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Rep. Bob Filner Discusses Top Stories in Congress, 51st District

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Aired 7/14/09

Congressman Bob Filner joins us today to discuss the top issues in the House of Representatives, and the 51st Congressional District. We speak to Filner about health care reform, the national economy, preventing border violence, and veteran's issues.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest, Congressman Bob Filner, represents the 51st Congressional District which includes San Diego's South Bay and the Imperial Valley. He was first elected to Congress in 1992. He is chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He is also called California's border congressman because the 51st Congressional District includes the entire California/Mexico border from San Diego to Yuma, Arizona.

Bob Filner is here to answer questions on a wide range of issues, and, Congressman, it's a pleasure to welcome you to These Days.

BOB FILNER (Representative, 51st Congressional District): Thank you, Maureen. Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Good morning. We were hoping to have you on longer but I hear that you have to run off and make a vote in…

FILNER: We'll see. Yeah, as chairman of the Veterans Committee, I have to manage the Veterans bills on the floor and you never can predict it. And it might be coming up in the middle of the program so I'll have to do that then.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Well, we'll get to as much as we can then.

FILNER: Great.

CAVANAUGH: I was just speaking with Scott Horsley, NPR's White House correspondent on the chances of healthcare reform on the president's desk by the end of August. From the reports I've been reading, that doesn't look too good. How does it look from where you are?

FILNER: Well, I think the House may meet that deadline. I'm not – The Senate is a much slower body to move on these things. But we'll see. As people have said, you know, the legislative process and making sausage are similar, you get sick watching both. And as much as the president wants to get this done quickly and will try to influence, the process sort of goes independent of the president and in the Democratic party, we have various gradations of support that we've got to try to satisfy. The Senate, every individual can slow things up, so I think we're going to get healthcare this year, I don't know if we'll do it by the end of this month.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as you mentioned, there seems to be a split developing within the Democratic party in congress on the House healthcare plan. Conservative Democrats, some call the Blue Dog Democrats, are calling the plan too expensive. Now how deep is this rift?

FILNER: Well, you know, we have to deal with this on virtually every issue and I think we will. They want to make sure that the bill is what we call paid for, that is it does not add to the deficit. And we're trying to work through that through various means whether it's – you know, we have certain agreements with the pharmaceutical industry and the hospital – hospitals of America. There may be some taxes on the wealthiest individuals in our society and you've got to get that sort of – all those moving parts have to be – come out as a whole. I think we'll do that and I think the so-called Blue Dogs will be able to vote for the bill.

CAVANAUGH: Now you, personally, Congressman Filner, do you support a single payer healthcare reform? And – or a public option, as they're calling it? A government backed…

FILNER: Yeah, well, single payer is where I think the Democratic party should have started with and we sort of put that off the table at the president's wishes. Single payer means there is no intermediary of health insurance companies. I think they're a wasteful part of the system. Medicare works very well without health insurance. If we did what I'll say is a bumper sticker Medicare for all, that's really single payer. That means you choose your doctor, you choose your hospital, you choose everything but – and the doctor submits his bill or her bill to the appropriate agency and it's paid by the government, which is all of us. There's been some problems with that. For example, I don't think the doctors and hospitals are reimbursed sufficiently but that could – Medicare has only a three or four percent overhead cost compared to fifteen, twenty or thirty percent of the health insurance companies. So I think we need to someday get to a single payer but the public option, that is have that as just one choice, I hope we get in this legislation. You know what, Maureen, it's interesting that the same people who tell you that government can't do anything are now saying, hey, if you have a public option the private industry won't be able to compete. This is, again, the same people who – that means, you know, the public option will be very efficient like Medicare is and yet, on the other hand, they say we can't trust government to do anything right. It's a big inconsistency there.

CAVANAUGH: It's a difficult argument to get around. I would like to, Congressman Filner, move on to the economy, if we could. The president has taken some criticism lately because the huge stimulus package approved by congress doesn't seem to be improving the economy very quickly. And I wonder if you think, are the critics just impatient or perhaps do we need another stimulus package?

FILNER: Well, I think the critics are right but I'll take it from a different viewpoint. The stimulus package was a combination of things only a small part of which was direct, quick infusion of money into construction and other projects that could be – where people could be hired immediately. I was hoping that most of that package would do that but it is only a very small part. And the other parts of the bill, while good, don't click in until, you know, a year, almost two years later. That is, healthcare, technology things, and alternative energy subsidies. So those are going to take longer. For example, the Deparment of Energy hasn't even, I don't think, have the rules for giving out the money that they have. So I wished that the stimulus package was much more directly connected to the – to jobs and the economy. So on that ground, I think the critics are right. On the other hand, the rest of it was not supposed to click in until later. I think we may need some direct help again. I know the administration is working on help, for example, directly to small business. Small business got left out of everything. You know, we helped – we bailed out the big banks, their insurance companies, and yet the small businesses which employ the vast majority of people in America, got a short shrift. So I would like to see a stimulus package, a new one that's aimed at small business.

CAVANAUGH: You know, just bringing it back home, Congressman, the San Diego Association of Governments sent Washington a long list of proposed stimulus projects and if all of them were approved, it would send $7.4 billion of stimulus…

FILNER: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …money for San Diego. Now I'm wondering, is it true, as you say, that there are no guidelines for these projects yet? How are local governments supposed to know what may be funded by the stimulus and what won't?

FILNER: No, there were guidelines for this early – these early monies. I was speaking of the longer term, say, alternative energy projects.

CAVANAUGH: I see.

FILNER: But SANDAG, like myself, when we heard there's an $800 billion stimulus package, we said, well, California should get 10% of that, that's $80 billion. And San Diego should get 10% of that, that's $8 billion. But, unfortunately, we only have several hundred million out of it because only a small portion was aimed at those direct construction projects. So out of all that stuff that SANDAG gave to the congress people and the federal government, only a couple of projects were funded with the money that we got. I wish there was a lot more. I wished it was a billion, then we could've seen a turnaround in San Diego. $250 million is okay but not anywhere near what we needed.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Are we working to get any more of that money?

FILNER: Well, as I said, the stimulus package was set up, I think, wrongly in that only, you know, a few billion was set aside, or a few hundred billion, for the states to do the construction projects. So we're getting everything that was set out, you know, we're going to get all the money in there and I think it's already flowing. It just wasn't sufficient.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Congressman Bob Filner and I know that you have to go and perhaps oversee some legislation on the Veterans Affairs Committee shortly, and I want to ask you, perhaps my last questions, about your chairmanship on the Veterans Affairs Committee and the new version of the GI Bill, I know you're very proud of. It takes effect next month. Tell us a little bit about the new GI Bill and how it's an improvement from the past.

FILNER: Yeah, and this is one, I think, the most important things we've passed in the last decade for veterans. What I – we were trying to do was replicate the impact that the first GI Bill in 1944 had on American society. I mean, I'm a congressman, I think, because of the GI Bill. My dad came back from World War II, he was able to get some education but he was able to buy a house at vastly, you know, without much down payment. And when you have a house, you enter the middle class. I had always lived in apartments with my relatives, in fact. And eight million veterans took advantage of that GI Bill. And over the years, it sort of declined in benefits and impact, so we wanted to say, look, if somebody wants to go to college or a vocational school or apprenticeship training, we should pay for the full cost of that, plus a stipend. You might have child support that's necessary, for example. So what we did was, we said, okay, we're giving – we've passed a package for the post-9/11 soldiers that said we're going to pay the full cost of standard public university in the state that you live in and we're going to give a stipend. And that's going to start August first, this coming school year, and it's going to have hundreds of thousands of veterans that are going to participate. And I think it's an incredible benefit. And even better than the previous GI Bills, if people decide they don't want to use it or don't have to use it, they can pass on the benefit to their spouse or their children. And that's, again, a real important part of this bill.

CAVANAUGH: And I think I have time to sneak in one more question. I do want to just ask a question about the border because your district is right up against the border with Mexico. How concerned are you about the violence that's happening on the U.S.-Mexico border and how much information are you able to get about what is happening in, say, Tijuana or Mexicali?

FILNER: Well, this is an incredibly difficult situation and I'm terribly worried about the impact. It's already had an impact on border cities. There have been some homicides and kidnappings. I'm proud, I guess, that the Calderon government in Mexico have decided to declare war on the cartels and that's a courageous decision on his part but it has ramifications. And what the United States has to do is, as effective – as quickly and as best as possible, help the Mexican federal government in this war, whether we, you know, it's equipment like helicopters or intelligence or weapons, and we have to do that. We've been a little – we feel we have to do a lot of what they call vetting of the agencies that are going to get this help because, you know, they might be on the other side or there might be some corruption there. But if we don't – And we have got to help in other ways. For example, I'm told that 90% of the guns that are used in these battles come from the United States and so we have to look not just at the vehicles coming north, for example, at our border checkpoints, but the vehicles going south because if there are illegal weapons there, we've got to help the Mexicans stop them. So there's a lot of ways we can help and if we don't we're going to have difficulties in San Diego and Phoenix and, you know, Laredo and El Paso. We're briefed on this very regularly by – there's a whole cooperation of federal, state, county, local agencies that are involved. In San Diego, it's an incredible cooperative effort of all the agencies and we get briefed regularly on that. But we've got to do as much as we can to make sure that violence doesn't spill more over the border.

CAVANAUGH: And just one fast last question. The U.S. Army Special Forces personnel are training Mexican army units to fight the drug cartel violence. Do you agree with that approach?

FILNER: I think – Yeah. I think we have to do as much as possible to help the Mexicans because otherwise we're going to have to bring our own troops to the border and that's really – that would be the last resort. So anything we can do to strengthen their efforts, we should be doing.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much. I know you're pressed for time.

FILNER: Right.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for speaking with us.

FILNER: Maureen, thanks so much.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Democratic Congressman Bob Filner. He represents California's 51st Congressional District. And I want you to know you can continue this discussion online. We want to encourage you to post your comments at KPBS.org/TheseDays.

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