Keith Sits Down With Patch To Answer Readers' Questions

Monday, August 20, 2012

Via Patch:

Fifth District Patches recently asked readers to pose questions to Congressman Keith Ellison. Read the entire interview below.

Lauren asks: Do you plan to vote yes or no on the voter ID amendment? Why or why not?

Ellison: I’m going to vote “no.” And I’m going to vote no because there are a lot of Minnesotans who are fully eligible to vote yet who may not posses a driver’s license or a Minnesota state ID. Because of that, I think that anything that restricts the right to vote is bad and we shouldn’t have it. Also, the justification that proponents are offering is that it would prevent fraud. It certainly would not prevent fraud, and there is no fraud. So really, this is just a strategy to suppress the vote, and I object to that.

Donna Moss asks: Congress recently voted to keep the interest rates of federal subsidized Stafford loans frozen at 3.4 percent for the next year, at which point rates will return to their original 6.8 percent unless further action is taken. Congressman Ellison, you've frequently emphasized the importance of making higher education more affordable. What is your next step?

Ellison: My next step is to fight to keep college education affordable. I’m (a co-author) of a bill to make these student loan rates permanently low, and also to even start a process of loan forgiveness for students if they meet certain qualifications. So I think we have to keep the doors to universities open, and not just the four-year institutions—I mean the two-year ones, too. I will forever be working to reduce the cost of college education.

Seth Engman asks: Is it ever appropriate to characterize your opponent or those who disagree with you as "anti-American?"

Ellison: I think we need to focus on the issues and avoid name-calling. Certainly, I’ve been the target of these kind of allegations. I don’t think it’s appropriate at any time to call your opponent “militantly anti-American.” Particularly if all they’re doing is trying to promote jobs and keep America out of wars. I think our political climate has too much overblown rhetoric. If you check my record, I’ve never been one to engage in negative campaigning and don’t intend to now—even if provoked.

Robert Hemphill asks: What specific choices would you make (i.e. who would you raise taxes on, what programs would you cut) in order to balance the budget?

Ellison: That’s a good question. I would start by removing the subsidies that are now enjoyed by the fossil fuel industry. There is $110 billion worth of subsidies and loopholes that the coal, natural gas and oil companies get right now. For example, BP was allowed to write-off the clean-up of the Gulf. This is an outrage and it shouldn’t exist. I would also allow the Bush tax cuts to expire, for people who make over $250,000 … I’d also seek out to close corporate loopholes that allow for off-shoring of American jobs. There are a number of those that need to be cut, not the least of which are foreign tax havens, which basically incentivize the exportation of American jobs.

Christian U asks: Can you tell us how you plan to vote and why you are voting that way on the issue of the Minnesota marriage amendment?

Ellison: I plan on voting against the amendment. I think it’s better to call it the “anti-marriage amendment.” Look, I don’t really care what peoples’ attitudes are about homosexuality. I don’t think they’re even relevant in this issue. I think what’s relevant is, are you willing to allow Americans and Minnesotans to make their own decisions about who they want to be with? You don’t have to like it—just let people live their own lives.

Kevin Parks asks: It has been reported that after the Colorado shooting, you may propose that a limit be put on ammunition purchased over the Internet, as well as that protective (i.e. Kevlar) style clothing should only be in possession of law enforcement or military. My question is, why do you believe defensive style body armor should not be held by anyone other than those parties, and why now and not months ago?

Ellison: I don’t believe I proposed there’d be a ban or limit on the (purchase) of ammunition. What I said was, anybody who purchases 6,000 rounds of ammunition ought to come to the attention of law enforcement and ought to get a visit ... Because I can think of no reason that someone would need 6,000 rounds of ammunition, unless they were arming up to do something horrible. So I didn’t propose a ban, but I did say that there needs to be some sort of particular system that when a certain amount of ammunition is purchased within a certain amount of time, that law enforcement should know. As it relates to defensive body armor, what it allows you to do is to shoot at people but protect yourself from being shot back at. I think that there needs to be restrictions on its use, and there should be enhanced penalties if used in connection to a felony offense ... I think it’s fine for Americans to own a shotgun or a rifle or even a handgun to defend their home, to go hunting. But what we’re talking about is military style stuff. And unless you plan on waging a military action against some fellow Americans, there’s no reason for you to have this kind of stuff. The only people who should be authorized to use this kind of force are people who are legally entitled to do so, which are military and police officials.

Mitch Mueller asks: The last several years have witnessed a gradual erosion of religious freedom. What will you do to protect our First Amendment right to religion and religious expression?

Ellison: I haven’t seen this erosion of religious freedom. I’d like to know what he might have in mind. There has been a rise in religious intolerance for some religious groups. But I don’t see the government curtailment of religious freedom. But I would say that I am four-square with the first clause of the First Amendment, which states, “Congress shall make no law establishing a religion, and shall not abridge the free exercise thereof.” I believe in that. The Constitution also says there shall be no religious tests for serving in office. I will be fighting for these things. And more than just protecting constitutional rights—I don’t think the problem is at the constitutional level. I think it’s at the tolerance level. I have been, and will continue to be, a part of interfaith dialogues to try to get people to respect each other just a little bit more and understand their commonality. I don’t think that’s necessarily the role of government, but as a member of Congress, you do have a bully pulpit—a profile. I think that I should be speaking against religious intolerance. I think I should be speaking for interfaith dialogue and greater respect among people.

Spirit Medicine asks: There are some who are concerned with the continual growth in the powers claimed by the executive branch of the United States—expansions of authority not isolated to the current administration. What, if anything, are some things that the executive branch under the U.S. Constitution should never be allowed to do?

Ellison: I think that the Bill of Rights lays out several. The executive shouldn’t be able to quarter troops in peoples’ homes. The executive should never be able to arrest you without a warrant or due process or some probable cause. The government should never be able to punish people in a cruel or unusual way, (or) deprive people of a fair trial. I do think that with the growth of drone warfare, it is very important that we remind ourselves of these basic constitutional principles. We shouldn’t be executing people, particularly Americans, without some form of due process when they can be safely arrested.

Dave W asks: Why did you vote "nay" on HR 459, the "Audit the Fed" bill?

Ellison: I voted “no” because under the Dodd-Frank bill, which was passed already, there are already provisions for auditing the Fed. This particular bill would have allowed Congress to put political pressure on the Open Market Committee, which sets interest rates. I think it would be bad for our economy, bad for our country if politicians were able to manipulate interest rates for political purposes. For example, it may be in the best interest of the economy that interest rates go up, but if Congress can pressure the Open Market Committee to keep them low during an election season, that would be bad. It would suit the needs of politicians but not the economy. I think open market transactions need to be sort of walled-off from the political cycle.

Karen M asks: Is it truly the job of the federal government to "create jobs" across the country? If no, then what decisions can Congress make that would allow job growth in the private sector?

Ellison: Congress already employs about 4.4 million people. People who work in the federal government at various points. People who make sure our water is clean ... People in the military. So yeah, Congress creates jobs and appropriates money (for them). It’s simply not true that Congress has no role in job creation. For example, just making sure the roads and transportation systems are working employs people directly, but it also facilitates private sector job growth. Because if you want to get your goods or services to market, you need to get them there on something. Our police force makes it feel like small business owners can open up a business without getting robbed. And that’s the government ... I think there’s an important relationship between the public and private sectors to make sure Americans are working.

Abigail Smith asks: What are your thoughts on the approaching "fiscal cliff" in January, when current temporary tax cuts are set to expire? Would you support a bill that would allow tax breaks for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans (those making $250,000 a year or more) to expire while preserving tax cuts for the middle class?

Ellison: I would support a bill that would allow the top 2 percent to have their tax breaks expire and preserve them for everyone else. What’s coming up soon after the election is we’re going to see the sequestration cuts looming and perhaps going into effect. We’re going to see the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts. We’re going to see the expiration of the payroll tax deduction. And we’re going to have a vote on the debt ceiling … So everyone is talking about a “grand bargain.” What I say is, whatever bargain we have needs to incorporate four things, and I will not support any bill that doesn’t include these four things: Protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—that’s one. Two, (it) has a balanced approach of revenue with cuts. I’m not supporting something that only cuts. Both of them need to be (included). Three, the military has to take some hits. There are savings to be had in the military. And military personnel will tell you that. I’m not talking about endangering the troops or anything. I’m talking about things like sole-source procurement … Defense (spending) has doubled since 2001. Is all that necessary? Let’s really look at what we’re doing. And the last one, (there need to be) jobs (created). You can’t just cut your way out of a deficit. You need growth in the economy.

Grant Vlasak asks: Please tell us; what were your reasons for voting "no" on the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA?

Ellison: I was concerned (about) some of the provisions in the bill that would allow for indefinite detention of American citizens. And I believe in due process and fair trials.

Lemmen Kainen asks: It is obvious to almost everyone that the faltering economy is hurting Minnesota families. Predatory lending and criminal foreclosures by banks have forced people from their homes, and often the current bankruptcy laws prevent people from moving forward. Do you have any plans to remove the restrictions implemented by the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2005 and also to allow student loans to once again be dischargeable in a bankruptcy?

Ellison: Yes, I do. In fact, I’m working with a friend of mine from Tennessee, Rep. Steve Cohen, to make student debt dischargeable in bankruptcy, as it should be. In regard to foreclosures, the questioner I think has the dates wrong. It was the 1977 bankruptcy reform act that precluded judges from rescheduling mortgage debt on a primary residence. And I’ve been a part of the effort to change that ever since I stepped into Washington ... We’re going to keep on fighting, because foreclosures are killing us. We see some glimmers of hope in the housing market, but if people could stay in their homes, and there could be principal write-downs … that would give some greater certainty to the economy.

Eric Ferguson asks: What can we do to help the participants in the Arab Spring protests?

Ellison: One thing we can do is signal that we’re in favor of greater democracy. I think we should double Fulbright Scholarships and bring students from the region to the United States to study. I think we should increase the Peace Corps’ budget … I think we need to continue to engage (people in that area). We need to look at perhaps creating greater trade with these countries. Not just oil, but actually made goods. And I think we need to look at security in an expansive way, so that it's not all like countries like Yemen, where the leader would say “I’m fighting al-Qaida. Send me money.” And we would. We have to also say, “What are you doing to have democracy?” So there won’t be fertile ground for this kind of stuff. But I do believe that it is absolutely central that the United States engages the Arab world in this Arab Spring period … These people have an expectation that we’re the beacon of liberty in the world. And when we act more like just a country interested in oil, then they’re disappointed. I think we need to really live our values, in all parts of the world … People who have secured liberty for themselves I think have some responsibility to promote it for other people.

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