A conversation with a US senator: Barbara Boxer on Congress in a changing America

Barbara Boxer/Courtesy

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

B

 

rooklyn-born, California sworn.

For more than three decades — 10 years in the U.S. House of Representatives (1983-1993) and 24 years in the U.S. Senate (1993-2017) — Sen. Barbara Boxer served the Golden State in the halls of the U.S. Capitol. 

Throughout her tenure, she became one of the Senate’s most outspoken liberal Democrats. A bold and candid communicator, Boxer’s public service has always been rooted in her desire to lend a voice to sidelined communities: to students, to immigrants and to the environment, where her legislative accomplishments range from expanding college access and affordability to protecting marine ecosystems and national parks.

For women especially, Boxer served as a trailblazer who helped dismantle the Beltway “boys’ club” and normalize the role of women in positions of high political power. Her election to the Senate in 1992’s “Year of the Woman” made both her and Dianne Feinstein — the nation’s first all-female Senate pair — symbols for a more equal, diverse United States emerging at the cusp of the 21st century. Her unwavering commitment to women’s rights, from strong reproductive rights at home to educational access for women abroad, further cemented Boxer as a policy ally.

For her partisan and at times “antagonistic” style — as detractors put it — Boxer’s record generally evokes praise from liberals and ire from Republicans: an unsurprising verdict in a political era defined by its high levels of partisanship and polarization. 

Yet her firmness of conviction is admirable: she never shied away from standing up for what she believed was right. Sometimes, a stand manifested as a physical feat: In 1991, she led the famous charge up the steps of the Capitol along with a cohort of female congresswomen to protest the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and demand that the Senate Judiciary Committee allow Anita Hill to testify. Other times, a stand meant withstanding an upswell of public and presidential pressure for war: Boxer was one of only 23 senators who voted against the Iraq Resolution in 2002 and never wavered in her opposition.

Boxer’s retirement from the Senate in 2017 marked a turning point in her own life, and even more so, a turning point for the country. Boxer had been no stranger to Washington’s shifting political tides— her career spanned five presidents, from Reagan, through the Republican Revolution, through the Democratic highs (111th Congress) and lows (post-2010) of the Obama-era congresses.

But the years after Donald Trump’s election have been unique for their degree and frequency of moral, democratic and constitutional crises. The present Congress is paralyzed by gridlock: a Democratic House passes hundreds of bills while the Senate remains tightly under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s grasp. The “greatest deliberative body in the world” lacks its distinguishing feature: deliberation.

Despite being out of office, Boxer remains active in electoral politics. She created PAC for a Change to uplift Democratic candidates across the country and work to win back the Senate for Democrats in 2020. She’s made her foray into political podcasting as well, with “The Boxer Podcast” — a show she hosts with her daughter, Nicole. And she has an eye for historic memory: She donated her congressional archive to the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, where students and researchers can learn more about legislative action.

Earlier this summer, I sat down for a telephone interview with Sen. Boxer. We discussed her career, the lawmaking process and how Congress has changed — for better and for worse — as an institution. 

The Daily Californian: Let’s start with a biographical question. You were born in Brooklyn, went to college there, and then came out to California where you raised your family and launched your political career in Marin County. What factors in your youth — and especially once you moved to the Bay Area — shaped your political values?

Barbara Boxer: Your values are really shaped by your family, by your parents. Growing up in New York in very lower middle class circumstances, I certainly learned the value of a family that’s supportive and the importance of family on children. I also learned through the history of my own family what can happen when bigotry takes hold because we lost family in the Holocaust. What I realized learning about Anne Frank was that we (in the United States) have special freedoms that you might not have had if you were born somewhere else. You learn to love your country and learn to love freedom and tolerance. Those become part of your values. 

I would say that by the time I got to California, I was 25 and I became a mom and had two kids there in the 1960s. California (taught me) to really honor diversity, whether it has to do with your religion or your ethnicity or your sexual orientation. All of these are a plus for society. I learned also, because of the beauty of our state, to cherish our environment and fight for it. It’s a combination of the early years of learning values and also coming to California and seeing those values play out. Of course, every one of those values is under attack at this very moment (on a national level).

DC: When introducing legislation, how does a member of Congress find a balance between practical legislation in the sense of a bill they really think can make it to the floor for a vote and pass both chambers, versus more “dream” legislation? Can you explain how a member might weigh these two options, and why bills that set big ambitions or bold visions — even if they might be shelved for now — are so important to put out there? Here, I’m thinking of Rep. Ocasio Cortez’s Green New Deal resolution or how you introduced legislation to eliminate the electoral college.

BB: Every legislator has to look at legislation through different lenses. One is the aspirational hopes and dreams and putting forward the perfect piece of legislation to solve, let’s just say, the gun issue. Let’s say it has three parts: one, universal background checks, another one saying you cannot get a gun if you’ve ever had a domestic violence citation, and let’s say the third one is you can’t buy guns until you’re 25. And you introduce this legislation and you know it’s good and sound. But I may not be able to get all those parts through, so maybe I’ll move one part at a time as the debate moves forward. 

In many cases, I would have these very big bills about very important issues, like climate, and take it a piece at a time. For example, I had a bill to add 2 million acres of wilderness in California — magnificent pieces of land. As it turns out, I couldn’t get 2 million, but I got 1 million. So, I didn’t just sit there on my hands and say 2 million acres or nothing, I wound up getting a million. Is that a success or a failure? Some people who are perfectionists would say it’s a failure, but I looked at it as a success because I knew it was impossible to get 2 million. So it’s a matter of the legislator and how they view their job: I always felt be aspirational but be pragmatic. 

DC: You have spoken about your disdain for the massive amounts of money and time required for individuals to run for or maintain public office. Can you tell me the role that fundraising would play in the daily schedules of members of Congress?

BB: If you’re in the House of Representatives and you’re up every two years and you’re in a very safe seat, you don’t have to worry too much about raising funds. I was there for five terms and my only term I really had to work hard in raising money was the first reelection. After that, if it’s a safe seat, in other words, people liked me, I was a Democrat and I didn’t have a primary; I really only had one or two events and it covered the cost of what I needed to do. But, if you’re in a purple district — a swing district — you have to work hard (at raising money). I hate to say this, but in the House, the minute you get there, a year later the campaign starts against you and even before a year, we have several seats here in California where we flipped seven seats in swing districts and those folks have had to raise money from the minute they got elected. (Fundraising) is part of your day everyday: it takes events, it takes phone calls, it’s rough, very rough. It’s wrong. Also, the way the Supreme Court ruled, they said if you are an individual and very wealthy and run for Congress, there’s no caps on what you can give yourself. Therefore, a very wealthy person doesn’t have to raise money and it puts them at a great advantage, and it puts the challenger at a great disadvantage. The whole system is upside down and inside out. 

For a senator, we have a six year term. I would say the first two years you do a little fundraising, but then the third year when you’re halfway through your term, you better pick up the pace. It means events and fundraising on the phone. By the time you get to the last year, you’re probably spending half of every day on the phone. I always used to make a joke that I hoped that when I called people it went to their voicemail because I hated asking for money. I’d think, “Oh, thank goodness I didn’t have to ask anybody.” It’s very demeaning. I don’t mind doing it for others, but for myself, I found it very difficult. One of the things I don’t miss.

DC: What stage of the policymaking process is most conducive to bipartisan collaboration? Did you find that there was a greater degree of collaboration and engagement between parties behind the scenes versus members of Congress’s more public positions?

BB: All through my years in the Senate, the way I got things done has always started in the committees. When I was the chairman of the Environment Committee, and Jim Inhofe (R-OK) was the ranking member, and then we switched sides and he was chair and I was ranking member, we had a very good relationship. We knew we could not do one thing on the environment — it was a nightmare, maybe one or two things we were able to get done, but for the most part it was a disaster … So we just agreed to disagree. 

But we really worked hard on the public works side. So, rebuilding the infrastructure — the highways, the bridges, the sewer systems, the water systems. We were able to really work on that. So essentially, the relationship between the chairman and a ranking member on the committees — I’m talking about the Senate not the House — that’s where it was critical. And if you could reach agreement across the line there, you were pretty much able to get it through your committee. If you have a ranking member and a chairman who can find a sweet spot, that’s the way you’re going to get things done in the Senate. But is it becoming harder to find that sweet spot? Yes, it is. 

Get “The Weekender” in your inbox!

Creative writing, deep dives, cultural commentaries and art delivered every Saturday.

DC: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has exercised some pretty substantial rule changes and norm shifts in the Senate in order to streamline his Republican agenda and block legislation passed by the Democratic House (notably, two election security bills and common sense gun control bills H.R. 8 and H.R. 112). He has exploited the nuclear option to get Trump appointees confirmed and pack the courts, and has said that he will fill a potential Supreme Court opening in 2020. Over the years, what changes in Congress as an institution do you find most concerning? And what are your thoughts on the filibuster?

BB: The big tragic change in the Senate is that we have Mitch McConnell who has become, by his own words, the “Grim Reaper” and he is proud to (kill the House’s bills). Legislation now goes to the Senate to die. The House has passed well over 100 pieces of important legislation dealing on everything from voting rights to corruption to climate, Dreamers and gun control, and Mitch McConnell, the Grim Reaper, has let them die. Bottom line is that we’ve got to get rid of Mitch McConnell — by his own admission, he wants to stack the courts with right-wingers and kill legislation. 

On the filibuster, I have always believed it was important to keep the filibuster for legislation because if you don’t, the Senate is going to become exactly like the House. You won’t be able to really reach consensus that permeates across the country. For example, if we did not have the filibuster, we would have lost Roe v. Wade years ago. If we did not have the filibuster, we would have lost civil rights legislation because there was a majority to end those things, but because we had the filibuster, we stopped it. On the other hand, we were stopped from passing good legislation on climate because of the filibuster. It’s a very complex question, I understand both sides. Ultimately, we need to have 60 votes, which leads us back to who gets elected. If we got 60 Democrats in the U.S. Senate, we could do the right thing. So what’s the answer? The answer is to elect people who support women’s rights, environmental rights, tolerance and education and immigration. That’s the real challenge — it’s very hard, it lays it on the doorstep of the American people to (flip the Senate in 2020).

DC: Central to our Constitution is the idea of checks and balances — of it being within Congress’ responsibilities to serve as a formidable check on the executive. Yet, in the last few decades, we’ve seen Congress delegate many of its powers, especially on foreign policy. Can you talk about how you see the separation of powers and how you feel about presidents’ efforts to circumvent Congress?

BB: The separation of powers is built into the Constitution. The Constitution says Congress shall declare war. But over time, executives have really turned away from that. The executive does have the power to take unilateral moves if we’re in danger, so they’ve expanded that and they’ve made it to a point where it’s out of whack. All the president has to say is “this is a clear and present danger — I’m going in” and really kind of ignore the Congress. There’s a lot of debate to go back to a time where if there’s a long-range commitment, more than just protecting us from an immediate threat, the president would have to come to Congress. I support that; I think it makes tremendous sense. Because when we are sending so many men and women to battle, we have to have a debate. 

That’s one area that needs a legislative fix because what we are experiencing now is … a presidency that is unaccountable, it’s a presidency that won’t send basic information to the Congress so therefore Congress can’t do its oversight responsibilities. And (President Trump) has gone so far to say that until you stop investigating, there’s no legislation. We’re at a point — I never thought I’d live to see it — where it’s not just that there’s a usual push and pull between executive and legislative branches, which is healthy, but he has taken a wrecking ball to the Constitution. 

DC: Would you speak a bit about the women who have inspired you along the course of your career and how the networks of female legislators (fostered largely by Barbara Mikulski (D-MD)) were crucial for allowing more effective descriptive and substantive representation?

BB: Barbara Mikulski, a good friend and (the longest-serving woman in Congress), had two lessons for us. Number one, she really encouraged women to run for office. That sounds (reasonable) today, since far more women run. In those years, women did not run. We had two women out of 100 in the Senate in 1991, and similar ratios in the House. Women were not running. She was very encouraging to us, and she busted the myth that women don’t care about women.

Secondly, once we got to the Senate, she truly helped us get on our committees and understand the day-to-day workings of Congress. There really wasn’t a formal orientation, so she really stepped in and put one together for the women. 

The third thing she taught us is that she said: “Look, among the men, there are some really great people”— Sir Galahads, she called them. She said, “Then there are some who are really out to get you.” She just wanted us to understand not to shy away from getting help from our male colleagues and working with them. She was ever-present whenever we needed anything and she always put together dinners. She was tremendous. She made history by becoming the first Democratic woman elected in her own right in the Senate. Before then, every other Democratic woman had gotten there because her husband died. So she was that first woman to get there in her own right. 

DC: I would like to know how you view an individual’s capacity for change over the arc of a career in politics and life of lived history. For candidates running for office today, especially the presidency, there are a lot of deep dives into records and past Senate history and votes. How do you feel about political position-taking — do you feel that consistency through a whole career is necessarily required for sound leadership, or do you feel that people can sincerely change their views?

BB: People should change their views over time, and if they don’t evolve, there’s something wrong with them! I always look at how people evolve. There are some critics who say, “I’ll never trust someone who ever did this, this, and this.” I think that’s being rigid. I’ve always felt that when somebody really changes — and if they really mean it, and you can tell if they mean it and are voting their conscience — I think it’s to be applauded and noted. Everybody has changed on one issue or another. When I started out, I thought we’d make civil unions absolutely equal to marriage. Well, that couldn’t be done. And once I realized that I was wrong, I said, I was wrong. You have to have marriage, because that’s how to be equal. And that’s how I felt. 

So I think what’s important is that people are sincere. If you say “oh, I changed on this” because you put your finger to the wind and you just feel you can only get elected if you (take politically convenient positions), that’s terrible. But if through your life’s work you’ve proven that you have changed, that should be rewarded. 

One more point: the hardest thing for you to say when you’re in office is “I was wrong.” For some reason, that’s extremely difficult. When someone has the guts to say “I was wrong,” I think that’s to be admired.

Contact Danielle Miller at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dmillercal.