Thursday, June 11, 2009
What's it like to be a freshman Republican congressman nowadays? We speak to Congressman Duncan D. Hunter about his first year in office, the nation's ailing economy, and how he thinks the nation's health care system should be changed. We'll also get Hunter's thoughts on the U.S. military's strategic shift to the West Coast.
DOUG MYRLAND (Guest Host): I'm Doug Myrland, sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. What's it like to be a freshman Republican congressman nowadays? In this first part of the program, we'll speak with Congressman Duncan D. Hunter about his first year in office. We'll discuss the nation's ailing economy, possible congressional action on healthcare, and we'll ask for Congressman Hunter's thoughts on the U.S. military's strategic shift to the west coast. And our – joining us now by telephone from Washington, D.C., is Congressman Hunter. Welcome, Congressman.
DUNCAN D. HUNTER (Congressman, R-California): Hey, Doug, great to be with you here.
MYRLAND: I understand that just before we went live you were about to cast a vote. What were you voting on?
HUNTER: It was on the Armed Services conferee war supplemental thing. It basically means the Senate and the House gets together. We instruct the House guys what to talk about.
HUNTER: It's kind of a parliamentary vote but it's a vote nonetheless.
MYRLAND: I want to start off by just talking for a minute or two about yesterday's incident at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and the reason I want to ask you about it is that I have several friends who live in Washington, D.C. and they've told me that it's a very different experience living in the city when something like that happens rather than seeing it on the news. And since you're now a resident and a member of that community, as well as a member of congress, I wondered what it was like there yesterday and if you have any thoughts on it in general.
HUNTER: Well, first, you know, it's obviously a horrible event. Nothing should be – nothing like that should happen and we, you know, we have more police in D.C., I think – There's an interesting statistic—I don't know one offhand—but we have more police per square foot here than any other place in the entire country. Now that's how many police we have. And, you know, they're here to make sure that stuff doesn't happen and when stuff does, they take care of it and that's what happened. But I didn't go down to the Holocaust Museum yesterday, I tried to stay away from it, so I didn't see any disruption here but I don't go anywhere usually besides my office and the Capitol. I just walk back and forth a lot.
MYRLAND: Well, I saw a story on TV about some freshmen congressman living in their offices but you're not living in your office, are you?
HUNTER: Well, not usually, depends how late we work here.
MYRLAND: Well, when we talked about interviewing you, the first thing that I said I wanted to talk about was just that it has to be an almost historic experience to be a freshman Republican congressman given the way that the Democrats have taken control of both houses and it's a very different experience that you're having than many of your Republican colleagues had, say, ten years ago when they were first elected to office. And I just wanted to hear you ruminate a little bit about the challenges or maybe even the opportunities facing somebody who's a member of a brand new – member of a congress and part of a minority party.
HUNTER: Well, I, you know, first off, this is probably no different – in fact, we're actually better off, the Republican party is, than when my father won in 1979. The Republicans didn't take over until '94 but what I see here are two things basically. One, we have a strong Republican freshman class because this was probably the worst year to run in a long time. Okay, there was -- You know, as you know, with the President's popularity and a lot of voter turnout, Republicans had a hard time, so we have a very strong freshman class that basically if they could win this time, they're going to look good for later. Two, I think politics now is a pendulum. You have more independent voters than we've ever had. People are making up their own minds, they aren't just voting party line anymore and I think you're going to see the political pendulum swing back and forth more now than it used to where you had one party, the Republican party, in charge for a decade, you had Democrats in charge for multiple decades. I don't think you're going to see that anymore. I think things are going to start swinging back and forth more often and that's good because it's going to force us to get things done when one party can't just override the other.
MYRLAND: Does being a freshman congressman give you an opportunity to have relationships with members of the other party that you might not have if you had been there for a longer time and had more of a track record and had had to take more positions on more issues?
HUNTER: No, it's actually interesting. Except for a few people who are extremely polarizing on the other side, we, you know, personal issues are totally separate from the way that we vote. We have – we do have honest, intellectual discussions on stuff. We disagree vehemently and then we go and, you know, we might see each other working out at the House gym or go, you know, jogging together. So it's – We usually keep it separate except for those few people that you might – that, you know, might have a personal problem with.
MYRLAND: I want to ask a question in general about the 52nd District. You are certainly very familiar with it having your father be the congressman from that district. What are some of the changes happening in the 52nd District? I live there and I perceive that there's sort of a demographic shift but I'd like to hear what you have to say.
HUNTER: I haven't noticed a demographic shift there so I don't – I couldn't speak to that. You know, the 52nd District, the interesting thing about it is there's no real big industry there, as you know, in the 52nd District. There's -- You know, it's not like – we don't have the big shipbuilding area that the – that Susan Davis has. We don't have Sorrento Valley, the high tech stuff. It's kind of like – it's the area, I think, where the – all the – a lot of the hardworking people in San Diego live, commute from. We have a lot of construction companies. We got the only rodeo south of Orange County, in Poway and in Lakeside and Ramona. I mean, we have – we kind of have a salt of the earth, American demographic in San Diego area, in east county in the 52nd and – but I haven't noticed any demographic changes but I've only been in congress for about five months. But, you know, growing up there, I haven't noticed any either from then until now.
MYRLAND: I think the district's actually getting a little younger.
HUNTER: Huh. Well, then good. That's a good thing.
MYRLAND: I want to jump into a big picture question here with healthcare. And I know that that's going to be an issue that you and every member of congress is going to have to grapple with. And what are some of your thoughts and also some of the places that you're going to be very reluctant to compromise?
HUNTER: Well, the biggest thing about healthcare is both sides, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, everybody agrees. In fact, I, personally, have – I've had bad experiences personally with health insurance providers with my family. I have three kids, eight, six, and two, and they get hurt in various ways and we've had to deal with our health insurance. So I think everybody agrees there has to be some kind of change and overhaul. The big question is, the big line in the sand politically and philosophically speaking, from my point of view, is are you going to take away that patient-doctor relationship? Are you going to take away that personal choice that people have to make their own decisions about what type of operations they have, what procedures they have? And are you going to have ration – are you going to have a government bureaucrat—it's not going to be me, it's not going to be anybody who's accountable to the people, it's going to be somebody in Health and Human Services, probably, or some board decides what Doug gets, if you ask for something. And that's a line in the sand that I don't think I'm going to cross and neither are a whole lot of other people, including Democrats, because they understand how important it is to have that doctor-patient relationship and be able to choose your own care and exactly what you want, if you want – if you want a second opinion, you know, third opinion. Things that you have problems with now would be exacerbated if you had government run healthcare. But there has to be some middle ground; too many people are uninsured and it's hard to get – you know, health insurance is one of those things where you pay for it, hope you don't need it, and when you have to use it, it's a absolute pain to use. So that has to be made better, too, but those two things, you got to have a personal relationship with your doctor and be able to choose what kind of treatment you're going to receive. And you should also know how much it's going to cost, I think. So those are probably two issues that we're not going to bend on when it comes to healthcare.
MYRLAND: One of the things that's been talked about a lot in the news lately is the idea of a government offered plan that's offered in competition with the privately offered insurance. Are you still open to the discussion of that idea at this point?
HUNTER: Not if a few things aren't changed about – you know, one is it's a taxpayer funded – you can say government offered, it's a taxpayer paid-for government program, which means the people who pay for their own insurance, private insurance, are going to be taxed so that people that want the government version can have that, so they're going to be paying double, basically. So why not just have everybody go to that government program, which a lot of people are going to do. And, two, how are you going to pay for it, especially now, all the money that we're printing, that we're borrowing from China, and that we're in debt with here, how are you going to pay for all this? Even the administration hasn't been able to come out and say exactly how we're going to pay for it. So I don't know, and I don't think that it's the right way to go to have taxpayer funded public healthcare competing with private healthcare because there's no way that private can actually win. I don't think it's going to make them more competitive because government doesn't have to make a profit but they can charge taxpayers more and they can offer pretty much whatever they want to. They don't have to make money on it. And, you know, one of the reasons that our healthcare system is so great and we have such great drugs and we have such, you know, big pharmaceutical people like to – like in Africa – but we have better drugs mainly in the U.S. and discover here than anywhere else in the entire world, that's because people make money on it. Now, you know, should healthcare be a for-profit business? Well, if you want people to do a good job and you want them to be competitive and you want the best drugs that we have for – you know, my grandpa who's got cancer, he's slowly dying here, but he's on a brand new chemo drug that is extremely expensive but he's willing to pay for it because it's the best drug out, made in America here, discovered here. I don't want to take that entrepreneurship away from our private companies and the government run healthcare system would probably do that.
MYRLAND: So you want to maintain the competitiveness and the incentive for companies to compete.
HUNTER: Yeah, but at the same time you have to make sure that these health insurance providers are more see-through, that there's more transparency, you know what you're paying for and they're more accountable to people that are paying into them because basically right now, doctors can’t get together and bargain health insurance companies down. They aren't able to do it. So health insurance providers can get together and actually collude on pricing, doctors can't, patients can't. So it's got to be – there has to be a system in which the health insurance providers become more transparent and more accountable and more competitive. As you know, California Blue Cross can't compete with Arkansas Blue Cross. If they could, you'd probably be paying $500.00 less a month for your health insurance for the exact same thing you have now. But congress could easily do that, you could have cross-state insurance competitiveness. That would bring prices down immediately. So there are things that you can do and obviously make it more transparent, more accountable, because right now the health insurance providers are not accountable and they're not transparent.
MYRLAND: Well, I want to shift subjects in the little bit of time we have left. I want to make sure to have a chance to ask you about the military's strategic shift to the west coast. I know a lot of our listeners heard the program we did the other day and we mostly talked about the economics, about how much money is going to be spent in San Diego as a result of that strategic shift of resources to the west coast. We didn't talk very much about why the military is actually doing that, and I thought you'd be the perfect person to ask about some of that bigger picture strategy. What is it about that shift from the east to the west that kind of reflects geopolitics and concerns of U.S. security these days?
HUNTER: Well, Doug, I'm not sure what the exact numbers are and how they're moving it over. I know San Diego, you know, we have more military now than any other place in the entire nation. We have more retirees and we have more military spending than any other place in the entire nation, and that's because, I think, we – you know, San Diego provides a jumping off point to anywhere in the Pacific, and eastern Asia, southeast Asia, and you can even get into southwest Asia and patrol from here. I think the big thing is, you know, we see North Korea launching off missiles, and missiles now that can reach further than California and Alaska. That's what North Korea has and I think moving stuff west is a way to say to them and – hey, we're going to be more observant, possibly working with China more to tamp down on North Korea's, you know, craziness that they're kind of showing now. I think that could be some of it. But at the same time, all the launching off points for Afghanistan and Iraq, you have to go through the east coast, usually for that. All of my deployments have gone through the east coast but I've trained on the west coast. So I think, you know, one – one thing, too, for the marines and people who want to train in that desert environment, that's what we have. But the west has that, the east doesn't. Eastern units have to travel to Twentynine Palms for instance, so they could have that desert training. So that's one big issue, too, is that's where we're fighting right now so why not train to what we're fighting and have everybody do it? But I'm not sure on the actual numbers in the plus-ups on the moving the military in general from the east to the west.
MYRLAND: I – While we're talking about Afghanistan and Iraq, I want to give you a chance to make some general comments about that. Do you, in general, support the President's decision to shift more military forces to Afghanistan?
HUNTER: Yes. Yeah, absolutely, and, you know, he's shipping over and I think it's the right move. We've got to make sure that Al Qaeda and Taliban can't rise up again in Afghanistan and, you know, just as we left, you know – after we helped Afghanistan beat the Russians in the late seventies and early eighties, we just basically took off. And, you know, we had been fighting there and we just left so the Russians came in in the seventies, fought them in the eighties, then we left and Afghan – that enabled the Taliban to rise up there. We don't want to – we don't want that to happen again and we, of course, have to try to stabilize Pakistan. So I think that he is making the right decision here but the only thing unfortunate about then when you talk about smaller terms and moving troops, and right now we're prepping up for the August elections in Afghanistan. They're having an election so we want them to be free and fair and on the west, that's one reason that we see that the troop build up now is to prepare for those August elections. But we're on their timeline right now, meaning we're reacting to their August elections. That's why we're putting people in. We don't have the same infrastructure in Afghanistan as we have in Iraq. We don't have the counter-roadside bomb infrastructure. In Iraq, roadside bombings are way, way down because of what we've been able to do. We don't have that same intelligence surveillance reconnaissance capability in Afghanistan right now and it's going to be a while before it's there. So if we had time to think things out better and we weren't rushed by Afghanistan's timeline, I think that would be much better but, you know, this is war and sometimes you simply have to react, and that's what we're doing now.
MYRLAND: Our guest is Congressman Duncan D. Hunter from the 57th District (sic) in San Diego County. And, Congressman Hunter, we weren't planning on taking any calls during this segment but we have a caller, Rick in Mission Valley, who has a real interesting question and comment and we wanted to give Rick a chance to weigh in here. Rick, you're on the radio.
RICK (Caller, Mission Valley): Thank you very much. I was wondering how the congressman reconciles the fact that over the last number of years, regardless of which party has controlled the congress, congress's polling numbers among the American public have been very, very low, like, say, regardless of which party was in power. However, when the local constituents of a given congressman were polled, they were generally very, very high, the idea being, you know, for some reason they didn't like the congress but they liked their representative. I mean, this is obviously, you know, has to do with safe districts but I was just wondering does the congressman consider this good governance? I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.
MYRLAND: So, Congressman Hunter…
HUNTER: His statement is…
MYRLAND: …what do you think about that? People kind of…
HUNTER: …yet it's interesting…
MYRLAND: …dis congress in general but…
HUNTER: …I hadn't…
MYRLAND: …but their own congressman, they kind of like him.
HUNTER: Right, I'm – I'm no political science talking head guy so I – it – I don't know if I could wax on about that. I would say especially now with the way the economy is, we have, you know, two wars going on, we have a recession, we're in big trouble with houses going under foreclosure as companies going under, being taken over by the government, and I think people look at that and say, hey, congress got us into this. I mean, this is – we're supposed to be the ones that we're kind of sitting, making good government, making good regulations and taking away bad ones, and we failed in that. I say 'we,' I've only been in about five months, but congress kind of, I would say, let the country down to the point where it's at now. However, that happened because of 9/11 and the recession started then, President Bush overspending with him, carried on with President Obama. They both – when – But that's true, when congressmen are polled, hopefully, they're liked by their constituents. I – I don't know why that is. I think when people look at the congress as a whole, they think that, for instance, my constituents, hopefully, think that I'm out trying to help the country out and help them out and if I could get more things done that I had in mind, maybe they would like congress more.
MYRLAND: And kind of speaking about issues that are of direct concern to your own constituents, I want talk a minute about San Diego's water supply and what you think about the challenges we're facing and what role that the federal government might play in helping us make sure that we have enough water to drink and bathe in and use over the next decade or so.
HUNTER: Sure, Doug, and those are the voting bells ringing there in the background. I've got about two minutes and I've got to go vote. But what we're doing now is we just had a water roundtable in San Diego, I just had it about, I think it was last week, week and a half ago. We had all the – from San Diego Water to the Padre Dam, Lakeside guys, we had everybody in San Diego here and I was talking to them, listening to their concerns. Two major things. One – Or three, actually. Desalinization plants, we're going to help at the federal role. In fact, the entire California delegation, both sides of the aisle, we're going to help try to get these desalinization plants going so we can be self-sufficient when it comes to water. Two, we have the environmental endangered species problem where the people are putting the – putting these smelt fish ahead of humans having water in Southern California, and this affects everybody from the Central Valley, farmers that have 50% unemployment because they don't have water because of that smelt fish, all the way down to San Diego. So that affects everything. So if there's some way that we could override the Endangered Species Act for things like the smelt fish and allow water to flow again down to Southern California that would be huge. Three, I've got a personal bill that I'm working on that they just had the money for the study for it just got approved by – my father started it and it's connecting all the water reservoirs in San Diego County with aqueducts which would basically – because what happens now, if you have one reservoir full and one empty, the full one, they might actually have to drain water out of it because it's too full while you have the empty one sitting there empty. So what this would do is connect them all up so you could put the full water in the one that's empty, level things out more, and the aqueduct itself would act as another reservoir because San Diego's sometimes limited by not how much water we can get but how much water we can hold at one time. So that would help out with that and basically provide a fifth reservoir for San Diego County to use.
MYRLAND: And that sounds like it makes a lot of sense.
HUNTER: Those are things we're working on now.
MYRLAND: I wonder why we haven't connected those aqueducts before. Maybe we'll do a program about that. And Congressman Hunter…
HUNTER: Well, you know, it's – it's thinking outside of the box and that's, you know, that's what we're here to do because sometimes congress can help.
MYRLAND: Well, I want to let you go because I want you to be able to go vote. I don't want to be responsible for some special interest group putting you on a list of people who didn't vote, so…
HUNTER: Well, thank you.
MYRLAND: So thank you…
HUNTER: I appreciate that.
MYRLAND: So thank you very much, Congressman Duncan D. Hunter from the 52nd District in San Diego. And we are, on These Days, going to try to have the members of congress on from all the districts in San Diego County on a semi-regular basis, so you can look forward to more conversations in the future with members of congress from San Diego County. We'll be back with much more of the program right after this short break. You're listening to These Days in San Diego.