After eight-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, who represented New Jersey’s 12th district, announced his decision to retire on Tuesday in an email to supporters, he spoke with The Daily Princetonian about his work in the House of Representatives and his plans for the future.
The Daily Princetonian: I want to start with a recent statement you made, that “Congress is the greatest instrument for justice and human welfare in the world.” Why do you still say that after recent events, including the government shutdown?
Representative Rush Holt: Let me first say that I’ve spent the past couple of days tamping down speculation in a couple of areas. One is why I made the decision not to run for re-election. People are imagining or speculating on all sorts of reasons. You know, that Congress is dysfunctional, and there is some truth to that. There are certainly some frustrations in Congress. And they wonder about maybe whether it’s health or other things, and no, it’s really pretty simple. It was not an easy decision, but it turned out to be pretty simple. Sometime there has to be a time to leave Congress. So working back from that premise, I figured really that the end of this year was the right time. As for Congress, yes there are frustrations. Oh, and by the way, the other thing I’ve been spending a lot of time to tamp down is speculation about what I’m doing next, and what that has to do with this decision. And the short answer is, there’s time in the future to talk about what I’m going to be doing in the future. As for Congress, yes there are frustrations, but we demonstrated just last week that something that can’t be done, which is passing a clean debt ceiling extension, can be done, and it can be done quickly. So Congress can work. I still say that our constitutional system is so ingenious that it has functioned well most of the time throughout our history, and I expect that it will function well into the future.
DP: And along those lines, what would you tell your colleagues in Congress are the most important things they have to keep working on in the future?
Holt: Oh, there is a long list of things, and many of them are not getting done right now, but they have to do with the general areas of preserving fairness and human rights and civil rights, maintaining our mechanism of government, in other words, through voting rights and voting procedures, investing in America, which includes investing in education, in research, in infrastructure. And I mean infrastructure, not just concrete and rebar. I mean investment in the broadest sense of infrastructure. And by the way, I would put environmental protections in that idea of investment, because we should both through regulation and public works projects and land acquisition and so forth, we should be investing in the environment. Oh, by the way, I didn’t even talk about international affairs. I didn’t mean to skip that. There are a number of things I would want my colleagues to do to preserve peace and extend human rights throughout the world.
DP: A lot of the problems you’ve addressed have benefited from your scientific expertise. How do you get more scientists interested in politics and more politicians interested in science?
Holt: Well, you’re right, we need both of those. I still expect, as our country and our education system evolve, all well-educated Americans will be able to think and discuss wisely about science. But until that golden age, we need more designated, trained scientists in the formulation of public policy, and that’s in the legislature and elsewhere in the government. But “How do we do it?” is a tough question that I don’t think anybody has [unintelligible] yet. But I’m pleased that I’ve served as a — what’s the word I’m looking for here? A possibility, proof that it can be done. And I hope more people will see that it should be done.
DP: Do you have any disappointments about what’s happened or what’s not gotten done?
Holt: Well, sure. Sure. And I said, I don’t want to stoke speculation that this is why I’m moving on, stepping aside and asking the voters to find their next representative. But sure, there are more frustrations in the last few years than there have been previously. I’ve been in the minority most of my time in Congress, and so, although I prefer being in the majority, being in the minority is not the worst thing in the world. But there have been a lot of frustrations, and I’ve been frustrated at the slow pace. But I’m not running away from the challenge of making things happen.
DP: Something like 33 of your colleagues are retiring after this session so far, which seems to be a rather high number.
Holt: I don’t think it’s an unusually high number. There’s always a lot of turnover. And something that’s surprising, and I haven’t checked in a couple of years, the median length of time for a representative is eight years. Meaning that half of the House of Representatives turns over in eight years. I point that out as a counter to the arguments that we need term limits. And I also point that out to show that a lot of people see this as a citizen-legislator job.
DP: A common stereotype exists of the career politician. Why do you think that median term length is really so short?
Holt: Some people go on to other offices, some people go back to what they were doing before, some people are defeated, people die in office, so it’s all of those things. I guess there are people who accuse me of, a decade and a half, going onto two decades, being a career politician. I’ve never thought of myself that way, and that’s partly why it was possible for me to make the decision that led to my announcement this week.
DP: It’s still very early, but do you see yourself doing the same kind of things in private life as you’ve been doing in public life? Advocating for investment, research?
Holt: There’s opportunity to talk about what I will be doing in the future, in the future.
DP: Is there anything you’d want to say to the Princeton community and to the residents of the 12th district?
Holt: I just love them. That’s all. [Laughs.] As I said in my statement, it is a great honor and great privilege to have been selected to represent them, and I’m still doing it.
DP: You still have about a year left. What are you hoping to get accomplished in the next year?
Holt: I’m always looking for important issues to address when the problems present themselves. But I expect most of my effort will be to continue to work on all of those things that I’ve already been working on. There have been some things I’ve been trying to do for 15 years now, and I think I’ll keep trying to do those, and there are other things I’ve been working on for a somewhat shorter period of time, and I think I’ll keep working on those. I met with my staff this morning to talk about them, how we keep up the momentum on those things that we have been working on and in some cases that I’m known for.