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John Yarmuth ‘waxes philosophical’ (and warns not to eat the Jell-O)

Retiring Budget chair says some Republicans have ‘gone way off the deep end’

House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth has some thoughts about the direction Congress is headed.
House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth has some thoughts about the direction Congress is headed. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sometimes with these interviews with retiring lawmakers, Heard on the Hill tries to goad them into letting their colleagues know just what they really think about them before they go. It rarely works. These men and women are disciplined by nature, not electoral concerns, but sometimes they cut loose a little.

And then there’s John Yarmuth, the former alt-weekly columnist and retiring Kentucky Democrat who was more than happy to opine about the not-so-dear colleagues he’s departing from. The Budget Committee chairman is leaving on a number of high notes — he was the official House sponsor of Democrats’ pandemic relief bill in 2021 and the tax and climate change package signed into law this August. But when asked to think back on his time in Congress, this bourbon aficionado eschewed sepia-toned nostalgia to reflect on the institution with a gimlet eye. 

“I still have great respect for the institution. And I think ultimately it will function more effectively … once we get this stench of MAGA world out of it,” he said. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: You started out in politics as a Republican but eventually became a Democrat. What changed?

A: When Reagan came into office, I saw this unmistakable move away from moderation when he started hosting Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and catering to the religious right. That frightened me. 

And that’s primarily why I left. I mean, I was a Rockefeller Republican, and it was pretty obvious to me that there wasn’t a comfort zone of being a moderate Republican in this party. I was way ahead of my time.

Q: You’ve been the only Democrat in the Kentucky congressional delegation for nearly a decade now. What has that been like?

A: I would have liked more company, but we generally found a way to work together when Kentucky interests were in play, whether it was tax or trade policy with bourbon or natural disasters.

In the last couple of years, I’ve had a hard time dealing with Thomas Massie, because I think he’s just gone way off the deep end, and Rand Paul has too. Rand and I used to get along, but they’ve just eaten the Jell-O. 

[Otherwise] we’ve always gotten along fairly well. And the Kentucky Democratic caucus meetings are easy to schedule.

Q: What’s your biggest regret as you’re leaving Congress?

A: That we haven’t done anything to limit the amount of money in politics. I would have said my biggest regret was we haven’t been able to get any gun safety legislation passed, but we finally did.

Q: What is your parting advice for your party and for the other party?

A: Change your mentality from electoral to governing. I think Democrats are a lot better about that than Republicans. But still, we spend too much time thinking about the electoral advantages on any particular issue and not where the best policy is. And the Republicans, that’s all they think about.

Q: How do you feel about the institution of Congress and where it’s heading?

A: I still have great respect for the institution. And I think ultimately it will function more effectively than it has been, once we get this stench of MAGA world out of it. 

Since the pandemic started, we’ve been left to our own devices, basically. When you’re walking down the halls [of the Capitol] now and you don’t see tons and tons of American citizens, it creates a detached perspective that we need to get rid of. Having people around, you get the sense you’re part of the country, and you see the diversity of people who come through the halls and sit in the galleries.

[And the Senate should] get rid of all of their stupid rules — not all of them, but most of them. I mean, the filibuster’s obvious, but there are so many of these things that keep them from being functional.

I’ll wax philosophical here: The world is changing incredibly rapidly, and the pace of change is going to increase, it’s not going to slow down. The world’s moving at 100 miles an hour, and at our optimum efficiency [in Congress], we move at 10 miles an hour. We’ve got to figure out how to respond more quickly, but we’re not structured to do that. And the Senate is obviously much less so. 

That’s what worries me the most. A few years ago, we passed credit card chip legislation, and before that was even fully implemented, the technology was old. Artificial intelligence is already changing everything we do, but we haven’t really talked about national policies for AI. Those are just examples.

And then you get a situation like immigration reform, where we’ve got a broken system, everybody admits it’s broken. I was on the Gang of Eight in 2013 in the House, and we had a bipartisan deal where we knew we had 260 minimum votes. The Senate had already passed comprehensive reform, but [Speaker John] Boehner wouldn’t bring our bill to the floor. 

Now there hasn’t even been a discussion about that. I mean, we talk about it — “Yeah, we need to do something” — but why don’t Democrats take that bill we negotiated and put it back up there? We haven’t even tried to do that, and it’s nine years later.

Quick hits

Last book you read? “Miracle at Augusta,” a golf novel by James Patterson and Peter de Jonge.

In politics, do the ends justify the means? Recently, yes.

Your least popular opinion? Probably my gun safety position. Obviously, there are a lot of Second Amendment defenders in my district who don’t like that.

If you could change one thing about Congress, what would it be? Eliminate the Senate.

What’s next for you? The reason I’m retiring is because I want to control whatever time I have left in life, and I’ll be 75 in November. I’m going to do a couple things at the University of Louisville, and I’m going to try to hook up with a policy shop up here. But I’m not going to lobby … unless the bourbon industry asks me. 

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