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Rep. Ben Cardin on Congress's Next Session

Free Media
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Monday, January 10, 2000

Members of Congress will return from recess with issues including education and health care heading the agenda. Fights over gun control, school prayer, Social Security and taxes will no doubt be high on the list as well. And with a pivotal election on the horizon, the odds of bipartisan problem solving may be slim.

Rep. Cardin (D-Md.)
Rep. Ben Cardin
Seven-term Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, the central battleground for last year's fight over tax cuts and the budget surplus. Cardin, whose district encompasses most of Baltimore, joined Free Media on Monday, Jan. 10 to talk about the agenda for the second session of the 106th Congress and the 2000 elections. The transcript follows:

Free Media: Good afternoon, Rep. Cardin, and welcome. Tell us what Democrats are going to focus on first when the new congressional session starts.

Rep. Ben Cardin: Our priorities are going to be protecting Social Security and strengthening it. We will also be interested in reforming Medicare, protecting it for future generations, and expanding it to include prescription drugs. In addition, we will be seeking sensible gun safety legislation to protect our children. We will also be seeking more federal support for education, including reducing class size and modernizing our older schools.

Germantown, Md.: Why is that families with children are allowed to deduct only a portion of the money they pay for child care? Last year, I paid more than $2,000 to have my son in day care, and yet I was only able to take a $400 deduction when tax-time rolled around. It seems to me that provisions like this create an incredible disincentive for families looking to better their economic condition. Yes, another income would help, but not if it means thousands of dollars in additional expense – which the government doesn't believe should be as worthy of tax relief as the interest a person pays on his or her house – or on a student loan, for that matter.

Rep. Ben Cardin: I think the point is well taken. We need to do more as a nation to provide safe, affordable child care. We do not have enough facilities today, and for many Americans child care is beyond their financial ability. I have proposed and the Clinton administration has proposed that we increase the tax incentive for child care. And we would hope that the Republican leadership would allow us to move a bill forward that deals with this issue. It is a priority.

Rockville, Md.: In the spirit of the First Amendment, will the Democrats push the FCC to issue reduced licensing requirements for radio stations? It seems to me that democracy and free speech would only be helped by giving communities the power to establish low-powered radio stations with relatively limited broadcast areas.

Rep. Ben Cardin: The current rules make it difficult for low-power community types of licenses to be effective. We should make it easier for communities to set up networks for their own use. Obviously, there is strong opposition on the part of the stronger license-holders who want to maintain fewer licenses in a given area, but I would like to see us move in the direction that the questioner would like.

A lot of this is discretionary authority in the granting of licenses. We don't want to make the granting of licenses too political. But we do want to make it easier for smaller communities to get licenses for their own needs.

Washington, D.C.: What do you expect to be the biggest issue for the next session? Education? Social Security?

Rep. Ben Cardin: Really the test of this session will be how the Republican leadership deals with big issues in an election year. Are we able to have an agenda that deals with Social Security, Medicare, minimum wage and gun safety and HMO reform in a bipartisan way so we can get something done before the elections? That's going to be the real test of whether this Congress is successful or not.

One of the key issues is whether we do HMO reform and the health care system in this country. We have a bipartisan group that has put together the patients bill of rights. I think the real test of this Congress will be if we can get that bipartisan bill passed.

Arlington, Va.: I wondered if you would address my perception, and that of many others, of much of the action that takes place in Congress. It appears that our representatives spend the vast majority of time making deals – "I'll support you in this if you support me in that" – and the rest of time trying to make their own party look good and the other party look bad. And the worst part of it all is that the representatives don't seem to have a problem with this. They consider it part and parcel of being a member of Congress. What ever happened to really representing your constituency and doing what's best for the country?

Rep. Ben Cardin: There's an old saying that you don't want to look at the way that sausages or laws are made. The legislative process, if it works right, will be a lot of give-and-take, a lot of compromise, a lot of conversation among members of Congress. Listening not only to themselves but to witnesses at hearings, and to the voices of their constituents. They sort of mix these together like sausage, and the end result is often pretty good.

We're not after making the system look good; we're trying to make the final legislative product a good product. A problem we've had in the past is that we haven't had that give-and-take among members. We've been too partisan. What we need to do is to be less partisan, and we also need campaign finance reform so that the need for campaign funds isn't so dominant in our work week. If we were able to do that, I think the process would look better. It still would be a lot of give-and-take, but in the end we'd have better laws.

Free Media: House Democrats are going into Campaign 2000 with substantially more money than their GOP counterparts, according to a Post story this weekend. How do you think this will affect Democrats' chances at winning back the House?

Rep. Ben Cardin: In a way, it reflects the view that the Democrats have an excellent chance to regain control of the House of Representatives. When you look at the lineup of competitive races, the Democrats are in a much better position than the Republicans. When you add to that the quality of the Democratic candidates on the challenger side, and the fact that we've been more successful raising money than the Republicans, it points to a likely Democratic victory in Congress in November. But I must tell you, Democrats feel very strongly about the need for campaign finance reform. Campaign fund-raising should not be the barometer of who should be in Congress or which party should be in control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

New York, N.Y.: How much do you really think will be accomplished during this next session of Congress? Won't everyone be focused on the election?

Rep. Ben Cardin: My prediction is that we won't get very much done this year because of the election, and that's unfortunate. We should get a lot done because there is a need for Congress to deal with the issues I mentioned earlier. But if were to make a prediction, I would say I think this current leadership will get consumed by the election, and little will get done.

Northern Va.: Rep. Cardin,

Rep. Conyers and Rep. Campbell are currently circulating a letter asking President Clinton to de-link economic sanctions against Iraq from military ones. Are you planning on signing onto the letter? Or do you support the use of food and medicine as weapons against a civilian population?

Free Media: This questioner signs on to our discussions and frequently asks this of member of Congress.

Rep. Ben Cardin: I do not plan to sign on to that letter. I don't believe the conclusion in the question is accurate. Economic sanctions have been effective in changing practices of governments. For example, economic sanctions worked in South Africa to apartheid and in the Soviet Union to change their emigration policies. Economic sanctions in Iraq are well deserved, considering their policy in harboring terrorists. Therefore, I do support the use of economic sanctions.

Bethesda, Md.: Many analysts are predicting that the coming years will see increasing discontent among young people who see all of the fruits of our rich society funneled to an increasingly large population of elderly people. And I have to say, as the 30-year old father of three toddlers, that it is very, very hard for young families to get by in this society, as issues such as health care, quality education and affordable day care are continually ignored in favor of senior issues – preserving medicare and social security – and big business lobbies. And now it appears that Congress will pass a bankruptcy reform bill that will penalize the young families that have been the biggest victims of our cultural shift toward the use of credit and away from saving. When is Congress going to give young families – who pay the bills and raise the kids that will be the future of this country – real public policy programs that will allow us to build wealth? It seems to me that the best way to address the issue of "family values" is to create an economic environment that frees young parents from the burden of working continually just to stay even, while our single and older friends and neighbors reap the rewards of a new gilded age.

Rep. Ben Cardin: I don't think we should put one generation versus another. Our policies toward our seniors have been very effective at keeping seniors out of poverty. Medicare and Social Security have worked. They're good programs, and they should be protected and adequately funded. Before we had Social Security and Medicare, nearly 50 percent of our seniors lived in poverty. Today that number is under 13 percent. It's a false dilemma to say that we can't help our seniors and our young people as well. We need to make an equal commitment so that children don't have to live in poverty. Two out of every three children in Baltimore city live in poverty. That is wrong. The federal government needs to strengthen its commitment to education and health care, and to work with the states to develop initiatives so that every child can maximize his or her potential. For young families, we need to strengthen the Earned Income Tax Credit and child care, and to make college education more affordable so that young families don't have to experience the financial hardships that can deny their children opportunities in society.

Washington, D.C.: I saw a report about education and what sounds like pretty sketchy qualifications for new teachers. Do Democrats believe in teacher testing and recertification? How are we going to get more and better qualified teachers in our schools?

Rep. Ben Cardin: Democrats believe in more attention being paid toward education at all levels of government. That includes accountability standards. But the specific answer on teacher qualification and recertification must rest at the local level.

Bethesda, Md.: What's the latest on prescription drug benefits on Medicare?

Rep. Ben Cardin: It is a top priority in what we must do in Medicare. In 2000, the need for prescription drugs is as important as the need for a doctor or hospital was when Medicare was formed in the 1960s. It is an essential part of health care. Taking a prescription drug can keep you healthy and prevent more expensive health care expenditures. It can save us money. Medicare must cover prescription drugs, and I hope that this Congress will act this year on this issue.

Concord, N.H.: In Texas, there is a biannual budget. On positive aspect of that is there is time to reflect on the spending programs on the off-year and see how they pan out – sort of a built in sunset law. Does Ways and Means has to do with tax writing and indirectly with budget? I would favor such a plan but my fear is the inability to forecast the economy that far in advance. What are your thoughts?

Thank you

Rep. Ben Cardin: The idea of having a biannual budget would have Congress spending more time reviewing a program every two years instead of just reviewing it in a cursory way. So a biannual budget does make sense.

However, even if you had a biannual budget, Congress would have to adjust for priorities on an annual basis. Times change, needs change, revenues change, and you would have to be prepared to adjust the budget on an annual basis to meet these changes.

Arlington, Va.: The only reason the HMO reform legislation has bipartisan support is because it doesn't really do anything to fix the problems with the system. Congress could take constructive steps that would force the managed care industry to cater more to its members, but instead is focusing on the non-issue of suing health plans. While I do believe that people should be able to sue for damages, couldn't that be addressed more effectively through ERISA?

Rep. Ben Cardin: First, ERISA applies to a little over half of the insured people today, and there are no standards under ERISA. There is no plan to hold a health care provider responsible for negligence under ERISA. The Patients' Bill of Rights does a whole lot more than just how you enforce your claims when an insurance company denies you your health care. The legislation protects you when you go to an emergency room. It guarantees that the doctor will make medical judgments, rather than an insurance company accountant. It ensures you a choice to what doctor you can see, and it ensures you a specialist if you need a specialist. It gives you the right to participate in a clinical trial if that is the best medical option available to you. It protects a doctor's right to communicate freely with his or her patient.

So the legislation provides broad help so a person can get adequate health care. Today, under ERISA, there are no protections, and the states are prevented by ERISA to provide any protection. This legislation is vital for adequate health care. And that is why it is supported not only by a bipartisan group in Congress, but just about every health advocacy group and consumer group in the nation.

Washington, D.C.: What did you think of President Clinton's move to cut Republicans' pet projects to cut spending? Wasn't that just being vindictive?

Rep. Ben Cardin: First of all, the appropriation process shouldn't be used for anyone's pet projects. It should be projects that are for the good of our country. There are very few projects in any congressional district that go for only Democrats or Republicans. So the test should be whether this is a worthwhile expenditure of public funds. And that should always be the test.

Free Media: That was our last question today for Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). Thanks to Rep. Cardin and to everyone who joined us.

Tune in for the GOP view, when Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Rules Committee and GOPAC, will join "Free Media" Wednesday at 2 p.m. EST.

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