U.S congressional candidates speak
U.S Congressman (5th district) Glenn Thompson and challenger Charles Dumas spoke with Voices. Read more here...
U.S congressional candidates speak
By James Hynes
U.S Congressman (5th district) Glenn Thompson and challenger Charles Dumas spoke with Voices.
Your opponent Glenn Thompson has a million dollar war chest and lots of powerful friends in DC. What made you decide to run against him?
No one else was doing it. I would have gladly not jumped into the ring if someone with more experience and gumption had decided to run. I looked around—a lot of people were considering running back in January, but then no one was willing to step to the plate. And I was concerned that Congressman Thompson was going to get away with no one asking him about putting his allegiance to his party and his friends above his constituents.
So this isn’t an act of protest. You are serious about this run?
I don’t know what else I can do to prove that I’m serious. I’ve been working hard in the district. Centre Country is about 15% of the district vote. We expect a good turnout in Elk, Clearfield, and Centre where Democrats will likely vote straight across the ticket. My job is to get out into the other areas and to get Democrats enlivened and mobilized. Look, Obama won Pennsylvania in 2008. In 2010, there was a 30-40% drop in Democratic Party turnout. The Republicans didn’t win; we lost. So, it’s not my seriousness that matters. What matters is whether or not people see that there is a contrasting vision for our country. Do we give our resources to the rich and hope for trickle down or do we have a vision of a nation where people help each other?
Are you confident that you can win?
The House of Representatives has a 10 percent approval rating. They’ve been dysfunctional for two years. They’ve been too concerned about obstructing the president. We’ve got to get our shoulders to the wheel and fight about values. Half of the voters will vote ticket, but I believe that the independents will wake up. Frankly, it’s not probable. I know this. But it’s not impossible.
What do you think is the most pressing issue our country faces today?
Poverty. Growing poverty. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is drifting toward poverty. Did you know that the United States has now passed Brazil in wealth disparity? Brazil. Public education is being attacked. Unemployment remains high, and wages are stagnant. Worse, there is a poverty of the spirit. I’ve talked to people who are so despondent—they don’t have a lot of hope that life is better for them than it was for their parents and grandparents, and that life will be better for their children.
Economic growth is slow, unemployment hovers over 8 percent (higher if we count those who’ve given up trying to find work), the national debt is over $16 trillion and growing rapidly, the financial markets are still precarious—how do we get ourselves out of this mess? [Unemployment dropped below 8 percent after this interview]
Things are bad, but I’m not as pessimistic as the pundits. First, let’s raise our vision and look around the world. We’re doing damned well compared to a lot of other places, including the EU. It’s an issue of what the long-term philosophy will be for 21st century folks. Has capitalism as we’ve known it been working? I’m by no means a communist. Soviet communism was a complete failure. But the idea of capitalism is not the same as the reality. The idea is that you get paid for creating, conducting and controlling a business. The way it works on the books is that you succeed and then profit off that success. But now someone starts with a target profit and everything else—including labor standards and environment—follows from that. So, 12-20 percent profit is the starting bottom line, and I’m not sure that as it manifests itself right now that this model of capitalism is working. Look at history. The runaway capitalism of the ‘20s gave us the Great Depression. To get out of it, government taxed the rich at rates of 50-70 percent to develop infrastructure and safety nets for working people—to give them a moral sense of having a stake in it all. Today, we argue about a 4.5 percent increase in taxes for the top 2 percent. Is that too much?
What about the argument that raising taxes so high for the top 2 percent would cause them to move their businesses overseas?
They’re already doing that. How much is enough to keep them here? They’re already going to places like China because labor is so cheap. As it is, we can’t compete against Chinese labor on the terms under which they work. I think that the burden is on organized labor. Unions are very disconnected. Why have we never built the one International Union? Why have we not helped Chinese labor to organize? Rather than being afraid of illegal immigrants, why have we not organized them as Cesar Chavez did? Besides, if businesses all move out, who’s going to buy their stuff? You pay a living wage, and I’m going to buy your stuff. That’s how it’s always worked.
Do you support the Affordable Healthcare Act? What, if anything, would you change about it?
Yes, I support it. I would have gone for single-payer, but this is one of the most progressive acts in my lifetime. FDR with his New Deal couldn’t do it. Johnson with his Great Society couldn’t do it. And it’s constitutional. The court that decided that is was constitutional wasn’t a friendly court, either. That’s a major progressive move. Again, I would have gone to the mat for single-payer. But it’s nice to know that people will have coverage. It’s nice to know that people like me who had pre-existing conditions—I had cancer—would not be denied coverage.
What is the US role on the world stage today?
Our role is to provide leadership in the development of democracy around the world in a non-military fashion. I’ve taught in South Africa. As a Fulbright Scholar, I’ve traveled around the world. There is nowhere else in the world that has done what we have done. Look at our Olympics team. No other team looked like that. We had black, white, brown people from every national background and every genetic makeup on that team. We’ve got to put that on our flagpole. The United States is a model for how people can live together. Let’s be real. It’s taken a lot of ugliness. A bloody civil war. Race riots. We don’t necessarily always love each other, but we’ve figured out how to respect each other’s personhood and dignity, and I’m so proud of that.
Is China’s rise as a superpower a good thing?
Yes, insofar as it provides a way for formerly starving people to no longer starve. The system, for all its faults, got it done. The incentive for us is not to be China but to do what we do better. And we’ve always been good at having the competitive edge. One negative impact of China’s rise is that—I’m concerned about how she treats her people. I’m not sure how to go about dealing with that, but it’s a problem for us. There is also a tendency for China to support industrial piracy, and this couldn’t be done without the state’s hand in it. I’m concerned with the lack of environmental regulations in China. But the Chinese are not going to bury us. The Chinese model is not going to be so effective that it will destroy our way of life. My biggest concern is that, educationally, they are far above us—certainly with regard to math and science. The Chinese see education as infrastructure; it’s the development of their future. And China is using our educational resources to train their future leaders. We have the best higher education system in the world, and universities across the country are educating China’s future leaders. One good thing about that is that those leaders get exposure to humanities, to arts. We all need well-rounded individuals who understand and sustain their own culture, but to question things, and we do that well. I sense that Chinese students who go to our universities will bring that back with them and put pressure on the system there.
President Obama, like your opponent Glenn Thompson, supports expanding natural gas exploration in North America. Residing in Marcellus Shale country, where do you stand on natural gas exploration and unconventional hydro-fracturing specifically?
What I’ve come to is this: The role of the federal government, through the EPA, is to make sure we project the 10, 15, 25, 50-year impacts. We need to study that. What chemicals are being used? What are the water issues? All sides need to talk about problems and risks and discuss options. If it works let’s do it, but let’s do that study first. And since the industry wants to do the drilling, they should pay for it.
So you support a moratorium?
Yes, at least until we know what the long-term impacts will be. On a state level, New York’s done it. The EPA has the power to do it nationally.
Some say that investment in renewable and other clean energy is a failure. The Energy Information Administration, for example, points to recent data that show a disproportionate investment in “green” energy research with little to show for it. Do you agree?
No. National investment in clean energy is a win-win. It can provide jobs in the US. It’s reasonable. We’re not talking about “if” but “when.” Fossil fuels are unsustainable in the long run. We need to change direction. Let’s start doing it now. Solar is an untapped resource. Wind is largely an untapped resource. They say it’s not competitive now, but we need to look at five years after a full commitment. Oil supplies are diminishing. The cost to generate a wind-turbine will be lower than the transportation costs for oil, coal, and gas. And it’s right here in America. Resistance to it is on part of those who hold reins. If you own the only horses in the race, then you’ll win the race.
You mentioned that education is infrastructure. You’re an educator. Where does our nation stand with regard to education?
I applaud the president for his support for education, especially in the development of Pell grants and interest rate reductions for student debt. We need more support on a primary and secondary level. There has been an attempt in the last few years to vilify teachers when they ought to be among our most respected and honored citizens. This is a serious economic issue. It’s not just about doing good by the kids but doing good by our nation’s future.
We as country, we as a culture, we as a people need to support our artists. FDR made sure that public funds went to artists who told the American story. There was a theatre in every town. It is through public support for the arts that the slave narrative could be told, and it helped change us. Artists enrich our lives.
But we’re broke. How do you respond to someone who says that we simply can’t afford to do everything and that the arts are not a priority?
Life is not entirely about nickels and dimes, getting and spending. The Netherlands invests 2 percent of its public funds on arts. We don’t spend .002 percent. We have this idea that if you’re an artist, you can make enough through ticket sales or by rich people buying your stuff. But it’s not all about nickels and dimes. Compare two cultures, Greece and Rome. Name something from Greece. Chances are a number of beautiful and innovative contributions come to mind. Name something from Rome. Everything in Rome came from Greece. Now, we remember Greece for its humanity. All we know about Rome is that they conquered much of the world and now they don’t own it anymore. Art contributes to our understanding of the world and the universe—both seen and unseen. It changes lives and makes life better. Art translates into humanity.
What experiences would you bring with you into office? How will those experiences guide you as a Representative?
I find it impossible to compartmentalize myself. I think of myself as who I am. Being professor at Penn State at this time through our most difficult period is an exercise in crisis management. How do you help people to come out on the other side? That’s what I bring. To listen, not just to hear. I was in Yale law school, and I was also president of Legal Services where I used my understanding of the law to help those in need. I was a community organizer and, although some may ridicule the role, it’s shown me how to get real people together to solve real problems—to empower people on the ground. As a Fulbright scholar, I represented my country in many ways. I bring my humanity to my work. From Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy, I was inspired to commit to public service. Because people have helped me. I was the child of single mother, a high school dropout. I joined the Civil Rights movement. People helped along the way. I feel an obligation to public service.
What do you want the people of this district to walk away with?
I’ve been encouraged by the best of my country that I’ve seen throughout my sixty-five years, and I want to share that. My candidacy is about reigniting a sense of possibilities for our community and our nations. Once, when people said, “We’re not where we want to be” it meant, “Let’s work together to get to where we want to be.” Now, too many people—even young people—throw their hands up. We need to get back to that spirit. We need to work together. Don’t quit trying to get us to a better place. This is still our country.
What is the most pressing issue that our country faces today?
Jobs. Almost 23 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed. This is unacceptable. According to the last—clarified—jobs report, the total number of people on unemployment dropped, but only because they left the rolls for part-time work. And to survive on a part-time job today? In my opinion, there aren’t a lot of social ills that can’t be taken care of with a good-paying job. I came out of 30 years as a healthcare provider, and in that field we use an assessment model. You don’t just come out and do what you think is politically correct—what a party or special interest group wants you to do. You do what’s needed, and you do it on a needs basis.
Economic growth is slow, and as you’ve discussed, unemployment remains stubbornly high. We’ve got trillion dollar annual deficits. The national debt is over $16 trillion with no end in sight, the financial markets seem unstable—specifically, how do we get ourselves out of this mess?
We have to unleash economic activity in this country, and what’s holding it back is fear and uncertainty about policy. The only true economic engine in this country are small businesses. They provide over 70% of our jobs. But they’re sitting on the sidelines now because of taxes. We have the highest corporate tax rate in the world. America is the most expensive place in the world to do business. That’s not a good position to be when you operate in a global economy. So, it’s taxes and over-regulation. Baseline regulation is incredibly important; that’s about health and safety. But we have a regulatory regime that never takes any regulation away. We never go back and look at a regulation and ask, “Okay, is the cost-benefit there to justify it?” Really, I view it as an onion. We just add layer upon layer. It gets larger and heavier on the backs of small business owners. We’ve got to repatriate American businesses so that they can create jobs here, not overseas. Also, we need to do something about energy. For many business, energy is the number-two cost. And gasoline prices crush people who are on a fixed income, like most of the people who I talk to.
So you support extending the Bush tax cuts?
Well, I don’t really think of them as the Bush tax cuts. Obama’s been president for four years. He extended the cuts two years ago. At the time, he said that increasing taxes in a time of economic difficulty would be a bad idea. And yes, I support extending them. But, more importantly, we have to look at the tax codes. Personally, I think that the tax codes are broken. They’re too complex, and there are too many loopholes. Frankly, if you’re wealthy enough to hire an army of lawyers, you’re not going to pay any taxes. This is one of the president’s flawed arguments. He wants to raise taxes, but unless you reform the tax code and close those loopholes, people will always find a way not to pay. We need to simplify the tax code. One plan that I’d like to see is every American—whether an individual, family, or a business should be able to fill their tax returns on the back of a postcard. A lower, flatter rate...10% for individuals and families, 15% for businesses. And deductions need to go away, especially for the top wage-earners. If you did that, you’d provide certainty for our businesses. It’s my hope that, by the first quarter of the 113th Congress, we’ll see real tax reform.
It seems that the revenue from closing loopholes might be offset by lowering taxes across the board. Some economists have suggested that tax cuts right now could create an immediate revenue shortfall requiring austerity such as what is leading to so much turmoil in Spain and Greece. Of course, businesses might bite and invest in serious job growth. They might not. After all, they are sitting on a lot of capital from stimulus right now. Confidence is a fickle thing. Is trickle-down—at this time—something of a Hail Mary pass?
Again, we don’t have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem. If you look across the board, you see so much waste. The Congressional Budget Office—bipartisan, objective analysts—have identified no fewer than forty redundant federal programs. There’s so much overlap and so many inefficiencies. The government has never met its obligations without asking for more, for saying that we should spend more. I believe in efficient, clean government. I take my responsibility seriously...that every tax dollar paid by Americans should not be wasted.
Do you support the Affordable Healthcare Act? If so, are there any changes that you would propose?
I don’t like the word “reform” when it comes to healthcare. I’ve been a healthcare provider for near thirty years, and I can tell you that we have the best quality care in the world. I believe in refining healthcare. The way Obama approached this was unacceptable. Negotiations were behind closed doors, and rank members of congress weren’t welcome. He used a community rating system which jacked up the price of insurance. He came into office on the promise that he’d reduce average premiums by $2,000. And what happened? They’ve gone up by $2,000. He told you that you can keep your insurance if you select to. Well, that turns out not to be true.
So, what do you propose?
I have four principles when it comes to healthcare: decrease cost, increase access, increase innovation and give patients control. Patients should always be making their own healthcare decisions in consultation with their providers. Not some government bureaucrats. Medicare? Look, it’s going to be bankrupt by 2025. That fact, I think, is frightening. Truly frightening. We save it. We have to. I don’t consider it an entitlement. It’s an investment. So, this is what I support: for people 55 and over, right now, you don’t touch it. But if you’re 54 or younger, you should get a choice. If you really believe—if you trust that government is going to do this right and look out for your investment, you can keep government Medicare. But if you don’t, you should have choices.
In other words, vouchers.
No, a voucher is a thing you get in the mail, and you can buy things with it. This is giving people a choice. As I said, if you’re 54 or younger, you can choose your coverage. Competition brings down prices. Look at Medicare, Part D [the prescription drug benefit promoted and signed by George W. Bush] that’s come under budget by 40%. It’s one of the few government programs to come under budget. We’d use that kind of model. And I believe that it ought to be a sliding scale. Low earners would be covered 100%, but wealthy people—successful people—not as much. I’d also continue to support innovations like the Federal Qualified Health Centers, similar to the structure of Volunteers in Medicine, that provide terrific care—particularly in rural and under-served urban areas. And they’re entirely means-tested.
What about the individual mandate (the government requirement that individuals carry health insurance)? Do you support it?
I understand that the Supreme Court found it constitutional. They called the penalties a tax. It’s semantic. I suppose I can understand why they’d call it a tax. Interestingly, it’s enforced by the IRS, not the Department of Health and Human Services. That tells you something. Personally, I’m not convinced by the argument that it’s constitutional. Think about the logic. Anything the government wants to impose on you, they can impose on you. They can hit you with a penalty and just call it a tax.
The individual mandate was actually an idea first proposed by the Heritage Foundation (a leading conservative think-tank). They made the case that it was not only constitutional, but that it was necessary for controlling costs since uncovered care—mostly catastrophic—drives up costs significantly. Were they wrong?
Look, there are all kinds of special interests out there. I don’t always agree with Heritage. I’m accountable to the citizens, not to the Heritage Foundation. Frankly, I don’t agree with their assessment.
What is the US role on the world stage today?
After four years, I wonder. I have serious concerns. We have so many problems at home; we can’t afford to be the bank—or the policeman of the world. And when we do deploy, we have a responsibility to do it the right way. Look at Libya. The War Powers Act was never satisfied. This was Obama’s and Secretary Clinton’s intervention. They say that there were no boots on the ground, but that’s not entirely true. It never came to Congress. It cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and what did we get in exchange? Americans being murdered. Benghazi was unacceptable.
When can we say the sanctions have worked?
When the leaders there say, “We’ll back off.” As for a timeline? I don’t think we’ll dictate that. Right now, Israel has the best intelligence, and our intelligence people have been working with them. We’d know if they are backing off or moving forward.
Would you support military action against Iran?
Yes, if we have to, but I don’t think we’ll need to go there. Like I said, the sanctions are having an effect. One question is whether we would have Israel’s back.
A skeptic might say that Israel, knowing that we’d have their back, would expect us to fight their battles for them. Can we trust their intelligence?
History is the best predictor of the future. Israel has always fought their own battles.
You’ve been very vocal about supporting horizontal hydro-fracturing for natural gas, particularly in the Marcellus and Utica shales. Many people—left, right and center—have expressed concern about possible environmental and health impacts. Do you share this concern? If so, what do you propose we do about it?
God has blessed us with tremendous resources. But he’s also blessed us with the brains to do things right. Natural gas has too much potential to ignore. It burns cleanly. It can help us to become energy independent and to establish real green corridors. But I understand and share the concern. The problem is that so much of the coverage has been based on distortions or just bad science. A lot of folks just don’t know about the process. Look, 99 percent of the fracking fluid is water. Water and sand. The piping goes deep, far below the water table. The pipes are triple-cased. I don’t see how it’s physically possible to contaminate the groundwater. Meanwhile, there are technological developments. I was talking recently to some folks at a filter company. They told me about some innovations...like building filter systems so that the water can be effectively treated. I was talking to another company that’s developing a “green” solution to be used as fracking fluid to replace the chemicals being used now. In Pennsfield, they’ve developed bumpers to control liquids. Science isn’t static; it changes. Meanwhile, the DEP does a good job making sure that regulations are followed. Pennsylvania’s DEP gets good scores in nationwide comparisons. State agencies are best equipped to handle this.
We talked about the chemicals. What about the sediment, the brine? Right now, Pennsylvania can’t really treat water to remove things like radium or chromium. Geologists say that our geological profile isn’t conducive to deep-well injection. We ship the production water to Ohio or evaporate it in pits. Some municipalities have used—or propose to use—the residuals as road salt. People are concerned that the runoff from such road salt would contaminate surface and groundwater.
First, we do have the ability to treat it, and we do treat it. In fact, there’s a treatment plant right in Lycoming County that treats flowback water. As for using the salt on roads, this isn’t a new use. Look, we do fracking right in Pennsylvania. In fact, we’ve done trainings in Washington DC for countries who are seeking to become energy independent from Saudia Arabia and Russia. All this takes is good planning. But we need to have these conversations. Debate is good for science. People are uncertain, and uncertainty creates fear.