>>Good morning and welcome to Global Perspectives.
I'm David Dumke.
Today we are joined by two former members of Congress, Mimi Walters, who represented Orange County, California, and Jason Altmire, who represented the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area.
Welcome to the show.
>>Glad to be here.
Thanks for having us.
>>So you two are both involved in the association of former members of Congress.
I want to ask you just point blank, in this day and age, is is bipartisanship even possible?
>>I believe it is.
And I believe it's necessary.
I mean, you have so much polarization going on right now, but where the real work gets done is in the middle, and that's what the American people expect.
>>Jason, you actually wrote a book on this when you when you left Congress called Dead Center, which is exactly where your voting record was.
Do you agree with Congresswoman Walters?
What's interesting is that the Congress is not necessarily representative of the people.
And that's, of course, not the way it's supposed to work.
If you look at the data that shows how people react on a daily basis, where they get their news, what they're paying attention to, it's very different than what our elected officials are paying attention to.
>>Where where are people getting their getting their news?
>>Oh, my goodness.
They're getting it from social media, primarily.
I think I know personally I get a lot of my news from Twitter because it's easy access.
It's on your phone.
And I think that that's changed over the years where people usually got their information from the newspaper or from the television set.
But I think more and more people are getting information from social media today.
>>So how do you effectively communicate, Congressman?
>>Well, it really depends on what type of district that you're representing.
You know, if you're in an urban district versus a rural district, if you have multi counties versus a more compact district, if you're able to get around and see people and talk to people, I think you can be more grounded as a representative.
And what I noticed in the district that I represented, which was almost equally split between Republicans and Democrats and blue collar versus more wealthy communities, was depending on where you were in that district, you heard completely different things.
But the problem is today, most districts are drawn in a way that you never hear the other side.
You're only exposed to one point of view.
So you go to your town hall meetings and all you hear is right on.
Keep doing what you're doing and don't you dare compromise.
But then you go back to Washington and you see somebody that represents a different type of district and you think they're crazy because you never encounter anyone who thinks what they think or believes what they believe.
And that's where the disconnect exists.
>>You see a lot of data after presidential elections, and you see less and less members of Congress who represent districts that were won at the presidential level by a president of the opposing party.
And you both represented districts, I believe, where you had you Congressman Walters, had had a Democrat who Hillary Clinton had more votes there and McCain had more votes than Obama.
And in your district.
Where were you trying to appeal?
Were - are you trying to make sure you kept your base in your your Democratic base or Republican base, respectively, and then try to expand from there?
What was the strategy?
>>Yeah, you had to sort of thread that needle.
I mean, at one point you had to have your supporters come out and vote for you.
So you had to appeal to them, but you had also appeal to those more moderates.
For me, in my case, than the Democrat side, and the more the independents and try to convince them why they should vote for you and you had to take I had to take at least a more pragmatic approach, I think, to a lot of the issues and try to educate my constituents as much as possible to make them understand why I believed what I believed in, the way I voted >>It - there's two things going on.
One is your reelection and your campaign and thinking about how to position yourself for electoral success.
But you're elected to be the representative of that district.
And what I was a Democrat and the district I represented, you mentioned McCain won my district over Obama by 11 points, and I had won the district by 12 points as a Democrat.
So very different.
But my job was to represent the entire district and the frustration among my Democratic supporters was they believed since I was elected as a Democrat, my job was to represent only Democrats.
But the district as a whole was a Republican district.
It had a Republican lean to it, a very strong lean.
So a lot of the issues that I took leadership on were in opposition to what my Democratic base would have liked me to do.
So there's a real disconnect between your job as a representative of the district and your job as a candidate trying to win election.
>>What are your constituents looking for?
I mean, you have you're mentioning kind of different styles of representation.
Some, you know, they voted for me.
So it's about what I believe and then some that I'm following what my constituents want.
So when you're a member of Congress knowing you're in an area that that is electorally vulnerable, perhaps could go either way in a different sense.
What are you trying to achieve for your constituents here, or for your district first of all, is it is it jobs issues or are there other things come to play?
>>Well, I think most of the issues come down to those what they call the kitchen table issues.
You know, how is it affecting me personally?
And when you mentioned jobs, jobs, absolutely.
I mean, am I able to put food on the table for my family and able to make a good living, put my kids through school, make sure they have a bright future?
I mean, at the end of the day, I think when it comes to issues, what can you touch and feel?
That's how it's going to affect me personally.
And trying to penetrate that to the voters can be a very big challenge.
You know, as Jason said, we get polled when we're in in Washington, D.C. We're working with other members of Congress who might not have the same issues in their own districts.
And so we have to figure out, okay, I've got to vote my district and do the best I can, but I might be being pulled in this other direction and not maybe being a team player if I'm in a more moderate district.
And that is a real challenge for members.
>>What's interesting about being in Congress is by definition, everyone that you serve with is from somewhere else.
They have a different district with different interests.
And when you're trying to make compromise and negotiate with people, you have to keep in mind that their first priority is representing their district.
So it really depends on where you're from, what are the key employers in your district?
What's the political legacy of your district?
What are the demographics?
And that's going to determine where that member of Congress is on the issues.
>>So what are you - obviously, you're in a position of inevitably you're going to have to cast some tough votes.
So what's the deciding factor if you know, this is a policy that makes sense nationally, but it's not popular in my district.
What's going to make you decide to support or oppose something like like that?
>>Why don't you start with that, youre the one that had the tougher vote than I did at one point.
>>For for me, my career is defined by the health care vote, the Affordable Care Act.
I came from a health care background.
I was a health care executive before Congress.
I was a Democrat representing a Republican leaning district.
I ended up voting against the health care bill and for me, for every vote, I was there for over 5000 votes.
For every one of them, I had three calculations.
The first is what is my opinion of the issue?
You do the best you can to learn about it.
In my case, health care was something I had some expertise in from my past.
But on every issue, you do the best you can to form your own opinion.
But then you have to cross-reference that with what are my constituents?
What's their opinion on it?
What are they thinking on it?
And then what's the impact of that legislation on your district?
Because that might be very different than the constituent opinion.
And in the case with the health care bill, I had, for example, one of the largest numbers of Medicare beneficiaries, fourth most of any congressional district in the country.
I had to consider that and that bill cut Medicare, I had one of the fewest numbers of uninsured, paradoxically, to what you might think from a Pittsburgh center district.
I had a lot of wealthy people who had insurance.
I had a lot of Medicare beneficiaries who were insured.
And the people who were lower income had Medicaid.
I didn't have a lot of people without health insurance.
So what that bill did was take money away from the people that I represented and gave it to somebody else's constituents.
And it was unpopular in the district.
So I had to make the very difficult decision to vote against it.
But on every bill that I had to consider, those were the three calculations.
>>Yeah, and I didn't have as many difficult decisions to make like Jason did when I was in Congress.
But I would say it's difficult to be in those positions when you're a member because you have leadership who has an agenda, who wants to get a bill passed.
And if you're a member that can't go along with leadership, it's not that easy for them to accept the fact that you can't go along with them and you get a tremendous amount of pressure.
Now, depending on the size of the majority in Congress, if you're a part of the majority, sometimes leadership will give you a pass on some of those bills and say, hey, listen, you go ahead and vote your district.
We understand we can't have this vote on our side, but that often happens as well.
But that did determine a lot about the size of your majority in Congress.
I mean, that's a big factor.
>>When you have such a narrow majority as you have today.
How how is that is that possible or do you need do you think that leadership and whether it's, you know, Nancy Pelosi in the past or Kevin McCarthy today, do you think leadership needs to kind of break out of the mindset of I just have to deal with getting all my caucus in line on this?
Or do they need to kind of look at who's out there as the House of Representatives as a whole to build a majority?
>>Well, I think they have to look at who is out there as a whole.
Sometimes you have Democrats that will switch over to the Republican side.
Sometimes you have Republicans switch over to the Democrat side.
I mean, that definitely happens.
I think it's how big and how controversial is the issue you're dealing with.
And that is significant because like with the Affordable Care Act, that was a that was a signature piece of legislation that President Obama wanted to have passed.
So Jason had a lot of pressure on him for that.
And I you know, that creates more of an issue depending on what the issue specifically is.
>>You had, for example, when President Trump was in office, he had a tax cut and you supported that.
But some of your colleagues from Orange County who were Republicans did not support it.
Was was that difficult for you?
>>That was difficult for me in the respect that it was going to hurt people in the state of California because you couldn't deduct your personal income taxes from your federal taxes.
That was the big issue.
And I heard from a lot of conservative friends of mine that didn't like that.
But at the end of the day, I believed we needed tax reform in the country.
And I believed that we had to make these changes.
And quite frankly, in my opinion, they worked because we saw an unleashing of the economy where people were put back to work, people were getting bonuses at their jobs.
So the long term effect of the tax reform package had a very positive impact on our country.
And so I did take that tough vote and some of my constituents were not happy with it.
>>So I want to talk about kind of issues that just can't get get wax cannot be resolved.
What are three issues?
And I was a Congressman Altmire and I were talking before the show about about immigration and how it played in his district.
But I want to ask, what are some of the hardest issues that you see that Congress just simply is going to have great difficulty resolving unless you have members, many members willing to risk their political careers over?
>>I think any issue that is long term in developing.
So budget issues, you hear about it, it comes up every year with the appropriations cycle.
That's October 1st.
But long term decisions that extend beyond the election cycle are always going to be difficult to get members attention.
So anything related to deficit and debt, you hear about the debt ceiling, for example, getting people to make a difficult decision that's not going to have an immediate political payoff is always going to be something.
It's going to be difficult to get elected officials to come to agreement on.
>>Well, and look at Social Security.
I mean, they're saying in ten years we're going to run out of Social Security.
President Bush tried to take on Social Security years ago and he got big pushback.
And now there's discussions about Social Security again.
And nobody wants to get out there and make the reforms that are necessary.
The problem is like the deficit, like Social Security.
You can't touch and feel it.
It's somebody else's problem.
We'll worry about that in the future.
But one of the biggest issues I think this country is facing is the drug issue and fentanyl coming into this country, people not understanding the effects of fentanyl that, it's killing you, especially the young people when they go to parties and maybe they're experimenting with drugs and it's laced with fentanyl and it's literally killing people.
I think that is a huge crisis that we're facing right now in this country.
>>And another issue, I would say, with the global perspectives is any type of foreign affairs issue.
It's hard to get your constituents attention unless it has a direct impact.
Here in Florida, the Cuba situation, anything dealing with with Puerto Rico or Latin America, I mean, those are issues that resonate in Florida with the rest of the country, that that's a difficult sell when you look at what's happening, of course, in Ukraine, in Europe and in China, relations with other nations, it's hard to get as a House member, your constituents interested in those issues.
>>So I want to ask just our viewers understand, like why wouldn't you want to why would a member want to be on Foreign Affairs Committee based on what you're just saying?
Because a lot of issues that are international don't affect constituents.
So, of course, foreign policy may be interesting to a lot of people, but how does that affect bread and butter issues, as you said?
>>Well, they're national security issues.
You know, we have to look at foreign affairs.
We I mean, government's number one job is to make sure that we're safe and depending on what's going on in other countries, could have a direct effect on us.
So those are obviously, you know, foreign affairs is incredibly important, but it is difficult to get people to pay attention because, listen, people are living their day, their lives every day.
You know, they're they're going to work.
They're just having life in debt and enjoying trying to enjoy it and make a living in it.
And so to add this on top of it, they just might not have time to worry about it.
>>And it's very easy with a populist perspective to villainize our opponents and our adversaries and people with whom we disagree in foreign affairs.
So when we have a foreign affairs disagreement with China or with Russia, that's extremely important to Americans.
But it's not necessarily top of mind for the average American.
And that's where the disconnect exists.
>>Similarly, connected to foreign affairs, but also connected to the economy and bread and butter issues is foreign trade.
So you worked in a - you represented a district in Pittsburgh.
Of course, there was a lot of trade feelings against Iran, against trade.
And Orange County is a California that is is a trade hub for the international trade hub for the United States.
So how did that issue resonate, resonate with people, and did they get that it had an impact on their pocketbook?
>>Well, I think so, but I don't know that it was really discussed that much.
You know, with trade comes cost.
So if something is going to be, you know, imported into our country, what's the cost going to be?
And at the end of the day, how much does it cost to buy goods?
You know, people have financial issues that they have to deal with and but I don't know that it's really discussed that much at the local level.
It wasn't at least in my district >>In Pittsburgh there's the legacy of the steel industries demise, which was driven largely by overseas competition.
And I think this is an interesting case study for me because this is an issue for which I was a little bit out of step with where my constituents were.
I was a free trader.
I believed in global engagement and American involvement.
And having that positive relationship with trade and with negotiation.
We were in western Pennsylvania, much more closed minded on that issue and much less the people were much less willing to have a global perspective on issues like trade.
>>Did you find that constituents were willing to listen to you?
So there was an educational role to your job, or is it more that they want to see you?
And they were and give their opinion one way or another, and that's how it's going to be.
>>I think it depended where you were in my one on one meetings or my small group meetings in my office or when I was out in the district, much more listening to an education perspective.
I think the bigger the crowd got, the more different, the more they wanted to hear, wanted to tell me what they wanted to tell me because it got to be a little bit more polarized when I would do town hall meetings.
But I think probably a combination of both.
>>I can think of a few areas where I gained experience that I was able to convey to my constituents in a way that I think might have changed their opinion.
But anything related to what's being talked about on talk radio is or cable news is very difficult to get somebody to change their opinion.
I remember there was a couple of border agents about 15 years ago named Ramos and Concepcion that had been involved in a dispute on the border and somebody was killed and there became a national debate over them.
So I traveled to the border and I went to the sector where that incident had happened.
And I talked to people that were involved.
And when I was able to go back to my district and tell people, this is the real story, this this is what I had learned during that visit, I think that brings credibility.
But if you're just talking about what you've learned in Washington and the talking points that the party has given you, that's a lot less persuasive.
>>Jason makes a really good point, because getting out in the district, talking to the people, experiencing things like you did at the border, there's nothing that can change an experience.
And once you actually personally experience something, then you can really speak to it.
>>So I wanted to ask you again about foreign affairs and travel.
I mean, I see, I do - I don't know your your travel history, but but was that also an important element in telling constituents you you were elected, Jason, amidst the heavy days of the Iraq war.
And I'm sure people wanted to hear about that, whether they were pro or con.
So so how did that dialog go and was that an important element of in talking to constituents.
>>Members who take congressional delegation trips overseas, you gain a collegiality that you would not otherwise have because you're a bipartisan group traveling together.
If you come from a safe district, politically safe for your election is is pretty secure.
You're able to take trips that are more leisurely and see some of the more luxurious countries.
I did not have that luxury.
I traveled to Iraq.
I traveled to Yemen.
I traveled to the American base in Djibouti, you know, conflict areas.
And what I found is that informs you to a degree that you would never have the opportunity, was able to meet with General Petraeus in Iraq during the height of the Iraq war and hear his perspective on why he felt that the strategy would eventually prevail, to be able to go into Yemen after the Arab Spring and the government was overthrown.
And Speaker Boehner included me in the delegation to welcome the new President Hadi from Yemen and to have that discussion about the American role in the Middle East.
You would never be able to understand the issues in a way without having met those leaders and participated in those discussions.
>>Yeah, and I went on a few of the congressional delegation trips as well, but mine were mostly into Europe.
I didn't go in to the areas that Jason did and developing those relationships on a bipartisan level during those trips was really important.
And one one thing I want to say about the polarization in our country now, I think we've lost a lot of that collegiality because members of Congress don't spend enough time together.
You are expected to be in Washington, D.C. during the week and then home in your district on the weekends and working your district and talking to your constituents, which is a positive thing.
However, it doesn't allow you enough time to go have dinner with a member of the other side of the aisle of a different party to develop the relationships, get to know their families.
There's just not enough hours in the day and your members are being pulled in so many different directions that they don't have the time to develop those relationships, to be able to come together on some of those really big critical issues facing our country.
>>Does this have a big impact on oversight, congressional oversight, which is a key responsibility?
>>I think it does.
If you look at the role of the oversight committee and even the Ethics Committee within Congress, I think those personal relationships have frayed to a degree where now sometimes those committees are weaponized for political reasons.
>>Do you do you see that changing?
Because you're talking about the reality is you both have tough districts, so you have to be seen and visible in the district, but you also want to make a mark institutionally which ultimately helps your constituents.
How do you change that?
>>That's a really good question.
I don't know how we change it because there's nothing like the one on one relationship that you can develop in person and the fact that members are pulled in so many different directions because the expectation is they have to be home with their constituents.
Plus so many of them are trying to raise their families.
You know, they've got a personal life, too, and it's going to be very difficult, I think, for us to get back into that opportunity for the members to develop those relationships if they don't spend more time together.
>>I think the key to political polarization is reform of the primary system.
If you live in a state like Florida where independents can't vote and primaries are closed, you're going to see the people on the far extremes dominate the primary process, which is why we generally in this country elect people who are more towards the extremes than the American people are generally.
And until we fix that problem and open primaries to all voters, we're not going to be able to solve the polarization issue.
>>Has California's experiment with primaries been positive, or how would you how would you assess that?
>>I think it has because as a Republican from California, it's moderated more of the Democrats.
Democrats control supermajorities in both the assembly.
In the Senate.
They have all constitutional offices.
Obviously, the governors Democrat.
So what it's done is it sort of recalibrated, I think, the Democrats to come more to the middle in order to get elected.
That's been a positive as somebody from the Republican side sees.
>>And if you're running in a primary, you want to win.
So you want to appeal to the people who control your fate.
If the people who control your fate are the most extreme partizans your party has to offer, youre going to message to that.
But if you have to appeal to people across the political spectrum, people in the middle, and even people on the other side, in an open primary, you're going to legislate that way, you're going to speak that way.
And that changes the dynamic of how Congress relates to one another.
>>And these kinds of reforms, though, obviously, you know, if if you're playing within a system that's benefiting your party and therefore your political career, there is really not the incentive to reform the system because it could, you know, undercut your own position.
What do you think it takes to get over that finish line?
I know in California you had a Republican governor who was very moderate and Governor Schwarzenegger championed some of those reforms, the primary too.
But he's kind of an anomaly was this was not a first or second career for him going into politics.
But what what takes the motivation?
I'm going to champion reform even if it hurts me.
>>You're exactly right.
Getting an elected official to vote to make their own elections more competitive is a tall order.
They're very unlikely to do that in states where it's been successful, like California, it's been done by citizen referendum.
Florida has the ability to do that.
There you have to get to 60% of the vote.
There was an attempt to do open primaries in 2018.
I believe it got 57%.
So it didn't quite pass.
Now they've made it more difficult for referendums to pass.
It's it's really unlikely it's going to pass through the legislative process because that would be making their elections more competitive.
But I think when people see the partizanship and the polarization and they recognize that changing the electoral process changes the type of people that we're sending to Washington, that's when you make the difference.
>>So you obviously know who who is who's in Washington now.
You serve with a lot of good people.
So what are a couple of the positives you can say to our viewers that can give some some hope going forward?
>>I think people should know that most people who are in Washington are there for the right reasons and they keep their head down.
They don't get on the cable news shows.
They try to legislate.
They care about constituent service.
They want to work together for the good of the country.
That is most people who are in Washington.
But the people that you see on cable TV every day on the right and the left, those are folks who are more interested in creating controversy.
>>Yeah, I couldn't have said it better myself.
Jason, I totally agree.
There are a lot of very well-meaning members of Congress who really are doing this for the right reason, and they don't have to be the center of attention.
They're working extremely hard to make America a better place.
>>Well, thank you both for coming here and sharing the message and some of that, some of the background.
Mimi Walters and Jason Altmire.
Thank you for your service and thank you for being here today.
>>And thank you for being here.
We'll see you again next week on another episode of Global Perspectives.