INTERVIEW WITH CONGRESSMAN
RICHARD GEPHARDT (D-MO)

© 1996 Hedrick Smith Productions, Inc.


Clinton: Learning the Presidency and Relations with Congress

SMITH: The Democrats in the Congress didn't deliver...in '94...is there something institutionally wrong....people were cocky and lazy....something amiss, what was it?

GEPHARDT: The biggest problem, I think, is we inherited a mess. When I met the President in Little Rock right after the election, I congratulated him on a great victory. But I said, we now together have a terrible assignment. We have a huge growing debt that even though we didn't believe that we created it, we have to deal with it. That's our responsibility. And I said it's going to cost us politically, but it's the right thing to do and we have to do it. And he agreed. And when you go after a big problem like that, it is literally the only thing you can concentrate on. It is very hard to get this large cumbersome group called the Congress together to address a tough problem like that one. He did it by getting all the Democrats -- almost all the Democrats to vote for that deficit reduction package. We didn't get one Republican in either House to cast one vote for that deficit reduction package.
That was heavy lifting. that was hard work and we paid a political price for it. I'd do it again. It was the right thing to do. You get no political credit, but it was the right thing to do. Then we went on to health care, which was the next big first topic that the President wanted to deal with. We went into it knowing it was going to be hard to do, the chances of failure were perhaps high, but that we had to do it. It was the next big issue that needed to be addressed. We went into it, gave it the good old college try and lost, primarily because the interest that didn't want real health care reform put TV ads on that created a political climate in the country that you just couldn't get it done. That's the what happened. I'm not -- I'm not bemoaning what happened. That's what happened.

Party Unity vs. Lone Rangers and Renegades

SMITH: In 1994, Democrats in Congress were running away in droves from the President, particularly as they approach the election. At the end of 1995, beginning of 1996, Democrats have gathered around the President. Why the change?

GEPHARDT: Well, I don't think the problem in 94 was the President. I think the problem was that all of us in the Democratic Party had failed to address the major challenges that the American people perceive. We did make real progress on the deficit, but we didn't balance the budget. And, frankly, balancing budgets is not always easily perceived as being in the common good and helping people individually. Secondly, we failed on health care. So the anger and the concern, the anxiety that's been out there for a long time was certainly there in 1988, again in 1992, remained in 1994. And I think there is a sense in the country that the Democratic team had not gotten real results for people and they wanted to try the other team and that's what they did. Now, since then, I think people are deciding that the change they voted for in 1994 is not happening. In fact, not only are the Republicans not getting results, they're creating problems in the way they're conducting themselves.
So, I think it is legitimate that Democrats are now trying to get into a position in 1996, where we offer to the American people a set of ideas that will meet the central challenge of the society, which is not just balancing the budget. It's much more than that. It is can we make this economy work again for individual Americans.

The Need for Bipartisanship & Compromise

GEPHARDT: I think you got a very different political climate in the country. You have a leadership on the other side that for some time has believed that this should operate as a parliamentary system. In other words, Party A takes control, Party A has the responsibility and accountability to get a particular thing done.

GEPHARDT: So, we have the politicalization, if you will, of issues like health care. In the past, in our history, even with lots of special interest concern, we've been able to get to a bipartisan solution. Medicare in its end, in its final enactment was a bipartisan act. Democrats and Republicans together finally voted for medicare. Now, you're in a period where at least the Republican leadership has been trying for some time to make this really into a parliamentary system where one team gets all the votes from its side and the other team is trying to defeat, not add to or compromise with that effort, but to defeat it, politically. That's a very different situation than maybe we've ever been in.

SMITH: Go back to health care. Even if you want to get to a bipartisan solution...can you effectively run as a majority?

GEPHARDT: I never believed that you could do something as complicated and politically difficult as health care except on a bipartisan basis. And what we hadn't counted on was that almost anything we had proposed would be opposed by the Republican side. We had, you know, the thinkers, the kind of the leaders of thought in the Republican Party like Bill Kristol writing memos saying oppose it whatever it is. It doesn't matter what it is. We simply have to defeat it. That's a very different kind of approach to government in this country and to solving problems than we've ever seen.

Party Unity vs. Lone Rangers and Renegades

SMITH: One of the things that interests me about health care is not that it won or lost on an up or down vote on the House or Senate floor...you couldn't get it out of committee. What happens...that you can't get enough Democrats. What did you say to guys like Jim Cooper or Slattery or others at that point?

GEPHARDT: It was too late. By the time we got to considering it in committee, the lines -- the battle lines had been so clearly drawn that some of our members knew that if they voted for the Democratic plan, whatever it said, could have been a blank piece of paper, they would be attacked by the other side and by interest groups on the other side as being something that was almost un-American. That it was a very very bad solution to the problem. So, what I'm arguing to you is that the political climate has changed within the Congress dramatically in the last ten years primarily because of a belief that I think now exists on the majority side in the Republican Party that it is a system where all the Republicans have to vote together and all the Democrats will oppose.

Efforts at Party Discipline

SMITH: What did you think of the effort by Leslie Byrne and some of the others to discipline Blue Dog subcommittee chairmen who didn't vote with the President on the economic package...how did you feel about it?

GEPHARDT: It didn't work. It was a mistake. You can't do that. You cannot get people to heel in on what they believe about issues by threatening their ability to have normal, you know, advancement within the team. Our party has never been ideologically of one mind or on issues of one mind. I predict to you that over time they will tire of this idea that it's a parliamentary system and the Magna Carta exists and not the Constitution and that they will run the place with ideological purity. This is not the system we have in this country. We have a system of compromise, of consensus and of bipartisan solutions to tough problems.

The New Republicans Majority

SMITH: How did Gingrich get the Republicans unified when they're in the majority...a thinner majority than you all had in 93 - 94 and you all can't get the Democrats unified? Why is that the case?

GEPHARDT: Well, first of all, you're in a completely different situation. It's always different when you come out of the minority for 40 consecutive years. I call it the Moses analogy. When Moses leads you out of the desert, the people who have been led out tend to want to stay with Moses, at least for a year. So, it's not clear to me that Moses Gingrich is going to be able to hold his people together a lot longer. But surely that was part of it.

SMITH: You're also saying conversely...if you've been in power for 40 years...

GEPHARDT: It's harder, but the other thing I'm pointing out to you is that you're now in a situation, as long as the majority believes this is the way to operate, where there is a desire to do things in a partisan, party only way.

White House and Congress: Confrontation vs. Compromise

GEPHARDT: In the budget negotiations with the President, from almost the beginning, the Speaker, Newt Gingrich, said to the President, I will not schedule a budget that doesn't get all the Republican votes.
That is extraordinary. The President would say back, no, if it's an honest compromise, in other words, one that you all can agree to and I could agree to, it's probably got to be more like 100 Democrats and 118 Republicans. And Gingrich would say, no, I won't schedule it. The power of the Speaker is to schedule, to set the agenda -- I will not schedule it, I will not allow a result, a solution to the budget that isn't accepted by all or nearly all of the Republicans. That is a completely different way of viewing how we conduct ourselves in this democracy as opposed to many other parliamentary democracies around the country. We don't elect one team to run the country in this society, we often elect two teams, and even when they're the same team, there's often big differences between the executive and the legislative branch. In England the parliament is run and the Executive Branch is run by one party at a time. And they're held accountable. And if they fail, the other team comes in and gets the chance to run all the plays.

The Tobacco Lobby: Money, Grassroots, and Telemarketing

SMITH: Let me ask you about a current issue...David Kessler's effort at the FDA to extend regulation to tobacco...you were against the White House endorsing Kessler's effort. Is that right and why?

GEPHARDT: I think there was a -- a way to do this that would maybe hopefully be more effective and that is to enter into a negotiation with the tobacco companies to get them to do what they should have done a long time ago and that first is to stop trying to entice young people to smoke and second to even discourage them from smoking and certainly following laws that exist on the books to prohibit the sale of cigarettes and tobacco items to young people, to minors. And I think that should be done. The difference between that, which I think could get very quick results and what we're doing, which isn't bad, but I think will have less good results is that now we're going to probably end up with five or ten years of litigation and legal hassling to try to get to the result that I think we ought to get much quicker.

SMITH: Does the record of the tobacco companies and their testimony on the Hill...lead you to believe that negotiation....would work?

GEPHARDT: Oh, I think obviously you've got to hold the sword over everybody's head that if they don't do something that will work, you're going to put in the regulation. That's real simple. But the question is should we either then or now try to enter into a negotiation to get the result. Look, it makes no sense to me to wait ten years and spend hours and hours and millions of dollars of legal hassles to try to get something done that might be able to be negotiated right now.

SMITH: What gives you the feeling it would take longer to do it Kessler's way than the way you're talking about?

GEPHARDT: It may not. But I think that we need to enter the negotiation now. We need to sit down with the tobacco company, even after the regulation. If they don't want the regulation to go on eventually, then maybe they will negotiate something that would make more sense for everybody.

SMITH: But substantively, the points that Kessler laid out about advertising by contributing funds to --

GEPHARDT: They're right. Look, everyone can easily agree that we should not be encouraging inducing young people to get into a pattern of smoking and tobacco usage, which will be detrimental to their health.

SMITH: The letter that went to the FDA was signed by about 100 member of Congress. You're name wasn't on it, was it?

GEPHARDT: No.

SMITH: But my understanding was that you encouraged others to sign it.

GEPHARDT: No, I haven't. What I've said is let's negotiate. I don't think the letter, one way or the other, is going to make any difference to anything. What needs to happen now is to see if we can get the tobacco companies to do what I said, that they should have done a long time ago, and that's cease and desist from inducing and advertising cigarette use to minors and to try to get them to uphold the law and help states and local communities uphold the laws that exist that prohibit smoking by minors.

SMITH: Let me just ask you, tactically, whether or not your position has anything to do with PAC contributions from the tobacco companies --

GEPHARDT: Not whatsoever, not in any way. I do not believe that any of us, obviously, should ever effect any of our actions because somebody sent a thousand dollars or five thousand dollars or ten dollars. Never ever. I have never ever in anything that I've done in this job, in voting or in signing letters or doing anything that could be connected in my mind or anybody's mind with anything that anybody's mind with anything that anybody gave me to support my campaigns. I assume and believe that if somebody gives me a contribution it's because they think I'm in general doing a good job of representing the people that I represent in St. Louis and the area in Missouri.

SMITH: St. Louis and the area in Missouri don't have many tobacco farmers, do they?

GEPHARDT: Probably a few, but not many.
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© 1996 Hedrick Smith Productions, Inc.