After the new class of House lawmakers take its oath of office this afternoon, Rep. Jim McGovern is going to assume one of the most powerful committee chairmanships in the chamber. As the head of the Rules Committee, he will have direct control over which major pieces of legislation will reach the House floor and will also determine the terms on how each piece of legislation will be debated.
WGBH's Morning Edition is on the road this week, reporting live from Washington D.C. Anchor Joe Mathieu is sitting down with multiple members of the state's congressional delegation to learn about their goals for what is shaping up to be a contentious final two years of an already unprecedented presidency.
McGovern says his first step will be trying to end the partial government shutdown, but he also went into detail about how he wants to end the culture of using procedural moves awarded to his chairmanship to block legislation introduced by the minority party. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: This is WGBH's Morning Edition on the road. I'm Joe Mathieu, live from NPR studios this morning in Washington and joined in studio by Congressman Jim McGovern, who today is taking over as chairman of the Rules Committee in the U.S. House, a very influential committee that controls which bills actually make it to the floor as Democrats take majority control. Congressman, good morning and thank you for being with us.
Rep. Jim McGovern: Good morning and happy to be with you.
Mathieu: This is a pretty big deal for you this morning as you assume control of the Rules Committee. Of course, you're no stranger to that committee but having that power makes you one of the most influential Democrats in Washington is what we're told.
McGovern: You know that's a nice compliment. But you know I ran for Congress to try to make a difference for my constituents and to make a difference in this country. And being chairman of the Rules Committee, I'll be in a position to be able to move things forward that quite frankly under Republican leadership had been routinely blocked.
Mathieu: Well, that's the point here. Republicans used control of the chamber to block a lot of legislation, to limit debate time on major bills — the tax overhaul comes to mind. With you holding the reins now, are those same tactics on the table for you in the other direction?
McGovern: No, I don't I don't want that to be the case. You know I used to work for Joe Moakley, who used to be the chairman of the Rules Committee, and he always used to say, 'Power is the ability to say yes to some [and] it's the ability to say no.' I think Moakley was right. Saying yes is what I want to be able to do. I want the Rules Committee to be more accommodating. I want it to be a place where you know good ideas get brought to the floor. And I wanted to be a place where even ideas that I disagree with can have an opportunity to be debated on the House floor. You know the Congress is supposed to be the greatest deliberative body in the world. Under Republicans, deliberation has become a radical idea. I used to joke the Rules Committee is the place where democracy goes to die when they were in control. I don't want my legacy to be that I chaired a Rules Committee that was closed. I want my legacy to be that I was fair. We didn't rig the process and we move good things forward.
Mathieu: You've been a critic of President Trump, who is being blamed for this government shutdown that we're now in the middle of. What a way to start a new session of Congress with a quarter of the government closed. You're not wasting any time though in moving legislation to change that.
McGovern: We're going to behave like adults. We're going to move to open the government up. I mean this president had a temper tantrum and decided to shut the government down. I think that's unfortunate. I mean the continuing resolution that became so controversial passed the United States Senate overwhelmingly. All the appropriations bills were bipartisan. It was on track to pass the House overwhelmingly and then the president turned on one of his right wing radio talk shows and decides to change his mind. Look this president behaves irresponsibly every single day of the week, and I think that we have to be the adults. We will open up the government and ask the Senate to follow suit.
Mathieu: And when they don't?
McGovern: Well, you know we're going to continue to negotiate. But the bottom line is, why are we holding departments like the Department of Agriculture hostage over Trump's border wall when there's no controversy at all over the Department of Agriculture budget? Or why are we holding the FDA, which is responsible for you know making sure that our food is safe and we don't get sick? Why are we holding that hostage over a border wall? And, by the way, a border wall that's got to cost not five billion dollars but tens of billions of dollars. And most experts will tell you that it's the most ineffective way to ensure border security. It's a total waste of money. It's a soundbite and, quite frankly, you know the sooner the president can find a face saving way to move on, the better for the country.
Mathieu: We're talking with Congressman Jim McGovern here in Washington on WGBH's Morning Edition. You read the tweets, though, Congressman. You hear the commentary. The ad-libbed remarks from President Trump and he appears content keeping the government shut down to infinity. How do you negotiate with someone like that?
McGovern: Yeah, well that's a good question and at some point some of the some Republicans who want to behave like the grown ups need to go over the White House and basically read him the facts of life. Look, the president's behaving horribly. I mean he's erratic. He's unhinged. I mean, quite frankly, his presidency, in my opinion, has been an abomination. But, look, we're stuck with him, and we're going to have to deal with him. But I'm hoping that the Republicans will stand up to him at long last because they ought to put our country first. They just lost an election. Pretty big. Democrats won the House by over 10 million votes. The American people don't want this crazy border wall. They want border security. They want us to get on with the business of the country like doing an infrastructure bill to rebuild our country. You know we have bridges in Massachusetts that are older than most of the other states in the country. They want us to protect people with preexisting conditions and don't lose their health care. I mean it's a whole bunch of stuff that we need to do and we need to get about the business of governing this country. And I hope that happens soon.
Mathieu: Congressman, you were instrumental in helping to negotiate a thaw in relations with Cuba. And, in fact, when I spoke with you about this a couple of years ago, it seemed that we were at the dawn of a new era a day that you envisioned since college. And I wonder: What is the president doing to that relationship now?
McGovern: Well, unfortunately, this president seems nostalgic for the Cold War. I mean he wants to go back to a policy that was outdated and didn't work at all. But I think there's a bipartisan consensus in Congress, and we're going to put that to the test in the coming months to move forward in our relations with Cuba. We ought to lift all travel restrictions. Americans ought to be able to travel there freely. We ought to lift the economic embargo, which again is a relic from the Cold War. Doesn't help the Cuban people at all. And we ought to just move forward with normal regular relations. You know, we do we deal with China. We deal with Russia. We deal with Vietnam. But for some reason this president and his administration are reluctant to to deal with Cuba. I think we need to again move on and have a more mature policy, and I'm committed to that and I trust that we'll be able to build support in Congress to do that.
Mathieu: You must be pleased at least though to see flights leaving Logan Airport.
McGovern: Jet Blue's going from Logan Airport to Havana. I think that that's great. And I've been working on a project for many years in Cuba to restore the Hemingway house. And I'm going to be going back down there. We've made some great progress working with the Cubans. Ernest Hemingway is obviously an American born writer, but the Cubans claim him as their own, too. And, during the height of tensions between the United States and Cuba in the early 1960s, the one thing that John F. Kennedy and Fidel Castro could agree on was allowing Mary Hemingway, Hemingway's widow, to go back to Cuba after he had died to reclaim all of his belongings. And she did, and she dedicated the house to the Cuban people. And they've taken care of it lovingly since then. But if Hemingway could bring the United States and Cuba together back in the early 1960s, well, Hemingway could bring us together even more in 2019.
Mathieu: We need to see you there sometime.
McGovern: No, you got to come down.
Mathieu: I would love to. That's a date. Well let me know when the date is. Apparently it's not going to be in the next couple of minutes. Congressman McGovern thank you for being with us here in studio this morning. Its a very big day for you. Congratulations on your chairmanship and your next term, and I hope you can stay in touch with here on WGBH radio.
Mathieu: Thanks for being with us this morning. WGBH's Morning Edition is on the road in Washington D.C.