This interview was 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: Zoe Lofgren (pronounced 'Zo'), is a Silicon Valley native. She is the Democratic representative of the 19th congressional district of California, and has served in Congress Since 1995. She attended Santa Clara University of Law graduating cum laude in 1975. She is currently serving on the Judiciary Committee, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, and the Committee on House Administration. She is highly recognized for her dedication and work on immigration reform, and immigration policy.
The interviewer: Haley Fenner is a student at San Jose State University, and is pursuing a degree in Communications.
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. Zoe Lofgren: Well, I think you know a lot of that has to do with funding for education as you are aware right now congress is got a rep. majority in the house in particular the majority decides what bills are heard and really affects the agenda.
So we've had a rough time moving forward with expansion and funding measures in this congress, but when the democrats were in the majority we had a percent increase in the amount of programs, and we cut interest rates on student loans in half and we hope we are able to set the agenda again. So that in the future that we will be able to do more. So when we think about our country compared to other we don’t do as good of making college accessible to families that aren't wealthy. There is no college tuition here, of course we have those financial barriers and not only do student lose and the country is the core for it.
Odyssey: Increases in college tuition have been outpacing inflation for a few decades, and now the amount of student loan debt has surpassed the credit card debt held by all Americans. What specifically can Congress do to rein in these costs, if anything?
Rep. Lofgren: Well as you know college tuition is not set by the federal government but one of the things that distorts those figures is the role of for profit colleges in the education in the higher costs and lowest performance are in that and theres a lot of debt that has accumulated for students that are in for profits school that have provided them with quality education and the administration with the support of democrats that are in the House have been cutting down and informing rules to prevent that kind of abuse but for the rest of the world we also have a problem where tuition especially in areas like California where the state is not providing the support to public institutions like it has in the past, as well as private institutions where the costs have increased dramatically.
As we think about this, thinking about just spending more money, instead of dealing with how you’re managing your expenses is probably not a winning strategy. I chair the California Democratic delegation and one of things that we do is try to interface with the decision makers in California to try and see how we might jointly impact positively important matters, education being one of them. If you take a look at the University of California for an example the biggest cut in expenses is administration it’s not that they're not paying professors, more they're not, there's some increase costs for heavy science research. the big item is admin we have urged that those admin cost be brought more into line. that is something we hope to be able to utilize if we are able to win the majority to utilize our leverage to make that happen.
Odyssey: Beyond college costs, which three political issues affecting 18 to 30-year-olds aren’t being talked about enough?
Rep. Lofgren: Well, I mean there's a lot it depends on the 18 to 30-year-olds, but I think for immigrant use we need to have a much broader discussion of how to allow immigrant children to fully participate in the life of that nation. California has moved far ahead of the rest of country by allowing immigrant students, Dream Act students, to participate in the student loan programs and other higher ed programs. We’re not doing that in the rest of the country, and although that’s not every student it’s extremely important for that segment of the population.
The other thing I think we need to talk about more broadly is the issue of employment, as well as house ownership which are obviously connected items. If you take a look at the kids getting out of college today, too many of them are not able to find the kind of employment at the kind of salary that would allow them to really pay off the cost accrued in college. As we look at building this economy not just the number of jobs, but whether they are good paying jobs.
Whether they’re the kind of jobs that can support a family. Whether they’re the jobs that can allow the purchase of a home, and the kid of stability that brings to a family and frankly also to a community.
Odyssey: What’s one specific policy issue on which you’ve bucked your party’s consensus?
Rep. Lofgren: When we had the fight against SOPA which was the Stop Online Piracy Act, it really was a censorship act, and had the support of senior leadership, the Judiciary Committee of both parties, including the Democrats. It was pretty clear from my thought at the time. I lead the effort in the committee to stop that measure. I worked with technology and the nonprofits and the companies to rally the internet world, to protest the passage of the bill. We were able to stop it in the end, so that was a very satisfying measure.
Another matter, I am someone who has supported charter schools that are successful. Out of San Jose we have a number of charter schools that have entered low income communities, and have fought out those who are headed to academic defeats, and worked to turn those around. I think downtown college prep is a prime example where they are looking for students entering into 10th grade, whose grade point is a D or below, and by the time they are done with downtown college prep nearly 100% of those students go off to college. So I think I am for public schools, but there is also an important role for public schools, and not everyone in my party agrees.
Odyssey: In your current position, which vote do you most regret making and why?
Rep. Lofgren: The Copyright Extension Act, which extended the life of copyright to the life of the author plus 70 years. I was a brand new member of Congress, and had been advised by more senior members that our treaty obligations basically required that change in American law. I later discovered that those representations were not quite accurate. The results and extension copy rights have been a very negative thing in the United States.
I also regret right after 9/11, we did a bipartisan bill, it was called the PATRIOT Act, and at the last minute the administration made changes to it, and represented to us that they would adhere to the first verso of the bill. A bunch of Democrats voted for the bill including myself a number that was skeptical of the administration had voted against. I now realize that skepticism was warranted and I wish I had voted o on that and i voted against it ever since.
Odyssey: Since 1965, who was 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 congresswoman. Republicans Odyssey interviewed were asked the same question, excepting Ronald Reagan.]
Rep. Lofgren: I don’t want to say Lyndon Johnson because the war was mishandled, but the domestic policy for civil rights was enormously important.
Odyssey: Which interest group or lobby has the most undue influence on Capitol Hill, and why?
Rep. Lofgren: I would say the most undue influence is the oil industry. They pretty much come in, and tell the Republicans what to do. I don’t know entirely why they have such influence, but I think some of it is campaign contributions.
Odyssey: The gap between the rich and poor continues to get bigger and is on many people’s minds. What statistical indicators do you use to analyze this? What is your solution?
Rep. Lofgren: I don’t think there is any one measure that will solve this phenomenon, but I do think the growing gap between rich and poor is a serious problem for the country. It leads to stagnation in the economy. It leads to hopelessness on the part of people at the bottom of the economic latter. It’s generally just a bad thing. If you take a look at tax rate which is part of it the amount of taxes paid by the very rich have decline considerably and actually the taxes paid by the poor payroll taxes and income taxes have grown considerably. So that is a factor, but not the only factor.
The decline in labor unions and the ability to bargain collectively so that adequate wages are paid towards workforces is also a factor. In the 50s when the gap between the rich and the poor was considerably lower, that was labor unions represented a wide squad of private sector employees. Now, less than seven percent of private sector employees represented by private sector labor unions. I think the way stagnation is apart of the result of that.
I also think globalization is an issue, and you cant just wave a wand and make globalization disappear. We are competing with workers across the world, and many of those other workers are paid less than american workers who have a lower quality of living. So that’s just a fact of living in this modern world. Technology also plays a roll. Things that people had to do can now be done by machines. That also cuts into employment and in some cases previously well paid employment.
Odyssey: What does the word “equality” mean to you and how do we achieve it as a country?
Rep. Lofgren: I think equality means that you got the same shot at life as everybody else. That you aren't treated differentially because of your religion you have, the gender you have, the orientation you have, the age, or race and ethnicity you are. Whether your parents were rich or poor. Whether you live in the west or midwest. People should have an equal chance at success. We’re far from that right now.
Although sometimes it's worth celebrating the success that we have made, it’s easy to look at our defects and there are some. We have made progress in terms of rights for women, rights for African Americans, rights for LGBT. I mean we are on a march towards more equality, but were not there yet.
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. Lofgren: I would have tea with Albert Einstein because he was the brightest guy who understood the nature of the universe in a way that few ever have. I would drink tea because I wouldn't want anything stronger to interfere with my quest to understand his brilliance.