Congressman Jim Cooper (D-TN) has represented the 5th District of Tennessee since 2003 and previously the 4th District of Tennessee from 1983 to 1995. In Congress, he’s known for his work on the federal budget, health care, and government reform. He’s a co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition and is one of the few remaining moderates in Congress.
You have introduced legislation aimed at increasing transparency in the allocation of taxpayer money and withholding pay from members of Congress in the event they cannot pass a budget. Can you talk about how these proposed bills relate to your overall philosophy as a member of Congress?
I believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and when you have transparency, you are going to achieve more success. I also believe that you have to reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. Those two principles — transparency and pay for performance — can radically improve government. Washington is often a bunch of ostriches with their heads in the sand, and when people realize there is a problem, they panic and go off in twenty different directions. If you have aligned incentives, you are going to get a more successful response.
Do you feel like you have experienced retribution from party leadership for being a moderate in Congress? How do you weigh concerns about this?
A real Congressman should vote with their party about 80 percent of the time. I have never seen a political party that was correct more than that. Today’s Congress has turned into a parliament where people are expected to vote with their party 99 percent of the time. My wife and I have been married for 31 years, and we agree about 80 percent of the time. We’re still married. But under today’s parliamentary scenario, there has to be 99 percent agreement. That effectively destroys Congress, because if you know how you are going to vote in advance, and it is whatever your party leader says, then you don’t need to think about the bill. You don’t need to study the issue. You don’t really need to have handle on the substance. It breeds ignorance. It also breeds conflict, and those two things are often found in many European parliaments and are distressingly present in today’s Congress.
How do you think Congress became so dysfunctional? What role did Newt Gingrich’s role as Speaker of the House have in all of this?
It’s a confluence of factors. Newt Gingrich certainly used guerrilla tactics to gain power in Congress, and both parties have copied his techniques: centralized control at the top, turning Congress into a parliament, punishing anyone who disagrees with you, and forcing all the lobbyists who come in your door to be members of your party. It’s also supporting Supreme Court doctrines like Citizens United that use the First Amendment to hide a lot of scurrilous activity, pretending that corporations are people and that money is speech. That allows an essentially unregulated takeover of American politics by the wealthiest interests in the world.
Do you think the situation in Congress has worsened in recent years?
Most of the Republicans I know are terrified of what has happened to their party. Congress may have gotten a little better. I am actually a fan of the new Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan (R-WI). Of the Republicans, he’s the best they could have picked. He is trying to exert a sensible influence on his party. For example, [in early March] he and Mitch McConnell held a press conference to denounce the Klu Klux Klan. I wish the leading Republican presidential candidate would do that. That is a clear-cut good versus evil issue that you should expect your public officials to speak out on, and yet we are seeing a lot of dissembling at the presidential level.
What do you think of the Donald Trump phenomenon and what it means for the future of the GOP?
It is a hostile takeover of the Republican Party by someone who is not even really a conservative. [Donald Trump] is an opportunist. Several candidates have pointed that out, but many of his supporters don’t seem to care. The strength of his personality, the visibility of his brand, and the glamour that’s associated with his comb-over have apparently seduced countless Americans to think that he is a worthy presidential candidate, when by all historical standards he is an embarrassment.
It is common knowledge that you and Hillary Clinton have clashed in the past, particularly regarding health care reform in the 1990s. Why have you decided to endorse her for the 2016 election?
I’m an enthusiastic supporter of Hillary. She is an awesome candidate. There is really no comparison between her and any of the other folks running in either party this year. I did prefer Barack Obama back eight years ago, but that doesn’t mean I don’t admire Hillary Clinton. It is true that we have had, on occasion, some policy differences, but as I have pointed out, you shouldn’t expect unanimity from a legislator. I agree with her on at least 80 or 90 percent of her policy issues. The Bill Clinton presidency where she was First Lady was one of the most successful presidencies in modern American history. If we could just get a piece of that now, the country would be in much better shape. It would be a historic achievement to have the first female president.
You have shared your personal cellphone number with all of your constituents and agreed to have it published in a major Tennessee newspaper. Do you know of any other congressmen who have done the same?
There may be one or two others who have done it, but most of my colleagues think I am crazy for doing it. They cannot believe that Tennessee voters are nice enough to not call me in the middle of the night, call me drunk, or just call and yell at me. That is really a tribute to Tennesseans…I am proud of the folks I represent.