Congressman: "It's not as bad as it looks"

Gridlock, grandstanding, goals held hostage. Still, Congressman Jim Himes sees room for hope.

“I serve in the House of Representatives, which is probably ground zero for partisanship,” he said.

The 4th District Democrat ventured a guess that partisan excesses in the House may have something to do with Congress’s low approval rating, which most recent polls find in the teens. But he tempered his judgment.

“It’s actually not as bad as it looks,” he said.

Mr. Himes addressed the Ridgefield League of Women Voters, which asked him to discuss the  economy and gun safety issues at its annual meeting Friday, June 7, at Bernard’s in Ridgefield.

Mr. Himes said he shares the gun safety concerns prompted by the Newtown school shooting in December. “I’m in favor of more and smarter gun safety regulations,” he said.

He said he’d been very disappointed by the Senate’s failure to pass a bill expanding federal requirements for background checks for gun sales.

But people shouldn’t give up on the gun control, he said.

“Remember, back in the 80s it took six years and multiple failures to pass the Brady bill,” he said.

And that law limiting hand guns followed an assassination attempt against President Reagan that left his press secretary, James Brady, paralyzed from a shot in the head.

Mr. Himes said the recent gun debate had not ended with the Senate’s vote earlier this year.

“The system is working,” he said. “Some of the senators who voted against background checks — their numbers have tanked.”

The congressman also offered some quick thoughts on issues recently making news.

On the National Security Agency’s collecting telephone records from communications companies, he said there was a common misunderstanding about what the government had been given access to.

“It’s not conversations you had, but records of who you called, and how long the conversations lasted,” he said.

The records are stored, and the government seeks court orders to scan the data for patterns and numbers in connection with investigations.

“We’ve had tremendous success against Al Qaeda,” Mr. Himes added. The terrorist group has lost its “number two” leader 12 times in 10 years, he said.

But he called for a critical review of the vast investigative powers given to the government by the Patriot Act, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks of 2001.

“I do think it’s time now for us to be narrowing those authorities,” he said.

He’d also like to reduce the scope of the war on terror.

“Just start narrowing down our footprint abroad,” he said.

The Department of Justice “yanked records of reporters” in investigating leaks, stirring concerns among journalists and some in Congress, about government overreach and freedom of the press.

“That made a lot of us nervous,” he said.

He also addressed “the IRS debacle” of recent weeks. In looking for potential violation of rules on “social welfare groups” making political donations, some IRS investigators had used ideologically colored computer searches, most often against conservative-leaning groups, looking for names with key words like ‘tea party’ and ‘patriot’.

“The Cincinnati office of the IRS did some incredibly stupid and bad things,” Mr. Himes said.

“Americans need to know the IRS isn’t coming after them because they’re Republican or Democrat or Tea Party or Jewish,” he said.

There have been “five or six senior-level resignations” at the IRS as a result.

What prompted the misguided investigations were so-called 501-(c)4 “social welfare” groups funneling anonymously donated money into political campaigns. Mr. Himes said the nation still had an underlying problem, which had ballooned since the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision upended laws limiting campaign contributions on free speech grounds.

“We really have got to work overtime to reduce the amount of money in the system,” he said. “To my mind, Citizens United was not a good thing.”

Repair of the nation’s immigration system is likely to get done, despite roadblocks.

“I’m actually an optimist on immigration reform,” he said.

The nation has had a halting but continuing recovery from the dire economic straits it found itself in back in 2008 — unemployment at 10%, 750,000 jobs lost just in the month he was sworn in to Congress five years ago.

The unemployment rate was down to 7.5% in May.

And the annual deficit, $1.5 trillion in 2008, is now projected to be about $500 billion for this year.

“Our economy is improving. Our debt and deficit are coming down,” he said.

“Evidently, we’re not going to become Greece, like I’ve been hearing.”

(The nation’s accumulated “publicly held debt” is about $12 trillion or 75% of gross domestic product. It had been about $6 trillion at the end of 2008. Counting debt held by government accounts like the Social Security Trust Fund, the debt’s about $17 trillion. But, in the second quarter of 2013 the government will pay down about $35 billion of the debt — the first actual reduction of U.S. debt since 2007.)

A new concern, he said, is that the improving economic situation is eroding the congressional will to make the tough choices needed to address the long-term problems.

“I think we’ve lost the urgency,” he said.

Among the long-term tasks Congress faces are “fair and equitable reform of Social Security and Medicare,” he said.

By “fair and equitable,” Mr. Himes meant that “we’re not going to ask a widow living on $18,000 a year to live on $16,000.”

Getting more people back to work is another task.

“Government can sort of create jobs,” he said. “We can hire police officers and teachers, firefighters.” he said.

But public hiring should be guided by how many cops and teachers and firefighters are needed, and not turned into a “jobs program.”

Infrastructure projects, he said, can have economic effects far beyond the immediate workers hired and paid. They will patronize businesses, and project suppliers will also see more activity.

But government needs to do more to set the stage for private investment and long-term economic growth.

“If we’re really serious about jobs, we wouldn’t say the word ‘jobs’ without the word ‘education,’” Mr. Himes said.

But when taking questions, he admitted that the rising interest rates on students loans were a problem.

“That’s a tough one,” he said, explaining that by law the rates on direct government loans to college students — “Stafford loans” — would rise from 3.4% to 6.8% in July.

“That’s movement in the wrong direction,” he said, but prospects for improving the situation through congressional action aren’t good.

“I fear this is one of the areas we’re locked up enough that it’s going to take a while yet,” he said.