By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Like the old chain-smoking re-write man cranking out a deadline story amid the maelstrom of a newsroom, Jan Schakowsky and Brad Schneider know full well how to work with a lot of noise surrounding them.
Illinois’ two Jewish members of the House of Representatives realize they must focus on the business of the country – and work to fulfill the desires of their constituents in their adjoining Chicago-area districts. They cannot get bogged down in the latest “breaking news” of the 24-hour cable TV news cycle, presidential bombast and White House-originated tweets.
At the same time, Schakowsky and Schneider do have a real sense of foreboding about what awaits at the end of the Robert Mueller special-counsel investigation and multiple House probes of Donald Trump’s family and business tribes.
Befitting a 10-term congressperson – representing part of the North Side and the near northern suburbs — who does not feel the need to parse her words, Schakowsky gets right to the point on Trump.
“I think Russia has something pretty devastating on him,” she said in an interview in her Edgewater office. “There’s the accusation that Donald Trump is working in Russia’s interest.
“This man has the nuclear codes in his pocket.”
A third-term representative whose district covers far north Cook County and Lake County, Schneider is more cautious in his verbiage, yet described Trump as an all-or-nothing personality in a phone conversation from his Capitol Hill office.
“What we’ve seen is Trump frames everything as a zero-sum game,” he said. “He wins and everyone else loses.
“There’s the saying a wise man learns from everyone. A fool learns from no one.”
Tuning into any of the cable news channels, a viewer’s senses are assaulted daily with a seemingly endless wrestling match between Trump and a newly-emboldened Democratic-controlled House. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has mandated her caucus concentrate on the issues that resulted in the biggest political turnover in the lower chamber since Watergate.
“Most people want us to focus on their day-to-day needs,” said Schakowsky. “Until we see the Mueller report, what’s coming from the Speaker is to move as quickly as possible on the domestic agenda to address people’s needs and do our own (investigative) agenda with the Intelligence and Oversight committees.”
The bi-partisan business of the House thus goes on almost out of sight, out of mind of the average viewer clicking about the dial at home.
That’s why Schakowsky, an activist to reduce health-care and prescription drug costs, recently fielded a call on the latter issue from a White House staffer. Communication between Trump staffers and senior Democratic legislators did not stop simply because of the tweets of the boss.
Sullivan High School alum Schakowsky holds one of the safest Democratic seats in the entire country, thus earning that call from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A Jew has held the Ninth District seat for all but two years since 1948, when the venerable Sidney Yates was first elected. Schakowsky was first elected in 1998 to succeed the 89-year-old Yates after she served for eight years in the Illinois Legislature. During her tenure, she has become close with Pelosi, who as Speaker is second in line to the presidency after Vice President Mike Pence.
Schneider has consistently reached across the aisle since he was first elected in 2012, losing his seat to Republican Bob Dold two years later and regaining his D.C. post in a rematch against Dold in 2016. He is a member of the bi-partisan Problem Solvers, a group of about 48 representatives. Schneider and other Democrats meet weekly with Republicans over coffee to find common ground and craft legislation that gets lost in the media shuffle.
“In today’s news cycle with 24-hour cable news, it’s in their interest to focus on discontent and dissent,” Schneider said. “But there are a lot of ways for cooperation. That doesn’t get covered much. It’s not the glamour part of Congress.”
And amid the emphasis on Trump and investigations, an important advocacy for worldwide Jewry by Schneider was hardly covered. The Colorado native who moved to the Chicago area during college, spent time on an Israeli kibbutz in his younger days. Schneider and Pelosi both put their hands on a Hebrew Bible when he was sworn in for his third term in January.
Almost immediately, Schneider joined bi-partisan colleagues Chris Smith, Peter King, Eliot Engel, Marc Veasey, Lee Zeldin, Nita Lowey and Kay Granger to re-introduce H.R. 221, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Act. The bill required the Trump Administration to fill a State Department position on battling anti-Semitism that had been vacant for the first two years of the president’s term. The bill also required the position to be advanced to ambassador status.
The bill passed the House 410-1 before being approved by the GOP-controlled Senate. Elan Carr was announced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as the new ambassador. Carr soon attended conferences on combating anti-Semitism held in Belgium and Slovakia.
“Anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head worldwide,” Schneider said. “I pushed hard for that (ambassadorial) legislation. Injustice anywhere affects injustice everywhere. Part of it is speaking out, speaking with good conscience against anti-Semitism, homophobia and xenophobia. My eyes see through a Jewish lens. We have to take care of the stranger because we were once slaves in Egypt. As it says in the Torah, take care of the poor, take care of the stranger.”
Schneider said he learned to understand the intricacies of Congress through Schakowsky’s guidance.
“Jan has been someone I worked with before I was first a candidate in 2011,” Schneider said. “I have looked to her as a voice of experience while I have been here. She is someone who understands how this place works. Our legislative teams in our districts work together. We have a very close relationship on policy. It didn’t hurt to have Jan’s endorsement and support with the Speaker. We’ve developed a good strong working relationship.”
In turn, Pelosi and Schakowsky have developed a close relationship. The former was a veteran, first elected to Congress in 1987, mentoring a female newcomer in 1999 in an era when women were first making their presence known as a group.
Schakowsky believes Trump has more than met his match in Pelosi, and even figures she can teach him a few things about governance if he’ll listen. Pelosi will not cave on positions even under withering fire. She did not back down from Trump on his government shutdown, and eventually the president blinked first.
“When we were doing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), there were plenty of Democrats who were afraid of it,” Schakowsky said. “In the summer of 2009, there were raucous town hall meetings, all these threats. She said, look, if we can get this through, and if I were to lose my election but millions more Americans have health care, it would be well worth it. She really, really believed that.
“There were people next to (then-President Barack Obama) who thought this is too controversial. Let’s go small. Do a little piece here, do a little piece there. She put a hand on the president’s shoulder and said ‘I’ll get you the votes.’ There is no one more strategic than her, no one better at the art of the deal, for real, than Nancy Pelosi.”
Although Schakowsky said Pelosi is operating in “uncharted territory” in dealing with Trump, “Nancy is very efficient in use of her time. Rather than lamenting where we are now, or complaining or spending time engaging (bogged down in Trump issues), she is constantly talking to us (about lawmaking). In the run up to (the 2018 election) she was encouraging us not to spend time talking about Donald Trump. Our candidates did not dwell on Donald Trump.”
Thus Schakowsky, an early proponent of a Medicare-for-all concept in the future, said the prospects are “great” to improve Obamacare and further protection of pre-existing conditions in the present Congress. Trump and the Senate have abandoned attacking Obamacare, with some GOP lawmakers running in 2018 on protecting pre-existing conditions coverage.
“I think since the 2020 elections are rolling around, we’re going to see us put some bills on the floor that are good for the American people and really hard to resist,” said Schakowsky. “There’s an aspirational part that everyone should have health care and not pay an arm-and-a-leg for premiums. A lot of people can’t make it now. We need to fix Obamacare. The House had passed a public option, but it couldn’t get past the Senate.
“With other countries, some do allow employers’ benefit plans, but require all to be covered. The insurance industry as middleman is where a lot of costs inflate. We spend twice as much on health care as any other country. We need to absolutely lower the cost. Medicare is a good program, and we need to include hearing aids, glasses and dental care. So many improvements can be made now if the White House stops sabotaging it.”
Added Schneider, a member of the Ways and Means Committee’s sub-committee on health care: “We need to bend the cost curve and lower costs in treatments and medications. Another area is trying to bring stability in the marketplace — creating backstops of a stability fund or re-insurance. I know we have the support of the American people. The question mark is what can move in the Senate. I’ll say with certainty we will do everything we can.”
Schakowsky actually is not on Venus to Trump’s Mars on the public pricing of prescription drugs.
“He wants to have the monthly price of expensive drugs listed on TV ads,” she said. “Drugs that range between $850 and $28,000. It would be helpful if the monthly price was listed. Hopefully it will have somewhat of a shaming effect on manufacturers of drugs. The reason script prices are so high is that they CAN.”
Eventually, both Schakowsky and Schneider will devote time to the ever-tightening vise of investigations around Trump. Pelosi’s discipline in the caucus has prevented a new round of impeachment resolutions that went nowhere in the last half of the previous Republican-controlled House.
Both representatives want Mueller’s investigation to take its course, with the House acting on its results, if released. A former eight-year member of the Intelligence Committee who had to step down due to term limits, Schakowsky said House investigators are of top quality who were hardly used under Republican committee chairmen. There will be no rush to judgment.
Schneider said he has “absolute confidence” in two Jewish chairmen of key investigative committees – Adam Schiff of Intelligence and Jerrold Nadler of Judiciary.
“We will exercise our constitutional responsibility,” he said. “We will exercise it with purpose, but it will be a process. It won’t be political. With respect to timing, the Democrats already have shown that we are not going to rush head-long and in a foolhardy manner. We’ll do it methodically.”
That measured process will apply to the Ways and Means Committee, whose chairman, Richard Neal, has the power to subpoena Trump’s tax returns from the Treasury Dept. On the receiving end of any subpoena would be Steven Mnuchin, the Jewish secretary of the treasury and a Trump loyalist.
“We have the expectation of transparency on the part of our leaders,” Schneider said. “My tax returns are published on my web site. We have had hearings in Ways and Means for legislation to have all candidates disclose taxes. We have seen with this president an absolute unwillingness (to disclose his tax returns). There’s no transparency and there’s the hiding of the ball.
“Chairman Neal can request the taxes of any citizen. I expect him to act on it when appropriate.”
“I think Mueller is going to be able to put many of the pieces together,” said Schakowsky. “During the Watergate scandal, Nixon won overwhelmingly (in 1972), unlike Trump. When the Watergate investigation was done, the Republicans became convinced the evidence, including the tapes, was undeniable. They informed him he’d be impeached (and convicted) if he did not resign.
“You’re dealing with a different kind of president now, I don’t know if he’d step down. But I think there may be a tipping point among the Republicans.
“Mueller was the head of the FBI while I was on the Intelligence Committee. He refused to go along with (the Bush) White House and the CIA on torture. The FBI is our foremost investigative agency. I have a lot of confidence in them. And Mueller is a straight-shooter and has a moral compass. I think it is starting to jell. With the Intelligence Committee (under Schiff), they can bring back witnesses who were coddled under the Republican watch. They plan to develop a case of their own.”
From a historical perspective, the accepting nature of Trump’s base toward Russia and its interference in the 2016 election and possible hold on the president is puzzling. During the Cold War, many suggested they’d rather be “dead than Red.” Passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets was punishable by the death penalty. But Schakowsky said times have changed, with everything today being viewed through a partisan prism.
“During the Vietnam War, the country was pretty divided, but we all watched the same (non-partisan) news,” she said. “Now Trump’s base watches only 24/7 Fox, listens only to Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, who are continuing to feed into the idea that Trump is being victimized by a media elite, people who don’t care about you.
“The base of people who do support him in that fervent manner, no matter what, is shrinking now. His disapproval ratings have gone up significantly. Women who voted for him are upset now. They’re upset at kids being separated at the border.”
If Trump loses Republican senators fearing for their re-election in 2020, he’d truly be crippled.
“There are considerations that senators running for re-election have to make,” said Schakowsky. “Does the president have the support of a majority of my state? How risky would it be to cross the president as compared to supporting him? If I’m running for re-election now, will I lose if I cross Donald Trump? Or is he losing power and support at a rate that’s accelerating? Will I benefit from supporting improvements in the ACA or putting in a robust infrastructure program? I better be for myself and vote the right way.”
Schakowsky has real fears a cornered Trump could pull the ultimate misdirection play.
“When I saw (former Defense Secretary James) Mattis resign and write that letter, it scared me,” she said. “I think you could see from the letter that Mattis would have prevented him from doing something really big and irrational. It would not surprise me if Trump was put in a corner, he would bomb Iran or something. He’s already had (national security adviser) John Bolton check with the military wanting them to construct some scenarios of what-if we went after Iran. Or how many troops could go to Venezuela? Get us into a hot conflict.”
While not squarely in the middle of investigations as a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and chairwoman of its consumer protection and commerce subcommittee, Schakowsky deals with issues of privacy. “And when you get into privacy, you do get a bit into national security issues,” she said.
The growing crisis over Trump needs resolution because an important issue bubbling up under the surface of statistically good economic numbers is the very nature of work in an era that increasingly is automated and robotized. The ongoing march of technology, such as driverless vehicles, threatens to displace millions of workers in upcoming decades without obvious alternatives for employment.
Both Schakowsky and Schneider would like to see a public-private industrial policy. At the moment, a gross mismatch exists between mature workers’ skill sets and the number of available jobs requiring specific training. Meanwhile, many younger workers won’t go into the skilled trades.
“There are things we can do in Congress on industrial policy,” Schneider said. “Create more opportunities for lifelong learning and education, and incentives for companies to help people in mid-career transition. That’s all about aspirational uplift.
“People have been left behind. What has always defined us is endless opportunity. Increasingly, people feel barriers and roadblocks. Develop more pathways to rungs on the (economic) ladder, create opportunities to achieve their potential. Invest in infrastructure, new technologies and new jobs. Restore the opportunities to have a middle class.”
Trump has crowed that he has presided over the best U.S. economy in history. In fact, the end of World War II brought a roaring economy, the mid- and late-1960s, despite Vietnam, was robust, and the second Clinton term in the late 1990s featured a government budget surplus, and 75 pages of help wanted classified ads in one Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune.
Schakowsky, who said the economy during her first term in 1999 was better than it is now, suggested the underlying holes in the present system gave rise to a Trump.
“People looked around in 2016 and said, it isn’t working for me,” she said. “My kids are going to do worse than I am. I can’t even own a home. The basics of the American Dream are escaping me and my family. I’m going to vote to turn things upside-down. I’m going to give this a shot.
“What they ended up doing is electing a con man – a shyster – who said he would make America great again. He also at the same time appealed to the darkest angels of people – racism, anti-Semitism, sexism. Working-class white men thought he’d re-establish the advantage of whiteness. He has made it OK in this country to act out in terms of race. He said there were good people on both sides at Charlottesville after torch-carrying neo-Nazis marched and chanted against the Jews.
“And he never, ever apologized for that.”