As a newly elected progressive Democrat, Representative Ro Khanna (CA) couldn’t be more out of step with the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives. He supports free public college, for example, along with a single payer health care system and a path to citizenship for undocumented residents.
So why has Khanna thrown in with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R–CA) on a bill to fund job training for veterans? Why has he gone to rural Kentucky to help Representative Hal Rogers (R–KY), former chairman of the powerful appropriations committee, promote the idea of turning his district into “Silicon Holler”? And why is he teaming up with fellow freshman Representative Jodey Arrington (R–TX), who hails from one of the country’s most conservative districts, to propose a radical change in how Congress operates?
Because Khanna thinks that Congress can’t address the country’s problems unless it escapes the grip of its current hyperpartisanship.
“I have a very progressive record,” says Khanna, a lawyer and former adjunct economics instructor at Stanford University in Palto Alto, California, who unseated longtime Democratic incumbent Mike Honda last November. “And on issues like Medicare, health care, and Social Security, Republicans have a different philosophical view [than Democrats] and there is no room for compromise.
“But I said when I was elected that I would put country before party. And when something is good for the country, we have to try to work across the aisle.”
As a new member of Congress, Khanna is still figuring out how to make his mark. That work includes speaking out on issues that matter to his constituents, identifying areas in which he can apply his expertise, and balancing his personal beliefs with the need to support his party.
“People vote their district,” he explained to a friendly audience at a district town meeting in Newark on 23 April. “And I’m fortunate to represent a progressive district. So far, I have not been put in a place where my conscience is in conflict with the values of this district. In fact, [you] reward me for being bold and pushing the envelope.”
The proposal for term limits, co-sponsored by Arrington, a former vice chancellor for commercialization in the Texas Tech University system, certainly fits that description. “I campaigned on two issues: How to create more tech jobs in my district and around the country, and how to reform Congress,” Khanna says. “And I think it’s a good thing that someone from Texas who worked for George W. Bush, and someone from northern California who worked for President Obama, both think term limits is important and are working together. I hope it attracts some interest.”
Arrington believes that long-serving legislators have contributed to the current gridlock in Washington, D.C. “I said throughout my campaign that the ideal situation would not be to have members in a constant state of raising money and having little time to govern,” he explains. “Our bill would give you a 12-year runway to get the job done. And if you can’t do it in that time, then you probably don’t need to be up here.”
The popularity of term limits has ebbed and flowed over the nation’s history. It experienced a revival in the 1980s during the Reagan administration, and fueled the political upheaval in 1994 that allowed Republicans to end 40 years of Democratic control of the House.
But the next year the U.S. Supreme Court dealt advocates a crushing blow by prohibiting state legislatures, many of which had imposed term limits on themselves, from applying the idea to the state’s congressional delegation. The ruling still offered supporters a more circuitous route to victory by amending the U.S. Constitution. Doing that, however, requires a vote by two-thirds of Congress to put the issue before delegates at a constitutional convention, followed by ratification by two-thirds of the states.
That steep climb doesn’t faze Khanna and Arrington. Their resolution, introduced on 18 May, would set a 12-year limit for members of both bodies—six, 2-year terms for House members and two, 6-year terms for senators. Rather than including a grandfather clause, it ignores the number of terms a member has served before ratification and simply limits long-serving members from more than 12 additional years in Congress.
Even so, the idea essentially requires legislators to fire themselves. And Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville who made the case for term limits in a 2007 book, doesn’t think that’s very likely.
“The odds of Congress passing term limits are a fraction of one percent,” Sabato says. “Think about it—the House leadership in both parties has been there seemingly forever. Don't you think they'd deep-six this? And it won't be hard, believe me. Some members may be in favor of term limits, but I think that few are going to spend their limited capital on this lost cause.”
Sabato views such a meeting of the minds on term limits as an empty gesture. “You get credit for pushing for a popular reform, term limits, with very little chance you'll actually have to live under it,” he scoffs. At the same time, he acknowledges that the alliance demonstrates conservatives and progressives can find common ground on some issues.
Scientists are hoping that research funding is one of the issues able to draw Republicans and Democrats together. They say the increases given several science agencies in the recently passed 2017 spending bill are proof that science enjoys bipartisan support in Congress.
But such generalizations ignore the political calculus that members apply to every spending bill. Khanna, for instance, joined all but 15 of his Democratic colleagues in voting for the spending bill. In contrast, Arrington bucked his party’s leadership and was one of 103 Republicans who voted against it.
In Arrington’s case, his vote meant weighing his conviction that the federal government should be spending less against what’s good for farmers in his heavily agriculture district. In particular, Arrington’s biggest problem with the bill was that it busted a previously agreed on spending cap by some $20 billion. The bill “does not do enough to prioritize our conservative, west Texas values, [including] the lack of progress on reining in government spending,” Arrington said in a short statement explaining why he bucked the majority sentiment in his own party.
But in follow-up comments to ScienceInsider, Arrington mentioned a second reason for opposing the bill: its “lack of support for our cotton and dairy farmers.” Specifically, he felt the bill skimped on federal subsidies given to those who produce those commodities.
Arrington will likely face a similar dilemma when Congress takes up the 2018 budget request from President Donald Trump, which the White House previewed in March. “There are lots of programs that can be cut,” Arrington says, citing his support for the blueprint’s large proposed reductions at the Environmental Protection Agency. “But they need to be in areas that make sense.”
Two areas where cuts don’t make sense, Arrington believes, are research and infrastructure. “A failing infrastructure hurts our economy by limiting our ability to move goods and services around the country,” he explains. “And an innovation economy built upon research discoveries is the hallmark of a strong economy. I don’t want to see China surpass the United States in science and technology.” That could make it hard for Arrington to swallow the large cuts that Trump has proposed at major federal research agencies.
Khanna has expressed similar concerns about competitiveness in talking about why the federal government needs to spend much more on research. That’s a mainstream Democratic position, to be sure. But Khanna also thinks rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and investing in research present opportunities for bipartisan solutions.
“Our economy is going through a huge transition, and we in this room are at least the survivors of this transition,” he explained at the town hall. “But we have to understand that there are a lot of people who have been left out, both in this community and across the country, and we need to do better in dealing with this divide.
“Look, I disagree with almost everything the president says,” Khanna confessed, to the surprise of absolutely nobody in the room. “But remember, the president made his reputation on [the TV show] The Apprentice. Why doesn’t he just create a million apprenticeship programs around the country? That would be a terrific bipartisan initiative.”
A raise for workers
One major component in Khanna’s push for greater income equality that is unlikely to be embraced by Republicans is expanding the earned income tax credit for the working poor. It would be part of a broader tax reform plan that he hopes Democrats will roll out to compete with the Trump administration’s plan for corporate tax breaks. He says the idea, which he estimates would mean a $20,000 raise for those making less than $75,000 a year, is similar to the negative income tax proposed decades ago by Milton Friedman and other conservative economists. But that idea died because it smacked of a handout.
Still, Khanna says he’s “optimistic that a plan to raise the wages of working-class families and connecting it to work is something both Democrats and Republicans can agree on.” But he admits that, so far, no Republicans have come forward.
Bipartisan tax reform may be a bridge too far for this Congress. And term limits may never happen. But Khanna hopes to show that bipartisanship can go from being a campaign slogan to an effective political strategy.
*Update, 18 May, 6:02 p.m.: This story has been revised and updated to reflect the introduction on 18 May of a resolution for term limits.