Congressman Tom O’Halleran won the Congressional District 1 seat in last November’s election. The freshman Democrat represents the Oro Valley and Marana areas, as well as much of eastern and northern rural Arizona, including the Flagstaff area. He talked last week on the radio show Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel about ethics reform, the Affordable Care Act and other topics. This is a condensed and edited transcript of that interview. You can hear the complete interview at www.zonapolitics.com
You made ethics reform a central plank in your campaign last year. It appeared you were taken aback last week when Republican lawmakers voted to gut the powers of the Office of Congressional Ethics before reversing course. It seems there’s still a lot of unhappiness with the office, at least among Republicans, and there’s a lot of talk that they will move forward with new limits on the ethics office later this year. What’s your sense of what’s going on here?
I don’t know what got into them, to be able to think that the American public was just going to sit back and watch something like that occur. The office came out of time in 2008 when we actually had three congressman go to jail because of things that that were going on here. I did run on an ethics program and part of that was to strengthen the Office of Congressional Ethics. So one on the planks—which I will have a bill on—was to actually allow that office to have more power than it does now and be able to subpoena records so that they can do complete and full investigations, which right now it’s very hard for them to accomplish.
Are you hearing that efforts to gut the office’s power are just being put on the back burner and Republicans are going to return to that topic later in the year?
I’m hopeful that as this year moves and we to some of the other issues that we’re going to be dealing with, that they’ll have second thoughts on that. I know there’s not one place I went during the election cycle—and that’s almost a year-and-a-half period—where I talked to people about ethics and they said we should make it easier for us to do unethical things in Washington. People want transparency and they want to know their congress people are acting in a responsible manner that takes into account honesty as part of that.
Obamacare remains in the top of the news and there’s a lot of talk that we may have “repeal and delay” plan that would repeal the Affordable Care Act with a plan to come up with a replacement down the line. Are you comfortable with that approach?
I don’t think anyone should be comfortable with that approach. First of all, as I’m sitting here, I can’t tell you what their plan looks like, other than almost everyone I talk says they don’t have a plan. And that a plan would be sometime down the road, except they do have some ideas of how to roll back certain aspects immediately. And what occurs then, when you start to roll back pieces of this and not all of it at the same time and you don’t have anything to replace it with, you impact other pieces of the plan. And so if you cut funding in one location and say that’s all right for the rest of the plan, it’s not. I know from my office, we are going to start a weekly series of educational pieces for the public. Everybody here, I think, feels that the Affordable Care Act needs to be worked on. Social Security has been worked on over the years, Medicare has been worked on over the years, the Affordable Care Act needs to be worked because I think there’s a perspective out there among the American public that the Affordable Care Act only deals with the 20 million people who are covered by it right now. But because of the other titles within the act, it covers every private insurance policy with some provisions and the vast majority of the American public has said that they want to keep those things—the inability to deny coverage, not having limits on coverage over a lifetime, some of the preventative care features, women’s health issues. These are all issues that are now ingrained in our entire healthcare system, it’s not just doing away with what some people may perceive as entitlements programs. It’s actually a healthcare plan for the entire country. And we need to fix it, but we need to fix it in a responsible way, and not having a plan to take its place, not having an option but making changes that are going to impact it is just not acceptable.
It appears that House Speaker Paul Ryan is looking to determine whether he can move forward with longtime plan to transform Medicare into a voucher system. Are you hearing whether that’s likely to be on the agenda and what do you think of that proposal?
That’s one of the things they’d like to put on the agenda. That’s a non-starter for me. The idea that we could put our senior citizens, most of whom are fixed incomes, into a situation where their health care is going to be dependent on a voucher system that is potentially limiting their ability to get the appropriate care in their older age is totally unacceptable. I haven’t seen the Speaker’s plan yet in detail, but I can’t imagine saying to some senior, “Here’s what you have to look forward to as far as the amount of money you can spend on your healthcare,” when you have already a system that’s functioning, that the Affordable Care Act has actually expanded for another 10 years, as far as the life expectancy of the plan. It’s about a 2-and-a-half, 3 percent administrative cost to it. So the vast amount of money is spent on healthcare for the citizens of America. You look on the other side of the equation at private health insurance for the senior population—some of these plans only pay 50 to 60 percent of their premiums in health care. The rest is in advertising and administration and all these other costs you don’t see in Medicare.
We’ve seen a push from a lot of Western states and supported by some members of Congress to transfer federal lands back the states. You represent a rural district that has a lot of federal land on it. What are you thoughts on turning over more land to the states?
I’ve been fairly vocal on that. I’ll take a couple of examples on the Tonto and the Apache-Sitgreaves national forests in my district were made national forests for the purpose of preservation of the watershed. One of the excuses is that the federal government hasn’t been able maintain those forests appropriately, and I agree with that assumption. But the fact is, if the federal government hasn’t been able to do it, some of these other states definitely can’t do it. Where are they going to be able to find the money to fight forest fires? Where are they going to be able to find the money to maintain the forest when the federal government can’t even do it? I think Gov. Jan Brewer, when she vetoed a bill coming out of the legislation back in 2009, 2010, clearly indicated that the state of Arizona can’t afford to do that, unless you’re willing to say we’re going to sell those lands off, those lands that are our watershed and our natural resources, for profit to make sure you have money to maintain them, but that’s not maintaining them, that’s doing away with those lands. So I’m totally against that process. And I’m not talking about being against land trades. We do those across the West, but those are identified as to how they should be done and they are appropriately analyzed ahead of time and that should continue. But the idea that we turn the ownership over to states that haven’t shown—Arizona has 9 million acres of state trust land right now, plus or minus. We haven’t shown any indication that we are a state to properly manage those lands. So why would we turn federal lands over to a state that has a proven record of not being able to maintain their lands?