Q&A with Dina Titus: “We can’t just investigate, we’ve also got to legislate”

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Rep. Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas. Photos: Jeniffer Solis

This year Dina Titus was reelected to her fourth term representing Nevada’s 1st congressional district ,which includes Las Vegas and the Strip. In a wide-ranging interview with the Current a few days before Thanksgiving, Titus talked about newly empowered Democrats investigating Donald Trump and trying to hold him accountable — including from her new perch in the next Congress as chair of a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee. Titus also talked about the outlook for compromising with Trump, particularly on infrastructure, the “fool’s errand” of impeachment, the “rubber stamp” Republican-controlled Senate, her long alliance with Governor-elect Steve Sisolak, and several other issues and subjects. Below are extended excerpts from the interview.

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Q: What do you see as the consequences of the restoration of checks and balances in Washington D.C.?

Titus: Well of course I’m enthusiastic about it. I’m excited about it. I think it was, despite what other people say, a great victory for the Democrats. We are now a backstop against things that Donald Trump wants to do. We can now provide oversight for the administration, which we haven’t had any of in quite a long time.

And I’ll get to have a gavel. Right now I’m the ranking member of the (Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management) subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Q: You mentioned oversight. Let’s start with Foreign Affairs (Titus is also on the Foreign Affairs Committee). The Democrat who will be chairing that committee (Elliot Engel, D-NY) has talked about launching investigations into Trump’s business dealings abroad, how Trump has leveraged the presidency for his own income… How do you envision those investigations going, and once the investigations are completed, and you find out that there are nasty things that have happened, then what do you do? What are the consequences?

Titus: I think the fact that you have the investigation is important to start with because there’s been no real investigation until now. He (Engel) wants to look at Russian collusion, business in foreign countries, use of the presidential power that supersedes what Congress has done in terms of war powers – look at Yemen. So I think that’s important to start.

The second thing is, up until now, whenever we have a hearing, they just send over think tank people… We’ve got to have the administration there to answer questions. And when you shine a light on things, that’s always helpful, if you’re talking about no consequence other than the 2020 election. That’s a pretty big consequence. 

Q: What would you like to ask about, say, North Korea?

Titus: I think you want to have some meetings from the minutes that occurred. We haven’t ever seen any kind of minutes or report from those behind-closed-door meetings that they had, when supposedly a deal was struck. I think that would be at a minimum to start with.

Q: And you don’t have those from the Helsinki meeting (between Trump and Putin in July) either.

Titus: No.

Q: So are you guys in a position to demand those, and actually get them?

Titus: Well, we can demand them. Whether we get them or not, I don’t know. But that just goes further to show the secrecy of this administration. But you do have subpoena power, so that’s something that you can use if you have to.

Q: And just to clarify, if you get the minutes, let’s say from North Korea, what is it that we don’t know that you would hope to find out?

Titus: I don’t think we know much of anything about this president’s foreign policy. Now, part of that is, he doesn’t really have a foreign policy. You know, what’s our policy in Syria? What’s our policy in Iraq? We don’t have a policy, but maybe we could find something out about that.

And just what commitments have been made? What has he committed this government to, that we don’t know about, much of which would ordinarily require congressional approval.

Q: Same thing with Iran. What kind of questions do you feel the administration hasn’t answered about Iran and the U.S. exit from the nuclear deal?

Titus: We don’t know what’s happensing with the nuclear deal since we pulled out. What have been the consequences? I was opposed to pulling out. I voted for the nuclear deal. Has (withdrawing) given us the results that we want? Who are we sanctioning now?

Q: The business relationships, whether they be with Russian oligarchs, or with India, and sending Don Jr.’s or whatever the other son’s name is…

Titus:…and son-in-law.

Q: …yeah, and apparently enriching the company, enriching Trump’s holdings, as a result. Again, what kind of consequences do you think you can envision, or that we can hope for, as a result of going through these investigations, actually having some part of the federal government say something about these things? What kind of consequence can we get?

Titus: We have the courts. Admittedly he controls the Supreme Court. But you can start in lower courts. Right now you’ve got some cases against the president. There’s an emoluments case. You talk about emoluments, the general public doesn’t know exactly what that means. But if you put it in just everyday terms, about using taxpayer dollars to enrich himself, then it becomes pretty clear.

It’s not just Foreign Affairs. One of the things under my committee are all the public buildings, like the post office that is now (Trump’s) hotel. We understand he’s not been paying the rent based on the agreement that was made. Plus the whole FBI building. That investigation will come under my subcommittee … all public buildings, all of that comes under by subcommittee.

Q: What you going to do?

Titus: We will ask some questions and try to get some answers. And it’s been pretty clear … just how much he intervened in a decision that had been ongoing for a long time to create something that will cost more money, be more difficult, take longer, but of course removes any competition from his current hotel.

Q: We get George W. Bush, and say, ‘oh well, it can’t get any worse.’ And then the next thing you know we elect a game show host. And who knows what’s going to come next? So if nothing else as a result of these investigations, should there be specific types of legislation to make sure that these kinds of things are illegal in the future.

Titus: There’s legislation now. Just because he gets around it, and just because he fights in the courts. The emoluments clause is in the Constitution.

Q. But the emoluments clause is kind of loosy-goosy as to whether it applies or not. It’s the kind of thing that you can be, that you can skate around in a court. But in terms of, let’s say, the lack of a blind trust for instance…

Titus: Or having to give up your income tax return. I’m a co-sponsor of legislation to do that now. And the blind trust, I would support that. If you want to make the emoluments clause more specific, I would support that. The problem is you may have to just hope for political consequences, not legal ones. Because you’ve got a Senate that is still controlled by Republicans who are nothing but a rubber stamp for the president.

It is shocking to me that the Senate under (Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell has just become his (Trump’s) Senate. You heard him (Trump) say, ‘well if the Democrats investigate me, my Senate will investigate them, and we’re better at it than the Democrats are.’ In the past, no Senate, under any party, against any president, would have allowed itself to be put in that kind of position. They would see themselves as a powerful check. That’s not true now.

So you can’t do impeachment because they’re not going to convict and remove. We need two thirds. So what you can hope for is, the more exposure there is, possibly getting a few Republicans, the worse it gets, to sign on to some of this legislation, and let the pubic see what’s there so that in 2020, you can get rid of him.

Q: As I’m watching, again, one worst president after another come down the pike…

Titus: And see I go back to Nixon, what could be worse than Nixon? Oh it was Reagan. What could be worse than Reagan? Oh it was Bush junior, what could be worse… all of them look benign compared to what we have now.

Q: Nixon seems masterful in retrospect.

Titus: Especially if you look at the legislation he passed.

Q: The environmental president. People forget that. But people from both parties have complained of the imperial presidency. That the presidency has become too powerful. And then you get someone like the situation we’ve got now. Do you feel there are specific things that Congress should do to try to reassert its status as a truly co-equal branch of government?

Titus: I think the president has become more powerful over the years, and it’s not just the Congress giving up power, or unwilling to assert power. It’s things like social media. It’s things like the growth of the bureaucracy. Just the fact that the focus is always on the one person, not the 435 members of Congress.

But on the other hand, Congress has given away power. They gave away power in the War Powers Act. They’ve said get the monkey off my back and let the president do it. So yeah I think we could reassert ourselves.

What could we do? Internal improvements and reforms with the committee system so we don’t concentrate power at the top, with the leadership loyal to the person in the presidency, might help.

Right now most of the power comes from the (Senate Majority) Leader and the Speaker (of the House), and then it’s handed down. In the past, probably twenty years ago, committee chairmen were much more powerful, in setting their own agendas, in setting their own calendars, and passing legislation up, as opposed to it passing down. And now you just don’t see that. And it’s hard to roll back the clock.

Q: The executive order…. of course Obama came under fire for it, Trump has come under fire for ones that he’s done, and ones that he thinks he can do…

Titus: And ones that don’t mean anything.

Q: Is that an area where you think Congress needs to rein in the presidency?

Titus: Well that’s always been a power of the president that’s an assumed power. It doesn’t say anything about it in the Constitution, it’s just been an assumed power. I think we’ve looked at trying to rein that in, and requiring more things to have congressional consent. But just look at the (2001 Authorization of the Use of Force). Now they’ve used that to justify every single war in the Middle East, and Congress hasn’t pulled that back. We tried to with the Yemen resolution, but that went nowhere.

Q: Let’s move on to infrastructure – your committee. That is the one area, so the kids say, where there might be some kind of agreement with the Trump administration. What are your thoughts about that.

Titus: I would like to think so, because everybody likes to cut a ribbon and hand out a check. You saw that after the stimulus package. Trump came in promising, what, $3 trillion? And then that fizzled away, because it was a few toll roads and a little bonding, and moving money from state and local government to the federal government. But if there’s anything that should be non-ideological, it should be roads and bridges. So hopefully we can come to something.

The question, like everything, is how do you pay for it? And are these Republicans going to be willing to look at the gas tax, look at miles traveled, look at some other alternatives, and then get a real investement, not just a pretend one?

Q: There is a school of thought that the Trump administration is setting an “infrastructure trap,” that they are happy to go along and let you build I-11 and do some airport upgrades, and let somebody else do something in their state… a trillion-dollar pork bill, if you will. And members of Congress presumably will all be happy, because they can go back and, as you say, cut a ribbon and hand out a check. But that also allows Trump to go around and say ‘look at how wonderfully I worked with the Democrats. See, I’m the deal maker. Told ya.’ And it’s actually a trap for Democrats going forward to 2020. What’s your reaction to that general spooky think.

Titus: I think, well, it’s a little bit of conspiracy theory and paranoia. But it’s not just infrastructure. It’s also cutting the price of drugs. Are we going to do that? Are we going to get a DACA fix? I think the big question is how much do you compromise and how much are you willing to give him a victory, for 2020?

Q: All right, let’s take DACA. How much are you willing to give him a victory?

Titus: If you tie DACA to the wall, that’s going to be a tough one. I’ll have to talk to the people in my community to see it that’s worth it to them. I won’t want to make that decision alone.

Q: This is one of several areas that raises the question about the value of passing things… For instance, the House going ahead and passing a competent, comprehensive immigration reform bill, and sending it over to McConnell, if for no other reason — and you can do the same thing with health care, you can do the same thing with guns, any number of issues — throw them over to McConnell to let him bury them or whatever he wants to do, but to let the public know, this is what you’d get if Republicans were out of power.

Titus: I think that’s important. And that goes back to the investigations. We can’t just investigate, we’ve also got to legislate. And even if they don’t have a chance in the Senate, I think you have to put them out there, because the base that elected us is demanding that. And if we don’t respond to it, there’s no reason for us to be there either.

I think you’ve got to have some kind of gun safety measure. Background checks and bump stocks is where I’d start. You’ve got to protect DREAMERs, that’d be another first bill that we should have out of the chute. And, who knows? The Republicans on the Senate side may start to feel the pressure and you might get something passed. You have to try.

Q: To go back to infrastructure, I just want to reiterate this business of making a deal with Trump. For instance, if you can get whatever you want in this district, whether it’s — I know it’s not really in your district but I know you’ve talked about rural broadband, and the need for that — but also I-11, airport, etc… If there is legislation that provides the money you want for those things, but is not, for instance, a comprehensive bill that tackles, say, the massive backlog of wastewater infrastructure funding, the least sexy issue that you can possibly think of and yet it’s incredibly urgent, or just drinking water in places like Flint… If the infrastructure bill doesn’t have that kind of larger, overarching, national impact, but it’s got stuff in your district, then are you OK with it?

Titus: I’m not going to say I’m OK with it. But I’d vote for it. You have to pick your battles. What are those old sayings… you can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And if you can deliver some things, that leaves you to fight another day for other things. So you can’t just wait for the perfect bill. You’ve got to get what you can.

Q: What do you think about the blue wave?

Titus: I think it was a blue wave. Look how many seats we took. You had candidates who may not have won but certainly caught the world’s attention — Beto, and Abrams in Georgia, Gillum in Florida. And even if they lost, they helped others beneath them win legislative and congressional seats. That was certainly true in Georgia and Texas.

Q: What do you think was the biggest, most decisive issue, particularly in Nevada.

Titus: I think it was the same as nationally. It was health care. And the irony of this is it was health care that caused us to lose the majority (in 2010), and health care helped us to win the majority. And once you give somebody something, then it’s impossible to take it away. And the Republicans tried to take it away, specifically benefits for (patients with) preexisting conditions. And we harped on that in every single race, every single place, and it worked.

Q: What about Trump? You don’t think that was the decisive issue?

Titus: I think that if you compared Trump to Pelosi, Trump helped us more than Pelosi helped them. And they’ve always campaigned against her, because her image is so bad. This time it didn’t work, it was old news, she hadn’t been in the majority. And their leader was so much worse than our leader. (Titus recently signed a letter with other women House members supporting Pelosi’s selection as Speaker). Yeah, I think Trump was a factor in getting people energized, and maybe turning out. But I think the issue was health care, and then in a lot of the swing districts where we won, in those suburban districts, they didn’t focus on Trump as much as they focused on policy.

Q: I thought that too. But this reminded me of 2006, which you probably remember not as fondly as some other Democrats nationwide. That year, the issue was the Iraq War. I mean, that was the issue. But that’s not what Democrats campaigned on. I can’t remember what they campaigned on, something…

Titus: Social Security.

Q: Oh that’s right. Don’t privatize Social Security. But the issue was the Iraq War. And I can’t help but feel that there’s a parallel here, that yes there was campaigning on preexisting conditions, but the issue, and as you say, the turnout driver, was Trump, and the desire to have some kind of check and balance.

Titus: I won’t argue with that. Certainly not in my district. You don’t have a lot of Trump fans in my district. So it never hurt me to go out there and say “Trump, we’re taking it to ya.” Other people were more cautious than that. And the leadership certainly didn’t want to talk about impeachment, and still doesn’t want to.

Q: And you think that’s right?

Titus: I voted for (Rep. Al) Green’s bill to study impeachment, and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it. But I don’t want to go on a fool’s errand. If you don’t have a chance to get two-thirds in the Senate, and you don’t have strong Mueller investigation findings, then you’re not going to win that. So let’s find something we can win.

Q: You and Governor-elect Sisolak go back a long, long way. Of course some people were not surprised but still a little disappointed when you endorsed him instead of Chris (Giunchigiliani) in the primary, but in any case…

Titus: It was tough.

Q: So what are your thoughts about him being elected governor?

Titus: I thought that was really the critical race in Nevada, because you have (Adam) Laxalt … I mean that would have been awful.

Steve I’ve known for… I tried to recruit him to run for the state Senate back in ’92. When I ran for governor against the chosen one by Senator Reid (Titus is referring to her 2006 Democratic primary victory over former Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson, now a Clark County Commissioner) he was the only person who stood with me. And you don’t forget that kind of loyalty. And I thought his behavior during the October 1 incident showed leadership and compassion and ability to get things done. And I appreciated that.

Q: You talked about ‘the chosen one by Senator Reid’  — About Jacky Rosen — do you regret not having run for Senate, and if you did do you think you would have won?

Titus: I regret it. I’ve said I regret it every day. I think I would be a good senator, and yes I do think I would have won. But I’m like Joe Biden when they ask him if he regrets not running for president. He regrets its. But he knows it was the right decision. And I absolutely know it was the right decision not to run.

Look, I’ve gained 53 spots in seniority. I’m going to chair a committee. I’m in the majority. I have a fabulous district. I’m the dean of the delegation. If I’d have gone to the Senate I’d have been number 100, and you just have to start all over.

Q: You mentioned the Democratic Socialists earlier. You are one of the sponsors of the Medicare for All bill…

Titus: The only one in Nevada.

Q: A) Do you think there’s a chance of your caucus getting that through the House and sending it over to McConnell, and B) Do you think that that’s strategically a good idea?

Titus: I think it’s a good idea. I think the public supports it. And I think we need to start moving in that direction. Do I think we can get it passed in the next two years? No.

Q: Not through the Senate certainly…

Titus: No I’m talking about in the House, too. There’s just so much groundwork to do. You’ve got to figure out how you’re going to pay for it. How much is it going to cost? How you’re going to make it work with the existing Obamacare? How do you do that without eroding Obamacare until you can bring it all in to place? Good policy takes a lot of work. But I think that work should start. A little of it already has. And then in the next administration, a lot of the people who are running for president have already said they support it too. So I think if we take the White House, then we can see it happen.

Now, I don’t have any problem with the Democratic Socialists. They’re talking about the green agenda. I’m on all those bills. I have been — my record goes back since they were born. So the issues that they care about are the issues that I care about, and that my district cares about. It’s new messengers, but not really a new message.

Q: Do you want to declare yourself part of the Democratic Socialist caucus?

Titus: (Laughs) I don’t think they even have a caucus. I think there are two of them.

(Titus staffer Mike Naft says time’s about up.)

Q: All right. What do you want to finish this with – any observations, or things that people need to know?

Titus: Well… I’m looking forward to the next two years, and the role that I’ll play within the delegation. Also I’m looking forward to Steve being governor, and working with him on some things for Nevada.

I want to do a bill on Yucca Mountain that puts us on the offensive, not the defensive, and that will center around consent-based, but will include an interim storage part. I think that will get us some votes.

I want to see my role as chair of the Travel and Tourism Caucus expanded, because my co-chair, the Republican, is Gus Bilirakus from Florida, and it hasn’t done much.

Same with gaming. You know, I’m kind of the gaming person back there. And as we move into marijuana and gaming, and sports betting, I think there will be a lot happening in that field where I can take some leadership.

Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson has been writing about Nevada policy and politics for more than 20 years. He was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and wrote the then-groundbreaking Las Vegas Gleaner, which among other things was the only independent political blog from Nevada that was credentialed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He spent a few years as a senior energy and environmental policy analyst for Public Citizen, and has occasionally worked as a consultant on mining, taxation, education and other issues for Nevada labor and public interest organizations. His freelance work has been published in outlets ranging from the Guardian to Desert Companion to In These Times to the Oil & Gas Journal. For several years he also taught U.S. History courses at UNLV. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and then assistant managing editor at the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming’s largest newspaper.

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