In 2017, Rep. Ro Khanna entered Congress, and in his first year began speaking out about a price-gouging defense contractor named TransDigm that ultimately returned $16 million in overcharges to the Pentagon. A War Powers resolution he introduced in his first year to end U.S.-backed involvement in the war in Yemen eventually passed the House—the first War Powers Act vote to pass a chamber of Congress in U.S. history. A bill he sponsored in the House called the Endless Frontier Act was modified to become the CHIPS and Science Act, which invests in semiconductor manufacturing and basic research, and passed the House this year.
For a backbench Democrat, Khanna has had an outsize impact, whether in the minority or the majority. And he’s been at the forefront of not only the policies of the Progressive Caucus, but areas of bipartisan cooperation on national security and industrial policy. Khanna has been unique in going into red areas to talk about his goals for broadly shared prosperity, which to him is rooted in bringing back industrial jobs onshore and investing in America.
At a coffee shop near the Capitol earlier this month, Khanna and I talked about his economic agenda, the role of public investment, his recent public opposition to internet censorship, the Progressive Caucus’s role in the next Congress, antitrust, crypto, and more. An edited transcript follows.
David Dayen: So you got a win with the NDAA and permitting reform.
Ro Khanna: Yeah. [Reps.] Rashida [Tlaib] and I and [Raúl] Grijalva came out and said we were going to vote against the rule publicly. And there were about 15 people privately willing to do that. We made it clear to the Speaker that she didn’t have the votes. And the final hurdle is the omnibus. But I said, we’re not going to do pipelines in the lame duck.
One of the things people don’t understand, I was up in New Hampshire campaigning for Chris Pappas. And I went up to Berlin, in northern New Hampshire. They want to build solar and wind. [Gov. Chris] Sununu has restrictions on the amount of solar and wind. But they want to upgrade the transmission lines, to take solar and wind into the smart grid. And the roadblock to that is not permitting. The roadblock is: Eversource, the utility, does not want to invest in an upgrade of transmission for solar and wind. They don’t want solar and wind to be more a part of their portfolio.
So one of the things the [Inflation Reduction Act] didn’t fix, it didn’t incentivize utilities. And you have to get the utilities’ consent. The money isn’t going on these transmission lines to the cities. The big issue is not the permitting, which has become the stalking horse. The big issue is getting the utilities to buy in to make the investments.
What are you looking at in the next Congress, what are your priorities?
Well, my overarching priority is how do we frame progressive economic policies in a way that has the broadest possible appeal. The fundamental challenge of this country was the deindustrialization and shipping of jobs offshore. And we’ve got to basically have a moon shot to bring in new industries across this country to have a trade surplus again. The advent of new technology provides us an opportunity. The awareness post-COVID makes the American people more interested in this. We’ve done it sort of piecemeal with CHIPS but we can do it in every part of the country with conditionality, so no stock buybacks, prevailing wage, open labor neutrality, which is what FDR did in the New Deal. I’m doing a bill with [Sen. Marco] Rubio—I wanted $2 trillion, he’s agreed to $20 billion—to create an economic development council that reports to the president to do this. And he’s signing on to it, which shows there’s an openness in the Republican ranks for what I call a new economic patriotism.
And then I think the argument of we shouldn’t have child care cost more than $10 a day, what Canada did. We need to have free public college. We need to have Medicare for All. All of that I think becomes patriotic investments, investments in revitalizing communities. The new industries, CHIPS-type stuff always has a better shot at getting bipartisanship than the child care or other things. One of the ideas I’m exploring is also that you should keep your receipts at the end of the year and get a tax credit if you buy American-made shoes, American-made products.
A Made in the USA tax credit kind of thing?
To incentivize production, yeah. The advantage of this I think is it can position progressive policies as what is necessary for economic resilience, economic support. It can say look, we need to work with business, but only if it’s businesses investing in the United States, creating jobs in Black and brown communities, rural communities. It can transcend the debate between do we focus on Columbia, South Carolina, that faced deindustrialization, or Youngstown, Ohio? We can do both. And it provides a way of ultimately, I think, building a governing coalition that’s beyond the split party that we have.
With CHIPS, obviously everything turns to implementation. One of the key things we’re looking at is this whole question of whether these green jobs are going to be good jobs.
I’ll tell you a couple things about that. One is I define the new economic patriotism as beyond green. That is because green jobs are a small sliver, though so important. We lost steel manufacturing, we lost aluminum manufacturing, we lost paper manufacturing, we lost textile manufacturing. We don’t make Tylenol, we don’t make antibiotics. One of the cultural disconnects is when we go to a place like Anderson, Indiana, because I was there recently and we just talked about semiconductor chip manufacturing and battery manufacturing and lithium processing, and they’re like those aren’t the jobs we have. Our jobs are making leather car seat upholstery for cars, making gaskets, making tires.
I think what we need to talk about as a party is a productivist agenda. And by the way, it happens to be cleaner, because greening the industrial base is critical. China makes aluminum out of coal. In that process I think you’re going to create a lot of good manufacturing jobs which are good jobs. We need to then unionize the service industry, which is why I was so vocal on the fast-food bill, the wage council in California. We’ll see the implementation but I pushed very hard on it.
Let’s talk about productivism. A lot of times it gets framed as “we just need to build capacity in housing or transmission.” But it doesn’t totally define the impediments to that. It talks about public input; I really think it’s more about power. What do you see as the structural impediments?
I don’t think it’s permitting. I get that permitting is one part of it, but that’s not—I think if you have the excitement and energy, the permitting will follow.
Access to capital I’d say is a significant one. People are investing more in the latest dog app than wanting to build factories. There’s also a lack of strategic planning. So we did the Defense Production Act to make latex gloves where I was, up in the North Country of New Hampshire. It was a great model, they provided the funding, business came, 100 jobs. And nine months later it’s bankrupt, those jobs are gone. Because no one wants those latex gloves anymore. So why aren’t we stockpiling it, why don’t we have someone thinking about that?
If you want to build a factory in Michigan, you want capital investment? If you invest in America, we’ll invest in you. If you pay your workers [well], we’ll invest in you. You talk about investing in the workforce here. You talk about incentivizing consumers to buy here. And we actually had a more rational economic policy to do this, it’s just copying what Hamilton and FDR did to build America, that worked. And I think that’s what the Democratic Party should be championing.
How does it feel to have your personal email address out to the world?
You know, for me it’s not a big deal. I got about 300 emails, but many of them were nice, surprisingly. Usually, you go on Twitter and the comments are like, “you’re an idiot.”
I wrote this op-ed recently at The Wall Street Journal, the defense of free speech and New York Times v. Sullivan. I think what struck a nerve, one of the challenges we have in this country is that many people who are in the working class think that we have a condescending moral attitude. That we are either telling them to shut up or silence them. That we think we know better than they do what the morally good, morally correct way of living is. And the piece ultimately was not as much about censoring the New York Post as much as it was saying we have to have a humility about truth, we have to listen to people we may disagree with.
And because of the overwhelming response that I had, which I didn’t expect to it, I think that if that sort of respect for people’s point of view and a firm affirmation of the constitutional principles of debate combined with an economic patriotism provides us one pathway out of the culture wars. I’m not saying it’s necessarily going to succeed. But we have to look for ways to do that, because fundamentally it’s the right thing to do as a patriot, it’s the right thing to do as someone who cares about the globe, and having a unified America, a cohesive America, a more functional America that’s going to give a better shot to peace in the world and cooperation on climate change.
We have to do it because it’s best as a country to try to become a multiracial democracy. But we also have to do it to have any shot at getting progressive goals. Like you’re not going to be able to get the child care, Medicare for All, free public college without broad coalitions in this country. And I think this gives us a pathway to build that broad coalition.
You’re part of the Progressive Caucus. Obviously, the caucus has shown in this Congress the ability to throw its weight around a little bit. Next Congress, obviously a different kind of scenario. What do you have planned?
Triangulation won’t be possible with the modern Progressive Caucus. President Clinton in 1994 didn’t have to deal with as strong a Progressive Caucus. And so he was able to cut deals with Gingrich, letting progressives just vent with no recourse. That’s not going to be possible. I don’t think President Biden is going to be able to sit down with Kevin McCarthy and cut a deal to entrench the fossil fuel infrastructure, if 50 progressives are going to go on MSNBC and say he’s selling out young voters by doing that. So I think we have the ability to prevent triangulation, which you may say is defensive but that’s significant. I don’t even think the president is going to have that instinct because of the change of the political environment.
One of the big executive orders Biden put out was about promoting competition in the U.S. economy. I know that is an important issue with you in terms of monopolies and that.
I think on antitrust more broadly we need legislative change.
More aggressive enforcement is not going to be enough?
No, because I think you can’t have a stronger FTC chair than Lina Khan or [Assistant Attorney General Jonathan] Kanter. The law is, you look at the same day that we’re celebrating Lina Khan or Kanter was the same day that Facebook was winning cases in the courts, because the business judgment rule is so broad. So unless there’s a tightening of the law, I think you’re hamstrung.
There’s the bill that the House passed.
And the Klobuchar bill. And unfortunately, I think this was the moment. Because … I’m not sure a Republican House is really going to take it up. When you have people from Silicon Valley supporting the bill, and they keep sending me back, at least for now. It’s not, it shouldn’t be that hard a vote.
The other area, I think, of bipartisan potential is what you’ve been writing about on blockchain. And I’ve disagreed with Paul Krugman on this. Krugman writes that blockchain has no value. And I still think there’s value to the underlying technology itself that allows for self-executing contracts. But what I would say is that [SEC Chair] Gary Gensler has been one of the most thoughtful people on both understanding the technology and understanding the risks. We probably need to both strengthen the SEC and strengthen the CFTC both. But the cynical attacks today on Gensler, when he’s the one who’s been the most prophetic …
Including by some of your colleagues.
Including by some of my colleagues, on both sides. I think one of the things they ought to do is give Gensler his respect, that he was sounding the alarm that this industry needs more regulation. I say this as someone who supports the development of blockchain. I think the mistake was more that we didn’t pass sufficient regulation, not that Gary Gensler should have magically been able to anticipate this.
What’s your 2024 look like? I think there might be an open Senate seat.
We’ll take a look at it. But you know, I like my job too much to roll the dice in terms of that. But there are a lot of people encouraging me, wanting a strong progressive there. Bernie did very well in the state. As a Bernie co-chair, I built a lot of relationships with people across the state. So it’s not something I’ve ruled out by any means. But I also, if there’s a time in my career that I start to stagnate and feel like I’m not able to build out of the House, then it’s something that I’d be more anxious about. But right now, I feel like I’m still having more and more impact and learning more and more about how to make a difference.