Are you socialist or capitalist? Why Texas Rep. Roger Williams keeps asking
WASHINGTON — Eight of America’s most prominent bankers had been grilled for more than two hours at the House Financial Services Committee by the time Austin Rep. Roger Williams got his five-minute period to engage them.
The Republican, often ebullient, was solemn-faced.
He sized up the finance barons gathered on Capitol Hill that spring morning — the likes of JP Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan and Goldman Sachs’ David Solomon — and told them that they each must answer a straightforward question.
“Are you a socialist or are you a capitalist?” he said.
Dimon broke into a wide smile as some audience members tittered. One of Williams’ colleagues could be heard stifling a chuckle as she whispered about how the Texan had really asked a bunch of bankers if they were capitalists. All eight executives went down the line: “Capitalist.”
“It’s a shutout for the socialists,” Williams crowed.
That sort of exchange has played on repeat this year as the four-term congressman has developed the custom — albeit an obscure one — of asking almost every witness before the House Financial Services Committee to identify as either a capitalist or a socialist.
It’s a spin on the longstanding GOP tactic to label Democrats as socialists, an attack that Democrats reject, in part because it involves twisting the phrase beyond its actual meaning.
Williams said he’s simply doing his part in a high-stakes fight, drawing contrast to the Democrats in Congress and on the White House campaign trail he accuses of pursuing policies that would undermine the free market system and lead America to financial ruin.
But the Texan’s habit, while a serious endeavor, often ends up being more humorous than hard-edged, injecting a bit of laughter into the tedious testimony that can fill half-empty hearing rooms.
Everyone from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell to witnesses far less well-known have so far faced the test. Only once has someone declined to identify as a capitalist, according to the lawmaker and his staff.
“It’s important to know,” Williams said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News. “I know what socialism looks like. I know what entrepreneurship and capitalism and risk and reward looks like. And we’re fighting that right now.”
The 70-year-old isn’t exactly known as a rabble-rouser on Capitol Hill.
The former Texas Christian University baseball star is the garrulous manager of the Republican team in the Congressional Baseball Game. Known for his impeccable suits and a gray shock of hair, he loves to talk about business — rendered as “bidness” in his Texas twang.
“I’m a car dealer for crying out loud,” he said, pointing to his decades-long career in the automobile business as proof of his capitalist bonafides.
But Williams’ mantra of questioning is, no doubt, a bit of protest.
While he’s been on the House finance committee since 2015, he only started making the query once Democrats took control of the House this year. He said that timing is no accident, particularly since that turnover marked when the panel gained three members of “The Squad.”
That’s the nickname that New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave to herself and three other progressive newcomers: Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. All but Omar are on the finance committee.
“They’ve expressed views that are very socialistic,” Williams argued.
Williams also pointed to the 2020 White House race, singling out the presidential campaign of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. He said Warren wants to impose steep taxes and “go after billionaires” and “give everybody free things that you can’t pay for.”
“That’s socialism,” Williams said. “You have Venezuela. You have Cuba. You have Russia to look at. How’s that working? We have a great economy. … People are making money. Net worth is going up. It’s because of capitalism.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment. Warren’s campaign declined to comment.
But Warren recently addressed the GOP’s penchant for the “socialist” attack line while she campaigned in New Hampshire, one of the early primary states. She accused Republicans of “lies” and “misinformation” and “distortions.”
“I’ve made it clear one hundred zillion times,” said Warren, who was the mastermind behind the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “I believe in markets. I believe in what markets can do. But I also want to be clear about this: markets without rules are theft.”
Other Democrats have ripped the “socialist” jab as nothing more than a ridiculous scare tactic.
It’s true that Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a White House contender, identify as democratic socialists. But that’s not what’s practiced in Venezuela or Cuba. Many Democrats also say there’s nothing radical about wanting to improve health care or combat climate change.
Williams’ questioning at House Financial Services Committee meetings rarely cuts that deep.
While the approach may smack of McCarthyism, Williams made clear that he won’t “yell or scream” at someone if they identify as socialist. It’s so far been mostly a moot point, as one witness after the next has reported to the Texan that they, like him, are capitalists.
Zuckerberg? “I would definitely consider myself a capitalist.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin? “I am a capitalist.”
Kathy Kraninger, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau? “I am a capitalist.”
Powell, the Fed chair, has even had to address the issue twice. When he made a return visit this year to the committee, Williams told him that he wanted to “make sure nothing has changed since you last came before this committee.”
“Are you still a capitalist?” Williams asked. “Or have you undergone a drastic change of thought and now believe socialism would be a better economic system for our country?”
Powell smiled: “No drastic change.”
The only hiccup to date came in September.
A member of the Fed’s board of governors and a top Treasury Department official appeared jointly before one of the panel’s subcommittees. It was the 20th hearing at which Williams had employed his query, and it appeared he figured the exchange, like the others, was fait accompli.
“I assume I know the answer,” he said. “But I still must ask: Are you a capitalist or are you a socialist?”
Lael Brainard, the Fed governor, went first.
“I certainly have viewed markets that are well regulated, that are competitive, as providing really important benefits, in terms of innovation and dynamism,” she said, providing an answer that sounded pretty bullish on capitalism but didn’t directly address the question.
Williams asked again. Brainard started to give the same answer.
“It’s 20-0 right now,” Williams interjected, grinning in disbelief as he referred to his tally of capitalists vs. socialists.
He asked the question one more time.
Brainard responded: “I don’t really think about it in those terms.”
The congressman paused for a moment and then turned the other witness, Dino Falaschetti, the Treasury Department official who had previously served as the House Financial Services Committee’s chief economist when Republicans were in power.
“Are you a capitalist or a socialist?” Williams asked.
Falaschetti didn’t hesitate: “Capitalist.”