With Republicans reeling from impeachment backlash, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) is laying down stiff markers for legislative action this year. The Democrats' top priorities: fixes for Social Security and Medicare, education reforms, patient protections, and targeted tax cuts. Underpinning his strategy is the belief that Republicans will have to do most of the compromising. But if Democrats set the bar too high, GOP lawmakers may balk--and the 106th Congress could dissolve into partisan bickering. On Mar. 2, Gephardt outlined his agenda for Congressional Correspondent Amy Borrus and Washington News Editor Douglas Harbrecht.
Note: This is an extended online-only version of the Q&A that appears in the March 15, 1998, issue of Business Week.
Q: Are you optimistic this Congress can get some things done?
A: I hope we can. Our problem has been the extreme right of the Republican Party, which has dominated its agenda. If Republicans really want to get things done in a bipartisan way, there are three bills they can bring up right now: campaign finance reform, the patient's bill of rights, and an increase in the minimum wage. I'm hopeful, but I'm also from Missouri, and the only thing that counts is action.
Q: The Clinton Social Security plan has been widely criticized--especially the suggestion that a portion of the trust fund be invested in equities. How confident are you that Congress can fix Social Security this year?
A: The threshold decision isn't what you invest in, it's whether you're willing to save 77% of the surplus for Medicare and Social Security. If we can't get agreement on that, then what we have to do is much more difficult. I'm favorable to the idea of [government] investing. Many states do it successfully without political involvement.
Q: Why increase the minimum wage now?
A: There's no better time to raise the minimum wage. The 1996-97 increases contributed to the long recovery. The minimum wage builds demand from the bottom up. I remember what Henry Ford said: "I've got to pay my workers enough so they can buy the cars they're making." You've got to look at the human equation. We have asked people to get off welfare. Yet we fail to raise the minimum wage to levels where people can survive.
Q: Will Congress pass a tax cut this year, and what will it look like?
A: Democrats are for targeted cuts. We consider the President's USA [private Social Security investment] account to be a very large tax cut. There's tax relief for working families who pay child-care expenses, tax credits for businesses that provide child care, tax credits for stay-at-home parents, all of which we think help raise children. We're willing to look at...marriage-penalty relief. But if you do the [GOP's] 10% across-the-board tax cut, I don't see how you can reserve 77% of the surplus for Social Security and Medicare. We also worry that it's too much for people at the top.
Q: Democrats imply that in the post-impeachment world, Republicans should do most of the compromising. Could this lead to gridlock?
A: We can't be guilty of acting in a way that we have been critical of. If things get done in a spirit of compromise, both sides can claim credit. But I don't buy the idea that in order to compromise, you have to do what they want to do. On the patient's bill of rights, we want a meaningful bill, not a fig leaf.
Q: What are the prospects for trade liberalization this year?
A: We are happy to figure out a way to give the President fast-track [trade negotiating authority]. But I don't want to mislead anybody into thinking we can bring in free-trade treaties that have no teeth in terms of workers' rights and environmental concerns. Some in business are very focused on intellectual-property rights. And I think they're right; there should be teeth in those provisions. But if you do that with intellectual-property rights, why not for worker rights and the environment?
Q: What do you think of [new House Speaker J.] Dennis Hastert?
A: I like him. I respect him. I think he is trying to figure out how to get the Congress to work better. But the test is in the doing. His challenge is to either bring his right wing to the middle with him...or come to the middle with the moderate Republicans. I don't know whether he can do that.
Q: In light of China's trade and human rights records, is it time to rethink our policy of engagement with Beijing?
A: We are making a mistake if we look like we are rewarding a crackdown by hardliners in China on political and human rights. I agree with [Chinese dissident] Wei Jing Xian that we should be putting on more pressure, not less. We haven't been tough enough, we haven't been clear enough that the world expects progress on human rights and labor rights.
We have the most open market in the world. And I don't think it's too much to ask as a price of access that they begin to treat their people right. We have to try to use the leverage of trade to bring about incremental progress.
Q: If it were your call, would you reappoint Alan Greenspan as Fed chairman?
A: I think on the whole he has done a good job. I've been severely critical sometimes when, in my view, he worries too much about inflation and not enough about getting interest rates down. My worry is he thinks like a banker and doesn't pay attention to what all this means to people. I can't tell you what I would do.
Q: If you become Speaker, are you going to give Republicans committee seats commensurate with their numbers? This has been a sore spot with Democrats since the GOP took control of the House in 1994.
A: We can't complain about this and not try to do better if we win the House back. That's what we intend to do.