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After legislative successes in 2022, Sen. Gillibrand outlines priorities for new Congressional term

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in Cohoes, NY
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in Cohoes, NY

The U.S. House and Senate have been a study in contrasts in the early days of the new Congressional term, with majority House Republicans struggling just to get organized, while it has been business as usual for majority Senate Democrats. With the return of divided government to Washington, it remains to be seen how President Biden will move his agenda forward over the next two years, as another presidential election looms. Joining WAMC’s Ian Pickus to discuss the highlights of 2022 and her hopes for the new term is Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

Well, before we talk about this year, you said that last Congress was your most productive term yet. You've been there since 2007. How come?

Well, a lot of the bills that I've been working on for a long time finally got votes and they passed and became law. So, a lot of success in the last six months. One such bill was the gun trafficking bill that I've been working on since 2009. It was included in the bipartisan gun package that makes gun trafficking a federal crime, where kingpins and traffickers and straw purchasers can be given penalties up to 25 years if they are kingpins and it just gives more tools to law enforcement to ensure public safety. That bill also included a bunch of money for mental health, for violence disruptors, so that not for profits, schools can apply for money to do violence disruption mental health programs to make sure our youth don't join gangs, don't use violence as the means of solving problems and really help them with the mental health challenges that we've seen really grow because of COVID. I also had success in changing how we deal with sexual assaults in the military, sexual assaults, sexual harassment, murder, serious crimes. They're all being taken out of the chain of command given to trained military prosecutors so that justice is possible for our servicemembers who sacrifice everything. A related change for the civilian world, Lindsey Graham and I teamed up to make sure that when you join a company and sign an employment contract, that you're not signing away your constitutional right to a jury trial. So, if you're harassed or assaulted in the workplace, you can now sue in a court of law, you don't have to sign a mandatory nondisclosure agreement. It changed 60 million employment contracts overnight. So, that's a huge win.

And then another bill that I've worked on for a few years is related to the 9/11 health bill, which was getting the resources for all of the health care impacts that it's had. Specifically, the cost of inflation for health care has been higher than the cost of inflation for other things and so we got that done. And then the coalition that we brought together to do 9/11, worked to then pass a huge veterans bill to make sure that service members and veterans who are exposed to burn pits and are developing these horrible diseases similar to the 9/11 cancers, that they can get access to health care. That helped 3.5 million vets to make sure they are guaranteed health care treatment for any illness they have because of exposure to burn pits. So, those are just a few of our big wins.

Then lots of other smaller things included in the large bills that we all passed and worked together like the CHIPS Act, more money for semiconductor manufacturing, and high tech and super-computing, things that will really help New York. Money in the infrastructure bill for all the roads and bridges and sewers that New York State needs so badly. Including my bill local hire, local provision that allows local workers to be hired to do these projects, especially if they are going to right the wrongs of the past, when highways and different infrastructure was built in a way that harms low-income communities. And the last bill, which is the Inflation Reduction Act had a bunch of stuff in it for offshore wind, making sure we can reconnect communities in terms of environment and climate justice block grants, as well as relief for our small farmers. And so, so many good things got passed for New York and I feel like it was a really great year for our state.

We've been talking to you about issues like military justice reform and your burn pits legislation for a long time. What is the timeline for implementation now that the NDAA has been approved?

It's going to take at least the next two years to stand up the program. They've just picked, selected the lead prosecutor who's going to run the independent prosecutors. So, that person has been named and then they will train and repurpose people's billets, their MOS’s to become full time criminal justice lawyers, and so those people will be chosen and then those cases will start getting moved over. So, I think it'll be up and running within two years, some cases will start being decided this way sooner than that. And we're going to create a look back provision so we get a report every year on how the program's going and if there's problems in the program, we can use the defense bill every year to improve it and to work on it to make sure it gets implemented as intended.

Are there other issues within the way the U.S. military functions that you now have your eye on? Has this opened any other doors for you where you think some overdue reforms are in order?

Well, the criminal justice system overall needs work. We saw bias in how cases were prosecuted across the board, bias against women, we saw greater prosecution if you're a person of color, bias both against defendants and plaintiffs. And so, we're hoping that once we reform this system for the first dozen crimes, we can expand those crimes to all serious crimes within the next few years, though we want to get the system up and running to deal with the cases that we know they deal with poorly because we have the data, we've been tracing the data for the last 15 years. So, we have real data on sexual assault, sexual harassment and those particular violent crimes. And so, once we get the system up and running, I wouldn't be surprised if all plaintiffs and all defendants want to have the benefit of a professionalized, independent system. I think it will work for all people.

Before we talk about some other pressing issues for this year, let me ask you about the House side leadership vote behind Speaker McCarthy. I'm just wondering, you were a member of the House of Representatives, what did you think of that entire process?

I thought it was terrible. It was a terrible reflection of where the Republican Party is right now. They're an absolute disarray. And unfortunately, the new speaker had to give away the store to ultra conservatives who do not share my values in terms of freedom and equality and opportunity for everyone. And so, I was very, very disappointed in how much power he gave an ultra-conservative, small group of people.

Along those lines, there's already been discussion that this right flank of the House GOP wants to hold up things like the Farm Bill, the debt ceiling. What are your expectations for how things will work in coming months?

Well, it's disturbing. Obviously, the debt ceiling, you cannot put the full faith and credit of the United States at risk, you cannot put our stability of our economy at risk. So, that just shows the level of absolute irresponsibility of this group of people. If they're going to undermine the Farm Bill, again, rural America will not tolerate that. The farm bill comes up every five years. It's the most important vehicle to not only help our farmers but to help rural America, to help rural nutrition, to help rural broadband, to help small businesses in rural areas, to help with brownfields, to help with rebuilding post superstorm and post flooding. This bill is so important for the US economy and for rural America. I really dare them to try to shut it down. It's always been a bipartisan process; I think it will continue to be a bipartisan process. So, I'm not going to give up hope yet that that can't get done.

What would you say are some of your other top priorities for this year?

So, I have a very big agenda. I'm on four committees that are very important for New York. The first obviously, is the Farm Bill. I'm on the Ag Committee and that only comes up once every five years. So, I'm going to be focused on helping our dairy farmers, helping rural development, helping our fruit vegetable farmers, making sure that we have better insurance programs in place, especially for crop insurance and for dairy insurance. We want to change how we do dairy pricing. We don't want to have to base the reimbursement rates on the price of cheese in Chicago anymore, we want to actually have it be based on the cost to production. So that would be a big change that I'm really working towards. We want to help the nutrition programs make sure some of the changes we made during the pandemic to get EBT food stamps easier. We want to keep those things in place. We want to make sure we have summer meals programs and breakfast and lunch and after school programming. And we want to help our small businesses in rural areas continue to grow. So huge priorities there.

Armed services, I mean, obviously continue to make sure that implementation for service members of all these changes continues. I'm also focused on the first ever National Cyber Academy, which we put into the defense bill last year. It's going to provide free college for kids that want to do cybersecurity, in a defense posture in a civilian posture. So, whether you go to the CIA or the NSA or the NGA or any other security agency, free college in exchange for five years of service, we're going to use an ROTC type program to get it started. There are 200 universities, state schools and community colleges, that have already been approved by the NSA to have the right cyber curriculum. And so, we're going to ask kids to start applying in 2024. So that's a huge thing that I'm going to keep focusing on.

On the Intel Committee, I'm doing a lot on cyber, in terms of protecting our infrastructure from cyber-attack from Russia, and China and Iran and I'm going to continue to work on that, as well as other cybersecurity changes and support for our intelligence community. And then my last committee is the Special Committee on aging and I'm going to work there on a master plan for aging. We're going to work on how we can help seniors age in place, and how we can help them continue to live vibrant lives, get the health care they need, get the housing they need, and get the job opportunities they need and make sure our Social Security and Medicare programs continue to be solvent. So those are big priorities. A

nd then one bill that kind of matches all these things is our One Health Security Act, which combines the work I do on the Ag Committee with the Intel Committee with the Defense Committee, to make sure we can prevent the next pandemic, through intelligence to make sure we are working collaboratively with animal health, with agriculture and with intelligence to have constant sharing of information so we can know and prevent the next pandemic from happening.

With regard to cybersecurity, are we behind other nations, like the ones you mentioned, Russia and China?

I wouldn't say we're behind but I would say we are vulnerable because Russia, China, Iran, other bad actors, they attack our private sector. So, 80% of our internet infrastructure and cyber infrastructure is privately owned, and we don't have the authority to protect people's private networks, unless we create a new relationship between DOD, NSA, CIA in the private sector. And so, I'm working on creating that new relationship. Right now, we have fusion centers in New York City that do cyber collaboration. We have probably the top 50 companies and critical infrastructure in constant contact with the NSA and SISA, which are organizations that do cyber defense, so that they can tell them if Russia is attacking or China's attacking or Iran’s attacking and what tools they're using, so that people’s companies and entities can put their shields up and make sure they can prevent the ransomware attacks and the other type of cyber-crime that's committed every day. We need a more robust relationship, in my opinion, to really protect against an attack from China or Russia on our private infrastructure. And so, it's not that we're behind, it's just that we don't attack other countries in their private sector in that way. And so, it's uneven. It' disparate. We use our asymmetric attack and we use our strengths differently. And so, we just need to be more prepared and that's something that SISA’s committed to doing.

Several of your colleagues, including Chris Murphy of Connecticut, have been to the southern border in recent days after President Biden and his administration announced a new plan to limit the number of asylum seekers who are showing up on the border. What do you think of the President's plan and do you think that it will work?

Well, I fully support enhanced and much more investment in border security. I think we have to stop the flow of illegal immigration but one of the best ways to do that is to right size immigration and create more visas for legal immigration and to encourage people who are seeking asylum to apply from their countries of origin, not taking these dangerous treks across many countries. I think we have to stop the flow of illegal immigration through our borders and start an increase in legal immigration, so that people can follow a law or follow a plan. We need a pathway to citizenship for the 13 million people here already. We need comprehensive immigration reform. I think there's a number of senators that are eager to start working on that and the new Congress. I think that's why a bunch of them did go to the border to not only support President Biden and increased investment, but to help guide solutions, legislatively. So, I'm optimistic that maybe there can be a strong working group on immigration reform this year.

Senator, you're up for reelection next year. Are you 100% committed to running again?

I am. I'm very excited to run for reelection in 2024 and I have not only announced my campaign, but I've already started building a strong campaign and infrastructure for that campaign. I've already raised and how $5 million cash on hand to fund a very robust campaign. I will raise more resources and I will collaborate with our state committee and our county chairs. I've been reaching out to our county chairs as well as our labor leaders and I've earned commitments from pretty much everyone so far. So, I'm pretty excited about the campaign we're going to build and hopefully earning the support of New Yorkers to serve another six years.

What's your message to people listening about why they should stick with you for another term?

I get things done on their behalf, and I help people and everything I do. I've focused on healthcare, education and jobs. I've had a laser like focus on issues that help people be able to manage what the last three years of COVID have brought them, as well as helping them rebuild so that we can have a stronger economy and stronger families. I think I've done a great job getting major legislation passed over the last six years and I intend to continue to build on that and deliver for New Yorkers.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.