(Note: On Wednesday, bloggers talk to Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee (7th). She was first elected in 2002 and is currently the Assistant Majority Whip.
Congresswoman Blackburn: One of the things as we’re looking at the conference race that I will start with is talking about what the conference chairmanship is. When we look at our conference structure, which is the House Republican conference, then the conference chair serves basically as your chief communications officer for the House Republican members. One of the things that conference chair does is to be responsible for helping to build that strategic vision and helping getting our party back on track, talking about things that we are for. That is a process that we as House Republicans are going to need to do. We’ve got to listen to what the American people are saying. Obviously, we have not listened over enough over the last few years. We didn’t listen enough on spending; we didn’t listen enough on the size of government. We had some members that broke that law or acted unethically, and we didn’t take enough action against them and we didn’t do it quickly enough. The first thing we have to do to get back to the majority is to listen and reflect and hear what they’re saying and reflect that in our platform. That’s what the Contract of America was. It reflected the vision that Americans had for this country. That’s also one of the reasons I think why Ronald Reagan was so loved and so successful, because he tapped directly into the hopes and dreams of the American people and what they wanted for their families, and for their children, and for themselves.
I honestly believe that our party still wants smaller government and a less intrusive and evasive government. They want more transparency in that government; they want to reduce taxes and encourage entrepreneurship and encourage the American people to be risk takers in bold as they realize what they want out of their lives. I think that those things that Reagan talked about still resonate. I don’t believe that the people want Hillary healthcare; I think they want choice; they want flexibility; they want access. I do believe that the American people want a strong defense, and they want us to win in Iraq. The Left thinks that they don’t care, but I don’t think that that is true. So, that’s pretty much the big picture. We’ve got to get back to where the people are and translate that into a platform and a vision, and then we have to go out and effectively communicate it. That’s something we haven’t done lately.
I’m uniquely qualified for this job because of my background and experience in sales and marketing. When I was in college, I started selling books door-to-door for the Southwestern Publishing Company in Nashville, and that’s how I paid my way through college, selling books door-to-door. When I finished college, I started working for the Southwestern Company and helped start their first women’s division. Then I went to work with the [not audible] company running their retail promotions division for 13 stores, 3 states. It was part of Mercantile Store national chain. I went from that to my own marketing consulting business. During this time, I helped start Williamson County Young Republicans, growing that party in Williamson County, serving on the election commission, chairing that County party, and growing its membership all the time, participating as a volunteer in my community. I made my first run for Congress in ’92 and lost that race. I came back and ran for the state Senate in ’98. When I was in the state Senate, I led the pushes in my state. I led the fight against the state income tax; I led an effort to block the expansion of Hillary care in our state; I led the push to keep the illegal immigrants from getting valid Tennessee driver’s licenses. I brought all of that experience with me to Congress. One of the first things that I did here was to put my focus on restoring the ability of Tennessee to deduct the federal income tax filing to each year and want to bring all of that experience into the conference chair race.
Question: I’m intrigued that twice you mentioned Hillary healthcare. Is there a message in there or are you hoping that Hillary is the nominee that Republicans can run against her?
Congresswoman Blackburn: Well, I’ll tell you, the more chances she talks, the more chances we have to point out what Hillary’s healthcare plan, what they are. Tennessee was the pilot program for Hillary’s healthcare plan, and one of the things that we have seen is that when you try to be all things to all people and you try to have free healthcare for an extended population, it becomes very, very difficult for the state to afford that.
Question: If you could talk about the 2003 vote you cast in favor of the Medicare prescription drug bill. I’m wondering, do you regret making that vote today given the problems that have come out about that legislation including the astronomical costs?
Congresswoman Blackburn: You know, I talked with Newt Gingrich about this bill, and I think that there are two elements in that legislation that are many times overlooked. One is the health savings account. Nobody really pays any attention to the millions of people that have actually gotten access to health insurance. The health savings account has been very, very successful, and as we shift healthcare to individual responsibility, to a market base, to people taking control of their healthcare from that first dollar, then making that transformation is something that is a worthy goal. Having people have control of their healthcare from that first dollar. A transformation like this can break, can really be a major step in breaking down that massive, bloated, non-individual choice oriented healthcare system. So, people don’t often talk about the health savings account, and we have millions of Americans who are on there now. By 2010, there is an estimate of 20 million Americans being on it, and this will reshape our healthcare system and our healthcare delivery system. On the prescriptions reform, Newt believes, and I agree with what has been expressed there, that we had a Medicare system that did not do preventive care or disease maintenance healthcare well. We wouldn’t support the drugs to keep someone out of the hospital, but then we would pay the hospital bill. Those hospital bills are tremendously more expensive than the pharmaceuticals or the therapy for the protocol. The reform is meant to slow the slowing growth curve over a period of time.
Question: You’re the only woman in the race for this spot and I believe the only woman on the leadership ticket. What do you think that says about the Republican Party and do you think that plays to your benefit?
Congresswoman Blackburn: Well, Kay Granger from Texas is running for conference vice chair so that you all are aware of that. I am running and I am the only woman that is running for conference chair. You know, at my age being 54 years old having grown up in the deep South – when you grow up and your 5’3”, blond hair, blue eyes, and you’ve grown up in the deep South in the sixties – people don’t always expect a lot and you understand that as you move into the business world that you’re operating in a man’s world, if you will. I’ve always considered that to be standard operating procedure. What I look at is that I’m the most well qualified person for this job; I will be the most effective person at this job. Having spent time in TV, having worked with a magazine editorial staff, having worked in sales, worked in marketing, having spent a lot of time in grassroots politics, having served in the minority in the state Senate and led statewide initiatives – those are things that build a resume. You know, working with talk radio, working with the income tax battles, you learn a lot through that and those are all great experiences to bring to this to help us find a way to retake this majority November 4, 2008. We have to go back and build that vision that I talked about initially, redefine ourselves with the American people to retake the majority November 4, 2008.
Question: What do you think the GOP should be doing about earmarks at this point?
Congresswoman Blackburn: Well you know, I don’t think anybody is real excited about earmarks. They have a bad reputation right now, don’t they? I think what we have to say is that we’re not against all earmarks per se. What we’ve got to be for is transparency in this process, a full transparency in this process, and a debate to determine if they are pork or if they are a worthy process. It’s got to have a member’s name attached to it. People have got to know who are putting those requests in because the current earmark policy has led to a lot of problems in this system. We have to be certain that these things are not pork, that they are not there to enrich a member of Congress or a close affiliate of theirs, that there is complete and full transparency in that process. [not audible] It absolutely enrages people when they work hard to earn their money, and they meet their obligations, they pay their taxes, and then they read about some of these projects, these absolutely ridiculous and egregious projects that are soaking up taxpayer dollars. This is a practice that has to stop.
Question: I noticed you signed the border fence bill; what’s the next step? I think the most Americans think it’s a great step forward, but there is much more to be done. I’d like to hear your thoughts on that direction.
Congresswoman Blackburn: From the very beginning after meeting with leaders in my district, I said what we need is a three-step process, and I have been on this now for I guess a year and a half, nearly two years. We need to first secure the border and be certain we secure that border. I’m pleased that we moved forward with the fence bill. After we have secured that border with walls, with fences, going in and doing electronic surveillance, making sure that border is secure; the next thing we need to do is make sure handle our law enforcement and worker verification situation. Be certain that our law enforcement personnel has the tools that they need; be certain that things like the 287G program is available to our sheriffs and to our local law enforcement, that they’ve got the tools they need. Then, address that jobs magnet and be certain that employers are going through the worker verification program and through that process. And the third thing that we need to do is look at the Visa issue.
Question:There’s a growing concern, however, that the more enforcement proposal that you’re espousing that I agree with, has been a bit of political loser and arguably had some influence on the election. Do you agree with that assessment and what do we do about it?
Congresswoman Blackburn: You know, I really don’t agree that it was a political loser. I think that the Senate was so slow to move forward that that caused a good bit of hesitation and questioning. After we did our [not audible] on the road hearing in August, people really agreed with that. It didn’t matter if it was a moderate district or a conservative district; all people were saying were secure that border first; that is the very first thing that you need to do. One of the things that happens there is that we hear from people that is it not only the individuals that are coming from the illegal entrance, that it is the human trafficking, the drugs, it is other things that are of tremendous concern to them. It is an issue of not only of border security but of national security. People want to see that border secured first. That is a tangible benchmark that they can look at and they want to see that done first, and they want to look at the whole process so that individuals that are trying to legally enter this country and are going through the process aren’t waiting around for ten years, but they want that border secured first.
Question: What books have you read on Islamic terrorism for the threat that is posed by radical Islam?
Congresswoman Blackburn: You know, I have one right now on my desk; I think the name of the book is Jihad. I apologize, I don’t know the exact name of the book. I’ve been to Iraq and I’ve done more reading in periodicals and briefing papers than I have in published books.
Question: In general, have you gotten up to speed?
Congresswoman Blackburn: You know, going into Iraq and going into Afghanistan and having a large Kurdish population that is in my community, I get a good bit of direct information from the people that have lived there. Talking with the troops that are just back from Fort Campbell, and as I’m over with them reading and keeping up to date with that information, the men and women in the military – emailing back and forth with them – I have found that to be tremendously helpful. It has almost been like real time information if you will, because they can tell you what is going on and what is transpiring. Having the population of Kurdish citizens that I do and Kurdish individuals who are naturalized citizens, they have been tremendously helpful in interpreting some of the religious differences and how the Iraqi society, the civil society, has worked and where the problems. In my district we have also had some groups that have done some schools over there and that have done some humanitarian relief and outreach.
Question: Congressman Jack Kingston, who is an opponent of yours in this race, is really skilled in terms of communicating with bloggers and using tools like YouTube to deliver his message and has vowed to make that a priority if he gets the job. Can you talk a little bit about your views of on communicating with the new media?
Congresswoman Blackburn:Absolutely. That is all a part of a total package of communicating. There is not one item that is the silver bullet. One of the things we need to put our focus is on is looking at voters and how they build their individual networks of where they access their information. As we talk with members of different districts, we need to look at the demographics of that area and look at how their constituents receive that information and then help those members build the deployment systems, if you will, for getting their information out in their districts and to their constituents, the internet, the blog. When I was in the state Senate, I did a lot of email newsletters; I called them Blackburn Reports. Our friends Tennesseetaxrevolt.com came about during that era also – Bill Hobbs – Billhobbs.com. You know, they were great. The bloggers really did a fantastic job helping us with the state income tax in Tennessee. We used the internet and the email with me keeping them updated every single day with what was going on and what was happening, kind of an insider info and found the email system a very effective way to communicate that to them.
Question: It appears that Trent Lott has won the number two spot in the Senate just a few minutes ago. Many of folks, myself included, view him as kind of a vanguard of the old guard and we have a similar old vs. new vibe in the House leadership races. How do you feel about the position that some of us feel that we need a clean slate, a completely new set of leadership?
Congresswoman Blackburn: What we need is people who are committed to bringing energy, focus, and direction into these jobs. Sometimes it requires a new set of eyes looking at things; sometimes it takes a new approach. We have to go back to looking at our principles and our policies and not putting the focus on power. Time and again, I think the American people over the past couple of years have thought that the focus was on power for us, and it was not on principles and it was not policy that was going to serve our strategic vision or a bigger version. You know and another thing I’ll say to that too is when it comes to people looking at it as the power, many times I’ve asked those lost in this race, and I was out around the country in different districts during the campaigning, I would hear people saying, “You know, I thought when you all had control of the House, the White House, and the Senate, you were going to get in there and you were going to take some bold steps on tax reform; you were going to take some bold steps in eliminating some of these agencies that have outlived their usefulness, and I am so disappointed.” What we did there was over promise and under deliver. It is going to require leaders that are energetic and are focused so that as we move into the end of the minority and we reaffirm our commitment to our principles and to a strategic vision that all of our Republicans can come under – As I said, more like a Reagan vision or a Contract with America vision – that we have to be certain that there the energy there every day, remind the people who we are, what we are for and to hold Democrats accountable for every vote that they make.
Question: One thing that Congressman Rangel mentioned and I’ve noticed that no Republicans mentioned it, and that was the alternative minimum tax, which is one of those hidden taxes that is slowly creeping into and affecting many middle income people. How come it was only the Democrats recently who have been mentioning that because normally it is the GOP that is the low tax party?
Congresswoman Blackburn: Yeah and Phil English, on the Ways and Means Committee, has been working on this issue for about three years. I had signed on co-sponsoring legislation that would rollback and eliminate the AMT, which is just such an unfair tax. We have extended that but at the same time, you know, you’re looking at the fact that it hits more people every year; it’s we’re in a cycle of “x” amount of growth and salaries are increasing. My hope is that the Democrats will carry that energy they’re using saying we need to get rid of or rollback the AMT and be certain that it hits fewer and fewer people every year. They will extend that energy to being certain that we have aggressive IRS reform, that we extend our taxes that are languishing in the Senate right now. I don’t know if they’ve got the energy to do that. We have to be sure that they are out there, that they are extending marriage penalty relief, that they are extending self-tax deductibility, that they are our small business deductions, that they are extending the RND credit. I hope that they don’t just hang onto one tax and hang with it; there’s a lot of them that we could get rid of.
Question: One thing I’m kind of enjoying watching is Nancy Pelosi working so hard to get John Murtha as majority leader. Although I think in the big picture it would be quite devastating for our country as a whole knowing what he stands for and how insulting he has been to our troops, especially you coming from an area that you’re for Campbell. How do you feel about Murtha as the House majority leader? Obviously, I’m sure you don’t like, but if it turns out that he does succeed and Nancy Pelosi gets what she wants, how can the Republicans use that to their advantage?
Congresswoman Blackburn: I think if that were to happen it would tell America exactly where they are, that they’re going to move left. It would show America where she is going to be and what she is going to favor, where she’s going to move as the speaker of the House. It would send a very clear message. We’ll see what happens tomorrow with their leadership elections.
Question: Is there a gender gap problem and, if so, how is it solved for conservatives and Republicans?
Congresswoman Blackburn: You know, when you go back and look at the Senate races, we had anywhere from a 4 to a 20% gender gap. Speaking as a mom with two grown children who is a professional female, has worked small businesses owner – I always said I was a wife, a mother, a small business owner, I was a community volunteer – It is the job of our party to show that first of all we are going to listen, that we are going to hear the concerns of moms and of women. We are concerned about the burden of taxes, that we’re concerned about the cost of healthcare; we’re concerned about the cost of childcare, that we are focused on having access to capital available for entrepreneurial women. Female owned small businesses is the fastest growing sector of this growth economy and that should not be lost on us. We also have to realize that women are very concerned about security; it is a top agenda item for them whether it’s national security, economic security, border security, moral security or retirement security.
We have to realize that, and I think that our party will do well to have women more visible as spokespeople to carry that message of what we as Republicans stand for and that these issues are very important to us. We know that women want to be certain they have control over their lives; they want to be certain their communities are safe; they want to be certain that their children’s schools are safe; they want to be certain that as they work hard and they build a business, that they have a retirement security, that the government is not going to take all their money and leave them without a nest egg to retire on. Those are issues that we must communicate with good, solid female messengers to the American female. That is how we will build our majority back.