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Our Meeting With Congressman Richard Gephardt

Fresh from his weekly breakfast with President George W. Bush, Congressman Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) played host to myself and a select group of Black opinion leaders and journalists in his conference room on Capitol Hill. The House Minority leader broke bread with the group and fielded questions that spanned the current event spectrum. From the progress of the U.S. war on terrorism to the impact of the just confirmed economic recession, the man who hopes to become the next Speaker of the House of Representatives shared his thoughts with us on the most important domestic and foreign issues.

The discussion began with Rep. Gephardt providing a snapshot of his meeting with President Bush as well as his pleasure at having gained a commitment from the current Speaker of the House, Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to consider, before the winter recess, the inclusion and expansion of health insurance and unemployment benefits as part of an economic stimulus package. Rep. Gephardt told us that it is his expectation that the extension of unemployment benefits will apply to everyone and that the expansion of health insurance coverage would be granted to individuals retroactively from September 11th. He did indicate that these extensions and expansions were only a short-term response and that in his heart he looked forward to the day of universal coverage, of some form. "I will argue that we need healthcare for everyone, but we just are not there yet." Mr. Gephardt lamented.

In spite of the obvious attention being paid to matters specific to the September 11th attack, the Congressman firmly expressed his desire that the legislative branch of the U.S. government return to its "normal agenda". At the top of Mr. Gephardt's list were the concerns of the elderly and the interests of the young with social security, prescription drug benefits and education representing the issues of most importance. "It seems to me that we are asking the elderly to sacrifice again. They need prescription drug benefits right now." But in a moment of self-criticism, the Missouri Democrat admitted his role in the absence of discussion regarding the education issue, " I haven't done a good enough job in explaining how fixing public schools is as critical as taking care (of the war on terrorism). We are going to have to do something in the Middle East so that we don't have kids turning into terrorists. It is the same argument with education in this country. We have young people with talent wasting away and we are not investing in them. When education fails there is a loss, not just in terms of people not being productive, but people are also turning into a negative, when they enter into the criminal justice system. I believe that we can get agreement from society that we have to fix these crumbling schools." When asked how he thought the education issue could re-emerge with the country at war Rep. Gephardt said, " We can do things like get television shows to go interview kids in jail, ask them how they got there. And we have to put numbers behind the problem, not just in terms of the number of people in prison but what this problem means to us all in terms of dollars and cents."

In discussion the House Minority Leader dove right into what he believed the problem and solution were in improving relations between the United States and the Islamic World. Mr. Gephardt spoke of his firm belief that the United States will have to put significant financial resources behind improving the quality of life for Muslims in countries around the world. Mr. Gephardt explained, " We need an analogue to the Marshall Plan. We can't allow young Muslims to be trained as terrorists. We did it with Japan, Germany, Eastern Europe and are trying to do it with Russia. We have to do it. If all we do is simply get the terrorists who are responsible for the recent attacks as we boost homeland security, you haven't solved the problem and you won't stop terrorism from happening again because you would still have lots of Bin Ladens coming along." The top Democrat in the House said that the United States "can't do what we did in 1989" and abandon the Afghans, and he added that the appropriate mixture of foreign aid would be essential to the subsiding of tensions between America and parts of the Muslim world. He also added " The world is now a global village. There was a time where people said that Somalia was not in our interest and that Haiti and parts of Africa were not in our interests but we now know that every country is in our national interest."

I then told Congressman Gephardt that I understood his interest in improving the image of the United States abroad, through better relations and his Marshall-Plan like proposal but I asked that he consider and respond to the specific grievances that many in the Muslim and Arab world have against the United States of America. I then listed the three most consistent opinions held by Muslims and Arabs abroad that embody the dissatisfaction that many feel toward the United States : 1) The perception that the United States is imbalanced in its handling of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians 2) The resentment over the United States presence in the Saudi Arabia both in terms of the American military's proximity to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, as well as the belief that America has unfairly exploited the country's oil resources. 3) The belief that U.S.-backed sanctions against Iraq are excessive and even represent a weapon of mass destruction used by America against Muslims. I asked Rep. Gephardt if part of his Marshall Plan and diplomacy with the Muslim world would include a concession that aspects of these three grievances are accurate or legitimate. And I asked the Congressman if he thinks the United States should be willing to announce any correction of its foreign policy that has contributed to the resentment that many feel toward the U.S.

In response Rep. Gephardt told me, " I think that the United States has been a force for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. We are in better shape now than we were in the 1950's and 60's and even up through the 1990s. I do think that at the end of the Clinton administration, not to place blame, there was a lost opportunity and a disappointing conclusion and when the Bush administration came in they backed away from the process entirely, arguing that the two sides can figure this out on their own. They (the Israelis and Palestinians)will never figure it out on their own. We need to serve as the honest broker. I recently met with George Mitchell and he explained to me what the process was in arranging for peace with the IRA, and of course there still are problems. But he told me that he spent three-and-a-half months on the ground negotiating and actually finding words for both sides to use that would be acceptable to each party, in an agreement. He told me that they would spend weeks on one word so that an agreement could be reached. That would have never happened without our involvement. We are all hearing the argument that Arafat has lost control. This is a delicate situation. You need someone involved who not only has experience with negotiating but who also understand politics. I understand what our critics say but we are a positive force. And we have an obligation to Israel in light of the history of the Jewish people...If we can get a treaty in that part of the world it would go along way toward improving things and how we are viewed.

"In Saudi Arabia we need a long term energy policy. We need an analogue to the Manhattan Project on fuel and we need to improve conservation efforts as well. But we have to push the Saudi government to stop aiding and abetting terrorists through charities and terrorist schools. We need to get our friends in that region to stop aiding terrorists.

"As for Iraqi sanctions, I don't know how best to approach this. I am not sure that we should have ever stopped the weapons inspections. I don't know that sanctions are the best method, but we can't do nothing. We just can't allow someone as erratic as Saddam Hussein to develop weapons of mass destruction. Once we verify that they are not doing that, then we could lift sanctions. But yes, it is not good for the people of Iraq to starve and be in need of pharmaceuticals."

Rep. Gephardt was then asked his opinion of how the Democrats would do in the 2002 congressional elections. He acknowledged the leadership of Rep. Charles Rangel of New York in his leadership role in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). He expressed his satisfaction with the manner in which redistricting decisions were being made across the country believing "that it will be a wash, which is what I had hoped for." The Congressman stated that he believes that history bodes well for Democrats taking back control of the House. He explained that only once in 150 years has a newly-elected President gained seats in the House. He said that was in 1934. He also expressed the reasons for his belief that war, the condition of the economy and election outcomes are connected and that history also informs the student of what one can expect when those forces are in alignment with one another, " Warfighting is never good for the economy. And people vote the economy. That could happen. This next election could be a referendum on how George W. Bush has handled the economy."

Later Mr.Gephardt would go further with his history analogy by comparing President Bush's current popularity and his political party's campaign fortunes with that of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in World War II, "Pearl Harbor was in December of 1941 and by November 1942, the President had lost 50 seats in the House. Although the country was united in war, the economy was not back. I don't think people take a President's popularity and translate that into popularity for Republican candidates in the House. 12 months from now is a long time away, anything can happen."

The Missouri lawmaker also responded with laughter to a question regarding his opinion of how well President Bush has managed the economy. He expressed that he believed that the President had done a horrible job thus far. Speaking as if he were a tenured economics professor, although many would disagree with his premise and his conclusion, Rep. Gephardt reasoned, " The tax cut made no sense. I am not saying that the tax cut is what caused the economy to go down but Bill Clinton built us the best economy we've ever seen. Although I did not agree with welfare reform, it, along with the productive economy produced jobs for people. The tax cut (that President Bush signed) was $1 billion more expensive then it should have been and because of its size, convinced the financial markets that we were going back into deficits. And interest rates have to rise as a hedge against that."

In addition, Rep. Gephardt voiced his concerns over the potentially volatile mixture of people coming off of welfare as the economy is in recession."Where do people go after welfare reform? We have not seen welfare reform while the country is in recession. We are going to have to revisit this question because I don't think we are going to have enough resources in the private sector to handle them."

Mr. Gephardt appeared to deal most uncomfortably on the issue of detentions, specifically the arrests and questioning of Arab and Muslim men, as the country tries to find a balance between national security and civil liberties. He was pressed several times by members of the group on the issue who were not satisfied with the Representative's answers regarding the controversial issue. Eventually the Missouri lawmaker would admit that his position on the issue was not measurably different than that of President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft. Mr. Gephardt told the group, " We do have an obligation to prevent further attacks. They are willing and ready to die and use weapons of mass destruction - that is a deadly combination. We have to prevent further attacks. I have all of the worries that anybody else has on civil liberties. But the first duty of government is to make everyone safe. I think the current policy is a necessary policy. We need to do whatever we need to do to stop an attack."

When asked why all of the clean-shaven, crew-cut wearing, White men weren't rounded up after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Rep. Gephardt responded, "I don't think, in that case, that we were faced with terrorist cells who were likely to do that again." He would go on to moderate, but further his agreement with the administration's policy in reference to detention. "I think that everybody picked up is not going to be guilty of a crime. I do not believe that they (the Justice Department)are doing it with bad intentions but we are in a state of concern for the threat of follow-up attacks that do have credibility to them"

Congressman Gephardt concluded that it would be the responsibility of lawmakers in the U.S. Congress with oversight and a vigilant media that would ensure that the detentions, and homeland security efforts did not go too far in eroding civil liberties.

Cedric Muhammad

Thursday, November 29, 2001

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