Jewish Standard: Just engage
First-year congressman Josh Gottheimer looks back on his six months in Washington
By: Joanne Palmer
Given what’s going on in our politics today, from the White House on down, it doesn’t seem like there’s much chance for sunny bipartisanship.
Josh Gottheimer of Wyckoff and now also of Washington, the freshman Democratic congressman representing New Jersey’s 5th district, isn’t disheartened. A speechwriter for Bill Clinton when he was impossibly young — starting at 23 — and a successful Microsoft executive, policy analyst, and public servant, Mr. Gottheimer went to Washington determined to reach across the aisle. Nothing that he’s seen since, none of the extraordinarily heightened wagon-circling, name calling, or coarseness, has dissuaded him from at least trying for comity.
Recently, sitting in a coffee shop in Franklin Lakes, Mr. Gottheimer talked about the work he’s doing, the despite-everything hope he’s feeling, and some of the atmospherics that surround him now, just about six months into his first two-year term.
He’s worked on a number of bills, he said; among those dearest to him are one about the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, and another is about imposing sanctions on the terror group Hamas.
Mr. Gottheimer co—authored the anti-terrorist bill, formally called the “Palestinian International Terrorism Support Prevention Act,” with another Democrat and two Republicans. The Republicans are the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce of California, and Brian Mast of Florida; the other Democrat is the committee’s ranking member, Eliot Engel of the Bronx. “It is a big thing to have gotten the chairman and the ranking member to support this legislation,” Mr. Gottheimer said.
“The bipartisan bill imposes sanctions on foreign persons, agencies, and governments that assist Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic jihad, or their affiliates,” Mr. Gottheimer’s press release on the bill said. The bill will “ensure that anyone who provides assistance to this enemy of the United States and our vital ally Israel will face the strength and determination of our country.”
Mr. Gottheimer is deeply involved in the substance of the bill; he also finds a great deal of meaning, he said, in the bipartisanship that it reflects. His co-sponsor, Mr. Mast, is a double amputee; both of his legs were blown off during his Army service in Afghanistan, which ended a 12-year military career. Mr. Gottheimer, whose background is not similar to Mr. Mast’s in any obvious way except for their shared service in Congress, is glad to be able to work with him.
“Unfortunately, Israel and issues related to fighting terror in Israel have become partisan issues,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “That’s why it is so important to take the partisanship out of this issue. It never had been a partisan matter before. Now, it’s become divisive. We have a lot of work to do in the Democratic party on this.”
There are many matters that will not make it through the House now, he said. But it is important to realize “that we still do business every week, and this is the kind of issue that I believe we can get to the floor and be voted on. There is still enough support across the aisle. I am going to approach other members of Congress, to get more co-sponsors and get them onboard.”
The “Combating BDS Act of 2017,” which Mr. Gottheimer introduced in June, is another bipartisan effort aimed at helping Israel. Working with a Republican, Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, and a Democrat, Juan Vargas of California, Mr. Gottheimer introduced a bill to help local governments fight the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement that threatens it economically. “If you seek to harm Israel, a beacon of democracy and a vital partner for the United States, then we will do everything in our power to stop you,” his press release says.
Mr. Gottheimer believes that there are other issues, chief among them tax reform and infrastructure repair, that can gather bipartisan consensus, and he is part of a group of 21 Democrats and 21 Republicans working together on those issues.
But now, he said, the chief problem is the health care bill, which is a “terrible piece of legislation,” he said. Because the bill’s fortunes evolve constantly — the Senate version has been through an entire peal’s worth of changes between the time Mr. Gottheimer was interviewed for this story and the time it was written, and doubtless will have changed between the time it was written and the time the most avid reader sees it online or in print — it is hard even for those few people who had the chance to read it to know exactly what is in it. But even acknowledging that, Mr. Gottheimer said, the bill that the House of Representations passed is “a terrible piece of legislation.”
He has no predictions for whether it is likely to pass the Senate or make it relatively unscathed through reconciliation if it does, but he thinks that it is not good for the state.
“Here’s the problem,” he said. “If you go to an emergency room and don’t have insurance coverage, historically New Jersey gave 15 to 20 cents on the dollar to the hospital on every unpaid bill.”
“When New Jersey took the Medicaid expansion, we took our charitable dollar budget way down and relied on Medicaid.” So if the Medicaid money is taken away, the state will have to scramble. “Where would that money come from?” he asked rhetorically. “New taxes? Our budget doesn’t have the room, and that would be a big problem.
“It would be bad for New Jersey. I represent New Jersey, and it would be bad for us,” Mr. Gottheimer said.
(For more on local reactions to the health care bill, see ‘We can only know what we know.’)
There are a few themes to which Mr. Gottheimer returned frequently during his campaign, and they still fuel his work. One is bipartisanship, and another is the fact that New Jersey gives far more in taxes than it gets back in programs, services, or in any other way. “It is outrageous that we get back 33 cents on the dollar” — that dollar that state taxpayers send to Washington. “And especially while our property taxes keep going up,” he added.
Mr. Gottheimer said that although overarching issues affecting presidential politics are important, the smaller, more daily problems matter as well. You have to be able to concentrate on both — “you have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. “I believe that people hired me to get things done. We have the eighth worst roads in the country, and terrible trains, and our taxes are too high. Those are issues that I am committed to working on. That doesn’t mean that I’m not committed to trying to get to the bottom of what happened with our elections and Russia, but I believe that there are things that are important to our district.” Therefore, it is important to make common cause with people on the other side of the aisle. “If you’re not at the table, if you don’t sit with the administration and the Senate, if you don’t do that, then when the music stops, they control all three branches of government and you don’t have any voice at all.
“It is not responsible not to engage if there are any people open to engagement,” he said.
But the picture that most of us have about Washington now is an exaggeration, Mr. Gottheimer said. “The structure is built to discourage cooperation, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t cooperate.” People are people, he said; they react normally, even in Congress.
It is a point of pride for him not to introduce partisan bills, but he makes an effort beyond that. “On the House floor, people tend to go to their own sides,” he said. “I always make a point of walking over to the other side to talk to someone. There are some people who want to find more of a center. And I think that the strategy of engaging across the aisle ultimately will produce good results for the Fifth District.”
There are issues on which he will not compromise, Mr. Gottheimer added — clean air, clean drinking water, women’s health care, fixing crumbling roads and bridges, supporting cops and vets. “That’s what I ran on,” he said. “That’s why people supported me. I have a responsibility to do that.” Moreover, he added, those are not — or at least should not be — partisan issues.
He’s not blind to the toxic effects the White House has had on politics. “The tweets, the cavalier statements, and the language that is used, that whips people up — that is unhelpful,” he said. He also is distressed by the staffing cuts at the State Department. “There may be places that need to be drained, but this is expertise that is being drained,” he said. “It has a huge impact on people being able to negotiate for Israel, to stand up for Israel. And when they gut the State Department, they gut the department that is crucial for fighting terror.
“But the larger point is that we need not go off to our corners, but to engage,” Mr. Gottheimer said.