Himes sees potential to end Congressional gridlock in new term

U.s Rep Jim Himes sat down for an interview last week with Hersam Acorn Newspapers –Jeanette Ross photo

U.s Rep Jim Himes sat down for an interview last week with Hersam Acorn Newspapers –Jeanette Ross photo

As the finish line nears in his race for a fourth term in Congress, complacency has not set in for U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-4th).

Mr. Himes, a Cos Cob resident, is in a rematch against former state Sen. Dan Debicella, whom he beat in 2010. While there is quiet confidence within Mr. Himes’ campaign after three straight victories in what is regarded as a moderate district now after decades of Republican dominance, he stresses he’s not taking anything for granted. In fact, Mr. Himes said in an interview with Hersam Acorn Newspapers that the results of this race matter very much, despite ongoing cynicism from the public over the ability of Congress to get anything done.

“You have to ask who is really working hard on solving the problems of the district,” Mr. Himes said. “The No. 1 problem in the district is jobs and infrastructure. I put those two together because they’re very closely linked. If we don’t get our infrastructure right, companies won’t move in and won’t grow here. My opponent wildly says I haven’t done enough in that area and seems to believe that in four or five years I could have changed what was generations in the making, but [Mr. Debicella] opposed the recovery act that made tens of millions of dollars available. It completely changed the Fairfield interchange with the Merritt. There are now cranes working on the transportation infrastructure and development of Steelpointe. It made $12 million available to the Stamford Transportation Center, which is going to make the busiest station between New York and Boston better. I won’t take sole credit for this, but the whole delegation came together in the wake of the meltdown of the Walk Bridge to get $161 million in federal funds to accelerate the project by two years. That’s real progress. It doesn’t get us all the way there, but it is progress.”

Mr. Himes pledged to continue to put pressure on to get federal money for these needed projects to improve transportation infrastructure, which he feels will provide a boost to the economy by making Connecticut more welcoming to businesses. Mr. Himes said that Mr. Debicella’s opposition to the American Recovery Act, better known as “the stimulus,” would have prevented that and criticized him for calling for additional across-the-board spending cuts. He said his record over his first three terms has shown him as a moderate, independent thinker who reflects “the general attitude of the district.”

Mr. Himes said Mr. Debicella has “refashioned himself in this second campaign against me as a moderate” and accused him of now supporting ideas like increasing the minimum wage and comprehensive immigration reform despite voting against them in the state Senate.

“My constituents might not always agree with me, but they’re not going to doubt where I stand on these things,” Mr. Himes said. “That’s important, particularly in a district like this that’s moderate, thoughtful and educated.”

Mr. Himes said he does not support cuts to federal spending just for the sake of cutting but rather a more constructive approach. He pointed to what are known as the “sequester cuts,” where, as part of an agreement meant to spur a bipartisan budget deal, cuts were to be made across the board to every department. However, the deal never happened and the cuts went into effect. Mr. Himes said that has led to shared pain and a desire to not go through that again.

“We’re in a period now, I think, it’s been over the last two years, where people, even the most adamant cutters, have come to realize that cuts actually have consequences,” Mr. Himes said. “We first saw this with the sequester. We said we would do something like what my opponent has proposed with this penny plan for across-the-board cuts. That was like what we did with the sequester, and nobody liked it because suddenly the Pentagon was on the table and the hard-core cutters didn’t want to see that, and others didn’t like seeing Medicare and Social Security. That’s three-quarters of the budget right there. People see that there’s waste in the government, but when you start making really big cuts, it affects people.”

Because of this, Mr. Himes said, he believes there has been a more constructive dialogue between Republicans and Democrats over the federal budget than there has been in years. He said the much-criticized Republican-led 16-day shutdown of the government led to a political backlash that has not only made people shy about trying something similar again but moved them toward wanting to actually work together, which would be a change of pace for this Congress, which is regarded as the least productive in American history.

Republicans are expected to maintain the majority in the House of Representatives and perhaps take control of the Senate, too, putting Mr. Himes, if he is re-elected, and his fellow Democrats more in the minority than before. But because of those changing conditions, Mr. Himes said, he believes the atmosphere is right for the parties to work together.

“I would maintain that the environment is getting better and I would point to the fact that you didn’t hear the word ‘shutdown’ while discussing the last continuing resolution,” Mr. Himes said. “We did a veterans bill, too. The bar is low. I’m not celebrating this, but there are at least signs of life. I am optimistic that we could see comprehensive immigration reform. All the Democrats supported it and the bill got 78 votes in the Senate, meaning there is strong Republican support. I think that Speaker of the House John Boehner needs to move that in order for his party to be competitive in the 2016 election.”

There are also key budget votes coming up within the next two years, including another look at the sequester cuts. Mr. Himes said this would lead to “very tough discussions” which he predicted wouldn’t be fun but would be better than “suicidal” talk about shutting down the government again. He said that when the discussions take place there have to be priorities going in for both sides, like Medicare sustainability.

One thing Mr. Himes said he would like to see is the kind of tax code reform on a national level that Connecticut is now taking on through the General Assembly. A special panel is looking at this with recommendations for tax reform coming in January 2016, and it is expected to evaluate it from top to bottom. Mr. Himes said he supports a similar federal evaluation.

“The federal tax code is an unmitigated disaster,” Mr. Himes said. “It is diabolically complicated, uncompetitive and it should be reformed lock, stock and barrel with a couple of principles in mind. One is we’re not raising rates. We’re going to get rid of deductions and credits. Rates are high enough, but there’s so much gunk that allows people not to pay those rates. We should go after that. If we do that correctly, we will fix this ridiculous international arbitrage that is creating inversions like Burger King becoming a Canadian company. We will be more competitive and bring in billions of dollars of stranded cash. We should do this with regulations, too. Some of our regulations make a lot of sense, but over time some of them become less relevant.”

Much recent attention has been focused on Ebola cases in the United States after a mass outbreak in portions of Africa. There have been three cases in the United States, including one fatality, and this become an issue of national controversy despite assurances from medical officials from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) that the disease is not airborne and can be caught only under very specific circumstances. Several members of Congress, of both parties, have demanded ending all flights from Africa and sealing up the borders, but don’t expect to see Mr. Himes in that group, even as he calls for a full examination once the crisis has passed over what went wrong and what went right in safety protocols at airports and at the Dallas hospital where two nurses were infected treating a patient.

“I think that it’s not a helpful addition to the dialogue,” Mr. Himes said. “People instinctively say that the answer is to seal the borders and stop all the flights. That’s a natural, fearful reaction. It’s also, if you talk to any expert at the WHO or the CDC, it is exactly the wrong reaction. One of the things that we have to do, and that we’re participating in, is getting at this thing at its source where it’s bubbling over uncontrollably in East Africa. If you shut all communications, you can’t get people out or put people in, which again gets you to the heart of the problem. So, no, I think that is unfortunately my colleagues playing to people’s natural fears, and it’s counterproductive.”

Mr. Himes also said he didn’t feel the lack of an Ebola vaccine was the result of budget cuts to the National Institutes of Health, as some of his fellow Democrats have claimed. He noted that, until recently, there was no call for such a vaccine in the United States and called speculation that cuts had stopped development of a cure “irresponsible.” But he did stress that groups like the NIH did need adequate public funds or else there would be future health problems.

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