An Interview With Cecilia Muñoz, Former Director of the Domestic Policy Council for the Obama White House
Cecilia Muñoz is a vice president at the New America Foundation and the former Director of the Domestic Policy Council in the Obama White House. She previously served as President Obama’s Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, liaising with state and local governments to advance the president’s policy agenda. Muñoz is a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and a graduate of the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley.
Muñoz spoke with The Politic recently about her role in formulating immigration and Puerto Rico statehood policy, as well as the need to look toward local innovators for solutions to current policy issues.
The Politic: A significant part of your portfolio in the Obama White House was immigration, where one of the policy centerpieces was the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans programs [which provided relief from deportation for some undocumented immigrants]. Are you discouraged by President Trump’s threat to end DACA?
Muñoz: I don’t think “discouraged” is the right word. I’m closer to outraged. There’s no policy reason to revoke DACA. It has enormous harm to the participants, their families, and their communities. Nobody can explain how this action benefits anyone. It’s one of the many terrible things this administration has done.
DACA was never intended to be a long-term replacement for immigration reform. If you could design an optimal immigration reform package, what would that look like?
The best model—not that it’s perfect—was the 2013 Senate bill. It would legalize about 8 million people. It takes illegal residents and puts them in line behind folks who were already using our legal immigration system, which is an important way of gathering support from people who are okay with legalizing people but not comfortable with giving them priority over folks who were trying to get through the legal immigration system. Very importantly, it makes reforms to clear backlogs and make sure [the immigration system is] more effective in the future.
If I were queen, I’d probably be more generous than that bill, but immigration policy, like any other policy, requires bipartisan work. All in all, I think it demonstrates that we know how to do reform which can bring a lot of economic growth. What we have is a political problem. We were quite confident that we had the votes to pass something similar in the House of Representatives, but it never came up. Immigration reform is not some theoretical construct.
Can you tell me about the process of working with the Senate on the 2013 bill and the experience of watching it die in the House?
It was one of the great frustrations of my time in government, particularly because it was a rare and wonderful case of bipartisan teamwork. The administration had long since drafted the bill. We quietly gave that language to members of the group of eight senators who ultimately drafted that bill. It was important to the outcome that our role [was] behind the scenes. And the president’s marching order was to get the job done. He didn’t care if he got credit. He cared that the product would be good. We had a team from across the administration actually deployed in the Senate. We had a space in the Vice President’s suite [in the Capitol] for the floor consideration of the bill, which became a real model for teamwork across the administration and across branches of government.
And you don’t see anything like that happening in this Congress?
I’m not that close to the process as I was, but unfortunately, no. There are very, very few examples of bipartisanship now. One of the few examples is Senators Alexander and Murray, who are leading on the Affordable Care Act. Notably, the two of them, with the [Obama] administration’s support, negotiated a bipartisan update to the No Child Left Behind called the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015. That was a moment of high partisanship where very little was happening, and nevertheless we worked together to get that bill done. And it passed with little fanfare. What that tells me is it’s still possible. It’s just not happening right now.
And do you have any insights into how we got to this point?
I’ve been in Washington for thirty years, and I’ve witnessed the descent from a time when bipartisanship was possible on most things to a place where it’s possible on almost nothing. And you can trace this to the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 with Speaker Gingrich. And that’s when this poisonous atmosphere began. After that, you see members of Congress, especially on the Republican side, being discouraged from moving to Washington. The members don’t get to know each other, and that facilitates the kind of poisonous atmosphere. It’s much harder to operate with that level of toxicity when your kids go to school with the other members of Congress’s kids, when you live in the same neighborhood and your families know each other…we’ve lost that, and it got particularly ugly in the Obama administration in the first year with Senator McConnell saying that his goal was to make sure that the president fails. We could have accomplished so much more [if we had worked together].
You served as the Co-Chair of the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Political Status, a topic that has been publicly discussed over the past several weeks. Can you tell us about the potential for a change in Puerto Rico’s status in the future, especially in light of the recent statehood referendum [this June]?
I wish I could be optimistic, but I’m not. I’m proud of the report the task force produced which lays out how we can get to a place to make a decision, but it lies with Congress. Sadly, the events surrounding [Hurricane Maria] and its aftermath really highlight a problem—a substantial portion of the American mainland doesn’t grasp that Puerto Ricans are Americans. It throws into high relief the disparate treatment we have given to Puerto Ricans.
Do you think your time as the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs at the White House has shaped your ability to create these networks for action [to advance public interest technology at the New America Foundation]?
I learned so much in both jobs I had in the administration. I worked with state, local, and tribal governments. There are many tremendous, innovative things happening in the localities that just don’t get covered. One of my goals at New America is to bring to the forefront all these people who are doing amazing things but whose ideas aren’t necessarily being noticed. The nice thing about leading the policy effort in addition to the outreach effort was that I got to see the intersection of local innovation and national policy at a time when we were being quite assertive in using the authority that the president had to move the ball forward. I feel incredibly fortunate to have landed at a place that’s interested in local innovators.
Do you think there’s some way that we can shift the public focus away from Washington and more on the state and localities?
I think we can and I think we must. We live in really challenging times. I know that we have the capacity to rise to these challenges because I’ve seen it. We as a nation would particularly benefit from greater visibility of people [at the local level] transforming things. So, we are focusing on identifying, lifting up, and circulating so many things that local people are doing that are amazing.
Where do you get your news?
The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and my Twitter feed.
Which living person do you most admire?
This is maybe too obvious an answer, but it’s really true: I am a great admirer of President Obama. Working in close proximity to him for eight years only strengthened my admiration.
What keeps you up at night?
Oh my gosh. Many things. Do I have to pick only one? The institutions of our democracy are fragile.
What is your advice for college students?
Spend these years figuring out what you really want to do.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.