Reporters Say Members Of Congress Are 'Obsessed' With Getting Re-Elected

Apr 9, 2019
Originally published on April 10, 2019 12:49 pm

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Congress in the Trump era is the subject of the new book by my guests Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer. It's called "The Hill To Die On: The Battle For Congress And The Future Of Trump's America." Sherman and Palmer are senior writers for Politico and co-write the twice-a-day newsletter Politico Playbook.

Their new book covers Capitol Hill, when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress as well as the White House, and describes how the power dynamic changed after Democrats took control of the House last year and Nancy Pelosi reclaimed her position as speaker. One thing that Democrats and Republicans in Congress have in common during this divisive period is that they're both dealing with a president who is unpredictable and doesn't follow protocol when it comes to dealing with Congress.

Jake Sherman, Anna Palmer, welcome to FRESH AIR. So we're supposed to be a government of checks and balances. The Congress voted against giving President Trump the money he requested for the wall, so the president declared a national emergency to build the wall and plans on getting the money from other parts of the budget. And Republicans who voted against funding for Trump's wall seem to be willingly ceding their power to the president - ceding their power as being, like, a check against the president. Tell us why you think that's happening.

JAKE SHERMAN: I think it's kind of the most recent example of a long string of Congress giving its power away to the presidency, to be honest with you. We've seen this in various fashions over the last 10 years. Congress has given away some of its power of spending and things of that nature. But this truly is new.

And the fear from the people that we talk to every day on Capitol Hill is that the next president will come in and say something else is an emergency. And if they can't get it from Congress, they'll also declare an emergency and try to get money from other places in the budget. So I think, more than anything, this specifically is a very dangerous precedent to set.

GROSS: Do you think that Republicans in Congress are afraid of President Trump and afraid to stand up to him?

ANNA PALMER: I don't think they're afraid. But I do think there is a concern about going up against the president on key issues like immigration and the border, for example, and what that impact might have on their re-election. One of the things that, you know, you find when you're talking to these members every single day is how obsessed they are with their next election and their popularity. And the president is very popular with the Republican base. And he has shown no compunction to do anything but go after Republicans who aren't in line with what he thinks.

GROSS: So Republicans have traditionally been against massive federal spending and against deficits. But right now, I mean, the tax bill that Republicans passed has greatly added to the deficit. Spending for the wall that the president wants - I mean, that's a hugely expensive bill. And it's another issue where Republicans don't seem to be standing up to Trump on that. Have Republicans changed in their attitude toward spending as the party has gotten further to the right? Have the priorities shifted?

PALMER: Yeah. I mean, I think it's actually pretty stunning. When Jake and I have been covering Capitol Hill Republicans in power for years, the orthodoxy was, spend less, cut spending. And Donald Trump came in and really doesn't care about any of that. And so one of the kind of interesting things that we discuss in the book - and talking to members who were his key allies, whether that's Mark Meadows of North Carolina or Jim Jordan of Ohio - that kind of cutting spending and government waste is - was how they came into office.

They, you know, are willing to let the president spend and do what he wants to on those things. But then there are issues such as immigration or the border wall where they really want to make sure and try to pressure the president to hold fast to where they are on those issues.

GROSS: It seems so paradoxical that for the first couple of years of the Trump presidency, Paul Ryan was the speaker of the House. And he was, like, the deficit hawk. I mean, that was - there were so many programs he wanted to cut. That was his thing.

SHERMAN: It was. And this is something that history will have to reckon with in a way that we are not able to at this moment or we're only beginning to be able to at this moment. But Paul Ryan's orthodoxy - his entire intellectual makeup and his entire partisan makeup - has completely shifted. As you noted, he was a spending hawk, a deficit hawk, who spent the first 15 or 20 years of his congressional career railing against the - a bloated bureaucracy and a bloated federal government.

And he - Donald Trump - got into office. And in a sense, Paul Ryan, I believe, felt like he had lost the argument - that he presented one view of America, which he believed for - between 1999 and 2016. He was on the presidential ticket in 2012. And then Donald Trump got elected, presenting another, completely different view of the Republican Party in America. And Donald Trump won the presidency.

So I think Paul Ryan felt, at that moment, that he had a decision to make. Either he would have to retire, leave Congress, when Donald Trump got elected, or stick around and try - in his words and his thinking - to keep the government on the rails, to keep things from going too crazy. And that was his thinking as he got into Donald Trump's presidency.

Now, a lot of people will say, Republicans only cared about deficit spending when Barack Obama was in office. And Donald Trump got in there, and they didn't care anymore. And there's some truth to that. And there's some truth to Ryan completely changing his tune on all of these things. And that's something we get into a lot.

GROSS: Well, you write about how one of the reasons why Ryan wanted to stay in the House - 'cause he was conflicted about staying or going. He wanted to set an example that there could be, like - I think he used the word a normal person in Congress in the party.

PALMER: I think Paul Ryan, and I certainly think Mitch McConnell, who leads the Senate Republicans, feel like they are kind of the guardrails of this presidency in terms of making sure that things don't go totally haywire. And so I think Paul Ryan - this - Donald Trump offends him in so many ways in what he personally believes, how the president tweets, how he, you know, is crass in some ways. That is not the kind of person that Paul Ryan believes he is himself or how he comports himself to be. But I think he felt a real responsibility to try and make sure that things didn't go completely off the rails.

GROSS: But then he decided to leave.

SHERMAN: He did. And in his telling publicly, it was because he has a young family. His father and grandfather both died young. And he's getting to the age where they passed away. And he had a sense of time in the sense that he thought, in his head, that he was lucky. He was living on borrowed time, in a sense. And he wasn't sure how much time he would have left, although he's a very physically fit guy and shows no sign of slowing down.

But I mean, you do get the sense - and we all got the sense from covering this every day for the last two years - that Paul Ryan did get sick of Donald Trump. And there were several episodes throughout the last two years where Paul Ryan got in massive, blow-up arguments behind the scenes with the president over immigration law, over spending, over just his behavior.

There's an episode where he says - he - the president said he wanted to do away with the 14th Amendment, which allows birthright citizenship. And Paul Ryan went on the radio and said, he can't do that. And then the president called him, screaming. And that's kind of a good encapsulation of their relationship. And President Trump, by the way, who we interviewed, said he - basically said he didn't really care that much for Ryan in the end. He said, he really abandoned me a few times.

PALMER: Foxhole Paul.

SHERMAN: He called him Foxhole Paul, which is his way of saying he wasn't in the foxhole with the president. Paul Ryan wasn't in the foxhole with the president. So it was a complicated relationship between two men who really did not care for each other but felt like they had to work with each other to keep the government open and to keep some things on the rails. Although, many would argue that things did go off the rails on many occasions.

GROSS: Now, I want to ask you about Lindsey Graham. He heads the Senate Judiciary Committee. And after the House voted unanimously to release the full Mueller report, Lindsey Graham decided not to even bring that up to the Judiciary Committee. And Graham's been demanding that the Democrats also vote on appointing a special counsel to look into alleged Department of Justice misconduct on the investigations into President Trump and into Hillary Clinton.

Lindsey Graham used to be so close to John McCain - to Senator McCain. And President Trump seems to have missed no opportunity to insult John McCain. He insulted him during the campaign. He insulted him when he came to office. He insulted John McCain after John McCain died. And Lindsey Graham has become very close and very politically aligned to President Trump. Do you have any insights into what happened to Lindsey Graham between the time when he was, you know, the closest of allies with John McCain and now, when he's so close to the person who has maligned John McCain?

PALMER: I think it's important to note that Senator Graham most recently did speak back home and said that what the president was - his most recent criticism of John McCain was not appropriate. And he really did push back on that. But I do think what you have to realize is, yes, John McCain and Lindsey Graham were close, personal friends. Lindsey Graham also tried to do a massive immigration deal. He has - he's up for re-election. And as I said earlier, what you really realize when you're on Capitol Hill every day is that when members are up for re-election, they are constantly looking at the numbers there. And it's a political calculus.

I think he has decided that, you know, they - he doesn't believe that the Mueller report needs to be released. He wants to go - he has aligned himself with the president in a lot of ways. He's personally golfed with him many times. Being close to the president is politically advantageous to Lindsey Graham at this point.

SHERMAN: I would say one more thing on top of that. I think that writing this book has made - has sharpened this point in my mind - that politicians really exist in a political moment, meaning they act the way they do because of the political dynamics at one moment. And number two, politicians are there to gain power, keep power and increase power. And however they might do that, they'll do it.

And in this situation, Lindsey Graham basically said back home - Anna alluded to this - what the president said about John McCain wasn't right. But the voters of South Carolina put me in office to get things done and to work with this president, and I'm going to do that - basically saying, I understand that he's critical of my very close - former very close friend John McCain. I don't appreciate that. But I also have something else I need to do, which is to work with Donald Trump to achieve the policies I'm looking to achieve. And he's pretty brash about that. And he's pretty honest about it, even though, to everybody else - and many people we talked to - they find it to be intellectually dishonest. But that's the way he views it.

GROSS: What are Republicans looking to right now to see if the winds are shifting against Trump? - because if they're aligning with Trump because they think it's going to help them with re-election, then they need Trump's support. But if Trump is losing support, then it would hurt them to be aligned with Trump when the next election comes around. So how are they testing the winds on that? - because it's always - it always seems to be questionable if there's going to be a point at which the wind shifts.

SHERMAN: You saw this recently. The president said he wanted to do health care reform. And Republicans said, no, thanks. We lost the House of Representatives because we got into a prolonged fight over health care reform, a policy that Republicans do not have their arms around in a real, big way. And I think you saw them back off on that. And you see them back off on several other fronts, too. I think they're trying to put distance between themselves and the president where it's useful.

But, especially in the House of Representatives, many Republicans now hold seats that are overwhelmingly supportive of Donald Trump. The Republican Party on Capitol Hill now is Trump's party. And their fortunes - some - many members tell us, when they go home, they couldn't be close enough to the president. That's the political dynamic at this point. That's what the political map looks like at this point. They couldn't be close enough and tied closely enough to this president. And his - their fortunes are tied together. But in many of their districts, the president's still incredibly popular.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more about what's happening in Congress now.

If you're just joining us, my guests are Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer. They co-write Politico's Playbook, and now they have a new book-book - (laughter) - which is called "The Hill To Die On: The Battle For Congress And The Future Of Trump's America." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS SCLAVIS' "FETE FORAINE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman. And they co-write Politico's Playbook. And they also have a new book that they've co-written called "The Hill To Die On: The Battle For Congress And The Future Of Trump's America."

Let's look at some divisions within the Democratic Party now between the mainstream of the party and the newer, more left members in the House, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And so there's questions now about whether to push for Medicare for All or make incremental changes in Obamacare, whether to go for the Green New Deal or more incremental environmental change. Give us a sense of the dynamic now in the House among Democrats, between the more left-leaning, new members - who are also largely, you know, younger - and the more veteran members, those who are more mainstream.

SHERMAN: Yeah. The center of gravity in the House of Representatives among Democrats is Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker. And that's the - kind of an eternal truism about Democratic politics. Nancy Pelosi has been the leader of House Democrats now for a very long time and is probably as powerful as ever. And if you ask Nancy Pelosi about the Green New Deal or Medicare for All or any of these positions that some of the younger members are advocating for, she kind of deals with them in her own way by saying, I'm as progressive as they come, but I'm also about getting an outcome. I'm about solutions that can pass the House of Representatives and have a chance of, some point, getting into law. And she's spoken very dismissively about the Green New Deal and about Medicare For All and says we actually have a good health care system, called Obamacare, and we should improve and strengthen that. And she talks about the Green New Deal as the green new dream. She knows the name, obviously, and she knows what's in it. But she's dismissive of it, in a sense, and says she has her own solutions that she's been working on for many years.

And I think there's some of the older guard. The Democrats that have been in the House of Representatives for a decade or more feel like they've been working on these issues for a very long time, and in come a new crop of freshmen and they're taking all the credit for it. And I think there's some tension there. But there's no question that the younger Democrats, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and some of her allies in the House of Representatives, have brought an energy to the House that we really haven't seen in a long time, especially on the left. I mean, we saw a little bit in 2010 with Republicans, but - definitely have brought a new energy and a new vigor to a House Democratic Caucus that was increasingly old.

GROSS: How are divisions among Democrats effecting the tactics that they're using to move forward with opposition to the president? Are they divided on those tactics?

SHERMAN: Minorly, but not really in a major way. I'd say the one thing Democrats are completely on the same page on is going after President Trump with all the weapons and all the tools they have. Now, there is a small clutch of Democrats at the moment who believe that the party should immediately move to impeach the president. That's still a very small minority in the House of Representatives among Democrats. But I think that they have largely stuck together when it comes to demanding the president's tax returns, issuing subpoenas for bank records going back several decades from the president's businesses, things of that nature. I don't think you see much divide there, and I don't think you will, going forward.

But in a way, Democrats are helped by President Trump in that there's not much that could get the president's signature. They're not going to pass many bills into law. So they only really have to stick together on these big investigatory committees, on these big oversight issues, which is not difficult with a president who probably polls in the low teens, if that, with the Democratic base.

GROSS: President Trump - you write that President Trump wanted Nancy Pelosi to be speaker after the Democrats won the House and that his plan was to ask the Freedom Caucus - the most conservative members of Congress, who are also his allies - to vote for her. And Trump told you that he thought the most conservative members of Congress would do him a favor and vote for Nancy Pelosi as House speaker. Tell us more about that. That's an interesting and surprising story.

SHERMAN: I do think that there is some dynamic between Pelosi and Trump that's hard to capture and hard to explain. It seems like, from our experience both talking to the president and watching him publicly, he does seem almost taken by Pelosi, taken by her power, taken by her ability to corral Democrats together to keep them on the same page. And he lamented to us in the book that Democrats stick together much better than Republicans do, and that's something that he was very upset about and very regretful that Republicans couldn't stick together. He doesn't appreciate Democrats' policies, he says, but he appreciates their unity, which was an interesting insight into the president's head.

But also, furthermore, I do think that the president likes cutting deals with Democrats periodically. I think he likes the Hollywood flair, in his mind, and the ratings - again, in his telling - of doing business with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer - by the way, two people that he's known for a very long time. So it's a very interesting relationship, and I think we'll see more in the months ahead between the Democratic speaker, who, by the way, President Trump was a donor to and was very, very, very praising of when he was a developer in New York.

GROSS: Wait - to Schumer, not to Pelosi, right?

SHERMAN: To both of them.

GROSS: To both of them.

SHERMAN: Yes, he wrote the - he wrote Pelosi a note when she became speaker in 2006 saying how great she was and how much he respected her. Again, I'm paraphrasing the president's words, but he sent her a note very praising of her abilities when she became speaker in 2006, 2007.

GROSS: My guests are Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, senior writers for Politico who co-write the newsletter Politico Playbook. Their new book is called "The Hill To Die On: The Battle For Congress And The Future Of Trump's America." We'll talk more after a break. And Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel by Sally Rooney that was named the Irish novel of the year. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLISON MILLER'S BOOM TIC BOOM'S "WELCOME HOTEL")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview about Congress in the Trump era. My guests are Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer. They're senior writers for Politico and co-write the twice-a-day newsletter Politico Playbook. Their new book is titled "The Hill To Die On: The Battle For Congress And The Future Of Trump's America."

Let's talk about the role of the Freedom Caucus. You write about the Freedom Caucus a lot in your book. And I should say the Freedom Caucus is basically a far-right Republican caucus within the House. And their role has obviously changed from when the House was run by Republicans to now, when it's run by Democrats. But tell us how they were first created.

SHERMAN: The Freedom Caucus came to be during John Boehner's speakership, and it was started by Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows - Jim Jordan of Ohio, Mark Meadows of North Carolina. And they wanted a small group of people who would be able to stand up against their own party when they thought their party went astray. And I visited Jim Jordan at his home in Ohio in reporting this book and talked to him about this. And he compares it to a union because in the House of Representatives, you don't have power as a single member of Congress. You have power if you band together and starve the speaker of the House of the ability to move legislation. And they were able to do that on almost every issue - tax reform, health care reform, spending, immigration. They were able to hold the party's feet to the fire, hold Donald Trump's feet to the fire and drag every piece of legislation to the right.

And they found a kindred spirit, in a sense, in Donald Trump, who was elected, obviously, in 2016. They had been planning to try to oust Paul Ryan if Hillary Clinton was elected president. Instead, they found themselves with a ideological ally in the White House or someone they thought could be an ideological ally. And they have - and it's no overstatement to say they have really shaped the Republican Party in that image and shaped, in a small way, America the - some policies that got enacted into law in Donald Trump's presidency in their image over the last couple years.

GROSS: What are the tactics that they used during Republican control of the House to block legislation they didn't like and to move legislation further to the right?

PALMER: Yeah, I mean, they oftentimes - a lot of it's behind the scenes - right? - so it's not just going to the House floor. But it would be starving John Boehner first and then Paul Ryan of the necessary votes to get bills passed. They would - you know, in the book, we detail how both Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan went to the floor and, you know, kind of would give speeches that then would get played on Fox News that then the president would see. And so you see their impact kind of all along the way.

And I would also say they also had - they - particularly Mark Meadows has a very good relationship with the president. And he was brought in on tax reform kind of surprisingly after he and Jim Jordan wrote a letter saying these were the kind of, you know, four or five things that needed to be in tax reform for their support. And not only did the president read it, but then the president wanted to make sure that he kept those guys happy.

SHERMAN: One other tactic is they took unrelated bills hostage. They were looking for certain policies on immigration reform, so instead, they starved Republicans of the votes they needed to pass an agricultural policy bill. So they would take completely unrelated issues hostage to get what they want on issues that Donald Trump cared about, like immigration reform, immigration overhaul, restrictive immigration policies.

So they were really bending the legislative process to their will and angering a lot of people, but they saw Paul Ryan and the House Republican leadership as not representative of what Donald Trump got elected to do. They thought Donald Trump got elected on a very simple platform, which was building a wall on the border with Mexico and very restrictive immigration policies. And it was - in their view, they needed to do everything they could do to help the president achieve those ends, which, at times, included blocking unrelated pieces of legislation to make a point and to achieve an end.

GROSS: Did the Freedom Caucus have just enough people to block legislation?

SHERMAN: Yes, they had a little bit more than the margin that Republicans had over Democrats, which allowed them - basically gave them veto power over anything that Paul Ryan wanted to do. So if they stuck together, they were the most powerful 20 people in America or 30 people, depending on who their allies were on that specific issue, which is amazing. We had never seen power exercised like this in the modern House of Representatives.

PALMER: I don't think you can underscore how frustrating it was to Republican leadership that this kind of band of ragtag Republicans that typically would never have been taken seriously would've, you know, given rousing speeches on the House floor, but would never have been able to control the agenda how big of an impact that made.

GROSS: Now, you write Jim Jordan of the Freedom Caucus craves confrontation. Give us an example of a confrontation that he initiated.

SHERMAN: Well, he was the mastermind behind the December government shutdown, which we know now was the longest government shutdown in American history - lasted more than a month and impacted Americans who work for the federal government to a degree that we're only beginning to realize. He went to the White House and pushed Donald Trump to shut down the government if he did not get money for his border wall. He thought - in his mind, Jim Jordan - some of his allies thought - in crises - in big legislative crises like a government shutdown, people's incentive structures in people's minds would be scrambled, in a sense, and they would make decisions that were irrational, which is an interesting way to think about governing. He thought if you put people against a wall, they might abandon their ideology.

He thought Nancy Pelosi - there was no way Nancy Pelosi could stand up for not having a wall on the border with Mexico. And he put that theory to a test and pushed Donald Trump into a government shutdown. So those were the kinds of things he did to try to achieve ends for Donald Trump. And I think the president realizes now that those tactics are not necessarily successful, not necessarily good strategy, but that's what Jim Jordan tried to do. He put the government in crisis and believed that he would be able to achieve an end out of that.

GROSS: Let's talk about Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. And you write, you know, with Congress often in gridlock, the judiciary has become more important. And McConnell's goal is to reshape the federal judiciary. How long has that been his goal?

PALMER: Really, when you look at the Republicans and conservatives writ large across the country, the judiciary and the importance of the judiciary has been something that they have been talking about for years. It's something that wins elections for them. It's something that really energizes their base - you know, getting the Supreme Court to be more conservative. And what you've seen this Congress and even before is that Mitch McConnell - his single focus, more than anything else, has been to try to push through more judges that are conservative and - particularly in the Trump administration, they are younger. They are conservative. They are going to be on the bench for a very long time.

GROSS: So he has changed some of the rules in order to push through very conservative judges. So what are some of the rules he's changed?

SHERMAN: Well, I think it's most important to note the kind of unwritten rule that he changed back in Obama's years. President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland to be a Supreme Court justice when Scalia passed away. And Mitch McConnell, at that moment - that day, he was on vacation with his wife in the islands. And the moment Scalia, who he knew very well - the moment he died, McConnell took a pen out and wrote a statement, sent it to his office, saying, Merrick Garland will not be given a hearing. The next president will choose the next Supreme Court justice - which, by the way, was a massive gamble for McConnell because Hillary Clinton was ahead in the polls. Donald Trump, who McConnell likes to remind people was donating money to Chuck Schumer just a few years ago - Republicans weren't confident about how Donald Trump would view the judiciary, so it was a huge gamble. But McConnell - that was McConnell's goal, to not get Merrick Garland a hearing and not give him a vote on the floor. And he achieved that. And from that, he got Neil Gorsuch. And later, he got Kavanaugh. But that's right. I mean, McConnell has fast-tracked the procedures to get nominees to the floor and has done so with stunning success and has gotten dozens of judges on to federal courts across the country. And Congresses come and go, and people don't always remember that. The House flips all the time. The Senate flips all the time. Judges have lifetime appointments, and that's incredibly important to remember when thinking about Mitch McConnell and his long-term goals.

GROSS: One of the things that McConnell recently did was to cut the debate time from 30 hours to two hours for judicial and administrative nominees. What's the significance of that?

SHERMAN: The Senate has very arcane rules, to say the least. And it just basically, in layman's terms, allows him to move judges - more judges in a short period of time. Remember; the Senate is home probably one out of every four weeks. So instead of taking several days to move judges, he can move several judges in one day. And that's incredibly, incredibly important because the Judiciary Committee in the Senate can move judges out of their committee quite quickly. But there was this threshold that forced a slowdown in that process, and McConnell has completely removed that stumbling block. And McConnell's critics will say, well, this might not benefit you when you're in the minority. But McConnell's retort is that Democrats are blocking, and they're forcing Republicans to use up all of those 30 hours. And that's preventing the president from getting the judges he wants. And that's, obviously, a very big priority of the president, which McConnell is helping him out with.

GROSS: Do you think McConnell is also thinking, by the time the Democrats have a majority, there will be so many conservative judges who have been appointed, it won't matter that much?

PALMER: Sure. I mean, I think he's making a gamble to say, I'm going to stack the judiciary as far as he can according to Democrats' perspective. And, you know, he's going to continue that mission. When we sat down with him - I think a lot of people wonder what motivates Mitch McConnell because he's a man of few words. He doesn't get fiery. He rarely, you know, kind of does long speeches or different things like that. He's been in politics for a long time. But the one thing that is clear is he sees his legacy as the federal judiciary.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guests are Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer. They wrote the new book "The Hill To Die On: The Battle For Congress And The Future Of Trump's America." They cover Congress for Politico where they write The Playbook, which is a twice-a-day newsletter about what's going on on the Hill. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUONG VU & PAT METHENY'S "SEEDS OF DOUBT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, who cover Congress for Politico. They write the daily newsletter the Playbook. And they also have a new book they've co-authored called "The Hill To Die On: The Battle For Congress And The Future Of Trump's America."

How have you seen Congress change in the years that you've been covering it? And that's since 2009 and 2011 to the year or...

SHERMAN: Yeah, that's right.

PALMER: You know, I mean, I've covered Congress...

SHERMAN: Yeah.

PALMER: ...Since 2004.

SHERMAN: OK, sorry.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

PALMER: I'm older. But we've been at Politico since 2009 and 2011.

SHERMAN: We've been covering it together since 2009.

PALMER: Yes. Yes, sorry.

GROSS: OK. OK. So what are some of the ways you've seen Congress change in that time?

PALMER: I definitely think that it has only become more partisan. I think that the way elections start - the day after a member is elected, they're raising money. They're trying to go back to their districts. There's not a lot of community and bipartisanship in a sense of Republicans and Democrats getting to know each other as humans, as people. And I think that's to the detriment of, you know, the institution in the sense that you don't give your colleague on the other side of the aisle the benefit of the doubt that they're coming from a good place. I do think the amount of money in politics has also increased tremendously in my time covering Washington. And the amount of dark money and 527's after Citizens United has had a huge impact on the overall tenor of things as well.

SHERMAN: And I think Anna's right on the money front. I mean, individual House races - races that are conducted with electorates of five-, 600,000 people are costing tens of millions of dollars, which is just astronomical. People were raising several hundred thousand dollars in the past. Now they have to raise three-, $4 million for competitive races. And I think everything has become politicized. I mean, starting in 2009, Republicans made a calculated choice to - in the worst financial crisis in a very long time - to allow President Obama to pass legislation on his own without their help. It was a political decision, but it really set the tone for the last decade of legislating. And I'm not sure Republicans realized that at the time, but their decision to really oppose Barack Obama at every turn set the tone for just a really partisan phase in our politics.

GROSS: Now that the Democrats control the House, it seems the people who really watch right now include the heads of some of the committees, like the House Intelligence Committee, Ways and Means, judiciary - the committees that are really investigating President Trump and continuing to investigate Russian interference in the election. So how are you covering them? You know, like Adam Schiff, Jerrold Nadler - they hold a lot of power now, and what they're trying to do could prove to be very significant.

PALMER: I think we cover them like we always have. I think one of the great things about being a reporter on Capitol Hill that is unlike any other institution is the amount of access that you have to these members. You can follow them in the hallways. You can wait for them after votes. They regularly talk to - both Republicans and Democrats talk to reporters. And so I think that now that they're in power, we cover them because they get to make some of the key decisions about whether these investigations happen and how they happen.

SHERMAN: And also they're sending letters every day. I mean, they're really pressuring the administration. But we also - it's important to keep in mind that everything flows through Nancy Pelosi. She sets the tenor and tone of all these investigations, and it's important to listen to every one of her utterances on every topic to really know what the Democrats are going to do when it comes to investigations.

And I will say, within the Democratic Party, there is some nervousness about looking overzealous. I think that's something that we'll begin to see in the next couple months is Democrats wanting to make sure they proceed with caution because while holding Trump accountable is very important both substantively and in the polls - it polls very well - there is concern of overreach and going too far too quickly too much. There's a lot of committees looking into the president, and it's the Democratic leadership's job to keep it streamlined, to keep everybody in line.

GROSS: I want you to tell a couple of stories about Jared Kushner that you learned that show the ability he thinks he has to fix things and to, like, change how Congress operates for the better.

SHERMAN: During the shutdown, during the immigration fight in late 2018, Jared Kushner was not really involved in the immigration policy and not really involved in anything that was going on. And the - as the government was about to shut down, moments from shutting down, Jared Kushner blew into a meeting with with Paul Ryan, Steve Scalise and Kevin McCarthy and said, I wasn't involved earlier, but now I am, and I can fix this quite quickly.

So Jared tended to think, according to people that we spoke to for the three-year period, 2 1/2-year period that we were writing this book, that he had a unique ability to, again, bend the government to his will and to do things that otherwise people thought were impossible. And he came up short a number of times. He did have one big success in the Trump administration, which was he passed - he helped pass a criminal justice reform bill. But that's about it. That's really the only episode where he had been successful in getting Congress to do what he wanted.

GROSS: Like a lot of other reporters, you reported that President Trump, you know, watches a lot of TV. And if he likes you on TV, he'll make an alliance with you or maybe give you an appointment (laughter). And so I'm wondering. He sees you on TV probably 'cause you - you're on TV a lot. And has that affected your access to him?

SHERMAN: I don't think so. I mean, he's acknowledged passively that he has seen us on TV earlier before we started writing this book. So I don't think it's impacted our access to him, but it certainly has impacted other people's access to him and frankly has impacted who he's put in key government positions and who he's given jobs to and who he likes defending him.

And I mean, we write in the book that members of Congress have literally rearranged their schedules so they can appear more frequently on television, which is really one of the chief ways that Washington has changed - is that daytime television is really prime real estate for policymakers and journalists and people who are trying to speak to the president or who want the president to hear them. I mean, dayside cable, which was at one point kind of an afterthought in the media climate, is now really prime territory for a lot of people.

GROSS: All right. I want to thank you both for talking with us.

SHERMAN: Thank you very much.

PALMER: Thank you.

GROSS: Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer are the authors of the new book "The Hill To Die On: The Battle For Congress And The Future Of Trump's America." They co-write the daily newsletter Politico Playbook.

After a break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel by Sally Rooney, who's been called the first great millennial author. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON PARKS' "SMALL PLANET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.