NewCo Shift Dialogs
Silicon Valley’s newest congressman has some very choice words for President Trump. He has some pretty strong ideas as well.
On the day Trump announced he was pulling out of the Paris climate accords, I sat down with freshman House Representative Ro Khanna, known in Washington as “the Valley’s congressman.” A tech industry lawyer by training, Khanna ran twice for the seat he now occupies, failing in his first effort to unseat longtime incumbent Mike Honda in 2014. But his 2016 victory came with the sour aftertaste of the Trump administration, and Khanna’s sweeping ideas — like a trillion dollar rewrite of the tax code — were essentially dead on arrival in the chaotic aftermath of Trump’s ascendance.
But Khanna is still optimistic he can deliver for his powerful district — Facebook, Google, and Apple all fall within the borders of his constituency. Then again, he’s well aware of the lopsided nature of business interests on politics, which is why he refused all PAC money in his bids for Congress. This allows him to speak — and vote — his conscience. Which he very much did in the interview below, edited for clarity.
John Battelle: Welcome Congressman Ro Khanna. I should note, I was a supporter in several ways of your campaign, and I continue to be. This is a hard time for our country if you disagree with our President, which I certainly do. You certainly do. Let’s just start with what are the first few months like?
Ro Khanna: The truth is the first month is pretty exhilarating — you have this huge honor. Someone had asked me, “What’s it like having a freshman office on the fifth floor of Canon?” I said, “When you’re the son of immigrants who stood in line to get their green card stamped, any office in the Capitol is a pretty great one.”
You get sworn in. You get tours of the Capitol. You really get to go on the floor. It’s this overwhelming feeling when you first give your floor speech. The first month I think is one where you’re just really excited frankly to be there. You get to know a lot of folks.
It’s a lot like college, your freshman year. You meet people in your class, Republicans and Democrats. You have a lot of orientations. You have all the different personalities there whether some are real great athletes, some business folks, some are intellectuals. You get the whole range. It’s a lot of social interaction of trying to build relationships.
Then the first couple months, you’re just trying to figure things out, to make sure you’re responding to constituents in town hall. Of course, in this case, there was a baptism by fire …
This was not like a normal freshman class in Congress. This was the Trump freshman class.
Right. I think three weeks or a month in, I don’t remember the exact time frame, he announces that he wants to ban all Muslims from coming from these seven countries. It was definitely not a normal experience.
The challenge has been that a lot of the time, you’re responding to the last thing he did or the last scandal. There hasn’t been as much of an opportunity to have a forward-looking positive agenda because it’s so reactive to him.
That’s been the case for his agenda, as well as yours and anyone else’s in Congress. His agenda hasn’t gone anywhere really either because it’s been sort of one crisis to the next as opposed to let’s sit down and work with Congress… They have a majority in the House, they have a majority in the Senate, and they have the White House, one would think they could have gotten something done by now.
You would think (he) would get something done on jobs. You ran on jobs and said, “I’m going to bring your jobs back.” There hasn’t even been an effort on a bill on jobs. There’s been nothing.
There’s been a lot of showmanship — executive orders and a lot of pronouncements, even the climate change stuff that happened today — even that was couched in “I’m bringing jobs back to the United States.” What are your thoughts on pulling out of the Paris agreement?
I never thought that the president of the United States could get upstaged by the leader of North Korea. When North Korea announce yesterday that they’re joining the climate agreement, my first sense is what a disappointment for America in leadership in the world.
To be along with Syria and Nicaragua as the two countries that aren’t signing this…Even if we had some hesitation, we would think that we should be leading 197 countries. Our whole complaint was China and India aren’t going to live up to these standards. It comes out that China and India are actually ahead. They’re going to do more than these standards.
They’re well ahead.
What is it going to mean? It’s going to mean that a lot of these jobs that are going to be wind farm technicians and in new energy are not going to go to the United States. They’re going to be developed elsewhere. It’s so short-sighted.
There’s no real rationale other than, well, the Obama administration did this. Or there are a lot of people who are liberal who care about climate change, so I’m just going to disrupt this. I literally think that’s the level of visceral reaction with they did it, we don’t want it.
One of the things about Washington that I always thought was true, despite all the stereotypes of bureaucrats not getting anything done, was that it was a meritocracy of intellect, that smart people went there. The staffers were really smart. The career bureaucrats were deeply committed, and very, very smart about wherever they were. It strikes me that this is not necessarily valued in this administration. Is there a conversation inside the halls of Congress about Trump? Are people getting normalized to this?
I think that’s a great point. I will say that a lot of the staffers on the Hill are very smart, and they do have great expertise. Sometimes, you wish that those of us elected were also as substantive. I think, because to elected, you have to all these other things, where these staff members are actually reading, writing, and thinking.
The question I was just talking to my actually this morning is, have we lost a vision of substantive politics mattering? Does it matter? Does anyone care? Do people read reasoned argument? You go back, you read John Quincy Adams, and some of his writing, and it’s just brilliant, or Lincoln, or others.
That’s how they moved people. The big question for us is, does substance matter? Even on our side, we’re now talking about, let’s a run a celebrity, or let’s run someone who’s got name ID, or let’s run a billionaire.
Let’s run The Rock.
Maybe that’s effective. Maybe someone who’s good-looking, and who’s charismatic, and who has been on in people’s living rooms…Is that really what our democracy has come to that that’s what carries the day?
That’s the biggest challenge with Trump to me, which is a conservative critique, is a threat to seriousness in politics.
These are serious issues. We’re talking about tens of millions of people who may lose healthcare. We’re talking about whether or not the United States maintains an economic edge in the largest industries in the world. There’s questions of protectionism, net neutrality…these are not easy questions to get your head around. You have to read deeply, think deeply, converse deeply in order to form deeply understood opinions. Is there a sense, even amongst Republicans on the Hill, that we’re shifting into some other kind of an era of showman politics, as opposed to substantive politics?
I think there is a concern, particularly among some of the members in Congress. They’ll tell you in private that they don’t approve of some of the president’s language. They don’t approve of his tweets. They don’t approve of his style, but he represents their ideology, and their worldview. They feel often constrained to support him.
I do think you have people deeply conflicted, and understanding that he’s doing them often no favors in the way he’s gone about the presidency. Now, there are people in his cabinet who I very, very strongly disagree with, but the hope was he would surround himself with people who would moderate him, who would be more serious. It seems like they don’t have the influence.
I think the climate decision was a good example of that. I think some of the people who were moderating him, even the former of CEO of Exxon, was for staying in Paris, or Gary Cohn, who came from …
And Ivanka, his daughter, but he chose the other side of the coin…right after visiting Saudi Arabia. Optics like that seem not to matter to the president.
I think he’s so focused on playing to his base. He’s not to be underestimated as a politician. I think he sensed that any president who loses re-election usually has a primary challenge. If you look at almost every move he’s made, it’s to try to solidify his base.
Whether it was the ban on Muslims, whether it was (Supreme Court appointee Neil) Gorsuch, whether it’s withdrawing from the climate accord, whether it was healthcare. What he hasn’t done, though, is that he’s forgotten that he had another part to his campaign. He had all these promises. “I’m going to bring jobs. I’m going to get us out of foreign wars. I’m going to give you better healthcare. I’m not going to cut Social Security.” He’s been silent on that.
I remember when I first became politically active, there was another former television celebrity who became president, Ronald Reagan. They used to call him the Teflon president, because when he didn’t live up to promises he, for whatever reason, didn’t have political consequence from it. I’m curious, do you feel like there might be a point at which there is political consequence for not following through on those promises, or is it more that people are so angry, and so disassociated from society that it doesn’t matter?
I’m no fan of Ronald Reagan and a lot of his policies, but Donald Trump makes Ronald Reagan look like Abraham Lincoln.
Reagan at least would read, and he’d have a humility about history. You at least knew what Reagan stood for. He stood for, “I’m opposed to communism. I want to cut taxes and lower government.”
I don’t know what Donald Trump stands for, other than getting elected. His strategy is like, “Let me say every side of every issue.” Really, in “America We Deserve,” his book, he said, “I’m for a single payer system.” In his book, he says, “I’m for more coverage and better benefits.” He says, “I’m for the Australian system.” Then he says, “No, we got to cut all the folks and insurers.” Maybe his strategy is everyone’ll hear what they want to hear.
It’s marketing, but there’s an absence of a core. I think that’s what we’ve never had, is usually when you get to the presidency, whoever it is, there’s a sense that the weight of the office forces some sort of reflection and change.
While every politician, whether it’s me or anyone, cares a tremendous amount about how they’re seen, and whether voters are going to be for them — and they’re lying if they don’t — but that there’s something that happens there, where you say, “I care about the country.” I just don’t know if that transformation has happened for him.
Members of the House of Representatives have the hardest job in Washington, because they are always running. We’re going to get into how you didn’t take special interest money and PAC money. You’re unique for that. But you must always worry about you’ve got to run two years later, which means you want to bring some wins home for your home district. Can you get a legislative agenda going in this environment?
Very difficult on the big issues. Obviously, all we can do on healthcare is stand up for the Affordable Care Act, make the case for Medicare for all, and hope that there’s not damage in the Republican Congress. Very difficult on financial reform.
There are smaller issues that may be consequential where you can get compromise. Let me give you two quick examples. One is cyber security. Mike Gallagher, who — he’s a freshman in Wisconsin — we co-wrote on Congressional Forum, had this idea. He’s a Marine. He said, “Ro, we have West Point. We have an academy for Marines. We have a service academy for the Navy. We should have a service academy for cyber security. By the way, I think it should be located in your district.”
I said, “Mike, that’s a great idea.” I said, “Why don’t you help? We’ll do a symposium at Stanford. Let’s really push this. We’re both on the Armed Services Committee.” I could see something like that gaining traction. Will Hurd has talked about a cyber security national guard, because there are all these jobs that are unfilled there, working with him. I went to Appalachia with Hal Rogers, and saw coal miners’ kids getting training on jobs for programming. He wants funding for those types of apprenticeship. I think when it comes to job creation, when it comes to 21st century national security, there are opportunities.
You are seen as the tech candidate, in the eyes of folks here in the Valley. Is that how you’re understood in Washington as well?
I am. I think people are fascinated by that, and I’m very proud of it. I represent a district with Apple, Google, Tesla, Intel, Yahoo, Cisco. I was totally unknown nationally when I got there, as opposed to some people, like Charlie Crist, who was the governor Florida, in my freshman class.
I would just say, “Look, I represent Silicon Valley.” One Republican member of Congress came up to me and said, “You know, what they’re doing there is more consequential than all of Washington,” and he meant it. There is this fascination with the Valley. There’s also the sense that not everyone is participating. There’s a sense that, does the Valley care about the whole country? Do we have respect for the talent and great contributions that people in other parts of the nation are making? I definitely think that they see me as a voice for this area.
What are the issues, given that? I know you have a diverse base in your district, but let’s just focus for a minute on those companies as a group. What do you think are the top issues for those companies that they would like you to carry forward in Washington?
I think they care deeply about immigration, to make sure that we still have people coming to this country from all over the world, and that we don’t want to be the Ming Dynasty of China, in that we don’t have people helping us innovate.
I think they care about entrepreneurship. How do we have the next generation of entrepreneurs? What I often tell them, they’ve got some things I disagree with. Their tax policy, I think they ought to be paying tax on their earnings overseas. Some of them disagree with that.
What I tell them is you don’t a member of Congress to go invent the future. You’re plenty brilliant. You’ve got some of the smartest people in the world working for you. Whether there’s a member of Congress who’s going to help on issue X or Y is not really material.
What you need is a member of Congress to tell the story, and figure out how the technology revolution is going to help this country, and help everyone in this country, instead of hurting this country. You want to be challenged to think, what do we need to do in Youngstown? What do we need to do in Appalachia? What do we need to do in parts of Detroit?
I heard this story of — in Northwest Washington, an Indian tribe, they said when the kids take a standardized exam, the city mayor sends out an edict that no one can use the Internet, because they don’t have enough capacity for the kids to be taking this exam, and for people to be using the Internet.
You’ve got the guy from Silicon Valley saying, “I want broadband for everyone,” not because it’s going to help my district, but it’s going to help rural America. It’s going to help the Native American community.
I think there’s just this moment where folks in the Valley should answer the call to service, to say, “How can we help this country this is hurting, that is divided, that feels like the future is not better for them,” to convince them no, they have a shot, that we can help their families participate?
I think that pre-Trump, already, there was building in the country a significant sense of inequality. The numbers bear that out just from an income standpoint, but also in terms of an access and, certainly, in power. The companies that are in your district are representative of the kinds of companies that amass extraordinary power. I almost call it future power. They’re where machine learning and artificial intelligence is emerging, which most people agree is going to be important in the future. They have billions of customers, extraordinary profits, and not a very high percentage of workers to those profits.
They are the prototype of a kind of firm that more and more seems to be dominant in the future. It feels like that kind of a company is beginning to engender distrust from a lot folks who feel like they’re not participating in the wealth creation and the power accumulation of those companies. Do you get a sense about that? Do you have a point of view about that?
I think it’s complex. I think, on the one hand, a lot of folks do Google searches, have an iPhone, are on Facebook, and think the future in tech is cool. My 12-year-old nephew, my wife’s nephew, when he visited us, we took him to an Adele concert, a football game.
He wanted to see Google. He wanted to see Facebook. There’s this fascination. On the other hand, there’s the sense of, are they paying enough taxes? Is there sufficient antitrust enforcement? Are they paying a fair living wage to their employees and to contractors?
Are they doing enough to invest in not just the latest startup in Cupertino, but the latest startup in Akron, Ohio? Are they aware that there’s a lot of talent, and not every innovator or entrepreneur is going to be born in my district?
They may be born anymore. The folks in Appalachia are hardworking, hungry, and have contributed in their own way just as much to this country over the generations as we have in our part of the country.
The question is, as we become more self-aware of how we’re perceived, hopefully we can shape it in a positive way by saying, “Yeah, we get we’re making a ton of money in this area, but we have this obligation to make sure other people are participating. Not out of charity, but out of a sense that we want to harness the talent around this country.”
I think particularly of one company, Facebook. The leader of Facebook, several months ago, came out with a manifesto about making the world a better place, which had a distinctly political ring to it.
Right. I was asked if he was going to run for president. I said, “I don’t know.”
Like many people said about Trump, why would he want to?
Exactly. That’s a good point.
On the other hand, I think what he is doing is waking up to the extraordinary power his platform has. I think it was on display during the election, and is now part of the ongoing investigations around the Russian hacking. Facebook is just coming into an awareness of how powerful it is. Do you feel that Facebook is a company that you’re in good dialogue with? Are they engaged with you?
I do. I’ve had folks there who have been responsive. People like Elliot Schrage (head of Facebook policy and comms) are thinking about housing issues, and equity issues on housing in the area. I think they get that there’s a local responsibility.
I also think they’re big issues. What is the obligation for companies with data to disclose that data to users? Is there a sense that maybe companies should let folks know how they come around to their algorithms and other things if the consumers want to know?
Maybe that’s a win-win. My sense is that most people in the tech community want to be thought of as doing the right thing. A lot of folks on Wall Street, they don’t really care. They’ll tell you. They just want to make money, and that’s how they judge the world.
Tech is a little different. People here really care. They don’t just want to be innovators. They want to be seen as doing good. Are there things around data when, if people are going to the same site, do they give an option to say, “If you want to get out of our bubble, you have the option of clicking here”?
Is there a responsibility to help foster a more deliberative democracy, given that they control so much of the access to communication?
A lot of the tech industry is just realizing that they won. For so long, the industry was in opposition. “All those guys don’t get it. We’ve figured the future out. Let us make our app, our device, our search engine, and we’ll show you.”
It’s always been, “We’re the startup. We’re in opposition. Anything that gets in our way is damage. We’re going to route around it.” Now, they’ve literally won. Everybody uses Facebook. Everyone uses Google.
So what do we do with all of this power? How do we appropriately deal with the fact that our algorithms — Facebook is a particularly interesting use case — inform the world? You see these filter bubbles building, and the power of that. It strikes me that possibly Facebook has a responsibility there….it’s difficult, no?
It is difficult.
That’s the role of government. That’s not the role, necessarily, of a private company.
If it’s a media company, we give equal access. Then how do you do that in a value-neutral way, because you don’t want Facebook to be saying, “Ro Khanna, Ro Khanna, Ro Khanna.” How do we do it in a way that is…
I think these are deep philosophical questions. I’m more optimistic. I reject Cass Sunstein’s view that we have these polarized debates because of the Internet, and everyone is in their bubble.
There are two basic facts. In 1939, the average education of someone who was white was 9 years. Someone who was African American, 4.5 years. Recently, the average person who’s white, 14.2 years of schooling. The average African American, 13.2, 13.3 years.
We are the most educated as a nation that we’ve ever been. We’re probably the most educated in humanity’s history. You have now people who say much more intelligent things in their tweets or Facebook than some of us many times say on the House floor, and they may get more attention.
What we’re doing here probably would get far more views than me going and giving a speech on the floor. We’ve democratized, in a way, communication. We just have to figure out how do we have questioning of our own assumptions, questioning of our own thought.
I tend to be very optimistic in the long run, though, that the dissemination of more information, the empowering of individuals to share that is going to lead to a better democracy, but we all have a role to play. I think it’s unfair to just say it’s all Facebook’s fault, but they have to figure out…
I don’t want to blame Facebook. I watch a leader like Mark going through very rapidly what Bill Gates went through over two or three decades. In terms of where Gates is now, in terms of what he thinks is important, and where he’s focusing his energy, his resources, and his time is very different than 30 years ago, when he was ruthlessly running this monopolistic company. I see Mark writing that manifesto, and going out on a tour of the United States, and trying to understand the people using his product, it strikes me that he’s on a journey. There’s a unique opportunity for folks like you to influence that journey.
Hopefully, he and others will realize that, and make a contribution with this view of how do we foster good citizenship, and good dialogue in this country?
At a time when it feels so divided.
When people don’t trust the New York Times — I read them — and they don’t trust Fox News. Will they still trust Facebook, or will they start to think that Facebook is biased, or Google? That’s a question for these companies to grapple with. If they are media companies now, in part, how are they provided an access for a fair forum of conversation?
I wanted to go back to the PAC money, and the special interest influence in Washington. You’re one of only…I think you just mentioned another in a recent tweet.
Six have done it, and I think Tulsi Gabbard is also going to do it. That would make it seven.
Seven who have come to Washington without PAC money. Was that difficult to do, and do you think that this movement’s going to grow? Do you feel like you’re a significant minority when it comes to this approach?
I think it’s going to grow, because there are a lot of members of Congress who take 15, 20 percent of PAC money who may realize that they could actually do better if they didn’t take that money, and had organic support from people online, and people in their communities.
It is difficult, initially, because you get a lot of pushback from your colleagues, and from people who work at these companies saying, “Why are you not taking the money?” My view is, it’s not that people are corrupt. It’s just that for me, it gives me an independence.
I can go and say, “I am opposed to the type of stock buyback policy we have. I think we should go pre-1982, limit stock buybacks if they’re over 15 percent.” Probably not a single company in my district agrees with that.
I can go and say, “I am for companies paying tax on their overseas earnings.” Again, probably not a single person, but there’s still individuals who may support me, because they like my broader vision and my policy.
I don’t have to go answer to the company’s government affairs person about why I’m taking that position. I just think it creates a greater independence, a great room, and assures people that you’re not just beholden to the industries in your district.
Let’s talk about net neutrality. I know you and I share a pretty similar point of view about this. Where do things stand right now as it relates to net neutrality? Is it an issue that is getting the Valley’s back up, or is it like, “Well, we lost that one. Let’s move on”?
I think it needs to be like SOPA and PIPA where for this valley, it needs to be a rallying cry. (FCC Commissioner) Ajit Pai has just been atrocious in his decisions in terms of some of the decisions he’s made in protecting ISP providers. He’s going to roll back the FCC view on net neutrality that Wheeler, Obama’s person, had. Ultimately, it’s for Congress to act. We didn’t get Congress to act. That’s why the FCC was a band-aid, to have them.
What we need to do, I think, is mobilize around this for Congress to take some action to say, “Look, we want to do two things. We want to make sure that speech and the Internet is free and equal access, it’s one of the places we have openness. We want to make sure that the startup has as good a shot as the incumbent to have access to the Internet.”
I think we make it simple. I think too often, if we make it complex, people get a sense of, “Well, how does this affect? Is this just technical jargon?” We can say, “Look, this is about you being able to support whoever you want, so that if you support Donald Trump, someone can’t come and say, ‘We’re going to charge you more for your tweets or your shares.’”
If you’re a startup, by the way, in Pennsylvania, you should be able to have access to do what you need. It shouldn’t just be that if you happen to have a lot of funding from Sand Hill Road that you’re going to succeed.
I actually it’s a pretty populist, democratizing position. We’ve got to figure out how to talk about it in that way.
I know you’ve only been there five months, but do you believe that, given all of the turmoil of the first four or five months of this administration, that there is enough energy to possibly have a rebalancing of the House, to where we might see Democrats take over a majority, or possibly in the Senate?
I do, but I think it depends on us having a compelling vision. People really, really dislike Donald Trump, and they dislike us.
Sometimes, I think we forget that. We forget what caused Donald Trump. It wasn’t just Trump. It was people’s frustration with the system, people’s anger with the role of money in politics, people’s sense that folks in some parts of the country were winning, and they were losing.
What are our ideas for that? Here’s my hope. I hope we have candidates who will run on bold, great ideas. Not all of them are going to be right. My idea was let’s have a $1 trillion expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and give everyone $5,000 to $10,000 between $25,000 and $75,000.
Or let’s take some of the federal jobs, and put them into the states. Let’s try different things. Let’s have folks say, “Here’s the big question. Here are my ideas. Let’s see if those resonate.” That’s what FDR did, was democratic experimentalism. Some of his ideas were terrible.
In the Valley, I try to explain to some folks, my colleagues, I say, “Failure is almost like a PhD. You got to fail.” They often ask me, “How did you get people to support you a second time?” (Khanna ran once before winning in his second attempt). I said, “Oh, they just said, ‘You missed once. OK. Now, you know what’s going on.’”
We don’t have that view in government. It’s like if I propose a $1 trillion EITC, and if god forbid, that turns out to be terrible, then my career is over. There’s such risk aversion. If there’s any silver lining to this incredibly unpredictable, and in my view, dangerous president, it’s that he’s blown open the staleness of the political debate.
For $5 trillion of tax cuts, we could get every progressive priority funded. Let’s use the vacuum, and let’s spend maybe 50 percent talking about his tweets, Russia, and all of that, and 50 percent saying, “Here’s what we want to do. Here’s how we’re going to help your lives.” If we do that, I think we’ll win.