An Interview with US Representative David Price
US Representative David Price has served North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District for nearly 30 years, from 1987 to 1995 and from 1997 since. A member of the Democratic Party, Price is the incumbent in tomorrow’s race against Republican candidate Steve Von Loor and Libertarian candidate Barbara Howe. Price recently sat down with the Carolina Political Review to discuss what he’s seen throughout his tenure in Congress and what he thinks is yet to come after the midterms. The following is a transcript of Price’s interview with Local Editor Payne Lubbers edited for clarity.
Payne Lubbers: So Congressman Price, you’ve been in office for almost 30 years now non-consecutively. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in Congress since 1987?
David Price: Well, the answer you’d expect me to give, and the answer I think I’d give, is the increase in partisan polarization in the Congress, and there’s a lot that flows from that. That’s not just a change in Congress or in Congressional leadership, that’s a change in the country. Our parties have become more homogenous on both sides, and our parties have grown further apart, more ideological. The Republican Party in particular has gone off on a very sharp right-turn, an ideological turn that I don’t think is reciprocated on the Democratic side. I think the Democratic Party remains a kind of loser coalition, more in the traditional model of American parties.
And this is mirrored in American life. You know the phenomenon of sorting that we talk about? People are more and more associating with their own kind politically, but also religiously and socioeconomically and so on. And the media reinforces this — you know the whole story of how these trends have reinforced each other. The institutional effects in Congress are also greater, and that’s really what you’re asking me. I mean it is a more partisan place with sharper divisions, although there still is room for bipartisan accommodation. I have two leadership positions, both of which are on the more bipartisan side. One is the House Democracy Partnership, the bipartisan commission that works with emerging parliaments, and that is totally bipartisan. And then I’m a ranking Democrat, maybe going to be chairman of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee. Of course that’s partisan, but if you give us a decent budget number, that too can be cooperative and often is. That’s the tradition of Appropriations, and that tradition has been strained but not broken by the polarization that I’m talking about.
The partisan polarization has created a more centralized institution, centralized in party leadership, that has led to a deterioration of committee life and committee activity. Of course, I’m on Appropriations now, but I started out on one of the Authorizing Committees — Banking and Finance — and I was able to formulate and pass bills. We had lively markups with bipartisan cooperation. A lot of that’s not there anymore, it’s much rarer now. So the committees have been devalued, so much more is directed now or preempted by leadership; that’s a function, I think. Another function is the decline of a bipartisan capacity to do large budget deals — that’s what I’m going across the way to talk about in 15 minutes.
We are a parliamentary system, we’re a system of checks and balances, and more often than not, different parties are in charge of our different institutions. So if we don’t have some partisan capacity to cooperate on things like appropriations, on things like budget deals, then we’re in trouble. And I think we’re in trouble. I’ve been there long enough to see very difficult but ultimately successful budget deals where we put everything on the table: “Yes! Tax increases. Yes! Entitlement changes. Yes! Constrained spending, and all there is. Everybody needs to give a little.” Those were not popular, but we did get them done. Now they are inconceivable. So if you want, in a nutshell, what’s changed, just look at the ‘90 and ‘93 budget deals and look at today at the sequestration and the failure of any kind of broader budget approach, and that tells you a lot about how the Congress has changed and also why the country is in trouble.
Payne: What can people outside positions of power, outside of politics, do to help fight this polarization? I think most people would agree it’s a detriment.
Price: Well, you know, partisanship has its place, just like strong convictions and a principled approach to politics. It’s an important way we operate in a democracy. Compromise is the way -- once you have things you want to get done, want to achieve — it’s the way you get those things done in a political environment. So what do we all contribute? I think a good deal about what I contribute. Am I going to be part of the problem or part of the solution? And I have some choices to make as a member of Congress in the way I operate, how I relate to colleagues, the way I run my own committee (or share in the running of my own committee). I guess citizens at whatever level have similar choices to make about how they expend their political energies...not just whom they vote for, but whom they work with, the kind of role they assume in community life and in political life. Like I said, I’m not saying we should be all bland and look for consensus just for the sake of consensus, but I guess I’m talking about a style of politics, where you combine conviction and principle and fighting for what you believe with an understanding that nobody has a monopoly on wisdom or righteousness. If any of us are going to achieve anything as a community, and that’s what democratic politics is all about, acting on a common purpose, then we’re going to have to respect on another and accommodate one another and try to achieve consensus or at least respectful debate. And that, I think, is not necessarily the norm these days. In fact, I think on college campuses and a lot of places people think this point-counter-point style of political debate — which is not discussion or even debate, it’s just kind of point-scoring — where does that get you? It’s so much of what people think now passes for political debate.
Payne: In a similar vein, to address one of the many elephants in the room…the midterm elections. If the election was today, what happens?
Price: I think Democrats are giving a good count of ourselves, and we’ve certainly worked at this. We’ve been part of a general, national reaction to Donald Trump and what he’s brought to the White House, and the low point that his way of operating represents in political life in this country. So there’s a huge reaction to that and resistance to it. The key, though, is turning that reaction and that resistance into votes and seats. That’s what the election is about. And number two, it’s about not just reacting and resisting, but also charting a positive course for the future.
Speaking of 800-pound gorillas, yeah, Donald Trump is an 800-pound “whatever” in every discussion. But that doesn’t mean it’s all about him (as much as he would like for it to be). It really is about what our vision for the country is, and how we’re going to get people not just working again, but working at good wages with prospects for mobility, the American Dream revitalized including home-ownership, including good, affordable healthcare. In other words, reclaiming the American Dream for our people. Too many of them have lost hope in that. That is the Democratic way. That’s why I’m a Democrat, and it’s what this election needs to be about.
Payne: Let’s fast-forward a bit — it’s November 7th now, Democrats have taken the House back, what’s the plan? Republicans keep the Senate, you all take the House, presidency obviously where it is, what’s the strategy?
Price: Well, we are trying very hard on the Democratic side to think about that without taking anything for granted. Nobody’s measuring the curtains yet, believe me. But we’d be negligent if we weren’t thinking about the day after the election and how we’re going to proceed. The legislative priorities that we’re talking about have to do, first of all, with political reform. I think everybody understands that there needs to be reform. Fundamental to everything else is getting a hold of our politics in a way that hopefully gets districting on a bipartisan basis — the drawing of districts, gerrymandering; getting some accountability at least for these Super PACs, the big money in politics, and so on. That reform agenda is going to be very prominent.
Secondly, we know that we need to assure people on healthcare, and that we need to stabilize the Affordable Care Act. We need to give states even more reasons than they have to expand Medicaid and do the things that really carry out the promise of healthcare reform. And that will mean countering the Trump administration’s efforts at sabotage. I would say putting forward a major infrastructure plan will be of a very high priority. Hopefully that can be somewhat bipartisan, although Trump has disappointed in that area so far despite his talk. If we’re in charge, then I’m chairman of the subcommittee dealing with transportation appropriations, so I have a special interest in at least a down-payment on infrastructure and hopefully more than that. So, those would be my predictions as to what the lead items are, but it’s a long agenda, a lot of people have ideas, so we’re going to have to be disciplined, we’re going to have to prioritize, and that’s going to be a challenge.
Payne: Another tangible issue that I’m sure you all will address is American involvement in conflicts abroad. As an early and vocal opponent of the Iraq War, where do you stand right now on this administration’s involvement in overseas conflicts, particularly in the wars in Yemen and Syria?
Price: I think that, with respect to Yemen, we’ve been far too uncritical of the Saudi regime, and have thrown in way too much with them in the Middle East balance of power. And of course that’s also reflected in the disgraceful handling of this murder, or apparent murder, in Istanbul, which is playing out as we speak. I am a major supporter of the Iran Nuclear Agreement. I am perfectly aware of Iran’s bad behavior, but I also can’t imagine anything Iran’s doing that wouldn’t be worse if they were a nuclear power. So that was an intricate piece of diplomacy that Trump had no regard for and has now thrown overboard, all as part of a total, total catering to, as far as I can tell, to the Saudi leadership and also to Netanyahu, a particularly right-wing leader in Israel, who I don’t think necessarily represents his country’s best interests. And so here we are, and now with this atrocity that’s occurring, Trump appears to be actually helping to cover it up. I mean I hope it turns out differently than it’s going. So the aid and comfort to Saudi Arabia with respect to Yemen — it’s been a very indiscriminate war, an unnecessarily brutal war — that’s on us, and it’s part of a larger foreign policy that’s thrown us in entirely with Saudi Arabia in the Middle East balance of power. A very unwise move.
Payne: So we’ve seen what appeared to be the U.N. General Assembly laughing at the president a few weeks ago, and we’ve also seen him talk favorably of regimes in North Korea and the Philippines, among others. Has the US’s role changed on the world stage?
Price: No, but with no thanks to Donald Trump. We are still a country with a Congress and a State Department and a diplomatic establishment that has some resilience about it, although I definitely am worried about this, and I worry about the damage that’s being done and how long it will take to repair. It’s one thing for Congress to say: “Well, no, Donald Trump, you’re not going to cut global health funding,” or “No, you’re not going to promote democracy promotion in these formerly autocratic countries.” We can do that. It’s much harder to counter the hollowing-out of our diplomatic capacity or the doubts that are raised about our commitment to NATO or our alliances. Even if we Democrats are totally in charge come 2020, that’s a long-term job to save the confidence people have in this country and whether we can go this way again. So, as Madeline Albright says, “This is an Article I moment.” This is a moment for Congress to assert itself in ways that underscore our basic values and our international commitments. And so far, there’s been some of that — it looks like there might be in this Saudi case. I’m certainly ready and willing and able to be a part of that, including arms sales. We need to push back. I’m sort of divided between confidence in our institutions and in our constitutional system, but also genuinely alarmed that the man at the top does matter and he can undermine a lot of things that are important to our role in the world.
Payne: We’ve talked about some pressing and serious matters here. I can’t imagine it’s always too serious on Capitol Hill — to end on a lighter note, who’s the funniest member of Congress you’ve worked with since 1987?
Price: The funniest member of Congress? Well, Barney Frank was pretty funny. It may be an acquired taste, but still he’s a very, very clever fellow. (laughs)
Payne: Yeah, he’s a little dry, got some dry humor. (laughs)
Price: Yeah, there’s some funny people to be around, there’s also some very unfunny people to be around, and sometimes the funny people have fun making fun of the unfunny people — people who take themselves too seriously. There’s some of that as well.