Late last week, I had the chance to sit down and talk with one of the Republican party's most respected representatives. He is especially respected in conservative circles. But because he is not anything like the typical brand of showboating neoconservatives that flood the media, he retains that respect throughout the halls of Congress.
I am talking about Congressman Joe WIlson of South Carolina's 2nd District. Congressman Wilson has enjoyed serving the people of South Carolina's 2nd district since 2001, where he easily won a special election and has easily won re-election in a true "ruby red" district. Before that, Joe was a South Carolina State Senator who believed in showing up to work. Indeed, in his tenure there, he had perfect attendance. His Washington experience stretches back to when he was on Strom Thurmond's and Floyd Spence's staff. He continued on in the Reagan Administration as an assistant counsel to the Energy Secretary as well as South Carolina's former governor, Jim Edwards.
Joe Wilson is as ruby red as that district is. With 3 major military installations in his district, things like defense and taking care of our troops are top priorities for Congressman Wilson. But unlike most in our Congress, Joe actually has served, as have all 4 of his children. Joe puts his money where his mouth is, and regardless of where you stand on issues like Iraq, you have to respect that.
In an age where it seems people from different shades of the political spectrum can't even hold a civil conversation over anything anymore in the realm of political debate without it becoming a knock-down drag out fight where often times apologies need to be made later...The "King Of Blogging" was a little nervous in sitting down for a "Q & A" with someone who leans so far right. I had never interviewed a Congressman before so formally and I didn't want it to be just another political fight.
But in the end, I found that where we may have some "differences in philosophies" as Joe likes to put it, there is still plenty of room for common ground, especially if one avoids the war and a few other wedge issues. The following is from our discussion on June 21st...
KOB: I’m going to start off talking about immigration and get some of your thoughts on that.
KOB: What do you think would do more to solve the immigration problem… the building of a border fence or meaningfully punishing employers who hire illegal immigrants?
JW: Well actually, I look at all of it. The first point, indeed, is that we should build a fence. (I believe that as we’ve seen in) San Diego, that a fence works. And additionally, it means, too, that we work on employer verification. It’s up to the government to come up with an instantaneous employee verification system. Where employers can “plug-in” and verify the legality of workers. Additionally, another step, and I was happy to see this in the paper for the first time today, I’ve known all along that half of illegal aliens didn’t cross the southern border. They are actually visa overstays. And we need to provide verification of persons exiting the country. And we need to be firm. As I was reading today, persons who overstay their visas by over 48 hours are subject to deportation.
KOB: Why don’t you think the 86 laws, concerning employers, were ever enforced?
JW: Sean, that’s an excellent question. Why wasn’t the 86 law enforced? I, in fact, was in private practice, an immigration attorney. I believe we’ve had a good system. It’s one, indeed, that encourages people to come to our country and become citizens. But it’s always frustrated me that as I was trying to work on immigration issues, Sean, what I found is that they were not as computerized as any other agency. They would lose files. The files would be in cabinets, on paper and would be lost. So, I really think it’s incumbent upon the government to indeed enforce the laws we have.
KOB: In the current legislation, in the Senate, what kind of employer sanctions would they put in? I haven’t heard anyone talking about that. What would they do?
JW: Well, that’s still up in the air. I know that in Dec. ’05, the House voted to increase significantly, employer sanctions up to $25,000. And it was really disappointing to me that people I traditionally work with, such as the US Chamber of Commerce, sent out a large (inaudible) prior to the vote opposing the sanctions. And that might be the only time I can think of that I actually disagreed with the U.S. Chamber. But I think it’s unfortunate that there is such a push, particularly by large companies, to not have enforcement, but I disagree, there really needs to be enforcement.
KOB: Do you think that’s what’s holding this whole thing up?
JW: I see, sadly, what’s holding things up, you’ve got big businesses that see cheap labor. You see some people who politically see a new voting group. You see people, and I’ll give them credit, that are compassionate toward persons in our country. I think it’s a misplaced compassion; these people have violated our laws, the rule of law.
KOB: You are a big advocate of strong relations with India. You are on a committee for that, right?
JW: I’m the co-chair of the India Caucus.
KOB: What should Americans know about India? I read “The World is Flat,” by Thomas Friedman, that talks a lot about India. What should Americans know?
JW: The first thing that Americans need to know about India is that there are 300 million persons in India who are middle class, which exceeds the population of the United States. (…) During the cold war, sadly, they allied themselves with the Soviet Union. And the reason they did was really just a “knee-jerk” response, because the U.S. was allied with their enemy, Pakistan. So it was not based on values. Because, in fact, India is the world’s largest democracy, America is the world’s oldest democracy. So we have shared values. But because of the level of hatred, sadly, between India and Pakistan, and sadly, because of cross border terrorism by Pakistan over the years has killed over 60,000 people. And so it’s not just a hatred of Pakistan, it’s a fear, justifiable, of terrorists.
The good news is that due to the end of the cold war, the tension between the United States and India has disappeared; now we’re are a strategic ally. Additionally, the relationship between the United States and Pakistan has gotten closer, they are a strategic ally.
And then tension between India and Pakistan with the visits by President Mussarif to New Dehli and visits by Prime Minister Sing to Islamabad has really reduced tensions between the two countries. And they’ve reopened travel and trade.
KOB: How do you think Pakistan is going to pan-out as an ally on the war on terror? I’ve seen a lot of mixed reporting, about how Al-Qaeda is enjoying a safe-haven in Pakistan. And we’re sending a lot of money over there. You gotta wonder how much is ending up in their hands.
JW: My view is it’s sad. We found this out in Afghanistan, in Somalia and places in Iraq, that there are ungoverned areas of the world. Even in Latin America, and so, sadly, in Pakistan and Waziristan, there are ungoverned tribal areas. I believe for President Mussarif, it’s in his interest to reduce terrorism. In fact, he, himself, has been the target of numerous terrorist assassination attempts. And many people may question his sincerity, but I can tell you, anyone who’s dodged a bullet is going to be sincere.
KOB: So you do think he is a sincere ally?
JW: I believe he is a very sincere ally to the best of his ability. Sadly, the extremist philosophies have a high level of respectability in Pakistan. They shouldn’t, but they do. So he’s dealing with a public that I don’t think understands the negative futility of extremism.
KOB: Let me jump back to immigration. The two border patrol agents that shot an illegal coming over the border… I knew that you are a big supporter of them. Where is that case now?
JW: Well, sadly, it’s still on appeal. And also sadly, they are in jail, in prison. And they have been abused by fellow prisoners. They are law-enforcement officers and when you put law enforcement officers in with that environment, they will be taken advantage of.
KOB: What would you like to see ultimately happen in that case?
JW: I believe they should be exonerated. If they made an error, it should have been handled administratively. But I believe the criminal prosecution was just totally inappropriate to their actions.
KOB: I don’t want to ask you “who do you endorse for President” at this point, so let me ask you this. If I were someone who wanted to work on a campaign, and I wanted my career to go beyond the primaries, where would you steer me?
JW: I would tell you that … (inaudible). I think we have some outstanding candidates. I have a very high regard for Senator McCain, Governor Romney, Mayor Giuliani, Former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Duncan Hunter. And also coming on strong is former Senator Fred Thompson.
KOB: On the other side of the aisle, do you think Hillary Clinton is inevitable as the nominee?
JW: Some days she does seem inevitable. At the same time, there was some polling this week that showed her third. It goes back and forth. I know this: she is a very polarizing candidate
KOB: Do you know her?
JW: yes (chuckle)
KOB: Any comment?
JW: well, I just disagree with her philosophically, and I disagreed with her husband philosophically; it wasn’t personal.
But her philosophy of raising taxes, assuming more money, I think it’s counterproductive to a growing economy and the ability to create jobs for young people in the country. I believe in growing the private sector of the economy and not the public sector.
And in particular when she proposed a federal takeover of the health care system that is 1/7th of the economy. And I believe we have the world’s best healthcare system because it’s not a government system.
KOB: I was gong to ask you about that. Recently, we were ranked 37th. You believe we have the best system? Why?
JW: I believe we have the best system because we have the best innovation and we have, I believe, the best access. When other countries are rated, they leave out waiting lists.
KOB: So do you think there is anything we can learn from these other countries?
JW: we learn from them and they learn from us.
KOB: What is your number one issue?
JW: National Defense. I serve on the Armed Services Committee. I believe the primary function of a federal government is national defense. And the primary function of the state government is education.
KOB: What is your proudest accomplishment for the people of the US and the people of the second district?
JW: It would be my view, that since my district has many significant military installations, Ft. Jackson, Paris Island and the Marine Air Station. Support of the military is my primary effort. I have four sons that served in the military, which is unique, including one who spent a year in Iraq.
KOB: Do you think that sets you apart from a lot of the other congressmen?
JW: It gives me a greater understanding of what our young people who are defending our country are doing.
KOB: You served, yourself, as well?
JW: I am a veteran of 31 years with the National Guard.
KOB: Who on the other side of the aisle have you worked with most?
JW: Actually, quite a few. I’ve worked with Congressman Elliot Engel, Congressman Solomon Ortiz, Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo, Congresswoman Diane Watson, Congresswoman … I seem to favor the ladies (laughs), no… Ellen Tauscher. Democrat guys are hard to get along with (chuckle) no (laughs).
KOB: What issues can you point to on the other side that you can say to your fellow members on your side that they might have the best idea on or should look at?
JW: Actually Sean, and this is not bad, but there are philosophical differences between us on virtually any issue. It doesn’t mean they are necessarily wrong. I just disagree with them.
KOB: So what issues have you worked with them on?
JW: Trade issues, national defense, building better relations with other countries. In fact, next, I’m heading to a joint meeting with the Russian Duma with the Foreign affairs committee.
KOB: Why are congress’ polls so low?
JW: I think the irresponsible comments of Senator Reed make us look irresponsible.
KOB: So, you think it’s the democratic leadership in the Senate?
KOB: Should Senator Reed resign his leadership?
JW: That’s up to them to handle
KOB: What could congress do to change those numbers the most to have a better impression with the American people?
JW: Um… (long pause) I think we could act possibly… for example; it’s very disingenuous to me for the democrats to say they won’t raise taxes, yet they are allowing many of the tax cuts to expire which is raising taxes. To me, it’s very disingenuous.
KOB: Which tax cuts are they letting expire?
JW: The marriage penalty that we alleviated expires. They are gonna increase taxes on capital gains, dividends, the general tax rates. It’s going to be the largest tax increase in the history of the United States and they are calling it “not a tax increase.” I think that hurts their credibility and makes all politicians look two-faced.
KOB: What do you think is our best hope in eliminating our dependence on foreign oil?
KOB: Which technology?
JW: That’s something I’ve learned. To reduce dependence, we need to promote all the alternatives. I’ve learned that through the energy assessment institute at Clemson University. It can be hydrogen fuel cells, ethanol, soybean and biomass. I also believe in wind power, solar, using ocean currents… I support all of it.
KOB: Whatever anyone can think up?
JW: Yeah. And I have to tell you, this isn’t just the US. This is a worldwide challenge. Some other countries would benefit more then we would. Look at Japan. They have no energy domestic sources. So we shouldn’t be alone in looking for other sources. I’m counting on other countries too.
KOB: Is Congress doing enough?
JW: yes… yes
KOB: We couldn’t be doing more?
JW: I would support more, but at the same time I believe we’re doing… (pause) I’d like to provide incentives for private companies to develop umm… better battery technology… there’s so much that (they can do) but not by the government mandating but it should be by providing incentives for consumer to buy and companies to produce.
KOB: Do you think raising café standards on mileage is a decent idea?
JW: I worry that those can be gotten around so easily. By themselves, mandating better mileage, what can happen is that you can make one vehicle that gets 60 mpg, but looks like a tin can. But that gets averaged in and raises the average to achieve the standard without achieving anything.
KOB: One last question. Speaker Pelosi pledged to bring the House back to a five day workweek. Yet that really hasn’t happened. Would you support that five day workweek?
JW: No. I think it’s good to be back in the district. Members of Congress need to be back in their districts listening to their constituents. I’ll work 18 hour days Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday here, but it’s preferable to be in the district other days.
After our interview, I came away very impressed with Congressman Wilson. I had heard good things about him from family and friends whom had worked with him or knew him on a personal level. He certainly "lived up to the hype." That might not change my view of being against the Iraq invasion since before the invasion or on some other issues. But if there were more people like Joe in Congress, maybe we might have a slightly higher discourse and dialogue than the"coulter-esque" fights we have now and some seem content with, as long as their side appears victorious.
At the end, he invited me down to "shadow" him for an entire day. To see what the "day in the life" is for a member of Congress. I am trying to work out some scheduling now, and I look very much forward to seeing more of how everything happens.
One thing is for sure. The GOP would be much better served by having people like Joe on the forefront delivering their message rather than some of the purposefully devisive and agendized people they do put up in front of us. Congressman Joe Wilson is a good man. A man who has principles and sticks to them. And does it without being mean or sleazy. He presents his case with class to the other side, despite any "differences in philosophy." And we could use more of that on both sides of the aisle.
Washington indeed needs more Joe Wilson's serving our country. 1 thing I didn't get to ask him was how he deals with the name recognition thing since the "Plame-gate" case got big. Maybe next time.