Voices of Power: Eric Cantor

Interview of Eric Cantor, House Republican Whip

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday July 16, 2009


ROMANO: Welcome, Congressman Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House Minority Whip, who has been a very strong voice challenging the administration policies as of late.

You sit on the Ways and Means Committee, and it is starting to do a markup of the Omnibus Health Care Reform. Is there going to be a bill by August like Nancy Pelosi has promised?

REP. ERIC CANTOR: You know, I believe there will be a bill that will come out of the House by August, and, clearly, the Speaker has demonstrated an ability to ram through just about anything that she wants to push through this House.

I do think it's beginning to take its toll on her Members, but I do believe that because this President has said that it is his number-one domestic priority, that Speaker Pelosi will live up to that and push a bill through. What that bill is, we'll see.

ROMANO: You're not happy with the bill as it is now?

CANTOR: No. You know, because I'm really concerned about the direction that this bill will take our country in terms of the health care issue. There's nothing more personal than health care decisions for any family. Every one of us deal with it at some point, and some deal with it every single day.

And the notion that somehow we need to throw out all that works here and--and some would disagree with that suggestion, but I look at this bill, and it seems to me that if the goal is we want people who have the health care they like to be able to keep it, we're just not going to be on that path if this bill were to pass.

ROMANO: I understand you can keep your existing health care.

CANTOR: Well, here's--here's the structure of the bill. The structure of the bill says this. First of all, we're going to mandate coverage. And the minute Washington begins to tell people they've got to have coverage, necessarily the next question is what kind of coverage does that mean.

There has been consistently an effort on the part of the Majority in this House to squeeze out the kind of coverage that they don't like and try and impose a preferred type of coverage. Obviously, when you're in a legislative body, you're going to have a lot of influences demanding that certain benefits be covered. So the minute you begin to mandate that, you will necessarily increase cost, and so that's number one.

The other thing that bothers me, though, is the insistence that somehow we need to have the government being a competitor to the private sector plans. I've had several discussions with the administration, spoke with the Health Care Czar, Nancy-Ann DeParle, a very, very able woman who is here trying to do the right thing. She and I spoke, and we had a real difference, though. She believed that we need a government competitor to keep the private sector honest. I believe if you put a government competitor in the mix, you will never have an even playing field. You will never have the ability for private sector employers to stay in the game.

How can you have the government compete with the private sector when the private sector complies with state laws, with licensing requirements, with audit requirements at the state level? How can you have a Federal Government that is going to do that? I think that borders on unconstitutional when the Federal Government has to bow to state laws.

So you--you can't. You can't even imagine a situation where the government is going to be an even, fair competitor.

ROMANO: The House bill also proposes taxing the wealthiest segment of the population. What do you think about that?

CANTOR: Well, there's no doubt. This raises taxes on the wealthy. This is a surtax. They could go to 5.5 percent of income for those making over 200-, $300,000 a year, and, certainly, it taxes the wealthy, but what it also does is it impacts tremendously those men and women who are in business, who we are counting on to start hiring American workers again; because if you look at the distribution of that tax and where it--and where it applies, 50 percent of the individuals that will receive a higher tax receive at least 26 percent of their income from small business sources; and, in fact, the more income they've got, the more employees they hire, which means the more income they have, the higher the tax burden, ultimately the fewer people that will be hired by those individuals.

ROMANO: Well, the--the non-partisan--or bipartisan Joint Committee on Tax issued a report just the other day saying that it would only affect 4 percent of small businesses, given the threshold.

CANTOR: Lois, listen to what I'm saying now.

Four percent of small businesses, but, in realty, 50 percent of those that get struck by the higher tax receive at least 26 percent of their income from small business. Okay?

So, you look at where the trigger is as well. You're--the bill says that individuals and small business people that have a payroll of $400,000 or more--do you know what size business that is in today's times? It's about five to nine employees. Those are real small businesses, and what you are saying is if they don't provide health care, they'll have to pay $32,000.

So here's going to be the Federal Government telling them, "Huh? Sorry. You're going to have to go pay another $32,000 before you even begin to think about the ability to hire someone else."

We've got to really, really back up for a second. Let's think about what works in our health care system in this country and then go from there, and when you talk to the American people, by and large, most of them like the health care coverage they've got. They don't like the cost, but the reason is 70 percent of the American people get their health care through their employer. We have an employer-based system. We shouldn't be forcing a government-based system on the people who like the health care they have from their employer. Let's just try and enable employers to bring down the cost.

ROMANO: Should the American taxpayer be footing the bill for however many millions of uninsured people?

CANTOR: We need to look at who the--who the folks are you want to have the taxpayers support, and I don't think there's any disagreement. When you have people who can't do it on their own, we ought to support them, and we ought to strengthen the safety net. Okay? And there's ways to go ahead and strengthen the safety net and increase the financial viability of that program.

But, as far as the larger portion of that uninsured and the transition from work and individual market, there's a lot we can do to allow folks to enter a much larger risk pool so that they can get cheaper rates to purchase a basic insurance plan.

CANTOR: That's what the goal should be, access to a basic plan for all Americans that's affordable and provide quality care.

So, if you want access to a basic plan, you can't be imposing, you know, the--the Cadillac plans that some would like to see here because we can't afford that.

ROMANO: Obviously, the Democrats can pass this without the Republicans, both in the House and the Senate side. How long before--and it seems like the Senate in particular has stated--Max Baucus has stated repeatedly that he would like a bipartisan bill. How long before the Democrats lose patience and just--with negotiating and just push it through?

CANTOR: Lois, I think underneath your question is this: What happens if this don't deliver? And if they don't deliver on health care, the--I think the President certainly has to own up to the fact that perhaps the country wasn't sort of adhering to his vision of how health care should be, but let's say they do.

Okay. Let's say they get fed up with a lot of the noise and--but, frankly, where the problems are right now, the problems are on the Democratic side of the aisle here in the House.

ROMANO: Mm-hmm.

CANTOR: There are a lot of individuals who've now been speaking out saying, "Listen, we're not--we're not going to go for a public plan. We're not going to go for a plan that aggravates the deficit. We're not going to go for a plan that's not a bipartisan plan."

So I think the--you know, the atmosphere is such in Washington that we do have the ability to really forge some type of compromise if, you know, we can begin where we agree, but there's no question they can go ahead and do what they did on cap and trade in the House.

And I know if--I've talked to some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle. They are not too happy with having to take that vote, and if they take a vote like this and--and not only change the health care that people know and like in the--in the hope of trying to accomplish a laudable goal, which is to provide more coverage, and strangle the economy and force small businesses out of business, there's going to be a lot of consequences to that in terms of, you know, the political, you know, existence, if you will, outside of here.


"Inclusiveness has just gone out the window….they're able to hide behind the rules because they control the House"

You are the only Jewish Republican in Congress. What does that say to you?

CANTOR: Well, it says to me I got a lot of work to do, you know, because, honestly, I grew up as a--as a Jewish Republican and as a member of the American Jewish community in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, as well as being active, you know, on a regional and national basis in many of the causes associated with that community. And I believe there is a lot of room for the American Jewish community in the Republican Party.

I also, though, am very aware that there's no secret, by and large, the American Jewish community are more--there are more Democrats in the community by far than Republicans.

ROMANO: Now, why is that? Why do they list Democratic and not towards your party?

CANTOR: Because I think that if you go back and look at the history of, you know, the waves of immigration into this country, that, really, the Democratic Party was just, I think, better at attracting, you know, some of the immigrant community early on when they came to this country, and, you know--and they were able to work from that base forward.

I also think now, certainly, the issues that have affected, if you will, if there's such thing as a Jewish psyche over the course of the last thousands of years in terms of religious persecution, there is, to me, just a fear about any discussion of faith in--in terms of politics.

I happen to be one to think that and have realized that the Founders of this nation started this country with very much in mind the fact that we are people of faith, no matter what your faith is.

Virginia happened--happens to be able to claim the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom that was authored by Thomas Jefferson, and I think Jefferson realized sort of the--one of the beauties and the secrets to the success of this country was going to be the admission that we are a people of faith; we are a people now who have agreed to allow individuals to pursue their own religion and their faith.

And so that very notion, though, if you look at the Holocaust and the religious persecution in modern day, you know, still--still rings in the minds of the American Jewish community, and so I don't know if there's yet a--as much of a comfort level as there should be with the tenets of the Republican Party that say, "Yes, we are a people of faith, but we are going to allow you to practice your religion."

I certainly am one who tries to be as observant of a Jew as I can.

ROMANO: And you married Democratic, I understand?

CANTOR: Now we say we have a mixed marriage on that end, but--no, but, look, Diana, my wife, born and raised in Miami Beach, and she is a professional woman with a bunch of degrees and worked on Wall Street.

We met on a blind date in New York, and I think--we've been married almost 20 years, and I think I probably won her over on some issues, and there are some that I haven't.

ROMANO: Mm-hmm. What's it like going to work every day in the Minority? I mean, how do you wake up in the morning and say "How can I effect change today without just saying no?" Which, by the way, you have gotten a reputation of being Mr. No.

CANTOR: Well, first of all, I think that the constituents that, you know, elect all of us are owed, you know, honest representation, and if there are things that I disagree with, I think it is incumbent upon me to speak out that I disagree, but I also think that we in the Republican conference in the House--you know, we very much committed ourselves to making sure that we have alternative if we're going to object to what the Majority is trying to do.

So it's--it's not only, you know, that we are against everything because we're not. We try and find where we can work together with the other side but also feel very--it's very necessary for the American people to see a balanced approach to some of these issues.

ROMANO: What kind of speaker has Nancy Pelosi been?

CANTOR: I think she's been a very effective speaker in terms of advocating her agenda. Again, I think that that agenda is very much outside the mainstream of this country.

ROMANO: She promised inclusiveness and civility. Have you gotten that?

CANTOR: Absolutely not.

ROMANO: [Laughter.]

CANTOR: You know, I think, look, I mean, inclusiveness----has just gone out the window, I mean in unprecedented ways, and the other side will begin immediately to say, "Well, you did this and you did that when you were in charge." I assure you, you can talk to the parliamentarians in this body, and I would say they would tell you the level of exclusion in terms of process is unprecedented at this point.

The Majority this year has absolutely shut that process down, and they are controlling what is being discussed, and, again, the American--

ROMANO: Is that any different than--

CANTOR: Absolutely. Oh, absolutely. We've had open--we have so-called "open rules" in terms of appropriations bills. As far as the time that I've been here, there have been exceptions each year, maybe two a year.

CANTOR: And so--but--but now, you know, they've decided they don't want to discuss certain issues. Obviously, they have some vulnerabilities politically on earmarks. They have vulnerabilities in terms of some of the, you know, tax policies they're advocating that seem to contradict the representation that was made by the President as far as never taxing working families. They don't want to have to take those votes.

CANTOR: So, again, politically, they're able to hide behind the rules because they control the House. Again, you know, when you look to, you know, what this place is about, you're trying to get the best policy to--to result here, and it's not able to happen if they're afraid to debate the issues.

ROMANO: You, yourself, have called the Republican Party irrelevant right after the election. How do you get it back to be relevant again?

CANTOR: You know, what I have said is we need to begin to speak in a much more relevant way to the people of this country, and, you know, it is not necessarily that we can only talk about, you know, the principles that we believe in of free markets, of individual accountability and responsibility, and we--we have got to demonstrate and talk about why it is that our principles work, why it is those principles can underlie solutions to problems that have gone unanswered and problems that people are facing every single day.

I mean, you--you look at this. You know, the--the stimulus debate that has now just reoccurred because, frankly, the bill that passed in January hasn't worked and, you know, there is anger out there at Washington. How can you keep doing things that don't work? How can you even conceive of talking about another stimulus bill when the goals that were set for the first one have been sorely missed?

ROMANO: Well, let me--let me stop you right there. You have--you've called the stimulus package a "flop."

CANTOR: Right.

ROMANO: But, today, there are news reports about several independent studies, a Fed study, that say that actually the economy has stabilized some. There's been a slowdown in the decline. Jobs haven't moved, that's true, but they say that that normally happens at a time in recession. The last two recessions, jobs haven't moved because people are afraid to hire.

So are you being a little premature in calling it a "flop"?

CANTOR: Lois, look, this is the standard, the standard by which you measure the success of that stimulus bill were the representations and promises made by the President.

The President was straight up when he said to me, "We got to pass this bill now. We got to pass this bill to avoid unemployment from going any higher than 8.5 percent."

Look where we are. Eight people a minute over the last several months have lost their job. That's eight households facing a tremendous economic freefall.

This is President Obama's economy. He owns this economy. He owes it to us to own up to the fact that this stimulus has not worked, and let's start being smart about it. Let's start being smart about it.

ROMANO: He said 18 months.

CANTOR: No, that's not true. That's not true. He--the President said that we weren't going to go over 8.5 percent unemployment. We are almost at 10 percent, and most people will tell you we're getting there. Most people will tell you there's at least 700,000 more people-plus that will lose their jobs this year. How is that a success? What kind of parallel universe are we talking about here? This is not being successful, and the reason is we've got--we haven't focused on the job creators. Why aren't we saying to--to the job creators, the people who want to return to some sense of confidence, put their capital at risk and create a job, why aren't we providing incentives to do that?

ROMANO: Okay. You've launched an effort to sort of rebrand the party, creating the National Council of New America. Have you started your listening tours?

CANTOR: Yeah. What--what the National Council of New America is, it's an informal Members caucus here in the House and the Senate, and it is designed to foster discussion around the principles of free markets, the principles, again, that we believe have made this country the success that it has around economic freedom, around faith and the individual faith in God, and individual accountability.

And those kind of discussions will be taking place next week. We will have the launch of the--a virtual town hall online, and it will involve discussions with the American people, not just Republicans but like-minded Independents and Democrats, to come together to begin to talk about these kind of solutions and impose some accountability on what's going on here in Washington since so many of the things that are going on haven't yielded result.


"Now, listen, I'm not running for President…Yes, I rule--I rule it out. "

ROMANO: It's been a very rough six months for the Republican Party. It lost the White House, lost the Senate. The Democrats picked up an enormous amount of seats. What's going to happen now--then we had an incident, Sanford, which were not good for the party. So how do you see 2010 shaping up?

CANTOR: I think you're right. We've taken our licks. There's no doubt about it, and--and some of the things that have happened, certainly, we wished hadn't, but going forward, the party's really a party of ideas, and I believe very much that the American people want to see some type of a balanced government, a divided government, really to provide that check on an unfettered ability by the Majority Party to push an agenda that is really outside the mainstream of the people in this country, that are much more to the center right, and want to see the America that they know, want to see an America based on economic freedom, on opportunity, not proscription imposed by Washington in every industry.

I mean, how is it that we in Washington should be taking over the auto industry, taking over the health care industry, taking over the banking industry?

You know, certainly, there are a lot of things that had gone wrong. We were on an economic precipice. We were--almost ended up falling off the cliff last fall. Okay. There's no question that a lot went wrong, and there's a lot of blame to be cast, but, you know, we--we can address the things that went wrong without taking away from the core of the success of this country, and that's what I think the American people are looking for right now, and I don't think that this town is going in that proper direction.

So I think that November '10 will offer the country, the ability to impose that check and balance by electing a Majority Republican in the House.

ROMANO: And do--do you see anybody being able to--in your party being able to beat Barack Obama in 2012?

CANTOR: Well, look, I mean, 2012 is a long way off. I think, again, we'll have to see if the solutions that are being proffered will allow America to return to a sense of confidence and prosperity. We'll see if we--how this administration deals with the very enormous challenges, not only economically but militarily and from a national security standpoint that are facing us.

So we'll--obviously, all of us are here to try and do what we can to protect the safety, security, both economically and militarily, of this country and our people.

ROMANO: Well, what about you? You've received the great mention for President.

CANTOR: Oh. Now, listen, I'm not running for President. I'm very honored to be, you know, where I am now. I mean, there's a huge, huge amount of work ahead of us, as my--in my position as representing the people of the Seventh District of Virginia, and I have the privilege of being elected the whip of the Republicans in the House and working very hard, again, to make sure that our party maintains a constructive role as a Minority in hopes of returning to Majority status.

ROMANO: But you don't rule it out, do you?

CANTOR: Yes, I rule--I rule it out. I mean, listen, I am--I am here to really serve my constituents, and it's a huge honor. I always like to say I have been given the honor to serve in the seat that was once held by James Madison. Not a lot of people in this world can say that. That's a huge privilege.


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