Just before the 113th Congress reconvened after the summer hiatus, Rep. Frank LoBiondo visited The Grapevine office to discuss matters of local and national scope affecting his constituents here in the Second Congressional District of New Jersey. That district includes all of Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, and Salem counties and parts of Camden, Gloucester, Ocean and Burlington counties. LoBiondo has been serving the district since January 1995.
Participants in the questioning were Mike Epifanio, Editor and Publisher; Deborah A. Ein, Managing Editor; Contributing Columnist Paul Doe, Contributing Writer Mickey Brandt, and Ryan Dinger, Editorial Assistant, who transcribed all 8,000-plus words of the interview that follows.
The Grapevine: I thought we’d start off by asking you, out of all the legislation you’ve sponsored and supported and all the other ways you’ve affected policy in the past year, what do you think was the biggest opportunity to make an impact on your constituents here in Cumberland County?
Frank LoBiondo: Well, trying to influence policy—not a single piece of legislation—because, as you are keenly aware, we are suffering tremendously economically, unemployment-wise—we’re sort of at the top of all the wrong lists. What I try to do is understand what happens in the real world with our farmers and our small businesses, from a policy standpoint. So the people have the certainty and the stability within the framework of their businesses to be able to keep the jobs that they have or hopefully to increase the jobs that they’ve been providing. That’s been very challenging. There’s not a lot of good news that has come out of Washington. There isn’t any way to sugarcoat it. I think Obamacare is devastating small businesses. I’ve been meeting with all the chambers trying to convince the powers-that-be that we need to make some changes, because without that stability, a small business here in Vineland or Cumberland County is just not going to hire full-time employees. They’re not sure what the tax structure is going to be. So trying to influence those policies that reflect what happens in the real world is what I’ve been trying to work on the most.
GV: You just talked about the Affordable Care Act. If it’s accurate—and I don’t know that it is—what would be your view on local businesses—Acme and ShopRite in particular—being proactive in cutting full-time employees to 29 hours a week so they don’t have to participate in their healthcare in case it breaks that way?
FL: Well, that’s a national trend. That’s what the problem is. This is the unintended consequence that the labor leaders who so strongly pushed for this legislation [have neglected]. This is the demise of the 40-hour workweek. Private businesses are there to make a profit. And when Washington dictates rules and regulations that make it impossible for them to make a profit like they think they should, those businesses are going to find ways to react to what’s being mandated on them. Almost eight out of every 10 jobs that have been created in the last year are part-time jobs. It’s not just with Acme and ShopRite. You’ve got it across the board. And this is one of the things that I think is killing the economy—the anemic growth rates that we have. I’ve talked to a lot of people in the district who just don’t know where they’re going to go. They’re working two or three jobs now, and they’re wondering how they’re going to make ends meet. This wasn’t the intended consequence, but the unintended consequence is just as devastating if you’re in one of those families or you’re one of those workers who have been downsized to meet the criteria to avoid the consequences of Obamacare.
GV: Particularly for your constituent workers here, do you feel that it is fair for business owners to make that decision and hurt the workers in that way, as some people have talked about?
FL: Well, what about if they can’t stay in business and they close and there is no job at all? Look, I helped run my family business with my brother for a number of years, and we were always concerned about staying viable. So as more regulations come down, as more burdens come down on you, whether you’re employing five people or you’ve got a couple hundred employees like we did, you want to be open tomorrow and the next month and the next month. And if government is making it in such a way that you can’t stay open, you’re going to react. So I don’t think it’s fair to criticize the businesses or try to second-guess them for trying to survive in a climate that they didn’t want, that they didn’t ask for. The administration is not reacting to the devastating consequences this is bringing down on the country. And places like Cumberland County are going to be hurt much more than some places where businesses can thrive and grow in a different way.
GV: There are people who are longtime employees of a company and are finding in retirement that their benefits are diminished or less than what they thought they would be.
H.R.1322. Title: Earned Retiree Healthcare Benefits Protection Act, was introduced on April 1, 2011, in a previous session of Congress, but was not enacted. This bill was re-introduced as H.R. 2425 on Jun 18, 2013. To amend title I of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 to provide protection for company-provided retiree health benefits. Presently referred to committee. Can you tell us how you would vote on this?
FL: There are thousands of bills. With all due respect, I think it’s unfair to ask me how I would vote on a bill that I have three words out of the title. Sure, I want to protect the rights of people who have worked all their lives and are expecting a certain outcome, to make sure those roles aren’t changed in the middle of the game.
GV: An aspect that isn’t discussed very much about Obamacare is the effect that it’s going to have on the religious hospitals. People are concerned that the way it’s structured forces particularly the Catholic religion to follow mandates that they’re religiously opposed to. I guess that’s another unintended consequence. But what are your thoughts there?
FL: On this one, I’ll beg to differ. I think this was an intended consequence of the authors of the bill, who have a certain political philosophy that their view of the world and these matters—contraception and so forth—should be universal, regardless of what someone’s political beliefs are. I think they did this with their eyes wide open. They had a chance to change this. And it’s one of the serious flaws in the bill. Because this was a protection that was afforded for decades, if not centuries, and now we’re changing the way the country looks at these things. So, if you’ve got a particular position because of your religious beliefs, that’s being thrown out the window because of the president’s policies.
GV: I know you’ve expressed the opinion here and elsewhere that deficit growth is unsustainable. I think you’ve expressed the position that basically fixed benefits to seniors is part of the problem. It’s unsustainable growth. The system is going to go bankrupt if we continue going on the way we are with social security payments and Medicare coverage. Philosophically, not referring to specific bills, do you support limiting benefits to current retirees through things like the c, which effectively, because of inflation, reduces their benefits? Do you philosophically think that benefits that were promised in the past should be reduced for people who are 10 or 15 years from retirement?
FL: Well, current beneficiaries should not be touched. They’ve made their plans, they’ve lived their lives. In most cases, they’ve worked all their lives in the golden years, as we’ll call it. They’ve been basing their decisions on a promise that was made that can’t be changed, in my opinion, and should not be changed. Now, there was a similar problem looming with [Ronald] Reagan and Tip O’Neill. And they found a way to get together, not to change current beneficiaries, but to find ways in other areas—now, maybe that has to be for somebody who is 45 years old. Maybe there has to be a change in what they’re going to see when they’re 65. And maybe if there’s no change, there’s nothing at all. Now what is that change going to be? We were promised a commission on this. I’m still waiting to see what those recommendations are. I think Medicare has to be involved in this discussion, with Social Security, because the mandatory spending is where the real problem is. You can eliminate all discretionary spending, and you don’t get at the deficit problem. Between Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, there has got to be a way that we can do things differently. Medicaid—you’ve got governors, both Republican and Democrat, who believe in block granting, which will give states a better opportunity to provide services for the poor that they need, with an ability to limit the rate of growth, which is unsustainable right now. Medicare—something has to be done differently, and certainly the same is true with Social Security. I’ve had this discussion with AARP. They command a lot of attention. They can press a button on their membership list and flood the offices with calls.
GV: You must not pay any attention to them. Excuse me for interrupting. They all say the same thing, for one thing.
FL: They all say the same thing, and there’s a side note that is somewhat interesting: They now have the technology where they will call somebody on their list and ask ‘Will you talk to your congressman about the issue?’ and they press a button and get connected to my office. So, I’m in the habit of, in the evening, listening to the voicemails that come in. And for these, there are people talking, totally confused, with no idea what they’ve been connected to. With that having been said, I really leaned on the AARP saying, ‘Look, you’re against everything. I’ve got 80-year old grandmothers calling me, scared to death that their benefits are going to be taken away and their checks are going to be cut. Nobody has talked about cutting checks for current recipients. Not in any serious way.’
GV: I’m sorry to interrupt, but cutting currently planned cost of living allowances is very much in the forefront. By changing the consumer price index, you limit future increases to people who were already counting on them.
FL: Yes, that part of it is accurate. But when a lot of these calls were taking place, they weren’t on the chained CPI. They were thinking base paychecks were going to be cut. And that simply was not true. Now, they’ve not fully explored—they, the people who are advocating this—the effect of the change of the CPI to current beneficiaries and as you extend that out, what it actually means. It could be devastating. I don’t know if there’s going to be a grand deal. There needs to be. But I can tell you if there would be a stand-alone vote on changing that part of it, I would be a no. I come back to the people that I represent and meeting them somewhere, looking them in the eye, and saying ‘It’s ok. You’re on fixed income, and we’re going to change your income, lowered by X amount of dollars.’ There’s no way to explain it. Some of the people are barely making it now. The part that I go to is, there are things that we can do that we don’t have to do that. If this commission would get its act together, and take the approach that Reagan and O’Neill took, and come up with a plan that’s not really going to hurt anybody. But there are changing times. What are the things that we can do? And we’re still waiting for that answer.
GV: Do you believe what some people say is a poisonous atmosphere between the parties, in the House of Representatives, in particular, contributes to the fact that a Tip O’Neill can’t get together with a Ronald Reagan now?
FL: Yes, but I’ll add this to it: The responsibility to initiate that discussion and do the reach out has to always come from the president. Reagan did that with O’Neill. Bill Clinton did that with Newt Gingrich. Barack Obama is not doing that with anybody. This president does not reach out. When we had this crisis looming at the end of the last year, that he had 18 months to work on and virtually did nothing, he called [Vice President] Joe Biden in in the last week, and gets Biden to work a deal with Congress because the president would not get fully engaged. And the president is not fully engaged now with the October 1 government fiscal year. The president is leading a disastrous course with the debt limit by saying, ‘We just need to increase the ability to borrow more money with no corresponding checks and balances on what happens from that point forward. And if we don’t do that, I’m going to blame the Republicans.’
GV: Last March a new buzzword was introduced to the American people: Sequestration. It resulted from a law Congress passed two years ago to force both parties in the legislature to work together to reduce the national deficit. At the end of this month, the government’s fiscal year comes to a close. All departments are required to have mandatory reductions in spending in place by then to avoid another bout with the next sequester. Do you think it’s going to get ugly again?
FL: I think it is going to get ugly again. And I’m saying that based on the president’s position at this point, where he is saying essentially, ‘Either do it my way, and give me what I want with my view of the world, or the burden is going to be on you with the consequences.’ So every day the government takes in revenue, and every day, the government borrows and spends more than—two, three, four billion dollars more than it takes in. And the president says, ‘That’s okay. In fact, the reason why the economy isn’t doing well enough is because we’re not spending enough. And if the stimulus bill had only been double, we wouldn’t be in this position now.’ That’s essentially what our president has said. And I think this policy is leading us down a devastating path. And the burden that’s being put on our children and grandchildren is one that probably can’t be met, unless we make some corrections to this. So I think there’s a clear burden on behalf of this president—as there is on any president—to recognize that we have a crisis looming and find common ground. And it doesn’t appear to me that, at this point, the president has done that. Maybe this is a bargaining position. I don’t know. Maybe in a couple weeks or a month, things will change. I thought next week the serious discussions on the fiscal crisis would be what would overtake things, and that’s not going to be the case. It’s all going to be Syria, at least for a while.
GV: That’s been something that has bothered me this entire year, right from the time that this sequester thing started. It just seems to be like a series of dominoes. With the IRS thing, the snooping thing with the NSA. It’s just been one thing after another this whole year. And now we’re back to this sequester thing—or the fiscal cliff. There doesn’t seem to be any government focus on things that should be most important, and that’s the economy—getting people back to work and getting things moving in the right direction.
FL: Well, there’s a steady string of distractions. Some minor, some major. I think for the president to indicate that this list that you just went through is inconsequential and is motivated by political justifications is out of step with reality. With this IRS thing—you know, what term strikes fear into the hearts of Americans more than IRS? Whether you’re an individual or a business, that’s universal. So now people understand that these are the people that are going to be running and enforcing healthcare. Thousands of new IRS agents are expected to be hired. We have testimony about how they have treated individuals and businesses some of these groups that were looking for the tax status. And you and me are not allowed to get a single letter wrong in what we submit, or they come down and they rip your heart out. And yet, we’re supposed to believe that this is just a minor situation that Republicans are using for their own benefit. We’re a year later, with a dead ambassador. We were promised that people would be brought to justice. Now, this crisis in Syria is horrible. We don’t want to see anybody die. But what about a U.S. Ambassador that we hear nothing about a year later? And there’s no interest on behalf of the government to do anything about this—you don’t hear the president talking about it and you’ve got a former secretary of state saying, ‘What difference does it make? They died.’ It makes a big difference. So all of these things have been a distraction in one sense. But in a bigger sense, they’ve been a disaster because the country wants answers. That’s one thing I hear from my constituents. ‘Why don’t we get any answers on these things?’ When we have to subpoena documents for the IRS or anything else—which we are doing—and they send thousands of pages, I defy you to make sense out of any of it because 90 percent of every page has been redacted. You can’t tell me that 90 percent out of 1,000 pages needs to be redacted. Maybe there is some here or there that has to be redacted. So then they say, ‘Well, we submitted thousands of pages.’ But it’s worthless. You’ve got to come back and you’ve got to ask for it again. And if you don’t get to the bottom of it, the whole thing is a mess. And now you’re in crisis government. So you’re on continuing resolutions. You’re on one crisis to the next crisis to the next crisis. And, you know, the latest crisis (Syria) is a result of a failure in policy from my point of view. I serve on two of the committees of consequence—Intelligence Committee and Armed Services. And what we’re seeing is a culmination of failures in planning and policy, that are resulting in the economy being on the downturn, Obamacare throwing cold water on businesses, foreign policy going to hell in a hand basket, and all of these things are leading the country down a very bad path.
GV: Last week, you joined a bipartisan call for President Obama to consult with Congress before ordering any military action in Syria. U.S. Presidents are authorized to act in emergencies to commit our nation’s military assets. Now that the president has consulted with Congress, what is your stance on military intervention in Syria?
FL: I will get around to mostly answering your question. But to set the stage for that: The situation in Syria has been building to a crisis for a couple of years. We have been literally begging the administration to define their policy on Syria. What is their plan? The President called for Assad to be removed, but now we can’t target Assad. When the whole mess started two years ago, there were a number of opposition groups, some of which we knew would be moderate groups—not the Muslim brotherhood, not Al Qaeda-related, not Taliban-related—that could have had an upper hand by now. It’s not that we had the wrong policy. We had no policy. None at all. So now, Syria, whether it’s Assad or who may take the lead if Assad goes, hate us with a passion. We’re in a position where the President has not explained where we’re going from here. Use of chemical weapons is terrible and we never want to see that again. But we want to punish Assad. So, we’re not sure what the President wants to do, and how that’s punishing Assad. We’re pretty sure it’s going to kill a lot of innocent people. But how does it punish Assad? How does it degrade his ability to do these things in the future, and what is the policy from this point forward? Is it a one-shot deal, where we’re going to—whatever it is that they’ve got targeted, and I don’t know what that is, some infrastructure, I guess—so whatever it is, we’re going to do this and this is going to deter him from—if he doesn’t use chemical weapons—from barraging neighborhoods with rockets and mortars, and indiscriminately kills another 100,000 people? What is the end game in Syria and what does it mean when we don’t have anybody but France on our side? I think that’s a real message there. It suggests the lack of policy and leadership that we’re seeing, Syria is just the latest of a round of these. If the vote was being held today, I’d be a no-vote. Now the debate hasn’t taken place yet and to be a responsible representative, you have to hear that. I dropped all my plans Saturday afternoon when I got the notice that they were doing something Sunday. I didn’t hesitate to cancel everything I had going on on Sunday and drive to Washington. I’m changing everything I had to do [on September 5] to go down for intel. The President should have called us back. When this broke, he should have said, ‘I want Congress back in Washington.’ The President called a joint session of Congress when he wanted Obamacare passed—he had national TV coverage, he made this passionate address on why we had to pass this healthcare bill that he envisioned would save the country. And yet on this issue, where there is a lot more at stake, he has articulated what our national interest is, he has not articulated what our end game is, he has not articulated how this is all going to be brought together with our allies. And he has [Chuck] Hagel, [John] Kerry and Susan Rice out there to make the case to the American people. The people in this district are weighing in heavily. I’ve listened to every voicemail, read every phone message. People are overwhelmingly against this, and the President, I think, does not understand that, nationally, from what colleagues tell me, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, that this is the popular opinion. That means the President has failed to make the case to the American people and he has clearly failed to make the case to our allies. When have we ever had action like this where the Brits aren’t with us? I don’t know when we go back in history when the Brits weren’t with us. They spoke very clearly and very plainly that they are not. So there are huge consequences, and however the President wants to limit this in scope and size with what he wants passed tomorrow, one miscalculation and a retaliation by the Iranians or the Russians or something else puts boots on the ground, puts all kinds of things out of our control, and then we don’t have a choice. If Israel is attacked, they’re our ally, we don’t have a choice. Then we must fully commit, and what are we fully committing to? I don’t think this thing has been thought out. It has not been planned out. And if there’s been serious discussion, there’s been no serious action in developing a policy that could even be communicated in a classified setting to those of us that are supposed to have the authorizations to understand these things and move forward.
GV: You had mentioning listening to your colleagues. I get a sense that the country is moving toward this sort of isolationist stance, a global isolationist stance, like we had prior to World War I, prior to World War II, and all through the Vietnam years, where people just didn’t want us to commit to those things. Is that kind of what you’re hearing, too?
FL: I think we’re seeing the results of a nation that is very war weary. And we’re seeing, I think, a nation that wants to understand the strategic U.S. interests and reasons for the next commitment of military action.
GV: And we’re not hearing anything.
FL: We’re not hearing that. We’re hearing that—you know, I listened driving in this morning to the President’s remarks in Sweden and this was a red line that the international community set. Well, where’s the international community backing him up on what he wants to do? They’re not there. He has not made the case. I heard on Sunday that we’ve communicated to every nation on the face of the earth. ‘We’ve given them the data that we have. We’re getting good response. We’re getting good response.’ By my calculation, if they had all that at the end of last week, then about now we should be seeing an avalanche of nations agreeing with us that something should be done, and then getting together and decided what that is that should be done. You’ve got people who are watching their televisions and listening to what’s going on who don’t understand what the national interest is for us to get involved for this because there has not been an articulated reason or an end game.
GV: So you’re saying that Obama’s dissemination of this information on the global scale is the same as it has been to the American people?
FL: He has not made the case. He has not made the case. Now, we were –I don’t want to say we were promised. But there was a strong indication that his trip overseas to whatever he’s gone to—G-20 or whatever he’s doing—was going to be a game changer in terms of support from his interaction with leaders directly instead of just on the phone. Now he’s just started this trip, so I guess to give him the benefit of the doubt, he hasn’t met with that many leaders personally. But I’m going to be watching very carefully over the next couple of days to see how that plays out and I expect to hear a little bit more tomorrow in a classified setting with the intel committee about what has been developed on that. Because there is not a question that a horrible act of war has been committed in Syria. But what the question is, why are we getting involved, what does it mean to us and where do we go from here? So if this doesn’t deter Assad with whatever he has planned to do, and Assad wants to really stick it in our eye, and he gases another 2,000 people a week after the strike, what does that mean then? Does that mean we come back with another resolution and we escalate even further? None of this has been explained and I think that’s why the American people are reacting the way they are. There are very, very, very few people that are in support of what’s on the table right now.
GV: Some people are telling me that the moral imperative outweighs both the lack of salesmanship and the constituent response to the situation. I don’t know how you feel about that, personally. There certainly would be room for you to say, ‘OK, I’m going to give the moral imperative the benefit of the doubt.’
FL: I would give the moral imperative the benefit of the doubt, possibly, if there had been a clear strategy that we were fully engaged in, that the groundwork had been laid for what the President said we needed—a regime change, with the people who weren’t the Muslim Brotherhood, who weren’t Al Qaeda, who weren’t the Taliban. They all hate us now. So a moral imperative with a complete void in front of it and a complete void behind it does not win the day.
GV: There with other situations that turned out out-of-control in a similar fashion. I know you weren’t in Congress, but, in general, if you were there, would you have supported Gulf of Tonkin? Did you support the Vietnam War? I know that’s a silly question. Did you support intervention by Clinton in Bosnia? Did you vote for invading Kuwait in the first Gulf War? Did you vote for the invasion of Iraq? Some people think those were also out-of-control situations.
FL: Well, if you want to get the first Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq, look at the coalition that was put together, and the outcry, globally, for what Saddam Hussein had done in Kuwait, and what had happened on 9/11 and in Afghanistan, we had a coalition of 40 nations that made significant contributions—that’s a far cry from where we are today.
GV: I really meant how the consequences turned out. Iraq is a very unstable country. The Vietnam War was a total failure. I think some of the reasons that some people are giving for not invading Syria are very similar to the ways that those wars fractured those societies. And the other thing was, I don’t know how you voted on the Libyan air intervention.
FL: I voted no on that. In Kosovo also, I voted no.
GV: Any political considerations there? Was it again a failure to sell?
FL: Libya was a failure to sell. So, this gets to why the American people are weary of this. Who decides the genocide in Sudan isn’t worthy of getting involved in. We have no idea how many people have been slaughtered there. And there’s nothing but a finger to the lips—can’t say anything. So Libya, we all of a sudden decide there needs to be a regime change. And we’re going to—we’re not going to lead it, but let me tell you, that could not have taken place without the United States. And where has that gotten us in Libya today? We’ve got a dead ambassador, dead Americans, a government that’s not in control of anything, the Muslim Brotherhood that is likely to be a training ground for Al Qaeda and the Taliban. We don’t know the final outcome because is still being laid out. I think it’s nothing but bad at this point, because it wasn’t sold, the strategic interest wasn’t laid out. There was a decision by the President that—I’m assuming it’s more than throwing a dart and saying, ‘OK, here’s a trouble spot. We need to fix it.’ But that’s what the American people think we’re doing. How do you pick where the next genocide is taking place, why should we not get involved? And at a certain point, we can’t do all of this. We’ve passed that point. We can’t do all this, unless there is a strategic reason and a coalition of nations who are getting together saying, ‘We’re going to do this collectively.’ And not the United States saying, ‘Well, we don’t care what the rest of the world says because we have a moral imperative here, but not here, here, here, and here.’
GV: Congressman, we talked earlier about the sequestration and the fact that it came about because two years ago Congress passed this law that mandated that we have to cut every department by 20 percent because, at the time, we were $4 trillion in debt or whatever the figure was. What happens when, come October 1, the Department of Defense has their budget set, and they’ve cut their budget accordingly, and all of a sudden we have a commitment in Syria, if that does happen? How does that come into play when you’ve got budgetary restraints on the Department of Defense? There are few people on Capitol Hill in Congress that are as on top of defense issues as you because of the committees you sit on. What happens when a war that costs billions—possibly even into the trillions—when Congress has already clearly said we have to stop spending, how does that balance?
FL: Well, that’s the question the President hasn’t addressed either. Since this sequestration concept was his, and we did go along with it—and I did vote for it because the option was default with the government and lead us into economic chaos, or leaving us spending into oblivion, this seemed like a lesser of evils that was supposed to be solved by now—but if the President doesn’t address where we’re going, especially with the Department of Defense. The scariest part of sequestration of the Department of Defense is our readiness. We don’t know what North Korea is going to do, we don’t know what the Iranians are going to do. The President sounds like he’s going to do this Syria thing with or without Congress—I don’t know how he’s going to do it without Congress, but he’s laid the groundwork to say, ‘I’m coming to Congress, but I don’t have to come to Congress.’ So I’m hearing, ‘If I don’t have to come to Congress, and I feel we really need to do this, that I have the authority to order a strike the way I think I need to order it.’ Now that consequence, and the cost of the military and what’s involved with the military is going to, further down the line, degrade our readiness. And if there is a strategic national crisis that our security is directly at risk, what does this do to our ability to protect our nation? And that has not been addressed.
GV: Do you think that could happen, that he would order a strike without Congress, like he did in Libya?
FL: Well, it may be less likely when he sees the reaction of the nation. There’s a lot of national polling going on now, and it’s not dropping in the President’s favor. But, I heard pretty clearly in the initial statements—you know, we don’t know what motivates the President to change his mind. But clearly, he left his cabinet and national security council, saying, ‘I’m just going to order this strike.’ Then he took a walk with Jack Lew—or whoever that was—and on that walk, changed his mind. And came back and announced to everybody—after Kerry had made that public statement and I think got left out on a ledge with what the President did, because the President changed his mind there. Did he change his mind because he got a letter from a bunch of members of Congress saying you don’t have the constitutional authority to do this? I don’t know. There were, besides myself, I think 110 who signed that letter. This is a national debate that’s got to take place. Listen, if this were an attack on American soil, if there was a clear indicator of what was involved for America, then nobody would have hesitated to say, ‘Hey, do what you have to do. We’ll figure this out later.’ But nobody understands what the American strategic role is in this Syrian conflict where everybody hates us.
GV: I think we’ve got a pretty clear indication of where you stand on that. We’ve gotten pretty well into foreign policy. Let’s bring it home. Last fall, Superstorm Sandy ravaged much of our state’s coastline, including parts of Cumberland County on the Delaware Bay. A lot of people forget about that. You were key in the fight for the authorization for Sandy Relief Funding. You were on the forefront of promoting the Jersey Shore Stronger Than The Storm campaign. What are you hearing from your constituents, especially along those coastal areas, about how they’re rebuilding and how beach replenishment projects have fared in terms of the liquidity of funding from FEMA and the other federal agencies that are supposed to facilitate that? I know what a tough fight it was, because people from Kansas don’t understand the importance of the shore.
FL: Well, people from Kansas don’t understand. But what they do understand is a tornado or some natural disaster that they expected the country to react to the way it always did. Oklahoma, Missouri, you know, floods, hurricanes in Florida, earthquakes in California, so, they may not understand about beach replenishment, but they understand about natural disasters that devastate people, that they expect the nation to react and rally to them, which is the equation that changed for us last year after the storm. I’ve got public statements from members from those districts, who were adamantly opposed to New Jersey getting the help without an offset, which is never going to happen. That was just not going to happen. So where were we going to take the money from to give it to New Jersey? You’re always touching somebody’s sacred cow when you do that. But any other time in history, there’s a problem, we all rallied. I rallied to Joplin, Missouri and every other natural disaster because that’s what we do. And we find a way to get around it. So my full remarks, which you may or may not have picked up were, ‘I think they created a new caucus for themselves, the Hypocrisy Caucus. It was okay for them, but not okay for us.’ So that’s a little more on why I was so exercised over it.
GV: How about your constituents and what they’ve told you since that money was approved? How is that money flowing?
FL: For the most part, good. But there’s still bureaucracy that’s causing problems. We’ve had somebody on staff that’s almost been full-time working with this with individual communities and individual constituents that have had problems. Now we have regular updates from FEMA and the federal agencies that are involved and they have resolved well into the 90th percentile of everything that has come to them. Now if you’re one of those that have not been resolved, this is your whole world. If you are not back in your home, and Sandy was last October—and we have thousand of people who are still in that category because they don’t understand should they replace, should they rebuild, or how are they going to do this, and the FEMA flood maps and all that comes into play—then this is pretty devastating for that group of people. It’s devastating for Fortescue [NJ]. Fortescue didn’t qualify because the rules were, a certain percentage had to be meant for the county to be considered an emergency based on natural disaster. County-wide, we didn’t reach that. Fortescue exceeded it tremendously. I was there immediately after the storm. I’ve been to Charlesworth [Hotel] and watched the sunset I don’t know how many times. It was hard to see that, and harder yet to explain to those people why they didn’t qualify. So we’ve continued work, even though it’s now with the State of New Jersey, to try to get—the State of New Jersey, with flexibility that we think we built into some of the federal funds coming back to the state, and we did it specifically with the mitigation fund, to give the state some flexibility in this particular area to help Fortescue, because they’re not in the same case as Ocean County and Monmouth County and Atlantic County.
GV: I know that you explained to the people in the Hypocrisy Caucus, as you termed it, that this isn’t just about people’s sand on a beach so people can lay and get a suntan. This is about economic development; this is about the ripple effect of the tourism economy here in our part of the state. The whole Stronger Than The Storm campaign, it’s hard to gauge the impact that it has had. But universally, people along the shore have said it’s been a tough summer. What is your feel for how long it will take for the Jersey Shore to rebound and are there things that the federal government can be doing to help in that vein?
FL: The victims of Katrina are still not completely back on their feet. How long ago was that? And I’ve been warned by my Louisiana colleagues that this is a very long process. I think that the way we did this, so there was an immediate reaction when the storm hit, and then it took almost two months to put together the relief package because the problems that occurred with the relief package for Katrina were closely looked at. The package and criteria changed for us, which I agree it should have. So that we made sure that we were making the case for the money we were asking for. It took an enormous amount of work to do. Because we understood that having the federal government, in the case of Katrina, being the omnipotent one, in all cases, flowing money and making decisions that could be okay or could be flawed, we changed the focus to primarily the mitigation fund, which was the component of the relief package that gave the money block-granted to the state, so that the state was better to understand the problems than Washington for what we needed here. We had controls; we had all kinds of criteria that had to be met. But with those mitigation funds in place, that’s what allowed the Army Corps to go in and do basically a reconstruction for any community that qualified, which was essentially every community. We would have never had that without the mitigation fund. So how do you begin to measure, if the mitigation fund had not been in place, and beaches had not been restored in a lot of the communities—especially in the northern part of our district and further up the state—what further devastation to the summer tourism industry would there have been, had we not been able to do the work in the six months leading up to Memorial Day? I don’t know how you measure that. We think that the mitigation, now we’ll talk about the restoration of the Army Corps’ work, has allowed us to have some summer instead of no summer. But, where do we go from here? The businesses that are being rebuilt. If you’re part of Fortescue, you’re not seeing much relief. Some of these other communities further north have not seen relief. I think, fortunately, in our district, we were at least put in a position where they could have a summer, if people chose to come here. And that was the rest of what you were saying—where my colleagues argue that, ‘Why should we pay for somebody getting a suntan?’ and it’s not that at all. It’s a $40 billion tourism industry—the bait and tackle shops, the convenience stores, all the small businesses that rely on somebody deciding to come vacation here. And if they can’t vacation here, how many more jobs would have been lost?
GV: Did you have a closing remark? We started by asking about specifics for your constituents here in Cumberland County, and I think that might be an appropriate way to close. Is there anything else that is on the horizon, things that you’ve been hearing about locally?
FL: Well, the overall concern, prior to Syria, which is sucking all the oxygen out of the air, has been jobs and the economy. And while the Second Congressional District is 40 percent of the state geographically, and very diverse, the unemployment and economical problems are universal. Whether it be Atlantic County with the casinos, Cape May County that’s close to 14 to15 percent unemployment, Cumberland County suffering through everything we suffer through, Salem County, etc. etc. So this has been the overriding interest. Of all the church barbecues and all the fire company breakfasts, and all those things, this is what I’m hearing from people. I made an effort to meet with as many chambers and boards of directors as possible. And I think our chambers pretty accurately represent our business views in our communities and in South Jersey, and this uncertainty and instability is eating them up alive. You’ve got businesses that are falling into two categories: they’re either trying to figure out, hour-by-hour, how they’re going to hang on, and many of them can’t; or they have an ability to do things, but they zipped up their wallet because they don’t know what Obamacare is going to do, they don’t know what their tax structure is going to be, they don’t know if the federal government is going to default, and the economy is going to take a real bad hit. Whether the stock market reacts to something like that and drops 1,000 points or whatever the devastation may be. For all of these reasons, people are holding very tight where they are. So the policies—the crazy policies—that are being enacted sort of by executive oorder. Everything from the EPA wanting to regulate dust on our farms—you know, this is still the one—having grown up on a farm, I just imagine EPA agents running after a plume of dust, and then trying to write citations and stop you and haul you in and say, ‘You’re creating a dust storm here and we’re going to fine you.’ Or the farmer who plows a little bit deep at the end of the field, and it rains for three days, and water sits for two days, and all of a sudden now you have to have EPA regulating where that plow went with that water that sat for two days. These are real instances that Jay Leno has made a living out of. So, we’ve been in a blocking pattern with a lot of this stuff, trying to say that regulations enacted ought to have a cost benefit analysis. So do we want to shut down the coal industry in the U.S.? The commander and chief wants to shut down the coal industry in the U.S. What impact will that have on electric bills in Vineland? What impact will it have on energy for the country? And shouldn’t we understand some of that before we say we’re going to do this? And if you’ve got departments running by executive order, whether it’s EPA or some of these other departments, and you don’t have an ability to have an input on what the impact is going to be in people’s real lives, we’re forced to take vote after vote after vote to try to say, ‘Wait a minute, let’s put the brakes on until we understand this. Let’s put the brakes on until we deal with sound science.’ And if you’ve ever run a small business, you know that you don’t have any other choice than to do it that way if you’re going to have any degree of success in what you’re doing. We’re being run by think tanks now. We’ve got a think tank that puts out a proposal, there doesn’t have to be any reality in the proposal—and yet that’s being embraced by people who are making decisions who never had to meet that payroll. And I think that’s one of the biggest crises we’re facing from the economic standpoints. Stimulus was a great opportunity—it was a squandered opportunity. There are many, many issues. We continue to try to impact and help, while we’re challenged. People don’t talk much about our first responders and all the volunteer firefighters we have here. How does that impact? You don’t think about these things until you need it. The current administration is talking about implementing a rule that’s going to shut down our rehab hospitals. I just met with the folks from Vineland again. We thought we solved that problem a couple years ago. See, that’s not something that your readers will probably know about, or, in most cases, even care about. Because if you don’t need rehab, you don’t think about it. But if you need it, you want it. So whether it’s a heart attack, a stroke, an accident, a hip replacement, you can’t go from acute care to no care. So all of these battles we’re drawn back into the middle of because of a policy that doesn’t reflect what happens in the real world. And Obamacare, we haven’t even begun to see the effects it has on the doctor-patient relationship, the medical device tax—if you need a wheelchair, you’re going to pay a tax on it? Pulling the plug on research and development because people are not going to spend the money because of how this is going to be taxed and what the marketplace is going to do. And this whole bit about if you like your insurance, you’re going to be able to keep it—that’s not exactly working out, either. Not to mention, what we started off with, the 40-hour workweek, with people being cut down. So all of these things require an enormous amount of time and energy, and while it affects people in our districts, this needs to be changed nationally.