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Biden, COVID, and Congress in 2021: An Interview with Jake Auchincloss

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Jake Auchincloss is a freshman congressman representing Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District. He currently sits on the Committee on Financial Services and the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Prior to becoming a congressman, Auchincloss was on the Newton City Council and was a member of the United States Marine Corps (in which he is currently a major in the Individual Ready Reserve).

Miles Munkacy: As a former Marine who served in Afghanistan, you’ve talked about how your firsthand experience helped you realize that America needs to end its “forever wars”. With the May 1st deadline quickly approaching, how do you think President Biden should deal with the commitment to remove US troops from Afghanistan?

Jake Auchincloss: I think we need to really zoom out for a second and evaluate the sheer failure of our policies in Afghanistan and Iraq. I would like to state that my status as a veteran does not give me any special standing to talk about these wars. Anybody whose done any homework on this issue would see that we’ve failed catastrophically there. Over 20 years, $6.4 trillion has been invested in Afghanistan and Iraq. To give you a sense of how badly it has gone, we are currently negotiating with the Taliban for a peace deal that is likely to be worse than what we could have gotten six weeks after 9/11. Three of our counterparty negotiators were in that original group of twenty prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in the spring of 2002. To reflect on that, we are negotiating with the people that we captured twenty years ago, to get a deal that’s worse than we could have gotten twenty years ago. So, no, being a veteran doesn’t make me more equipped to recognize that this is an undesirable situation. Being a Homo sapiens—who has a brain—does so.

MM: You’ve said that you support cutting this year’s defense budget. Where would you like to see cuts in defense spending, and where would that extra money go? Foreign aid?

JA: Yes. And that’s what our letter with Representative Pocan and Representative Lee said. We get more return on our investment, per dollar spent, on diplomacy, humanitarian aid, and, in this case, global public health, than we do from the $1.7 trillion F35, which can’t do any of the functions that were originally conceived and contracted. I would say that it’s not the role of Congress to specify the exact line items that need to be prioritized or de-emphasized within the US national security strategy. You have experts who can dictate those elements of our national security strategy. It’s Congress’ role to set overarching priorities and to supervise and engage with the president’s national security strategy.

MM: How do you explain to more conservative constituents of the 4th District that environmental sustainability can be good for the economy?

JA: I think it’s a show, don’t tell, kind of thing. We’re leaving the phase of the environmental movement where it is about persuading, and we’re entering a phase, to me, where it’s about showing. So we need to demonstrate that a green economy is a better economy for everyone. I’ll give you a couple examples of that. One is a national program for retrofitting housing stocks, making it more energy efficient. This is an issue that can create jobs and equitably distribute the jobs across areas, not just in knowledge economy hubs, but also in districts that may not have succeeded so well in the knowledge economy of the last twenty-five years. That also puts money in people’s pockets in terms of saving on the heating bill. Retrofitting housing stocks creates jobs and benefits the environment.

Another example is investing in mass transit. Everyone who’s serious about climate change knows that we need to make substantial investments in transit to reduce our carbon footprint. This investment can also improve people’s use, expand the number of jobs and services within a thirty-minute commuter shed, make the labor market bigger, and improve people’s economic potential. So we’ve got to stop talking about climate change as though it’s this separate sphere of policy. Climate change is a lens through which to evaluate basic things that people care about: housing and transportation, public health, and education.

MM: What kind of reception have you received from your Republican colleagues on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure concerning your ideas on climate change? 

JA: Well, it’s very early days. I wouldn’t say I’ve had a huge number of conversations with Republicans about this issue, because we’re still onboarding onto the committee. I think you’ve got to show that it helps their districts, that it improves the resilience of the Louisiana coastline, or it creates jobs in the solar industry for Texas workers who previously did oil and gas. You’ve got to demonstrate that these initiatives can be net positives, district by district.

MM: In your two months in Congress, what has your experience been with partisanship? Is it as bad as the media says it is, and that us constituents think it is, or have you seen glimpses of hope for bipartisanship?

JA: I think there is a distinction between bipartisanship and unity. The president, in his inauguration, called for unity in this country, and that resonated with me. I’m sure it did for many of his listeners. After four years of unbelievable toxic divisiveness, people want to feel like they are bound to a common purpose. You can do that on partisan votes. The American Rescue Plan, for example, has approval ratings north of seventy percent. It’s popular with Republicans, it’s popular with the unaffiliated, and it’s popular with Democrats. I will go into my district to talk to Republicans about the ARP all day and say that it’s a unifying issue. Gun safety legislation, universal background checks, safe storage laws, and extreme risk protection orders are north of 60%, even 70% popular across party lines. If we were able to pass that legislation in the Senate, even if it was fully partisan, I would say it is a unifying piece of legislation. I am not going to be beholden to the Republican Conference’s ideas about what is unifying when the American people are telling us that they support legislation.

MM: What is something that isn’t extensively talked about that you’d like to see in President Biden’s infrastructure bill?

JA: Two things. One thing I want to see is public-private partnerships. There’s a ton of money in the private sector that wants to be invested in building infrastructure and housing, but it needs long-term rules that create certainties so shareholders know they can see returns. They don’t have to be big returns, by the way. There’s so much drive for yields in the markets that honest, stable returns over the course of thirty years are very attractive. Other countries—New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and Great Britain—do a better job of public-private partnerships, of tapping into capital that wants to go to work to build infrastructure, than the United States does. We do not need to improve all of our infrastructure solely through tax increases, or certainly not through debt financing. We can and should do this with the private sector. Collaborating with the private sector requires very thoughtful legal review to create certainties for them. JPMorgan has half a trillion dollars in reserve in deposits. They don’t want that sitting in deposits because that doesn’t create any money for them. They want to put that capital to work.

MM: Do you think we need to worry about the massive amount of spending right now, with President Biden’s infrastructure bill and the American Rescue Plan, or is that an issue for future generations to deal with?

JA: Sustainability to me is leaving something that you were given better than you found it. Environmentally, that means leaving the planet better than we found it: ecosystems, water, and air. And then it also means leaving the budget how we found it. So, no, we cannot hand off a multi, twenty, twenty-five trillion dollar debt to our kids and feel good about that, which is why I want to tap into the private sector and lobby for tax increases to pay for this infrastructure bill. We can’t put it on a credit card.

MM: You described yourself as a Baker-Obama voter a while back, and now your voting record is decidedly liberal and progressive. What do you want to show your constituents, especially progressives, who may not have voted for you in 2020, in the next two years before the 2022 midterms?

JA: I’m governing exactly how I campaigned. I made myself very clear: I am a pro-growth liberal. My campaign website a year and a half ago, when I first announced my candidacy, was exactly what you’re seeing in my voting record: very liberal on gun safety, on immigration, on voting rights, on LGBT+ rights, and on climate change. I’ve always been extremely progressive on these issues. I also believe in a growing and dynamic economy with a robust private sector, and encouraging entrepreneurs to create jobs and value. This is who I am, how I’ve campaigned, and how I’m governing.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.