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Q&A: Congressman Jake Auchincloss on Israel, the November election and the Massachusetts housing crisis

U.S. Representative Jake Auchincloss (D-MA) speaks at a press conference in the U.S. Capitol on June 22, 2023. Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA
June 25, 2024

In 2020, Jake Auchincloss was elected to represent Massachusetts’s 4th Congressional District, which stretches through five counties, from Brookline and Newton to Fall River and Somerset. Now running unopposed for a third term, Auchincloss, a Marine veteran and former Newton City Councilor, is one of the youngest members of Congress at age 36. He’s also one of around two dozen Jewish members of Congress.

Brookline.News recently sat down with Congressman Auchincloss in his district office in Newton to talk about the Israel-Gaza conflict, the upcoming presidential election, Massachusetts’ housing crisis and more.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Brookline.News: Let’s start with Israel, which is front of mind for many of our readers. What’s your current outlook on how the US government should be responding to what’s happening in Israel and Gaza?

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Congressman Jake Auchincloss: First of all, I think President Biden is doing a good job. It doesn’t get said enough. And I would zoom out for a second. I think it’s worth noting the foreign policy successes of his administration. You look at Ukraine, where he has rallied NATO and, I think, sent a message to autocrats, not just the Kremlin, but Beijing and Tehran as well, that the United States is going to stay on freedom and democracy and we’re going to be able to rally multilaterally our allies and our partners. …

In the Middle East, he’s walking a tightrope. There are no good answers right now. He’s got from the right people saying “bomb Iran, bomb Hezbollah. Turn this into a regional conflagration.” He’s got from the left, people saying Israel should unilaterally disarm and disengage and thereby seed the next conflict, the next round of hostage taking. And he is pushing back on both.

And by the way, that’s not just domestically, that’s internationally as well. He is walking this tightrope, effectively. He’s saying to the nonaligned world, you’ve got to pick a side here. This is about a liberal democracy versus an evil terrorist cult. But he’s also saying to the reflexive hawks, the answer here is not escalation. The answer here is for Netanyahu to put forward an alternative to Hamas in Gaza. Not “day after,” I reject that term, but “day of” governance. That is what will drain Hamas – is that those 2 million people, half of whom are children, have the elements of security, infrastructure and economic development so that Hamas is not the only option. … Ultimately, that’s how we defeat Hamas and that needs to be the cardinal objective, to defeat Hamas.

Brookline.News: You’ve staked out a position as being strongly pro-Israel. I’m curious to hear about any ways in which your stance has changed or evolved or shifted. In particular, has anything changed as we’ve seen what’s happened in Gaza during the most recent part of this conflict?

Auchincloss: I’m not so sure I would say anything changed. What I would say is maybe relative emphasis. What I mean by that is, the first thing that a Marine officer learns in training is that war is an extension of politics by other means. Which is to say that you can’t effectively fight a war unless you understand the political end game. And I think in the weeks and months after Oct. 7, there was an acceptable amount of ambiguity from the [Israeli] war cabinet about the precise political endgame for Gaza, because they were engaged in the necessary military operations against Hamas itself.

That period has passed. Their failure to be able to articulate the political end game, and not even to articulate, but to actuate it, to manifest it on the ground in Gaza, is impairing and undermining their military tactical successes.

I consider myself quite hawkish against Hamas. I think Hamas needs to be permanently defeated and have no role in post-war governance. And yet I recognize that that requires a governance strategy to be paired with a military strategy. … So it’s really a peculiar idiosyncrasy of Netanyahu himself that he refuses to actuate a governance plan for Gaza, a “day of” governance plan.

Brookline.News: Netanyahu’s coming to speak to Congress next month. You probably won’t get to talk to him one-on-one, but what would you say to him if you could? How should Congress be thinking about his visit or trying to influence him?

Auchincloss: I have been able to speak with him one-on-one in the past. I can’t convey the contents of it, but I can say that even then, two years ago, I had a tough message for him on the changes that he would need to make to ensure that the U.S.-Israel relationship retains strong bipartisan support in Congress. Which needs to be a cardinal focus, I think, of policymakers who care about the U.S.-Israel relationship, is maintaining its bipartisan footing. And Netanyahu is in a myriad of ways undermining that.

Brookline.News: A lot of us are struggling with how to get good information and how to understand this conflict. And I’m curious to hear a little bit about how you manage that. Obviously, you’ve got staff who work on that with you, you get briefings that the rest of us don’t get. But are there experts you listen to? How are you collecting information that informs your policymaking on this?

Auchincloss: Triangulation. As I do with most issues, I constantly am getting streams of information and insight that are in tension with one another and I’m working to triangulate that tension. I think that you always have to be doing that with policy. I’ve got direct lines with the Israeli embassy, and we use that. But then probably the single best source, I would say, in terms of the situation in Gaza in particular, for me is the Israel Policy Forum.

Brookline.News: In Brookline, we’ve had a lot of division. People strongly disagree on Israel -Gaza. We had some rallies outside of Town Meeting which got tense and nasty. Do you have a solution, or a message, about what you think is animating that and whether it’s fixable?

Auchincloss: I have experienced this a lot as I’m sure you can imagine. I have engaged intently with the Israeli community, with the Jewish community, with the Muslim community, with the Arab community in different tensions. What’s remarkable with these conversations is, you can change a couple of nouns and verbs, but actually the sentiment is 90% overlap. And what I take in from these conversations, and I try to listen more than I talk, is people do not want the volatility and the vituperation of geopolitics to bleed into their communities here.

The great promise of America is that the circumstances of your birth do not determine the condition of your life, and do not determine how your kids are raised and do not determine who your kids’ friends can be and what their experience is like in school. And so the thing I try to convey … is that we’re not going to solve geopolitics around this table. And frankly, we’re not going to agree on geopolitics around this table. What I think we can agree on, though, is that … part of America’s promise is that we’re not a blood and soil country, and that we don’t have to import the ugliness of this conflict here. And what makes communities like Brookline or Newton or Sharon or Franklin or Needham so special is that they’re pluralistic and they’re tolerant.

Your kids and my kids should be able to grow up and not carry the weight of this history on their shoulders. … And I think that can be a unifying message, and one that people deeply believe in.

Brookline.News: Let’s shift gears to November and the presidential race. What’s your read on the current state of the race? You’re obviously a strong ally of President Biden’s. How do you think he’s doing? What are you worried about? What keeps you up at night?

Auchincloss: What keeps me up at night is that Donald Trump wants to be a dictator, and that the antibodies from our body politic to prevent him from being a dictator are depleted. If you look at his run in 2016 when he took office, the MAGA-fication of state Republican parties, of Congress, of the courts, of civil service … was as yet incomplete. The body politic released a lot of antibodies to fight him off. And he had a pretty incompetent staff around him, disjointed, unprepared.

And I think the one thing I would want to convey to your readers is that is not going to be true in 2024. There are no more antibodies. Up and down the Republican Party, it is MAGA through and through. There will be no institutional resistance to his … degradation of the senior civil service … of trying to undo civil military relations, trying to reduce the firewall between the DOJ and the White House. It’s going to be Democrats in Congress. That’s the only thing that will fight him. And so it will be a much more stark, immediate and comprehensive constitutional crisis should he take office.

So I’m doing two things. One is, I am fighting hard to take back the house for Democrats because we will be the firewall for democracy if the worst should happen.

The White House is a jump ball. This thing comes down to 200,000 voters in five states, and anybody who tells you they know what’s going to happen, you should discount. The Senate map is tough. I think we’re actually looking better than I thought we were gonna look, but it’s tough.

So that means the House is really the firewall. Speaker Johnson was the architect of a legal challenge against certifying Joe Biden’s election. Can you imagine this guy is the Speaker of the House, and Donald Trump loses but claims it was rigged, which he 100% will? We are walking right into a January 6 that has a different ending, where legislators don’t walk back into the chamber and do the right thing. Instead, it’s Speaker Johnson using the power of this gavel to try to subvert the casting of ballots.

So it is scary. And that segues into core framing that Joe Biden will need to use against Donald Trump, which is going to be law and order. The Republicans claim that they’re the law and order party, and it’s a bankrupt proposition. They’re trying to surge machine guns onto our streets and near our schools. They voted against bipartisan border security legislation, torpedoed it. They’re trying to defund the FBI. And they nominated a convicted felon to be president of the United States. … I think you pair that with continued strength in the economy and a focus on lowering housing costs, and I think President Biden can get the edge.

Brookline.News: I’ll get to housing costs in a second, but first, what is the rest of your year going to look like? You’ve got the luxury of not being in a competitive race for your own seat. How are you going to spend your time?

Auchincloss: I have a leadership PAC, which is my vehicle for supporting House Democrats. It’s called Beyond Thoughts and Prayers, and it’s focused on building a Democratic majority for gun violence prevention legislation, which is consonant with a Democratic majority to save democracy.

Last cycle in my freshman year, I was the most generous freshman Democrat to other members. I represent a district, from Barney Frank to Joe Kennedy, that has always been considered sort of a political heavyweight for democratic values, and I take that seriously. The Beyond Thoughts and Prayers PAC is going to be deeply engaged financially, but also through organizing to support frontline Democrats, fighting against MAGA Republicans in places like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, California, New York. But also helping red to blue Democrats who are trying to flip some tough seats.

Brookline.News: Returning to the subject of housing. What do you make of the various ways that towns have responded to the MBTA Communities zoning law? You’ve got Newton, where they passed a zoning plan, and then it got a couple of your former colleagues on the city council voted out. In Brookline, there is a pretty strong commitment to a compromise plan. And then there’s a place like Milton, which has been resistant. What do you make of how these towns have responded, and of the law in general?

Auchincloss: First of all, the cost of housing is the single most important domestic policy issue in America. Full stop. And I think Massachusetts is just an accentuated version of that. And there are two factors going into it. One is land use restrictions, which I think is more salient in places like Brookline. The other big factor is construction productivity, the cost of producing the house.

The New York Times recently had a great piece on a passion project of mine, which is factory built housing. One of the things that’s really striking is the average productivity of a construction worker has gone down in the last 50 years.

How do we get the Housing and Urban Development Department to issue advance market commitments for large scale factory built housing, to put tens or hundreds of thousands of units on demand? Because that’s how you get the factories to actually get the scale economies they need and go down the production cost curve.

The other big play, of course, is land use restrictions, which I think is in Massachusetts, probably even more important. I’m a strong supporter of the MBTA Communities Act. I have been since day one. And actually we’ve gone a step further. I’ve indicated that any municipality in my district that does not comply with the MBTA Communities Act by its deadline is not going to be eligible for any congressionally directed spending from my office.

Do I think it’s working? I think it’s probably still too soon to fully say. I’ve been tracking all the municipalities in my district and what they’ve been proposing. I’m seeing a spectrum. I’m seeing some towns that I think are really trying to be thoughtful about putting infill density and mixed-use walkable development together. I’m seeing some towns that are taking advantage of the loophole where they are putting zoning in place where the land really has already been developed, or is undevelopable. And so the net yield of new housing units, I think the law will not get the 250 to 500,000 units that I think we need, but it’s certainly a strong start.

Brookline.News: What did you make of Brookline’s zoning plan, voted by Town Meeting in November, mostly putting multi-family housing along Harvard Street?

Auchincloss: I thought both Brookline and Newton put forward thoughtful zoning plans to meet the MBTA Communities Act.

Both had a 2023 compliance deadline. And so these inner communities which are big, which have wrestled with land use issues for years, which are often looked to for local governance and best practices, and who had a full year head start with everybody else, I was really keen that they comply in a thoughtful way. And I think both of them did.

Brookline.News: What are one or two other policy changes that towns like Brookline can make to help solve these problems of housing supply?

Auchincloss: I’m a Strong Towns aficionado. I think they have it virtually correct.

Ban parking minimums, fully abolish parking minimums, commercial and residential. [Editor’s note: Parking minimums are zoning rules that require that a certain number of off-street parking spaces be included with new residential or commercial development.]

Brookline.News: That might be the first thing you’ve said that would be unpopular in Brookline.

Auchincloss: I think every politician should have one unpopular opinion, this is certainly mine.

We’ve got to price the curb. Curb management is a big issue. And right now, we use the curb too often as subsidized car storage, as opposed to a public asset, that can be used for, yes, parking, but also micromobility, outdoor dining, beautification, stormwater management, rideshare, transit.

Then the other thing that Strong Towns really advocates is incremental upzoning … So not saying ‘hey, this parcel needs to go from single family to 25 units,’ but saying single family to two-family, two-family to four-family, to ten-family. So you have a little steam off the bow.

Brookline.News: As you finish your second term in Congress, how are you doing personally? Are you enjoying the job? Is the commute to DC getting old?

Auchincloss: I’m not sure that commute to D.C. was ever new. But I’m doing well. I’ve got three little kids, and so time away is a trade off. But I try to make the best use of my time when I’m back here in Massachusetts so I don’t miss bedtime when I’m back here.

It also animates some of my priorities. I’ve been very keen on social media legislation and regulation that is partly inspired by the fact that I’m the youngest parent going into the next Congress. I have a four year-old, a three year-old and a one year-old. I have four years before that four year-old starts scrolling. Right now, screen time has been devouring family time for families across the country. And these social media corporations are the wealthiest, most powerful companies in the history of the world and they have no sense of civic responsibility, no sense of a duty of care for their users, and Congress has to change that.