JOSHUA BOUCHER | Staff Photographer
Kay Bailey Hutchison, former senator from Texas, discusses civic literacy and the balance of power between branches of government in the Amphitheater on Friday.
While football might be the primary love of Texans all around, Kay Bailey Hutchison, former (and first woman) Texas senator, comes in a close second.
John Hope Bryant said during yesterday’s morning lecture Q-and-A that we are living in the decade of the woman. He couldn’t have known how prophetic those words were given Hutchison’s work; she’s a 20-year veteran of America’s legislature, and she was listed as one of the 30 most powerful women in America in 2001 by Ladies’ Home Journal.
Hutchison delivered the morning lecture on civic literacy Friday in the Amphitheater and discussed how the separation of powers allows a fully formed democracy to function. She cited the president’s executive privilege and veto power, Congress’ ability to approve or overrule federal appointments and nominations and the Supreme Court’s role as interpreters of the law. Since leaving public office in January 2013, she has worked for Bracewell & Giuliani, an international law firm. She has also taught at the University of Texas.
But while serving as Senator, she didn’t truly appreciate the American political system until she traveled abroad to places such as Russia and the Baltic states, which were experiencing the growing pains of democracy.
“They would ask, ‘How do we get civilian control of the military?’ ” she said. “It’s not something we would ever think of, but so many of these countries experience military coups. Egypt is in one right now.”
Hutchison was met with questions about how an independent judiciary functioned and how impartial rule of law was enforced. Some were surprised to learn that citizens were allowed to speak out against the government without fear of being silenced or killed.
An area where power is separated is in the ability to declare war, a power that, constitutionally, lies with Congress; however, since 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Hutchison has seen the rise of “asymmetrical warfare,” where enemies of America and the West are not nations, but rogue splinter groups like al-Qaida and ISIS.
This pattern goes back to the end of the World War II, with Hutchison drawing on the Korean and Vietnam wars as examples of the increasingly blurred line of how warfare is initiated and conducted.
“It’s become less and less obvious what a war is,” she said. “In warfare now, it’s hard to even say who our enemies are.”
Nonetheless, this tension between the executive and legislative branches regarding military actions is inherent to America’s system of checks and balances. It should not be easy to go to war, she said, even as the tightrope of what war and defense are grows thinner.
And there is no one-size-fits-all democratic system.
Hutchison said she believes each country needs to listen to their people to self-determine their own governance. When Afghanistan was setting up its current legislature, they decided they would have a quota for women representatives. While Hutchison doesn’t think such a quota is needed in the U.S., she stressed the necessity of full representation in places as culturally different as the Middle East.
As a former congresswoman, she feels the role of the legislature should not be diminished. For example, in June 2014, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that President Barack Obama had overreached his executive authority when he appointed three members to the National Labor Relations Board, defending his action by claiming Congress was not in session. Because only Congress can say whether they are in session, the appointments were deemed unconstitutional.
“In my opinion, Congress is the [branch of government] that has to make sure its powers stays intact,” she said. “The president is one man. We all know one man can make a decision a whole lot easier than 535 can. Congress is pretty darn unwieldy, and when you have to have all of them agree on every word in a pretty big bill, it can be cumbersome.”
On the other hand, she has seen the Supreme Court become more politically active in her time as a legislator. Hutchison mentioned last week’s two historic decisions that upheld Obamacare and legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. In addition, the number of presidential executive orders have increased, starting with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and continuing through each presidential successor.
It’s this balance of powers that keeps America’s government strong and running, she said, even though polls will show that the majority of Americans are unhappy with Washington, D.C.
“My colleague Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) said it well when Congressional approval ratings went down into the single digits,” she remembered. “He said, ‘Well, now we’re down to family and paid staff.’ ”
Despite the discouragment of partisan gridlock, Hutchison said public servants owe it to the people to get things done because the alternative is a very dangerous situation.
People need to have their voices heard. The symbol of that worldwide is voting, Hutchison said, remembering the sight of Iraqi citizens’ inked fingers, which indicated they voted in their country’s first election. But she also noted there’s an inherent problem with freedom fighters transitioning to democratic leaders.
“They don’t understand [it],” she said.
Speaking with an anonymous Russian parliamentarian, Hutchison recalled, he was convinced the U.S. wanted Russia to fail, citing low investments from the West. Hutchison said that, in order for investments to be made, investors have to believe their rights will be upheld and the rule of law will be enforced. They need to believe in their country’s democracy.
“America wants to invest in Russia. We want everybody to participate, to have freedom and democracy,” she said. “That’s the American Dream we want for everyone.”
Q: You were talking about quotas for women. Would we have been better if we had quotas for women at some point?
A: I have to say I had to fight hard. When I went to the Senate, there were seven women. I fought hard to be elected, and I think you can make the argument that quotas would have been great from the beginning. Would it possibly have been better? I’m not going to say it wouldn’t, but I’m glad that I made it the right way. I don’t want to be considered part of a quota. I wanted to be elected on my own. It was hard. I fought discrimination. I would never have been considered, “Oh she was a quota, they had to put her in.” I wanted to be effective when I was elected, and I’m glad we didn’t have quotas when I was able to run.
Q: John Hope Bryant yesterday said that he sees this upcoming decade as the decade of the woman. I’m curious about your thoughts. If there are more elected women and women in power, what will be the difference in government?
A: As I said, when I went to the senate there were seven women. There are now over 20. I think that we make a difference — especially in a legislative body — because if you don’t have the experience of a diverse group of citizens — women, minorities — you’re not going to be able to make laws that are right for citizens. You’ve got to have those views. When I went to the state legislature, I sponsored a bill with Sarah Weddington. We were only five women out of a 150. It was to make the laws for rape victims more equal to other crimes. Rape victims were discriminated against all over America. We passed a law from a woman, not a personal experience, but knowing what it does and having that view, and the men were not against it. Once we brought it up, and we showed the discrimination against a rape victim, the men were for it. The men had just never thought about it before until five women came to the legislature and said “this is not right.” The same thing at the federal level. I sponsored with Barbara McCloskey the Spousal. I had an experience when I was a young, single working woman of starting an IRA. I got married to my husband Ray, and I was told I could only put away $250 a year in my IRA for retirement. And I said, “What is this? Why shouldn’t they have the ability to save the same amount as a spouse who works outside the home for their retirement?” If anything, they need it more because they are in and out of the workplace, so they don’t have that compound interest advantage that a working spouse would have. I took that to the United States Senate. Nobody was against it. It was just they had never heard of it before until there were more women. I think having that diverse input is so important in a legislative body, and I think it has made a difference already. Then I’ll say that women do have a different approach sometimes to negotiation, and sometimes I will be sitting in tough negotiations where the woman will come in and say, “I get what you’re saying, and I hear what you’re saying, and what about here?” And they’ll both agree that that will work. It brings a sense of understanding that everybody represents their constituency. One of the great things about the senate is that we have open rules, so your adversary today is your ally tomorrow. There are very few people in the Senate who really don’t like each other, and it doesn’t get personal. That makes us able to work together better, I think, and to be able to say, “I would never criticize someone from Massachusetts, who has a different constituency from me, for the way they’re voting.” You don’t criticize. You are expected to represent your constituency as best you can. That’s why you got elected. As I’ve seen more polarization in Congress in the parties, that is beginning to go away — that understanding that I can’t dictate a Massachusetts vote, a New York vote, a Vermont vote. But if we get too polarized out there, and people take it personally if you don’t vote for me, we’re going to enemies — that’s what’s shutting down Congress, and we’ve got to work against that. We have to work towards our goals together.
Q: Let’s move from women’s issues to something like money. What do you think about the problem of big money in the electoral process?
A: I am for freedom of contributions. I think the McCain-Feingold bill really took away transparency which is essential. That’s the most important part of election reform. I can’t dictate — in fact, the courts have said freedom to contribute is a right — but I want to know who is contributing to the people who are running for public office. I want to know. We don’t know because McCain-Feingold created this ability to form whatever group you want and never tell the supporters of that group. I think the political parties are more responsible, and you do know who are supporting the political parties because they have to report. We took the political parties out of the system, and I think we took some of the transparency out of the system. I didn’t vote for McCain-Feingold, so I’ll say we, but it did pass and it was signed. I think that should be corrected. We should have transparency so the people can make informed decisions.
Q: All of these are about gerrymandering. What do you have to say about representing districts that are safe?
A: Gerrymandering, I think, is one of the reasons we are seeing so much polarization. Because the legislators, who hold great influence over Congress, draw districts so that the incumbent can win. The incumbents almost go in and say, “here’s my district that I want.” And if their district starts getting less favorable to them, they’ll want to change the lines and they’ll go and lobby the legislature. I think we are much better off with districts that are representative of a contiguous group. We see some of these districts and they’ll start up here and they’ll go all the way downstate like a snake. That’s not a contiguous interest. I think that there’s been too much politics in the gerrymandering I also think that one of the reasons we have such polarization is that our party primaries are so rigid. Were you a Louisiana system, which is now coming in California, where you have one primary and everybody will be on the ballot. You can vote in that primary for a Republican and Democrat in different races. But you can say I’m voting for a republican for governor, Democrat for lieutenant governor, a Republican for state senate and a democrat for state treasurer. In that open primary then, if somebody gets 50 percent plus one, they’re elected. And this happens in November in Louisiana, for instance. So in November, if you get 51 percent, you’re elected. If you don’t, you have a runoff. It can be a Republican and a Democrat, but it can be a Republican and a Republican or a Democrat and a Democrat. Whoever came out in that primary will go to a runoff. I like that system because people have much more choice, and they don’t have to be within a rigid party primary. In my state, you vote in your primary. If you didn’t vote in your primary on the first primary day, you can’t vote in the runoff if you have voted in a different primary. Say you vote in the Republican primary, and there’s a runoff. If you voted in the Democratic primary, you can’t come in and vote in that Republican primary even though there’s nothing else on the ballot that would interest you on the democratic side. I like open primaries, I think it gives people more choice, and then also brings more of the centrist people who want government to operate. They don’t want government to overrun everything, but government that helps provide the basic needs of our people.
Q: Twenty years. What decisions do you wish you had made differently?
A: It’s very difficult because things can change. For instance, the bailout where we were told that the sky was going to fall and the world economy would fail if we didn’t pump in billions of dollars to equalize the losses that were being made on the market. What was described is that government would buy the bad banks so the good banks would be able to loan and cooperate for normal business and commerce. But that’s not what was done, and it caused a whole lot of disruption in the process from the time that the money was put in, and we are still in overwhelming debt — debt sitting there at $17 trillion. We’re not producing enough in the economy for the Gross Domestic Product to a reasonable level so that it’s not 75 percent of Gross Domestic Product and that it’s more like 40 percent, which is what has been the norm throughout the last 50 or 60 years where we’ve had debt. Forty percent of Gross Domestic Product is considered healthy. Seventy-five percent is not. We’ve gone into a situation where things changed. If you talk about regretting decisions, it’s usually because something has changed. Going into Iraq, the reason was intelligence said that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He had refused to let the weapons inspectors in, so the capability to put those weapons of mass destruction out here into America was the reason that trying to bring down Saddam Hussein became an American issue. As it turned out, those weapons of mass destruction were never found. It was erroneous. That’s why I think a lot of people are very worried about this deal with Iran because we have the weapons inspections. We’re definitely going to be able to control the nuclear capabilities of a nation which has shown no responsibility, so thats the concern.
Q: What’s our responsibility to help Syria, Ukraine, etc., if we are to be a beacon of freedom? There’s a bias in there.
A: Good question and a tough one. You have to be able to have a humanitarian interest, but there must be an American interest when the result could be our troops in harm’s way and giving our lives and treasure in another country’s fight. That’s the toughest question any person serving in political office is going to face. I am not one. I think I’m one of the John Quincy Adams view on foreign policy, and that is there should be a clear American interest before we go involving ourselves in other people’s wars. Again, when is it a war? How many Americans’ heads are going to be chopped off before we intervene to stop that kind of atrocity? Here’s the question with Saddam Hussein: If he really had the weapons of mass destruction, clearly he has the power to deliver them. Then that becomes an American security interest, and it’s a hard question to say. There are some who think we should have gone to help Syria earlier, but how do you help a country with a dictator who you couldn’t topple? I think the president made one of his most egregious mistakes when he drew the line in the sand and said, “If we know weapons of mass destruction are being used against the people of Syria, we will act.” And it was clear weapons of mass destruction were being used against his own people, and we didn’t act. Then the president said, “Well, i’m going to turn it over to Congress.” That was a weakness that has overshadowed our relations with other adversaries who don’t think we’re ever going to keep our word, and it has affected our allies as well.
Q: What do you think will be the future of Iraq?
A: We should allow these people to form their governments in the way that they would, and it will be three separate, independent nations with some sharing of the revenue. The revenue’s in the North, mostly. I think you could have had an independent coalition or independent governments within Iraq. I think you could have made that work better than trying to make them the American model of living with a Jewish person, a person of Palestinian descent living next door to each other and being friends. Or Muslims and Christians living next door and being in the same neighborhood and getting along. That’s the American way. We are diverse, we have religious freedom, we protect that freedom for all religions and that’s the American way. But to put that into an Iraq that has been dominated by one sect of the Muslim religion, which is violently opposed to the other sect and to try to make them work together in a government hasn’t worked. The leaders have not been strong leaders, and they have done the same things to the Sunnis that the Sunnis have done to the Shia. It was unrealistic for us to just say, “Come and sing kumbaya like America and it will all work out.” What we’re seeing is the Sunni atrocities and the Kurds have been very solid. I’ve been to all these places, and I can tell you the Kurds have atrocities committed against them. But they’ve moved on. They haven’t tried to punish anybody. They just want to be left with their own government, and they’ve done well, and they’re strong fighters, and I think we should support their ability to form a strong government and then allow others to form their borders. My hope would be that in the long term you would see trade among the different sects — the Kurds and the Sunni and the Shia areas. That would start causing relationships to form, atrocities to stop and respect would build over the years — that would be the hope. You would start seeing intermarriages and families. That logn return prospect is the way it ought to be. that is not the view of our government, that is not the view of our government and most of the people in Congress.
Q: These are some about the Supreme Court. They’re about terms limits. They’re about Samuel Adams and Ted Cruz. Also someone wants to hear about your comment about the Supreme Court sending “mixed messages.”
A: I think the Supreme Court is sending mixed messages because they’re the Obamacare court that, by a 5-to-4 decision said, “This isn’t what Congress said, but it’s what we think they meant.” Which is, I think, a lesson in the strict constructionist view of what the Supreme Court does. You have John Roberts in the majority on that. The minority on the gay rights issue, he said that should be a state right regardless of what you think of the issue yourself. But that is not something that should be imposed on a national issue by the Supreme Court. You could say that the same would apply on abortion. The coalitions are changing. I think that’s what is going to be written about. I think the signal that one constitutional scholar said on affirmative action and the case that was decided there that it looks like they’re setting the stage for eliminating affirmative action in college entrance and that Kennedy is the swing on that, and he hasn’t been supportive. It’s just a shift that I think is going to be very interesting to watch. You’ve got John Roberts doing some asymmetric routes — going with the liberal four on some issues. Then Justice Kennedy going with the conservatives on some issue, but then he’s the swing on some issues. I just think it’s fascinating to watch. I think the election of the next president is going to have a big impact on the Supreme Court because there are a couple who are pretty old and might be retiring from the court. It’s very interesting on the point that should there be a mandatory retirement for the Supreme Court or terms limits for the Supreme Court. It is part of the balance of powers. The Founding Fathers thought that if they had life terms and if they had no age limit, that would keep them independent and they wouldn’t go along with the political winds. I think more and more the Supreme Court is becoming more political. The justices are more doctrinaire on both sides. They are beginning to try to interpret public opinion and interpret what Congress meant, even if they don’t say it. I’m sure there will be efforts to do something that brings the Supreme Court into some kind of term limits or age limit. I doubt it will go very far, because it’s very hard to amend the Constitution.
Q: If you changed the filibuster do you think it would change the logjam?
A: In practical terms, I have to say one of the reasons Senators never make personal enemies — rarely make personal enemies — is because it takes 60 votes to do anything. Obamacare was passed without one Republican vote in the House or Senate. I think that shutout has caused a lot of that controversy in Obamacare because the amendments were not allowed. One of the problems with Obamacare is not what people think about. It has shut out many corporations who previously gave coverage to employees, but they didn’t meet the detailed prescriptions of what was required I the law. The law was too prescriptive, and therefore the company that gave good enough care, that people were okay with, that allowed them to see the doctor of their choice at a reasonable cost, were dropped. It became so expensive if you didn’t meet the exact requirements that were prescriptive and detailed, hen you had to pay fines anyway. Companies, especially midlevel and small companies, just didn’t offer healthcare anymore to employees. The 60 vote requirement means you have to have some kind of bipartisanship. The 60 votes in Obamacare were because there were 60 Democrats at the time. They voted, and it was veto-proof. The filibuster, while it sounds like it is part of gridlock, it actually makes a requirement of bipartisanship. Which is why I think the Senate functions more easily than the house. This is something I said last night, but the House has a rules committee, and the rules committee requires approval of every bill and every amendment that can be offered on the house floor. The Republicans, when they’re in power, don’t allow the Democrats to have an amendment unless they approve it. The Democrats do the same thing. That causes people not to have the outlet in the House to offer amendments and get votes. That’s not the way it is in the Senate. In the Senate, you can offer an amendment on the floor. When the Senate is shut down, I’m not going to say this is always the case. In the previous administration of the Senate, Harry Reid didn’t allow votes. He would put a member on the floor, and he would fill the amendment tree so you couldn’t call for an amendment. Now, Mitch McConnell has had hundreds of votes because he lets people vote. You can offer them up, get it up, get a vote on, and move on. Sometimes Democratic amendments pass, sometimes they don’t and vice versa. You have to form coalitions, which I think means the law is going to be better. Obamacare is an example of a law that wasn’t written very well. I think when there is Republican input, for instance on the trade promotion agreement, it was a better law. Rather than holding up things, it has made the Senate function better.
Q: You haven’t always agreed with your party. How can the moderate Republican party make changes?
A: Speaking as a Republican, I think we need a big tent. If there are social issues that a husband and a wife disagree on, that a mother and a daughter disagree on, how can we form a political party like that? What’s the core? The core should be where we agree on government policy, on the issues that Congress should be dealing with. Our national security, tax reform, regulatory reform, social security — there are so many issues that are the prerogative of Congress, and I think we need to keep the party focused on the issues that are prerogative of Congress and the prerogatives of the states and allow the states to function as they should. There’s no reason, and I have to say that the founders wanted the federal government to be limited in what they could do. They prescribed the role of Congress and the president and the Supreme Court and said these are the issues that should be federal issues and everything else should be run by the states. The Constitution of the United States is a limiting document. It’s not a document of adding powers — it’s a limit on powers because they expected states to add everything that was closest to the people. That has been eroded, and I think the parties have exacerbated the problem by trying to make social issues the foundation of the party.