The Kennedy family — one of the most legendary in American political history — has long been involved in efforts to combat mental illness through public policy since President John F. Kennedy, spurred by the botched lobotomy on his sister Rosemary, made it a focus of his presidency.
Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., became a vocal proponent on the issue after disclosing his own battles with bipolar disorder and drug addiction, and remains an advocate on the issue now that he is out of Congress.
And now, with Democrats in the majority for the first time in his six-year congressional career, Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, D-Mass. — the grandson of former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy — has made mental illness a focus of his legislative efforts.
In an interview last week on the Yahoo News podcast “The Long Game,” Kennedy said he came to the issue in part because during a stint as a prosecutor, he saw the ways in which mental illness drove a cycle of drug addiction and criminal activity that he believes can be prevented through greater access to treatment.
But, Kennedy said, the lack of treatment options, combined with a stigmatization of those who suffer, means “we essentially have criminalized mental illnesses.”
Kennedy is now pushing a series of proposals on the issue, which he sees as the kind of legislation that can pass into law now that Democrats control the House, even though they remain a minority in the Senate and do not control the White House. One bill is intended to hold insurance companies accountable if they don’t follow the law requiring them to offer coverage for treatment, and another would raise Medicaid reimbursement rates for mental illness treatment.
Kennedy’s push for mental health legislation is an example of his approach to seeking solutions that take advantage of his party’s ability to control the agenda in the House. And his efforts are more than just public relations proposals that cater to the Democratic base but have little chance of passing into law anytime soon, as opposed to the Green New Deal, which he described as an “aspirational” proposal.
It’s an approach that contrasts with the more performative style of President Trump, or the new celebrity stars of Congress such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
Kennedy was careful when asked what lessons he might share with freshman members of Congress like Ocasio-Cortez. “Far be it from me to give anybody advice,” he said. “We’ve got some extremely talented members here that are able to drive a message, and their values and vision for our country, and more power to them. I do think that as you turn those values into policy, this is about building coalitions and there’s various ways to do that.
“That’s the way that this discourse is supposed to work and yeah, I would love to see more of that rather than a, ‘Just because I can, I will,’” Kennedy said.
“I don’t think that there’s a problem with aspirational legislation aiming high and saying, Hey, this is where, that’s what the North Star should be,” Kennedy said. “But I think if you’ll kind of look at the structures of saying you’ve got to pass the House, majority institution get the majority of votes, you can pass it. You got to pass the Senate, you’re going to need at least some number of folks from the opposite party. Unless you think Democrats are getting to 60 sometime soon, which I’m not sure we are.”
It is the first time since the 38-year-old Kennedy was elected to the House in 2012 that Democrats have been in the majority in that chamber, and so now there is more opportunity for any ambitious Democratic legislator to get ideas off the ground rather than watching them go nowhere, as they often did when Republicans set the agenda in the majority prior to 2018.
“Being in the majority in the House is great in that you get to write a bill, you get your colleagues from your own party on it, you convince leadership to move it, and you’ve passed the bill. Congratulations,” Kennedy said. “Been a wonderful three months. My first six years were a very different environment.”
But, he said, Democrats who are serious about solving problems still have to choose their battles and craft their legislation with the reality of a Republican-controlled Senate and White House in mind. “If you still want to get it done, I still got to get, get it through [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell. I got to find Republicans in the Senate that are going to be willing to sponsor it. I got to be able to get enough of them onboard to get to 60 votes, and I need to be able to convince the White House or have them convince the White House.”
Kennedy described his approach as seeking to “chip away” at big problems, piece by piece rather than in one fell swoop. That’s very much in the tradition of his great-uncle Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., whose nearly five-decade career in the Senate was defined by a strategy in which he chose his own issues to promote and push into the arena, but then worked with Republicans to find common ground on the way to passing compromise legislation.
He said that the calls by some Democrats — including some prominent presidential hopefuls — to increase the size of the Supreme Court are an example of a zero-sum approach to politics that he doesn’t believe in.
“I am not convinced that that’s the right way we should go,” Kennedy said, though he added that McConnell essentially “stacked the court” by refusing to allow President Obama’s nominee to the court, Merrick Garland, to even receive a vote in the Senate in 2016.
And Kennedy said that the Republican Party under McConnell, and Trump, has not shown much of an inclination to respect established process or the legitimacy of the Democratic Party’s interests.
Republicans “got elected, they’re the voices of their constituents and they count just as much as mine. They’re just as American as mine, and they are here and are going to fight for their district and fight for their values just like I am. And so I appreciate that,” Kennedy said. “One of the reasons why it has been so difficult for Democrats to work with this administration is because you’re not getting that acknowledgement about the folks that we represent.”
Correction: This article initially said former Rep. Patrick Kennedy represented Massachusetts instead of Rhode Island.
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