An Interview with Congressman Joaquin Castro
On September 19, 2018, U.S. Congressman Joaquin Castro visited Tufts University and spoke with students on the foreign policy challenges facing the United States today. This interview was conducted in conjunction with the Tufts Daily.
Q: You’ve spoken about President Trump’s lack of foreign policy leadership. Who, in your view, is picking up the slack and serving as a foreign policy leader in his absence?
JC: I think you see some countries trying to do that. China, for example. Early on in President Trump’s term when he had announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, Xi Jinping went to the Davos World Economic Forum and talked about climate change. In other areas, I think Angela Merkel is doing this in Germany, Japan is leading in TPP 11, etc. So there may not be one country alone that has tried to step into different voids, but different leaders are trying.
Q: Is there anyone in the U.S. government who you think is picking up the mantle of foreign policy leadership to make up for the shortcomings of the president?
JC: I feel like it’s an ensemble effort right now, with many of us working together. Democrats, but also some Republicans, are pushing back against some of the changes the president has tried to make in his approach, as well as the road that he’s taking us down.
Q: How do you think the inconsistencies in U.S. leadership will impact the ways that adversaries and allies see the U.S.?
JC: I think our adversaries see it as an opportunity to advance their own agendas and get closer to nations that have historically been aligned with the U.S. As the president has alienated Mexico in some ways, China has been paying more attention [to] and focusing on Mexico. In terms of how they see the U.S., my read is that many of our allies are still hoping for the best. They’re hoping that the president’s words are only words and that they won’t result in significantly different actions. I also think that, like it or not, they’re starting to move around the U.S. and make new alliances and pursue new agreements and opportunities with each other, rather than with the U.S. at the helm.
Q: You spoke about serving on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the ongoing investigations into the Trump campaign. What effects, if any, do you think these investigations will have on the upcoming midterm elections?
JC: I think Americans have a lot of concerns about interference with our elections and what role the people close to President Trump played in helping with that interference. It’s hard to quantify exactly how much, but I think it will play some role in how people decide to vote, especially now that several of President Trump’s associates have either been indicted or entered into a plea agreement. It’s certainly going to play some role. I hope that everything that has happened will inspire people to get out and vote and participate, instead of undermining people’s confidence in government and everything reverting to partisan tribalism where Republicans just believe what President Trump’s said, and Democrats just believe what’s said against the president.
Q: You mentioned mutual cyber defense treaties in your talk. What role do you think the U.S. Congress should play in the cyber arena, and to what extent do you think the Administration should require Congressional approval to take defensive or offensive cyber actions?
JC: This seems like a case of first impression because, until recently, we’ve never dealt with challenges like this where our democracy was tested in cyber space. I think the Congress should not just be a spectator as we work through these issues. The Congress should have a role in designing mutual cyber defense treaties, or in encouraging bodies like NATO to include more robust language in the existing NATO agreement. There is cyber language in the NATO agreement, but it only deals with attacks on military targets, and we need to deal with civilian targets, like an election system or a power plant. There’s still a large area where we need to govern and legislate. I think the Congress should have a very active role in that. I think the Administration should play a role, too; the question is whether they are willing to do that. They haven’t shown any interest in designing a mutual cyber defense treaty or interest in pursuing one, so that’s concerning because I think, every day, we’re losing ground. We’re becoming more vulnerable and if we don’t act in concert, we’re giving up a lot of leverage.
Q: The UN General Assembly is next week. Historically, Democrats have been very supportive of the UN, but can you share any examples of bipartisan support for engaging with the UN and other international organizations?
JC: There are certainly different members of Congress who are engaged with international organizations, including Republicans. I see evidence of that when people take CoDels [Congressional Delegations], which are official trips to other countries, and visit with different international bodies and organizations about their work and ask how they can be helpful. One example is the Global Development Lab which tries to address the world’s development challenges. The rhetoric can often be kind of harsh from conservatives, but if you look beyond that rhetoric, you’ll find there are a good number of them that are actually working in an international spirit.
In fact, I just passed a bill with Mark Meadows (R-NC), who’s a leader of the Tea Party, basically the Freedom Caucus, on global electoral assistance where we would send over folks who would observe and learn from the elections in other nations, and they would do the same for the United States. We were doing it to promote democracy, but you would think at first blush, why is this Tea Party guy doing something that’s involved in elections in other countries? But Mark and his staff were very helpful partners in the legislation. We passed it through the House, and now it’s got to make it through the Senate. I also passed cyber legislation with Mike McCaul (R-TX) last Congress. Again, we got it through the House and it didn’t make it through the Senate.
Q: How do you negotiate the issues that don’t necessarily come into the public consciousness as much, both in terms of getting the word out and in terms of bridging the divide between what constituents and legislators experience day to day?
JC: You’re right, some issues are much higher profile, and there are some issues where people get it right away. If people think the country is going to go to war and their spouse is going to be deployed because of that, there’s an immediate concern. On other issues, I try to point out why it’s important for San Antonio, for my constituents, to have an opinion on these things, to be supportive of a certain position. But often times, they give you latitude as a representative and entrust you with the responsibility to take on these issues, and say, “if I have a strong opinion on one or two or ten of them, I’ll let you know.” Otherwise, on a lot of the stuff that we do, we might get one or two emails, and sometimes we don’t.
Q: Because of the low information nature of some foreign affairs issues, how do you deal with the fact that some other rhetoric can become easier for people to grasp?
JC: That is a concern. To the extent that politicians or others can use issues as wedges to generate fear or concern, which can become problematic. Once in a while, we’ll see that happen. For example, Texas religious organizations have settled a lot of refugees. That had not been controversial at all for many years, and then the governor in Texas last year moved to, if not halt, then severely curtail a lot of the refugees that were coming in. That, to me, is an example of something that existed as policy that the public was fine with and there wasn’t a strenuous objection, but you have a politician inserting himself into the debate and trying to stir people’s fears, and it can have an effect.
Q: Part of the Tufts campus sits in the Massachusetts 7th district. The recent primary victory of Ayanna Pressley over Congressman Capuano has raised questions about the nature of representation and how deep representation has to go. As a major force in Latino representation in Congress, what are your thoughts on diversity and representation?
JC: You want the congress to look like the United States of America and hopefully we’re getting closer to that. It looks like we’re getting closer to that in this election cycle. There’s still a long way to go. Also, we talked about Hispanics and the lack of voter participation. Sometimes it’s a challenge because you have communities that don’t see themselves reflected in their elected leadership. Houston, Texas over the years has been an example of that for Hispanics. You’ve got a lot of Hispanics living in Houston, but in terms of elected officials, there were relatively few examples to look up to, and I think that also stunts political participation. It looks like, not only with people of color, but also with women, we’re taking a step in the right direction in 2018.
Q: With the Kavanaugh hearings in the news and the #MeToo movement being a significant force in America today, can you speak to how that has impacted Congress and how issues of sexual harassment have been approached differently recently?
JC: The first thing is, the Congress, like other industries, has had an issue with problems of sexual harassment over the years and it did not have policies and an infrastructure in place to address that. The Congress has been trying to work on that, but it has not yet gotten where it needs to be. I think the movement in that sense accomplished its goal, because it made an institution reflect upon itself and start to change in a meaningful way. That’s the purpose of a movement, whether it’s #MeToo or another movement it has been very significant to the American Congress and to society.
We also saw what was going on in the entertainment industry and in the business industry. Politics and entertainment happen to be two of the higher profile industries, so many of the stories will come from there, but it’s been a problem across sectors in the U.S. One of the things that we dealt with in the U.S. Congress has been people being allowed to pay settlements with federal money, and I have stated I don’t believe they should be allowed to do that. The discussion on that issue has been interesting. There were some folks, including some women in Congress, who made the case that you should be able to do that because if you don’t allow it, then there are times where the victims of sexual harassment may not get anything. So I thought, many members of Congress are very wealthy on their own, so you could still collect from them, but there are others that aren’t. We’re still working through some of those issues, but it’s moved further along.
Courtesy of Kimberly Vardeman / Flickr
U.S. Congressman Joaquin Castro is a third-term member of Congress and former member of the Texas House of Representatives who sits on the House Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committees and is First Vice Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He also serves as Chief Deputy Whip and is a member of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.