Jane Harman: Out of the fray

Jane Harman has a new address -- on Pennsylvania Avenue. No, not that address. She’s the new honcho at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Starting in 1992, she won nine elections in Southern California’s coastal 36th Congressional District -- some of them squeakers, the last one a blowout -- before she quit. In those years, the moderate Democrat carved her way through the clashing waves of the political surf: pro-choice, pro-gun restrictions for her Venice constituents, pro “smart” defense programs and a flag-burning ban for more conservative voters in towns like Torrance. She’s been quoted as saying she was the best Republican in the Democratic Party. Harman has left a pretty safe Democratic district for the candidates running in the May 17 primary to replace her. In spite of that D.C. office, she’ll be voting in the 36th -- but she won’t say for whom.

You accepted the job at the Wilson Center just after you won reelection by 25 percentage points. You’ve acknowledged the timing “wasn’t great.’' How do you explain your decision to your constituents?

I didn’t choose the timing. They approached me in late December. It was a hard decision. I have great affection for my constituents; I call them the smartest constituents on Earth, and I’m remaining a resident of the district. I consider myself a Californian. We have enormous California ties. We [she and her industrialist husband Sidney Harman] own a wonderful beach house in Venice. I’m still a volunteer in my former district. And I’m not giving up Vinnie’s yoga class [in Venice] either, [although] I’m suffering painful withdrawals!

What is the job about?


It’s like an intellectual candy store and has absolutely bipartisan credentials. It’s like running a university, plus having a fabulous policy platform to debate the great issues of the day. Why I think the board hired me is to focus on a set of issues that cannot be addressed in depth in this town. Congress is polarized, the White House is enormously involved [with] exploding crises around the world, and there needs to be what Lindsey Graham [Republican senator from South Carolina] has called a safe political space in Washington where policymakers can debate and try to resolve some of the big issues.

How has Congress changed since you first got there?

I worked in Congress in the ‘70s for John Tunney [Democratic senator from California] [and] during the Nixon impeachment. Congress functioned. The impeachment was bipartisan; the vote was bipartisan. People came to Congress to legislate. The change started in the late ‘80s, and there’s enough blame to go around.

If you want to pick two instances [of] what I think is a downward spiral to toxicity, the biggest drivers were, on the Republican side, [campaign consultant] Lee Atwater, who invented negative ads. And on the Democratic side, the confirmation hearings for [Reagan Supreme Court nominee] Robert Bork were shrilly partisan. I don’t agree with his philosophy, but it was hard to argue that Bork wasn’t qualified. That took the gloves off on both sides.

We have moved increasingly to a pretty awful place. I will miss many of my colleagues; what I will not miss is this toxic process. There’s a huge irony. At the local level [Republicans and Democrats] all worked together and solved problems. [We] saved the Los Angeles Air Force Base; we fought against an offshore liquefied natural gas platform. Then I would arrive in Washington and hit the wall. Even approving the minutes of the prior day was a partisan act. That’s a metaphor for how it works.

You were noted for your work on intelligence matters on Capitol Hill and were privy to many classified briefings. When you leave Congress, do they flash your memory clean, as in “Men in Black’’?

I was very careful to put [classified information] in different boxes of my brain! I still have enormously strong ties to the intelligence community.

You were the ranking member on the Intelligence Committee for years.

That was the pivotal time post-9/11 when Congress learned a lot, including how flawed intelligence was on Iraq. I believed the intelligence, which is why I supported the authorization to use force in Iraq. I have said since, the intelligence was wrong and I was wrong.

You were criticized about enhanced interrogation techniques.

The general counsel of the CIA briefed me on the fact that there were [interrogation] videotapes -- I had believed there were just a couple. Turned out there were 90 of them. I wrote and said, “Do not destroy these videotapes.” I also wrote a letter [saying] I want your assurance that the policy has been reviewed by the White House. In other words, I was asking for proof that this was what they had briefed me on. This was very early after 9/11 when there was enormous fear we would be attacked. I never got an answer, and they went ahead and destroyed the videotapes.

When some of this was declassified, I spoke out against waterboarding, called it torture. I also questioned whether enhanced interrogation is effective. I believe that building trust with the person you’re interrogating is a far better way to get accurate information. I said all the time, Congress needs more briefings. Congress is an equal branch of government and needs full information.

You supported the defense industry presence in your district; you once joked that the C-17 transport plane is your fifth child.

I also called myself Boeing’s mother!

Yet defense is a huge part of the budget and hence the deficit. How do you cut it? You’ve said we can’t keep subsidizing a buggy-whip industry when there are advanced military systems, like satellites, that could save money.

I’m for cutting with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. There’s plenty of room to cut defense spending. There’s enormous waste and redundancy. What I talked about is the need to protect what I call the aerospace industrial base. My beautiful sound bite is that rocket scientists don’t grow on trees.

The C-17 is a perfect case. [Defense Secretary] Bob Gates thinks we don’t need any more. They’re not bombers, and they don’t just take soldiers and war materiel -- they also carry humanitarian supplies into disaster areas. So there’s an example of dual use.

Political candidates must raise mega-money. How has the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision changed the fundraising landscape?

I think it has scary implications. If anonymous donors can give large amounts of money to anybody for any reason, the people get disenfranchised. I support public financing of campaigns, voluntary public financing. People check a box [on their tax forms]. I think there’s a direct relationship between too much money and too much connection to the sources of the money.

My first race, my first primary, I lent myself some money but I said, “If people don’t want to support me, then I shouldn’t be here.” And I raised what I needed. It was painful but I did it. I raised from Republican, Independent and Democratic contributors, and I’m pretty proud of that.

You’ve been proud of your F-minus rating from the NRA. Any chance for gun legislation after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords?

At a minimum we should control extended gun clips. Somebody [said], “I blame the first ten rounds on the shooter and the next 21 on Congress.’' It’s inexcusable that people who have mental issues or who are extremist can have such easy access to ammunition. And I think it’s a tragedy that we haven’t extended the ban on the manufacture and sale of 19 classes of assault weapons. Both parties are scared of this issue, and President Obama has not been a profile in courage on this.

You were elected in 1992, the so-called year of the woman in Washington. What did you make of it when people cast your relationship with former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) as a Capitol Hill catfight?

I thought it was a sad commentary on them. There was no fight. Yes, I was disappointed when I wasn’t made chair of the Intelligence Committee, [which] I believe I had been promised by [earlier House leaders]. But it was her decision. And I found a way to be very productive on intelligence issues. [As] chair of the intelligence subcommittee of Homeland Security, we did outreach to the Muslim community. [Republican Rep.] Peter King is, in my view, taking a very harsh and shortsighted view of our need to build trust with Muslims. Our committee looked at the same set of issues -- but went, by my lights, in a much more constructive direction.

A law you co-sponsored in 2007 effectively bans the old standard incandescent indoor bulb, but some Republicans want to overturn it.

I did that with Fred Upton [Republican representative from Michigan]. This issue of light bulbs has become a lightning rod for the “tea party.” It’s shocking. Every family in America saves $200 dollars on average by moving to more efficient light bulbs.

[After the 2010 election] I sent Fred Upton a poinsettia plant with an efficient light bulb in it and a note saying, “Freddie, congratulations on becoming chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. May your future be bright. This is not an old-style incandescent bulb, and it has no mercury and wasn’t made in China.” He writes back and says, “You’re one of my dearest friends, but I would point out that your nice light bulb was made in Mexico.”

Fact: It was assembled in Mexico but its components were made in the U.S. Why am I telling you this? If NAFTA [which Harman opposed] had been better, we would have [had] more manufacturing in the U.S. of products like efficient light bulbs. This light bulb bill is growing us jobs.

You have worked for or with every president since Carter. How has presidential power changed, and does it concern you?

You can dial me back to John F. Kennedy -- that’s when I got interested in politics. I went to the Democratic National Convention in L.A. as a high school kid. I’ve watched all the presidents since Kennedy, and they have all connected to an international stage. I think a lot of the tensions and challenges we face tie back to the tensions and challenges of a hundred years ago. Wilson was our first internationalist president; he tried to articulate America’s place in the world. He really is the precursor for the problems and strategies modern presidents have.

When you announced that you were leaving, did any fellow members come to you and say, “You’re getting out at the right time”?

I still honor anyone who serves in the United States Congress. I think it is a magical institution. Sadly, many talented people are frustrated there because the process is so broken and so toxically partisan. It doesn’t have to be that way; it wasn’t that way early in my career. I’m going to use whatever talent I have here at the Wilson Center to help, to improve policy-making on a nonpartisan basis in this town.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: