Democratic Rep. Brian Baird, PhD, only the second clinical psychologist ever elected to Congress, leaves the House next month after six terms representing a sprawling section of southwestern Washington state.
First elected to Congress in 1998, Baird, 54, is known for his independent streak and strong commitment to applying social and behavioral science to the nation’s health care, national security and energy challenges. Before coming to Washington, D.C., Baird was an associate professor and chair of the psychology department at Pacific Lutheran University and a licensed practitioner in Washington and Oregon. He has worked in state and Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, community mental health clinics, substance abuse treatment programs, juvenile facilities and head injury rehabilitation programs.
Baird has a reputation as a politician who isn’t afraid to go against the tide. In 2002, he voted against authorizing the use of force against Iraq, but in 2007, he called for more time for the surge of additional troops to work. His position drew 600 angry constituents — many of whom vehemently criticized his stance — during a nearly four-hour town hall meeting.
Over the years, Baird has championed several successes for psychology, including in 2007 when he co-sponsored the America COMPETES Act, which significantly increased authorized funding levels for social and behavioral science research at the National Science Foundation. In late 2009, he was one of a small number of Democrats who initially voted against the health-care reform bill, saying the legislation didn’t include reliable estimates on health-insurance premiums, among other concerns. In March, he voted for the final health-care reform bill, saying it was much improved over the original legislation.
Baird says he’s leaving to devote more time to his wife, Rachel Nugent, and their 5-year-old twin boys, William Washington and Walter Franklin. The Monitor met with Baird to discuss his political career and future plans.
Why did you decide against trying for a seventh term?
It sounds cliché, but I don’t know of any more valid reason than to spend more time with your family. That’s my reason. My wife does international development work as an economist, and she travels a lot and I travel a lot. It’s one thing when it’s just the two of us and we say, “OK, you’re in Rwanda this week, and I’m in Iraq next week.” But when you have children and you’re saying yet again that you have to leave your family, it sort of wears you down. That’s what I found happening increasingly.
What’s next for you?
I hope to do some teaching in the Pacific Northwest and to consult on politics and communications. I’ve got a couple of book projects in the works, one, hopefully, that will be published very soon.
What’s it about?
It’s called “Character, Politics and Responsibility: Restarting the Heart of the American Republic,” and it’s a very frank look at some of the major policy challenges facing the country and what I think we ought to do about them. It’s written regardless of any concern about political consequence. We’ve got a $1.5 trillion deficit and $13 trillion-plus debt, and $52 trillion in present value long-term entitlement commitments, and we just can’t get there without raising revenue, growing the economy and cutting expenses. If somebody’s got better solutions, I’m happy to hear them, but I’ve not.
What did you learn from your first race?
Your readers will appreciate this: One of the surprising lessons of running for public office is that one becomes, effectively, a human version of a Rorschach card. By that I mean you are an item onto which much is projected, both good and bad. Remembering who you are, in spite of the projections of others, is a very interesting experience. People will project more positive qualities on you than you deserve, and more negative qualities than you deserve. You have to not be too depressed by the negative, nor too seduced by the overly flattering.
A colleague of mine once said the goal of all politicians is to be loved, and I profoundly disagree with that. My goal is to do the right thing, and if a whole lot of people hate you for doing the right thing, that’s the price you have to pay.
What did you learn about integrity from your father?
He was a high school teacher of civics and American government, and so he passionately believed in the American system. He also believed in personal responsibility and public service and integrity, and he embodied those values in the way he lived his life. I once saw him turn around and drive back 15 miles when he realized someone had given him an extra $5 in change.
After I left for college, he was mayor of our small town [Fruita, Colo.], and he oversaw the rebuilding of most of the town’s basic infrastructure — water, sewer, roads, which were in a terrible state of decay prior to his being mayor. Those improvements led to some revenue increases and torn-up streets — and to his defeat. But at the end of the day, the town got an awesome rebuild, which allowed it to expand and attract new businesses.
How have you tried to balance your constituents’ interests with national and international issues?
I’ve always believed in [former U.S. House Speaker] Tip O’Neill’s dictum that all politics is local. I’ve held well over 300 town hall meetings, visited every port, every hospital, every high school multiple times. I have a very good district team working on constituent service, and I fly out every weekend. So if there was something happening, I’ve tried to be there.
You can find ways to work on national issues with local relevance. On the global issues, I’ve tried to focus on perspectives that get neglected or places that get neglected. I’ve tried to focus on things that are central to current or future potential conflicts. That has relevance at the end of the day because if I’m going to vote on whether or not to send Americans to die overseas, I want to know everything I can about what those conflicts are and what the options are.
Since 2004, you have advocated for and pushed through legislation for better psychological services for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families. Have you seen any improvement since then?
Well, we’re doing better than we were at the start of the conflicts. But we need more human resources, we need more professionals, especially in the field and theater. We need more non-Department of Defense, non-VA practitioners to understand deployment issues.
And I think we need to dramatically re-evaluate the whole concept of post-traumatic stress disorder and its linkage to disability compensation [provided to veterans diagnosed with PTSD from the Department of Veterans Affairs]. It’s politically unacceptable to say so, but everybody in the field knows it. We ought to focus much more on the accurate assessment of what the person has experienced and on implementing effective treatments and interventions so they can get on with their lives, rather than diagnosing them with a disorder that leads to compensation as long as the diagnosis is maintained.
How important was the achievement of parity in 2008 for mental health and substance abuse treatment?
Tremendously important. I participated in a number of hearings about this around the country. We heard heartbreaking stories about people who try to get care for their family members, only to be denied by insurance companies for life-threatening illnesses, anorexia, clinical depression, bipolar disorder — difficult, potentially costly, but treatable conditions.
Will parity improve Americans’ quality of life?
We don’t know the answer to that yet, because we’re not sure exactly how [the mandated implementation of parity for mental health treatment in health insurance plans] is going to play out in a number of ways. For example, how will insurers implement it? Will they find covert ways to block people from using services? In some cases, we’ll have to go through some rounds of enforcement.
How can psychology’s insights help the nation address its challenges?
As chair of the House Research and Science Education Subcommittee four years ago, I made a personal effort to make social science front and center to our activities, particularly how we approach what I call the grand challenges facing our country. Health care is one. National security is another, and energy is a third. A significant portion of those three challenges is related to social and behavioral science, and a significant portion of the solutions is to be found in the social and behavioral sciences. On the energy and environment front, for example, I’m absolutely convinced we could cut our energy consumption by 20 percent in 20 weeks — not by 2020 — if we just made behavior changes. Our profession ought to be able to help us understand those changes.
Should more psychologists run for political office?
Absolutely. If they’re in it for the right reasons, if they appreciate the complexity of the task, absolutely. There are a number of things in terms of methodology, scientific reasoning, respect for empirical data and dealing with people that psychologists should be well trained for. Clearly, a number of major public policy issues impact our profession, and can be impacted by our professional knowledge and training.