August 5, 2005
California Congressman Pete Stark Reflects on Life Under a Republican Dictatorship in the House
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Congressman Pete Stark (D-California) has served in Congress since 1973. A senior member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, Stark was Chairman of its Health Subcommittee between 1985 and 1994 and is currently the ranking minority member on the Subcommittee.
Stark was a successful businessman and banker before being elected to Congress, and upon entering Congress, he served on the House Banking and Currency Committee. After completing his second term, Stark was named to the Ways and Means Committee, whose scope includes taxes, Medicare, Social Security, trade and public assistance.
In January of 1985, Stark became the Chairman of the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee. While Chairman, he presided over major reforms in the Medicare system. While cutting billions of dollars in excessive and wasteful outlays, Stark has expanded benefits for the 35 million beneficiaries, provided COBRA health continuation benefits to younger workers, and made numerous improvements in the quality of the nation's health care. He continues to fight for universal health coverage.
Throughout his career in Congress, Stark has been a consistent advocate for peace, freedom of choice, and environmental preservation. He has been a tireless advocate for children, the elderly and the disabled as well as for the workers of the 13th Congressional District, a diverse area stretching along the east side of the San Francisco Bay from Oakland to San Jose.
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BuzzFlash: We have covered what we call the Republican tyranny in the House of Representatives. They came in on a platform of the so-called Newt Gingrich revolution of reforming the Congress, but it seems like they're reforming it by turning it into a dictatorship. What exactly is going on? You had an encounter yourself, last year, where the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Bill Thomas, called the Capitol police on you. He was claiming that you were physically intimidating a representative, if I recall, less than half your age. What's going on?
Congressman Stark: He called the police to tell all my colleagues to get out of the adjoining rooms. I was just left behind to keep objecting so they couldn't pass anything by unanimous consent while my colleagues were trying to read a bill which had only been presented to us at two o'clock in the morning. We didn't know what was in it, but he was trying to force us to vote on it.
BuzzFlash: Without knowing what was in it.
Congressman Stark: Right. In the "Contract with America," they talked about term limits. As soon as they took control of the House, somebody said, “Well, term limits are unimportant because we're in the majority now.” All of what they did was directed toward getting control of the House. And they've done it.
I rather suspect that the Republicans will become so arrogant and over-reaching that they'll self-destruct. And I might use as an example the Democrats. It would not be unfair to suggest that in the early nineties, the late eighties, we got very careless in the majority. You can be so sure of your issues and your policies that you lose track of the fact that there's mainstream America out there who may not always agree with you. So I suspect the Republicans will self-destruct.
BuzzFlash: Are they starting to self-destruct? If you look at the encounter you had, it was basically that Congressman Thomas was saying we'll draft the legislation. You're going to have no role in drafting it. We're going to meet separately, and you're not allowed to come in. And that's when he called the Capitol Police on Democrats who were trying to be involved in a legislative meeting that they were legally entitled to attend.
Congressman Stark: Since then, that sort of exclusion has become standard procedure. We are basically never invited to participate in the formulation of a bill. We're generally given a perfunctory mark-up session in which the Republicans have all marched in lock step, and routinely turned down every amendment we offer, even though some of them tend to embarrass some of the Republicans. They've got discipline – probably better discipline than we ever had. So there's really no legislative role that we are allowed to play. We get conference committees, which are the committees that meet to iron out – negotiate, supposedly – the differences between the House and Senate bill. And unlike the Senate, not only are Democrats not allowed to participate in those conferences, a lot of times we can't even find out where they're meeting.
BuzzFlash: There have been a couple votes, at least, where they've held the clock back until they could twist enough arms to get the vote that they wanted. In short, they lost the vote, so then they just extended the voting time. Speaker Hastert and Tom DeLay went around twisting arms. This came up in the case of a Congressman from Michigan who told a radio station that he was offered campaign money for his son's race if he voted –
Congressman Stark: And believe it – he was. And I might add, he was threatened that they would go out and that his son would never win if he did it. He persisted in doing it, and the Republican leadership went out and campaigned against his son, and for his son's opponent in the primary.
BuzzFlash: They don't take any prisoners.
Congressman Stark: No. They don't leave a nickel on the table for the next game.
BuzzFlash: Well, let's look at what's going on with the Ethics Committee, which is composed equally of members of each party.
Congressman Stark: Right.
BuzzFlash: It's been at a standstill in regards to the Majority Leader, Tom DeLay. You know, it was said that Newt Gingrich overthrew Jim Wright on a sort of trumped-up book charge, then eventually Gingrich was found to have something very similar. Gingrich just got a little slap on the wrist. Isn't there a double standard here?
Congressman Stark: I don't know if it's a double standard or just a kind of righteousness which is hard to support. My feeling has generally been that people who commit a crime end up in jail, particularly members of Congress. But mostly it's a question of ethical behavior – you know, peddling books, doing what Cunningham did – selling his house, and then the guy who sold it took the hit – lost 700,000 bucks nine months or a year later. He may not have broken any laws, but we know what the facts are.
BuzzFlash: This is your fellow California Congressman Cunningham, who basically received an inflated price for his house?
Congressman Stark: He sold a million-dollar house for a million-seven to a lobbyist who got sixty or seventy billion dollars' worth of government contracts.
BuzzFlash: And then the lobbyist took a 700,000 loss on the house.
Congressman Stark: In nine months. And the lobbyist's company bought it. And there's no clear-cut reason – what the heck did he want with a house in San Diego, anyway, you know? It doesn't pass the sniff test. But you've got to find some kind of criminal intent. I'm not a lawyer, but that's what I'm supposing. It's just like O.J. and Michael Jackson. They may have had blood all over them, but can you prove criminal intent?
The Ethics Committee is there to sort out what should be considered improper behavior in the people's House. And the Ethics Committee has been frustrated from organizing because the rules have said that there will be a non-partisan staff, and that the staff director will be jointly appointed by the ranking member and the Chairman. In effect, you have a veto power either way, and you have to get a good non-partisan director.
Maybe the worst they ever do to Cunningham is make him go down in the well, and read a lot of nasty things about him, and take his punishment that way. [Since the BuzzFlash interview with Congressman Stark was conducted, Congressman Cunningham has announced that he will not seek re-election.] I'd just as soon see him out there dangling in the wind for the public to get a good look at a stellar Republican, or with Tom DeLay as their epitome of a Republican Congressman. I don't mind their being out there for awhile. They both do me as a Democrat more good as an example of what's wrong with the Republican Party than putting them in jail, where we'd forget about them in a month.
BuzzFlash: We hear the President calling the Democrats obstructionists. Supposedly, they don't have anything to offer, he implies. You're an example of a Congressman who has introduced bills and who offers a lot. But the Republicans won't let Democrats bring legislation up for a vote, or they vote it all down. You just introduced new legislation that would enhance the Family and Medical Leave Act. Tell us a little bit about this bill as an example of the proactive agenda that the Democrats do have.
Congressman Stark: This bill provides some paid benefits to workers who take time off. A lot of workers could get the time off by law, but they can't afford to take it. This would provide twelve weeks of paid benefits. It'd be 55% of their salary, with a maximum benefit of about $742 a week, so that some guy making millions can't rip off on it. It gives the average American family, in cases of childbirth or child adoption, or serious illness, a chance to be a caregiver and stay home and take care of a family member for far less than they could afford day care.
Visiting nurses and the like are terribly expensive. It's a humanitarian outreach. You have families that must have two people working to survive. If it's a two-parent household with children, it's a matter of necessity in most areas that both parents work. We have to face that, if there is an emergency, caregivers aren't available at a price one can afford, except if they're a relative or a spouse or a domestic partner. So we're trying to institutionalize and make available some tender loving care from a family member, and make our work force somewhat more independent from a medical or family emergency.
BuzzFlash: Democrats like you have introduced this legislation, but it either gets buried or voted down.
Congressman Stark: It will get ignored by the Republicans. Unless they decide to have a hearing or study it, it will be nothing more than a good policy statement. Or it could become a plank in a campaign. But it's not likely to get serious consideration by the House. There are 10,000 bills introduced every year, so I can't say, gee, you ought to take each of my bills and have a hearing, and let it go through the process. But I would tell you that virtually no Democratic bills are given consideration. That is not the way we operated here in the past, when the Democrats were in control.
BuzzFlash: What do you think is going to happen with Social Security? The President obviously, came up with goose eggs in terms of his rather long campaign for privatizing Social Security accounts and other measures he wanted to implement. They were poorly received by the public. What do you think is going to happen?
Congressman Stark: I think it's dead for this year, and I suspect the President goes lame duck after that. It's clear that the Republicans would like to end entitlements for social insurance - predominantly Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. They would like to make those either welfare programs, by providing vouchers to low-income people, or free market choice, which is to say: buy your own insurance, baby. The government isn't going to help you. That overall policy has directed all of their Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security legislation for the last four or five years.
BuzzFlash: Grover Norquist, who's sort of the guru of the right wing, has said he'd like to drown government in a bathtub. He has said that he is against entitlement programs and any sort of social service network support.
Congressman Stark: That's clear. I can't think of any Republican who would tell you that is not the overall game plan of the Republican Party. To dismantle Social Security as an entitlement.
BuzzFlash: They put on this ruse that it's not their goal.
Congressman Stark: Most of the honest ones will admit that it's their goal, and to turn Medicare into a voucher system for low-income people to buy their own health insurance after they're 65, and for those middle- and upper-income people, they're on their own. Buy your own insurance. The same with Medicaid. Let the states, if they want to, help the poor people, but disabled children and others will get a voucher, and then they're on their own in the private insurance market, which, as a matter of fact, doesn't exist for most of the people who need this assistance.
We're the only country in the world – not the only civilized country, not the only industrialized country, not the only non-third world country – we're the only country in the world that does not provide health care to all of its residents. Now that might tell you something, but it is, in fact, the Republican game plan – to do away with these kinds of social programs. The overall message from the Republican Party is to keep the federal government out of our lives. And that's what they're trying to do.
BuzzFlash: On the Democratic side, you're perhaps the leading expert in the House on Medicare. When the Democrats were in the majority, you helped lead the Democratic positioning on that. On the other side, we now have the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Bill Thomas, who is very close to the pharmaceutical industry. We're going to see the new Medicare drug plan that was passed and supported by the Bush Administration again next year. There's a lot of confusion about that. There are some who contend that the drug companies are going to make out like bandits on this.
Congressman Stark: I presume they will. I assume that the drug companies are making out like bandits today. They're the most profitable industry group in the United States. They have the highest percentage of profit of any industrial group in America. They pay the least amount of income tax of any major industrial group in America. And they're cutting a fat hog.
We're going to spend 400 or 600 or maybe $800 billion over the next five years to pay for some of the senior citizens' drugs. And without any control on the prices that pharmaceutical companies charge, so I'm sure they're going to get richer and be much better off. I'm not very sure that the Medicare system is going to benefit very much. There is a small number of extremely impoverished seniors who will get drugs that they don't now get. I will say that. But the vast majority of the seniors who are on Social Security are not going to get much at all.
BuzzFlash: When you go back to your district in California, what do you hear about the Iraq War?
Congressman Stark: In my district, I would guess 80% would oppose it, and 60 or 70% would say let's get out now. They would say: Bush, you lied to us when we were going in. Why don't you lie to the Iraqis and leave? They see no reason to stay in there. They see it does nothing to fight terrorism, for heaven sake's.
But 18,000 people a year die from lack of health insurance. Lack of health insurance causes them to be unable to get the medical care that could save them, according to the National Institute of Health. The billions of dollars that we're spending in Iraq could have bought one whole hell of a lot of medical care for those 18,000 Americans who died last year. That's a kind of terrorism I know I could prevent tomorrow.
I can't see that the President has prevented any terrorism. I think he's increased it, from everything we can see in Iraq. I have to thank the troops who put up with this idiot Commander-in-Chief that we have. But that's what you do in the military – you obey orders.
I certainly wouldn't want to blame any of the people in uniform. I say thank you very much for being so patient with this guy and not having a military revolt. But my district is not the United States. It's a very progressive district, and I love them all. But that's where they are. They're extremely progressive, extremely anti-Bush, extremely anti-involvement in Iraq.
BuzzFlash: Our readers are very concerned about preserving democracy. This is a very secretive Administration. It's a very dictatorial Administration. It likes to proceed preemptively, unilaterally, doesn't like to consult with anyone on foreign affairs or with Democrats on domestic affairs. What do you recommend? You must feel incredibly frustrated. You were there when the Democrats were in the majority. Now the Republicans basically say "you don't matter" to all the Democrats in the House, "we're just going to forge ahead the way we want. You could just sit there and read a book, for all we care."
Congressman Stark: No, I can't read a book, because they'll publish the list of books that I read.
BuzzFlash: They'll find what you checked out of the Fremont [California] Library, huh? What's keeping you going?
Congressman Stark: What keeps me going are your readers – you know, the MoveOn.org, the progressive Democrats who keep organizing, the Mothers Opposing Bush – MOB, as we call them. The idea of spreading information that is true.
I've always believed in sunshine in government and open communications. Maybe this new medium will empower the public with information that will get them out to vote. I think we had a huge turnout the last time. I think more young people have come back since I first ran during the last days of the Vietnam War. I saw the young people out in droves wanting to vote and be active. So that's what keeps me going.
I'd much rather be legislating. There's so much to do. But being a realist, I know that just can't be done right now, so we all have to do whatever we can to organize. Do grassroots recruiting to get good candidates, to encourage young people to get involved in politics, and senior citizens can do much more. There's a lot we can do.
My sense is that, if people have the knowledge and the information, they're wise enough to make good decisions. I have a tremendous amount of faith in the American public. If we don't mess them up with a lot of claptrap about God, guns and gays, why we may get the world back on a good track and clean up the environment and bring peace to the world, and bring good health care and education to our kids, and get back in the direction we were heading with Lyndon Johnson and Clinton and Carter and the others.
BuzzFlash: Congressman, you're doing a great job. You're one of the fighters for the great American democracy and for the welfare of the American people, and we hope you keep it up and don't get discouraged. It sounds like you're not. Thank you for your time.
Congressman Stark: Let's talk again soon.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Congressman Pete Stark's web site: http://www.house.gov/stark/
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