September 24, 2004 > Interview with U.S. Congressman Pete Stark
Interview with U.S. Congressman Pete Stark
TCV: What do you feel are the primary issues facing Congress in the next two to three years?
STARK: The principal issue is the Republican control of Congress, which freezes the Democrats out of participation. As a politician, you learn to take wins and losses as they come. But in a democracy, it hardly seems proper to preclude one party from participation - it certainly wasn't done by the Democrats' control with the House of the Senate - but it's done by the Republican leadership now. And that denies an awful lot of people, darn near half of the country, of fair representation.
The Republicans took a 5 trillion dollar surplus and turned it into a 3 trillion dollar deficit in four years. That's over 8 trillion dollars down the drain. And what happened? They gave almost all of it in tax cuts to the very wealthy, and the needless war in Iraq. What did we lose? We lost almost 3 million American jobs. We had a cut in average income of $1,600. We have one out of every six children living in poverty. We have cut public funding for public education. We have relaxed laws to protect the environment.
We are attempting, under the Republican leadership to change the judiciary, which would destroy a woman's right to reproductive choice, and they are attempting to write religious laws into the Constitution by defining church rules for marriage in the Constitution. The list goes on. Basically, is has been about giving tax cuts to the very wealthy in exchange for reducing the quality of life for the average American.
TCV: What can Congress do about outsourcing of jobs?
STARK: One of the things we can stop doing is giving huge tax breaks to the companies that decide to move their operations overseas. There is nothing we can do in a free society to stop a company from moving anyplace they choose, but there is no reason we have to give them massive tax loopholes and tax breaks that we do.
Secondly, and we hear it mostly from the Silicon Valley types who are complaining and whining, that as they move operations, say, to India, they wonder why we should complain here. But they're asking us to protect their intellectual property rights, indeed, they're suggesting we might go to war, if we let the Chinese bootleg movies and rock music. So while they want the American government to protect them, they're unwilling to pay their fair share of taxes and support the education that would be needed to create the technical ability to keep those jobs on our shores.
TCV: There has been much controversy about immigration controls and what should be done. Where do you stand on that? What can be done?
STARK: First, 90 percent of the illegal immigrants who come here do not come for a vacation; they come for a job. And there are absolutely no penalties on the employer who hires an illegal or undocumented worker. The first thing you'd start to do is penalize - and I mean serious penalties - on those employers who do not take strong efforts to identify whether or not a worker is documented. Once you cut down the source of illegal jobs for illegal immigrants, you're going to cut that immigration down tremendously.
We have probably a thousand people a month coming into our Fremont office to get help on immigration issues. Arguably, none of them are coming in to get illegal immigrants into the country. It is sad to see that the abuses created by employers are harming a lot of families and keeping really good, hard-working legal aliens at a disadvantage. So we have to start by cutting off or controlling the demand. If we are going to allow people to come in, as we may, for various reasons, whether its for agricultural or seasonal work, or other things, we have to control it carefully. We have to put severe penalties on those employers who are abusing it and causing the massive flow of illegal immigrants.
TCV: Are you in favor of some type of a guest worker program, like the old "Bracero" (Mexican Migratory Worker) program?
STARK: I'm in favor of whatever regulation is required to see that we only have the necessary immigration, and that of course would be legal. The Bracero program worked fine. You have to ensure the protection and health and safety of those workers, which I don't think we did very well. But what happens is that you still have construction workers in restaurants and surveying and landscaping where contractors willingly hire undocumented workers. And they know. Believe me, they say 'oh, we couldn't tell', or 'he had a phony social security card', but that doesn't wash, and I think that's easy to enforce. Closing the border is virtually impossible.
TCV: what do you do about other people that come in illegally? I'm not necessarily talking about people from Mexico, since many illegal aliens come here initially under a student visa, and stay. We, in California, tend to focus on illegal immigration from Mexico because we are a border state like Texas, Arizona and New Mexico but it's a much more global issue than Mexico or South America.
STARK: Absolutely, but the same thing holds. Those people who come and get an education and stay, rarely stay to vacation. They need a job. And it seems to me that you would have the same careful scrutiny of the credential of somebody applying to go to work for Microsoft as you do for Michael's Pizza Parlor. And the same thing would apply. If they're not illegally hired, they won't stay.
TCV: Let's talk about Social Security funding. This has been a big issue for years and years. The Social Security system has a lot of IOU's from the government.
STARK: It always has. It is always invested in government bonds.
TCV: Right. But now the baby boomers will be using these benefits and less workers will be trying to support a system with more retirees, with longer life spans. What is the answer to this?
STARK: There are several things that can be done. None of them are new, and many of them are politically unpopular. You can raise the taxes that are collected for Social Security. As we do in Medicare, you're taxed on all your income; in Social Security it caps out at above $87,000. I would think that people above $87,000 a year in income could stand some increase; it wouldn't hurt the lower income workers.
You can adjust benefits. It seems to me that people enjoy working longer and are able to work longer. It would be all right to extend the retirement age as long as you gave people the option to retire earlier at lower benefits. It has to be voluntary. Or, you can reduce benefits, which I don't think any politicians want to do, nor do I think the public wants. Those, basically, are the only two choices. It's a teeter-totter, and you can't have both ends in the air at the same time.
I do not think that privatizing it and dumping the money in the stock market is the answer even if it didn't cost three or four trillion dollars because of the loss of revenue [to the U.S. Government]. It has been a good program. Germany has weathered the storm; they're having the same problems we are. But it's just a fact of life. I think we're a rich enough country to be able to afford to provide basic benefits.
TCV: What, in your opinion, is the best way to give tax relief to Americans?
STARK: It seems to me that you give it progressively. You don't give it all to the upper two percent, or the wealthiest in this country, which is where almost all of Bush's tax cuts, went. That seems basically unfair and useless because the very wealthy won't spend the money to improve the economy. They will just continue to invest and save it, and there's no indication that that increased investment has created any jobs.
And you can't go and fight a war, as we've known over the past couple of hundred years, and not find revenue to pay for it. There is no tax fairy that's going to put this money under President Bush's pillow. You've got to collect revenue for running the country.
Now, the Republicans feel that by cutting off taxes, you can cut down the size of federal government, and cut down its function. That means you destroy Social Security, you destroy Medicare, you don't put as much money into protecting the environment, you don't support education, you don't do all the things that Americans like: you don't pave roads, you don't dredge the Bay. All those things need doing. It's difficult for any politician to talk about raising taxes, or about not cutting them. But that's true whether you're on the city council, the county board of supervisors, or the state legislature, in any state. It's the toughest thing we ever do.
TCV: Is there a way to simplify any of this? Every time a 'tax simplification act' is passed, the code appears to become more complex.
STARK: Well, what Bush is really talking about is the sales tax. Replacing an income tax with a sales tax would require a sales tax of somewhere around 20%. Add that to the 8.5% we already pay in California, and you're talking about a whopping tax. Again, it wouldn't hurt the rich, who spend a lower percent of their income for things that they have to purchase. It would hurt the working person, who has to probably borrow money to purchase enough of the everyday necessities of life. So the idea of a sales tax or a consumption tax is very nice if you're very rich, but it hits you hard if you're middle or low income.
TCV: What about a flat tax with an exemption at the bottom end?
STARK: We're practically there. Think about it; the upper brackets are 30% give or take, and then they want to expand the lower bracket at 10%. Our progressive tax goes by steps and then there is California state income tax. A good chunk of payments are for Social Security and Medicare, and the big part of that cuts off for people above $87,000.
TCV: How about simplifying the code a bit, so that it would be more understandable, rather than relying on specialists to figure it out?
STARK: We did that under President Reagan, and it's taken all these years to undo what he did. We cut the tax rates from the 40's down to 30%, by closing loopholes and basically simplifying it, but then of course if you want to knock out the deductions for your mortgage interest, you'd have every realtor and home owner screaming at the gates.
(It's the same) if you want to cut out charitable deductions, or any of these things that people have assumed are part of their way of life, and pretty much part of our culture. I'm not sure you're going to do away with those by simplifying. They talk about the marriage penalty, but there's also a deduction, if you will, a family head of household deduction, or a joint filing tax, which was done in the days when most women were not employed, from the theory that that would reduce the burden. Well, now we're in a different world, and nobody wants to get rid of that benefit. Fairness isn't often simple.
TCV: You can't do it equitably in the sense that everybody's going to come out a winner, but I was thinking more in terms of somehow getting the code down to where it was understandable even to the IRS.
STARK: And to those of us who write the tax laws!
TCV: I wanted to also ask you about economic stability for our geographic area. What, if any, help do you see coming from Washington?
STARK: The House of Representatives is divided on a basis of population. A constant 20% to 30% of our job is seeing that we keep our roads paved, our schools supported, our hospitals operating, and all of the things that people are asking for, day in and day out. We try to represent their interests and see that that money is distributed fairly. I think there's enough even-ended pressure so that in the long run, all across the country, things even out. The agricultural states get their subsidies, and the inner cities may get their assistance, through bigger hospital subsidies, for instance. It's a political process, and there's no question that right now the Republicans have absolute control, but nonetheless, I will say that in the appropriations process, that is perhaps the area in which they've been the most bi-partisan. I don't think it changes much from year to year.
TCV: What do you see overall as a valid defense posture for the United States of America? Should we be the world's policeman or should we be working more within either the UN or groups of nations?
STARK: I see us as absolutely the most powerful nation in the world, militarily and economically speaking right now. But I think that Iraq is a good example that even with all that power, we cannot control the world, nor can we turn the world to our bidding in the reckless manner that the president has done. You cannot just swagger in and round everybody up into the OK Corral and say 'All right, we're going to have a gun fight', because while you may appear to win that gun fight in a few days, the aftermath and the attempt to control a community, as we are trying to control Iraq, is a very difficult process. All the king's men and all the nuclear weapons and all the tanks don't seem to be able to stifle the protest that's working against us in Iraq.
I think that to protect us from a military attack, a strong military force is needed, albeit, different than it was, because our weapons systems are predominant, and no other nation has very much in the way of weaponry to challenge us. We have to keep our eye on places like North Korea and Iran, who may have nuclear weapons, and do our best to see that they don't proliferate. But then we've got to figure out how to get along in this world. The imperialism of Spain, and of other countries in the past is a testament that that isn't a very good policy. I don't think we could control the world if we wanted to without getting along.
I think (we should be) working with something like the United Nations in improving relations. The European Union is growing very slowly and needs a lot of support to unify all the European countries. I wish we would attempt to unify Central and South America more, rather than worry about whether Turkey and Germany are going to get along. I think we have bigger concerns with Central and South America.
We must be diplomatic, because we shouldn't be sending all these young folks off to die for a program that nobody can really define. That to me is obscene. As for defense, the president will talk about terrorists, but terrorists aren't a country, they are not a political force. Terrorism is a weapon, like an assault weapon, which has to be used in a war by somebody. We're having a little trouble identifying who these people are in many cases.
We've watched Ireland, where the Catholics and the Protestants use terrorism all over the British Isles. We've seen terrorist among the redwoods, where these guys put spikes in the trees to damage chainsaws. We have the Oklahoma City attack, and the Unibomber. So it's not new to us. The extent of 9-11 was a shock, but these are people who, for reasons of religion or other reasons, turned their hate against us. What we've got to do is find something else for young teenage boys and girls to do, besides turning themselves into living bombs. That is the only way that I can see. It seems to me that that means we're going to have to be a lot more generous with our economic aid, and less dependent on weapons.
TCV: Is the resurrection of the draft a real issue? Is that something that's actually being discussed in Congress?
STARK: Well, I've discussed it, from the basis that we would think twice about going to war if every family had a risk of seeing a child or a loved one going to war. Right now, the volunteer army is focused mostly on rural America and inner city poor youth who are economically encouraged to go into the military. Parents of upper income and well-educated children have very little to worry about. My idea is to have universal service: everybody.
TCV: You mean similar to service required in Israel?
STARK: Absolutely. You put two years in, even for people with disabilities; we'll find a job for them that they could do. You include conscientious objectors, who stay away from combat. So you have young people who are required to serve their company for a couple of years, and then everybody's at risk. That's all I'm saying.
Only one member of Congress in the House of Representatives has a child who's an enlisted person in the military today. Think about that. There are 435 of us, and there's only one of us with a kid at risk. Now there are a couple of members who have older children who are officers. But I'd like to think that (people would say) 'Boy, if all of my children and grandchildren were at risk, then it would make us think differently. If President Bush's daughters could be drafted - and I think women should be drafted along with men - he might think differently about it.
TCV: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
STARK: I'd just like to thank you for providing the opportunity for these interviews. I think it's important, and I wish that we had more chances to discuss issues in-depth, as you can in the print media, and less of it in 15-second sound bites. I hope it will encourage people to get out and vote; particularly young people. I know that us older folks will turn out in record numbers, and my hope is that young people will turn out at this election in as big numbers as they did in the early 70's when we had a war going on then.