On February 11th, Congressman Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) spoke to the Duke in D.C. program. Lipinski – who received his PhD in Political Science from Duke in 1998 – has represented Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District since 2004. A member of the Blue Dog Coalition, Rep. Lipinski is considered to be one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress. His talk focused on Congressional polarization, how he works across the aisle with Republicans, and how his bill creating a National Strategic Plan for Manufacturing became law. The following is an excerpt from the Question and Answer session.
DPR: What has been the single biggest change in Congress, as an institution, since you were first elected?
Lipinski: I was first elected in 2004, and Congress has gotten much more partisan since that time. As other people have said, our parties are becoming more like parliamentary parties where everyone believes the same things. There is top-down leadership of the party rather than bottom-up. This has been going on for a number of years, but in the last ten years it has gotten even more pronounced. Both parties now are so much more ideologically homogenous. You don’t have as much overlap. You used to have members in the middle who voted very similarly – some were Democrats, some were Republicans. Now, you have two parties that are very much separate. There are fewer people who are trying to bring the two sides together. I don’t think that’s good for our country.
There used to be the sense, after an election, everyone would say: “so, what can we get done in the next two years with who we have here?” Now, there is more of a sense of both parties saying “when we get control of the House, the Senate, and the White House, then we can do what we want to do. Until then, we’re going to focus on getting control of everything.”
DPR: Given the current level of dysfunction in Washington, why should young Americans want to pursue a career in public service or politics?
Lipinski: It is easy to be discouraged with the way things look right now in Congress and Washington in general. Whatever it is you’re interested in, because the government has so much influence, that’s where you need to go to make a change. You can make a difference other places, but government is a unique place. We have a government, a democratic republic with elected officials who make decisions and pass laws. It is still the place where you can make a significant difference.
DPR: How does your background as a Political Science professor impact what you do as a member of Congress?
Lipinski: I was unique as a student entering political science graduate school at Duke. I did not have a political science background. I took two political science classes as an undergrad—Intro to American Government and Intro to International Relations—and took those pass/fail. I had a background in economics, engineering, and systems analysis. Duke had a focus on using those types of disciplines in analyzing politics. I brought that to Duke and I bring that to what I do now.
My experience at Duke added much more of an understanding of the way Congress works. I also studied media. That helps me do my job now and to also understand better how everything interconnects. When I was a political scientist and I interviewed members of Congress, they would understand their piece. As long as they could get reelected and get some things done, they weren’t interested in seeing the whole picture. As a political scientist, I’m always interested in seeing the whole picture. That makes me better able to get things done, because if one road is blocked I have a better sense of where else I can go.