I recently had the opportunity to ask Michigan’s 1st District Freshman Rep. Dan Benishek a few questions about the state of affairs in Congress in the wake of the battle between Speaker Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Reid, and President Obama over what to do with the budget for the remainder of the fiscal year. What follows are his responses, and a brief wrap at the close.
[Lead in to Rep. Benishek]
The debate over the budget for the remainder of this year was very contentious. There’s been a tremendous amount of pressure; from the media, to the President and the Democrats (including a great deal of rancor within the Republican caucus itself), the Continuing Resolution (H.R. 1473) to fund the Government through September 30 had the attention of the entire country.
Many people have been very critical of Speaker Boehner and the process that got this deal done as well as what it actually contains. A great deal of attention has been paid to this fight by Tea Party folks and many others. A lot of Americans, both left AND right, believe they were “played” by Leadership on both sides of the aisle – sold a bill of goods filled with what we once called “fuzzy math” – and they are not happy. But the vote is done now, the bill has passed, and we’re moving ahead.
Q: In 2010 Americans sent a lot of new faces to Washington to change the direction of the country. Right now, people are feeling they’ve been sold out. Were they?
Congressman Benishek: People should not feel sold out. They can be frustrated. I am frustrated that the cuts were not bigger, but we have to remember Democrats still control the Senate and White House. I believe the Speaker did the best he could with the resources he had. I was not directly involved in negotiating with President Obama and Senator Reid, but I can tell you that as long as I am given the opportunity to vote for significant reductions in spending, I will be a “Yea” vote every time.
Q: What happened, how are you going to handle negotiations differently going forward, and what do we all need to be paying closer attention to?
Congressman Benishek: The biggest thing to keep in mind is that we were dealing with last year’s spending bill. The fact that we were cleaning up the last Congress’s mess in the middle of the fiscal year made it difficult. Also, I think the troops potentially not being paid was the biggest factor in the CR passing. I would like to see some sort of priority for what gets paid in the event of a government shutdown — that would strengthen our negotiating position.
What we all need to pay attention to is the information, or misinformation that is out there. For example, I have made a pledge that I will not vote to reduce the Social Security or Medicare benefits of anyone 55 or older, yet the DCCC and the liberal groups out there continue to run ads saying that is exactly what I am voting for. This is the same fight that we had back in November, and people didn’t fall for the lies then. We need to be aggressive with our message.
Q: Do you think the Leadership fully understands just how strongly the American people feel about jobs, the economy (including the crisis with fuel prices), the need to reduce spending, put an end to Corporate Welfare, the Ethanol scam, unconstitutional lawmaking power in the cabinet departments, endless trillion dollar deficits, and the need for Congress to restore the rule of law?
Congressman Benishek: Through the many meetings and one-on-one conversations with Speaker Boehner, Representatives Cantor and McCarthy; I can assure folks, they get it. They are proud of our freshman class and look for our input and recommendations. They will push as hard as they can to achieve the best deals they can. A lot of people wanted to see a shutdown this time around, but I don’t really know if that was the route to go over the CR. Realistically, had we cut $300 billion from the CR, we’d still be running a trillion dollar deficit so I’m not sure that this was the right time and place for a battle of that magnitude.
Q: Ryan’s proposed budget has already been rejected by the President and the Democrats, and is being demagogued by them and the media. What is your position on Ryan’s plan, and what do you want your constituents (and the American people) to know about the contents of the plan itself?
Congressman Benishek: I am a big supporter of Rep. Ryan’s budget. His roadmap was one of the first documents I turned to when considering my run for Congress. Talking about his plan created a lot of the backlash during my campaign, and it hasn’t stopped since. I voted for it, and I won’t be backing away from it. It’s important that the online community through the bloggers and social networking continue to get the word out. We should be asking everyone, including the President, “if Ryan’s budget is so bad, where is your plan?”
Q: We know entitlements are going to necessarily be affected by whatever “final” version of Ryan’s plan is presented to you for a vote. Is there anything in your mind that (as the President continues to insist) is “off the table”?
Congressman Benishek: My promise is that nothing will change for those 55 or older when it comes to Social Security or Medicare. Everything else remains on the table. These are the biggest drivers of future debt and need to be dealt with.
Q: The debt ceiling fight looms. There is overwhelming support across the country for a firm NO vote against any increase to the National debt. Will you vote against raising it? Under what circumstances will you vote “yea”?
Congressman Benishek: The debt ceiling will be a crucial test for this Congress. I have said in the past that I am against raising the debt limit unless we get something huge. Speaker Boehner said “something really, really big.” I just hope that his “really, really big” and my “huge” turn out to be the same thing. To me, the things that fall into the category of huge; a full repeal of Obamacare; a Balanced Budget Amendment; a cap on spending set below 20% GDP. I am sure others will be bringing ideas into the conversation and I am willing to listen. But like I said, this is a crucial test, one I believe the freshmen have to pass.
Q: There has been an ongoing movement to get more grassroots people involved, at the local level, by actually taking back the GOP from RINOS who too often side with big government liberals. This “Precinct Committeeman” strategy has made great gains but still finds far too many PC slots vacant. Have you heard about this initiative? What are your thoughts on the idea of engaging more people at the activist level and encouraging them to take seats inside the Party? What will you do in your District to get more people active and involved, and help get those slots filled?
Congressman Benishek: I have heard about this and think it’s a great way to get involved. Using my district as a reference point, I can tell you that many of our new County Chairs are involved in the “Tea Party/grassroots” movement. When I meet with people in my District and they suggest that I am not doing enough here, this is where I take the conversation.
I ask them if they think we like having to compromise with the Senate and the President. I am here in DC fighting for everything I can, but we need people to get involved. The Republican Party is what it is because of who is willing to invest their time and energy. I will leave it to those that decide to get involved what they want out of the party, but I think we have bigger issues to worry about – 2012 for example. The grassroots pouring their hearts and souls into the November elections is what got us started, but the job is not finished. The road to we need to go down will be smoother if we have a Senate and White House that will work with us.
Q: The Republican Party has a serious messaging problem. What concrete plans do you and the rest of the Membership have for getting out your message if/when the Leadership refuses to confront media distortions? How are you and your fellow freshmen in the House, going to get out the Conservative message more effectively and preemptively?
[Note: Answer combined with next question, below]
Q: What do you, in particular, and you as a group (Freshmen Congressmen) need from all of us, not just those from your district, to enable you to go against Leadership when it is the right thing to do? How do you think that these interviews will help further the goal of returning to constitutional, limited government? What are the issues you are focused on this week, month, and year, and what kinds of support from us would help the most?
Congressman Benishek: I want to address the last two questions together. Let’s talk about the “messaging” problem the Republican Party has, but let me explain why I put that in quotes.
Is it really a problem with messaging, or is there a problem with what gets delivered via MSM? I think that if we expect our message and our ideas to get out through those that don’t agree with our message and our ideas, we are fooling ourselves. The best way to get our message moved forward is just like this. For obvious reasons, blogs, internet news sites, twitter, and Facebook is where the grassroots goes to get information. The problem that we run into with this strategy is that it’s like herding cats. Our belief in the individual means that not everyone is going to follow the leader because there isn’t one.
Case in point, after the CR was agreed to, we had half of the online community voicing concern that the freshmen caved, and we had the other half saying that the freshmen got the best deal they could. We had some saying that they are going to primary those that voted yes, and we had others saying let’s move on from billions to trillions. The whole time we had the MSM talking about the divide on our side. This is not an effective strategy for us. I would encourage those of you that have an online audience to make sure that you contact the freshmen and ask to be added to their distribution list for press releases. Attempt to establish a relationship with their press shop and request interviews such as this.
For many of us freshmen, this is all new and while we are the same people that were elected back in November, we still need your help. One of my favorites, Winston Churchill said, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Let’s not overlook what we’ve done so far. President Obama asked for mulligan for his earlier budget proposal. Even after Ryan teed it up for him, he still couldn’t hit the short grass. The conversation has changed here; we are now talking about reducing spending. Not only are we talking about it, we are doing it.
I don’t know how much this freshman class is going to be able to accomplish, but I do know we will be able to accomplish a lot more if we have a Senate and a White House that doesn’t fight us every step of the way. If there is one message that needs to get out there, that would be the one.
I appreciate Rep. Benishek taking the time to respond to my questions, and thank him very much for his honesty and forthrightness in the answers he provided. The take away from this conversation is straight forward enough; engage and participate, and work together with your elected Officials rather than just yelling and screaming or blindly cheering them on without a close and thorough inspection of the issue(s).
They need an honest dialog with the American people; one that is open, constructive, and forward thinking. There is never going to be universal agreement on matters of politics and policy, but the better educated we (and our readers) become, the more likely it is for us to accept whatever outcomes our Politicians produce precisely because we helped them to produce it.
Both Houses of Congress will reconvene on May 2, 2011 and begin their work again in earnest. Let’s find our Reps, follow their activities, and engage them (constructively) as they set about trying to do the People’s business and bring sanity back to a broken economy, a crushing debt, an unsustainable spending spree, and an unacceptable over-reach by the Federal Government.
[Freshman Congressman Dan Benishek represents Michigan’s 1st Congressional District in the US House of Representatives. In this capacity, Dan serves on the Natural Resources, Veterans Affairs, and Science, Space and Technology Committees.
“Dr. Dan” gave up his successful surgeon’s practice in the Upper Peninsula to run against Bart Stupak in the wake of Stupaks “yes” vote on Obamacare. He and his wife, Judy, currently live in Crystal Falls. They have five children and two grandchildren. Dan is also an avid hunter and fisherman and a proud member of the NRA and the GOA.]