform—fix ‘No Child Left Behind’ and fully fund whatever’s left. They want us to pass legislation on immigration. People are very concerned about immigration. People are concerned about amnesty—that it’s somehow going to be very destructive, and they want to make sure that Congress doesn’t support that kind of program. But they also want to make sure that we have a community that has a number of workers that we need to sustain important industries. For example, agriculture. In our district [20th], we have a lot of farms that rely on immigrant workers—legal, and perhaps some illegal. What we need to do is create a system where legal folks can come in, that we can use the proper immigration system, for a proper workforce coming in, and do it the right way. That’s what the conversation needs to be about. The nation wants to see us working on healthcare reform. Right now healthcare is too expensive, for everyone—for small businesses, for families, for large businesses, for everyone. And so, we’re not gonna get these things done unless we work in a bipartisan way. That’s certainly my view. I’m hopeful that many members of Congress will feel that way during the coming months. I don’t really think there is a place for the kind of partisan politics that we’ve seen in the past.”

Q: Is it true that you are one of only three members of Congress to make your schedule available online, and why is it important is to have our government transparent to the public?

“Yes, I’m one of the few members who does that, but the reason I do it is because I think it’s important for the folks in our district to have access to more information. So, if a certain group comes in to see me to talk about their issues, people in our district should know, if this group’s come in to talk about something, that if they have a differing view, they should call my congressional office to make sure their views are known, ask for a meeting if they like. Just so people have the access to that information. That allows me to be a better representative. I want to be the best representative I can possibly be, and I really think to do that, you need to know what people think. The best way to know what they think is to give them the information of what I’m doing. What kind of meetings am I going to? What kinds of meetings have people asked for, so they know who’s coming in to lobby me on certain issues. And to know, how I, as a representative, is spending my time at work, and what I’m doing to do a good job for them.”

Q: Do you believe more people will pay attention to their government and politics now that technology makes it easier to do so? What difference would that make?

“I think that it allows more people to be able to have more information. I think that allows for more accountability. I think that’s a very good thing. So, I think technology’s played a very important role. But, grassroots activism is very similar to what it was fifty years ago to a hundred years ago. People who want to make sure their voices are heard, they make sure their voices are heard. They’ll come to a town hall meeting. They’ll raise an issue. They’ll write letters to my office. They’ll phone call my office. They’ll propose legislation. They’ll come by with draft bills. Activism in this country has always worked. I think technology just can be another tool. You can use email to get the message out, as opposed to the last decade which was fliers, and as opposed to the last decade which might have been knocking on doors. But, there’s always been a way to get people interested and information. Technology certainly is a new tool that can help do that.”

Q: In reforming ‘No Child Left Behind’, should schools devote some time to teaching Civics?What do you mean by civics? ….They don’t have government classes?

“[Not anymore. A lot of it has been done away with because adhering to the standards of ‘No Child Left Behind’ leaves no time.] That’s what the topic is today at the Town Hall meeting [in Clifton Park, after this interview], so we can ask this during the town hall. Where do you get this? [Ray: From a graduate professor who said he had to do an intro to civics for his graduate level students who were political science majors.] I think No Child Left Behind has some serious flaws. I think the intentions of the policy were good intentions—oversight, accountability—are all intentions that we support, but it has not worked. For the parents, the teachers, and the administrators that I have talked to, we have so many schools that are teaching to the test, which consumes all of their time for teaching. The testing mechanism is a snapshot. It is not a testing mechanism that can really track progress of students. You’ve got special ed students who are being tested at the same level, without the same resources to make sure they can get up to that level. So, you’ve got students who really would need more resources—more teacher time, more extra help. Once those students don’t have a successful exam and they have a failing grade, the whole school is labeled a failing school. So, it’s very detrimental, and very negative. From everyone I’ve spoken to, it’s not working. So, what we need is to have a system that is refined, that is revised, that has a better measure of testing, particularly for special ed and English as a Second Language. Something that measures the growth overall. We need something that’s very individualized. We need to make sure that whatever’s left is fully funded. We also need to make sure that when we have tutors, that those tutors are meeting the right standards. There’s a lot of different things that need to be revised. And back to your specific question, I think Civics should be taught. I think it’s a very important lesson for folks to learn how our government works, and also to inspire the next generation. I mean, we need people who are willing to serve and eager to serve from the next generation because we need to have a government of honest people who really want to make a difference, and we need to inspire that in the next generation.”

Q: Could you tell us a little bit about the American Dairy Farmer Protection Act, (HR1583) and the MILC program?

“The purpose of the proposed legislation is to help our dairy farmers get a better price for their milk because right now the federal government sets the milk prices. What happens is that milk is often cyclical, and when the prices are very, very low, the MILC program provides a small payment to make up the difference when that price is too low, when it dips below a certain level. That subsidy has been undercut. The President [George W. Bush] wants to reduce it significantly. What’s been happening is because milk prices are so low, a lot of our dairy farmers are going out of business. Over the past twenty years, over a third in New York State have gone out of business. And New York State is the third largest dairy producer in the country, so it’s a very important state for dairy, to make sure our children have access to wholesome milk and milk products. So, what my bill does is make sure that this MILC subsidy program is continued so we have the milk support system at a certain percentage that makes a difference, also allowing farms up to two hundred and fifty cows to received this support system. And then also sets a floor for fluid milk, which makes a big difference for dairy farmers because most of our sales are for fluid milk, not for cheese or nonfat powdered milk.”

Q: You represent a lot of small farmers. Why are so many small farms disappearing, what could be done to slow that down, and why should people who aren’t farmers care?

“We need a better milk pricing system in this country. Last summer they were offering twelve dollars for a hundred pounds of milk. It was costing the farmers between sixteen and eighteen dollars to produce it. They were completely in the red, which is not ideal. So, what I’d like to see is a change in milk pricing over time. The reason why it matters to our communities now is, every time a dairy farm goes out of business it effects the whole economy. That dairy farm supports the John Deere dealership, the fertilizer dealership, the grain company, the farm support companies. All those businesses will be hurt when one farm goes out of business. Plus, it effects our quality of life. I mean, right now you probably buy your milk at Stewarts or some local shop. It’s fresh. It’s from a dairy farmer that’s locally produced. It’s not shipped in from states far away. It’s right here. We also have the benefit of a lot of open space. We have farmers who are routinely very good at stewardship. They protect the air. They protect the water. They’re very attune to how to keep a good environment. So, when you have a dairy farm that’s gone that’ll be sold to a developer, you’ll have more homes. We need more homes, but not necessarily the sprawl that can be avoided with smart growth. When you have the open space of dairy farms, it’s something we all enjoy. It really provides for clean air and clean water, and a wonderful healthy community. And, wholesome food sources that are here, that aren’t being shipped from California or from China. So, you don’t have the added costs of shipping... It would be less cost for our local communities to have locally grown foods that are produced here so you don’t have to pay that shipping and freight.”

Q: Immigration, and proposals of amnesty for some illegal aliens have become important and heated issues to many people. What is your approach to the problem?

“Immigration reform is one of the most important issues we can deal with this year. I was not pleased with the Senate bill. I thought it was lacking in many respects. We have to deal with immigration in a very focused way. I think we should be dealing with immigration to ‘right size’ immigration. First step, you have to close the borders. Second step, you have to increase enforcement dramatically. There has been no enforcement under this past administration. We as a nation don’t tolerate, and we don’t accept, degradation and misuse of workers. We don’t believe in the exploitation of workers. That’s why we have standards for work environments. We have environmental standards. We have safety standards. We have child protections. That’s how we believe labor should be regulated in this country. And when you don’t have enforcement of illegal workers, you’ll have very severe violations of those issues. Third, we need to ‘right size’ immigration. That means, if we need a certain number of workers for certain industries, we have to make sure they can come in legally and appropriately with a proper visa—so they pay their taxes, pay their social security, and are a part of our legal immigration system... In the Senate bill, one thing I liked about it was that it mandated prevailing wage, which I think is very smart because when you allow for low cost workers, you really push down everyone’s wages. That’s not good for America. You want everyone to be paid a fair wage. I know from the farmers that I’ve talked to, they’re offering between ten and twelve dollars an hour. Those are fair, good wages. But, they literally just can’t fill them... I also haven’t seen any focus on fixing the INS [Immigration Naturalization Service]. I mean, the Senate bill said it would take eight years to deal with the backlog. Eight years! That’s a long time. I don’t think that’s right. I think it should be two years. So, if you need to hire two times the number of INS folks to get it done, and get it done right, then that should be part of the bill...I don’t think amnesty is the way. I think that undermines peoples’ confidence in our system. It makes people uncomfortable...I think what we need to have is the proper number of people coming in properly, not an amnesty-driven program.”

Q: How has American foreign policy been affected by the situation in Iraq?

“Iraq obviously is the most important issue for Congress to be dealing with right now, along with our national security. Iraq first. I think this president has really disregarded the will of the American people. Congress has sent him several bills that he should’ve signed and he declined to. He vetoed them. What we need in Iraq is oversight and accountability over this administration and over the Iraqis. The Iraqis are not doing their fair share. Our soldiers are dying every day to fight for that country. We have a [Iraqi] government that’s going on vacation. We have soldiers who aren’t showing up to work. We have the government in power, the Shi’as, still sending out death squads, not doing the things they’ve promised to do—the de-baathification, making sure all groups have access to the oil revenues. That’s not happening. So, I have grave concerns that the Iraqis are not doing their fair share, and we need much more oversight. We need oversight over the reconstruction contracts, and we should be shifting those to the Iraqis so their twenty-year-olds have jobs so we can decrease unemployment. We should have oversight over the oil revenues to make sure the three groups can get access to them, so that the Iraqis can control these revenues. And, we need to make sure we use timing as leverage. I think it’s a real disservice that the President has refused to use timing as leverage. It’s the first thing that’s going to get the Shi’as, in particular, to start performing their part of the bargain. To say, ‘If you don’t, we’re leaving.’ That is very, very, powerful leverage that he’s leaving on the table.”

Q: Is Iraq crippling our foreign policy in other countries?

“I think that Iraq is taking an enormous amounts of time and effort on the part of this administration. This administration has set other foreign policy that I think is not the course that I would be advocating for. I would be, and I have been advocating for, along with the Iraq Study Group, engaging that region much more actively. I think he should be engaging Syria and Iran in real discussions on how to bring peace to the region. I think he should have a permanent envoy to the Middle East. I think the administration should be looking at ways to use diplomatic solutions to bring stability to the region. Even his General Pace and Secretary Gates both testified in front of the Armed Services Committee that the current plan of this administration has no chance of success, if there isn’t significant progress on the political and economic agendas. So, I’d really like to see this administration focused on those issues, and having a much more comprehensive plan for the Middle East.”

Q: Members of the House of Representatives have to run for office every two years, and raise substantial money to compete in those campaigns. Doesn’t the constant need for raising lots of money endanger the integrity of the democratic process?

“I would like to see comprehensive corporate finance reform. I’m going to look at two pieces of legislation. I’m going to work with other freshman on a piece of legislation for corporate finance reform. I still see that the money in politics undermines the integrity of our constitutional democracy. I would like to work towards legislation that will really make a difference in that regard. I’m going to be working on that in the next few years.”

Q: What do you think is the key to solving the healthcare problem in America?

“I think we need to move away from an emergency room system towards a preventive care system. Right now, forty seven million Americans don’t have access to care, and more than half of them, the only care they receive is through the emergency room, which is very expensive. We all pay for that as part of our taxpayer dollars. I think what we should be working on is to get more folks covered through a preventive care system. I think one opportunity to do that is through increasing competition. The way I would increase the competition is to allow the federal government to compete for low-cost providers. I think that if you opened up something like Medicare... to anybody who wants to buy in at a rate they can afford (perhaps five percent or something like that) of their wages. That would be a solution for small businesses, a solution for families, and it would be a solution to any individual who doesn’t have coverage through their employer... It’s not perfect. If you talk to any hospital, they’ll tell you reimbursement rates are never right. They’re very, very low relative to the cost. But, at least it works, basically, and it has very low overhead...It doesn’t have CEO salaries to pay. It doesn’t have billion dollar advertising budgets to pay... I would also do two changes. I would mandate a one-page universal form for all reimbursements that all insurers have to use. It could be submitted online to stop the paperwork. You know, if you talk to any doctor’s office, thirty percent of their overhead is just dealing with paperwork. And also, invest over the long term in IT [Information Technology] and try to make all healthcare providers IT compatible—where everything can be done online. People can have an access card for their records.”