Representative Gerry Connolly and Representative John Lewis
Credit: Photo courtesy of Office of Rep. Gerry Connolly

President Donald Trump’s recently proposed 2018 budget calls for massive and unprecedented cuts in domestic discretionary spending, including a 31% cut in the budget for the EPA, a 29% cut for the State Department, and double-digit reductions at a host of other federal agencies charged with everything from maintaining the nation’s national parks to securing the safety of America’s food supply. It’s a down payment on what White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon has called the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

Every citizen in the country would feel the impact of these cuts, if approved by Congress, but the pain would be especially acute for the constituents of Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), whose diverse northern Virginia district is home to the third highest number of federal workers in the country.

Connolly, a five-term member who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and as Whip for the New Democrat Coalition, has emerged as an outspoken voice in the Democratic opposition to Trump. We spoke with Connolly recently.


WM: The federal government has always been a punching bag for countless politicians. What’s different about what President Trump and Bannon are proposing?   

Connolly: I think it’s qualitatively different. This administration, led by Bannon and his acolytes, is actively practicing a form of nihilism and chaos theory to disrupt the entire enterprise.

[Trump] has talked about “dismantling the administrative state.” [But] what he calls the “Swamp” or the “administrative state” – we call public health, safety, and protection. He would dismantle the regulatory framework that provides clean air, clean water, safety for kids, consumer goods, a safe drug supply, a safe food supply and the like. And to say nothing of a robust R&D operation that guarantees us innovation and jobs in the future. He’s made no secret of what his agenda is, and I think this budget, his Cabinet decisions and his other actions and words are very much consistent with this disruptive theory of politics.

WM: Are Americans aware of what these cuts could mean in their daily lives?

Connolly: Some are, but the ones who are going to be the most adversely affected are the least aware of what this agenda is going to lead to. And the biggest loser is the rural community that voted overwhelmingly for [Trump].

Look at SNAP, the food stamp program. In a lot of rural communities, you’ve got grocery stores where 60% of their customer base are on food stamps. Every dime you cut out of that program is a direct dime that could be circulating in the community.

And if the repeal of the Affordable Care Act leads to a lot fewer people having health care coverage because Medicaid’s been cut back and you’ve destroyed the exchanges, that means hospitals are once again looking at a flood of indigent care at the most expensive portal – the emergency room. And what will happen is that a lot of rural hospitals will go belly up. They just can’t make it work. And when you lose your local hospital and then your rural airport because the [federal] subsidies [to support it] go away, good luck attracting any company to move to your community.

That’s how pernicious and cynical these cuts are. The very people who passionately supported Trump will be on the front line of victimhood from this social Darwinian decision-making.

WM: Do Democrats do a good job of explaining what government does? How do you make the case that we need more people in government, not fewer?

Connolly: We’re the party of responsible governance and sometimes we let that get in the way of a cogent propoundment of the rationale for why government is the right solution to some of our problems and is our only protector in some cases.

Sometimes we sound like we’re defending what Bannon calls “the administrative state.” If he puts us on the defensive, and it sounds like we’re defending a bureaucratic state that does nothing but self-perpetuation, we lose the argument with the public. We need to be more conscious and more capable of bringing the argument to the gut level.

In the Republican playbook, ever since Ronald Reagan challenged Gerald Ford in 1975-76, the narrative has been unrelentingly negative about government. Reagan said it: “Government isn’t the solution – it’s the problem.”

He characterized “welfare queens” [as] driving around in Cadillacs and eating filet mignon every night even though of course the average welfare recipient is a single mom getting $180 a month, putting food on the table for her kids, and who gets back on her feet and has productive employment in 6 to 12 months, which is what the program is supposed to produce. But that’s not their narrative.

Sometimes I’m sure government is guilty of overreach. It gets way too prescriptive and people hate it. And when people are touched by that, they don’t forget it because government is big and disparate and powerful. The IRS touches your shoulder and says we’re auditing you, or the Veterans Administration wants you to fill out a ream of forms before you can qualify for payments or there’s a mistake in your Social Security disability payment.

Whatever it might be, we remember that. We don’t always remember that Medicare is a government program that’s very big but works very well. There are a lot of things unseen and unseen about government, and it’s a lot easier to isolate the negative and allow that to characterize the entire enterprise.

WM: Do you see a contradiction between Trump’s promise to preserve jobs and what he wants to do with federal workers?  

Connolly: With respect to federal workers, this is a very sinister script they’re sticking to, and it is going to have a very deleterious impact all over the country. And yes, I do think it’s a contradiction, like a lot of other things he’s doing.

You say you want to create jobs, but what you’re doing with the federal workforce is very injurious. What you’re doing in the budget is cutting $54 billion of investment in the domestic discretionary side, which will lead to hundreds of thousands of jobs being lost.

WM: Will these cuts increase the number of federal contractors?

Connolly: Maybe. But remember this isn’t just cuts to federal employment, it’s cuts to budgets. It would be one thing if the budget stayed the same and you said we’re going to put an absolute cap on the workforce. That absolutely guarantees outsourcing, and that’s what happened under [President] Ronald Reagan and actually got expanded under [President] Bill Clinton. But if you have an absolute cut in the budget, I don’t see this as a transfer to contractors. I see this as an absolute cut that would actually hurt federal employees and federal contractors alike.

WM: You’ve called Trump’s Cabinet picks a “Cabinet of horrors.” Why?  

Connolly: Well, there’s Ben Carson, our new HUD Secretary, whose knowledge of housing extends to the fact that he has a house.

We have Rick Perry, former governor of Texas, [who’s] been asked to head the “Oops Agency.” Four years ago, he said he wanted to abolish three agencies – Education, EPA and oops, he couldn’t remember the third. Well, it was [the Department of] Energy, and that’s the one they put him in charge of.

Is that disruptive or not? That’s the Bannon version of drain-the-swamp cynicism – to put in charge of agencies a bunch of people who don’t believe in the mission – [Scott] Pruitt at EPA, [Betsy] DeVos at Education.

Think about the impact not just on morale but the ethical impact it has on the workforce: “I’m a dedicated civil servant; I’m dedicated to the mission of my agency and that’s why I’m here. I’m protecting child safety or I’m protecting the food supply for the American public so they’re not dropping dead of botulism. I’m a lawyer in the Justice Department trying to make sure our civil rights laws and our voting rights laws are adhered to so that all Americans are indeed equal.

And now you’ve put at the head of my agency somebody who avowedly does not believe in the mission.  By word, thought and deed, they’ve made it clear they don’t believe in what I do and what this agency does. What am I supposed to do? Do I just get out? Do I just retire? But if I do that, that’s exactly what they want.”

That’s part of the cynical drain-the-swamp philosophy that is so negative.

WM: Are people going to realize by 2018 what’s happening?  

Connolly: I hope so. It won’t be for lack of effort on our part. There are a lot of people who voted for Trump, but you have to break his coalition in pieces.

There’s a hard core that unshakeable. Right or wrong, they’re with him for a whole bunch of motivations. But there are people who voted for him to give him a chance – because they were turned off by Clinton and more “big government,” or they didn’t like her or didn’t trust her.

These are going to be the people who will be the first to peel off. And the question is whether this budget and these actions and the assault on the health care program add up to serious disillusionment.

We Democrats can help that along. And we need to be very aggressive in pointing out the consequences of these cuts: [We can say,] “I hope you understand what this means for you and your family. I know you voted for him and I’m not asking you to admit that you made a big fat mistake but I am asking you to at least recognize what’s in your own interest and that you’re voting against it.”

WM: What’s your strategy moving forward?  

Connolly: Somebody who influenced me as a very young person was Deitrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian during the Nazi war period in Germany.

Bonhoeffer was one of the few Lutheran German theologians who bucked the system, refused to accommodate, saw evil for what it was, had the moral courage and clarity to fight it and paid with his life. He was arrested and executed in a Nazi prison.

He wrote from prison to his sister reflecting on how Europe’s most intellectual society, most integrated society, went wrong. Freedoms were destroyed. Ethnic warfare was unleashed. The state turned into a violent, brutal entity that suppressed everything that it saw as a threat.

He concluded that the other side – the Nazis – had a passion that wasn’t matched by an equal counter-passion from academia, religion or the political establishment. If you don’t have passion in equal measure, you will always lose. And your belief structure will frankly always be fragile because you don’t believe in it enough to put your heart and soul in it the way they do.

I feel very strongly that’s what my job is – to take that missionary challenge to everybody who sees things differently from the Trump crowd and Steve Bannon.

The good news is I start with a lot more of us than of them. I’m putting a fire in the belly of everyone I know in every way I can – we’re fighting for the soul of America. And I have enough faith and confidence in my fellow Americans that we will win this battle.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Anne Kim and Saahil Desai

Anne Kim is Senior Writer at the Washington Monthly. Saahil Desai is Digital Editor at the Washington Monthly.