Column: Our democracy needs fixing. Impeachment alone can’t do the job
This week, the House of Representatives is about to cast a history-making vote on two articles of impeachment against President Trump. One of the Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee who drafted those articles and sent them to the floor for a vote is a nine-year veteran of Congress, and before that, was the first black woman to be speaker of California’s state Assembly. Karen Bass’ Los Angeles district — bounded from South L.A. and Baldwin Hills to Culver City and Mar Vista — is a robust mix of poor and rich, Latino, black and white Angelenos, and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans almost eight to one, making Bass’ one of the most Democratic districts in the country. At her town halls, some voters tell her that healthcare is what they care most about; others say it’s getting Trump out of the White House. She agrees on both counts. And in spite of what you may have seen on TV, one thing she doesn’t want to happen is impeachment 2.0.
A lot of people in your district are affected by student loan policies, by payday lending policies, by criminal justice policies, by immigration policies. And those to me don’t scream impeachment first or impeachment, period.
That’s right. One of the things that’s a little frustrating here in Congress is that we are getting a lot of work done. The problem is, is that ever since Trump has been president, he really kind of sucks all the oxygen out of everything so that it would seem like all we’re doing is impeachment.
Let me use myself as an example.
I chair a subcommittee in Foreign Affairs on Africa. I’ve been spending a lot of time on U.S. Africa policy. In Judiciary [Committee] I also chair a subcommittee on crime, and I’ve been very involved in developing comprehensive legislation impacting women in the criminal justice system.
We have passed since January over 400 pieces of legislation that are languishing in the Senate. Out of those 400 bills, over 200 are bipartisan bills. So why the Senate refuses to act — OK, if you don’t want to take up the partisan bills, why don’t you move them, the bipartisan bills?
It seems as though [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell made a decision that basically the only thing he was going to do this year was confirm judges.
And I think it’s rather sinister and cynical, because this administration, along with the Senate Republicans, have decided that the most important thing to do is to dominate and control the courts.
And if you think about it, over all these years where they’ve tried to control who gets to vote in this country, they failed. We’ve been able to win elections in spite of voter suppression and redistricting.
So the sinister and cynical side of the judges is, I think they’ve pretty much decided, well, we might not be able to stop certain people from voting, but we can certainly stop their legislation.
Well, that goes to how many people look at elections, especially presidential elections — it’s all about what’s happening at the top, and in the down-ballot races, maybe they vote, maybe they don’t.
I think that the election of President Trump has shown us that we can never take our eye off the ball. In other words, we might be intrigued by the presidential [election] but we need to be concerned about every single election on that ballot, every single race.
Once you win policy, then you have to be in place to protect it, because it can be reversed.
I’m hoping in the end that the United States will be like a lot of other countries: People know everything that’s going on, not just in their own country — they know what’s going on in our country. And we tend to not be as civically involved.
Now, we can tell you everything about our celebrities. But do we know what a member of Congress does that’s different from a city council person?
It takes involvement because you can teach young people civics and government. But, it’s not just a matter of getting a class. Now you need to be involved. You’re 18. You’re voting. You need to know what you’re voting for, what you believe in, how you want your city, your state, your country to run. And you need to take responsibility.
So I view that it is my responsibility to be involved and to educate voters in my district, but to also involve them, which is why I always have town halls. And inevitably, at every town hall I have, there are people who will come and ask me questions relating to the city government, because they don’t understand the difference. So I usually spend about a third of my town halls doing civics.
Let’s talk about some California issues — for example, the California wildfires, and the fact that this just doesn’t seem to be a bad wildfire season — it’s going to be going on year after year. President Trump threatened to withhold aid, talked about California not adequately raking the forest floors. What is the federal plan for dealing with climate change as it affects California and the West, and with these wildfires in particular?
Well, unfortunately, we have an administration that not only does not believe in climate change, but is aggressively trying to undo any regulation or legislation that has to do with climate change.
So it really leaves California to go on our own. If I’ve learned anything in the nine years I’ve been in Congress, it’s how fortunate we are in California, how enlightened our state is.
I don’t believe that California can rely on the federal government. Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to fight every day here to make sure that we provide the resources.
But one thing that this administration has done that we’ve never seen before, we will pass laws and they just won’t follow up and enact them.
The idea that the president would say, “I’m mad at California, so I’m not going to send you money if there’s a disaster,” and that California needs to rake the forests like they do in whatever country that was — that is embarrassing. It’s just downright embarrassing.
But we have a state legislature that is very active on these issues. We have a governor that is very much involved in climate change. So we have to recognize that until we have a new administration, California’s kind of on its own.
That could be five more years.
I can’t accept that. Please. If this administration were to continue on another term, our country would be devastated.
We just voted on articles of impeachment out of the committee. There’s no reason right now to think that the Senate is actually going to remove him.
But the fact that we did impeach him — hopefully that sends a signal to him that he is not going to be able to get away with cheating on the next election. And that’s the essence as to why he was impeached.
There’s also the issue of homelessness in Los Angeles County. Voters voted for billions of dollars to help end homelessness; it doesn’t seem to be working.
One of the things I’ve learned from being in Congress is that, you know, much to my surprise, this is not a national problem. I have been to so many states and so many cities now, and I have never seen anything like what’s going on in California.
And here, the county and the city really need to be applauded for their efforts in getting the ballot initiatives passed. But they need more help. They need help from the state Legislature too, to stop people from falling into homelessness.
You know, as gentrification is happening more and more in our city, landlords, land owners, apartment building owners and single-family homeowners are finding ways to get rid of tenants who are on Section 8 [federal housing assistance vouchers], to get rid of low-income tenants to change their buildings over to serve more middle and upper middle-income folks.
While the city and the county were doing everything they could to build housing as fast as they could, more and more people were falling into homelessness. So I think it’s a mixture of resources and changes in policy.
L.A. County supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, both members of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s task force on homelessness, have proposed a right to shelter for the homeless that’s coupled with an obligation to accept shelter. How does that sound to you?
I agree with that 100%. Everybody knows that providing people housing alone is not enough. And, you know, I do think at some point in our time, our society has to say, does freedom mean that you are free to be mentally ill on the streets? And I don’t think that that’s the way freedom should be viewed.
For example, it was a noble effort decades ago, when we got rid of the mental health institutions and then we were going to build community institutions, you remember that?
And it never happened. I’m worried that we’re repeating that mistake in criminal justice reform where we’re letting people out of prison, but we don’t have anything for them when they get out of prison. You know that formerly incarcerated people also make up a percentage of folks who are on the street. You can’t be in prison for 10, 15, 20 years, and then you open up the door and say, “Goodbye, good luck.”
I have legislation that would provide resources to communities to start one-stop centers that would be run by people who were formerly incarcerated.
President Trump signed the First Step Act about criminal justice reforms and what you were speaking of, inmates’ successful return to society. Do you think he’s committed to this?
Yes. When I worked with the administration, I met with Jared Kushner around my ideas related to reentry. I think Jared Kushner is committed. Whether the president is committed to anything, you really have to ask that on a daily basis.
I was very much involved in First Step and made sure that there was legislation related to women in First Step, because in all of these conversations and legislation and ballot initiatives that we’ve been doing, they’re mainly focused on men. And the needs of women are different every step of the way.
You did an interview with TMZ, which is identified as celebrity news.
Oh, I talk to TMZ rather frequently, because people watch TMZ. Let me tell you, I was really shocked myself, the first time I did TMZ.
TMZ does do straight news. You know, it’s obviously not the main thing that they do. But I think, in the same way that you saw President Obama do a lot of different news shows — I know one I laughed about was the one with the two trees?
Oh, the two ferns — Zach Galifianakis.
And one of the things I learned from him is that, you know, there’s tons of ways that people get information now, and you shouldn’t limit yourself. Talking to TMZ — you would be amazed at how many constituents really respond to that. So that why I did that.
One of the things I think you said there was, that there’s always a chance, if the Senate fails to remove the president, of doing another impeachment on another issue.
That was answering a hypothetical, which is never a good idea. But what they had asked me — they were trying to understand what the process was — and they were saying, hypothetically, could a president be impeached more than once?
Yes, a president could be impeached more than once. Do what I want to see that happen? Absolutely not.
But the investigation and oversight of the administration continues. It is possible that after the articles of impeachment are moved over to the Senate, that the House continues to find more and more evidence.
If that’s the case, we would give that to the Senate so the Senate could use it in their trial. Now, once the trial is over, if we continue to get information, then we’ll have to figure out what happens then.
I do not want to see us go through this again at all. It would be terrible for us to then turn right around and impeach the president if he were to be reelected, which I do think would be a travesty.
What are the issues in the Democratic presidential campaign that are not being addressed that you think are important?
Absolutely. I’m so glad you asked me that question. I have been very disappointed that in virtually none of the debates have they addressed foreign policy.
And I think it’s shocking. There was a couple of questions related to the Ukraine, but foreign policy is a huge part of what a president does. There needs to be one specific debate that is focused on nothing but foreign policy.
With the ending of her campaign by Kamala Harris and other changes in the Democratic field, it’s not as diverse as it was at the beginning.
Well, I think that’s sad, because one thing that I feel very prideful about is the demographics of the Democratic Party.
For example, if you look at the Judiciary Committee, if you look at the proceedings that we’ve gone through over the last couple of days, one side of the committee is 100% white. The other side of the committee is completely diverse.
It’s unfortunate that we’re losing that diversity when it comes to the presidential race.
Down the road, after President Trump leaves office, whenever that will be, it seems to me that this will be like post-Watergate, a moment when Congress decides to shape the future of the presidency: Will this be about limiting powers so no future presidents can, say, exploit loopholes like acting appointments? Or will he have expanded it to the point of people saying, well, we like this new presidency, this is the way that it operates?
What President Trump has done is he has revealed that we have some serious weaknesses within our democracy. And I do believe that those will be addressed.
For example, a president shouldn’t be able to just ignore subpoenas. A president should be able to be indicted. A president should have to show his taxes. A president, in my opinion, should have to show that he is of physical and mental sound[ness], fit to be president. You can’t have your family in your administration.
Putting more teeth in the emoluments [clause]. The president has made millions and millions of dollars off of his time being president. I mean, it’s just one scandal after another.
With your colleagues across the aisle in Congress, have you seen a change in the way personal relationships have gone over the last nine years that you’ve been there?
We get along just fine. What I always tell people is that what you see happening in Congress is like the Lakers and the Clippers, you know. You have athletic teams that are fighting against each other, but it’s not personal. There’s a few exceptions, but for the most part, it’s not.
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