Is Bipartisanship Possible In Springfield, Washington? | WBEZ
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Morning Shift

Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood On U.S. Infrastructure, Bipartisanship

Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican who served as U.S. Secretary of Transportation during part of the Obama administration, said there is a lack of political consensus in Illinois and the nation’s capital.

“If I was grading bipartisanship in Springfield and Washington I’d give it a big fat ‘F’ in both places,” LaHood said Thursday on Morning Shift.

But LaHood said bipartisanship is possible through the election of people who are willing to compromise and who sincerely want to make a difference for their communities.

“I think what people are looking for are those who are willing to set aside differences from time to time to work for the good of the country,” he said.

LaHood, who represented Peoria in the U.S. Congress for 14 years, also argued that Congress should pass a comprehensive infrastructure bill using a combination of funding sources, including raising the nation’s gas tax. 

“America’s infrastructure is like a third world country,” LaHood said. “The gas tax has not been raised since 1993. No one listening to this program can think of anything [else] that has not been raised in the last 25 years.”

LaHood’s 2015 autobiography is called Seeking Bipartisanship: My Life In Politics. Below are more more highlights from his conversation with Morning Shift host Jenn White. 

On how major legislation requires bipartisanship

Ray LaHood: When you look at the rich history of our country and look at when big things have been done — whether it’s passage of Medicare or Social Security or passage of bills that have changed the course of time — I think of the time that I was in the House when we passed welfare reform with a Republican Congress and a Democratic president, it was done in a bipartisan way. Bill Clinton vetoed two of those bills, but ultimately signed the third bill. 

[Although House] Speaker [Newt] Gingrich and President Clinton were rivals back in those days and had very strongly held views, the one thing that both of them believed in is the idea that we come to Washington to solve big problems. And so Clinton led the Democratic Party, Gingrich led the Republican Party, we passed welfare reform, we passed three balanced budgets — I write about this in my book — and even though people believe that Gingrich and Clinton were on polar opposites in many ways, they knew their job was to address big issues. When big issues are addressed, they’re almost always addressed in a bipartisan way. 

On how we arrived in the current state of politics

LaHood: I think probably two or three things have influenced the partisanship and the lack of bipartisanship: 

The advent of the Tea Party, electing 40 to 50 members in the House who come to Washington, not with the idea of solving problems, but with the idea of voting no on everything and being against just about everything. There’s probably five, six, seven Senators in the Senate elected on the banner of the Tea Party. The election of people who don’t really believe in the jobs that they have, in the sense that they’re in Washington as — pretty much — naysayers, that certainly is part of the problem. 

The other part of it is, and I don’t like to blame the news media, but if you listen to Senator McCain’s speech that he gave on his arrival back to Washington a few days ago to move the process on health care, he said that we should stop listening to the radio bombastics who are always trying to smear somebody and the cable news channels. We know that there’s six or seven cable news channels now going 24/7 and we know there’s not enough news so they keep repeating over and over again whatever the philosophy it is they want to repeat. So I think that has poisoned the political well.

I also think that the kind of party discipline that existed at one time between the two parties obviously doesn’t exist now. Party leaders don’t have the same kind of opportunity to try and find good people to run for office for the right reasons.

On why we need politicians who want to do good for their communities

LaHood: I think what people are looking for are those who are willing to set aside differences from time to time to work for the good of the country. The example I use all the time is: ordinary people serve on church boards, library boards, school boards, all kinds of different boards on their communities, they come to these meetings each with a little different point of view with the idea that they want to do some good. They want to make a difference. Those are the kind of people that we need in Washington — that are willing to sit down with friends and neighbors and talk across the aisle and work together.

On if bipartisanship is possible, even in Illinois

LaHood: The idea that you can have a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature, controlled by pretty much one or two people, and you can’t make a difference is not accurate. We did it for two or three decades under Gov. [James R.] Thompson and Gov. [Jim] Edgar and Gov. [George] Ryan, but you have to be willing to compromise. Compromise is not a bad word. And you have to be willing to be flexible and make adjustments.

This is interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click ‘Play’ above to listen to the entire segment.

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