NEXTpittsburgh sat down with Senator Bob Casey (D) several days before the election and talked about a few critical issues, such as who’s going to unite the country now that it’s so divided and how the heck can we get Congress to collaborate on something? Here are some highlights of our discussion, now that the election is over. And we do hope by the time you’re reading this it is indeed over.

It’s Wednesday November 9th. A large part of the electorate is angry and it’s been a very divisive race. What needs to happen to bring people back together again?

One of the issues or challenges driving a lot of the anxiety in the country is just basic economics. If what we saw in the Economic Policy Institute Study from a couple of years ago, the basic conclusion they reached was, wages went up after WWII by 91% for 25 years. Since 1973 going forward they’ve gone up only 11 percent. So when you live in a country where the wages go up 91% in a quarter of a century, to 11 percent over 40 years and you’re at the end of the 40? You’re going to have a lot of anxiety, even anger.

So I think what parties have to do no matter what the result of the election, is figure out a way to come up with a consensus, a bipartisan strategy on raising incomes. That should be an overarching goal of the country just like national security is, just like homeland security is. Because if you’re not addressing that or at least beginning to address it or sending the message to folks who have been devastated by—in some cases decades of economic trauma—you’re probably going to be in a lot of trouble.

How’s that different than what’s been going on? What will be different after this election?

We haven’t focused enough on it and I include both parties on that. That includes my party although I think my party has done a lot more than the Republicans—they have a much longer road to travel to catch up to us. I realize there’s an awful lot of cynicism, often justifiable, that nothing will change. So I can do one of two things: give in to that and say that’s never going to work or I can work to try to bring people together—and that’s part of my job and it’s also part of the job of every other member of Congress.

Right. And how is that going?

Well, as bad as the last number of years have been and they’ve been pretty bad—a lot of dysfunction, the Republicans shut the government down—we didn’t do that, they did because they kept giving into their extremes— if they would stop giving into their extremes and work with us we could make some progress.

One of the best examples of both parties trying to tackle a difficult issue and actually getting a good product in the end of it—where literally both sides were happy but didn’t get everything—was probably the education bill in 2015.

You had a Republican chairman, Lamar Alexander, and a Democratic ranking member, Patty Murray, who if they wanted to appeal to their party and grind the thing to a halt, they could have done that. And they would probably get pats on the back on both sides – you didn’t compromise, you didn’t give in, they would get accolades for that, but there wouldn’t be a bill. And there wouldn’t be education reform.

Instead, both worked very hard and frankly punched each other pretty hard in the process but by the end of it they had a bill—and remember this is education, a complicated, consequential, difficult issue. The Federal government doesn’t do as much and isn’t required to do as much as the state government does but when you’re trying to take the 2002 bill that George Bush and the Democrats worked on and reform it, it’s hard. Really hard stuff. So they came together and said we’ll try to work something out and see what happens in the committee. And they fought hard and went back and forth and the committee vote was 22-0, literally. Far left, far right, middle, every shape and size is represented on that committee and then ultimately it got passed though the Senate and through the House. The conference committee where they were working on the difference between the House version and the Senate version, was again extraordinarily diverse, people of all different points of view. That vote was 39 to 1 but I count it as 39 to 0 because Rand Paul was running for president. He wasn’t there. So he got voted by proxy.

If we could have more moments like that, where people come together and do major league, substantial bills . . .

There’s at least one big issue that is a can do and should do and that is infrastructure. If you look at Hillary’s website—which is most probably the most detailed candidate for President website I’ve ever seen, she’s got 40 separate substantive papers on all kinds of issues—one of her priorities is infrastructure. Even conservative Republications want to do infrastructure—there’s an extreme wing in their party that won’t help us all in infrastructure but if they can get through that thicket and help us with consensus, we can have a good infrastructure bill. It would be a substantial building block to creating jobs and creating some economic dynamism and it would put a lot of people to work who frankly would have been affected by some of those wage issues I just outlined.

I hope we can get some help on raising minimum wage, that would be a good idea. They say they’re for it, but they don’t want to commit to a number.

What about cities which have been left more on their own by the Federal government? 

The best way to help cities would be that infrastructure. They’re the places where you have the greatest example of aging roads, bridges, pipelines, and things like that. Where people for years have been saying why can’t we fix this?

President Obama was recently in town with the Frontiers Conference and its focus on innovation and technology. A lot of the innovation and growth in Pittsburgh is coming from startups and small businesses. What happens with a change of administration? 

If you look at it from a federal perspective, one of the best things we can do to help small businesses including startups is reform the tax code. That’s something that is of great consequence and both parties want to work on it— both parties have worked on it. It’s harder to arrive at a consensus on major substantial complex tax reform as  opposed to the consensus we could get on infrastructure but 2017 might be the only year, the best year where we can reform. It would behoove us to do that as a country because we are getting killed in the international area for several reasons but especially because of the tax code. It’s not an exaggeration to say substantial parts of the tax code say to American businesses “please leave and we will help you” instead of having the incentives in line the other way to keep them here.

The tax code is full of uncertainty and especially for a small business full of complexity when they need simplicity. Some people estimate that if you have a company with 20 or fewer employees, you spend on average $1,800 per employee just to comply with the tax code.

I also think that we’ve got to make sure that we continue to fuel and incentivize what’s happened in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh story is unlike any other and we have to figure out what worked there and learn those lessons and deploy them in other parts of the country.

I remember when the Tech Council started here in the 80s. Pittsburgh didn’t wait around for some recovery act. The people of this city and the leadership got together and said we used to produce steel. Now we’re going to produce other things and tech became a part of that. But you can’t have that dynamism and that energy without great support for higher education and great support for skills development. I have an ongoing maniacal obsession about early learning. You can’t create that kind of economy without getting young kids, rich poor or otherwise, getting early learning.

Some of this is short-term, meaning if you have a tax code that is simpler and more certain, you would see immediate impact. Some of it is long term, investing in early learning, investing in skills.

And look, for Pittsburgh the best thing government can do is create the conditions and get out of the way.

Tracy Certo

Tracy is the founder and Editor at Large of NEXTpittsburgh which she started in March 2014 and sold in December 2020. She is passionate about making Pittsburgh a better place for all and connecting people...