Dan Lipinski is the U.S. representative for Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District. He has served since 2005, and is the co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education Caucus, and the Caucus on Central and Eastern Europe. Mr. Lipinski earned a Ph.D in Political Science from Duke University in 1998.
DPR: You got your PhD in Political Science from Duke. In what ways do you think that expertise has helped you in congress?
Lipinski: Well, I think that having studied political science, and congress being a big part of what I’ve been focusing on, I wanted to understand how the institution works – both the rules, and also sort of the informal workings of the institution. I came in with a good overview, which allows to me to figure how to make my way through the system. So everything from the rules – both formal and informal – but also understanding the committee system, how that works, and the many different ways that a bill can get through. I studied my dissertation about members communicate with their constituents, so I had that background, and I understood different ways members communicated with their constituents. I studied political science, taught political science, and learned about congress, and members voting decisions. Now I’m actually living out those things, but it sort of helped to have all that background coming in. Right now while I’m there, I really enjoy taking a step back in making my decisions, doing what I do, and looking at what I’m in the middle of, and what I’m involved with. I love watching how the institution works and how it doesn’t work. I learn something every day about how congress operates. And it’s still really fascinating to me to be a part of it, and I still look at it sometimes as an outside observer just to learn more about it.
DPR: Since your dissertation was done about how you interact with your constituents, has that influenced how you interact with your constituents today?
Lipinski: There was one major finding of my dissertation that I never forget, and it’s that you can’t convince your constituents of something that they don’t believe. I found that in 1994 when the Democrats lost the house for the first time in 40 years, members who told their constituents that congress was doing a good job were more likely to lose than Democrats who were not doing that. So, basically I look at it and say “I’m not going to convince my constituents of something that they don’t believe, or they’re just going to think I’m out of touch.” So, that’s just something that I always remember from my dissertation in terms of communication and communicating with my constituents. I also read through hundreds of newsletters that members sent out, and looked at them to get a sense of how members communicate. Nothing specific comes to mind, but that probably shapes how I portray myself to my constituents.
DPR: Your talk [here at Duke] was a lot about bipartisanship. And looking at your record a lot of times you tend to not vote with the Democrats and you do vote with the Republicans, and you are in the middle in terms of ideology. Do you think there is ever going to be a particular issue that would force you to abandon the Democratic Party altogether and opt to run as an Independent or as a Republican?
Lipinski: Well you have to be a member of a party basically to have any positioning or role in congress. Even if I’m not always voting with the Democratic Party, I’m a Democrat, and I believe that government has a good, positive role to play. It’s a way we solve collective action problems. Things like protecting the environment, taking care of seniors, protecting consumers – I think government has an important role to play there, as well as to reign in some of the excesses of capitalism. If capitalism didn’t have any rules or regulations, it just wouldn’t be a good country. I think that’s what separates me from Republicans, in that Republicans generally think that government needs to play a smaller role. I’m not going to say I’m a big government Democrat, but I understand government has a very important role to play. If we got rid of government this would be a worse country and we’d all be worse off.
DPR: On bipartisanship – as you probably are well aware, a government shutdown is looming over the funding of Planned Parenthood. What do you think that says about the state of bipartisanship today?
Lipinski: I think that what threat more says is something about the frustration that a certain segment of the Republican Party feels. From my discussions with some members who are in that camp of saying “we need to defund Planned Parenthood, we need to attach that to the continued resolution to keep the government running,” they feel free frustrated that what they want is not what is getting done. Even though we could pass something in the House defunding Planned Parenthood, it’s not going anywhere, so we need to take a harder more aggressive approach and attach it to a must-pass bill. And I think that’s much more of what it’s talking to. Frustration among a group of Republicans, and once you get a big enough group of Republicans, then you take them away from the rest, and you no longer have a majority party in the house. The Republicans don’t have governing majority really because they have a group of members who will just say at times “no we’re not going to go along.” And I think that’s what this points out is that level of frustration that this could be different. You have to accept that there’s something you can’t do unless you get more people who agree with you in the senate and you get a different President, so I don’t quite understand how they come to believe that something can get done if House leadership pushed harder, but that’s what they believed.
DPR: You have served as the co-chair of the pro-life caucus, which really puts in you in the minority as a Democrat. Do you ever feel pressure from your party to change your position?
Lipinski: I don’t feel pressure in Washington from the party. I know that there are members who aren’t happy that’s my position. Certainly I do hear back home from some people, and I hear form groups out there who aren’t happy with my pro-life position. Back in 2010, we had – I think it was 54 – Democrats who voted for the amendment to the health care bill when it went through the House, which said that no federal funds would be spent for abortion or to pay for insurance that covered abortion. So, it wasn’t that long ago that we had 54 democrats that were on that side. I’m hoping things change again, and I think there’s no way for the Democrats to become the majority party of the House again unless Democrats are more accepting of pro-life Democrats.
DPR: You’re a member of the committee on Space, Science, and Technology. With this how do you approach issues of environmentalism, especially since one of the largest pieces of news about environmentalism to come out over the past year was when a member of the senate brought a snowball to the floor? What do you think that says about environmentalism and how people view it these days in congress?
Lipinski: I think unfortunately climate change has become an issue that is, as one of my Republican former colleagues said, “it’s become an issue of faith to Republicans” in some ways. You know “if you’re a republican you don’t believe climate change is real.” We have now endless fights over whether climate change is real or not, what we should be doing – and some Republicans will say yes the climate is changing – but, you know, it’s not worth doing anything about. It’s unfortunate in Congress, in some ways, we’re not going to move the ball, it has to be done on the outside with public, with the people who are going to bring their concerns about climate change to their representative. Not just Democrats but Republicans. And I think that’s certainly a way to see a change.
DPR: In the wake of the Obergefell decision, why should be people like Kim Davis be exempted from issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples?
Lipinski: There is no reason why same sex couples should not be granted a marriage license anywhere in the U.S. because that’s what the law is, and no individual can stand up and say “no” to it. Now, it becomes a different question in terms of should Kim Davis be forced to do it? That’s still something that I struggle with. I would probably say no, but she certainly does not have any right to say “no.” Somehow an accommodation has to be made because no matter what anyone thinks about it, that is the law of the land the Supreme Court said it is, we’re the United States, nobody can stand up and stop whatever they personally believe from occurring that goes against a ruling of the Supreme Court. The whole idea that she could stop it was just wrong.
DPR: If your constituency shifted their opinion on abortion and you started getting a lot of calls about how you should vote pro-choice, would you shift your opinion more towards that? Would you consider yourself a delegate or a trustee and vote with your conscience? How do you straddle that line?
Lipinski: Well that’s certainly an issue where I would vote my own conscience. If my constituents were going to vote me out, then I would accept that that’s going to happen. To me it’s an issue of life and death. I would not change that. I understand that I am limited as a Democrat where I could possibly run as a pro-life Democrat. I accept that I’m not going to change – it’s not worth it to me to say, run for the Senate, for me to give up being pro-life.
DPR: Finally, you didn’t endorse Barack Obama for re-election in 2012, so what are you looking for in a president in 2016?
Lipinski: It’s going to be interesting to see who winds up running. I have not endorsed yet, a Democratic candidate. Joe Biden would certainly be interesting to me if he ran, because he certainly brings the concerns of the blue-collar Democrats, and those are the types of Democrats I represent. And I think it’s important to have their voice heard in the Democratic Party. And so I’m interested, though I’m not saying I would definitely endorse Joe Biden. But what I really am looking for is someone who is going to bring those real middle class, working class, blue collar, issues and really going to focus on the economy, and better jobs, especially for those who don’t have a college education.