The month that a TV game show called “Wheel of Fortune” made its debut, a 29-year-old Californian named George Miller was taking his new seat in Congress. Both the show and the congressman are still around, but Miller has decided that he’s taken his final spin in electoral politics and will be retiring this year from his seat in the 11th Congressional District in Northern California. He is among Congress’ remaining handful of “Watergate babies,” Democrats elected in the wake of the Nixon political scandal. Miller’s father was a Democratic state senator, and Miller ran to succeed him but lost. It was the only time he lost. After Miller won a congressional seat in 1974, he was reelected 18 times. He’s familiar to C-SPAN viewers as a ferocious advocate of better education. Over the years, the most visible change has been his hair and famous mustache morphing from dark to white.
How has Congress changed you?
It’s given me an appreciation, a sense that none of this is just handed to you. It’s not like an athletic contest. There is no final score. You win a victory today and the same forces will try to take it away in the next session. So you’re on sentry duty 24/7 if you really care about expanding the rights and protections of people.
Do you agree with your long-ago colleague, Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan, that your faith in the Constitution is whole and complete?
It is. Sometimes it bites me in the butt, sometimes it bites other people in the butt, but it’s a good set of principles and benchmarks. But you’ve got to work at it every day; it doesn’t take care of itself.
You came to Congress right after Watergate — the era of wiretapping and recordings. You’ll leave in the post-Edward Snowden era of debate about NSA spying and tracking.
Go back to the [Sen.] Frank Church report [of 1975-76 on intelligence-gathering] pointing out the inadequacy of information to Congress and the extent to which people were not fully informed of what our government was doing. My concern is that our intelligence committees are set up in many ways for the intelligence community to say they told Congress [the facts] because they brief them. But many friends on these committees are completely frustrated with their inability to get answers. They get misleading answers, they get no response to some of their concerns, [and] when the intelligence community gets in a jam, it says, “We told Congress.”
There’s no lack of oversight, but is it informed oversight, in terms of the depth of information, of those responsible for what is carried out, and is the information shared so this web of authorities can work intelligently together?
When you arrived, Congress was working on cleaning up campaign money and concealment; as you leave, there are major concerns about dark money and concealment.
Exactly. The [Supreme] Court has given its permission for secret and unlimited amounts of money in our election process — this is sort of what oligarchs and dictators and juntas do. They amass the resources and distort the process. I don’t know how you can maintain this vibrant, diverse democracy with unlimited amounts of anonymous money. It’s far more threatening to our democracy than foreign policy issues.
How different is the partisanship from when you arrived?
Partisanship was always fairly robust. There’s times when personalities make it less robust — a particular Republican or Democratic leader who gets along personally and is easier to talk with. But this is way beyond the historical norms. This [recent] Congress has been in the middle of essentially a hostile takeover by this dark money that is manipulating all of the processes of people’s right to vote, to reapportionment, [by] threatening fully funded primaries against those who seek to work out problems through compromise. That coordinated, speedy money can overwhelm the concerns of your constituents.
Is this mostly Republicans, or are Democrats doing it too?
In politics you fight fire with fire, but what would get burned down is the democratic process. You can wake up one day to find out you lost it.
I’ve seen some of your floor speeches and you’ve said things like, “It’s a glorious day if you’re a fascist,” and talked about a “jihad” against healthcare. Doesn’t that rhetoric ratchet things up?
I think things have ratcheted up, when you see the unrelenting campaign against the Affordable Care Act. [As] someone in my district [pointed out]: “When they screwed up the implementation of Medicare, [then-California GOP] Sen. Tom Kuchel and in my district [Republican] congressman John Baldwin sent an open letter saying, ‘We have to fix this.’”
It was very different. [They didn’t say,] “We demand that you repeal it, that you punish people in certain states by not extending the benefits of the law.”
You’ve been a champion of the working class. What’s become of them, and that discussion?
Look across the range of occupations that keep this country going, and how vital some of them are, and in some cases how badly the people are treated. The extent to which they’re yanked around, and some corporate decision [chose to] take more for shareholders and management and not share it with workers. It’s a serious question, the working poor and the declining wage base. If it’s not addressed, I think it’s going to create very difficult times.
There’s starting to be some blowback on the minimum wage. Some sectors of this economy, the big-box stores and big fast-food chains, some want to continue a business plan that relies on wages that are less than they were in 1968. That’s a plan for the future of this country? I don’t think so.
Are you concerned that others won’t be taking up the causes you’ve championed?
[What] was helpful to me in making my decision was getting to know our new freshman class in the Democratic caucus. These are really talented people with energy and amazing life stories and experiences and diversity, that looks so much more like America than past Congresses, and I have a lot of confidence in them.
One of those causes is education.
I’ve seen a persistence in the gaps in achievement between poor and minority and middle-class children. That gap doesn’t have to exist, but it takes a commitment to get rid of it. Now we have charter schools within public school systems — we can see the same population thrive and achieve and participate, so why not the rest?
You have faith in the transformative power of technology in schools.
As we’re finding out, just handing out an iPad isn’t the answer. It’s a piece of what can be done. This is to me the most exciting period of innovation in terms of improving teaching and learning. We have an opportunity to get rid of these old, constant problems. You can empower teachers and dramatically expand the opportunity for children to learn. We should not miss this opportunity. But the educational community in some ways is among the most conservative in our society. [Improving education] takes a lot of effort and resourcing and abandoning, in many instances, a very old industrial model of education.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, one of your Capitol Hill roommates — Sen. Dick Durbin is the other — tweeted about finding someone to replace you: “Seeking roommate. 20 terms in the House & unmatched legislative record preferred. Lover of cold cereal a must.” Maybe in the interests of bipartisanship he should look for a Republican?
[Laughs] Ahhh, you’re on thin ice now!
Do you have Republican friends in Congress?
Oh yes! Not as many as I used to have. My success has been tied to being able to talk to some of the most conservative people in Congress on major legislation.
You won’t miss the almost weekly cross-country flights, but what will you miss?
You miss the people. You miss the environment you get to interact with, from the president to foreign leaders to members of the House and Senate; the fact that you can pick up the phone and get [experts] and ask a question. Such magnificent access!
Politico ranked you as the congressman who traveled most for free last year. Why is that?
Most of that is my participation in the Aspen Institute’s congressional program, one of the very few moments in this hectic institution where you get four days to sit down with some of the best experts in a particular field, from Russia to Islam to African policy, with people who’ve spent their lives thinking about these issues. There’s no other time where you can get that. In Congress, the day is divided up into 15-minute segments.
Why did you decide to leave?
When the president signed the Affordable Care Act and I was standing there with the other authors and the leadership — that sent a physical chill up me. It hit me that, wow, this is what I came here to do, the big goal. I’d been doing this for 40 years. I reviewed what I’d accomplished and thought, this is the time. And there are other ways to influence policy with respect to education. My sons said, “Pops, you’ve accomplished a lot of what you went there to do. Try something else.”
This interview was excerpted from a taped transcript. firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @pattlatimes