YouTube video

Ro Khanna addresses the war in Yemen and his new bill co-sponsored with Bernie Sanders that would force billionaires like Jeff Bezos to pay fair wages or face penalties

Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Washington, D.C., in Congressman Ro Khanna’s office.

Congressman Ro Khanna now represents California’s 17th Congressional District, located in the heart of Silicon Valley, and is serving in his first term. Representative Khanna sits on the House Budget and Armed Services Committee, and is a vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Congressman Ro Khanna, thank you for joining us today.

RO KHANNA: Thanks for having me on.

SHARMINI PERIES: Let’s start off with Yemen. You have been an outspoken critic of U.S.’s militaristic foreign policy, and particularly in regard to U.S. support for Saudi Arabia on its war in Yemen and fighting the Houthis. Now, this is a very strong position you have taken. And you’ve actually had bipartisan support on this resolution in the past. And yet you have not been able to muster your own party and Democratic support for this resolution. So, two things, first of all, what drives this bill? And second, why are the Democrats holding back?

RO KHANNA: Well, first, I have great respect for our military and the job they do to keep us safe. My concern is more with our interventionist foreign policy, which isn’t serving our national interest. You look at the case of Yemen, we are intervening in a civil war between the Saudis and Iran, basically a proxy civil war in Yemen. And that’s stretching our troops. That’s stretching our military. It’s putting strain on them, and they’re not being able to do their primary job, which is to keep us safe from terrorism.

So what I have said is it’s in the United States’ national interest not to be aiding the Saudis in a proxy war with Iran. And also it’s in our moral interest, in our moral obligation, not to be aiding the Saudis in bombing children, women, and contributing to one of the largest humanitarian catastrophes of this decade.

The reason we have not had success is, look, the Saudi lobby is very strong. It’s perplexing to me, given that 15 of the terrorists who hit us in 9/11 were of Saudi background, given that the Saudis have shown an utter contempt for human life in Yemen, given that the Saudis have political prisoners that violate international norms. So I think we have to make the case to the American people. They certainly wouldn’t condone an alliance with the Saudis.

The good news is that public opinion is shifting. We now have Adam Smith, who is the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, cosponsoring this resolution. That should be a big wakeup call to the Saudis, because Adam Smith is one of the most powerful people in Washington. He oversees the entire military budget. And when people like him are saying that we should not be aiding the Saudis in this war in Yemen, that should be a wakeup call to the Saudis that they need to stop. They need to stop the violence. They need to get to the table with the United Nations and Griffith and really engage in a diplomatic solution.

SHARMINI PERIES: Perhaps the reason why you’re not getting the ear of some of the congressmen is perhaps because of this long history that the United States has had with the Saudis. It’s an oil relationship. It’s largely a commerce relationship. The Saudis also have a huge lobby here in Washington, and they have also ways of financing a number of states and projects. And, and of course money in politics is a part of that machine that the Saudis manage to operate here. Would you believe that some of that influence is affecting some of the congressmen you’re dealing with?

RO KHANNA: I’m sure, a bit. But look, we’re the United States of America. We’re the most powerful nation in the world. We don’t need Saudi Arabia. We have extraordinary new resources of renewable energy and natural gas. We have one of the most innovative economies in the world. Saudi hasn’t done anything when it comes to tech innovation or the new economy. So I think there is an exaggeration of how much we need the Saudis for our own economic interests.

I’ll tell you what they are doing, they’re causing us a lot of harm. They’re causing us unnecessary headaches where our troops are in harm’s way, where our military is extended, where we’re spending trillions of dollars that could be used to build our universities, build our roads, invest in our standard of living here. And I think most Americans say, why are we fighting proxy wars for the Saudi regime? That’s not where our tax dollars should be going. That’s not where our men and women should be risking their lives.

So I think the common sense of the American people will prevail. We just need more media outlets to explain what’s going on; that, you know, Yemen is far away. Most people don’t understand it. They don’t know. They would be shocked to realize that the United States is aiding the Saudis’ efforts there, and I don’t think that’s what they would approve of.

SHARMINI PERIES: And you stress here the proxy war with Iran. Now, Iranians, of course, deny that they’re supporting the Houthis in any significant way. And yet you and the House Foreign Intelligence Committees, and so on, are convinced that they are. What evidence do we have?

RO KHANNA: From what I’ve read, you know, I think that they have intervened, and they are supporting the Houthis. Now, we can argue whether it was the Saudis that went in first or the Iranians they went in first. But the bottom line is this. If you’re a person in Ohio, or Pennsylvania, or California, in Silicon Valley, and you’re thinking about what’s going to make your life better and your family’s life better, do you really think you want your government fighting a proxy war in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and Iran? What I want to ask every member of Congress is go back to your district and explain to me how that serves your constituents’ interest.

So it is this convoluted inside the Beltway foreign policy establishment that has made a mess of America’s foreign policy in the last 15 years taking us away from our great founders, George Washington, John Quincy Adams, who cautioned against this interventionism, who talked about restraint. We needed to have a strong military to make sure that we would take appropriate action if we were ever attacked, and no one should ever underestimate America’s resolve. But we weren’t going to intervene overseas and unnecessarily get involved in foreign wars. That’s, I think, what most Americans believe. And we’ve had this foreign policy establishment that has let down the American people, that has let down our military, that has overextended our military and not given them the resources, because we put them in so many conflicts.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Let’s switch to some domestic policy here. Now, just yesterday, along with Senator Bernie Sanders, you introduced a bill to end corporate welfare, you called it. Very interesting and intriguing. And this is essentially to stop bad employers by zeroing out their subsidies. It’s called the Bezos Act, by some. Now, tell us about what is behind this bill, what’s driving it, and how it’s going to affect ordinary workers. I noticed Bernie Sanders yesterday read out so many comments by people who are working for Amazon, and how they’re still struggling to live under the wages that they’re earning. And that was very telling. But what will this bill do to help ordinary workers?

RO KHANNA: Well, the bill is very simple. It says that taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing workers who are employed by multibillion dollar corporations. Here’s the basic idea. If you work hard, and you’re fortunate enough to work at a company that’s doing well- you’re reading in the papers that the company you’re working on or working at is worth billions, or in some cases a trillion dollars- you should make enough to be able to pay your bills, to be able to put food on your table, to be able to support your family. And that basic idea is broken in this country. The idea that you can work hard, you can pick a good company, and you still can’t make ends meet. And in the meantime, you’re seeing CEOs and executives making hundreds of millions of dollars with all these stock options. Well, something is off, because workers aren’t getting the pay they deserve.

Well, what this bill will do is incentivize companies to say, look, we gotta raise wages, because if we don’t then we’re going to be on the hook for the benefits that our employees are having to use. And it’s about time that taxpayers not be paying for the nutrition and housing of employees who then are getting taken advantage off by these multibillion dollar corporations.

SHARMINI PERIES: And how will it give them incentive to do that?

RO KHANNA: Well, because otherwise they would have to pay a tax. So the way the bill is structured is if you are underpaying your employees, and those employees then as a result are still having to rely on nutrition assistance, or public housing assistance, then you have to pay for that nutritional assistance or public housing assistance as the company. And so the company is going to want to avoid the financial penalty, partly because of the embarrassment of having to pay that penalty. And I think they will much rather raise the wages than pay that, pay that penalty.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, in Seattle they’re trying to introduce a tax on high tech- well, it’s on corporations who make X amount of profit, and tried to introduce a head tax. And they managed to pass it. But then there was such a lobby against it that they ended up withdrawing it. Now, do you understand that the, I guess the influence, of course, these high tech companies and others have on the decision making in Washington? And do you believe a bill like this would actually succeed?

RO KHANNA: I do. I represent a district which has a lot of technology companies. And I’m very proud of Silicon Valley, which has Apple, and Google, and Facebook, many other companies. They’re not perfect, but most of these companies in my district actually pay very good wages, and they are working with labor unions to make sure that those wages are fair, and that they retain union contractors for doing all of their projects. So some of these companies have shown that you can be successful, and yet you can make sure that everyone has equity in that success. There are bad actors. Not just in the case of a tech company. There is the case of fast food industry, and the case of retail industry.

So what we want to do is we want to inspire these companies to have a higher standard. To say no one begrudges you your success, no one begrudges you your innovation, or your making a lot of money. What we are concerned about is why the workers at your companies aren’t partaking in that success whether they’re contributing to it.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And as you said, in your district you have Google, Apple, Tesla, a number of other tech companies. Yet these are the very companies that pay almost zero tax. Are you in a conversation with them about taking on the responsibility of paying their fair share of taxes?

RO KHANNA: Well, I think one- actually, I’m not sure that’s true. Apple, I think, pays actually a considerable amount of tax. I do think that we should be taxing profits overseas, and that people should be paying those taxes. But I didn’t support President Trump’s cut of the corporate tax rate to 21 percent, and shielding offshore profits from taxation. But you know, some of these companies are paying tax, just as a factual matter. They should be paying tax on their overseas earnings, as well.

SHARMINI PERIES: Let’s switch here to an issue that’s really occupying Washington, and that is the Muller investigation. Many intelligence services have indicated that they may be tampering with the upcoming elections, as well. Now, this is preoccupying Washington to a degree where domestic issues, and perhaps even more important issues to the American people, are not getting addressed. And by this I mean the financing of candidates by corporations, Citizens United act, corporate influence on candidates’ campaigns, which does tamper with democracy. We are talking about repression of voters, not- you know, so many thousands of voters are unable to exercise their democratic right in this country to vote.

There are so many other very critical issues that are getting ignored because people are day after day preoccupied with the potential Russian interference. Now, you yourself have spoken out on this issue in terms of, you know, U.S. should stop interfering in other people’s elections. That aside, what are your commitments to ensuring that American democracy is preserved, American citizens’ rights to exercise their democratic right to vote freely and fairly is addressed?

RO KHANNA: Well, first, I do think it’s a very, very serious issue what Russia did, and it’s completely unacceptable. No nation should ever interfere in our sovereignty or our republic, and we should be very, very clear that we will never tolerate that. There will be consequences for that. And it’s understandable why people are concerned, whether it’s Russia, or Iran, or North Korea interfering with voting machines here in the United States; interfering with our social media platforms. So that isn’t- shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and it should be a serious concern and it should be an appropriate concern for the Congress.

Hillary Clinton would have won the election if there were not voter suppression in many of these battleground states. I mean, polling places were closed. There was- there were strict voter ID laws that kept people from voting; suppression of particularly minority votes. So I have worked with members of the Congressional Black Caucus to help increase the emphasis on enforcing the Voting Rights Act, and really empowering people to vote. I also founded the NO PAC Caucus in the United States Congress. There are seven of us. We take no PAC money, no lobbyist money. I’ve introduced the Democracy Dollars bill that would give every citizen 50 dollars to participate in elections, and turn every citizen into a donor to dwarf the special interest money.

So those are the types of systematic reform, is not taking PAC money, empowering citizens, making sure that we have better voting rights protections that will help our democracy. And I don’t think it’s either-or. We can do enough to protect us from an attack from a foreign country. We can also make sure that we have a better functioning democracy for our citizens.

SHARMINI PERIES: One of the main issues in terms of what’s occupying Washington in terms of the Russian interference in the U.S. elections and the Muller investigation that’s underway is that this conversation is leading to a lot of hype that’s reinstating the Cold War mentality; the fear that the Russians will control the world, the kind of rhetoric we saw during the Cold War era that’s re-emerging now. And I think that was my main critique in terms of your position that you had taken on that. And I understand why you did so, and you’ve explained it. But it is leading to such anti-Russian phenomena in this country, which is really counterproductive for good international relations for the U.S., it’s counterproductive for our relations at the U.N., it’s counterproductive for leading the world in terms of the kind of world we want to see, which- you want to see, which is a world without war, and peaceful nations getting along together and doing what’s good for what its citizens want.

RO KHANNA: Well, I think one can be very tough on Russian interference and not articulate the Lindsey Graham view that we need to have a cold war with Russia. What we ought to do is continue to engage in diplomacy. Be very thoughtful about not extending NATO, not calling for Ukraine or Georgia to be part of NATO, which I think were strategic mistakes, to push NATO so far to the Russian border. Thinking about how we have diplomacy to deal with nuclear weapons, not engage in another arms race with Putin. And yet making it clear that we’re not going to tolerate interference.

So one can be tough on interference without being foolhardy in a rhetoric on another Cold War. And I think that’s the kind of position that most Americans want. They don’t want another Cold War with Russia. They don’t- they understand that Russia poses no economic challenge to the United States. I mean, especially with-.

SHARMINI PERIES: Or a military challenge.

RO KHANNA: Or a military challenge. But they want to make it clear that we’re never going to tolerate Russia interfering with our voting machines or interfering with our social media platforms, and there will be consequences and should be consequences for that. We can’t just say, OK, we’re not going to do anything if a nation intervenes. But having consequences on a particular action doesn’t mean that we escalate something to a Cold War. And I think that that balanced perspective is one that will garner the majority of American public opinion.

SHARMINI PERIES: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win in New York was very encouraging for many, many, many people out there who really wants to see a different kind of Congress. And of course, this has motivated a number of other progressive candidates to run as Bernie Sanders, and you know, Our Revolution and other organizations are urging people to do. Now, you’re an example of that batch of progressive congressmen that could provide that kind of leadership and enticement for others to get involved in the democratic process in this country. If you had to actually coach some of these candidates that are considering running, what would you be saying to them?

RO KHANNA: Well, first of all, they’re very talented. I don’t think they need my advice. Therey’re going to be bringing their own perspective. They represent their own communities. They’re going to be speaking for people who often haven’t had a representative or a voice in this building. So I’m excited to learn from them, to learn about their communities and the issues that we may not be addressing.

I guess I would just say to be bold, to be true to the values that they ran on, but also to be open minded and humble enough to know that not any one individual has a monopoly on truth, and that there are a lot of people in this body with a lot of different experiences and constituencies. People who I disagree with. But I always come with an open mind that my perspective should be challenged, and my perspective may not have the full picture, and have an open mindedness to being firm on one’s ideas, but open to to thinking things through and thinking things through differently.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, one of the challenges, of course, to some of these progressive candidates that are running is the party itself, and the corporate elements of the party that are running corporate Democrats. And so this is, of course, a battle that the party is undergoing at the moment. And why is there such resistance on the part of the Democratic Party, which you’re obviously a part of, to accept new blood into the party? It was encouraging to see that they actually addressed the issue of superdelegates at the last convention. But at the same time, there are many other issues that prevent the participation of progressive candidates in the party. So talk about that, and what can be done to encourage more new and fresh blood in the party that is going to be, in in the long run, in the best interest of the party.

RO KHANNA: I think we’re seeing that. We’re seeing as campaigns are less TV-focused, as what matters more is digital organizing and organizing on the ground, I think that’s going to give new voices, younger voices a chance to do very well. Because you don’t have to now lock yourself in a room and raise millions of dollars from political action committees. You can run on a much lower-financed campaign if you have the ground organization and if you’re savvy on on social media. So I think we’re going to see a lot of new candidates emerging.

But change is hard, and the history of politics is the new generation always has to fight for their voice. The most talented politician of our generation, Barack Obama, was- had to fight the party at every step. The party endorsed against him when he ran for Congress. The party endorsed against him when he ran for the Senate. The party endorsed against him when he ran for president. They more or less coalesced around Hillary Clinton. But that didn’t deter him. He had a vision and he stuck to it and he won.

So my advice to people would be this is still a very open political system in this country, compared to a lot of systems around the world. You can make a change. It’s not going to be handed to you. But if you work hard and if we build a strong coalition, we can shape the party.

SHARMINI PERIES: Congressman Ro Khanna, I thank you so much for joining us here on The Real News Network, and I wish you all the best on the initiatives you’ve taken up here.

RO KHANNA: Thank you.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Sharmini Peries was a co-founder of TRNN, where she harnessed the power and expertise of civil society institutions. Previously, Sharmini was Economic and Trade Adviser to President Hugo Chavez at Miraflores and for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Venezuela. Prior to that she served as the executive director of the following institutions: The Commission on Systemic Racism in the Criminal Justice System, The International Freedom of Expression Exchange, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants. She also managed the Human Rights Code Review Task Force in Ontario, Canada. She holds a M.A. in Economics from York University in Toronto, Canada. Her Ph.D. studies in Social and Political Thought at York University remain incomplete (ABD).