This interview was originally conducted via phone in the fall of 2015, but the questions and responses remain relevant, and will be so for the foreseeable future.
The Representative: Democrat Alan Grayson represents Florida's ninth district and serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. He is currently running for U.S. Senate.
Of the 435 members of the House that Odyssey contacted for a phone interview, Grayson was the only one who called back directly without putting us through the usual gatekeeping process. Although this is generally unusual for a member of Congress, the callback was typical of Grayson's punchy, grassroots style. Part policy wonk and part showman, Grayson is a progressive irritant who's not afraid to get under the skin of his own party's establishment.
Odyssey: What actions have you taken in Congress or causes have you championed to improve the lives of college students and recent graduates in your district?
Rep. Alan Grayson: Well, one thing that I’ve done is to be a staunch champion in favor of extending the student loan program and making it more affordable. I have supported [Senator] Elizabeth Warren’s program to make sure students can afford to borrow at the same interest rates as big banks enjoy on Wall Street.
And in addition to that, I’ve been a staunch opponent in vote after vote after vote of efforts by Republicans – in particular the Tea Party Republicans – to cut back and even destroy the existing student loan program. Beyond that, in order to make the rest of your life more affordable, I’ve been a very strong opponent [he says ‘opponent’ but I think he meant ‘proponent’] of the first-time homebuyer's tax credit, which has come and gone, and come again and gone again, and it’s unfortunate because one of the first things that students want to do after they finish school is often to buy a home if they can afford it. And a tax credit like that makes it more affordable and consistent with their existing burden from student loans.
Odyssey: Increases in college tuition have been outpacing inflation for a few decades and now the amount of student loan debt has surpassed the amount of credit card debt held by all Americans. What specifically can congress do to rein theses costs in?
Rep. Grayson: Well, if you’re talking about the cost of tuition, that’s a function of the college’s choice and whatever the market will bear. I think that the president has outlined a very positive plan for making at least the first two years of college affordable and, in many cases, free if students decide to go to public institutions instead of private institutions. I’m in favor of that. I’m also pleased that both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, who are the two leading democratic candidates for president now, have expressed support for the president’s plan. I think we need to make college more affordable, in part, by making public colleges more affordable to everybody. My father had the benefit of going to college for free after he served in the military, and a lot of men in his generation had the same benefit. It’s an excellent start in life, and it’s wonderful to be able to start your career debt-free.
Odyssey: So beyond the college cost, which three political issues affecting, say, 18 to to 30-year-olds do you feel aren’t being talked about enough?
Rep. Grayson: Well, of course, the underlying, unspoken truth is that we live in a very unequal society. It’s unequal socially, ethnically, politically, and even generationally, and it’s a sad thing, but we have to at least contemplate the idea that the next generation may not have the same opportunities as the previous generation unless we fight for that.
So, inequality explains a lot of what you actually see.
The fact that – for instance – our U.S. test scores, in many cases, are lower than test scores in other countries in subjects like math. I’m pretty sure that math is the same Tokyo and in Shanghai and in Paris as it is in the United States.
The fact that we still have over 30 million people who can’t see a doctor unrestricted, when every other industrialized country has health insurance coverage for everybody.
The fact that our inequality in this country is as high as it’s ever been, including in the 1920s just before the Great Crash.
These are facts of life and, frankly, when you realize the consequences of that inequality, maybe that deserves to be described as issues one, two, and three, because that is the world that young college students are entering when they graduate and it’s a difficult world to get ahead in.
You have less opportunity for graduates because of the inequality embedded in American society than in other countries, and that’s a shame.
Odyssey: Congress has a notoriously low approval rating among Americans, and has for several years regardless of the party in control. So why is the branch that’s supposed to represent the people thought of so poorly by them?
Rep. Grayson: Well one reason is the power of big money. Often the deepest pocket buys the election, and many elected officials end up being flunkies and short-order crooks for special interests. The people give them the money they need to win elections and get in the public eye.
Many elections are won simply on the basis of name recognition alone. Name recognition is a marketing issue and money buys that name recognition.
If you’re the candidate that people recognize on the ballot and the other fellow is not, then you’re going to win, and that’s often a function of simply how much money gets spent.
This is in many ways a corrupted system, corrupted by big money. I think I’ve set a different example entirely. There are 435 members of the House of Representatives. I’m the only one, out of 435, who raised most of my campaign funds from small donors who gave less than 200 dollars. One out of 435. Everyone else is beholden to the special interests, the lobbyists, the millionaires, the billionaires, the multinational corporations… Everyone else. And I am unbought and unbuffed. And I not only did it in 2012, but I did it again as an incumbent member of Congress in 2014. That’s the example that needs to be followed to get the terrible influence of big money out of our lives and out of our political—dominating our political system. The reason why the Koch brothers are so frequently mentioned is not because they have great ideas, but because they’re willing to spend a billion dollars every two years in order to buy Congress from the White House...
This is the function of reaching for a level in technology that didn’t exist before. When Howard Dean tried to raise large enough from small donors a proven notion that people have, and now it’s a real opportunity. Thousands and thousands of people come to our website congressmanwithguts.com, now senatorwithguts.com because I’m running for Senate, and they give—we have the fifth-largest donor base in the entire party after Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and now Bernie Sanders, who passed above me only three months ago. That’s what makes it possible, that’s what makes it possible for me to be what Slate magazine calls the most effective member of Congress, because I can be the most independent member of Congress.
Odyssey: What’s one specific policy issue in which you buck your party’s consensus?
Rep. Grayson: War with Syria. The president and the party leaders all wanted to authorize a war with Syria two years ago. I stood outspoken and loudly against that, and I did seven national TV interviews in a single day pointing out that the president’s plan would not make us any safer and, in fact, would be very dangerous. No one ever considers what happens on day two of wars like that. They only focus on what they think is going to happen on day one. And I won that battle. I was able to prevent us going to war with Syria. I did 40 media interviews in three days, and put an op-ed piece in The New York Times, made several speeches where the public could see them and took a lot of open hostility from party leaders. It’s one of the few times I can think of where a progressive Democrat like me can go on MSNBC and be attacked by the anchors, but that’s what happened and I withstood that and we won that battle because, in the end, we were right. If we had gone ahead and attacked Syria in the way that the president was proposing, then today ISIS would have chemical weapons.
Odyssey: In your current position, which vote do you most regret making and why?
Alan Grayson: I think that my first vote to give more latitude to the PATRIOT Act way back when I was first elected was one that I’d like to be able to take back at this point. I think that the pervasive spying and surveillance that we see from the spying industrial complex directed against Americans is completely unwarranted and unconstitutional. I’ll give you a few examples.
We all know now, thanks to Edward Snowden, that every time you make a phone call, including this phone call, that the National Security Agency gets a copy of the information regarding the call: who spoke to whom, how long the call was, and so on and so forth. In addition to that, every single piece of mail that you ever send gets photographed. It’s true that they photograph the outside, not the inside, but still, why do we do things like that? What’s the point? It’s been shown in one study after another that it does not make us any safer, that it’s never been used in any effective manner to actually prevent a terrorist attack, and we, according to publicly available information, spend roughly $50 billion a year spying on each other, spying on ourselves and every once in a while spying on actual foreign targets. That seems wrong to me.
In the world that we live in, obviously information is out there every time you make a purchase, information is out there every time you take out a library book from the library – some people still do that. Every time you go to a website, there’s some record of the website that you went to. It’s possible that, given enough resources, we could make this into an Orwellian 1984 where the focus of human effort is simply to spy on ourselves and keep us all intimidated and in line. I’m not saying we’re quite there yet, but the technological means now are there and I think we have to guard against that. I think I corrected that problem later on.
Right now, that program – the first of the programs I mentioned, the one where the Defense Department gets information on every single telephone call that you make -- is in the process of being eliminated and it will be eliminated apparently by the end of the year unless something happens between now and then, and that’s a good thing. I strongly believe that we’re all innocent until proven guilty. I don’t think that our lives should be interfered with unless we’ve done something wrong...
What’s happened is that the worst thing that you can say about any Democrat is that he’s weak on defense." And that’s a pity. We have to make these decisions on the merits and on the basis of the Constitution, and our vision, if you will, for the kind of lives that dignified human beings live. We’re not sheep. We’re not cattle. There’s no reason why we should be treated as such. So whether you’re Democrat or Republican, it’s a pity that you would put the rights of privacy, the right to be left alone, beneath your own political concerns.
Odyssey: Since 1965, who is the best president not named Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, and why? [The question was asked this way to remove the most likely choices for the Democratic congressman. Republicans Odyssey interviewed were asked the same question, excepting Ronald Reagan.]
Rep. Grayson: Well his presidency ended in tragedy, but I think that during that period of time, Lyndon Johnson accomplished marvelous things. I think the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the progress that we made toward reducing discrimination under the Johnson administration, to my mind, is legendary. It is a pity that all of that ended up in tears because of the war in Vietnam. But the accomplishments that we made towards social justice rings even half a century later, and I’m proud, in part, to be a Democrat, in large part because of the progress that we made during that time when I was a child. And watching it and seeing us eliminate the vestiges of centuries of discrimination in this country.
Odyssey: Which interest group or lobby has the most undue influence on Capitol Hill?
Rep. Grayson: The NRA. The NRA has everyone hopelessly intimidated. And the interesting thing is that if you’re a Democrat and you do try to establish a peaceful relationship with them, they’ll hurt you anyway. In the last election cycle, they didn’t endorse a single house Democrat in Florida and, for all I know, hardly any all around the country. The NRA is simply an organization for the Republican Party, and a particularly – how should I put this – ruthless one. I have what might be regarded as moderate views in general on gun control. I do favor, for instance, that we have universal background checks and that people who suffer from mental illness should not be allowed to get a gun license. I think that’s sort of common sense.
I recognize, on the other hand, that many people enjoy using guns for sporting purposes. Like any other sport, I see nothing wrong with that. So I have what Democrats regard as moderate views regarding gun control. Notwithstanding that, the NRA ran ads against me in one of my elections for no reason that I could see except for the fact that I’m a progressive Democrat and they hate progressive Democrats. It had nothing to do with the issues as far as I could see. It was fundamentally dishonest.
Odyssey: The gap between rich and poor continues to get bigger and is on many people’s minds. What statistical indicators do you use to analyze this, and what is your solution? Feel free to only answer the first part of that if you want, because I feel like you’ve already touched upon this in your earlier responses.
Rep. Grayson: Well, the normal way that economists judge these things is called the Gini coefficient. I am the only member of congress who actually has ever worked as an economist. I worked as an economist for years so I am familiar with these things from the inside out. We have the most unequal Gini coefficient of any industrial country, the fourth most unequal in the entire world. Sometimes we’re fourth, sometimes we’re fifth, out of almost 200 different countries.
So this tells you that we’ve established an extremely, extremely unequal society, which is not mediated in any sense by the normal ways that one actually attains the extremes of the so-called free market. One example of this is the fact that in other countries it’s taken for granted that you have universal health care. In the United States, you have to pay for it yourself, and if you can’t afford it and you live in Florida, that’s just too bad. And another example of that is that in many countries, particularly in Europe, all education, including higher education, is free. So those who do go to college don’t end up with a lifetime of debt as a result of that.
These things are specific to health care and education, but their overall impact is to make society much less unequal and to give opportunities for upward social mobility that aren’t there otherwise. I mean, right now my daughter is enrolled at Columbia. The tuition and room charge is almost $60,000 a year. That’s a staggering amount of money. There’s honestly very few people in my district who could possibly afford that. The average wage in my district is $12 an hour. Do the math. That’s impossible. That would be one year of tuition equals two and a half years of gross salary. That’s the reality for people living in the United States.
So as to what to do about it, I think we should extend the same social programs that you find in other rich countries, if you will, other countries that are modern and industrial — we should extend the same social programs that are available in other countries to the United States to the extent that we can afford it. And, in addition to that, we should have progressive taxation. Mitt Romney’s tax rate was, if I recall correctly, something like 14 percent. And he was making millions upon millions of dollars every year. We have a very unequal system with regard to tax rates.
It’s quite possible, as Warren Buffett also points out, that his secretary pays a higher tax rate than he does. Having a regressive tax system rigs the system heavily in favor of the top one percent. And beyond that, we have to do a better job of fighting monopolies because every monopoly means one or two or three people becoming super wealthy at the expense of everyone else. This is something that we’ve almost given up on in the past quarter century or so, but the fact is that the monopolies hurt our economic well-being across the board, not only by making inequality worse, but also making our economic system sporadic. It doesn’t function well. The price people pay doesn’t represent the cost of production, it just represents an arbitrary monopoly price. So these are examples of what we could do to make the system more equal. I think seniors deserve a raise...
Seniors are often at the bottom economically. It would make society much more equal if we treat our seniors better than we do right now. Of course, if you are a young graduate, I think you realize you’re going to be a senior one day or at least you hope you will be, and you’ll benefit from that at that point as well.
Odyssey: What does the word equality mean to you, and how do we achieve it?
Rep. Grayson: Well, it means several different things, but fundamentally what it means to me is the ability to be all that you can be. That is the bottom line on equality. Now, we have different things that get in the way of equality. We have prejudice, discrimination, bias; we have that kind of inequality, inequality that treats you differently based on where you’re from, what language you speak, or what you look like, or whom you love. That kind of inequality is a form of inequality that we’re making some progress to fight against.
I was very happy to be the ring-bearer at the first same-sex marriage in the history of central Florida earlier this year. That gives you one example of our progress fighting bigotry. Another example is health inequality. You can’t be wealthy if you’re unhealthy. And we’ve seen a tremendous drop in labor force participation. We have fewer people working there in the labor force than we did 20 years ago in the United States even though our population is 30 or 40 million increased by 30 or 40 million. The health inequality in this country is shocking in part because it’s so much avoidable.
It’s funny: We spend more money on healthcare than any other country in the entire world by a wide margin, 17 percent of our gross national product, one-sixth of all of our goods and services produced are healthcare-related for the benefit of health, and yet we are almost 50th in life expectancy in the world. We live two fewer years than the Canadians do right across the border living in a very harsh environment. We live four fewer years than the Japanese do. And we end up with over 30 million people that end up with no coverage whatsoever if they have to see a doctor. People scratch their heads and wonder -- in terms of health inequality -- how could we spend so much and get so little in return?
Another form of inequality is inequality of opportunity. Again many other countries that I mentioned earlier are countries that make higher education completely free. No one ever has to pay for it. And that means that you have people who would be construction workers and who end up being engineers. You have people who would be nurses end up being doctors. And that’s better for everyone involved. So whether we’re talking about hunger or discrimination or poverty or poor education or poor health or discrimination, what all these things mean in the end is that inequality, and specifically inequality that prevents you from reaching your potential in life, and if there’s one simple thing that pulls everything that I do together, it’s this concept that I want people to be all that they can be.
Odyssey: Finally, if you could have a drink with any non-politician, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you drink?
Rep Grayson: Oh that’s easy. I’d have a drink with Joni Mitchell, my favorite singer. I’ve enjoyed every one of her albums, going all the way back to when I was a teenager, and I felt bad learning recently that she suffered a stroke. But the answer to what we would drink, I’d have to think a white wine. That seems right, don’t you think so?