Earlier this year, the MoCo Student editors Richard Yarrow and Max Moss sat down with Congressman John Delaney to discuss his visions and insights about current policies and the political atmosphere. All responses have been edited for length and clarity.
1. What inspired you to pursue a career in government and politics?
I started getting involved in politics probably about a dozen years ago, and it was mostly through supporting candidates whose policies or objectives were similar to mine.
When I was in school, I decided that I wanted to be in business and be an entrepreneur, but I always thought I wanted to be in public service. I think of my life as a third learning, a third earning, and a third serving.
I became increasingly interested in public policy, and I really wanted to do public service and serve the country, and I think part of it was that my wife and I were increasingly spending time in philanthropic and charitable community service endeavors.
2. What are some myths surrounding national politics these days?
Myth number one is the people working on the Hill aren’t very good. My experience is that those who serve on Capitol Hill are terrific people. However, our system is designed to make it really hard to get things done. Our founding fathers were much more worried about government taking away your liberties than about government taking too long to do things. Those on the Hill have different views, different ideological perspectives, but there’s a passion and a competency that’s really very high.
Myth number two is that you really can’t accomplish things. You can, as a good public servant, get a lot of things done and make a difference in people’s lives. I’ll give you one small example—there were bad floods in my district that really hurt western Maryland last year. The most impacted areas are small communities, so even though the flood was devastating, the dollar damage was not large enough to justify federal assistance. We really believed that was wrong. We thought there were ways to interpret the legislation so that they could have had an exception. In response to our efforts they ended up with a program where relief was provided to many homeowners and business owners. This is a small example, but you can use your office in creative ways. The other day, the National Park Service came out with a proposal that they were going to charge people fees to go on the C&O Canal. Again, we thought that was wrong, so we came out, proposed some other alternatives, and now the Park Service has backed away. All in all, myth number two that I’d try to debunk is that you really can’t use these offices to make a difference in people’s lives. I think you can.
The third myth is that people on the Hill don’t get along. Yes, we’re in an era of what I would call identity politics, and there’s less substantive politics. Right now, for a whole variety of reasons, people become very popular as elected officials by having these strong, bold, controversial profiles. And as a result people really make an effort to act like they really don’t get along with the other side. But in reality, Congress is much more collegial than you would think.
3. How do you conduct communication with your constituents?
I have a team that’s always reaching out to my constituents in Montgomery County and Western Maryland. Sometimes, I can get to our constituents a little more clearly in western Maryland than in Montgomery County. Last year, voter turnout was the lowest in Montgomery County out of any county in the state; this is the most educated county and yet it has the lowest turnout. Sometimes the local elected officials have a much bigger impact than ever who the president is, for example, the school board will actually come in and change many small things in our lives.
4. What are your opinions regarding the resignation of Dr. Starr and how can we improve our education standards?
I liked Dr. Starr. One of the things that Dr. Starr has worked on which I think is good is his proposal to change start times. I think Montgomery County has terrific public schools and I think it’s one of the greatest assets that we have. Thus, we need to make sure that we have the resources to manage the growth and maintain high standards.
We need to constantly be thinking about curriculum in light of a changing world. Nowadays, children may spend more time with the media than with their parents and teachers combined. Should we be teaching children how to interact with the media? Or the dangers and pitfalls of the internet? We need to make sure our curriculum is up to date in addition to the focus on STEM. For example, we have to remember that the arts have been really important in this country, particularly around promoting social justice.
5. What are your plans regarding lobbying for improved infrastructure?
My highest priority for infrastructure should be securing investments in the 270 corridor, which at many points of the day looks like a parking lot. I think 270 should be widened and have dedicated bus lanes as a part of a proposal called Rapid Bus Transit that runs from Frederick to Shady Grove. The traffic jam on 270 stifles economic development, and it forces people to commute for many hours in a day. I think this is a huge waste and it has a real impact on families because consequently they’re not reading with their kids when they’re little or doing all the things to make their kids as successful.
6. How do you plan on addressing the academic achievement gap among students?
The solution involves a combination of innovation and increased academic resources. Currently, a lot of funding comes from property taxes, which tends to skew toward affluent areas. That’s a big issue with education, and we need more resources to close the gap. It’s a bit cyclical—the achievement gap leads to more poverty, and poverty leads to more achievement gap. You need to combat them both at the same time. Education is certainly short-term but it’s also a long-term strategy. And while you’re waiting for the educational system to improve, you’ve got to help those who are being left behind; you have to be supporting them and trying to lift them out of poverty.
Also we need to reform our pre-K education, as data shows that these years are very important to one’s cognitive development. In addition, we need to look at a postsecondary model that is more affordable. One of the things that made this country so great is its free public schools, and in the world we are in today that is going to have to change a little bit. It’s probably going to have to be pre-K through maybe a year or two of post-secondary that’s free. There’s a reasonable chance that we see universal pre-k in the next ten to twenty years.
7. Any advice for young people pursuing a career in public service or government?
If you’re interested in working in government, you should do internships in government. If you’re interested in public service, you should do internships in public service. Our careers are much longer now and people are working much longer. The dynamic nature of the workforce means people are more likely to have a couple of careers. You don’t start a job out of school and do that until you’re a retiree; you can do a couple different things, move around more. But make sure that the career decisions you make are based off having some specific experience.