As Congress returns to Washington, I am sending along the highlights of a wide-ranging radio interview I did recently about the many issues facing our country. We covered issues such as the dynamics of the congressional lame duck session, leadership change, the budget, the border, and what is hanging up completion of the Farm Bill. I hope you find this informative.
Q: What do you hope Congress will tackle immediately in the new session?
Well, the budget has to be finished. Significant portions of the budget are already done, particularly those affecting defense, national security, as well as health and human services, but there are larger chunks of the government still underfunded, unfunded for 2019, and I suspect that will be finished soon. A Farm Bill sits out there incomplete as well. It’s unclear as to whether that will get done, but that is under active consideration as well. Those are the two biggest items.
Q: What are your priorities for the new session?
From my perspective, we’re going to go back to work on key security issues. National security — keeping you safe. Being in favor of strong defense but also smart diplomacy as well as sustainable development for the world’s poor. Economic security. Making sure that we have a robust economy. Making sure that people have meaningful work for so many that have been sidelined. And then this deeper philosophical issue that I call family security, including important work on health care. We need front porch strategies not just Washington balcony strategies. That’s where the heart of America really applies itself in both culture and politics.
Q: What are the prospects for the Wall?
That is a point of negotiation. There probably will be some funding for border wall security. It has been funded previously in incremental amounts and I suspect another incremental payment will be made toward some further enhancement of wall barriers.
Q: What are the prospects for the Farm Bill?
Unclear at the moment. There are negotiations going on as we speak. They’re very tight-lipped, unfortunately, but clearly there is a desire to finish the Farm Bill, particularly to give certainty to farmers and ranchers in this uncertain economic period. So, pressure will mount I think to get it done. If not, there may be an extension or a renegotiation...
Q: How will the Majority leadership battle affect Congress?
Well, I frankly think any leadership battle is healthy. Again, you’ve got Members who have been there for decades, whom I know, who have been accorded this position of power and have left very little space for newer Members who have new ideas, who are agitating for change on the Democrat side. Again, one of whom is a very close friend of mine. She has signed the letter saying she will not support Nancy Pelosi for Speaker, for instance, and sixteen Democrat Members have. There’s another twenty in their congressional races who said they would not support her. So that means that she does not have the majority of Congress to be elected Speaker. Will she get there? I suspect so, but that’s going to take a lot of wrangling and a lot of ... restructuring to give some more authority to new Members who are demanding it--and rightly so.
Q: How will what I believe is anti-Administration sentiment on the part of some Majority Members impact the session?
With the changes of committee leadership, that means new leadership will go into the judiciary committees and government oversight committees as well as intelligence committees. These are the primary places in which there have been investigations or threat of investigations and subpoenas. And if the culture in Congress is just one of harassment and agitation, it will constantly exhaust the American people and we will miss the opportunity to try to find some necessary bipartisan movement on health care-- changes that actually lower cost while protecting vulnerable persons, particularly those with preexisting conditions.
On things like the Endangered Species Act, I have a bipartisan bill called Recovering America’s Wildlife Act that actually gets in front of the problem, gets us off the one-yard-line, so that species do not become endangered in the first place. And we enhance community recreational opportunity as well as sporting opportunity by protecting the continuity of habitat for wildlife. So, if there is just an exhaustive effort at investigations, then we are going to miss the opportunity of trying to build some consensus and getting things done, which is what the America people want and certainly what Nebraskans want.
Q: What are some areas of potential bipartisan consensus in the new Congress?
I am going to put it in three terms. You have to go back to a robust, bipartisan attempt at consensus around health care. For instance, the individual market in the rural communities has been absolutely decimated. You have people leaving the farm or ranch just to go get a job in order to have health care benefits. This is not only disruptive to their freedom of choice about how they want to organize themselves economically, but the huge cost run-up, particularly for rural communities for health care, is not sustainable. Drug prices are potentially another area in which we could work together.
I have proposed some things that would create what we call invisible risk-[sharing]. That’s a fancy way of saying that the government provides a backstop so that people with a preexisting condition, those who are sick, would pay normal rates for insurance and the government would protect them through direct payments to insurance companies for those who have higher than average annual costs of care. This was part of the original health care reform bill and now is in a bill that I have cosponsored. These ideas appear to be appealing to both political parties. America is demanding that health care be dealt with in a smart, consensus-building way that achieves three goals: lowering cost, improving well-being, while protecting vulnerable persons. It will be an important focus for me in the next Congress.
Secondly, conservation. If there is an area that transcends the political divide, it is this—trying to move us towards a healthier environment, move us toward a more sustainable renewable energy portfolio, as well as the kinds of continuity of habitat that create recreational opportunity and get us out of endangered species problems. These are areas around which we could find bipartisan consensus. Because everybody wins. When we move ourselves to a more sustainable energy portfolio, when we are respectful toward our environment, we create the conditions for an abundance of green space, while providing affordable living conditions to people through meaningful work. Keeping those things in balance transcends any partisan divide and appeals to the deeper value of stewardship in our country.
Third, Farm Bill. This is one of the most important pieces of legislation that America has. It provides risk stabilization for farmers and ranchers and protects those who have food insecurity. America enjoys some of the lowest food prices in the world. We pay less for our groceries than anyone else in the world. And this is the result of a smart legislative process that creates an abundance of food supply that actually helps feed the world’s poor as well. These are areas in which I hope to find consensus.
Q: Do you still find fulfillment in Congress?
I continue to believe that public service is a noble and honorable pursuit. And we are living in a time in which the ideal of public service has been so denigrated, and there is such cynicism toward the institution—a lot of that brought on by the behavior of Congress itself. I am really hopeful, in trying to balance what I call front porch strategies with Washington balcony strategies, that we can actually return to a balance in which communities thrive, neighborhoods are safe, and Washington public policy dynamics take a normalized place among American society. We have outsourced everything to Washington. We have nationalized every conceivable problem. Congress is not a 24/7 alarm to be set off by the media whenever it wants to generate crises and entertainment. This is not Netflix. This is a serious business of trying to get public policy right so that we have just governance and the appropriate space for thriving in community and individual liberty.
Congressman Jeff Fortenberry