Settled firmly into his second term in Congress, John Yarmuth talks health care, energy, and how Obama might actually save the planet
WASHINGTON – After confirming his district’s 2006 vote by beating former Republican incumbent Anne Northup for the second time in November, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., is securely holding his seat as a junior member of the House of Representatives and enjoying his first tenure under an ideological comrade in the White House.
In another life, Yarmuth founded the very newsweekly you’re reading. Last week, he took some time in between congressional committee and Democratic caucus meetings to sit down with LEO Weekly in his Capitol Hill office to discuss Barack Obama’s agenda and where he and the Louisville area fit into an ambitious and criticized climb from recession.
LEO: How do feel about President Obama’s first few months in office?
John Yarmuth: I think he has handled himself about as well as anybody could handle himself. He has been able to do some things in the policy arena that speak to his deftness in dealing with a variety of constituencies. He’s started some very bold initiatives in the area of health care reform and energy. We hit the ground running and he’s accomplished a lot, but he still needs to see if he can do two of the most difficult ones.
LEO: Being energy and health care?
JY: Health care and energy, yeah.
LEO: Is the pace of this congressional session a lot faster than when you were first elected?
JY: There’s no question about that. A major factor is the Obama White House wanted to strike when the iron was hot; they wanted to move on these very big agenda items when his popularity was still high, while he was still in his honeymoon period. But beyond that, we entered the year with the country facing an enormous economic problem, and so right off the bat, there was a question of whether we were going to do a stimulus package to keep the country from falling into an even deeper recession, how much we were going to commit to the banking problems, all of those things, he didn’t have time to wait. He had to move quickly and therefore we had to move quickly. The pace really has been continuous since the election.
LEO: What kind of reservations, if any, did you have voting for the stimulus bill just based on the size of spending?
JY: I didn’t have any reservations about the size. There were many economists who were saying we should do more and I actually voted for more. Even though $787 billion sounds like a lot of money, that’s over two years, which means it’s half of what we’ll spend on defense in the same period of time, so you have to put it into perspective. We are facing and have been facing a $1 trillion a year gap in productivity, with nobody else out there to fill that gap. We’ve used all the other tools we have. Interest rates are at zero, basically, so we couldn’t use monetary policy. The only thing left was for government to be a spender. Only about 10 percent of the money has already been spent, so people who are already judging the effectiveness of the stimulus package are acting very prematurely.
LEO: What does the recession do to how you perform your job? Does it make you scale back or refocus any of your interests?
JY: My highest priority is to work with health care reform. So I didn’t have to change that at all. And that’s what I’m up to my neck in every day now [laughs].
LEO: You agree with Obama that health care is the most important issue facing the country?
JY: Absolutely. I think in terms of the long-term sustainability of the American economy, the federal budget and the long-term health prospects of the American people, it’s the most important thing we can do.
LEO: Having an insurance company like Humana based in Louisville, what do you think about criticisms of a government-run health plan, that it would run these private insurance companies out of business?
JY: Those are largely scare tactics that I think are unfounded. There are three options available to us when reforming health care: one is to do a single-payer plan, which puts all the insurance companies, maybe not out of business, but it certainly changes their role dramatically if we were to do that; we could trust the insurance companies to fix the problems by themselves; or we could create a marketplace in which they have to compete with a government-run plan that doesn’t have to make a profit. Humana doesn’t like a public option. They don’t want to have to compete with them. I actually use Humana as an example of how insurance companies can compete because they have worked very hard on figuring out how to add value for their customers. I think Humana is well positioned to compete in this environment. I believe they, down deep, know they can. If the only thing the government plan can do better than them is to charge less, then that implies to me that they’re overcharging.
LEO: Do you see a comprehensive plan coming out by the end of the year like Obama is pushing for?
JY: I think we will pass a bill by the end of the year. How comprehensive it will be is another question.
LEO: How comprehensive do you think it will be?
JY: Well, like anything else, I think there will end up being compromises made that some of us won’t be thrilled about, but that is the nature of this process. Right now if I had to bet on whether the Senate will pass a public option, I would bet they won’t. But ultimately, that’s going to depend on how good a case Barack makes. We’re fighting a lot of special interests. The insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry are the two largest donors — two of the three, I think, largest industries in terms of donations to Congress, both parties. So they have a considerable amount of clout here.
LEO: You said energy was the other issue that you’re focused on most here. Why is that?
JY: The president’s top-priority items were health care, energy/climate change and education. So we’re dealing with those first two. I’m not sure what’s going to happen with that [energy] bill. I think the prospects in the Senate are pretty slim right now. I’m not sure there are enough votes to pass this bill in the House [N.B. The House passed the bill Friday, June 26]. Unfortunately, like a lot of things, we’re going to get no Republican support for this thing, we won’t get one vote. Out of the 257 Democratic votes, we can only lose about 38 or 39. There are a lot of people who have questions about this particular legislation.
LEO: I’d imagine you’re fighting special interests here as well with the coal lobby.
JY: Somewhat. The coal companies are not for it, that’s not significant to me, but this bill, to this point, is supported by Shell Oil, Duke Energy, the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters. That to me is a pretty interesting combination. You don’t usually get that. So I think on balance, it is a fair approach. Now I haven’t decided for sure how I’m going to vote on it [Yarmuth voted for the bill] because we’re still waiting to get some kind of sense of the impact on the consumers in Louisville. It has a disproportionate impact on states that get a larger percentage of their energy from coal.
LEO: Meaning that those people’s utility prices would rise.
JY: That’s the fear. I know they’ve made a lot of compromises in the bill to try to hold people who live in districts like ours harmless because they can’t choose where they get their power from. And they shouldn’t be penalized for that. We’re making sure that that’s the case. But there’s no question that I support the goals of this legislation, just to begin to reduce carbon emissions so we can do our part to stop climate change.
LEO: What do you need to see from the bill so that you’re comfortable voting for it?
JY: It’s not necessarily the bill; the bill is what it is. We’re talking to LG&E to try and get a sense of what they believe the impact will be. Before these compromises were made, they were projecting that for the average consumer, it would cost them $210 a year more, that there would be a significant increase in the cost to Ford on an annual basis, to the University of Louisville, to the Jefferson County Public Schools. Those are big users that if you’re talking about a couple million dollars a year in utility costs to some of these things, that would be a hard thing to support. They’ve got to get to the point where it will not be a case of the middle of the country subsidizing the coasts, which is what the original bill would have done.
LEO: How do you make sure that’s the case?
JY: You can’t make sure. You just gather all the evidence you can, take the best projections you can. Let’s say it costs the average resident of Louisville $100 a year. If that’s something that they can offset just by turning the thermostat down by a couple degrees, I think that’s a price everybody should be willing to pay. If it’s something where it’s going to cost them several hundred dollars a year and they have no ability to affect that, that’s a wholly different decision and that would make it very difficult to support. I’m not going to penalize my consumers.
LEO: What about Obama’s plans to make renewable energy more widespread and building a new sector of the economy from that?
JY: It’s important, there’s widespread support for that. If that were all that was in it, you’d have widespread support. That’s critical. There’s an interesting provision in this bill that could help Kentucky and Louisville. Basically it says that by a certain time a certain percentage of your power has to be in renewables and this counts hydroelectric power. Well, we’ve got a lot of rivers in Kentucky, a lot of water, and that might be an opportunity for Kentucky to develop renewables that other states might not have.
LEO: I understand the hydroelectric point, but how do you make it so renewable energy can pierce into a state that is so reliant upon coal?
JY: Unfortunately, Kentucky is not a great state for wind or solar. So our opportunities to generate power in more environmentally friendly ways aren’t as great as others’. So our options are more on the line of hydro, biofuels and, ultimately, potentially nuclear power.
LEO: It’s a matter of looking for what strengths you can bring to the table.
JY: Right, or making sure we are upgrading the electric grid nationally to make sure we can buy relatively inexpensive power from some of these other sources.
LEO: On the other side of the coal debate, the EPA has made some recent moves to take a firmer stance on mountaintop removal. But it still seems far from banning the practice. Is this a real concern in Washington? Is there a widespread concern about mountaintop removal here?
JY: I’m not sure I would characterize it as widespread. There are a lot of people who are very much concerned about the practice. There are a lot of people who are members of Congress who aren’t affected by it — far more than are affected by it. It’s harder because of that to generate passion to do something about it. On the other hand, there are far fewer vested interests that you would threaten if you tried to do something legislatively. So we’re working on a legislative approach to it through the Clean Water Protection Act, that [Rep.] Frank Pallone [D-N.J.] introduced and I’m a co-sponsor of.
Would I like to see something more definitive? Yeah. Ultimately, some legislation is going to have to do it, because the law permits it. I don’t think they can stop it through administrative action. If we can get something done in the House, which I think we have a chance to do it — if for nothing else, the 50-some representatives in California who don’t care — there’s only about 10 House members whose districts are even affected, so there’s a good chance here. In the Senate it’s a lot different because you’ve got powerful people who by themselves can stop bills like that.
LEO: What about you and your future? You beat Northup twice to earn your seat. Do you see yourself staying here for a long time?
JY: Ultimately that’s up to the people of the district. I love what I do and I love the opportunity we have now with a president in the White House that is much more sympathetic to the policies that I would like to see pursued in the country, so I look forward to serving with him and seeing if we can do something historic. As long as I feel like I have that opportunity, I’ll stay, if the people will keep me here.