Speaking to The Oracle for the first time since he was elected, Congressman John Faso sat down in his Kingston office on Friday, March 31 to discuss the failure of the American Health Care Act, the investigations into Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election and the immigration policies enforced by the Trump administration.
We want to start by asking the obvious question about why you haven’t hosted any public town halls. We wanted to get your opinion and ask if there are any plans in the future to hold a town hall.
Well, I’m actually holding an hour-long town hall on the public TV station in Albany on [Wednesday,] April 13. In their studios, they have 80 seats and they have to be a constituent to sign up. I’ve followed what’s going on around the country and a lot of the town halls, unfortunately, have basically been screaming and sign-waving sessions. I don’t think that’s the most productive way in which a constituent could get information from me, or for me to hear from them. So what I’ve done has been aggressively meeting with people from different groups on a whole range of topics. I’ve tried to be as responsive as I can. But it’s right on the Internet, the agenda of people who basically want to hold a town hall so they can yell and scream and shout me down, I don’t think that’s a good use of anyone’s time.
Last week, the House Republicans scrapped a vote on the American Health Care Act. For seven years during the Obama administration, Republicans had been saying that they were going to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. I’m curious, in your opinion, why the bill failed, and if it’s going to be taken up again, not necessarily in the same form, to “repeal and replace” Obamacare.
So the simple answer is there weren’t the votes, that’s why it wasn’t brought up for a vote. I don’t think they should’ve brought it up for a vote if it was not going to pass. I do think the situation that existed the day before that last Friday and the day after is the same: which is yes, there are plenty of people happy and satisfied with the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but there are just as many in my district who have concerns and are dissatisfied. So how do we try to address the concerns of both and fashion something where we can get as much buy-in and acceptance from people as possible? Because the issue of high premiums and high deductibles, particularly small businesses, still exists.
The White House keeps saying that Obamacare is going to explode this year, do you think that’s the case? Are those premiums going to rise that quickly?
It depends on what state you’re in. I don’t use the term “explode” because I think if something’s going to blow up we should try to avoid it. My approach would be to say, “let’s try to address these concerns” because we’re talking about people’s health care, for them and their family. It shouldn’t be a kind of “I hope it destroys itself and then I told you so.”
Do you have a plan yourself, or with a group of other Republicans, to repeal the ACA this year or in the near future?
I think the basis of a plan was what was contained in the AHCA. There are two basic components, the Medicaid side and the insurance side. On the insurance side, the key component of this plan was to equalize the tax benefit for the people who have employer-provided health insurance and the people that don’t. That’s because the law specifically excludes it as a taxable benefit. So there’s a big tax subsidy for those of us who get employer-provided health insurance. On the other hand, if you’re the husband and wife with three kids and they don’t have employer-provided health insurance, they get zero tax benefit. So the approach in that legislation was to create advance refundable tax credits. It’d be like cash you could take to the insurer and buy insurance with it. You’d still have to pay beyond that because the premiums would be higher, but it’s still a good incentive to buy the plan. Now it’s not that different from the premium support that was in the ACA. The difference is the ACA with premium support only allows you to buy ACA-approved insurance, whereas the plan I was supporting said you could get any insurance you want that was good for you and your family.
But for the number of reasons that you just specified, in addition to keeping some elements of the ACA, why do you think that Republicans were not able to coalesce around the plan?
I’d say 90 percent of our conference, maybe 85 percent, agreed with the plan. But the ones who didn’t, it really divided. Some of the ones who didn’t believed that it was too expansive a replacement, they wanted something that would be cutting it more and have very little in the way of the Medicaid expansion, they thought there were too many controls and too expensive.
Did you have concerns when the CBO report came out saying that 24 million people would lose their insurance and the costs would be higher than those under the ACA?
I think that CBO’s analysis, I wouldn’t criticize them, but their analysis is really incomplete for a couple of reasons. Their charge is they can only examine the legislation in front of them. They can’t consider the regulatory changes which would come after the legislation to reduce costs and make insurance more available.
Well, that’s what the White House has been saying, that they were examining phase one and not the other phases to come down the line.
Correct, and by their policy and statute, they can only examine phase one. A lot of this is a speculative game. When the CBO did their analysis of the ACA, they said by this time there’d be 23 million people in the exchanges, there’s less than half there. So we should treat their projections seriously but we should not give it the credence of the Holy Grail. Because it’s not, it’s just an opinion. And I think there were some reasons for why their opinion was wrong. For instance, I don’t see 5 million people dropping from Medicaid in the next two years because they don’t pay anything for Medicaid. Why would you drop? But they predicted 5 million people off of Medicaid, I never thought that was a credible assessment.
How did you try to sell the AHCA to the Freedom Caucus or other skeptical Republicans?
I wasn’t trying to sell to them, it was really others trying to do that. I was really trying to make sure that the plan was modified in ways that would be better for our state.
Do you think there were too many modifications at the end of the plan? I know there were a lot of people saying it was another “pass the bill to see what’s in it” scenario.
Well, that’s what the Democrats said with [Rep. Nancy] Pelosi in 2010 when they passed the ACA. In this instance, no, there were a lot of changes, for instance at the end, there was a plan to add funds that would be used to reduce the cost for people in the 50-60 year old age bracket. That was in direct response to the CBO analysis, which said that the premium cost was going to go up because of the way age-banding works in the system. So, that change, and the reason why that change was important was that to induce younger people to buy and the price point wasn’t low enough under the ACA, that’s why 6.5 million people were paying the penalty, they were largely people who were in the under 35 age bracket who didn’t see the benefit compared to the cost of buying insurance. We all want people to buy insurance, in large part so they’re covered when they have a health issue or they want to have preventative care, but also if you can get young people in the pool to subsidize the cost for the older people. So one of the changes at the last minute was to, substantially, put $80 billion into premium subsidies for the tax credits for people from ages 50-64. That’s one that I thought was a good idea.
Do you think there is pressure in the Republican Party not to work with Democrats?
I think there is some, it’s either don’t work with them or it is a waste of time to try at this stage, I am willing to work with them. One of the fundamental problems with the ACA is that they crossed party lines and it left some sour feelings. I had some Democrats this week ask me “Would you consider this or that would you work with us?” and I said absolutely. If this bill gets resuscitated I don’t know if it’s possible for the Democrats politically, a lot of their base is agitated right now. I had one Democrat friend of mine a freshman said to me “My base is so angry with me because I’m not out denouncing Trump everyday, I have other things to do.” He said he is getting a lot of pressure from his base saying “You aren’t strident enough, you need to be fighting everyday.” So I do think down the road there needs to be some bipartisan consensus on a couple of these areas. I can think of a number where we could get bipartisan consensus.
Would you consider one of the intrinsic problems with the AHCA, in regards to gaining a cohesiveness between Republicans and Democrats, is that it looks to begin defunding Planned Parenthood?
I’ve said publicly, in fact, I even voted for one amendment they had in the committee. I just think that that provision fundamentally shouldn’t be in health insurance. This would make it easier to get Democrats and make it harder to get some Republicans, so it’s a conundrum. This issue is needlessly divisive. We should be trying to lower the cost for American families to buy health care, to make it more affordable and make it more accessible. That’s my goal in this process. Other provisions that are extraneous to this aren’t helpful in getting this enacted.
There have been questions about whether Congressman [Devin] Nunes should recuse himself from the overseeing investigation on Russia’s interference with the election, I’m curious as to your thoughts on that.
I think this has become a Washington paddle tennis game back and forth. The committee should continue its work. I’m not advocating for him to recuse himself, I think he, and the ranking member [Rep. Adam] Shiff, came to an agreement as to the witnesses they were going to ask to testify and they should go about their work, as should the Senate. At the end of the day this is an important question. It shouldn’t be overcome by partisan considerations.
Do you think that President Trump should take a harder stance on Russia?
My view is that we need to stand by our allies and stand by NATO and the Baltic states. We should be supportive of the government in Ukraine. Again, Russia is not our friend, they act in a very adversarial way in many parts of the world. Our policy should be reflective of that at the same time we should pursue our diplomacy in a way that uphold the interests of the U.S. first and foremost. So sometimes that may mean working with the Russians on various issues around the world, and sometimes it will mean working against their interests.
Republicans have said the next issue they are going to take up is tax reform. Are you hopeful that it will get passed in the House?
Yes, and the other issue I want to see is infrastructure because we have highway needs, transit needs, broadband needs, water and sewer needs. This area is where I think there is the most potential to get Democrats and Republicans working together.
In this district, the EPA is a very important entity especially in areas like New Paltz. I know that you are in support of environmental activism, so what are your thoughts on Trump’s stark disinterest in continuing to fund the EPA?
I have issues in this district where whether it’s water pollution issues, Hoosick Falls for example is a continuing issue, and I requested it be designated as a superfund site. I also think the EPA after the enactment last year of toxic substances update needs to come up with standards on PFOA and also 24 dioxane another pollutant that’s present. So there are a lot of examples around our district. I’ve heard from businesses who have been harassed by the DEC or by over-zealous regulation, but at the same time it is important to make sure we have safe drinking water. This is why it is important to update infrastructure. The biggest source of pollution in the Hudson River are not the PCBs that the General Electric dumped in 40 or 50 years ago, the biggest source today are the combined water and sewer overflows when we have heavy rainfall. We have a lot of sewer treatment plants along the Hudson that are in jeopardy.
As a member of the Climate Change Caucus are you concerned at all that Trump has signed executive orders rolling back some of those Obama era climate change orders?
I’m concerned, but the clean power plant for instance was stymieing the courts anyway so I’m not sure that the order has much impact in that regard. I’m waiting to see what they are going to propose going forward.
What are your views on the Joel Guerrero situation?
Well our office is working on that so, constituent confidentiality means I can’t comment directly on that matter. But sufficed to say I have talked to DHS, I was in a meeting with Secretary [John] Kelly, what he said was that they were looking for people who had outstanding deportation orders or people who had outstanding criminal matters, not people who are law-abiding. I have long said that we should have a process that normalizes the status of people coming into the country illegally. Not necessarily a path to citizenship, but normalize the status; give them permission to stay here and to become a citizen they have to get on line behind everything else who is already following the role. From an agricultural standpoint and service sector industry standpoint, there are a lot of people providing very important roles in our economy in the Hudson Valley so we should recognize that. So yes, if someone violates the law by committing a crime, then I don’t have a lot of sympathy for them in terms of the deportation situation. But if they are following the law and have a family and they may have children who are citizens I look at it differently. I’ve also been a sponsor of legislation to deal with fairly the kids who were brought here as children and lived here in the U.S.
Mr. Guerrero was a permanent green-card holder until he had a marijuana misdemeanor. Under the Obama administration, he wasn’t pursued by ICE because this was a minor offense. Do you believe his status as a low-risk immigrant should warrant deportation?
The current policy isn’t much different from that. If you look at who is being picked up for deportation, and under the Obama administration, immigration advocates pointed out that they deported more people than any of his predecessors. There are a lot of complexities in this entire matter. I’m hopeful we can resolve this in a way that’s humane and practical for families involved but also recognizing the importance of immigration to our economy. If you have got to pick apples or milk cows on a seasonal basis it’s important to have immigrants.