On the eve of Thursday’s 113th United States Congress swearing-in ceremony, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah called NewsWorks to discuss a variety of issues.
Topics ranged from the just-ended fiscal-cliff negotiations on Capitol Hill and his appointment as vice-chair of the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force to entitlement reform and the 112th Congress’ inability to vote on a Hurricane Sandy Relief Package this week.
Here are excerpts of that conversation presented in a Q-and-A format:
What can you tell us about what happened in D.C. these past few days and nights?
I tweeted a basketball analogy that explains a lot of it: “When playing basketball, don’t go for head fake, watch the feet of your opponent to see their real intention. Heads fake, feet set direction.” That’s what happened here.
Once the Senate [Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell decided there was going to be a deal, there was going to be a deal. It reminded me of the debt-ceiling limit [issue] from two years ago. Once that happened, the House had to act. Same as it was when it came to [President Barack] Obama getting health-care through.
Whatever it is, you have to get the Senate to agree on it. In that case, it was a vote to get [health-care] out of committee [that set the stage for House approval].
With a divided government, even when you have same-party control, the House is more problematic. The Senate is where the decisions get made. When they passed [the fiscal-cliff bill] 89-8, as the key was getting solid bipartisan support, it was a fait accompli.
This is the way the process works. It goes all the way back to the way the Constitution laid [government] out. The House is more impulsive. We have to run every two years. The Senate has an opportunity, with six-year terms, to take a longer-term view.
[Referring to an old adage, Fattah continued that] this is the worst form of government except for everything else that’s ever been tried.
Yet, we’ll likely be going through the same thing in two months when Congress has to vote on raising the debt ceiling, right?
It’s all about the psychology of consensus. [With the fiscal-cliff talks] the Senate and the House were working into the wee hours of the morning. A lot of consternation and back and forth.
We will go through the same thing again. Hopefully, through the Senate and House, a more reasonable conversation will emerge. Then you’ll be able to work through it.
It’s pretty bad here now. The Hurricane Sandy storm-relief aid bill was supposed to be done, and that it wasn’t, that’s how the 112th Congress went out. But, the 113th begins [Thursday] and I’m hopeful it will get better.
What makes you think things can improve in the 113th Congress?
The 112th is the worst in the history of Congress in terms of passing legislation. Beyond that, the President is not up for re-election which is significant because some could stop voting just to keep him from succeeding. Both parties will be trying to position themselves for political victory in the future.
[If Republicans miss an opportunity to help improve the economy] they won’t get any credit for it, and they don’t want that to happen. The fiscal-cliff vote, as with the debt ceiling, showed you can get a vote with some Republicans and some Democrats.
We will get more done over the next two years than in the last two years. If we can get broad agreement on something like immigration, that will help.
Guns will be difficult, very difficult. We’ve got to make sure the ban is useful, and it’s not going to solve all the problems.
But first, we have to get these fiscal challenges over with, the tax-and-spend issues, the debt-ceiling issue in the next two months. We need to get those addressed before we can move onto the others.
What do you think happened with the Sandy bill?
It was clear [Tuesday] night that Republicans spent a lot of time tearing each other up in their own caucus. Spending more money on a storm, a lot of them did not want to have to vote on that.
They crafted an argument that $60 billion was too much, and there was a bill for $27 billion on the floor, which they would then ask for an amendment for $33 billion backed by the Democrats and Northeast Republicans. It was a charade. They just decided to walk away from it.
They’ve created a real problem for themselves. They didn’t mind that it was in northeast states that they don’t win, but the country is reacting strongly to it, that they don’t want to see it become a situation where we start picking and choosing which disasters to respond to.
Tell me about being named vice-chair of the House’s Gun Violence Prevention Task Force.
I’ve done a lot of work on the issue in Philadelphia, with gun buy-backs and other programs. Over the next year, Congress will be working on assault-weapons and high-ammunition clips bans. There are 100,000 victims of gunshot wounds annually, 30,000 die.
We spend a lot of time talking about different issues. But, of federally licensed gun dealers, 85 percent [of weapons sold] never ended up being used [in crimes]. A lot of attention is being paid to assault weapons because of Newtown and Columbine, but most gun crimes, fatal or nonfatal, are committed with handguns. We have to deal with real issues, with what the facts are.
This is going to be politically challenging. If you think it’s going to be easy, well, it’s not going to be. But we need to find some type of reasonable regulations. Both NRA members and non-NRA members believe things that just are not true. That everybody has to get a background check. Well, lots of guns transfer hands and are not subject to that. With mental health issues, you have to be involuntarily committed to be banned from getting a gun.
There is a lot of agreement about what could and should be done, but can we fashion legislation that can pass the U.S. Congress? That’s the question at hand: What is reasonable?
According to a release from your office, the 318,176 votes certified in November’s general election is a higher number than any of your peers got last year. What does that mean to you?
The city and region tally was the highest vote count in the country and, best we can tell, in the history of Congress. It’s a humbling honor for me.
I think it confirmed, in my mind, that if we work on serious issues, focus on actual challenges that face the country, that we can win overwhelming support. There wasn’t ever any concern about me losing the election, but the overwhelming vote is a terrific thing.