After years of partisan fights and a looming election that will no doubt heighten the rhetoric, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-4th) says he is “not hugely optimistic that Congress is going to do a lot more prior to November.”
In a recent interview with Hersam Acorn Newspapers, Mr. Himes, a Greenwich resident serving his second term in the U.S. House of Representatives, said despite the “urgent problems” facing the nation, it remains a very polarized Congress. With the election approaching, he expects the atmosphere to be even worse.
However, even in that gloomy forecast, Mr. Himes is not closing the door on both sides being able to come together on trying to help stimulate the still-lagging economy.
This December, $1.2 trillion in cuts are due to automatically come into effect due to the failure of a bipartisan congressional committee to reach a deficit agreement. Mr. Himes said the cuts will have a bite that “is going to hurt.”
These cuts were never supposed to actually happen, Mr. Himes explained, but rather they were to be incentive for the committee to work together on spending cuts; however, any consensus has yet to be reached.
Additionally, the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are set to expire this December and the country again is facing the prospect of having to raise its debt ceiling limit, a process that brought about a contentious negotiation last summer.
“I’m actually a little excited about December,” Mr. Himes said. “All of this stuff is really bad. Somebody hates something about everything that happens in December. That opens up the possibility for real negotiation. Plus, we will be on the other side of the election so the silly season will be over and regardless of the outcome of the elections, these will be very important negotiations that are going to have an impact on our discretionary programs, have an impact on the Pentagon, and have an impact on the tax code.”
Mr. Himes said what he wants to see is a return of the Simpson-Bowles proposal, a controversial report released by a presidential commission chaired by former Republican Senator Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, who was chief of staff under President Bill Clinton.
The spending cuts and taxes it recommended, as well as reforms to programs like Medicare, drew sharp criticism from both Democrats and Republicans when the report was released, but Mr. Himes said it contains the framework for a deal on spending in Washington.
“We’re going to have to come to a deal in December and this is what the deal is going to look like, give or take a little,” Mr. Himes said. “My hope is that December gives us another chance. The budget votes we’ve seen so far have been largely symbolic and largely political. In December, I hope Simpson-Bowles is the starting point for the negotiation.”
He noted that of all the budget proposals put before Congress in March, the only one he voted for was the bipartisan Cooper-LaTourette budget, which was based on the Simpson-Bowles recommendations. It included a 10-year framework to stabilize the debt, tax code reform and tax increases on the wealthy, but also spending cuts and reforms to Medicare and Social Security that are unpopular with many Democrats; but Mr. Himes claims these will extend their solvency.
The fact it received bipartisan support did not mark it for success. Mr. Himes was one of only 22 Democrats to vote for it, along with 16 Republicans. He does see the 16 Republican votes as progress, though, since by doing so they backed away from their party’s opposition to new taxes.
The wild card is that these negotiations will likely take place with a lame duck Congress in place. Every member of the House of Representatives is up for re-election this November and there’s no telling how many of them could be at the end of their times in Congress by the time the negotiations begin. In addition, there could be a new presidential administration on the way in, meaning this will, at best, be a time of flux in Washington.
“We already have 50 lame duck members of the House because their seats will turn over through retirements and primaries,” Mr. Himes said. “We’re going to have a very substantial number of lame duck members of Congress but that’s about as far as one can go in predicting what that means. There’s a couple schools of thought. One is that a lame duck member of Congress will feel unconstrained by political pressure and have freedom to vote. The other one is that a person voted out will feel they shouldn’t do anything dramatic. It’s hard to predict the dynamics of a lame duck Congress.”
The partisan fights in the last two Congresses have been intense, and just recently Republican Rep. Allen West declared that he believes 80 of his congressional colleagues are Communists, in what many are interpreting as a direct shot against the members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Mr. Himes said despite that kind of rhetoric, he has been able to work with colleagues across the aisle, pointing to his work on a bill with Republican Rep. Steve Womack designed to benefit small banks. While that bill ended up with the credit given to Rep. Ben Quayle — which caused some emotional responses from Mr. Himes’ colleagues — he said it’s proof that things can get done.
“My three years in Congress have been very, very partisan and polarizing, and I look at it with confusion,” Mr. Himes said. “In this district you cannot be partisan. Chris Shays was a moderate Republican and I am a moderate Democrat. When I go into an environment where Allen West is making those kinds of statements — and, to be fair, people on my side are saying things, too — it rings strange in my ears.”
Mr. Himes said the challenge is to “find the center” in the Republican Party, which he says is too often “beholden to its Tea Party wing.”
“It’s not impossible, but it’s challenging,” Mr. Himes said.
Over all on the economy, Mr. Himes said things are “better, but not good enough.”
He said when he was first sworn in in the last quarter of 2008, the economy was contracting by 8%, but now it is growing by 3%. He said while “that’s not great,” it still represents “a big swing.”
He also cited that when he took office, the country lost 750,000 jobs in one month, but since then, there have been 23 months straight of job growth and a doubling of the stock market since the economy’s low point.
“There’s an awful lot out there to suggest cautious optimism,” Mr. Himes said. “But the reason I am hedging in my language is that we still have somewhere between 10 [million] and 12 million Americans out of work and 8.3% unemployment. We have a long way to go yet, but we’ve unquestionably turned the corner. I even feel a little better about the risks to the recovery… [T]hree or four months ago, I would have said that the possible meltdown in Europe could send us back to recession, but I don’t think that anymore.”
Support for fracking
Mr. Himes was asked about the nation’s energy policy. While declaring that he “cares profoundly for environmental and conservation issues” and pointing to his 100% record with the League of Conservation Voters, he expressed support for the controversial process induced hydraulic fracturing, known more commonly as fracking, whereby natural gas and oil are extracted from rock. Environmentalists claim this could cause severe damage, particularly to ground water, and is an unsafe process, but Mr. Himes insists it can be done safely.
“I think we have a terribly dishonest discussion about energy at a bunch of different levels,” Mr. Himes said. “The President of the United States and the Congress of the United States don’t have control over oil prices. Don’t give me credit when they’re low and don’t give me blame when they’re high… We need to do something we’ve neglected to do for a long time and put together a forward-thinking energy policy. That will include some very uncomfortable things that I will support.”
Mr. Himes said there has to be a much more “practical discussion” without the insistence that Indian Point in Westchester County, N.Y., needs to be shut down, that there cannot be any fracking, that coal causes climate change so it can’t be mined, and that all of this must happen while ending oil imports.
He said he will be supportive of nuclear power, of drilling and of extracting gas “provided it’s done in a safe and sustainable fashion.”
“If there were an environmentalist in the room he would probably tell you it can’t be done, but that’s baloney,” Mr. Himes said. “We can do it. Energy is dangerous stuff, whatever energy you’re talking about. We can frack safely. If the problem is a technical one, we can solve it. I tend to take a very practical, non-ideological approach to energy.”
Mr. Himes said all of this is for the near term and the goal must be on building green energy and ending the use of burning carbon.
Ending Afghanistan commitment
Internationally, Mr. Himes remains a strong proponent of ending the United States’ commitment in Afghanistan as quickly as possible. He credited President Barack Obama for keeping his campaign promise to end the war in Iraq, but said his timetable on withdrawal from Afghanistan is too slow. He said the continued violence there is proof that it is time to leave.
“Every week there is a fresh indication that our nation building program is not appropriate,” Mr. Himes said. “I want to be clear that there are very bad people in the region and they happen to mostly be in Pakistan. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a military presence there. I’ve said for years that we should support the approach of Vice President Joe Biden that we should have the ability to run counterterrorism operations in Pakistan and disrupt and destroy terrorist infrastructure, but this Afghanistan mission-building operation is not going to work. The president says he wants a withdrawal by the end of 2014, but I think it should be sooner.”