I recorded this interview with Daylin Leach, one of my favorite PA politicians who’s now running for the 13th District House seat, a few months ago at his Conshohocken office and hadn’t gotten around to transcribing it. But I wanted to get this out there this week because Social Security has become a key issue in this race, and as you’ll see, Daylin has an excellent answer that I think goes further than the statements Val Arkoosh is on the record with. I’ve moved that question to the top, and put the rest below the fold.
Jon Geeting: Some conservative House Democrats have supported efforts to cut Social Security benefits by shifting to a “chained CPI” measure of inflation. What do you think about Alaska Senator Mark Begich’s Preserve and Protect Social Security Act? It lifts the cap on taxable earnings entirely, but it also doesn’t means test benefits, so higher earners get the same proportion back whether they want it or not.
Daylin Leach: I don’t think you should means-test Social Security in terms of eligibility. In the case of ultimate benefits there might be a case for that but in terms of eligibility, if you means test, the problem with that of course is that not everyone who’s wealthy was wealthy when they started out. When they started paying into it they were promised they’d get a return – that promise should be kept. Also, if it just becomes a program for poor people, it’s easy to demonize as a welfare program, and therefore it loses its strong political support, as well as its basic structure of a contract between this generation and the next generation.
So I’m not for means-testing. I am for lifting the cap. I think the cap makes no sense and we can’t afford the cap anymore. And rather than addressing any budgetary issues regarding Social Security with cuts to beneficiaries or increasing the retirement age or anything like that – which, again, breaks the promise we made to them – we should uncap the payroll tax. We don’t have to do it all at once, it could be phased in.
I would not touch benefits. People rely on these benefits. No one’s getting rich on Social Security payments. Most people rely on this to be able to pay their bills. We don’t need generations of senior citizens who worked hard, who built our society, retiring into poverty. I don’t support chained CPI, but I do support raising the cap, possibly eliminating the cap, so we can keep the program solvent without impacting current beneficiaries.
JG: The Begich bill eliminates the cap, but he also switches to CPI-E.
DL: I support CPI-E. For people who don’t know what that is, there’s general inflation index (CPI) and then there’s CPI-E which is geared toward what seniors pay for. What seniors pay for is different from what 20-year-olds pay for. It’s a more accurate gauge of inflation for people collecting Social Security, so it seems fair that we would use that.
JG: What are three issues you’re hoping to make an impact on in Washington?
DL: There are an awful lot, but I’ll tell you the number one issue is a procedural issue from which all substantive issues flow.
Right now we have an existential threat to our democratic way of life – there are a number of things that are occurring that make the idea of majority rule and democracy more elusive. The most significant is gerrymandering. We had 90,000 more votes for Democratic candidates in 2012 in Pennsylvania, but the PA delegation is 13-5 Republicans. Nationwide, same sort of thing.
So not only do you have malapportionment and unaccountable elected officials with gerrymandering, but the biggest problem is that you have people who have no incentive to look moderate or compromise or accomplish anything because they can never lose to the other party. They can only lose a primary. So their incentive is to be ideological and demonize the other side.
That is why when I reduced my redistricting reform bill 10 years ago I predicted we’re going to have government shutdowns, we’re not going to have the ability to accomplish anything. We’ve passed fewer bills this cycle than at any time since George Washington was President. And that’s directly the result of gerrymandering. If we don’t change that, then we’re not going to be a thriving democracy in the next few years.
JG: Anything else besides gerrymandering?
The second procedural issue I want to take on is voter suppression. There are certain demographic trends that the Republicans don’t like, and they feel the only way they can combat them is to prevent these new demographic realities from manifesting themselves at the voting booth. So we see a whole variety of voter suppression methods – whether it’s overturning early voting, to voter ID which is probably the most pernicious.
The third issue is filibuster abuse – even if we win the election we can’t enact our policies. We saw Harry Reid take a small step in the direction of reigning in the abuse. And when I say abuse, keep in mind in the first 150 years of our republic we had almost no filibusters. And then once in a while with a big civil rights bill. Now, you need 60 votes to name a post office. That’s not how it’s supposed to work.
JG: Even Medicare didn’t face a filibuster.
DL: Medicare, Social Security, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. None of those were filibustered! Now, everything is filibustered. It’s very rare that one side has 60 votes in the Senate, so nothing ever gets done.
Campaign finance reform is another area I want to work on. Citizens United was the most damaging decision of the Supreme Court, so we need to overturn that. We need a whole package of bills that reaffirm and bustress our democracy.
JG: What are some of the substantive issues you want to work on, alongside those procedural reforms?
DL: One thing we need to talk more about is poverty. We can’t have 20-25% of society who’s just completely removed from the broader society – that’s not good for them, that’s not good for us. And there are a lot of things we can do to help that. We can have an education system that provides good schools even in poor neighborhoods. We can have a student loan system that allows everyone to go to college. My state Senate bill would allow interest free student loans so they don’t have a mountain of debt when they come out.
I also want to advance mandatory paid family leave – we’re one of three countries in the world that doesn’t have any form of that. There are a whole bunch of things we need to do for the working poor and the middle class to get onto the economic ladder and start moving up.
And a third subject area we need to talk about is environmental issues. We are reaching a point in terms of climate change – we are reaching a tipping point where much of the environmental damage that we’re sustaining will be irreversible. I’ve introduced a lot of legislation and passed some of it, in order to help Pennsylvania do our share. Keep in mind – 1% of all greenhouse gases produced in the world comes from Pennsylvania. So we need to start doing our share to be part of the solution. I just introduced a renewable portfolio standards bill that increased the amount of energy that comes from renewables.
My first bill I introduced that became law was my hybrid car bill, which brought hybrid cars to the state fleet. And there’s a whole lot of things in between – I just introduced a bill to tax plastic bags at the grocery store because these things stay around for a thousand years. Every plastic bag ever manufactured is still here. And we have an island the size of Texas in the Pacific of all these things. We have to treat our planet better, and I want to be an aggressive voice for doing that.
JG: Going back to the procedural reforms, redistricting is typically seen as a state issue. Do you see a federal fix for that?
DL: I think there has to be a federal fix for that because if you do it state by state, each state when you fix redistricting will benefit one party or the other. So it’s easy for the party who is disadvantaged to say this is unfair. But if you do it nationally, you see it’ll help the Democrats in Pennsylvania, but it’ll help the Republicans in California, then if it’s sort of a wash we can do it. The other thing, and this is just political reality, we may have to do it so it takes effect at some point in the future.
JG: When we don’t know who’s in office.
DL: Exactly, because most individual legislators don’t want to do anything that’s gonna be a threat to their careers – I do that all the time but most people don’t like to – but if it’s going to take effect in 15 years for example, then they can say “well, I’ll definitely be President of the United States by then” so they won’t feel it’ll effect them personally. So there’s that, the Electoral College thing..
JG: What do you want to do about the Electoral College?
DL: In Pennsylvania they had that plan – as awful as the Congressional districts are gerrymandered – they wanted to award electoral votes by Congressional district which would gerrymander the Electoral College. If you did that nationwide, we’d have President Romney now even though President Obama won by 5.5 million votes. However, it’s worse than that – they don’t wanna do it nationwide. They only wanna do it in states that tend to vote Democratic in Presidential elections but where they control the House delegation. Like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida. They have no interest in splitting their electoral votes in Texas [laughs].
What I support is the national popular vote. An inferior solution, but still a solution, would be to say you can’t cherrypick..
JG: Not unique within each state..
DL: Not within each state. However I would prefer a national popular vote. I mean keep in mind why the Electoral College was instituted. The founders did not trust the people to make that decision directly so they would elect wise men – and they were only men then – to deliberate and pick a President. But once there were slates and parties? No more deliberation. The whole idea of the Electoral College by the time John Adams was elected was antiquated. So there’s no more deliberation and no more need for an Electoral College, even if you don’t trust the people. The issue with the national popular vote is also that you can’t tell who it’s going to benefit.
The other benefit of the national popular vote is that it would open up the whole country in Presidential elections.. Like if you’re from Boston, no Presidential candidate’s going to come there because Massachusetts is not in play. But if it was direct popular vote, and I’m a Republican candidate and I go to Boston, I’m not going to win Massachusetts but I might win a lot of individual votes. So that could help me, and now I have an incentive to Boston. A Democrat would have an incentive to go to Salt Lake City.
JG: I’ve written a bit about proportional representation at KP and how it could fix the malapportionment problem where Democratic voters are inefficiently packed into the big urban districts rather than spread out across purple states. The Republicans have no platform on city issues at all, partly because they never have to go to those places or talk to those voters. Nobody has to get out of the comfort zone and court voters who don’t already agree with them, and I think that’s an underrated contributor to polarization.
DL: Originally Pileggi had the Congressional district plan and then there was the proportional plan. You can make a case for a proportional plan, but only if you do it in all 50 states. You can’t have proportional in blue states and winner-take-all in red states [laughs]
JG: Do you sympathize with the case for proportionally electing members of Congress?
DL: There are advantages and disadvantages. One of the disadvantages could be what we see in Israel and the UK and some other places with proportional representation which is many parties. There’s advantages to that, but also real disadvantages. For example, in Israel in order to get a majority, you have to form coalitions which sometimes include extremists. But if some extremist party has two votes and then you need two votes – I’d have to think more about it but you’d need a Constitutional change and again, nothing’s going to happen that disadvantages their party, and this would certainly disadvantage some parties.
JG: And you think a national popular vote would be more realistic.
DL: Yes, because we wouldn’t know who it helps. If you know who it helps, it’s not gonna pass
JG: Why are you running for Congress?
DL: Number one, there are some issues that I care about that we don’t get to deal with at the state level, like foreign policy. But more than that, I have found that you can give a great speech, learn everything there is to know about an issue, write a great editorial, debate brilliantly, and you don’t change a single one of your colleague’s votes. And you get frustrated. You feel like they’re not listening.
What I’ve learned over time is that it’s not about changing their votes. It’s about changing the minds of the public. If you change the minds of the public, the votes will follow. Look at marriage equality – when I introduced Pennsylvania’s first marriage equality bill I got one co-sponsor.
JG: What year was that?
DL: That was 2009. People said “you gotta be crazy.” Now in just a few short years, everyone’s flipped on that. “Oh I was really for that the whole time.” So the same thing will happen on a lot of issues. Congress gives me a much bigger platform to use whatever talents I have to try to change the conversation, win the intellectual argument, and change the minds of the voters so that our colleagues will follow suit. I mean when people start losing elections over gerrymandering, the gerrymandering will stop. It’s my job to make sure people are voting on issues like gerrymandering and voter suppression or whatever else it is – that is what I view my role in Congress to be.
JG: That’s a good outlook. I listen to a lot of politicians talk about the job and I hear “well my voters aren’t there, so I can’t go there” but I think that mistakes how it works. Most voters are taking their cues on policy issues from politicians they like, or advocacy organizations and media outlets that they trust, and other influential people in their lives.
DL: When President Obama “evolved” on marriage equality, overnight polls moved 10-15 points. Some people won’t like this, and if they don’t, there are other candidates to vote for. My role is not to follow the voters, my role is to lead. My role is to do what Wayne Gretzky said: “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it is.” It’s to get out there and take unpopular positions, which I’ve done over and over again in the Senate and the House. Take unpopular positions, take the heat, get yelled at for it, and usually – not every time but usually – the public moves in my direction on that. I’m happy to be the sherpa of new issues, and I’ve tried to do that on a wide variety of issues. We need more people like that, which is why I’m running.
JG: Let’s talk about the marijuana issue. Everybody compares it to marriage equality, but the key difference with marriage equality is that the opposition view is clearly bullshit. LGBT folks are going to get married, and soft opponents are going to see that none of the crazy things equality opponents are predicting actually happen. I feel like marijuana might be a little different, because politicians are going to vote for this, and then the first time that somebody who legally bought marijuana hits somebody with a car or does something irresponsible, then the media and marijuana opponents are going to blame that. It’s not totally inconceivable that opponents could get the upper hand again.
DL: I don’t think so – there was an article in the New York Times about all the horror stories opponents told about pot in California and none of them have come true. I think it’s going to take more than one guy who’s high and gets in a car accident
JG: Right, it’d have to be a big sensational event
DL: There’s people now who are high and get in car accidents – not as many as who are drunk – but I think we’re going to see several things. Once we legalize marijuana we will see that the horror stories won’t come true – we won’t be a nation of stoners. Not everyone is on crystal meth within two months of legalization, because that’s not what happened in other countries. And that’s not what’s going to happen in Colorado and Washington, or California where it’s defacto legal. The good stuff is going to come true. We’re going to save hundreds of millions of dollars on prosecution and incarceration, and monitoring of marijuana offenders. And we’re going to get hundreds of millions of dollars in tax money.
The analogy I think is most apt is not marriage equality, it’s gambling. There was one state where you could gamble 40 years ago. Now you can gamble in some form in 48 states. The same thing happened – they legalized it in a few places, people realized they were making a ton of money, the world has not ended, and they wanted in on that. Now, does that mean it’s perfect? Does it mean there’s never anyone with a gambling addiction? Of course not. But the vast majority of people are responsible, and the value to society is considered a net positive. The same thing will happen with marijuana. We will wonder why this was ever controversial.
There was an exhibit I went to see at the Constitution Center about prohibition of alcohol, and it’s considered this quaint thing. 50 years from now this will be this quaint thing. People used to go to jail for smoking a plant? Really? Marijuana policy, whether it’s medical marijuana policy or general, is an irrational policy. It’s not based on any logic or science or anything. It’s based on weird mental connections some people have between marijuana and other culture war issues.
JG: That seems like the main reason it’s so tough for politicians to take it up. It’s like Mark Schmitt said: “It’s not what you say about your issues, it’s what your issues say about you.” Supporting that position gets you marked, culturally, as a certain kind of person even if you don’t personally use marijuana.
DL: If I can save Garrett Brann’s life [a 3-year old boy with Dravet Syndrome in Daylin's district who doctors say would be helped by a marijuana-derived epilepsy drug] you can call me anything you want to call me. That’s fine with me.
There’s two main things I want to do in Congress with marijuana. I want to get it reclassified so it’s not a Schedule I narcotic. Because that’s insane – we can’t even study it. Number two, there are some banking laws – and this gets kind of technical – where marijuana dispensaries around the country can’t get bank accounts.
I just want to say – I went public with my marijuana bill two weeks before I announced for Congress. I am not shying away from the tough issues even though I’m a candidate for Congress. because again, if people don’t like them, there are other candidates to vote for. I am not going to stop talking about things I think are important just because I want to get votes. If I did that, I would be as worthless as most of the other people there.