Wednesday at 9 p.m., WAMC will carry special coverage of President Joe Biden’s first speech to a joint session of Congress. It comes as Democrats who maintain slim control of Congress look to their next big priority, infrastructure, following the $2 trillion American Rescue Plan. New York U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand gives Biden an “A+” for his first 100 days, but says she still has several priorities to tackle this term.
Gillibrand spoke with WAMC’s Ian Pickus Tuesday.
What are you expecting to hear from President Biden at the joint address on Wednesday?
Well, I'm hoping to hear about his vision for the country and how he hopes to rebuild it. I expect he'll talk a lot about infrastructure, both the hard infrastructure and soft infrastructure of our economy. So certainly about roads, bridges, bridging the digital divide, making sure that we rebuild the country, I have a great bill called builds local, hire local to make sure we have equity in how we rebuild and who gets trained to rebuild. And then I also want to hear about the soft infrastructure, the care economy, I want to hear about national paid leave affordable daycare, universal pre K, things that would really allow everyone to get back into the workforce and to allow our economy to thrive.
What do you say to criticism from the other side of the aisle that there's just too much non infrastructure related content and funding being discussed as part of this infrastructure bill?
I think they're limited in their understanding of what it takes to get the economy up and running. If you consider infrastructure to be what we build our economy on, then you need both the hard and soft infrastructure you need. Certainly people getting back to work to rebuild roads, bridges, high speed rail, rural broadband, healthcare, it all the kinds of things that could help. But you also need the soft infrastructure of care, the care economy is essential for the broader economy to work if you don't have daycare, or if you don't have schools open. Or if you don't have a paid leave, then you can't expect people to be able to get back into the workforce, workforce and to drive economic growth. So you really need both. And I think it's just a lack of understanding or a lack of vision that they can't quite understand that.
Are you satisfied with the president's mechanism to pay for this bill by raising taxes largely on the wealthy?
Yes. When I wrote my paid leave bill, I wanted it to be an earned benefit where people bought in like Social Security. But given that this president would really like to just focus on middle class tax cuts, and raising on the most wealthy and corporate, it's fine. It's a fair way to pay for it. It's creating more fairness in our in our economy and in our tax code.
Is the American Rescue Plan having the desired effect so far in your view?
I think it is, I think that what we've done so far, in the first COVID relief plan, under Biden really did go a long way. It was money straight into cities and states, it was money into daycare, into food and hunger, into housing, into schools, into hospitals into small businesses, real priorities and real urgency based on where COVID has disproportionately harmed people and communities. So I think the first step was extremely effective. And the second step will just allow the broader economy to to rebound.
This joint address is one of the first big events since the Capitol siege on January 6. Just wondering, as you know, you walk around the halls of Congress, are there still hurt feelings? And, you know, tensions stemming from that event?
Yes, I think there's a lot of people who still bear some trauma and are still working through the feeling that they're not safe at work. I think that's a very undermining feeling for many, many staff members, people who work around the Capitol, and members of Congress themselves. And so I do think there's still a lot of sensitivity around it. We are blessed with brave Capitol policemen, as well as National Guard who have been stationed here since the insurrection. And those men or women have been brave and selfless. And we are grateful for them every day. But I have confidence we will be safe and secure for this speech. I did not get one of the golden tickets. I do not get to watch it in person, sadly, but I'll be with the rest of America watching on television at home with my family.
How does that work? You can't get into this thing?
Nope, they had a lottery where they had to pick a very small number of members so that everybody could be spread out and be COVID compliant. Well, I think it was maybe 60 senators and maybe 100 House members, I think are invited.
On the other hand, it's not a late night for you.
I know, I get to sit there in my jammies with a glass of wine. So really, there's not a lot of downside, except not being there at the moment, which is also very exciting.
What was your reaction to the word that New York is going to lose a House seat in the next round of redistricting? You're a former member of the House.
You know, I think it's fine. It's been based on population, and the only challenge that I would want to recognize is that the census was taken largely during COVID. And I don't know that New Yorkers were properly counted. I don't know that we got every family counted, every person counted. But I know people tried really, really hard. So if these are the numbers, these are the numbers, and it's fine. I just hope for the next census. We're not in the middle of a pandemic, and we can have more resources deployed to make sure every person's counted.
Do you think it would be a good idea for New York to challenge the results or ask for a recount to get that that seat back?
I'm not sure. I haven't read any of the details about the final number, whether people thought it was flawed or not. But I will look into it and see if it's something that's worth advocating for.
Let me ask you about another priority of yours. It seems to be some momentum building for your bill that would change the way that sexual assault is handled within the military. What's the update on that bill? And why is the momentum moving forward now?
You know, I'm very optimistic. We've gotten a lot of Democrats and Republicans to join on the bill this year, we have a commander in chief who supports it and a recent study out of the DOJ recommends it so I believe we are in a special moment where we have the collaboration and the will to professionalize how we deal with sexual assault in the military to allow trained military prosecutors to decide whether cases should go to trial, and allow the system to be not only professionalized, but to make sure the person making the decision has no bias, and I think combined, that will result in the right cases moving forward, more convictions and more predators going to jail.
What would change under your bill from the current process? You said that it would remove, you know, the military oversight of prosecution, right?
No, no, it's not the military oversight. Right now, the decision about whether to go to trial is made by the commander, that commander is not aware they have the help of their job, but their Jags aren't necessarily specialized in criminal justice. And as a consequence, sometimes the commander knows the accused or the accuser, or the accused believes that they don't believe that justice is possible, because the commander may well be biased, and so they don't even report the case. That's what we've heard from survivors and from service members. And so what we'd like to do is allow that one decision to be made by a trained military prosecutor who will review the case fairly and then up or down on whether it goes to trial. If not, it goes right back to the commander. The commander is the one who has to make sure these crimes are committed in the first place to make sure there's no retaliation, to maintain good order and discipline to make sure the investigations are thorough and complete. And so all those responsibilities will rest with the commander regardless of whether the prosecutor decides to take the case or not.
Just a couple more things. Is D.C. statehood a good idea?
Yes. I think that Washington D.C., the hundreds of thousands of people that live here, the population of D.C. is bigger than many states. And so they deserve two senators, and they deserve a congressional delegation representative of their population.
What about discussions about expanding the size of the Supreme Court, which is favored by Senator Markey of Massachusetts, Congressman Mondaire Jones of New York’s 17th district, what do you think of that idea?
I'm definitely not against it. I like President Biden's idea to create a panel of experts to advise us on how do we de-politicize the court because unfortunately, under Trump that became highly politicized. And under McConnell, being unwilling to let Barack Obama have his final justice and have a hearing for Merrick Garland and a vote. Mitch McConnell has deeply politicized the court. And so it needs to be fixed. And I don't know if the right answer is no larger number of judges or term limits or some other measure that we haven't thought of yet. But I would like some very wise and seasoned people to give us recommendations, and then I will vote on those recommendations.
What grade would you give President Biden for his first 100 days?
A plus. He's really come through with vaccinations. He promised to get more shots in arms he did. He's used the defense production act to ramp up production. He's taking recovery seriously, and he's providing a vision for the country. So I am very, very, very grateful for his leadership.
Have you spoken with Governor Cuomo since calling on him to resign on March 12?
Is there a reason for that? Do you plan to?
I'm certainly not against speaking to the governor. One of my concerns was that he's lost a lot of the support of his governing partners and we are in the middle of a pandemic. But I certainly will continue to work with Governor Cuomo and do our normal jobs and trying to help the state recover.
And you still think given everything that's out there that he should step down?
I've not changed my view on that.