Ronald Reagan's “welfare queen” myth has been strenuously discredited, but another counterexample never hurts – especially when she's spent 20 years on Capitol Hill. Before she ran for office, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-California) spent years raising her three children on her own and with the support of public assistance. Her story, and her influential presence in Congress – as the former co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, an outspoken critic of war and a two-decade veteran in the House – are more relevant than ever as divisive rhetoric about a tax-drunk “entitlement society” pervades the GOP primary. Woolsey, set to retire at the end of this term, spoke with Truthout in late January.
Alissa Bohling: You signed on to a letter from House Democrats two weeks ago urging the president to help alleviate the foreclosure crisis by appointing a permanent director to the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA). Would you talk about some of the criticisms of the current FHFA, and about the issues behind the timing of the letter?
Rep. Lynn Woolsey: We're into the second half of this Congress and it's getting worse instead of better, it appears, for the housing crisis. We wanted to re-emphasize to the president that this needs to be on the top of his agenda.
AB: And there have been some specific criticisms of the current acting director, Edward DeMarco.
LW: Yes. The criticisms from the California delegation behind that letter is that he doesn't seem to understand the impact of the crisis on California.
California is the largest state, has the greatest population, has the most homes underwater per capita. We met with him and he committed to coming back to us with answers to our questions, and it did not happen. So, that's why we wrote the letter – we went beyond him. We would like to have somebody in that position that understands – not that we're California only's, but when you have a state the size of ours that's in so much trouble, we're not going to be able to solve our economic problems in the country unless this is taken care of.
AB: And does it seem that there is a lack of accountability when someone is in what's ultimately a temporary slot?
LW: Probably. Maybe lack of interest, lack of understanding. We just felt like he just didn't appreciate the significance of California in this housing crisis.
AB: Moving on to some of the family-oriented policy that you've worked on, I wanted to talk about your Balancing Act. But first I wanted to get your thoughts on Rep. Gwen Moore's (D-Wisconsin) RISE Act, which she introduced last month to overhaul Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). The RISE Act has a lot of provisions that sound likely to be welcomed by low-income families: guaranteeing child care for recipients who are eligible to work, stopping the clock on benefit time limits during a recession, and others. So, it sounds like a very common sense piece of legislation, but does it stand a chance of passing the House? If not, could it accomplish something else?
LW: Well, it stands a chance of being discussed and, I hope, debated, at least at the committee level. And it's very important.
I voted against TANF. As a past welfare mom, I knew that we were taking away the safety net from individuals who were in my situation when I was in need of federal help. The RISE Act is needed more than ever with this economy we have now, and each of the parts of the bill responds to our experience with TANF. And Gwen Moore is right: if we want to move someone out of poverty, we have to help people get back on their feet and become self-sufficient. There's ways that we can do it, and there's ways that, if we ignore people who are struggling, they'll never be better off. So, I'm a co-sponsor of the RISE Act, and it includes really important reforms, like indexing the TANF block grant for inflation. That hasn't been done since 1996, and certainly the cost of a child's shoes hasn't stayed in one place since 1996. Everything has raised, except for minimum wage and TANF.
AB: You're the ranking member of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee, whose jurisdiction includes wages. Do you think we'll ever see a livable minimum wage in this country, and if so, what will it take to implement it?
LW: The fact is, no one can live on $7.25 an hour, but it's not ever going to come to debate or to the floor under a Republican majority, period. But it has to be a priority for Democrats because we need to raise that base. And then we need to index to account for inflation every year to keep it livable. Otherwise, taxpayers make up the difference with food stamps and Medicaid.
AB: Let's talk about the Balancing Act. The provisions it includes, such as universal preschool and doubling the length of family medical leave – of course there's always going to be a split in Congress and among the public, but these seem like potentially popular reforms to move the American lifestyle toward something more realistic. Would you talk about what inspired you, what informed your writing of the bill, and what its status is now?
LW: There are many reasons why I was inspired to do this. One, our laws governing work and family are designed for the “Leave It to Beaver” era of America, when I grew up, and they just haven't changed as society and the economy have changed. We have to do something to provide greater outreach to families so that they can bridge work and family. No worker should ever have to make a choice between their family and their job. When that happens, everybody loses.
The Balancing Act is win-win: it helps families, and it's good for business, also. Besides having been a single working mother, and then a working mother, my entire life, I was a human resources manager for a company that grew from 12 people to over 800 over a ten-year period. Then I left and started my own human resources consulting firm. And it was absolutely proven to me that secure, well-adjusted employees are productive employees, and productive employees are good for the corporate bottom line, period. They're not only productive, they're loyal, and they will do anything for their employer, once they know that that employer is loyal to them. And that's what the Balancing Act works from. We have the Family and Medical Leave Act, which is great, but most workers can't afford to take family leave because it's not paid.
And of course, greater access to safe and affordable childcare, that just goes without saying: if your children are in a secure place while you're at work, you don't think about those kids in the same way you would otherwise. You don't forget they're in your life, but they're not taking up half your brain. But if you're worried about them, you just have half of you at work, and the other half worried about, “Are they safe?” and “Where are they?” And then we're raising kids who are very resentful because they don't feel cared for. And it's not just poor kids, let me tell you.
AB: And what is the status of the bill right now?
LW: It's been reintroduced for, I think, the fourth or fifth time. It's an omnibus bill. We have 57 co-sponsors, even though everybody knows in this Congress it's not going to go anywhere. But it's referred to a lot, when members are out talking about children and families and work, as a way to make things work better all the way around.
AB: So, you think it will have an influence on the conversation down the road?
LW: I believe it will, but somebody's going to have to pick it up after I retire at the end of this term.
AB: Do you think someone in particular will?
LW: I do. It would be perfect for Gwen Moore, certainly Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois), this is their kind of bill. But I believe this is more perfect for Gwen because this is what she is here for, just like that's why I'm here. And I'm going to certainly sit down with her and ask her to carry it forward. And she can add the RISE Act into the omnibus piece of it. The Balancing Act was structured so that any part can be pulled out and dealt with separately. And the whole Balancing Act, it's not all my legislation; it's a whole mix of members.
AB: You've spoken on the House floor over 400 times to call for ending the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. What keeps you motivated to continue speaking out when militarism is so entrenched in our politics and our foreign policy?
LW: What keeps me motivated is that we're still there after ten years. The president did the right thing in honoring the commitment to bring our troops home from Iraq, but we are still in Afghanistan in our 124th month of war, and it isn't just costing us $10 billion a month, but it's also the death toll and the physical and psychological damage that's occurring with our veterans. And we cannot overlook what's happening to Afghanistan civilians – we're going to be paying for this for decades.
AB: You have promoted a nonmilitary foreign policy strategy that emphasizes things like nuclear nonproliferation and decreasing weapons spending to spend more on homeland security. This seems like it would be really popular with the antiwar segment of the public, except perhaps for upping Homeland Security: there's been a lot of attention placed on the civil liberties violations that became a problem since the Department of Homeland Security was formed after 9/11. How would you defend that increased Homeland Security spending to people who would be concerned about civil liberties issues?
LW: It probably wouldn't satisfy their concerns, but I can tell you, I vote against every one of those actions of taking our civil liberties and civil rights …
AB: You voted against the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)?
LW: Absolutely. But also, what I'm hoping with my antiwar activities is to rewrite who we are as a nation and what our role is, by promoting what I call Smart Security. That's my bill to change how we address our differences, and it's just rethinking our national security strategy in general. Instead of invading and occupying foreign countries, my bill promotes security by addressing human needs and empowering people – and with civilian surges to help alleviate poverty around the globe, because military surges will not work. They're not working in Afghanistan; heaven only knows what's going to happen in Iraq now. We, as humans, have to find a different way to meet and work on our differences.
AB: And what about the homeland security component of your Smart Security strategy? Would it be more surveillance or …?
LW: Mostly what we're looking at there is homeland security meaning our own borders. What we wanted with Smart Security is, we didn't want anybody to think we were blind to the fact that it is our responsibility to protect here at home. And there would never be anything in it that would say that you can spy on your own citizens in the wrong way. A lot of that money would go to first responders, which we think are underfunded, and to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – that's all under Homeland Security.[Woolsey's most recent House Resolution on Smart Security, from January 2011, does not include specific measures for Homeland Security.]
AB: A few questions on the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC): Where was the CPC on the NDAA? It seems like the caucus has been quieter. In the past, it's been vocal in coming out against the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay – is there a fracture going on, or why have things been quieter?
LW: No, not at all. The CPC is stronger than ever under Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona). What you're experiencing – what we all are – is, we're never here. It's hard to get up in arms and pull a caucus together to make a statement other than the Republican conference and the Democratic caucus – our leadership is all dedicated to that. But there is nothing in the Progressive Caucus that supports what went on with the NDAA.
Now, what the Progressive Caucus has been working on is a nationwide tour about jobs that was really successful, and it actually shifted the debate from the subject of deficit reduction, which will make everything worse for our economy, to jobs. I would like to think that what you're seeing is not lack of interest, just lack of time.
This is what happens when the leadership, which is our Republican majority, set it up so we are never here. We're here two full days, or maybe only one full day in January, eight days in February. It's the least productive Congress, one of the least, in history. You pull people apart – I go to California, Keith Ellison goes to Minnesota, Raul goes to Arizona [Ellison and Grijalva are the CPC's co-chairs], and we get totally enmeshed in our own districts and our own district work – and it is very difficult to stand up against this Homeland Security business. But it doesn't mean it isn't happening.
AB: Do you think it means something totally different to be a progressive in Congress today versus when you took office 20 years ago, or even five or ten years ago?
LW: Yes, of course. The politics has gone so crazily to the center and right that we are needed more than ever, and there are fewer and fewer of us. So. what's happened – Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) started the Progressive Caucus, then it was Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), then it went to Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), and people would come and talk about particular issues, but it wasn't really organized. So then, Barbara Lee (D-California) and I were elected as co-chairs in 2005, and we moved it from around 20 members to 80-something.
So, we spent four years building the caucus and putting together our Progressive Promise – what we believed in and what we stood for – and it really started on its way and started being heard by leadership. And now Keith and Raul are building on that. There are fewer members right now, but that can't be helped.
In the last election, however, the Blue Dog Caucus was decimated but the Progressive Caucus only lost a few members. And it's more important than ever. The meetings are well attended, the progressive leadership is appreciated, we have good staff, and we don't take things for granted. A lot of what we can accomplish is getting our leadership to change things before they come to the floor, and we don't go and beat our chests and say, “Look what we did!” because then we'll never be heard again. But we do make an impact.
AB: What about the relationship with the Occupy movement?
LW: We love the Occupy movement.
AB: Were you at the October CPC meeting when the protesters from DC came?
LW: I was.
AB: Do you feel like there was a real conversation? There have been criticisms that lawmakers and activists are not really collaborating, or that they're not really communicating.
LW: Occupy – they were great. We've had two meetings with them, actually. And we just had a retreat last week in Maryland and Occupy members came. I've been waiting for the Occupy movement, waiting for young people to get engaged, because a bunch of gray-hairs like me, we aren't going to be able to carry the ball forever.
Their message to us, and I'm not quoting anybody, was, We want to do this on our own. We aren't looking for anything from you, and virtually what they were saying – and I think they're right – is, we know you're progressives. You're the best, but if you're so damn good, why is everything such a mess? So, we want to do it our way. Now, I think it's changing slightly; it's shifting to, let's see if there can be some cooperation, and, where do we need help from those who can make something happen?
But the DC protesters, they said, we need food; we need toilets; we need money. And we helped them get all three things, without taking credit or acting like we did it for them, because we really respect them.
AB: It's funny that they would come to the meeting and then say, “We don't want your help, but maybe on a few things …”
LW: Well, the CPC leadership invited them and they were polite. They didn't say no; they came. One of our members wanted to tell them what we were going to do to help them, and they said, no, please don't do that; we don't want it. And they meant it. They don't want Codepink or MoveOn or the Progressive Caucus to run their show.
AB: But there's a difference between an activist organization like Codepink and people with the power to move legislation.
LW: I have been waiting for them to get fed up with the status quo and start looking for a way to change it. Are they going to be right on and successful the very first time out of the box? Maybe not, but believe me, people know they exist, and you can say all you want, “Oh they don't have a message,” but just their numbers is a message.
AB: You've been in office for 20 years. Do you have a key first piece of advice that you would pass on to whoever takes your seat?
LW: Don't be afraid to push the envelope, and don't take “no” as a final answer.
My best example of that is the Iraq war. I was the first one with legislation that came to the floor to tell President Bush to bring our troops home. And my own colleagues were saying, “Oh don't do that, you'll embarrass us.” I said, “Actually, if I'm the only one that votes for this, I won't be embarrassed – sorry.”
We got 138 votes, and I think six or seven of them were Republicans. And it changed the dialogue in the country. That was the beginning of people knowing that they could be against going with this Iraq lie and it didn't make them bad people or bad citizens; it didn't make them anti-USA or anti-troops. It made sense; we weren't supposed to be there. And then my colleagues were able to – now most Democrats vote against all of that exempt spending, particularly for, well, Iraq's gone, but Afghanistan now. The majority of my Democratic colleagues and a good bunch of my Republican colleagues have caught up with the rest of the country.
So, my point is, don't just go along to get along when you get here, because this country needs way more than that.