FILE - U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., talks to reporters on Thursday, April 2, 2015, in Columbia, S.C.
FILE - U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., talks to reporters on Thursday, April 2, 2015, in Columbia, S.C.

South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn sat down this week with the Voice of America to discuss a range of issues that Congress will be considering soon. 

The 12-term Democrat talked to VOA’s Carol Castiel and Cindy Saine about what he sees as the “militarizing of police forces” in the context of several high-profile deaths of African American men during encounters with police. 

He also discussed what role he thinks Congress should have regarding the Iran nuclear agreement, and how he will decide whether to support President Obama’s effort to get broader ability to negotiate trade agreements with more limited oversight from Congress.

The interview will be included in this week’s Press Conference USA.

Use of force by police

VOA:  It would seem that we have seen a wave of cases over the past year of what appears to be the excessive use of force by some law enforcement officers, particularly with African Americans and people of color.  Do you think this is an issue that has always been around and that prominent cases such as the shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson and the case of a man who died in police custody in Baltimore, do you think that’s just raising people’s awareness now that people are out and they are actually recording encounters with their iPhones?

Rep. Clyburn:   Absolutely.  This has been an issue for a long time, and I think that was caused the problem to seem to manifest itself.  It’s the fact that people are starting to see it.  We’ve heard it.  For a long time it’s been there.  I grew up in the South.  I grew up knowing what it’s like to going to a department store, and have a police officer follow you around the department store.  I know what it’s like to be profiled.  And so for people to think this is something new, the only thing that’s new is now people are using their mobile phones to record some of this. 

I remember several years ago, the incident of Rodney King out in California.  Rodney King became a sensational issue simply because people saw it.  But these kinds of complaints have been made in California for a long time.  In Charleston [S.C.,] , my congressional district, Walter Scott—people saw it—and we even saw the police officer seeming to plant evidence.  All that’s on the screen.  And we have been hearing that forever that, that police officers – many of them -- carry around an extra weapon of sorts, just for that kind of purpose.  I’ve been hearing that for as long as I can remember. So, this isn’t anything new.  Just seeing it is now believing it.

VOA:  What role do you think Congress can play in  addressing route causes with law enforcement officers and people of color—or people in general in some of these poor, urban communities?

Clyburn:  There are many things Congress can do.  The first thing, in my opinion, is to have a very strong anti-profiling law.  The second thing is we need to reverse this—I call it—militarizing of police forces.  Police forces ought to be community police people.  They ought not to be combat soldiers.  And this whole thing of dressing up in combat gear and all that kind of stuff, that’s crazy stuff, and I think it leads to people doing things they would not ordinarily do in trying to carry out the law.

A third thing I think we could do is to make sure that laws that have been passed recently get revisited over mandatory minimums.  I think that has had a tremendous adverse impact on these communities.  And laws governing child alimony and that sort of stuff—that stuff leads to a bunch of arrests.  How do you pay alimony if you are in jail? And then the person then becomes almost ineligible for a lot of jobs once the record is put there. 

So we need to take a look at all of this.

You know, I saw a number the other day that shocks me.  The number says that in the United States of America, we are five percent of the world’s population, but we have 25% of the [world’s] incarcerations. There is something wrong with that.

Fast-track Trade Bill

VOA:   Let’s turn to foreign policy for a moment and talk about fast-track authority, which was being discussed in the Senate last week.  And in an unusual turn of partisan forces, as you know President Obama is drawing support mostly from Republicans in pushing for trade promotion authority, and of course he is facing fierce opposition from the Democratic Party.  Are you one of the opponents of trade promotion authority, or do you stand with the President in favor of it?

Clyburn:  Neither, I have not seen the legislation and therefore, I have made it very clear to everybody that I will not express support or opposition to anything blindly.  And so when my staff and I have gone through this legislation to our satisfaction, I will then make up my mind as to whether or not I’ll be for it or against it.

VOA:  Just hypothetically, though, giving the President the ability to negotiate trade bills without too many amendments from the Congress, does that sit well with you?

Clyburn:  Well, it’s one thing to say without too many amendments.  It’s something else to say with no amendments.  And that’s what the issue here is.

Now, you don’t have to do amendments if you have all the concerns addressed in the primary legislation.  And I have concerns about whether workers’ rights will be protected.  I have concerns about the environment.  I voted the last time for the Panama Treaty and the Korea Treaty.  And I voted against Columbia because I had real concerns about the way workers and union officials were being treated in Columbia.  So I have been on both sides of these issues.  I was against NAFTA, but I was for the [unintelligible] bill. I was for that.

So I’ve been on both sides of these issues.  It’s all based upon who you are going to trade with, what kinds of records these people have in the countries—Do they respect the environmental issues?  Do they respect men and women workers?  All of that factors in to whether or not I am for or against a particular trade bill.

VOA:    That leads us to your view on the trans-Pacific partnership – that’s the 12-nation trade pact that according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, it’s a 21st Century trade agreement that would boost U.S. economic growth, support American jobs and grow ‘Made in America’ exports to some of the most dynamic and fast growing, or rather, the fastest growing countries in the world.  And of course, it is the cornerstone of the Obama Administration’s economic policy in the Asia Pacific.  I would probably argue that aside from a landmark nuclear deal, should that come to fruition, bringing the TPP to fruition is very high on President Obama’s agenda.  And they are saying that trade promotion authority soon is essential for that.  What is your position regarding this 12-nation trade pact, which has the strong backing of American businesses, but of course does have fierce opposition at this moment by labor groups and environmentalists?

Clyburn:  Well, my positon is as I stated.  You’re talking about 12 nations here?  Last time we addressed this, it was three--Columbia, Panama, and Korea.  If my memory serves, NAFTA was Canada, Mexico and the United States.

Lumping 12 developing countries into one bill and, I think, developing countries, they have to be cut some slack on certain things.  However, from what I’ve heard about the treatment of workers in Vietnam, it gives me great pause.  And so my question is, are we going to have sufficient protections for these workers or are we going to allow our markets to open up to sweat shops. That to me is a real problem. And so, I have looked at Senator Levin’s alternative legislation, I’ve discussed that with President Obama as well as various liberal leaders, and I am waiting to see how much, if any, of Senator Levin’s alternative will be included in these issues. 

You may recall that the last time we addressed fast track, we did not give President Clinton fast track.  We drew up something called the May 10th Agreements, and they were tacked onto the legislation, and that did what a lot of us wanted then in order to protect people.  So all of these things can still happen with this legislation, so I am open to do as Nancy Pelosi has said many times, to finding a pathway to yes. We have not found it yet.

Iran nuclear agreement; Middle East

VOA:  This week, President Obama hosted Gulf countries to allay their fears about a prospective of nuclear deals with Iran that appears to be emerging.  Are you in favor of the deal—and the right of Congress to review it?

Clyburn:  Well yes, I think so.  It’s one thing to review it.  It’s something else to veto.  I don’t think that Congress ought to have any right to circumvent the president.  And this foolishness that has been going on up here, it’s just foolishness.  And we have to be very, very careful and for people to not see… Look,  I am old enough to have seen and paid close attention to many presidents, all the way back to Truman.  I first, got interested in politics when Truman ran against Dewey back in 1948.  And I have following closely every president ever since.  And so I will say to my friends, ‘Be very, very careful about how you treat this President, because turnabout is fair play.  And I think that this President has not been treated with dignity and respect that he should be treated with.  Especially when it comes to his dealing with foreign countries.  And that, to me, is a big problem here.  So I support this country speaking with one voice when we get beyond the water’s edge.  That is not taking place now.  So these shenanigans that took place here, the letter that they wrote, the invitation to Netanyahu to address them, to me went beyond the pale.

VOA:  Regarding the allies in the region.  As you know, they are very skittish, the Sunni Gulf countries, about a perspective deal.  What do you think is the best way to assuage them if in fact a deal is consummated such that it won’t be a green light for Iran to support terrorism in the region, whether its Hezbollah or Hamas or by other proxies.

Clyburn:  Well, sure.  Suppose we do nothing.  Does that address the underlying concern?  The best way to address the underlying concerns is for us to do a deal and have benchmarks that can in fact be measured and have agreements that can be determined whether or not they have been violated.  Right now, what do we have? How does that protect the people in the region?


VOA:  As part of the National Defense Authorization Act, there’s been a part added to that which would put into debate allowing so-called DREAMers – young immigrants who’ve been granted legal status by President Obama—to enlist and serve in the U.S. military.  Where do you stand on this issue of the DREAMers serving in the U.S. military?

Clyburn:  I am staying with it.  I do believe there are a lot of people who have served in the military without full citizenship.  If my memory serves, I believe that the first person who lost his life in Iraq may have been fighting on behalf of this country without full citizenship.  I’m not 100% sure, but I think I’m right.

I used to run a migrant assistant farm worker program down in South Carolina.  And I know full well  a  lot of young people traveling through this country as migrant farm workers in agricultural areas were with their parents.  And I know those parents gave birth to children here. Those children became citizens.  Their parents didn’t.  And a lot of those children went off to fight in the military because they are U.S. citizens.  And I think there is something wrong with saying to those parents “You are now subject to being sent back home.”  Breaking up families without any regards to valuing families. 

So I think that we have a broken immigration system. It should be fixed.  And I am a little bit leery about separating DREAMers from people and creating nightmares in doing so.

Cuba embargo

VOA:  What about the new policy vis-à-vis  Cuba, the U.S opening up to Cuba.  How do you view this normalization of relations, and what about lifting the embargo which, of course only Congress can do?

Clyburn:  I will vote to lift it.  I support opening up the relationship between us and Cuba.  I have been to Cuba. I have been a longtime advocate for getting rid of what I consider to be an inane policy regarding policy.