The House speaker discusses the stimulus battle, prosecuting top level Bush officials and the limits of bipartisanship
By Tim Dickinson
It may not have the cachet of the Oval Office, but there is no more commanding view in Washington than the one enjoyed by the speaker of the House. The picture windows in Nancy Pelosi's office frame the National Mall, where, only three weeks earlier, 2 million Americans gathered to celebrate Barack Obama's inauguration. In the distance, centered in the windows, rises the pinnacle of the Washington Monument.
Unfortunately, rescuing the nation's economy won't include sprucing up the Mall -- a $200 million project to renovate America's most visited national park was stripped from Obama's economic stimulus bill to prevent Republicans from derailing the recovery package. While such efforts weakened the measure, they didn't keep it from moving forward. On the morning in February when Rolling Stone sat down with Pelosi in her office, the Senate was conducting the roll-call vote on its version of the $800 billion bill.
In person, Pelosi is warmer than the sharp-edged patrician familiar from the nightly news. Despite the pending vote, she seems relaxed in a gray pinstriped suit accented with a necklace of gray and white pearls the size of jawbreakers. The legislation she has steered through the House during Obama's first few weeks in office -- including measures to revive the economy, extend government health insurance to 4 million children and help America's working women secure equal pay -- may stand as an unparalleled record of accomplishment in the opening days of a new administration.
For the moment, Pelosi is cloaking her instincts as an experienced street fighter in the soothing tones of bipartisanship. Though her eyes flash green when she puts a sharp point on an argument, she seems reticent to take shots at the House Republicans who voted en masse against the recovery package. For the first time since she rose to the speakership two years ago, Pelosi can at last brush aside the GOP's obstructionism and get on with the work of undoing the damage done by eight years of Republican misrule.
Democrats reached out to the Republicans on the stimulus bill by including billions in tax cuts, yet you didn't get a single Republican vote in the House. What happened?
The debate on the recovery package is a clear manifestation of the difference between the two parties. Republicans ultimately could not accept our new direction for the economy, one with prosperity for the many, not the few. We gave them every opportunity for input. They wanted tax cuts, and we included them in the bill. They wanted a chance to mark up the bill, and we gave them 26 hours to add amendments in committee. Then they wanted amendments on the floor, and we gave them that. We're not afraid of debate, so we welcomed any ideas they had and accepted some of them. But when it came to the fundamental difference we have over economic policy we were not going down that path, and neither were they. In the end, many of their members did not even vote for their own alternative economic package, which is remarkable.
I think President Obama did the right thing by reaching out to the Republicans. We had hoped that President Bush would have done that in the eight years that he was president. The public wants us to attempt to have bipartisanship in what we do. What is clear, though, is that maybe we'll have it in some bills but not in others.
What does the partisan gridlock suggest going forward? If it's impossible to get agreement on something as urgent as the economy, what's the prospect of bipartisanship when it comes to something even more controversial, like a climate bill?
On other issues, like energy and health care, there may be plenty of common ground to find, at least in the House. You have to remember that one of the biggest divisions between the parties, for as far back as you can look -- long before we had differences about the environment and other issues -- has been economic. The mission of the stimulus bill was to stabilize the economy and create jobs. If the Republicans had suggestions that did that, then they would have been accepted.
Yet GOP congressional leaders talk about leading a Taliban-like 'insurgency' against you and the administration. That doesn't sound like there's much room for compromise.
I don't like to use that kind of language in describing anybody in all of this. There has to be a distinction made between attempts at bipartisanship, which are legitimate, and what the American people expect and deserve. I don't think we should say, 'OK, let's be bipartisan -- we'll accept your proposal, and that will mean we'll have 2 million fewer jobs in the plan.' It's just not going to happen. That's not inter-party bickering -- that's a fundamental difference between the two parties.
The Republicans seem to be betting that Obama's stimulus plan is not going to work, and that they will benefit politically from its failure if they vote against it.
We've been there with the Republicans on this before. In 1993, the Clinton economic package passed the Congress without one Republican vote. At the time, the Republican leadership predicted a doomsday outcome -- that it was going to create a downward spiral and produce the worst economic times. Of course, it did exactly the opposite. It created the longest period of economic growth in a long time, and very substantial economic growth, at that.
The Republicans do a disservice with their message of 'I hope you fail.' It doesn't help build confidence, and we all have a responsibility to do that. No matter what we are criticizing or commenting on, we have to do so in a way that does not undermine the public's confidence. I think that aspect of what they're doing is irresponsible. They're entitled to their economic philosophy, but it is a failed economic philosophy. We're not going to dilute what we're doing to get a few of their votes and lose many, many jobs in the process.
But what if the recovery package fails to fix the economy? What's Plan B?
We know from economists across the spectrum that it will work to stop the downward spiral we are in, because it focuses on job creation. At $800 billion, I feel confident about the bang for the buck we'll get. It's not an ephemeral thing we're doing here, it's not a speech -- it's creating jobs. What we don't know -- what is uncharted -- is how deep this downturn in the economy could become.
What if it turns out to be deeper than expected? What will you say to the American people a year from now, which is the timeline the Obama administration has put forward for achieving results, if we're still in a world of hurt?
We will be accountable. We will answer for this legislation one year from now, about what worked best and where more needs to be done. We won't say, 'Well, that's just the economy's fault.' No, we will be accountable for the decisions that we make.
The last administration didn't place much of an emphasis on accountability. Sen. Patrick Leahy called yesterday for a 'truth commission' to investigate abuses of power under Bush, and Rep. John Conyers has sponsored a similar bill. Do you support such a process?
I support what Mr. Conyers is doing. I look at it from the standpoint of a separation of powers. We believe there was a politicizing of the Justice Department under President Bush, that conversations took place at the White House that supported that activity. We asked for those documents, but we did not receive them. We asked for those people to testify, but they did not come. That, for us, is a violation of the Constitution. So what we're talking about is bigger than any specific activity. We're talking about contempt of Congress -- Article One, the legislative branch.
I also support what President Obama has said: 'My approach is to look forward, recognizing that no one is above the law.' Both of those approaches are correct. It is also correct for us, as the first branch of government, to say, 'The White House, no matter who is in it, cannot violate the Constitution by not being accountable to the Congress.' And we will continue to pursue our contempt-of-Congress charges against these people for what we believe has been the politicizing of the Justice Department.
But Conyers is asking for more than that. He wants subpoena power to investigate potential abuses of war powers, to force people to testify about torture and find out what was done at Guantánamo and the CIA's black sites. Do you foresee a scenario in which senior members of the Bush administration are actually prosecuted?
I think so. The American people deserve answers. Where we are now, in terms of prosecution of White House staff, is that we have charged them with contempt of Congress. We're talking about Harriet Miers, Josh Bolten and Karl Rove. The natural course of events from here is that the speaker will determine what charge we're going to pursue, because there are more than one. Under Bush, the Justice Department told the U.S. attorney not to prosecute the case. So the beat goes on -- it just gets worse. We don't know what will happen, because they've delayed it a long time.
I'm talking more about the level of a Donald Rumsfeld -- people who authorized torture and greenlighted the kidnapping and rendition of innocent people.
I didn't like their policies, which is why we needed to win the election -- to get them out of power. But I don't know what the evidence is against them on any specific charge. When you have a truth-and-reconciliation commission . . . look, I'm still fighting the bombing of Cambodia. I still have my gripes with the administration that bombed Cambodia before you were born, so I think it's important to bring these things out. If you have a case against someone, you bring a case.
With all due respect, we've had elections before that tossed people out, but then the same people returned to power later just as Dick Cheney did after leaving the Nixon administration. If we turn the page without full examination and prosecution, aren't we in danger of seeing this again?
We should have full examination, I'm not denying that. You asked me a specific question: 'Should they be charged?' I think that further information might take us to that place, but what we want to do is unify the American people. The American people do not want wrongdoing to go unaddressed. We don't want any Democratic or Republican administration to abuse power, and that's what they tried to do with wiretapping, that's what they did with politicizing the Justice Department, that's what they did in many more ways that we could see almost on a daily basis. And yes, that should be stopped.
What Mr. Leahy is putting forward, in terms of a truth-and-reconciliation committee, has always been helpful. It was helpful in South Africa, it was helpful in Rwanda, and they were talking about doing it in places like Lebanon. Ultimately, only the Congress can be responsible for preserving our constitutional prerogatives -- that we get information from the executive branch when we ask for it, that members of the administration appear before us when they are called to the Congress.
Let's talk about global warming. What is the single biggest obstacle to getting a major climate bill through Congress?
Rep. Waxman has said he will have a bill out of his committee by the end of May. We have to unify people around the fact that unless we address global warming, we're not really going to solve the climate crisis, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and improve the quality of our air. I don't think there's any question that we need to proceed. The question is how do we do this in a way that grows the economy rather than have fearmongers describe it as something where we will lose jobs.
Does the current economic climate make it harder to do that?
Everyone says this to me, 'The current economic climate and the price of oil, hasn't that changed the debate?' No, I think it argues for climate change. I think it argues for an aggressive energy policy, and we will have one. This is a very important issue to the president, it was important in the campaign, and you don't walk away from that because the price of oil is lower or because the economy is down. In fact, all of the research tells us that energy can be a force to turn the economy around. Nicholas Stern, who studied the effect of climate-change legislation for the British government, said, 'Not only does this not harm the economy, unless you do it, you will harm the economy.'
What about health care reform? How big a blow is Tom Daschle's departure to getting universal coverage for all Americans?
Getting access to affordable, quality health care in our country is a very high priority. Our committees are just chomping at the bit to get going on it. Tom Daschle was a person who was uniquely qualified -- I use the word 'uniquely' very infrequently -- to move this along in a substantive, strong and expeditious way. He knows this issue, and it's not just an intellectual pursuit for him -- it's a passion. It's unfortunate that he will not be there, but the resources to get the job done are still there, and I know that the president will have other good choices to honcho this initiative. I'm hoping the president will include this in the budget, so it will clearly signal that it's a first-year priority. We're ready, because many of us have been fighting this fight all of our political lives.
The administration's plan for the bank bailout seems to give a lot of rope to the very same fat cats who wrecked the economy in the first place. Aren't Democrats running the risk of becoming the target for the public's anger over corporate abuses?
The public is very angry about the whole rescue package for Wall Street. Your question is best answered by quoting Barney Frank. He says, 'We talk a lot about collateral damage, but sometimes there's collateral benefit, whereby doing the right thing for the American people and the economy enables some people to benefit who we don't want to benefit.' I think what Treasury Secretary Geithner is doing versus what Secretary Paulson has done is night and day in terms of transparency and accountability. This is a complete turn away from the course of action that took place in the Bush administration. It's two different worlds, two different approaches, and any resemblance between the two is just collateral benefit. We'd rather they didn't benefit, but we have to do the right thing for the economy.
[An aide enters the office to tell Pelosi that the Senate has just approved the stimulus bill by a vote of 61 to 37. She turns to watch the news on TV.]
Isn't this interesting? We can't get Mel Martinez [the Republican senator from Florida]. And Mel Martinez is retiring. That's amazing.
[The news shows Obama promoting the stimulus package at a town hall meeting.]
Did you see his press conference last night? Wasn't it the best thing you ever saw in your life?
It's a relief to have a president who can string words together.
Presentation, content, confidence . . . I thought it was really a tour de force. It was interesting, because he used every question to make a speech, but he wasn't defensive. I thought it was great, and I'm pretty objective about these things.
In your role as speaker, is there room for you to be more partisan? After all, you enjoy a commanding majority in the House, unlike Democrats in the Senate.
I'm speaker of the House, so I try to be speaker of the whole House. But I'm also the top Democrat in the House, so I have a responsibility to have the Democratic view prevail. I try to incorporate Republican ideas, but not when we're talking about two different views. In our stimulus bill, we had a strategic mission as to what we wanted to accomplish -- to create jobs -- and everything fit into that. The Republicans were just taking shots. That's why nothing worked for them. In the end, I believe the Republicans were true to their beliefs: They believed in the failed Bush economic policy.