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Tractor-seat common sense: Representative Charles W. Stenholm on the rise of the centrist Democrats.

For the first time since the early 1980s, a large number of Democrats in the House of Representatives are identifying themselves as moderates and conservatives. These Democrats frequently side with the Republicans on military and defense issues, a balanced-budget amendment, and social issues such as child care and abortion; they have opposed their party leadership's plans for a nationalized health insurance system. They generally favor higher taxes and higher federal spending than do Republicans- -but not as high as the Democratic congressional leadership.

The leader of these Democrats is Representative Charles W. Stenholm, now in his seventh term representing the 17th District of Texas. Stenholm heads the Conservative Democratic Forum, which now includes 59 members, and is likely to be an even more influential swing force in the next Congress, particularly if Republicans pick up seats in the House.

In August 1991 Representative Stenholm talked with Policy Review editor Adam Meyerson about how he and his CDF colleagues think about government.

Policy Review: You're head of the Conservative Democratic Forum, a group of 59 moderate to conservative Democrats in the House of Representatives. What are the most important ways you and your colleagues in the CDF differ from the liberal majority among House Democrats? What are the most important ways you differ from House Republicans?

Stenholm: Our liberal colleagues believe much more than we do that the government can solve problems. Conservative Democrats believe that government has a role to play, but the federal role should be minimal. Liberals believe it should be maximal.

Our difference with the Republicans is that they are dominated by an ultra-conservative minority that believes there is no role for government. Even though we believe in minimal government, we believe government has a role to play and that it should be effective in that role.

I try to apply the"West Texas Tractor-Seat Common Sense Rule" to public policy: "How much sense would this idea make to guys gathered down at the Sweetwater coffee shop?" Many of my CDF colleagues take the same practical approach. We recognize that the government has responsibilities to the American people, but at some point one of those responsibilities is to get out of the way and let them live their own lives.

P.R.: Conservative Democrats in the Congress gave Ronald Reagan his margin of victory on the key tax and spending cuts and defense buildup votes of the early 1980s, but seem to have played a less independent role after the 1982 elections. Are we now seeing a resurgence of an independent conservative Democratic bloc, and if so, why?

Stenholm: The CDF has more members today than in 1981. More important, we have more task forces and more individual members willing to take the time and the effort to be a player in some of the issues.

Most of our members are running for reelection, and my prediction is that very few conservative and moderate-conservative Democratic incumbents are going to be defeated. Many of the new Democrats who will be coming to the next Congress will be conservative. I also think we'll pick up some incumbents who haven't joined us yet. So I don't think there's any question that our membership will be larger next year, and that conservative Democrats will play a more important role in the next House of Representatives.

P.R.: How do you respond to speculation that Republicans and conservative Democrats might hook up to support you for Speaker of the House in the next Congress?

Stenholm: I do not believe that it is practical to expect that outcome of this year's elections.

The talk about my running has always come from other folks, not me. Earlier in the year I said I wasn't running for the Speakership, but that I wouldn't run away from it if my colleagues asked me to provide an alternative. It has become evident to me in recent weeks that the Speaker has done a good job of shoring up support within our party, and I'm not looking for a quixotic quest. That doesn't mean I plan to stop pressing the Speaker for changes that I believe will improve the operations of the House internally, or raise the esteem in which we're held by the public.

P.R.: Why are we seeing so much voter disaffection from Congress this year as opposed to earlier years? And how can Democrats, who have been running the House for the past 37 years and the Senate for the past five years, best appeal to voters clamoring for change? Isn't the congressional leadership part of the problem?

Stenholm: Dissatisfaction with the Congress has been gradually building over the last several years. Part of it is the direct result of the activities of some members of the other party who have sought to destroy public confidence in the institution of Congress in order that their party might become the majority party. And I think they've been relatively successful in damaging the institution's image.

That notwithstanding, some of the Republican complaints about Congress are entirely justified. In fact, conservative Democrats have some of the same complaints. The difference is that conservative Democrats think we will be more effective not by going public, but by pushing for reforms within the institution. I would submit that this approach gets a better result in the long term.

P.R.: What do you think voters are the most upset about with the Congress?

Stenholm: Let me tell you about the voters I know best, the people of the 17th District of Texas. They're frightened. We have seen a tremendous decline in rural America, which is my district. We have seen lost jobs. We have seen bankruptcies. We've seen lost businesses. We've seen a decline in population. The people believe it's time for a change. They may not think Washington caused these problems, but they feel Washington hasn't done much to stop them.

The people in my district are frightened of fiscal deficits. They have witnessed what happens when they and their neighbors borrow more than their cash flow will pay back, and the bankruptcy that it implies, and they're frightened that the federal government is heading in that direction. My constituents would like to see us do something about balancing the budget. They're willing to do their part; they'd just like to see us do ours. They perceive inaction.

They're tired, too, of divided government. They're tired of the president blaming everything that's wrong with the economy on Congress and others, and not accepting any blame himself. They're tired of Congress blaming everything on the president, and not accepting any responsibility or blame. They'd like to see somebody bold, like Harry Truman saying, "The buck stops here."

P.R.: What institutional reforms of Congress do you think should be highest on the agenda of the next Congress?

Stenholm: First, we need to eliminate unnecessary committees and streamline the rest. We should limit the terms of committee chairmen. A few committee chairmen have amassed too much power as a result of chairing an important committee for a long time, and have used this power to perpetuate the status quo and stifle new and creative ideas.

I also think we should subject Congress to a lot more of the laws that we pass. It could change some opinions here about the infinite and superior wisdom of Congress if members of Congress had to deal with the mandates we impose on everyone else.

Next, we need to make the process more open. We should have fewer restrictions in rules so that all serious amendments can be debated fully.

I continue to believe that we need a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. A constitutional amendment will not balance the budget by itself, but it is a necessary tool to force Congress and the president to make the tough choices to reduce the deficit. Too often, we duck the tough choices by taking the easy way out and borrowing money.

We need to increase the openness and accountability of the budget process in other ways. We should enact reforms like truth-in-legislating, which would require the disclosure, in plain English, of who would benefit from narrowly drawn provisions in tax and spending bills, and enhanced rescission, which would require that Congress vote up-or-down on individual spending programs that the president proposes to eliminate.

P.R.: You've endorsed Governor Clinton. Do you think he's changed the ideological direction of the national Democratic Party?

Stenholm: There's no question about it. The convention was a tremendous success. His campaigning after the convention has shown a determined effort to regain what we Democrats once had: the support of middle America. I'm very pleased at the perception that the party has changed, and we intend to do everything in our power to see that the perception persists and becomes a reality.

P.R.: Which previous Democratic candidates do you think Clinton most resembles and most differs from?

Stenholm: He's most like John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman. I am hopeful he's going to be a "hands-on" president who will say, as Truman did, "The buck stops here." If he is elected president, he will have a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House. That means the Democratic Party is going to be held accountable. Kennedy and Truman were willing to make decisions, sometimes very unpopular decisions, like the face-down in the Cuban missile crisis and dropping the atom bomb. It's time for that kind of leadership, and I think Clinton has the potential to provide it.

Clinton definitely differs from Dukakis and McGovern. I remember when I first got involved in the Democratic Party, I was an alternate delegate for "Anybody But McGovern." McGovern's ideas about an all-powerful government, his views that government should do everything for everybody, were so far from what I believed that I resolved at that time to do my best to return the Democratic Party to what it was like before McGovern. And it's interesting-- today McGovern agrees with a lot of what my constituents have always thought about the role of government in the lives of Americans! Even though Bill Clinton did work for McGovern at the time, I think he's learned from his mistakes in the same way his old boss did.

P.R.: Which candidate do you think follows more in the Reagan tradition: Clinton or Bush?

Stenholm: Neither.

P.R.: Should Governor Clinton be elected, what would you most like to see him do in his first 100 days?

Stenholm: I'd like to see him, with the Congress, develop a new economic game plan for growth and investment that will simultaneously deal with our fiscal deficit and make the hard choices for budget priorities. The only time you can have that window of opportunity is in that first hundred days of an administration. Then, when the budget is balanced and back on track, the government should get out of the way of the people and let the people make decisions.

P.R.: You were chief sponsor of a balanced-budget amendment that almost passed the House this year--one that, unlike some Republican alternatives, contained no limits on tax increases. Why is it so important for the federal government to balance its budget?

Stenholm: Government has to balance its budget for the same reason families and everyone else have to balance theirs. Sooner or later, if you borrow too much, the bills catch up with you, and you go bankrupt.

The most effective argument we made for the balanced-budget amendment was the need to protect future generations from our borrowing today. I don't know of anyone who would say that they want more today even though it means their grandchildren will have less tomorrow. But that's what our deficit means.

We also have to recognize that it's going to be harder to attract capital in a world that has changed dramatically. When Europe '92 becomes a reality, it will be a very powerful economic bloc, the largest single trading bloc the world has ever known. We already recognize the economic resurgence of Japan. Now, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, tremendous economic changes are going to happen there. The demands for capital are going to be enormous, and it will be harder to support our deficit-spending habits for consumption in a world that's going to be demanding capital investments for infrastructure and growth.

I'd like to correct a comment you made about my balanced-budget amendment not having a limitation on tax increases. Although it is true that my amendment did not include a three-fifths majority vote to raise taxes, as the Republican alternative did, it did include serious tax limitation. My amendment required that the majority of the whole House and Senate- -not just those present and voting--vote in a recorded vote to raise taxes.

In today's political climate, I know of no harder vote that any Congressman must cast than an on-the-record vote to raise taxes. My amendment, including the tax limitation section, was a consensus position supported by conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, and came within nine votes of being passed by the House. The fact is, the alternative requiring a three-fifths vote to raise taxes didn't have a chance of getting the two-thirds support needed for a constitutional amendment.

P.R.: Why are you willing to accept some tax increases as part of a deficit-reduction package?

Stenholm: I've always said I would accept $2 in spending reductions for every $1 in real tax increases applied to the deficit. Interestingly, we have been able to do better than that: the House Budget Committee has put together a budget-enforcement package that includes $4 in spending reductions for every $1 in tax increases.

In practical terms, the reason I'm willing to accept tax increases is that it's the only way we're going to get 218 votes in the House to reduce the deficit. I also think we need the threat of tax increases if we're unable to compromise and balance the budget by spending cuts alone. If you always allow people to say, "I oppose higher taxes. I am for spending reductions," but you can never get more than 50 people to vote with you on specific spending cuts, then the budget will stay unbalanced. So I accept higher taxes applied to the deficit. I absolutely oppose increased taxes for additional spending.

P.R.: You've said you regret having voted for tax cuts in 1981.

Stenholm: I wish there had been a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget in 1980. We would never have made the mistake we made--tax reductions without the spending reductions that should have gone with them. We clearly got carried away.

Supply-side economics as it was practiced--and even the theory of supply-side economics--promised more than it could guarantee. But we gave it a chance. We could have done a much better job. In retrospect, we should have said, "Yes, we're going to cut the taxes, but you're going to get the benefits of these tax reductions only so long as you make productive investments, rather than consumptive decisions." If we had done something like that, we never would have seen an increased debt of $3 trillion over the last 10 years.

I accept my one-435th share of the blame. Americans now owe $4 trillion. I still believe in the general principles and the direction we were trying to go with the tax cuts, but we failed in implementing the policy.

P.R.: What principles should the president and Congress pursue in bringing down federal spending?

Stenholm: Cut spending straight across the board, no exceptions. Then, from a level playing field, choose a few priorities where we need to improve and spend more, nutrition for young children for example.

I was impressed tremendously with the CEOs from four of the largest U.S. corporations, who testified before the Budget Committee last year on behalf of full funding for WIC--the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program. They said, "We hire tens of thousands of people every year. We have to retrain 70 percent of them. So we started looking for a scapegoat. We looked at colleges, we looked at the high schools, we looked at the grade schools, we looked at all the education system. And we finally came to the conclusion that we've got to start with the child in the womb. We have to make sure that children in the womb, and through the formative years, get a nutritious, balanced diet so they grow in such a way that they can learn." That made a lot of sense to me. It was prioritization at its best.

P.R.: I'm not sure I understand. You want a cut across the board....

Stenholm: But at the same time increase spending on programs that work. We also have to eliminate the programs that work less well. As far as I know, Congress and the president haven't cut out a single program in recent years. And in the appropriations process we just keep funding everything.

P.R.: What are some examples of programs you want to cut out?

Stenholm: My voting record will show a number of programs that I believe the government could do without. I have supported repeal of the Davis-Bacon wage laws, which raise the cost of federally funded construction projects. I also don't think we can afford non- essential defense expenditures like the Seawolf submarine.

The National Endowment for the Arts has funded some so-called artwork that I find absolutely offensive, and that the vast majority of citizens do not wish to support with their tax dollars. That's why I offered an amendment several years ago to reduce NEA funding by the amount of those offensive grants. I still believe that the vast majority of NEA money is put to good use, but with our current deficit, I can no longer support any NEA funding. I choose to support the arts with my personal funds, but when there are still children who need vaccines or Head Start training, I can't select the NEA as a budget priority for our country.

P.R.: How much do you think defense spending can be brought down over the next five years or so?

Stenholm: I don't want to put a number on it, but we've already seen a slow, gradual decline over the last few years, and I expect this to continue, assuming no major problems like Desert Storm pop up again. There is no peace dividend, though, while we're running a $300-billion deficit.

P.R.: You're one of the few farmers in Congress, and have played a key role on the House Agriculture Committee, especially the Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry subcommittee where you are chairman. How, with a $330 billion deficit, can you justify the more than $10 billion American taxpayers spend on farm subsidies? And how can you justify the tens of billions in higher prices consumers must pay because of peanut and sugar quotas, price supports for cotton, grains, and milk, and other farm programs deliberately intended to raise prices?

Stenholm: America has the most abundant, safest, highest quality, and least expensive food supply of any country in the world. No one comes close to feeding their people better and more cheaply than we do, even when you add in the subsidies. We should never make an apology for our farm programs.

Having said that, can we make our farm programs better? Obviously we must, because even with all the programs we have, we haven't stopped the slow and steady collapse of family farming in this country. We have chosen to become world-market oriented, and our subsidies have cushioned the impact of this decision on family farmers. If we had eliminated these subsidies, there would have been an economic disaster of major proportion in rural America. We constantly have to look at better ways to protect family farms.

P.R.: Do you think the farmers of America would accept a major reduction in farm subsidies if it were a part of a serious overall deficit-reduction package?

Stenholm: They already have. In the budget-enforcement act of 1990, farmers took a 15-percent cut in the entitlement nature of their farm programs. The 1985 farm bill froze target prices based on the previous five years. The 1990 farm bill froze them again, so the farmers have accepted frozen prices with no cost-of-living adjustment for 10 years. And yet our critics say it's not enough. I defy any senior citizen on Social Security to come forward and say, "We would have been willing to freeze Social Security for 10 years at 1985 levels."

P.R.: What are the most important reforms you'd like to see in Medicare and other entitlement programs?

Stenholm: First, we need overall health-care reform. We no longer have the luxury of believing that we can reform only Medicare, because every time we reform Medicare/Medicaid by squeezing down on federal expenditures, the cost resurfaces in increased insurance costs for everybody else. So the key to Medicare reform is an overall health-care reform package. It's got to be comprehensive. It must be market-oriented; it cannot be government-dictated.

P.R.: In fact, you've been a leader in the House in opposing your party's two leading proposals for health care reform--both a Canadian-style national insurance system and the "pay or play" proposal, which would require employers either to offer insurance or pay a higher payroll tax. Why have you opposed these proposals?

Stenholm: Because government-run health care won't work. Government has to be a referee, and play the proper role. You only have to look at the example of the Soviet Union if you think the federal government can make health-care decisions. Managed competition, I think, has the best opportunity of providing the kind of health care reform that we're going to need. We've seen that this policy works in the private sector. It will be relatively easy to superimpose that on the federal sector.

P.R.: Is the federal government currently involved in any programs that really ought to be state and local responsibilities?

Stenholm: The federal government is far too involved in too many areas. That's one common complaint I hear from farmers, small business owners, school administrators, school teachers, school boards, hospital boards, and local governments. They say: remove federal mandates on us, and stop insisting that we spend money on programs of very limited value. Where there are federal funds involved, let the government have oversight, but let us have the greater freedom in deciding how to run our local business, and fewer federal mandates.

P.R.: You played a key role in the child-care legislation of 1990, both in making sure there was no discrimination against religious day care centers, and in emphasizing vouchers and tax credits for parents rather than direct subsidies to day-care centers. Why did you think this issue was so important, and why did you take the stands you did?

Stenholm: I believe that the family should be able to make the major decisions about child care, not the federal government. The parents are better able to make the proper choices; it is inappropriate for the federal government to superimpose its will in this area.

P.R.: Does the same logic apply to other subjects, such as education?

Stenholm: Flexibility is important in education, health-care reform, and agricultural policy. I offered an alternative to the federally mandated family leave bill that said instead of placing an inflexible requirement on businesses that may not be in the best interest of the employer or employee, let's give both sides the flexibility to find an option that is best for both. We should move away from the mandated, one-size-fits-all approach that says the federal government knows best, and provide flexibility for different approaches.

P.R.: So you would support school vouchers?

Stenholm: I haven't quite come to that position, because the community-based school system has served us well. My district is rural, and we have the same problem with education funding that we do with health care: how do you provide access to these services in rural communities? How do you provide maximum educational opportunity under a totally free-market system? I've had difficulties understanding how we can have "choice" in rural areas, where there sometimes isn't even a first option, much less a second.

I looked at choice in child care a little differently, because there wasn't a long history of public support for and a pre- existing system of public institutions providing child care. This was the first time we were developing a comprehensive federal policy on child care. Since we had the opportunity of starting from scratch, I felt choice was more achievable and practical in child care.

P.R.: You've often said you're in favor of civil rights and opposed to racial quotas. At what point do civil-rights laws intended to remedy past discrimination become discriminatory themselves?

Stenholm: We may already be in that situation. One reason the arguments over the Civil Rights Act last year were so heated is that our country has already moved in the direction of reverse discrimination, and it's difficult to move away.

I do not believe that, in the area of civil rights, government can guarantee success. What it should do is try to guarantee opportunity. There are those who push too hard in the belief that government can guarantee outcomes and success. It can't be done.

P.R.: You take great pride in your West Texas Swedish heritage. What are some of the most important values you learned from this heritage?

Stenholm: I grew up in a strong community whose center was, and is, the Bethel Lutheran church. We were taught a very firm, fundamental belief in God, and in the impact of Jesus Christ in everyday life. We were taught a strong work ethic, and to help your neighbors when they needed help. And we still instill these beliefs in our children and grandchildren.

P.R.: Why did so many immigrants come to America from Sweden in the last century? Are immigrants now coming from Mexico, East Asia, and other parts of the world coming for similar reasons?

Stenholm: They were starving to death in Sweden, and there was an opportunity to build a better life in America. The immigrants today are coming basically for the same reasons. There are probably a couple billion people who want to come to America for the same reasons.

But we no longer have the luxury of unlimited immigration in this country. I would not want to see it stopped or turned off, but it's impractical to believe that we can have an absolute open door, and that anybody who wants to come here any time for any purpose, regardless of circumstances, has an inherent right. We can't afford that any more than we could back when my ancestors came to America.

P.R.: Who are your greatest heroes in the Democratic Party throughout its history?

Stenholm: Thomas Jefferson was a farmer, a man of tremendous insight. I've often noticed that I do my best thinking sitting on a tractor seat, and I like to think that being a farmer had something to do with Jefferson's wisdom as well. I try to pattern my philosophy of government as much on his as I can. He had a great belief in the people. I also find it fascinating that he supported a balanced-budget amendment. He said if he could have added one more amendment to the Constitution, it would have provided that the government spend no more money than it has.

Harry Truman came into the presidency at a very difficult time. He took the responsibility and was able to make the tough decisions, and yet he stayed basically a common man.
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Title Annotation:head of the Conservative Democratic Forum
Author:Meyerson, Adam
Publication:Policy Review
Article Type:Interview
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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