Interview: Congressman George Miller

Jessica Gleason/Staff

Our tried-and-true political system is changing, and an overwhelming number of Americans are not pleased. Democrats and Republicans, in a rare sign of unity, seem to agree: Congress is doing a poor job managing the country, money has too much influence on elections and policymaking, this country may not be the greatest on Earth anymore. Save for the wealthiest Americans, citizens and residents of all ages, races and classes remark they disapprove of the rampant economic inequality in this country. In fact, Americans are losing faith in the very political institutions upon which this country was founded.

There is no simple solution to the constellation of problems, but they are worth recognizing nonetheless. Change, even in the most abstract sense, is not possible without an acknowledgment of the issues present and a conversation surrounding them. Political action is necessary; apathy will not do. Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, after having proudly served in the House of Representatives for 40 years as a California Democrat, reflects on his time in Congress and the current state of affairs.

The Daily Californian: You’ve been a politician for some time now. How has the political process changed in the 40 years that you’ve served in the House of Representatives?

George Miller: Looking at the events of the last couple of years and certainty the events of the last couple of weeks, you can see it’s a dramatic change. The inherent authority of the institution is being challenged in terms of people recognizing the need to have a strong institution, and when you have a very diverse democracy, there is a lot of demand placed upon the House of Representatives, or the Senate of the United States, or the presidency or all of the federal government. But institutions have to be able to process and manage that and make decisions in a democratic fashion, and that’s hard to do, and right now it’s under more stress — certainly the House is under more stress than at any time in my 40 years.

(The Republicans) would really like to believe that they can get rid of the federal government and no one would miss it. That’s just a denial of American history, in terms of the federal government being a catalyst for so much of what is today America, in terms of resources and political decisions. So it’s a big change — a very, very big change. Unfortunately, what is happening is that the Congress has ground to a halt, and the economy still needs actions by the government, our educational systems still need action by the government, our scientific and innovative and discovery process in this nation needs continued action by the government. And I think now that a lot of this is now weighing on the economy. Everyone is hoping that the economy will get above 3 percent growth, at minimum, and yet we don’t have any policy in reinvesting in America that we’ve had over the last 100 years. That’s one way to govern. I don’t agree with it.

DC: Many Americans, especially young people, have reported in recent years’ surveys that they have lost or are losing faith in the American political system, including the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court. Do you think these low approval ratings and the “decline in confidence” in American institutions is reasonable?  

GM: It’s certainly understandable. If you’re living in a democracy and you believe that people should be able to move their government forward, and that obviously changes from time to time, then to have the mechanisms of that institution just break down and yet the needs of this country continue — I think people are feeling that. The Congress isn’t functioning. And so I think their disgust, their disappointment, however they phrase it, is not too far misplaced. They’ve got to take time to understand that this is a manufactured crisis by people who want to get rid of the federal government. That seems very extreme, except that’s what (the Republicans) believe: There is no role for the federal government. They say, “It makes no difference if you shut it down,” but they’re starting to understand politically that that is certainly not the case. They hold a very extreme position that’s out of step with certainly the overwhelming amount of Americans.

DC: Voter turnout in the United States’ 2014 midterms was the lowest since World War II, with only 36.4 percent of voting-age adults casting ballots. Compared with other developed nations, the United States has some of the lowest voter turnout in the world. What can be said about the United States’ low voter turnout? Why aren’t citizens, especially young people, showing up to vote?

GM: I think that Americans are a little spoiled. In many countries, if you don’t go to the polls, bad things happen — in the sense that another form of government is elected, or dangerous people are elected, or people who don’t believe in gender equality or won’t let women go to school. It ranges across the whole spectrum. So people do turn out. I remember when I was involved in all the unrest and violence in Central America, Americans always said, “Look at all these courageous people standing in the sun to vote,” when they wouldn’t stand in the sun for 10 minutes to vote. I think if people are concerned, deciding not to vote is exactly the wrong response.

In our system, the people have some responsibility for the government. And we give you the opportunity to change the government, to change the makeup of that government either dramatically or piecemeal or however. But when you stand on the sidelines, then the people who got there are empowered, they think that they’re an accurate representation of the nation — and that’s not necessarily so. American democracy, in terms of participation, from time to time, can get very lazy. And then (the people) lament the outcomes and the results of that.

Unfortunately, some people try to make it more difficult (to vote), but the fact is, for most Americans, if you want to vote, you can vote. In some places, unfortunately, you have to work harder and you have to jump more hurdles, and that’s outrageous. That’s a hallmark of this country, that you should be able to vote freely.

DC: How does low voter turnout affect the way politics is carried out in Congress? Has this changed overtime?

GM: Voting is really about the process of holding on to your democracy. I think Americans are properly and correctly upset with the situation in Washington. The idea of not participating in government as the answer to that, to me, is so terribly wrong. You just empower the wrong forces in the country. The election — the presidential election, the congressional election — should be about a robust debate in the country. Then people vote, and they make decisions, district by district, state by state, and that’s an important part of the process. It sounds all academic, but it’s kind of fundamental. That’s the way the damn thing works. And the minute a politician sees that those people aren’t voting — those people from across the river or those people up on the hills or those people downtown aren’t voting — all of sudden, he’s leveraged, one way or another. He’s either deleveraged because those were his supporters that didn’t vote or he or she thinks, “I can live without them. I don’t have to pay attention to them.” And that’s not how a democracy works. You go vote so people will pay attention. So the reaction is the wrong reaction to the current crises. Hopefully, people will turn out in the next presidential. Hopefully, they’ll have a serious decision they want to make for all the other offices.

DC: Even so, many Americans feel there is a divide between public opinion and policymaking. They feel, maybe, that the U.S. political system doesn’t respond so much to the electorate as it does to the influence of the wealthiest Americans, who are more likely to participate in the political thought. What are your thoughts?

GM: I don’t think there’s any question that money has a disproportionate say in the electoral process, and that big money had a very disproportionate privilege in the election process. I don’t know how you hold on to a big, diverse democracy like America with all the diversity of this country, and you have secret, anonymous, dark, huge amounts of money in that election process. It’s no wonder that people express anger at the process. And it’s not just that process at the ballot box — it’s how it carries though and all the decisions made, because that money influences that outcome, and the fear of that money changes people’s behavior in state legislatures and in the Congress and all the rest of that. That’s not a secret. We see people change their positions because they don’t want to offend money. That’s become all too common in America.

DC: What’s it like balancing the needs of your constituents, your party loyalty and your personal ideologies with this competing interest of money? How do you balance these diverse interests in policymaking?

GM: You do just that. What you can’t do is, you can’t be so afraid to lose. Then big money grabs ahold of you, or this constituency grabs ahold of you because you’re struggling, because the job becomes more important than the principles. I don’t mean it’s easy. These aren’t easy decisions for my former colleagues and others to make. But you’ve got to decide: What do you stand for? Then your obligation is to go explain it to your constituents. You can’t just have your views and hide from your constituents. I think most members of Congress do a pretty good job with town hall meetings and site visits to hospitals or schools to explain. You constantly have an obligation to explain to your constituents your position. And that position may knock you out of office. That’s the system. There’s no guarantee when you ran the first time that you were going to get to spend 40 years or 20 years. The guarantee was that you got a chance to run and maybe win, and if you win, then you get a chance to serve. But that’s not an entitlement. That’s not, “Well, now this is my seat.” That’s the real test, I think — that people understand you’re their steward, that you’re there for some period of time.

DC: Surveys have found that Americans are largely dissatisfied with their Congressional representatives, yet only rarely are less than 90 percent of members of the House of Representatives not reelected. Why do you think that’s the case?

GM: Well, there’s an old saying — “People don’t like Congress, but they like their congressperson.” I think in a lot of ways that’s true because they have a different connect.

But I think that’s less true today than it used to be.

You know, democracy is really messy. This isn’t a tidy business. Nobody gets their way every day. It just doesn’t work that way. It’s not life. And a democracy reflects all the tensions that exist in the rest of society, and there is a place to respond to them, whether it’s a rally or a protest or a strike or a letter to your congressperson or the way you vote. That’s the wonderful thing. But a lot of people don’t participate, and they’re disappointed with it. They’re right to be disappointed, but then you think, “Do something to change it. Get involved.” Democracy needs involvement because it is messy. We all know it. Democracy takes a lot of work. It’s much easier just to have a strong dictator. It’s not very good for the people. A lot of people die in that process. A lot of people lose their rights and their dignity and everything else in that process. But that’s easy. This is hard. The question is: Are Americans up to the hard work necessary to hold on to their democracy? And I say that, as a former member of Congress, it is much easier if people just give up on you. Then you get your way. And that’s the worst thing that could happen. Hopefully, people — as much as this situation is unusual — but people understand how serious it is to their own interest and their community and others when the government isn’t functioning. The idea that you can just get rid of the government and nobody will miss it, it’s just like a fourth grader.

It’s about their government and about whether it’s functioning or not. (People) still have pretty good expectations. They’re disappointed, but they want better. And they’re entitled to better. There are a lot of unmet needs because of the political stalemate that you now have. Most of my life in Congress, this wasn’t a factor — it’s just been the last couple of years. Most of the time, you just had to hammer it out. Republicans and Democrats eventually, at the end of the day, had to decide on what the solution was going to be: not perfect for you, not perfect for me, but we’ll come back tomorrow and we’ll get a better one. But right now, we need a solution. That’s all people asked. That’s all people ever ask. They ask, “Just do the best you can.” So we’ve got to get back to that, I think.