Congresswoman Katherine Clark (D, MA-5) discusses public service, congressional gridlock, and efforts to combat gender inequities in the workforce.
Harvard Political Review: What can you do to improve the dialogue in Congress?
Rep. Katherine Clark: There’s a complicated answer to that. I see my role as using the strength of this district, using the values that we have about supporting middle-class families. Whether it’s raising the minimum wage or continuing long-term unemployment insurance, we know these policies are really important to build an economy that works for everyone. I may not be able to get a big legislative package through right now, but I can use the bully pulpit of the congressional office. I think that the American people of all political ideologies are ahead of Congress on a lot of these issues. It’s about harnessing that power of popular opinion and making sure we keep the pressure on members of Congress to respond to it.
HPR: You’ve made fixing gender inequality one of your top priorities. What’s the situation now, and what can you do as a congresswoman to make a more equitable system?
KC: Right now, [pay for women is] 70 cents to the dollar. If you’re a woman of color, it’s even more disparate. The first thing I did when I got to Congress was become a cosponsor of the Paycheck Fairness Act. We really have to start talking about opening up about what people are getting paid and making sure everyone has the skills to negotiate a really good salary going in.
There’s some great work going on Boston that started under Mayor Menino. We’re getting businesses to sign up and publish their salaries so that people can see. That’s what the Paycheck Fairness Act does. It’s a great way to begin to close that gender gap. It’s part of the puzzle to [eliminate] income disparity.
HPR: What’s on your mind as we approach the midterm election season?
KC: For me, so much of protecting the middle class comes from not only raising the minimum wage or looking at pay equity, but also making sure that we continue to have educational opportunity. We know that all our outcomes aren’t going to be equal. But the goal is to make sure that we all have opportunity that isn’t tied to a family’s income. That’s the strength of our democracy, that’s the strength of our public school system, that’s what sets us apart from so many other places around the globe. It’s something we need to be vigilant about protecting.
HPR: What legislation can help accomplish those goals?
KC: It starts with early education. I’m a big proponent of universal preschool. All our brain research shows that the education you’re exposed to when you’re a very young person really makes a difference. [We need to] make sure that every student is a proficient reader by third grade. All the data shows us that it’s a really great investment.
HPR: What’s at stake for the United States in the 2014 elections?
KC: I would love to see the Democrats win the House back and get Congress back to work. I don’t know if that that’s going to happen. But even if we’re not successful at that, we can highlight issues, educate people about them, and build an economy that’s open to everyone. That’s going to be critical to changing the climate in Congress as well, even if Republicans remain in the majority. The more we can have that kind of discussion in the midterm elections, the better off we’re going to be.
HPR: What advice would you give to a young person interested in public service?
KC: Do it! If you choose to work in elected office or not, I think that it is one of the most rewarding careers you can have. You can really help people and change their lives. It might be a small line item in a huge budget, but the effect can be profound.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo credit: Office of Congresswoman Clark