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Q & A with Sen. Elizabeth Warren

By J.D. O’Gara

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren visited the town of Franklin for a meet-and-greet on Monday, August 30 at the Franklin town common. Warren, who was introduced by Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, was greeted by a group of about 100 people, with a mix of about two-thirds supporters and a third protesters, and she answered questions, drawn by number, from the crowd. State Sen. Becca Rausch, D-Needham and State Rep. Jeff Roy, D-Franklin were also in attendance. 

Prior to her meet and greet, Local Town Pages was given the opportunity for a brief interview with Senator Warren. Here’s how it went:

LTP: First of all, why are bills, say like the infrastructure bill, that passed, why is it they’re always packed with what seems like so many partisan extras? Why is it always let’s make a deal, with so many different points? Why can’t it be, you know, the roads need to be fixed, let’s fix the roads?

Warren: I wish we could do it that way. I wish we could take up bills that are basically a single issue, talk about them and vote. The problem is that the way the Senate is designed, holdouts get benefits. And so, because they’re rewarded, they hold out until they get their special thing and once you add this special thing and that special thing, you look around and say, well, you know, he got something special and she got something special, I think I want something special, and that’s how these things become huge packages. It’s become the case that it is easier to pass something that has a whole lot of moving parts than it is to pass a single thing. I wish it were otherwise, and I’m not going to blame this on just one side or the other. It’s a problem of how the Senate started functioning long before I got there and has gotten worse in the Mitch McConnell years. I believe it to be the case that long before I got there, the Senate was at least committed to doing something and that increased the odds that you could get a single bill through on a usually pretty bipartisan basis. But when McConnell announced back when Obama was President that his job was to keep Obama from succeeding as President, gridlock and just locking the Senate down to pass nothing became the way the place functioned. And so now, it’s almost as if we have to bribe the Republicans, one at a time, to cross Mitch McConnell and agree to move a package of anything forward. Mitch McConnell was opposed to this bipartisan package right up until the last minute after it was negotiated, and he said yes, but he wouldn’t come to the negotiating table, and he’s their leader in the Senate, so that’s the kind of problem we’ve got now. The Senate has become a place for which many people on the Republican side are perfectly willing to say if nothing ever gets done, they’ll be fine with it.

LTP: With everything so polarized, including our state, it seems there’s such a rift between left and right, how do you breach that gap? How do you get anything accomplished?

Warren: What’s so troubling to me is how hard it is to do the things that people want to see us do, and I’ll give you some examples. Raising taxes on millionaires and billionaires is very popular across this country with Democrats and Republicans, and yet, it’s a terrible fight within the Senate. The Republicans, across the board, say they will not increase taxes, and there are some Democrats who are squeamish about asking billionaires to pay even half of what middle class families are paying.

LTP: Does that have to do with their funding, their donations?

Warren: I think partly. It’s about the corruption of the system that donors’ voices are very loud in Washington, and the voices of people who are just trying to get on with their lives often don’t get heard.

I’ll give you another example around that and that is – childcare. Much of America would like to see us make an investment in childcare – Universal Pre-K – but there’s not a single Republican who will vote for a childcare bill and it’s not as if, when I say, well could we design it in a way that—tell me what you don’t like about it, and the answer is that they won’t even talk about it. To me, what that says is our problem is people who worry more about the kind of public statement that’s going to be made afterwards than about getting work done that the American people want to see us do. Raising the minimum wage—it’s popular across the country and yet, we can’t get a single Republican vote to raise the minimum wage. It’s just wrong.

LTP: But how do you go about breaching the gap. What do you do?

Warren: Sometimes it’s to try to work on things that jump the usual political channels. For example, I’m working on a bill about marijuana. Here’s a perfect example. I am a co-sponsor on a Democratic bill to legalize marijuana. I support it; I think it’s the right thing to do, nationwide, but it is very unlikely to get 60 votes in the Senate. So, I’m working on a second bill, and that’s a bill that says whatever the state decides on marijuana, the federal government will defer to it, and this is important, because it not only says the federal government will not prosecute, it says that banks can accept money from marijuana businesses, and that the IRS can treat it as a legitimate business for tax purposes. It solves the other problems about marijuana without forcing the Republicans to have to say yes or no on nationwide legalization. I have Republican co-sponsors on that and some hope that once we get past infrastructure and voting bills that we’ll be able to turn to this and actually put together more than 60 votes to get it done.

LTP: That’s also states’ rights?

Warren: It has a states’ rights element, absolutely, but it’s also just a very practical solution to the problem, and it says to every state that whatever you decide, whether it’s recreational use is okay, medicinal use is okay, or nothing is okay, the federal government will respect your position, and for fed purposes, treat your laws as the laws that govern these businesses that are within your jurisdiction. It’s a very specific issue; it doesn’t have a lot of pieces hung onto it, and the idea is, I’ve reached out, I’ve talked to different Republicans about it, but we’ve gotten some commitments and expressions of interest and I’m hopeful that this could be a solution that both sides could sign onto. I don’t think there ought to be Democrat vs. Republican positions on marijuana once the states have legalized it. I really do think the state should be the one to determine here. If Massachusetts has decided this is how far we’re going to go on legality. I don’t think that childcare should be an issue that divides Democrats and Republicans. These are our children, and we should be investing in all of them, because they are our collective future.

LTP: Talking about the infrastructure bill. That’s an achievement. How did you work across the board?

Warren: The infrastructure bill, I think that one of the biggest challenges is that the need is so great. America has under-invested in infrastructure for decades. Roads, bridges, the power grid, our water supply, all of it receives a rating of D by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

In order to bring our infrastructure up to date costs a lot of money, and one of the biggest struggles in the back and forth was whether or not the Republicans could agree with the Democrats on how much we needed to spend. I tried to help to talk about ways we could raise the revenue so that there would be enough to pay for infrastructure. This was the advantage of doing two different infrastructure packages side by side – the bigger one, that would provide for childcare, home- and community-based care, fighting the climate crisis, expanding Medicare -- let the Republicans move forward on a narrower infrastructure package without forcing them to commit to that larger pack. Part of how the bipartisan deal came to be was because Democrats didn’t have to put everything into the bipartisan bill. We knew that we had another opportunity and that was through the budget reconciliation, so kind of running the two tracks to keep it going forward.

LTP: So, it’s a strategy, to put forward these two bills – here’s one with all the extras?

Warren: That’s right, it’s a strategy.

LTP: And if you don’t like this one with the extras…

Warren: You can at least vote on this one.

LTP: Afghanistan? Your basic position on should we be there shouldn’t we be there? It feels like a hot mess …

Warren: President Biden was right to end the war in Afghanistan…

LTP: Well, so would you say too, that maybe Trump was right, since he was the one who got it started?

Warren:  That’s right, and it is a reminder that President Trump negotiated the exit and dealt with the Taliban and brought them to the table to make them a part of our leaving Afghanistan. The American military is the finest on earth, and they do everything we ask them to do and far more, but the problem in Afghanistan could not be solved by our military. The Trump negotiation with the Taliban left President Biden in the position either of pulling out or putting more troops in to deal with an increasingly aggressive Taliban. He made the right decision. It was long past time for us to go. 

I will say, in general – I sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and for years now, the generals would come in for hearings or briefings, and I’ve gone to Afghanistan, and I’d ask the same questions over and over about what success looks like, what metrics we’re using, and over and over, the generals would concede that we had lost land, that there was more corruption than ever, that the heroin trade had increased, and yet they would claim, “but we’re turning a corner,” and over and over, they were wrong. It was time to leave years ago, and I’m glad that President Trump started us on this path to leave, and that President Biden followed through.