WASHINGTON, D.C. — Though Donald Trump’s election can be expected to further divide Republicans and Democrats, Derek Kilmer believes common ground can be found. And unlike many of his peers, the Gig Harbor Democrat will be searching for it.
Kilmer’s first four years in Congress diverged from his experiences in the Legislature, where the parties frequently overcame their differences to solve problems. The last three bills he voted on before leaving for Congress were a balanced budget, a constitutional amendment to reduce long-term state debt, and a proposal to create 18,000 jobs by investing $1 billion in infrastructure. They received near-unanimous support in the state senate.
“It that’s possible in a state legislature, why couldn’t that happen in Congress?” Kilmer asked in a phone interview Friday.
It’s not happening because the parties start with their own solutions and won’t compromise. Bills are designed to make political statements, not become laws. It has become government by crisis, with shutdowns, gridlock and disfunction. Congress is not doing the people’s work, he said.
“If you look at the folks we represent, the vast majority of them aren’t concerned with us getting more Democrat or Republican, or becoming more to the left or right,” said Kilmer, a Port Angeles native who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Princeton and a Ph.D. from Oxford. “They just want us to move forward, to see some progress.”
Kilmer is trying to buck the trend. He has been a member of Congress’ Bipartisan Working Group, which has an even number of Democrat and Republican members. They meet weekly when Congress is in session to discuss legislation and how they can work together on issues to make Congress more effective. Last week, Kilmer was named the group’s new co-chairman.
There are several issues that both Republicans and Democrats should be able to get behind, Kilmer said, such as good schools, safe roads and bridges, caring for military veterans, and making it easier to start a business or go to college.
Trump has spoken about infrastructure and tax reform, a couple areas where he might work with Democrats, Kilmer said, but it’s not clear yet what to expect.
“I think it depends on the approach the president-elect takes,” he said. “I think the jury’s still out, to a large extent, in terms of policy formation and budgetary priorities. There are a lot of unknowns right now.”
There are many other areas that the Trump administration might pursue initiatives that are not consistent with values held by Kilmer and the Democrats, and they will fight them, Kilmer said.
“Discrimination, the creating of a Muslim registry, an effort to deport ‘dreamers’ and split up families, we’ll oppose that,” he said. “I’m someone who believes climate change is real and not a hoax and it’s important to take action on that. I’m concerned that we’re looking at an appointee to the Environmental Protection Agency (Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt) who’s a climate skeptic.”
The Affordable Care Act isn’t a perfect law. Congressional bills rarely are. Kilmer has proposed changes to it himself. But it’s more than just a policy debate, he said. It’s about people, such as those with pre-existing conditions who won’t be able to get affordable coverage. Republicans haven’t provided a replacement plan.
“We’re not going to watch millions of people lose health care and see the last of their consumer protections gutted,” Kilmer said. “Make changes where positive changes can be made.”
Kilmer will attend Trump’s inauguration ceremony on Friday and then wait to see what cooperation will be possible, he said.