Tom Suozzi

Problem-Solving Heroism

Air Date: October 28, 2017

Congressman Tom Suozzi talks about modeling a way forward for politics beyond dogma.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Hometown heroes. We want to believe in the integrity of our locally elected congressional office holders, representative government, and the promise of its leadership. My own New York Third District Congressman Tom Suozzi, who previously served as mayor of Glen Cove, New York from ‘94 to 2001 and as Nassau County Executive from ‘02 to 2009 is here with me today. Modeling a courageous, constructive way forward, an escape from party dogma an intransigence, Suozzi is vice chair of the Bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of roughly 22 Republicans and 22 Democrats committed to working across party lines to try and find real solutions. The caucus meets regularly, and recently engaged with the White House and its staff to consider issues, namely healthcare, infrastructure, and tax reform. Thank you Congressman for being here today.

SUOZZI: Alexander, so happy to be on your show today. Thanks for having me.

HEFFNER: This Problem Solvers Caucus can really leverage the positive pro-social political capital that’s left in this country. How are you going to do it?

SUOZZI: It’s not easy, I’ll tell you that to start with. The system is designed against bipartisanship. But we’ve got about forty-some-odd people right now that are committed, equally Democrats and Republicans, committed to trying to work together to get to yes, to try and find answers to solve problems. You know, there’s people in Congress that, you know, the Tea Party for example, they want to get to know. They want to try and block things, the Freedom Caucus. We want to be an antidote to that. We want to get to yes to solve problems that exist. The healthcare debate right now is a great example of that, where the Republicans decided we’ll just go this alone, we’ll do it by ourselves, and it failed. And now it’s resurrecting itself as we speak, and we’re saying no, you can’t do it as one party. It’s not gonna work. Let’s get Democrats and Republicans to work together. Let’s all give a little bit but try and get to an answer that actually helps the American people.

HEFFNER: Those 44 folks, are they primarily first or second-termers?

SUOZZI: No, there are some people that have been around for a long time and there’s a lot of freshmen, and, and, and sophomores, but there are people that have been around for a long, long time…

HEFFNER: There’s also been a Civility Caucus too, right?

SUOZZI: Well everybody, you know, the freshmen class signed a Civility Pledge that we would, you know, treat each other with respect throughout this process, and I, and I’m a freshman and I’m finding that I’m happily surprised at the talent that’s in the House of Representatives, and it’s not this crazy everybody can’t stand each other. I just think that the structure of the system is such right now that it works against people working together, and the people are sick of it. The public is sick of it. They’re sick of politicians. They’re sick of politics. They’re sick of finger-pointing and blame games. They just want us to get something actually ran a campaign, my campaign slogan was “Suozzi gets it done.” So I’m here, I want to get something done now and it’s not easy in this environment, so we have to battle … I’m constantly working, for example, to try and build relationships with people on the other side of the aisle, just to get to know them. I get up at 6 o’clock in the morning and I go to a 6:30 work, workout class that’s run by a Republican congressman from Oklahoma who’s a former MMA fighter and a wrestler. It’s half Democrats, half Repu… I’m like out of breath the whole time. These guys are all younger than me. But uh, you know, just to get to know people. Sometimes I go to the non-denominational prayer breakfast, and these are all the southern evangelicals, and I get in there, I say I’m a, I’m a Catholic Democrat from New York, they’re like [LAUGHS] that’s funny. [LAUGHS] But it’s a good way to get to know people.

HEFFNER: Right. Well, we have to get to this point where we’re able to use diplomacy to, what I’ve said, disagreeably agree. You know, and I don’t mean through hatchets and knives, but through discourse, and it’s challenging but if you think back to those great deliberative bodies, the Constitutional Convention, the Second Continental Congress, there was a range of perspective, disparate views, and they reconciled. Later there was a hugely disunifying event that allowed us to reunify, but how do you get to yes, that was the question. How do you get to yes? Where have you found areas of potentially fruitful compromise?

SUOZZI: So before I get to that, if I can.

HEFFNER: Yes please.

SUOZZI: I would like to just talk about why do we have this problem in this country, why are we so divided. And I don’t think it’s ‘cause people are so different than they used to be. It’s not just because of cable television, people, you know, going into their echo chamber and listening to people that agree with themselves. A lot of it has to do with the fact that of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, most of the seats, 390, maybe 400, are safe seats. They’re guaranteed either gonna be Democratic no matter what or they’re gonna be Republican no matter what. And as a result, you can’t lose the election in the general election. It’s impossible to lose the general election. But you could lose, possibly, the primary. And nobody votes in the primary. So if a Democrat’s running and they can only lose in a primary, they’re gonna play to the far left of the party because they can only lose a primary, and only 10 percent of the people vote in a primary. In the Republican side, you can only lose in a primary, you’re gonna play to the far right of your party, and only 10 percent of the people vote in a primary. So as a result you have, there’s 400 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives playing to their far right or far left sides and instead of trying to come to the middle, and I give the example all the time of Eric Cantor. Eric Cantor was like the number three person in the Republican House of Representatives, and he said let’s do immigration reform. It’s time to do immigration reform. We should really figure this out. And he got a primary from the far right and he lost. He’s one of the most powerful Republicans in the country and he lost a primary. So that scared everybody away, and everybody sees that nobody’s participating in these primaries except for people at the, at the far edges of the periphery.

HEFFNER: And I urge our viewers to go to TheOpenMind.com, check out our programs with John Opdycke of Open Primaries. We’ve been focusing on this for three and a half, going on four years,

SUOZZI: Right.

HEFFNER: And folks who viewed our program probably think we sound like a broken record insofar as here is the crisis, where are the solutions? Are the folks who were represented in that 45 person contingent, are they more nimble, more flexible, more pliable, more comfortable to compromise and why are they more comfortable to compromise?

SUOZZI: They’re, I think because they’re basically good people it starts with, that they want to do the right thing. They want to solve problems and they’re willing to show the courage and take the heat that they’ll get from their own party as well as the opposition. You know, everybody, you know, they say, you know, what happens when you’re in the middle of the road. You get run over. So you have to be, it takes guts,

HEFFNER: Right.

SUOZZI: To do this stuff. So for me, you know, I’m trying to do this and I’ve got my friends in the progressive left of the Democratic Party saying you’re crazy. Why are you talking to these guys? They’re no good, they’re bums. Don’t even talk to them. Well at the same time, the Republicans are saying Suozzi’s a Democrat, let’s bury this guy. So you know, you get both sides coming at you for daring to talk about this, so it’s, it’s challenging from that perspective. The, so these people have guts to do it in the first place. They’re all, most of them I should say, are more in these seats that could go either way, you know, that their, their constituency is demanding that they try and solve problems, and it’s smart politically to try and serve their, their constituency. That’s why gerrymandering is such a major problem in our country. I’m one of, of 37 members of, or 38 members of the House of Representatives that has signed a, an amicus brief to the Supreme Court that, on October 3rd is arguing that there can no longer be partisan gerrymandering. Because that would … that would, if we didn’t have partisan gerrymandering in America, it would completely change this whole dynamic, and it would force people to be more willing to compromise and, and try and find solutions somewhere in the middle.

HEFFNER: I was thinking when you made that comment, you made me laugh about the wrestling analogy in being in the middle of the road and the plight of the centrist, or center-left, center-right. I was thinking about the photo that hangs in the hallway as you enter the studio. I mentioned this to Secretary Grimes who was with us recently, of a program we did with Senator Sanders, the content of which, you know, this is pre-campaign, would be wholly relevant to any discussion today about genuine economic concerns of folks, and while you can disagree on prescriptions, you know, thus far when it comes to healthcare, when it comes to tax reform or infrastructure, those three issues on which this President wanted to take command, there’s been a missing in action.

SUOZZI: I was invited with a group of uh, 15 members of Congress to meet with the President and some of his senior staff. Some Problem Solvers, some Blue Dog Democrats, some Republicans from Problem Solvers, uh, some other folks, you know, that are not affiliated with either, either of those groups. And it’s, the sense I got was that the President wants to try and do … you know, I don’t agree with the President on a lot of things, I want to make that very clear from the get-go, but the President wants to try and negotiate agreements to get things done, and he’s got some talented people on his senior staff that are around him, that I think want to do the same thing, but I don’t think he appreciates the complexity of politics and governing and legislation. And I’m concerned that there are people on his team that are stuck in one extreme of the Republican Party that are trying to just drive their agenda and they’re controlling the legislative process. So the president wants to disrupt things, you know, that’s, that’s what we’ve seen.

HEFFNER: So representing our district, right, natives of, of Jericho, Glen Cove,

SUOZZI: Yeah.

HEFFNER: What are tangible results that you would hope, national infrastructure for instance, we were victims together of Sandy. We understand that viscerally. What are examples of constructive approaches that could be federal legislation that helps people in New York and around the country?

SUOZZI: Well we started out in the Problem Solvers saying we’re gonna do, discuss infrastructure and tax reform and try and find compromise there, and we ended up shifting gears and went to healthcare when we saw the whole thing fall apart, and we found a compromise that said the main thing we need to do, and this was really the Democrats driving this with some Republicans, we have to stabilize the individual market. There are 330 million people in America. 160 million people get their health insurance from their employers. 70 million get their insurance from Medicare. 50 million get their insurance from Medicaid. About 25 or 30 million people remain uninsured, and there’s about 21 million, 22 million people in the individual market. The individual market is where everything’s blowing up. The premiums go through the roof, the insurers are pulling out of the marketplace. This is where all the angst, most of the angst is coming from as far as the instability in the marketplace. So we said as a group, Democrats and Republicans agreed on this, we need to as a priority stabilize the individual market through certifying that there’s definitely gonna be cost-sharing reductions, that this is gonna be under the Congress, and this would actually help reduce premiums in those areas. As a compromise, the Republicans said well we’ll agree with this but we want to get rid of the medical device tax and we want to change the employer mandate from 50 employees to 500 employees. Well we talked to the people that wrote the Affordable Care Act in the first place and they said you know what? Employers will continue to give the insurance anyway ‘cause you have to in America today, you have to give this insurance if you want to remain competitive in the marketplace. Very few people got insurance because of the employer mandate, so we gave, we gave on that. Uh, but this was a compromise. We started to see movement in the Senate, for them to agree with what we’re doing, Lamar Alexander and, and Patty Murray started talking about bipartisan compromises, especially on the stabilizing of the individual market, but it’s being derailed by the efforts right now, by Cassidy and the group.

HEFFNER: Let’s take infrastructure and tax reform. Where could we find those areas of common ground?

SUOZZI: I think there’s no question that infrastructure, if the President had decided to make that his number one agenda item, this is something Chuck Schumer said from day one, he could make a deal with the Republicans, with the, and the Democrats…

HEFFNER: He’d have 60 percent approval right now.

SUOZZI: Right away, right away, and, and it’s, people are dying for this in America. We have to recognize the President resonated with a big swath of Americans because he spoke to people that have been left behind by globalization and technology. People that are just not making it in America today, they’re, as I said before, there’s 330 million people in America. There’s only 105 million full-time jobs, which makes sense when you take out the seniors, you take out the young people, you take out the stay at home parents, you take out the part-time workers, you take out the unemployed and disabled, there’s a 105 million full-time jobs. Of those 105 million full-time jobs, 59 million people make less than 50 thousand dollars a year. 86 million, out of 105 million, 86 million make less than 75 thousand dollars a year. No wonder everybody’s, thinks that we’re elites in New York or in California or in Washington D.C. that are out of touch. There’s this whole swath of Americans that are not making enough money to make it in America anymore.
HEFFNER: That’s why Sanders resonated.

SUOZZI: Infrastru… right, that’s why San… and why Trump resonated as well.

HEFFNER: Right, they both resonated for that reason.

SUOZZI: They both resonated.

HEFFNER: I’m sorry.

SUOZZI: So infrastructure,

HEFFNER: Right.

SUOZZI: Is an opportunity not only to fix our decaying infrastructure in this country from sewers and roads and bridges and tunnels and airports and ports but it’s an opportunity to create economic growth and jobs that pay enough money that people can afford to make enough money, and that…

HEFFNER: How can you and the congressman from Oklahoma you mentioned and the…

SUOZZI: Well he’s not in the Problem Solvers. The guy from Oklahoma is not going to help with the Problem Solvers. He’s out there. [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS] Well it’s important to be candid in, in that respect.

SUOZZI: Yeah.

HEFFNER: The folks who can commit to solutions, how can you guys collectively, guys and gals, congressmen, congresswomen, from Vermont, and Senator Sanders from Vermont, address the economic abandonment that crosses all boundaries and borders.

SUOZZI: That’s the key to success for our country. The Democrats came out with a message in the beginning of August and said listen, we’re gonna, we’re gonna start a new message and a new platform. We’re gonna talk about a better deal, better jobs, better wages, a better future. And people are like well, that’s what we should be doing. That’s what the Democrats should be talking about. We’ve lost that central message of what we need to be focused on, and we saw throughout the whole summer, everybody was pulled away from that message because of the crazy events in Charlottesville and the President’s response to it.

HEFFNER: Right, that’s true. I would submit to you that we, you know, we associate with the Square Deal or the New Deal, our Roosevelt,

SUOZZI: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Lions of New York, my objection to this, to the notion of better is that it was not sufficiently rooted in our history, in the part, you know in the Democratic Party’s history and what I allude to now as American history, and maybe you and Secretary Grimes and Senator Schumer and company can embellish on that.

SUOZZI: We’ve got to embellish on that, it’s got, this is,..

HEFFNER: Too generic.

SUOZZI: Everything’s a process. You know, you have to build, I wro… I wrote an op-ed piece where I talked about how my goal is we need to create five million new 80,000 dollar jobs in America. I told you before 86 million,

HEFFNER: Right.

SUOZZI: Out of 105 million full-time jobs make 75 thousand dollars or less. So I set the 80 thousand as, as the goal and 5 million as a reasonable number. And everything we do, you want to do infrastructure, your President wants to do tax reform, you know, corporate tax reform? You want to do, you want to do, changes in, in protections and regulations that affect our lives? What are you gonna do to create 5 million 80,000 dollar jobs in this country? Right now there are 6 million jobs in America that are unfilled because we don’t have sufficiently trained people. You and I and everybody else in politics and public policy has been pushing college college, college for 20 years, and we should continue to do that, STEMs. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The more you learn, the more you earn. But 60 percent of Americans don’t go to college, and we have poo-pooed the idea of people going to trade schools and apprenticeship programs and going to, in New York State, BOCES. We need to start pushing skilled positions again for people to become electricians and plumbers and carpenters and welders. I had three welders in my office, I’m sorry for going on about this, but I had three welders in my office. One guy was 22, one was 29, and the other was 32 years old, and I asked them why did you become welders. And they were almost sheepish about it, they were guilty almost, they were like well, I didn’t do well in school and my father was mad at me, and my, my grandfather said he knew somebody and you know, I became a welder. I said well how’s it going? He says oh, I said well how much money did you make last year? The 22-year-old made $99,000 dollars. The 29-year-old made $120,000 dollars, and the 32 year-old made $140,000 dollars. They get up early in the morning, they drive an hour to go to work, they take every job they can get. But we don’t have enough welders in America. And we need to figure out how to start getting back to this basic message that people have been left behind by technology and globalization. We don’t want to change our standards of protecting people with worker safety. We don’t want to change our environmental protections. And we want to make people have better lives with insurance and with pensions, and we want people to have better wages. But part of the path to getting there is encouraging these type of skills in the global marketplace for jobs that can be done right here at home.

HEFFNER: Well if anyone just listened to you, Congressman, they would have heard authenticity in your storytelling, in your message. So as we were discussing off-camera, I have a proposition. When it comes to tax reform or infrastructure, we need to enlist the media collectively to be activist, not ideologically. Constructively. And you know how Crossfire was disbanded, rightfully so,

SUOZZI: Yeah, yeah.

HEFFNER: Because, at a certain point, it was just inane nonsense.

SUOZZI: Yeah, yelling at each other.

HEFFNER: Right, which you don’t hear here on PBS stations. We, we need, we need an amazing race to legislative success. Whether it is public television or commercial, we need to see the sausage making up close and personal, enlist a congressman, a senator, officers at think tanks that might have opposite objectives but together, a day in the life, and do a series like that for days or weeks. Not the fabricated or publicity stunt style events where they are driven as gotcha questions, but if we had that kind of leadership in public media and in the fourth estate, we would earn our integrity back as journalists, to the extent that it’s been voided, and we would help engender or facilitate the camaraderie in your caucus.

SUOZZI: I like that idea. I like the idea, two parts of what you said. One is almost like a reality TV show that you’re talking about,

HEFFNER: Yeah.

SUOZZI: To follow a day in the life type of thing, which people I think need to understand what this life is like, you know, everybody hates politicians. They’re sick of politicians. See, they’re genuinely good people trying to do the right thing. It’s just they’re being pulled apart by different structural factors. That’s, so one, the reality idea, but something else you said that I think we should add to it is this amazing race idea, the idea of a competition. Who’s got the better ideas, who’s gonna get the thing done, who’s gonna win the race to solve the problem to make people’s lives better? It should be a competition. That’s what democracy is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a compet… it’s like capitalism. Capitalism only works when there’s competition. Democracy only works when there’s competition. I’ve got a better idea than you. I’ve got a better way to pay for it than you do. I can get it done more, quickly than you can. I’ll help more people than you. Let’s compete,

HEFFNER: Right.

SUOZZI: In the battle of ideas,

HEFFNER: Absolutely.

SUOZZI: As to how to make people’s lives better. That’s why our primary system is not working, because there’s not enough competition ‘cause it’s a small little group of people. We had more people in the process, there’d be more competition and it would force the politicians to be more accountable to the public.

HEFFNER: And after Senator McCain went like this to the shock and astonishment of that polarization complex, there, there would have been, and there still is a peak interest, and Senator McCain’s one of the most courageous political office holders in the history of this country. He has nothing left to lose.

SUOZZI: That’s for sure.

HEFFNER: Get him in a room, I don’t know, with Pat Leahy or pragmatic, thoughtful,

SUOZZI: I’m in, sign me up.

HEFFNER: And a congressional version of that, but it needs leverage in order to compete in this Twitter clickbait culture.

SUOZZI: It’s got to be, it’s got to be interesting.

HEFFNER: But it can be sexy.

SUOZZI: It’s got to be, well it is. It’s very interest, it’s an interest, I love my job. I love my job, it’s a hard job, I don’t like being away from my, my wife and son who’s at home, we have two other kids away, uh, I don’t like that part. It’s long hours. It’s a lot of ups and downs along the way, but I love it. And I think that if people really knew what was going on, they’d love it too. Public policy, public debate, public life is something for everybody. A good thing that’s happening in America today is that more people are paying attention now than ever before. I first ran for office in 1971. I lost my first race for mayor of Glen Cove in 1991. I was 29 years old. I have never seen the engagement that I see right now. Some people, ‘cause they like Trump, some people ‘cause they’re terrified of the President. But regardless, people are engaged and when people are engaged, the system will ultimately work. We just need more people engaged in the process. Your idea may be a good way to do that.

HEFFNER: The, and we need the right kind of civic engagement that is pulling people together, as much as feasibly possible. You’ve described the systemic problems that have exacerbated the disconnect. How can voters in and constituents across this nation, beyond what are understood as the traditional apparatus of town hall meetings, writing your congressperson, how can they,

SUOZZI: They gotta …

HEFFNER: Collectively,

SUOZZI: They’ve got to sign up, they’ve got to get involved. Sign up and volunteer on a campaign. See what it’s like for real. You know, run for office yourself. Get engaged in the process. It can be a very fulfilling… I don’t have time ‘cause I’m busy with my, my family, I’m busy with my job, I’m busy with all the things coming at me from the media, the whole thing stinks and people have to recognize, there are people in this country that benefit from the status quo. They like it. They like the, the, the instability of what’s going on in this country right now. They like that nothing gets done, because they’re benefiting from the status quo the way it is now. They don’t want it to change. There are people that spend a lot of money to encourage us not to like politics, who don’t want anything to get done.
HEFFNER: Isn’t that why we’re not gonna see genuine tax reform, because the system is incentivizing the wrong kind of economic policy now?

SUOZZI: This is the battle. This is the battle of public life. There are people that want it to stay the way it is now ‘cause they like it the way it is now, and there are people that want to get something done to change and make everybody’s life better. That’s the battle, that’s the fight, that’s why politics matters.

HEFFNER: On those two issues, we come back to them, infrastructure and tax reform, where is potentially the light of compromise, public, private partnerships? We talk about them often in the context of infrastructure. We’ve discussed an infrastructure bank where private companies can assist in facilitating public projects. Where has there been any compromise so far on this issue?

SUOZZI: The, it hasn’t been there yet, at all. The President would be smart to tie the two together, tax reform and infrastructure. Republican…

HEFFNER: How, how can you do that?

SUOZZI: Just to make it as part of the negotiation as it’s going forward. And what the President needs to recognize is there’s got to be public investment in infrastructure. He’s pushing private private private. There’s got to be public investment in infrastructure for it to actually work. It can be public-private as well, but there has to be a big part of public in the public-private part that goes on.

HEFFNER: And tax reform, what would you like to see accomplished?

SUOZZI: Tax reform, you know, I’m, even President Obama talked about corporate tax reform. In America, we want our, our workers to make good wages. We want them to have health insurance, we want them to have, pensions. We want them to have safety. We want them to have environmental protections, and we’re competing in a world where people don’t have any of that stuff. We’re in a global marketplace where they don’t have bad wages and they don’t have worker safety and they don’t have environmental controls. So when we’re competing, we are at a competitive disadvantage. We don’t want to have a race to the bottom to become more like these other countries that don’t have these worker protections, that don’t have environmental protections, that don’t have good wages for their employees. We want them to be more like us, we don’t want to be more like them, so that’s what this whole trade fight is about, or part of it is. So where’s our competitive advantage? Well we, have from sea to shining sea, we have our natural resources. We have the rule of law better than most places in the world. People want to do business here ‘cause you can, can count on the rule of law if somebody breaks the rules, they’re gonna get in trouble. But we have to have more skilled workers in order to compete in the global marketplace as a competitive advantage, and we have to look at corporate tax reform because our corporate taxes are much too high when compared to the rest of the world.

HEFFNER: What must we demand from our companies,

SUOZZI: The companies have to create jobs in the process. It can’t be that there’s corporate tax reform so you can give more dividends or more stock buy-backs or so you can give more executive pay. You’ve got to create jobs. We need 5 million $80,000 dollar jobs in America.

HEFFNER: That’s, that’s the criteria.

SUOZZI: So we need to figure out how can corporate tax reform result in job creation at decent wages that make life in America better? Otherwise…

HEFFNER: And the system as it is now.

SUOZZI: ‘Cause the corporations are doing fine. They’re doing fine.

HEFFNER: Yes.

SUOZZI: They got all, got those loopholes and all this, they, they don’t need more, more help for the corporations. We need more help to get them to locate in the United States of America where it will create jobs that pay sufficient wages so people can live the American dream. We don’t need anything to help the wealthy. We…

HEFFNER: Well, it would make sense to have a combination of reducing or eliminating all those loopholes and reducing the corporate tax rate. If you do those things simultaneously…

SUOZZI: Gotta do ‘em together, right.

HEFFNER: Congressman, a pleasure.

SUOZZI: Thank you, Alexander. Thank you so much.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful, constructive excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online, or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.