U.S. Rep. David Price, a North Carolina Democrat, met with the editorial board Thursday for a wide-ranging chat. Here are my notes from the meeting. They are NOT verbatim.
DAVID PRICE: Our ragged exit from Washington is indicative of a lot of things, shows what bad shape immigration reform is in. This unseemly trolling for votes on the Republican side produced a supplemental spending bill that is completely divorced from the problems being faced down there. It’s especially foolish with respect to these unaccompanied children. The better news is we did reach an accommodation on the veterans bill. There’ve been lots of problems at the VA having to do with backlogs. I hope this bill will help us address the health care thing. The transportation bill was the other piece of the trifecta as we left town. It’s a patch of the sort we’ve seen far too many of. It’s a monument to the refusal of the majority party to deal with revenues.
Everyone talks of infrastructure. Not only are we not going to raise the gas tax, we’re not going to talk about anything else. You’re left with, in some ways it reminds you of what they’ve done here with teacher salaries, the one-time nature of the money. That’s a very troubling feature. That’s exactly the way the Highway Trust Fund is being done, piecing it together with drips and drabs from one-time sources. We haven’t done a thing to improve the long-term financing of infrastructure. It just avoids running out of money this summer, right before the election.
The main task when we go back is going to be to put a budget together for the next fiscal year. The best case there would be a continuing resolution to take us past the election and then the omnibus bill that that stitches it together. We avoid a shutdown and get the benefit of the appropriations work that has gone on in both houses. It would be a couple months late but you’d have that.
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Q: What happens if the Republicans take the Senate?
PRICE: If the Senate flips or there’s some other disturbing factor, you easily have a CR that takes you over to the new Congress. That’s my concern is the appropriations bill. We have quite a good homeland security bill reached on a bipartisan basis. The leadership is electing not even to bring the bill to the floor because of the high likelihood of anti-immigration riders. The budget agreement is better than not having a budget agreement, but we still have numbers way too low for major domestic issues and still have the threat of riders coming from tea party quarters that mainly involve immigration and anti-environmental riders.
Q: How much of it is anti-Obama v. ideologues who want a smaller government?
PRICE: I’ve tried to figure that out and so have lots of other people. I’m not sure you can disentangle it that neatly. In a town meeting in Cary after the election, in ‘09, that was my moment of truth. We were all feeling great about post-racial America and what the Obama election portended, and this was just brutal. This was the tea party before the tea party. It took me totally by surprise, the vitriolic reaction in that room, in Cary, North Carolina, in January 2009. It also has to do with the advent of hardened libertarian ideology. Remember when Ron Paul was the real outlier, interesting guy, but no one ever thought that would be a mainstream view. Those immigration riders in the middle of the night that Steve King managed to get every Republican to vote for, five years ago an amendment like that might have gotten 30 or 40 votes and we would have patted King on the head and said, "Now you’ve had your fun," but now they pass it.
I can’t sort it out exactly. When it’s another president than Obama, though, I don’t think it’s going to go away. This is a pretty pervasive pattern. The only thing that escaped this polarization was the veterans measure. This notion that I had I was hopeful when the budget agreement was first passed about a year ago. John Boehner unloaded on the tea party for first time in three years. A lot of people applauded. It carried us for a while. We passed a farm bill ... then bang hit up against immigration and realized this isn’t over at all. I think we’re right back where we were.
Q: Polls show that nobody’s approval rating is high. Americans pretty much hate everybody.
PRICE: I don’t think anybody emerges from this looking very good. I see evidence of that every day. We all wish that when these things are covered and discussed that Obama himself wouldn’t talk about Congress generically but finger the real culprits. It’s pretty much inevitable. It has some economic roots, a kind of cultural unease especially among more traditional sectors of the electorate, those who say I don’t recognize my country anymore. What do people mean when they say that? I think it does have a lot to do with Obama and cultural trends we see in the country. Whatever the roots of it are, it’s very hard to make anything constructive out of it politically. Obama when he first got elected managed to make mantra out of change, hope for a better day, but most of the time that kind of outlook favors the anti-government party. Our side is never going to trash government, trash bureaucrats, just argue that everything is going to hell in a hand basket. We’re never going to top the Republicans on that. There’s an inherent advantage to those who condemn government in the strongest terms, transfer whatever people are angriest about to government and government positions. This isn’t new in our history. From the start, there’s been an anti-federalist strain. They sniffed tyranny in every breeze. Government is to blame for whatever is to blame for what’s wrong in society. When things go wrong, when things go bad, when people feel unease, they have a very strong tendency to blame government. They don’t look to inequality or economic abuse, whoever’s elsewhere suggesting a diagnostic that blames government has a pretty strong advantage given American history.
When I got beaten in ’94, I looked a the polls, wrote about it. The anti-government sentiment in 94 was very strong when I got turned out. Then the culprit became Newt Gingrich. Not Bill Clinton but Gingrich, and that’s how a lot of us got back in.
Q: Race is what people don’t want to talk about. Do you think a big problem is racial animosity against President Obama?
PRICE: I personally think so. It’s certainly a part of this, too. You come through tough economic times, there’s going to be some scapegoating and whom to blame. There’s this anti-government strain in American history, American thought, protest movement, expressions of anger take a certain form in this country. The other thing we all need to look at is remind ourselves about how vitriolic things were with the Clintons. We’ll see how mean it can be with respect to her. You can’t imagine the tone of this, this business about losing my country, this sense of us and them, that they are taking over, they are taking control.
Q: What happens if Republicans take the Senate?
PRICE: We thank God for the veto and the fact the president is there, but it becomes much, much harder, much harder. If you think gridlock is bad in Washington, take a look at Raleigh. It’s Katie bar the door. The advantage would decidedly shift to the Republicans.
Q: What do you think about the Aiken-Ellmers race?
PRICE: I think it’s a race to watch. There are two districts in North Carolina now where people don’t realize how much the Republicans have been reduced. That’s the Coble district, the 6th district. The 2nd district is much more tilted their way with an incumbent who has lots of problems, divisions in that district, even Steve Wilkins, a very good candidate but underfunded and unknown, he carried Cumberland, he carried Wake. Aiken’s strategy has to be to excite a new generation of voters and get Democratic turnout up, to appeal to younger voters, female voters, He might bring it within reach. It’s uphill, but it’s by no means a sure thing.
Q: What can you do to influence the EPA to do something about the Jordan Lake rules? Now instead of rules, we have these SolarBees.
PRICE: I don’t expect the SolarBees to be a smashing success. I’D love to see it. I always love to see miracles, but I think the time will come pretty quickly when we can assess that and will have to push for serious action to protect Jordan Lake and get upstream communities inline with reasonable regulations. The environmental vs. economic playbook is pretty worn.
Q: Will there ever ben an end to this extreme polarization?
PRICE: It won’t come as quickly or easily as one might hope. iI’s pretty deep seated. A lot of it is attributed to Obama and the fact an African-American has been elected president, but I don’t think with another president in another term it goes away. There’s been an ideological shift that’s very powerful. It draws on powerful currents in American history. It’s not like the tea party invented this. They’re reprising a lot of things in American life. It’s a deep-seated conflict that isn’t going to go away easily. You don’t always have single party control. More often than not in our history we’ve had divided government. We’ve had two broadly based parties that when the crunch came were able to get together enough so checks and balances weren’t debilitating.
But we’re developing a parliamentary system without a parliamentary structure. If you can’t find enough common ground to pass things like annual budgets let lone major policy pieces like the transportation bill or farm bill, if you can’t do that, I’m not sure where you go. The best hope I can think of is if the main factor that has created that situation, the rightward turn of Republican Party, that is modulated. That significant candidates running in the fall are worried more about what we might do to them than the primary.
Q: How do you rate Obama’s performance?
PRICE: The first two years (of Obama’s presidency) we got a lot done. When the Republicans took charge of the House especially with the ideological stripe they displayed, we got out of that. The default crisis in summer of 2011, that will go down in history as one of the all-time raw deals. It you’re looking to where Obama didn’t play his hand to the the maximum, that’s certainly one place to look. That was a very defective deal. That’s a deal that set these unrealisticly low budget caps that have put us in a strait jacket ever since.
We’re starving med research. We’re starving infrastructure. There’s not a housing program in the HUD portfolio that isn’t underfunded. Obama had a tough tough situation when the Republicans took charge. We’ll always wonder if he could have gotten a better deal. There’s a lot to second guess about negotiating outcomes the White House was a part of. He didn’t have a partner in a budget deal with John Boehner not being able to deliver.
Q: Is there a way to end the Gaza situation:
PRICE: Yes, but I don’t know how probable it is. Putting the best face on this awful thing we’ve just been through. If there can be some agreement that empowers the Palestinian Authority to take control or gradually assume control in Gaza initially by controlling the border crossing and to displace Hamas, that could take all sorts of forms, the technocratic unity government before this started that was to lead to Palestinian elections, we were ready to accept that. They had met the conditions. The Israelis made a big mistake in just flatly rejecting that. They say they cant negotiate with divided Palestinian community. Can they negotiate with a united one? There’s going to have to be an agreement reached some way. It all quickly became irrelevant with the outbreak of violence. The question is, can you get back to something like that? I think our country and the Israelis over the years significantly failed in empowering the more moderate Palestinian forces. They have flaws. I’m not romanticizing the leadership there. There has to be a partner for peace. The Israelis keep saying that. I don’t know if they’re going to get one any better than Mahmoud Abbas.
The one unknown to me is how much the stature of Hamas has been enhanced by what we just when through. They have a history of winning by losing. To the extent we can move ahead with marginalizing Hamas and getting unified Palestinian leadership that becomes the partner, there may be some hope out of this of serious negotiations emerging. But the odds of that are less than 50-50.
Q: How many terms will you serve?
PRICE: I’m in it energetically.
Q: Does the state Democratic Party need a new chairman?
PRICE: I think I’ll demur on that.
PRICE: Yes, D-E-M-U-R.
Q: Or dodging?
Q: He’s vollering.
Q: How do you feel about Hillary Clinton as the presumed Democratic nominee?
PRICE: I’m optimistic about what kind of candidate she would be. There is a danger always of overconfidence or letting your guard down. A desire for novelty that voters often display. On the plus side, you just have a seasoned, proven, very smart, very appealing woman who is ready to be president and has the political apparatus to run a first rate campaign. There have been stumbles along the way. There will be some more. But it leaves us in a much stronger position than we would be with five or six guys out there. There are pitfalls, but there are advantages to having someone preferred and known by so many of our voters. I’m very hopeful about Hillary.