tv Congressional Career of Rep. Eliot Engel D-NY CSPAN December 23, 2020 5:58am-6:31am EST
unfiltered view of government. c-span was created by america's cable television companies in 1979. today we are brought to you by these television companies that provide c-span as a public service. >> new york congressman elliott engel, the outgoing chair of the house committee on foreign affairs, was interviewed about his career as a lawmaker on capitol hill, which spanned 16 terms and more than three decades. this is about 30 minutes.
representative engel: i remember pinching myself and saying, and i really here? everyone was so friendly. and a lot of these people became lifetime friends. they stayed a while and i stayed a while, and i never expected to be elected and reelected so many times. but i just love the job, i love the people i represent, and i am very grateful that they gave me this opportunity to represent them. it has been beyond my wildest dreams. when i was growing up in a public housing project in the bronx, i could only have dreamed that one day i would be a member of the night and states congress. and dreams do come true. greta: what made you decide to run for congress? representative engel: well, i was always interested in government. i always used to know when i was a kid, the names of all the senators and members of the house, and things like that. i was involved politically. i got elected on a local level. and when i got elected to the state legislature, the new york state assembly, and then my congress member was indicted and convicted and went off to jail.
there was a vacancy in the seat and everyone said, i should run. i had small children. we weren't sure it would be easy for the family, but after speaking with my wife a number of times, we decided that this was an opportunity i would never forgive myself if i didn't take advantage of. it's really interesting, i used to say, if it is they are you -- if it is there, you have to just take it. if it is there, i would rather run and be able to contribute things than not run and wonder what might have been. i never regretted it one moment. running for congress is the greatest thing that happened to me, just wonderful. i have enormous respect for my colleagues on both sides of the aisle. i have been known as somebody who works with both sides of the
aisle. my relationship with my ranking member on the foreign affairs committee. my -- and when i was ranking member, my relationship could not be better. been myaffairs have love, and it is important because we do not live with -- we do not live by ourselves, we live in a world in the united states have been the leader of the free world since the end of world war ii. with leadership comes responsibility, and i would rather that we chart that responsibility than to have some other nation like iran or china do that so it is important for us to be involved, important for us to do good things. and it has just been an honor for me to serve here and an honor to be chair of the foreign affairs committee. greta: what sparked your love for foreign affairs? representative engel: well, my dad was a welder, and ironworker, he was a union
welder. and growing up in the bronx those days, everyone was democrats, and we used to talk about these things and i had a fascination of what was going on in congress, and i would discuss these things with my father, even when i was 7, 8, 9, and it was a matter of just loving it. people would read novels and i would read decision papers on -- position papers on issues. greta: how old were you when you were doing that? representative engel: 10, 11 maybe. greta: how did your heritage shape your life of foreign affairs? -- love for foreign affairs? representative engel: my family came to the country from eastern europe before world war i. my grandmother was the only grandparent i knew. she lived with us. she came in 1907.
i followed all of the events. the holocaust was a significant factor for me and it is -- fact for me, and something that has guided me. and that is why i think it is so important that we set the standard of respecting the rights of all people. there is a lot of anti-semitism and a lot of anti-everything in this world. and i think people of will have to fight back and we have to make sure that everyone is treated the same, regardless of who they are and where they came from, the color of their skin, religion, any other factors that divide us. and i think in america, we have much more things that bring us together then divide us. it doesn't mean we don't have work to do. we do, and i look forward to president biden doing a of this -- a lot of this work. because he has been in the senate for a long time, and foreign affairs is one of his fortes. so he is not someone who has to learn the issues.
he knows them, has worked on them and i have seen him firsthand through the years. he is very smart and brilliant in terms of what he sees america's role in the world should be. and i agree with the way he has conducted himself all these years. greta: are you open to serving in a biden administration? representative engel: well, i want to first get through this term, and then it is something i would consider. it would be an honor. you have to look and see what job would be the best for you and what you could contribute the most, what kind of job would give me the most satisfaction helping this country. and being chairman of the foreign affairs committee, we have jurisdiction over the state department.
i have been critical of the fact that the state apartment -- department personnel have not been treated well, and there are lots of things that i would change. perhaps something at the state department, perhaps an ambassadorship. people have said to me, but i will see. we will see. i have time to decide to do that. greta: let's go to the beginning of your career. you mentioned working in the new york state assembly. you were there for a decade prior to coming to washington. how did that impact you? representative engel: when i was elected, you know, i graduated from college. it was hunter college, then became lehman college, part of the city university of new york. i graduated from a municipal
college so we lived at home and , went to school every day. it was the type of thing where i graduated with no debt. i contrast that to my children. my daughter, who is a lawyer, has tremendous debt and seems she can never climb out from under it. but i think new york had it right in those days, and i hope they continue to have it right, because now, it is not free anymore. you have to pay a little bit, but it is much, much better than graduating with the debt that you can have with university life. that does a very important issue -- i think that is a very important issue for american families. when i was elected to the state assembly, we did a lot of things obviously that effect york state, but my love was always international relations, or international affairs. and you don't to much of that in your home state in the state capital, you do it in washington.
so i always knew that if i got elected, that would be what i would want to do. and a funny story, tom foley, who later became speaker, i think he was majority leader when i came in, he said to me, what committee do you want to be on? list your three choices, and i wrote foreign affairs, foreign affairs, foreign affairs. and i said to him, i would like to be on the foreign relations committee. and he said, the senate calls it foreign relations, but the house calls it foreign affairs. the way to remember it is that the senate has relations, and the house has affairs. greta: [laughter] representative engel: that was tom foley. he became speaker a few years later. and it has been such a marvelous trip, such an honor and a pleasure.
you hear about nastiness in congress, well, i have always tried to go the opposite way. when we did trips abroad, bipartisan committees of democrats and republicans, i always thought it was important that politics stops at the water's edge, that people in other countries should not see us fighting amongst each other, but see us working together because when we are leaving the country, we are there as american representatives. i think it works. there is differences in philosophy or whatever, but we are all americans, proud to be americans. i'm honored to be representing
this country and be part of the political structure of this country. it is a dream come true and hopefully, some of the good things we have done, we can build on in the future. greta: who have been your closest pals on capitol hill? representative engel: when i was elected in 1988, the district to the north of me was nita lowey. she and i got elected at the same time and now we are both retiring. we will have served the exact same time in congress. she is chairman of the appropriations committee and i am chairman of the foreign affairs committee, and we are good personal friends. it is amazing, how we stayed, and both of us started at the same time and are leaving at the same time. there have been a number of friends i have had.
jerry nadler is someone i knew from albany at the state legislature. we were personal friends before we were elected to anything, and there were others as well. was elected i had small children, so it was a bit difficult, but we have had the children here for a number of years, they are now back in new york, but they lived here. i am just always amazed at the amazing people, colleagues who run for office, who do well. if i don't agree with them on some issues, they are not my enemies. we are all americans and we are all proud to represent america. greta: what about on the other of the aisle, who have you grown close to? representative engel: mike mccall is another ranking
-- is now the ranking member. ed royce was the chairman, and we all got along very well. there are a number of people on the foreign affairs committee i have gotten along with. again, when you go abroad, you realize that there is much more that brings us together than divides us. greta: you know how many trips abroad you have taken over the years? representative engel: i don't know. i have taken a number of them. probably not as much as most chairman have done in the past, because to go on a trip is a whole big thing. you are away for a weekend you have to plan and you have to come back, so i didn't go on a lot of trips, but enough. enough to see people throughout the world, to try to improve america's image around the world, to try to show we are working together. and again, it is important that america keep its role.
i have said this before, nobody taps us on the shoulder to be the leaders. we have to go and do it. and i have very strong feelings about what the world should be, and that the united states should not recoil and pull back and withdraw from the world. the united states should be right in there. we have an alliance called nato which basically was formed to keep the russians in check after world war ii. the russians called the country the soviet union. i grew up under that done felt -- under that, and felt that they would somehow be around forever. but then, it collapsed and we saw a lot of former soviet bloc countries in eastern europe became western countries and allies with the united states and nato. this is what we should do. we should lead on climate change. we should be leading on all these things because we have the
expertise, and people look for us, and angela merkel and others do a great job,, but the united states is sometimes missing. and i think that is not a good thing. greta: your favorite moment overseas serving in this position? representative engel: wow. that is a good question. i think that my visiting many different countries, it is hard to pick out. i have any emotional commitment, of course, to israel. i have worked very hard with the albanian community in my district. there is a place called kosovo. i have been there a number of times. we prevented genocide in kosovo in 1999 in the balkans wars.
we drove serbia out of kosovo. they were doing ethnic cleansing, and a lot of people were murdered. i go to kosovo now and i've got a couple of highways named after me, and they have me on a postage stamp, which is lovely. i was kidding around with my friends and i said, it is not a cheap postage stamp, it is two euros, and they used a picture of me that is about 10 years old, so i look much better than i should have. but if you can change people's lives, what is better than that? there is nothing better than that. greta: who are your mentors here on capitol hill? representative engel: certainly nancy pelosi. i have known nancy -- nancy came to congress, i think, six months before i did.
and i have never seen anybody in my life work harder than she does and is as smart as she is. if you go on a trip with her, you start early in the morning and you finished late at night and it is 1:00 in the morning and she keeps going and you are ready to fall over, everyone is looking at each other. she is amazing. greta: what has she said to you over the years that has motivated you to keep working? representative engel: that we can make a difference in people's lives. at that is what we are doing. and if you are not they are in the rooms, then your ideas don't get forwarded. that it is important to be there. that it is important to speak your mind and it is important to stand your ground. she is somebody i have admired. steny hoyer, who has been around for a long time, he is almost the dean of the delegation of the democrats. i think he has served longer than anybody else. and we have so many other
people, younger members, you look at the new members coming in. i look at the foreign affairs committee. we have freshmen coming in that -- who are just so much better than any other former class. we have people who worked in the military or the state department or some kind of foreign issues. there is not a learning curve. they know a lot of stuff and they come in and hit the round running. they are great people. and frankly, the republicans have some very good members on the foreign affairs committee. greta: what advice would you give these freshmen that are coming in? representative engel: i would say work hard. and you don't know everything. -- and understand that you do not know everything. there are lots of good people with expertise who can help you and work with you to help you
understand what we do, why we do it, and vice versa. you can help them from your knowledge and they can help you with their knowledge. i think that we need to listen to each other. we need to talk with each other. we need work with each other. otherwise, we can spend the whole time here fighting and yelling, and i don't think it does anything except turn people off who say, they are all the -- who say that they are all the same. it is not true. there are so many good people working here. i'm a democrat. i'm proud of being a democrat. and we have great people working here. republicans have good people too. greta: which votes over the years do you view as consequential? representative engel: well, i am always fighting for working-class people.
my father was a union welder. making sure they are paid wages that are correct, making sure that they have health care. i was one of the original people to sit down with the affordable care act because not only am i on the foreign affairs committee, i am on energy and commerce which handles health , care. i remember when ted kennedy passed away, we were one vote short so we had to settle for what we got. of course, some of the have been trying to kill it all off from day one. i think that would be a tragedy. everyone is entitled to health care. health care is a right, not a privilege, particularly in the richest country in the world. so helping working people, average people, people who worked hard all their lives,
helping the government service the people, that is what i feel very strongly about. greta: was there ever a moment during the debate over the 2010 health care law that you didn't think it was going to happen? representative engel: sure. first of all, i wanted a medicaid program. and we were also looking at various ways we could do these things, and it was very hard. we couldn't get a majority. and as i said, teddy kennedy passed away and we didn't have what we wanted. but we have been pushing, i think we are going to still push, and we are not going to stop until people have the health care they deserve. other issues, climate change, the paris climate accords, we have got to get back in there and lead the world.
we can't be a country that sits and watches by the sidelines. and there are a lot of bad players out there, governments. if the united states doesn't get involved, who is going to get involved? we had a bill in the 1990's called the defense of marriage act, doma, and in those days -- and involved gay-rights. it was a different attitude that we have now. supported all of those bills that protected people's rights because of their sexual orientation. if anything, i think the government should stay out of people's lives. i always laugh when some of my colleagues say they want smaller government but think government should intrude into people's lives and say that they should -- who they should stay with, sleep with, and love. that is that the government's
business. we are here to help people. i was doing some of that when it wasn't so popular. and i think that is what they elected me for. people saw something in me and elected me. once i was elected, i wasn't going to be quiet. you can affect things by being quiet and tenacious. i have so many colleagues who have come up to me these past few weeks and congratulating me and telling me they are sorry to see me go, republicans as well as democrats. i think that is a nice thing, if people in not only my party but the other party think i have done a good job and enjoyed serving with me, that is great. that is just great. greta: any votes over the years, chairman, that you regretted? representative engel: well, i don't think there were any votes per se that i regretted. but i will tell you, i voted for
both of the wars in afghanistan and iraq. i look back now, and i think that was a commitment -- first of all, we were lied to. we were told saddam hussein had weapons of mass destruction. that turned out to be a lie. they showed us classified material that went up to the top of the capital building and read things, think of colin powell going before the u.n., and i was convinced when he said they have weapons of mass destruction. the next one is 9/11, being a new yorker, looking at the carnage. it happened on a tuesday. september 11 was a tuesday. friday, we were there at ground zero, looking at the damage. it is something i will never forget my entire life.
greta: who were you with that day? representative engel: president george w. bush there that day. the one of him with the fireman standing with the bullhorn, i was next to him, two or three people were next to him. it was a time when americans came together. and i'm very proud of the new york delegation, because for years, we couldn't get health care funding for people who were affected by 9/11, who were sick. and some people are dying, even now, with cancers and other things. the new york delegation, we really rolled up our sleeves and fought to get it and were very successful in doing that. i have always been someone who feels very strongly about fighting for my state and fighting for my district. i have done that throughout.
the affordable care act, they were putting something in there that would have hurt new york hospitals and i demanded that it would be changed while wasn't -- or else i was not going to vote for it and i was going to organize people again it -- against it. and we got those changes. so we get little things that add and we helpings, the people we represent, i can't think of anything that is better than that, that gives you more gratification than that. and as i said, i grew up in a housing project. we didn't think we were poor. i talk with my sister, i say we didn't know we were poor, but we were. so i have always believed government needs to help people. we had help, my dad and my mom were great, worked hard all their lives, taught me and my
sister the right values. and they were very proud that someone who comes from an average family could represent their district in congress. i have lived in the district since i was 12, and am a lot older than that now. and it is just great. greta: from a housing project to chair of the house for an -- foreign affairs committee. representative engel: when you think about it, i am humbled to tell you the truth. and do you know what? the years went by fast. it was 32 years that i have served here, but in many ways it seems like it has been less. because the years go by. my grandmother, the one who emigrated from eastern europe, present-day ukraine, she lived with us, she said to me, you will see when you get older how
quickly the years pass. yesterday, i was a little girl dancing in the streets, now i am an old lady. she said that to me and i never forgot, and it is true. the years to go by fast. -- do go by fast. that is why it is important to me for every moment i have that i'm doing something, helping somebody, helping affect change. not change for change's sake, but because we make a difference in people's lives. now with the pandemic and everything, we need government to be involved. i'm disappointed this did not past what we help people to pay their rent and keep their jobs. that is something we should be doing. my father used to tell me stories of the great depression in the 1930's. he was a newspaper boy, and helped make money to help his
family. these are things as americans we all struggle with, commonality. this is the greatest country in the world, and i'm proud to have been part of the politics in government in this country, making people's lives better. greta: as we sit here in this committee room, the house of foreign affairs committee room, you see portraits of previous chairs, i'm wondering have you sat for your portrait? rep. engel: i have not yet. we have been busy in congress, but i intend to do it. it is such an honor. some of these people i know, republican chairman of this committee, and all the others. all of the others went -- that
are up there. dante's picture is here. i think the foreign affairs committee is probably the most bipartisan committee in congress. we have our say, and we have effectuated change, but done it in a way to bring everybody with us, rather than having factions fighting. it is important to stick to your principles, but it is not important to fight when you do not have to fight. the old adage, you can get more flies with honey -- i forget how it goes, but you know what i mean. greta: chairman engel, thank you. rep. engel: thank you, it is great for me to think about these questions you have asked, and it makes me proud to be an american, and proud to have served with my colleagues. i am not retiring, i am changing
jobs. it is great, i think it is great. the more you deal with your -- the more you do with your life, the better it is. i have been fortunate to help people and be successful doing it. it is the greatest thing. thank you for the interview. i will go back home tonight and think, i should have said this and that. i feel great. again, we are a great people and we have a lot to share with the world. that is why i want us to get involved with all the right things. [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2020] [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] >> use your mobile devices and go to c-span.org for the latest on the present -- on the
transition of power, news conferences and event coverage at c-span.org. retiring senator lamar alexander was interviewed about his time as a legislator on capitol hill, reflecting on his 18 years serving in the u.s. senate, and earlier as a governor of tennessee and the education secretary under president george h.w. bush. this is about 30 minutes. greta: senator lamar alexander, we are in the senate health, education and labor pensions committee room. you chaired this committee. why this committee? senator alexander: it has a third of the jurisdiction in the senate. so i lot comes through here. if you want to get rid of common core or fix no child left behind, this is where yo