Center for Effective Lawmaking

Discussing Effective Lawmaking with Representative Mark Takano

Discussing Effective Lawmaking with Representative Mark Takano

Representative Mark Takano has represented California in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2013, and currently serves the 39th congressional district. He has been identified by the Center for Effective Lawmaking (CEL) as being the fifth-most and sixth-most effective Democratic lawmaker in the House in the 116th and 117th Congress, respectively (which convened from 2019-2021 and 2021-2023). He was also identified as being the most effective Democratic House member in these congresses in advancing Defense policy. In addition, he was the most effective Democratic lawmaker in the House on Immigration policy for the 117th Congress. (For a summary of our Legislative Effectiveness Scores for the 117th Congress and the unique methodology behind it, please visit our website here).

CEL co-directors Craig Volden and Alan Wiseman recently sat down with Representative Takano to discuss his career in public service and his effective lawmaking in Congress; they found that many of his legislative strategies and his approaches to the lawmaking process correspond with the lessons from research conducted by the CEL. Among the topics discussed were: how growing up in his district impacted his representation, why he switched political parties, how being a public school teacher influenced his career in public policy, how he became chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, his work on the PACT Act, how he crafts his legislative portfolio, and how his family history during World War II has shaped his views on public service.

Takano on being a native to his district:

  • “There are certain cultural issues specific to Riverside in terms of its agricultural past…. The emotions and sensitivity to that heritage is something that, someone like me, it’s ingrained in. And I think it wouldn’t be picked up in polling, but it’s something about being local in my particular case that I think, that is significant. Other issues like air quality in the Inland Empire region – that I know my constituents identify with.” [Developing a legislative agenda tightly focused on district needs connects with our five habits of highly effective lawmakers]

Takano on how teaching influenced his political career:

  • “It’s a profession, and we need the best and the brightest, but also the very committed, to be drawn into the profession. So, I went into teaching thinking about how I wanted to learn how it is that we make education a more level opportunity. Because I felt it was very essential to our democracy that we address the inequalities and the disparities to bring us together as a nation.” [Developing a legislative agenda rooted in one’s personal background, previous experiences and policy expertise connects with our five habits of highly effective lawmakers]

Takano on the importance of leading committees and subcommittees:

  • “With the chairmanship comes a great deal of say over the agenda when your party is in the majority. And so, if you want to become an effective member, think about like, well, how can you not only become a subcommittee chairman, but how can you become a full committee chairman, because you can be really effective then.” [The use of committee and leadership positions to advance policymaking agendas connects with our five habits of highly effective lawmakers]

Takano on the importance of staffing:

  • “Having a stable staff who knows their stuff is also very key to a legislator’s success. If you see a member with a lot of turnover, I will say that that is a limit on their effectiveness. A member that can manage through his or her temperament and attract a really good staff – that’s really important. Because staff is inevitably going to be smarter than you…. You can’t be a master of all the topics yourself – you have to have somebody who really kind of knows it inside and out.” [For more information about the benefits of experienced congressional staff, see our op-ed in The Hill]

Takano on creating the coalition for the PACT Act:

  • “[It was] the kind of cooperation of leadership, the momentum already within the veteran service organization communities like the VFW, the American Legion, the whole coalition that was sort of already built was building on itself and the skill of staff.” [Cultivating a broad set of allies, even beyond Congress, connects with our five habits of highly effective lawmakers]

See the full interview with the complete transcript below:

Alan Wiseman (00:09):

My name is Alan Wiseman. I’m the chair of the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University, and along with Craig Volden at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, I’m also the co-director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking. Craig and I are very excited to welcome Congressman Mark Takano to sit down for us and have a conversation with us about effective lawmaking in Congress. As many of you know, Congressman Takano represents the 39th Congressional District in California, which he’s been serving in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2013. The 39th Congressional District in California is in the southern part of the state, and includes parts of Riverside County, including the city of Riverside. Prior to serving in the U.S. House, Congressman Takano had been serving as a public school teacher within his district for many years, in which he was serving the Rialto Unified School district. He was also a member and ultimately elected president of the Riverside Community College Board of Trustees. In his time in the House, and one of the reasons why we’re so excited to talk with him today, is the fact that Congressman Takano has really distinguished himself in comparison to his peers in regard to his engagement with the lawmaking process. In fact, according to our data at the Center for Effective Lawmaking, Congressman Takano was the fifth most and sixth most effective lawmaker in the Democratic party in the 116th and 117th Congress respectively, which – for those of you who follow Congress know – convened from 2019 to 2021 and 2021 to 2023, respectively. If we dive into the weeds a bit, we could also demonstrate that Congressman Takano was, in fact, the most effective Democratic lawmaker in these Congresses in his efforts to advance policies pertaining to defense policy in the United States. So Representative Takano, thank you so much for joining us for a Center for Effective Lawmaking conversation. We’re so excited to talk with you today.

Rep Mark Takano (02:04):

Well, thank you. Alan Wiseman, I’m very glad to be here.

Alan Wiseman (02:08):

Great! And as Craig and I discussed with you just a couple of seconds ago, we’re gonna plan on asking you a series of fairly general questions to get your perspectives on lawmaking in Congress, and all that said, we’d really love to hear from you with some specific examples drawn from your own experience to the extent that you think they’re relevant the questions at hand. So please feel free to really offer up any of your unique perspectives in response to our inquiries.

Rep Mark Takano (02:33):

Thank you.

Alan Wiseman (02:34):

So what I wanna do is just take a step back and we’d really like to start with some questions about your background. And by your background. I mean, before you’re actually elected to the U.S. House of Representatives to try to get a sense of how your earlier career might have shaped your time as a lawmaker in Washington, DC. So, starting with the fact that you’re actually born and raised in Riverside, California, and then returned to California after college – Craig and I were really curious to hear how you think, growing up in what ultimately became the congressional district that you represent, might have influenced how you think about the nature of your job responsibilities in the U.S House? Do you feel that voters might have a different set of expectations for you than they might have had for other members who might have not have grown up within their own congressional districts and the like?

Rep Mark Takano (03:18):

Yeah, I don’t know whether voters expectations sort of are a function of a native-born representative versus somebody who is not born there, and you can have somebody who may not have been born in a congressional district who may have lived there for a long time, and therefore has a sense of the area. Others, quite frankly, are airdropped in: they just have the resources, the money to basically buy a district. They just have so much money that they can get known, and it might be an urban area with a high degree of transience, where the proportion of the voters that are consistent and stable is maybe a plurality, a small plurality, but a large number of the voters that come into a particular district may have a shorter time. They’re not born there. In the case of Riverside, you know, a significant share of Riverside will have been rooted in the community. Not everybody was, you know, most congressional districts will have a population that was born and raised there, but you know a huge share of it, especially in an urbanizing district like mine, are people who move in to buy homes, then move in to buy more affordable housing. So I don’t really say I have a transient district as much as I have a district that has acquired population over time and it changed over time. So the district that I originally ran in in the early 90s and the district I grew up were vastly different. And the district that I eventually won you know, though the geographic area was the same, the population base had changed quite a bit.

So for those, for those folks, I think the unique thing, or a rather a comparatively unique thing, about me and my relationship to my voters is that there is a set of voters that connects to even my parents because, they weren’t born in the district, but had they lived there since the late 1940s and 50s. So there’s a whole social sort of connections that I have to that set of voters. And let’s say that, you know, there are certain cultural issues specific to Riverside in terms of its agricultural past. It’s a heritage as a citrus growing area, which kind of really has faded because of the different land use. We’ve subdivided much of the land, though not all of it, for housing. We have a substantial part of Riverside itself that is still agriculturally zoned, and you can’t subdivided below 5 acres because they wanted to preserve a so-called “green belt”. The emotions and sensitivity to that heritage is something that, someone like me, it’s ingrained in. And I think it wouldn’t be picked up in polling, but it’s something about being local in my particular case that I think, that is significant. Other issues like air quality in the Inland Empire region – that I know my constituents identify with.

My area has been represented by both Democrats and Republicans. I remember growing up with George Brown, Jr., who was a very liberal Democrat. And for a long time my area was represented by Al McCandless, and Ken Calvert, who is still serving in office as a neighbor, so Riverside was also represented by Ken Calvert. I may be the first representative to have ever been born and raised in Riverside to represent Riverside. Riverside has been represented by people who come from other places. And so that is something that is, was pointed out to me by Mayor Ron Loveridge, who actually did not grow up from Riverside – he came from Wisconsin – but, he observed, he’s a political science professor, and he observes, “I think you’re the first member of Congress to actually be born and raised in Riverside, and actually also represent Riverside.”

Craig Volden (08:17):

Yeah, that level of connection is undoubtedly helpful, as you’re thinking through the policy challenges and what people are confronting. Let me thank you for joining us today – add my thanks to Alan’s – and continue questions kind of in that pre-Congress background. So, after earning valedictorian honors at your high school, you went off to Harvard to study government. We’re wondering a bit about how that experience shapes your views about politics. I might understand that you switch political parties around that time, perhaps? And how did studying government at Harvard influence your own path into government, into public service more generally?

Rep Mark Takano (08:57):

Well, let me kind of – So, I switched political parties probably after I left college. I was still struggling – but I was struggling with my, the identity, my political identity then. I mean, I grew up in a Republican household – all my family was Republican, mother and father were Republicans. And you know, I think they had certain aspiring middle-class views, of views that were more like they believed that they could become more Republican, you know that the Republicanism represented their sort of, you know, rise socially and economically. I think there’s a strain of Republican that’s kind of associated with that.

But I would say that there was a kind of liberalizing effect of a Harvard education. I became, I think, more of a communitarian – somebody who was more skeptic, became more skeptical, of a kind of rugged individual view of government. I read a lot of, I became very influenced by the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt. I read a lot of Hannah Arendt. Some might consider her somewhat conservative, but actually, I kind of read her as a – she didn’t really neatly fit, I think, into kind of an ideological frame. But if I kind of understood what she was trying to say about speech and language and politics, you know, it’s inherently, I think, a kind of social sort of vision. My party change, I think, had something to do with a couple of things. I looked at – in the mid eighties – I was looking at the foreign policy of the Reagan administration, specifically in Latin America. And I felt, you know, that it was problematic what I saw. And it was very – it seemed very partisan the way that the Congress, I would say House votes, that we’re split along party lines, and I didn’t really align with, you know, what the Reagan administration was doing in Central America.

That kind of coincided with the realization that as I began to come to terms with my own sexuality as a gay person that the Republican Party was going to be very hospitable to someone who would be openly identifying as gay, although I wasn’t really out and open – I was out to myself and out to family and friends, and even out in college. But I didn’t, you know, make the decision to politically be out until I would say, after my second run for – or during my second run for Congress. So it was noticing that the Republican party was becoming, you know, clearly, more identified with social conservatism that was pretty much excluding really the interest of LGBTQ people. And so actually, I remember a conversation a friend of mine saying to me, “Mark, you’ll be a man at war with yourself if you stay a Republican.” I think that’s pretty much true for anybody who’s a gay Republican: they’re either at war with themselves or a lot of the people they know in the Republican party. I wish it weren’t so. I mean, we know in other party systems – I mean, the Conservatives in England and the British Parliament – they have a number of members who identify as openly gay. But it’s not the case in our two-party system here.

Alan Wiseman (13:47):

Yeah, that’s really fascinating background, Congressman – I really appreciate you sharing that with us. I wanna also just dive into one other aspect of your earlier professional life  I alluded to earlier. You know, as I noted, you’d served as a public school teacher in the Rialto Unified School district for quite a bit of time – more than 2 decades – before you were first elected to Congress. And just to give a preview where we’re gonna be going a little bit later in this conversation, you know, Craig and I were curious to know how much of that professional background influenced various aspects of your legislative agenda today. And by that, I mean, you know, you being up close and personal with students across a pretty long career horizon to get a sense of the challenges that students interacted or already engaged with. Did that influence your views on education policy, or particular aspects of public policy, that you wanted to champion upon being elected?

Rep Mark Takano (14:41):

I would say quite a bit. And let me kind of annunciate a few things out there and remind me to cover them if I don’t get to them all, cause like often we’ll get on a topic and get into the particulars and forget that I had other things to say. So regard to the teaching, you know what surfaced at some point was the real problems with test-driven accountability and its effects on teaching that didn’t occur until a few years into my teaching career. I would also say legislation related to for-profit education, for-profit colleges became a real flashpoint for me, a real emotional flashpoint to me.

But early on, you know, the plan was for me to go to law school. Because – it’s a kind of an answer to the previous question that I didn’t get to was, you know – Harvard was a very deliberate choice; it was a part of the plan I had as a young child. I mean, I wanted to go into politics from an early awakening by some really great teachers, and it was the impeachment proceedings of the House Judiciary Committee in like 1973 under Peter Rodino, which provided a real inspiration. I was really inspired by Barbara Jordan and her very eloquent opening speech at the House Judiciary Committee. And it was, you know, I thought, like, I want to be one of those people. I want to be like her, I want to be as articulate as she is. I knew she was a lawyer, but I knew that there were a lot of successful politicians who had received their education from Harvard. Not that Barbara Jordan did, but it was like as a young minority who charts out a kind of path. I kind of wanted to imitate the pathway that a lot of folks had, and you know, I was the only one, I mean someone who’s kind of even, I think maybe the same age, or even a year younger, Barack Obama, you know, I think has similar thoughts as a young person. He, you know, ends up going to Oxford, Occidental, and then transfers to Columbia, and then wants to go to Harvard Law. So my original intent was to go to law school. And had I gone to law school or gone to Harvard Law School, I might have been in the same or somewhere class as Michelle and Barack.

But what I did instead was – I was kind of burnt out after college, and I needed a little, a little bit of a gap between undergraduate and graduate school. And I started teaching in the Boston area schools as a substitute teacher to sort of put food on the table. I was a little bit miffed that I didn’t see the – I didn’t understand the opportunity of doing summer internships on Wall Street cause some of my friends were making a lot of money in the 80s – a lot of money! – and I was like “God, I miss that.” But, you know, it kind of pointed out the fact that the kind of social class I came from: I was not – people who saw those opportunities, usually came from a different, a set of awareness, a different awareness they might have grown up in the New York area, and they kind of were attuned to these things. But you know, my mindset from a young age was I wasn’t gonna become a Titan on Wall Street. I was gonna be like Barbara Jordan. So of course, I would not have had my attention on a summer internship at Solomon Brothers or Goldman Sachs. What I did instead, as I was teaching in the Boston area schools, and I noticed just from one subway stop to another, I would be in a different school district, and that could be a very significant difference in the kind of educational opportunities that were available – whether it was the Brookline School system or Inner City Boston – just the appearance of the school, the level of staffing, the stability of that staffing, the income level of the community. They all could have a huge impact on education, and that really disturbed me. And I felt like I wanted to be in the public schools. I never intended to become a teacher. but I felt like before I went to law school that I would want to be a teacher for a little while. and specifically in public schools.

Let me speed this up a bit, because there’s a longer kind of story about how I was upset about the barriers. I felt like “Well, I’m a Harvard graduate, I should just be able to go and teach” the way that the private schools seem to just hire people with an Ivy League degree. It was a very haughty kind of conceit that I had then, one which I would not have now having been through it. Because I now believe that preparation for teaching, you know, needs to be considered, it needs to be treated with respect, every much as respect, every bit, as the amount of respect we give to, say, training a nurse or a teacher a doctor. It’s a profession, and we need the best and the brightest, but also the very committed, to be drawn into the profession. So, I went into teaching thinking about how I wanted to learn how it is that we make education a more level opportunity. Because I felt it was very essential to our democracy that we address the inequalities and the disparities to bring us together as a nation. And so I went in. Teaching sort of gave me that – I was casting about for what was I going to be in politics for at this early age. I was like, “Well, what is my purpose involved? What am I gonna do?” You know, you can’t just want power and not have a purpose for it, right? There are people in politics that are just seeming to want the power, but not really thought about what it is they want to really do with it. And I think you gotta to really be, to have a sustainable career in politics, you gotta have a beat on the purpose as well.

So look, you know, toward the end of my teaching career, I became aware of the effects of the predatory for-profit college on students. I had low-income students that were kind of brought into their programs and, you know, put into thousands, tens of thousands dollars worth of debt that they weren’t going to be able to get out of very easily. And so that became kind of an immediate sort of focus of mine. But dealing with, you know, No Child Left Behind, and the heavy-handed test-driven accountability – I saw the harm of a government that did not really think through the consequences of the end user, the people, like the endpoint – the teachers. And I kind of maybe was in sympathy with Republicans when you see a heavy-handed government not thinking through the effects of what happens.

Craig Volden (22:50):

Yeah, so all of that background is really helpful – why you were entering Congress, and so on – really helps us understand to kind of how that sets the agenda for what you were hoping to accomplish. And then you were elected to Congress, and at that point you were selected to serve on the Education and Workforce Committee – certainly matched your background – but also on Veterans’ Affairs. And so how did those committee assignments kind of combine with your background to help you establish your particular approach to lawmaking?

Rep Mark Takano (23:18):

Well, initially, it was Science, and Veterans’ Affairs, Education. I was surprised to find out that there weren’t enough slots, and I felt like a teacher should be on education. And members often find out that the committee they think they’re particularly suited for isn’t available initially. So I had to really seek that out. And I was limited to the two committees, so I had to figure out how to give up veterans or science. And there was actually a staff controversy among my staff about which one I should. The senior staff thought I should take science because they were kind of Trekkies, like the space program. My junior staff who did the day work, they were going “Boss, you’re only third from the top spot. It makes more like practical sense for you to pursue, to stay on Veterans’ Affairs, and it’s only going to be a short amount of time where you’ll be in a ranking or a chairmanship. And besides, there’s a large portfolio related to your education background – i.e. for-profit colleges – and as it related to veterans.” And it turns out veterans were especially targeted because of the fact that they would have the G.I. Bill, it was a very kind of low-hanging plum for predators to take up the G.I. Bill and then actually put them into more debt. That kind of, the opportunity to deal with that was all very attractive.

But also, you know, I kind of understood that the opportunity to serve on Veterans’ Affairs also matched much of what I cared about, much of my own particular history. Not only were my parents and grandparents in internment camps, or incarceration camps, as some people want us to say, in American incarceration camps, but I also had great-uncles that served in the 442nd Infantry Battalion, you know, in Europe as Nisei soldiers. And always very poignant to me is that – I think it’s April, I forget which actual date – but I had one uncle who died in Italy, great-uncle who died in Italy. And my father remembers the moment that they did a memorial service for him in one of the camps. And to think of that contrast of somebody from my family, giving the ultimate sacrifice for everything this country stands for, and the injustice of being incarcerated with no due process and, in fact, losing significant wealth and property at the time, you know, always kind of pointed out to me the kind of poignancy of that generation that they believed in our country and fought for our country, and gave up their lives for their country because they believed that it was worth betting on. The model of the 442nd was “Go For Broke!” That was the motto with the 442nd – “Go For Broke!” which kind of means “bet it all.” And what do they bet on? They bet this country would be, would give us a better future than Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. And I always tell young DREAMers this story. I say, you know, I think my uncle won his bet because I’m a Congressman today and don’t give up – keep believing in this country.

Alan Wiseman (27:29):

Thank you. Thinking specifically about your involvement with Veterans’ Affairs, I’m just thinking over the last couple of Congresses, the 116th and 117th, you serve as chair of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and one of the items that Craig and I like to engage with when speaking with current and former members of Congress are their approach to leadership or approaches to leadership broadly defined. And I’d be curious to hear your perspectives on what approach to lawmaking you took upon becoming chair of the committee. You know, you’d been elected since 2013, you’d obviously seen other people in leadership roles. Were there other leaders you’d observed that you thought were models you want to emulate? Or did you try to strike out on your own path? And if so, what do you view as your style?

Rep Mark Takano (28:15):

Well, my style, I think comes from a certain spirit. It’s more an attitude. It’s an attitude. You know, Veterans’ Affairs is not one of the four exclusive committees like Appropriations, or Energy and Commerce, or Financial Services or Probes Appropriations. It’s frankly called a B-list committee and ascended to a chairmanship rather quickly. And I think members of Congress sort of make that – they kind of make a choice about whether they’re going to make their career about one of the A-list committees, or one of the, you know, some other committee or they choose a different path, because they see like a quicker route to leadership. You know it, it happened the way it happened that I saw a pathway to become a ranking member within 6 years of being a member of Congress, which is, you know, that gives you certain opportunities. With the chairmanship comes a great deal of say over the agenda when your party is in the majority. And so, if you want to become an effective member, think about like, well, how can you not only become a subcommittee chairman, but how can you become a full committee chairman, because you can be really effective then.

Now the attitude comes from my period of loss. Like when, after I lost my 1994 election – my second attempt for Congress – you know, I spent, before I went back into teaching, I spent time sort of licking my wounds by reading a lot of biographies. You know, I read a biography of the Roosevelt’s – Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt; Willie Brown, the Speaker of the State Assembly. But I think one of the more inspirational biographies I read was a biography of John Burton, and the title of the book is “A Rage for Justice.” And, in fact, I think so much of that book that when I have a staffer who moves on to a bigger opportunity, I give them that as a gift, and I go and get it signed by Nancy Pelosi. Because it is to me the story of Nancy Pelosi, even though it’s about John Burton because John Burton founded the San Francisco political machine that really is what Nancy Pelosi kind of marshaled and inherited. But about the book itself, what inspired me was that also John Burton lost: he lost a very important race to become vice chairman, I think, of the Democratic caucus – either chairman or vice chairman – but ultimately he lost the opportunity to be in line to be Speaker. He lost that opportunity to Jim Wright. But what does he do? He goes not to the Appropriations Committee or to Ways and Means. He ends up chairing the Natural Resources Committee. And there’s a whole – the whole book is the story about how he uses the Natural Resource Committee to produce like this amazing piece of legislation which kind of reflects all of his values. I mean, it was this amazing sort of works bill. I mean, what he included in it was like, you know, if they were gonna protect – I don’t know if it was the same bill or if it was a separate legislation – but they were gonna protect the Spotted Owl in the Northwest, and he knew it was going to put lumberjacks out of business. And so what does he do? He makes sure that they get a lifetime annuity, you know. And so, I was like really inspired by this guy as a legislator – not as a human being, he was a very extreme human being – but it was an attitude that I like. And so when members of my team, when we go into our staff retreats, they would say, “Congressman, are you thinking about running for the Senate? Are you about doing this?” I said, “You know what? We just got like control of the House of Representatives, control the Senate, and control of the Presidency. I want to see what happens when I am the chairman of a committee, a policy committee – what we can achieve with that before I start thinking about like something bigger.” So I’m just trying to describe to you an attitude of where do I put my energy and attention.

And so I will say that one of the things I’m really good at is picking people who can pick a team. I don’t want to sit there and read a lot of resumes and figure out like what’s bullshit or not on a resume – I let somebody else do that. I let somebody else who, I think, is really good at doing it. So I have a really good staff director of the VA Committee, actually the staff director that was actually chosen by my predecessor, Tim Walz. So when I became chairman, I had a staff director who really knew the subject matter in Veterans’ Affairs, which I was not – I didn’t grow up in that sort of world like I grew up in Riverside, did not grow up in understand the different nuances of veteran service organizations. But Tim, who’s now the Governor of Minnesota, did know that world, and he hired a very good guy, Ray Kelly, and then Ray Kelly hired Matt to be his like Lieutenant, Matt Real, who is now the leader – Ray moved on – and then my chief of staff, Kirk McPike, has continually been able to select successive people, because in this business you get people who stay with you for a few years, and then they move on. And you know, having a stable staff who knows their stuff is also very key to a legislator’s success. If you see a member with a lot of turnover, I will say that that is a limit on their effectiveness. A member that can manage through his or her temperament and attract a really good staff – that’s really important. Because staff is inevitably going to be smarter than you; they’re gonna know more, they’re gonna be smarter than you on the topics. You can’t be a master of all the topics yourself – you have to have somebody who really kind of knows it inside and out.

So, as chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, we had two years under Trump, I had two years under Biden. You know, I led oversight over a Trump presidency and the midterm midway through. We had some substance of oversight. I actually ended up calling for the resignation of a secretary, but not based on a partisan sort of finding – it was a result of an Inspector General investigation into the way that they handled a sexual harassment case. But look, the way in which we played all that out was because I had a really good legal counsel. I had very good staff advice.

But I would say that the PACT Act, which I think is the largest accomplishment, most significant accomplishment that I can say in my political career comes together because of staff – we’ve got amazing staff – because of a relationship with the veteran service organizations, the outside organizations, the relationship with my leadership, including Speaker Pelosi, who had her own wider relationship with the veteran service organization community; she would convene a quarterly meeting with all of those leaders and listen to what they said they needed and wanted. And the PACT Act emerged out of that sort of one of those listing sessions; it was understanding how to interact with outside influencers like Jon Stewart instead of – I was, you know, I didn’t quite, you know, my own team decided that – it was Matt who said, “Look, we don’t want him on the outside – we want him on the inside. We don’t want him fighting us.” We want him kind of – and so I had to make a decision about where we’re gonna make this an expansive big bill. or we were going to go to what we thought was possible. The initial dimensions of the PACT Act were much narrower. Now, I will also give, you know, a share of credit to colleagues who didn’t have the chairmanship, but who’ve been working on the issue a long time. And it was about also not stealing anything from them, but kind of including them. And so what you have here is – it’s not really force multiplier, but the addition of all these forces together; they’re kind of layered on top of each other – the kind of cooperation of leadership, the momentum already within the veteran service organization communities like the VFW, the American Legion, the whole coalition that was sort of already built was building on itself and the skill of staff.

And there were critical moments where this where the speaker’s experience also shined through. I’ll leave you guys a bit of intrigue – might have to do this a bit off-record – but it’s a – I won’t give away all the secrets of the kingdom here. But let’s just say that there was some key moments that involved, you know, the Speaker convening meetings. And there was a moment where she asked me, she says, “Well, do you think we can include Camp Lejeune in this?” And Speaker had a way of like asking me if we could when she was really telling me that we needed to. So, anyway, I said, “Of course, of course, Nancy, we’ll include Camp Lejeune in this package.” So that’s how, I mean, you know, it came together.

Craig Volden: (39:37):

Yeah, I mean, we’re often fascinated by the back-and-forth between committee chairs and party leadership – more generally from the point of view that kind of in an earlier era/party, many chairs seem to have, you know, a lot of influence over setting the direction of the policies, and where they would go and party leadership taking on some of that role, but there’s a negotiation back-and-forth. And I wondered if you could say a little bit more about, you know, do party leaders kind of set the agenda? Do they come in midway through and say, “Can we also do this?” That sounds part of it, or –

Rep Mark Takano (40:17):

In the case of the PACT Act – what’s remarkable about the PACT Act is, I think it’s fair to say it really is a creature of the House and a creature of members of the House. It proceeds actually me as becoming chair. It really starts with veteran service organizations latching on to certain members like Dr. Louise or Kirsten Gillibrand, certain veterans within it. It begins in the early Aughts after that we’re starting to first hear about toxic burn pits. It really is a burn pit bill. That’s really kind of – people start getting, you’ll see a cluster of people who had bipartisan burn pit bills that couldn’t seem to really get anywhere, or the job would never get complete. There was a maturation of what was happening with members and outside groups and coalitions being built, and VSOs starting to recognize that they needed to kind of come together with demand. And that’s where it was when I first became chairman and listened to what needed to be done. And I said, you know this is, I can align with this agenda. But I told them – I told them, I said, “Look, you are obviously politically organized for those who those members have been exposed to burn pits. But I want you to know that I don’t want to leave any veteran behind; I want to include as many toxic-exposed veterans as possible. I want a comprehensive bill.” That was my thing. I kind of put it back on them, I said. “I’m with you. I will do everything I can with my position, but I want a comprehensive bill, so I want the radiation-exposed veterans; I want the veterans from previous wars.” And that was kind of the general charge that I gave to staff to work on. And so it was members, it really bubbled up from the bottom.

And then the Speaker, Speaker Pelosi, was very much – I think she’s sensitive to all that. She wasn’t thinking all this of her own, inside of her staff. But when we had a vehicle that had, I mean she saw that it had momentum. She saw that we could get a number of Republicans. And why? Because this issue for the veteran base was a widespread desire. I mean, all the major veterans organizations were – this was their priority. And she then you know made it clear to the Secretary that the House was going to produce a bill, that it was not enough that he use his own authority as secretary to kind of authorize presumptive illnesses, which he did have the authority to do. I told the secretary says, “Look, you’re gonna have to yield to Congress” which wanted to have say so on this. She also backed me up on that. She indicated in a meeting at her office that that was going to be the case. Because I was all ready to go, and she just, she said to me “Well, look, we have to build support.” And what that meant was, we have to let the secretary know this is what we’re gonna do. So it’s like “I see how it’s done with you.” And so then after that meeting was after she knew we had a vehicle. She’s like, “Okay, well. I want you to put Camp Lejeune in there.” And I said, “Okay, fine.” And then you know somehow, you know, Jon Stewart went to the President – somehow went to the White House. I won’t say that it was him, but I think it was him. The State of the Union contained the line: “I want Congress to pass a comprehensive toxic exposure bill and bring it to my desk.” And the very next day after he gave his speech, Nancy scheduled me to be on the floor to bring this bill to a vote. I mean, a master of like, you know, the whole theater of it all. And we got, I think, 34 Republican votes.

The Republicans were arguing for a much narrower bill. My bill served 3.5 million veterans potentially with medical care. They were gonna come up with a compromise at, like, 16,000. I mean, 3.5 million to 16,000 was the difference between a Senate compromise and a House. But, you know, we took the challenge of passing this. There was a difference in partisan approach. To be frank, the Republicans simply did not want to incur the financial burden of all of this. We said it was our duty; it was our obligation; it was the cost of war. And you know, I sensed the moral power of that argument. And you know, the veteran service organizations at the state level were very influential with Senators. And it was amazing. Senator Tester was able to kind of reach, I think, 84 votes in the Senate on the initial vote. So look, this was bipartisan because of, I think, the clear moral dimensions of what we had to do, and the moral force of the argument that the integrity of the veteran service organizations – the kind of above-politics integrity that they that they can have but not always do – this holds sway.

Alan Wiseman (46:32):

Congressman, I really appreciate your account of this legislative journey. It ends up touching in a really organic way on so many themes that we try to emphasize in our own research about, you know, essentially best practices and effective lawmaking. I mean, the importance of staff. the importance of using your institutional position of influence, being a committee chair, the importance of trying to cultivate allies outside of the House – in this case, the White House, as well as the Senate. What I want to do, though, is I’d like to ask you a slightly different question – think a little bit more, I mean building on these points, but think a little bit more systematically about how you structure your own agenda. And the reason why I say this is that our research at the Center for Effective of Lawmaking has generally found that the most effective lawmakers tend to be relatively selective in putting together their policy portfolios. And by that, I mean, as you could attest to you, you get pulled in so many different directions from the time you’re elected, and as you move up to the leadership ranks, we’ve generally found the most effective lawmakers tend to dedicate about half of their policy agendas to one specific set of issues. And in your case, that seems to comport pretty organically with things you’ve been working on: about half of your bills actually match your committee service, be it with matters of veterans affairs or defense or education. But it’s also the case, there’s lots of other issues that you need to be responsive to, or you are responsive to. I’d be curious about your overall legislative portfolio. I mean, how do you figure which issues are best to try to engage with given the numerous demands on your time?

Rep Mark Takano (48:08):

Well, being lead on the committee, you know, just demands more of my time. I’ve got a ranking member sit in on hearings and sit out on hearings. I can ask people to kind of take over for me, but I generally have got to put in a lot more time, energy thinking about veterans issues. And I feel the weight of being consequential; we’re talking, you know, millions of people being affected by getting the policy right. And so that weighs on me. And I think I would add to that, in addition to that you have to focus, the idea that the continuity is important. You know, if you have a chairmanship that turns over every two or three years and the staff is turning over – that’s relationships that get interrupted. Because it’s not just the chairman or the ranking member to his or her staff; it’s also the staff’s relationship with everyone else. There are kind of favor banks that are built up and that all kind of gets set back to 0. Say, you know, you’re a staff director, and you’ve kind of have your own sort of politics you’re working out and favors you’re building up with VSOs and, you know, you call in chips when you need to. But that all gets reset to 0 because you’re flipping staff all the time, or the staff – your position is tenuous. The same thing with the chairman. You know, the relationships that you have with your fellow chairs, with the leadership, you know, the influence grows, as, you know, your trust and reputation grow.

And so part of your success in terms of being selective, being disciplined, not grabbing at every shiny object, because the news will bring you a shiny object every day, or, you know, like “I want to be the center of that.” And you can send your – you can run your staff in a ton of different directions, but you gotta be reasonable with their time. You gotta realize that you’ve gotta be careful about how you utilize their time as well, so you can’t hoist too much on them and you gotta – so for them to be successful, you’ve also got to manage your own impulsive inclinations to want this or that. Now there are some people who I can think of that are very impulsive leaders – I won’t say their names out loud – but I think of people can – you can maybe kind of imagine somebody who’s like seat of the pants, a tweet at 4 am in the morning, something that’s like, just. you know, completely consequential. I mean, I’ll let your students figure out who I’m talking about. But, I mean, that to me is like, you know, just somebody who’s like tweeting all the time, not letting you know. Even tweeting, I think, has got to be, or you know, social media – that’s something that’s gotta be very rationally managed because that that could also get in your way as far as, like, you’re being effective, really getting something done. So being selective, not reaching for every shiny object, being, you know, disciplined. And I think, being the kind of leader that attracts the very best people. Because they know that they’re gonna – if you’re not a wild person, if you’re not a maniac to work for, you’re going to attract very talented people. I try not to be a maniac.

Craig Volden (52:43):

Good advice as a starting point. So when we think about the portfolio, then attached to that is a kind of a legislative strategy, and you would subscribe to that somewhat. Some of our research points to how folks who start out in a very bipartisan manner, tend to be more effective over time looking for those co-sponsors, looking for those opportunities. But there’s also an element to which kind of holding on to your principles, your values. You’re a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. So just how do you think about when and where to compromise? You describe that a little bit with the PACT Act, what to have in there. When and where to compromise, but also when to kind of hold fast to a position, and even if holding fast to a position means maybe you leave a policy problem unaddressed for a while?

Rep Mark Takano (53:35):

Well, the PACT Act text was possible because of a trifecta. I wouldn’t say it was completely like a Democratic agenda. But let’s face it: 350 million veterans – excuse me, if I said 350 million before, I met 3.5 million. So 3.5 million versus maybe 15, 17,000 – there was a Senate compromise version versus a House version. And the Senate was, you know, the Senate was much pared down because they needed to get the closure. But for the House in this particular circumstance to take a bolder move sort of brought momentum to this bolder move because of the inherent appeal to statewide constituencies that the statewide veteran service organizations – the state commanders of organizations – could hold sway over senators. And you know, the Senate made this mistake of, like, reconsidering. You know, one Senator led a revolt – 25 flipped their votes – and then they ended up having Jon Stewart and veterans camping out on the Senate steps after they flew in, thinking this was a done deal. So this was an example of the partisan sort of cast. But still, to your point of your research, the underpinnings were still bipartisan by today’s standard. I would say, maybe 30 years ago this kind of bill might have been unanimous. I mean, Nancy even said to me, she says “I can’t believe that we still have – the official position of the House, the Republican leadership is to still oppose.”

But we had, you know, by the time we had a revote – because, here’s the story: we passed in the House with 34 Republicans, goes to the Senate, passes by 80, I think 84 Republicans. And the problem was, the Senate made a mistake. They made a mistake. They made an error. and it had to do with all bills related to revenue have to originate in the House. And so they put a tax break in the Senate bill, and Jon Stewart was like, “Well, can’t you just like wave it?” And I said, “Can I just go to Richie Neal?” And I was on the floor with Nancy, and she says, “No, you can’t do that.” And I said, you know, cause even Jon Stewart just sort of asked her, and she said “no.” I said, “How often does this happen?” She said “Happens all the time!” So I had to actually hollow out a Senate bill, insert the fix, pass out of the House again – that’s where we ran into this trouble of the flip vote. But here, on the final vote of the House, it was a much bigger bipartisan vote. Not unanimous. but in a different, less polarized world, this would have been, I think, a unanimous bill once we got past the politics of it. So you know, I think, I want to kind of caution you in today’s environment. Yes, you got to have some bipartisan underpinnings. It still matters as far as the reach, scale, and dimension of the bill who’s in charge – that still matters.

Craig Volden (57:41):

Yeah, it sounds like striving for the most you can achieve while recognizing the political circumstances you’re living in.

Rep Mark Takano (57:49):

Right. Had it not been a trifecta, we would have seen a solution that would have affected maybe 18,000 people being billed as the solution to burn pits, as opposed to a much more, I mean on a – what do you call it? An exponential – there’s an exponential difference between the two approaches.

Alan Wiseman (58:20):

I wanna shift directions just slightly here. Given that you obviously have been an educator, a professional educator in the past, given that you also were drawn to life of public service very early on, and because of the fact that the Center for Effective Lawmaking is located both at Vanderbilt University, jointly with the University of Virginia, we’re wondering if you, generally speaking, have any further advice or insights you’d want to share with college students today, particularly those who are thinking about a career in public service?

Rep Mark Takano (58:50):

Well, if you’re looking at a career in public service, say, running for office someday, I always counsel, you know, think about the political community that you want to live in and want to call home. That’s a very important decision to make as opposed to staying in Washington most of your life or in a State capital most of your life. That’s also, you know, what is your temperament? What do you want to do? Some people think that running for office is crazy, they would never want to do it. And I tell people, I don’t tell people that this is, you know, think about running for office – I don’t. I used to do that all the time, but I’ve stopped doing that. I don’t encourage everybody to run for office. I think it’s for a very kind of self-selected group of people to do that. Not that I believe it should be elite. I think we should have very low barriers to entry. It should be not only for the wealthy. But I think, on a practical level, think about where you want to live and where you want to call home, where you want to make your community if you’re gonna be on the elected side. I think it’s a matter of – in my case, my own political story, my own career is a story of patience and persistence, and not having to be, not having to have everything defined by like outsized ambitions. I wouldn’t mind if it happened, but sometimes it’s sometimes fate that determines things, and timing. But I think of those who really succeed in Congress, in particular, I think there’s a lot to be said for persistence and also patience.

Craig Volden (1:01:01):

Well, we really appreciate the time you’ve given us today. And we are aware that you have been patient and have much to accomplish next. But as we wrap up, we wanted to offer you an opportunity to tell us anything else that you feel is important to understand about effective lawmaking in Congress, maybe there’s something we didn’t ask about. Is there anything you feel we left out?

Rep Mark Takano (1:01:26):

Well, I probably left something out and, you know, I appreciate the opportunity to speak with all of you and your students, and hopefully inspire more people to get involved. I just think, we’ve been – the United States has been a republic for, you know, more than 200 years now, approaching 250 years. I always get moved when I think about Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and it’s in relationship to veterans. When he talks about, you know, the bodies that are sort of buried behind him and making sure that they didn’t die in vain. And I always I kind of think about, again, my great-uncle Monzo, who died in Massa Italy in 1945 at age 23 – a Nisei, a second-generation born Japanese American who’s family was in internment camps and him taking almost an existential stand on fighting for a government that was less than perfect. And there’s a lot there – there’s a lot to be unpacked there. And he reflects a lot of like people of color, African Americans who fought for this country. When you think about it, the minorities of this country had to love this country a lot to fight for the country, and then come back, and even not be treated as equals, which is what happened to African Americans; I’m still trying to address that in legislation today with the GI bill or the Home Loan program which did not provide the generational wealth to a generation of African Americans and other minorities that it did to other Americans. That we that we need to renew what our democracy is about, to remember and learn about the different people who sacrifice for our country. And so when we get to that line by Lincoln, the “government of the people for the people, and by the people, making sure it does not perish from this earth,” – it is a sacred duty of every citizen, I think, to learn what that means, and to do right by all of us. Because I think it’s a precious thing. It’s a precious thing that the government of the people for the people and by the people long indoors, and it’s up to us.

Craig Volden (1:04:27):

Thank you so much for those parting words, for your time, and for your public service. We really appreciate it.

Rep Mark Takano (1:04:33):

You’re welcome. Thank you.

Alan Wiseman (1:04:35):

Thank you very much, Congressman. Thank you.

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