Nancy Pelosi: “We can’t be enablers anymore”

The latest National Women’s Hall of Fame honoree says she's tired of bailing out the “irresponsible” GOP

Published October 11, 2013 3:38PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Throughout the ugly government shutdown battle, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is the only national political leader who has seen her public approval-rating rise. In Gallup numbers released Wednesday, Speaker John Boehner’s approval dropped 14 points since April, while Pelosi’s rose 5 points in the same period.

Pilloried by the GOP as uncompromising, Pelosi may seem to voters like someone tough enough to fight the crazy. And with 47 percent of Americans now saying they want Democrats to take back the House in 2014, she might be in line for Boehner’s job.

Pelosi is certainly in line to have a better weekend than Boehner. On Saturday she’ll be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y., site of the historic 1848 American Women’s Rights Convention. It’s a diverse list of nine women, from midwife-activist Ina May Gaskin to feminist Kate Millett to Mother Mary Joseph Rodgers, the founder of the Catholic Maryknoll order of nuns.

I talked to the House minority leader about the Seneca Falls honor, as well as whether she’d be willing to marshal Democratic votes for a short-term debt ceiling hike that doesn’t also open the government. “If they need our votes, they don’t come for nothing,” she told me. (The conversation has been edited and condensed.)

I’ve heard you talk about how it bothers you when people say women were “given” the right to vote…

Those suffragettes fought so hard for the right to vote, but when it happened, the headlines all said “Women given the right to vote.” Nuh-uh: Women worked, struggled, marched, demanded the right to vote. That’s what it took. And we owe those women so much, we stand on their shoulders. So for me, this is a great honor, I have been in awe of the suffragettes for my whole life. I went to Seneca Falls 15 years ago for the 150th anniversary, and became further enamored of what they did. The courage of these women all those many years ago, to leave home, to speak out, even speak out within the home, for the rights of women, has always been an inspiration to me.

I feel close to them because when I went to the White House for my first meeting as a House leader -- what was it, 10 years ago? – it wasn’t my first meeting; I’d been there as an appropriations committee member many times. But when I got there I realized this was unlike any meeting any woman had ever been to at the White House; I was there not derivative of the president, as an appointment of his, however excellent that would be, but I was coming to the table as a leader from an equal branch of government. As I sat there, I felt all closed into my chair, because I realized many people were sitting there with me: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Alice Paul, and I could hear them say: “At last we have a seat at the table.”

And you’re going to have a better weekend than John Boehner.

Ha! Well, what’s funny is, some members are coming up with me after the vote -- the vote wouldn’t leave us time to visit the park in the morning – but anyway the park is closed!

Oh no!

Yes, the fact is, we’re not missing the park, because the actions of Congress have shut it down.

I wrote last month about how I didn’t like the notion that you are somehow “rebranding” economic issues as women’s issues. But you’ve always supported pay equity, a higher minimum wage, paid family leave, as women’s issues. Do you see it as rebranding?

No, I don’t see it like that at all. We’ve now had 16 meetings around the country, about how to advance this agenda: increasing the minimum wage, paycheck fairness, paid family and sick leave. I think it’s taken us a little time to make clear we’re just doing the economic piece, we’re not doing every single women’s issue. But many women out there really don’t realize that men and women alike [in Congress] are fighting for them, and we need their help to succeed. We really need an outside mobilization, not just the inside maneuvering, to make this work. Women have to know that all of this is possible.

And it’s important to get the women’s vote behind these issues – although, the gender gap has always been about economic issues as well...

It’s always been about respect for women: in their personal lives, for the work they do in the workplace. The suffragettes fought for women to vote. Then we had Rosie the Riveter, women leaving the home for the workplace. Then we had the expansion of higher education, so women could join the professions. But the missing link in all of it is child care. If we can have affordable, quality child care and make it a profession so parents can trust it. That is the big issue. I mean, the others, we’ve had legislation over time. We raised the minimum wage, and we have to raise it again. We passed family and medical leave; we need to make part of it paid. We passed Lily Ledbetter; we need the next step, [Rosa DeLauro’s] Paycheck Fairness Act. The president is suggesting universal preschool, and that’s important; it’s a welcome piece, but it’s just a piece. We need a movement around childcare – not a partisan movement.

To move to the government shutdown – we know it probably hurts women most. I’ve been struck by the cruelty of just lifting the debt ceiling but leaving the government closed, given how many people are already suffering…

What was interesting about our meeting with the president is that we spent a good deal of time, and his statement coming out of the meeting reflects it, talking about the hardship this is causing. I mean, if you’re a government worker, even if you’re going to get paid, I mean, tell that to your banker when you can’t pay your mortgage… I think they think everybody has a trust fund they can fall back on. They make noise about helping veterans, while a large number of people who are hurt are veterans, disabled veterans, veterans who are government workers who are not getting paid. We’re also seeing nonprofits furloughing people. All these people are consumers, so remember it’s having a tremendous ripple effect.

We haven’t seen any language about a debt ceiling hike. The question is not should they be linked, or delinked, the question is: Why are we keeping the government shut down. Why? What is that about? If the answer is ideological -- because we want changes to the Affordable Care Act – that’s been rejected roundly by the American people.

Can you see yourself providing the votes of Democrats for something that lifts the debt ceiling but doesn’t open the government?

Well, we’ll have to see what it is. If they need our votes, they don’t come for nothing. You know what I’m saying? They go one of two ways for votes. They either go to the over-the-edge crowd and insist the government stay shut down -- well, that’s not going anyplace. The president’s not going to sign it, the Senate Democrats are not going to pass it. I mean, if not only do they not address the government shutdown, but they insist that the government stay shut down, as a condition of lifting the debt ceiling? No. So if they come to us, we say we want to lift the debt ceiling, we want to open government, that’s where the votes are.

So it sounds like you’re saying to me that you can’t see an endgame where you provide Democratic votes for something that does not open the government…

I’m not saying that because I haven’t seen whatever else they are proposing that might mitigate the damage they are causing. I’m pretty constant on the subject that I don’t know what we’ll do until we see what it is that they’re going to propose…

OK, I will not put words in your mouth.

[Laughs] Again, we want this to be a year [debt-ceiling extension]. That it’s six weeks, it’s ridiculous. But if we can help them do both, open the government and protect the full faith and credit of the United States – well, we reserve the right to do both. But six weeks is not a good thing. I mean, these are both “No’s” – shut down government, and lift the debt ceiling for just six weeks – it’s not like one’s good, and one’s a bitter pill. No. They’re both bitter pills. It’s all bad. But we’ll see what we have to do. And one thing they know about us is that we’re responsible. And they think that we’ll hold them in good stead, that they can be irresponsible and we will save the day. So I think that we have to think about the long term in all of this.

Yes, at some point, could being the “responsible” party actually be irresponsible, because it keeps them coming back and asking for more.

That’s exactly right. We’re enablers. We’ve become enablers. We can’t be that anymore.


By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Debt Ceiling Government Shutdown John Boehner Nancy Pelosi National Women's Hall Of Fame Seneca Falls