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An ongoing discussion about conservatism in New Jersey.
An Interview with Congressman Lance (NJ-7)
Peter C. Hansen  (October 27, 2010, 10:03 pm)

On October 21, 2010, I had the pleasure of interviewing Congressman Leonard Lance (R, NJ-7) for Jersey Conservative. The major theme of our wide-ranging conversation was, unsurprisingly for this year, the need for fiscal responsibility and reducing deficits. We did, however, also discuss the role of unions, the rise of Gov. Chris Christie, what conservatism means in New Jersey, environmentalism and nuclear power, immigration and sanctuary cities, the age of the webcam, and conservatives and homosexuality. Congressman Lance was candid, thoughtful, solidly grounded and ready to take on all sorts of topics, even at the end of a long campaign season.

I wish Congressman Lance the very best in the coming election, and after this interview would recommend him to all those looking for a return of the Reaganite spirit to Washington. Congressman Lance seems ready and eager to work with the Republican leadership in the Herculean task of getting our national house in order.

Here is the text of the interview:

________________________

Interview of Congressman Leonard Lance (R, NJ-7) by Peter C. Hansen for Jersey Conservative

October 21, 2010

MR. HANSEN: Good morning, Congressman Lance. Let's start right off. What was your ideological upbringing, and who were your political influences?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: I was raised in a house where public policy was always a topic of discussion. My late father was in our state legislature and was president of the state senate in New Jersey, and certainly, my brother and I were always aware of public-policy issues. We tended to discuss those matters at the dinner table.

I had the honor of meeting President Eisenhower when I was a very young person, and certainly I have always considered President Eisenhower to be a role model. He had a decent respect for a balanced federal budget, and I think those are policies we need to emulate.

When I was in graduate school later, I was a strong advocate for the election of Ronald Reagan as President. That was in 1980. I was a graduate student at Princeton and I was in a very small minority. I believe I was one of a handful of students who was vigorous in support of Ronald Reagan for President.

MR. HANSEN: Would you describe yourself as a fiscal conservative primarily, or would you have social conservative strains in your thinking, as well?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: I’m certainly a fiscal conservative. Regarding other matters, I certainly believe in the right of privacy and the right of the Second Amendment as an individual right. I think that’s probably based upon my upbringing and the fact that I was raised in Hunterdon County, which is a rural part of New Jersey. I have always believed deeply in the American Constitution and certainly in our Bill of Rights, the First Amendment, the Second Amendment. As you may know, New Jersey was the first state to ratify the Bill of Rights in 1791, and I think we should take great pride in that fact.

MR. HANSEN: How would you define a “conservative”?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: I think a conservative believes in limited government and recognizes that our rights are derived from the hand of God and not from government. I also am deeply committed to the free enterprise system, to democratic capitalism – that’s with a little “d” – to democratic capitalism. A hundred years ago, I would imagine London was the financial and legal capital of the world – at least the Western world – and at some point in the 20th Century, that leadership passed to us here in the United States. Obviously, I want it to be retained here. I think it’s based upon the principles of democratic capitalism, of freedom enshrined in our Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, and I believe these are conservative principles.

MR. HANSEN: How would you distinguish your personal conservatism and other strains of conservatism found in New Jersey from the strains of conservatism found in other regions such as the Southern United States or the West?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: I am a graduate of Vanderbilt Law School in Nashville, Tennessee. That’s where I met my wife. I believe that conservatives throughout the country share common goals, and as someone who has traveled to other parts of the country and was educated, in part, in another region of the country, the similarities in conservatism across the country and, in particular, regarding fiscal responsibility, I do not believe that this is confined to one region.

Because I am a student of American history, I believe deeply in our federalism, and what is right for New Jersey may not necessarily be the way another state capital might wish to proceed. I believe deeply in our federalism and in a federalist system, and in the fact that the federal government is a government of limited powers prescribed by the Constitution.

MR. HANSEN: Just to follow up on something you said earlier, you mentioned the right to privacy. Now, would it be a fair assessment to say that social issues loom larger in the South than in New Jersey?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: I don’t know. Perhaps that’s the case. Because I have sat in a state legislative chamber, I deeply respect our federalist system and the fact that legislatures in other parts of the country should be able to address issues that confront their states. I’m a great believer, for example, in the Tenth Amendment.

MR. HANSEN: How would you describe the state of conservatism in New Jersey right now?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: I think it’s rising, and I think that this has to do, to a great extent, with the election of Governor Chris Christie and the fact that he is doing, in my judgment, an extremely good job in New Jersey – an excellent job in New Jersey. I believe that he has gained a national reputation, and it is much stronger than it was even a year ago. I give primary credit to Chris Christie.

MR. HANSEN: If you could recommend to Governor Christie three further reforms than those he has been doing to date, what would they be?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: First, initiative and referendum.

MR. HANSEN: Could you explain this?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: I voted for initiative and referendum as a young legislator when I was first in the lower house of New Jersey, in the General Assembly. As you know, in New Jersey, the way we amend our constitution is to pass a constitutional amendment through the legislature, and then it goes directly to the people, but certainly any governor can have a strong influence in advocating on behalf of a constitutional amendment. I think that we would have reformed our system ourselves – the people of New Jersey – to a much greater extent than is now the case and, of course, Governor Christie is now trying to engage reform, but I think it would have occurred earlier if we had had the process of initiative and referendum. New Jersey is one of those states – unfortunately, from my perspective – that does not have initiative and referendum. So I would hope that he might consider that.

A second reform would be school vouchers, particularly in our urban areas. I would begin with a voucher program, probably in a place like Newark or Jersey City, and we do not have any vouchers at the moment in New Jersey.

And then a third reform, I sponsored legislation when I was in Trenton that never saw the light of day that would have moved school board elections from April to November. New Jersey now holds school board elections in the middle of April, and the voter turnout is woefully weak. I think it averages something like 14 percent. There’s a much higher turnout, obviously, at the general election in November. Most states have school board elections in November to coincide with their general elections, and I would like to see us move toward that system in New Jersey.

MR. HANSEN: Just to follow on the school theme, what is your assessment of the New Jersey teachers’ unions and their influence at the moment in the state?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: I greatly admire classroom teachers. I think that they do yeoman’s work, and I was educated in the public schools of New Jersey. I do think it was unfortunate that the leadership was reluctant this year to engage in some of the reforms that I believe are essential. As I recall – and I don’t follow this as closely as I used to because I’m no longer in the state legislature – but with respect to a modest contribution for health care benefits – I think it was 1.5 percent or something like that – I think that the leadership of the teachers’ union should have recognized that this is the way the system works in the private sector, and undoubtedly this is the way the system is going to have to work in the public sector.

MR. HANSEN: Turning to your district – the New Jersey 7th, what varieties of conservative thinking have you encountered there, and how have you engaged with them?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: I think the District is representative of the state as a whole. It’s a highly educated district, very talented work force, many positions in the pharmaceutical and medical device industry, in the telecommunications industry, in the financial sector – and I serve on the Financial Services Committee in the House.

The concerns of the District are the concerns of the state and indeed the nation. They include, obviously, a restoration of a vigorous American economy and in the longer term recognizing that we have to be fiscally responsible. The present situation involves enormous levels of annual deficits. I opposed the federal deficit of $1.3 trillion in the fiscal year that just ended, the $1.4 trillion deficit the year before that, and an overall federal debt of $13 trillion.

As you know, I am the sponsor of the Lance Amendment to the New Jersey Constitution that prohibits further state borrowing in New Jersey without voter approval. It is the most significant amendment to our state constitution since the adoption of the modern state constitution in 1947. I try to be knowledgeable about our state constitution. My late father was one of its framers, and I truly believe my constitutional amendment is the most significant addition to our state constitution since its adoption.

As I speak with constituents throughout North Central New Jersey, the concerns I hear are in regard to the economy, and then more broadly to our position in the world and whether we’re going to retain our position of pre-eminence in the 21st Century, or whether leadership will pass to some other portion of the world. These concerns are at the heart of the discussions I have with constituents.

MR. HANSEN: It seems then that social issues or wedge issues are fading a bit right now, such as immigration or marriage, that sort of thing?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: Obviously, there are a basket of issues. But I think, without a doubt, the pre-eminent issue at the moment – the pressing issue at the moment – is the state of the American economy.

MR. HANSEN: You fended off a challenge by the Tea Party in the primary. What is your assessment of the Tea Party in New Jersey at the time?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: I share the principal concern of the Tea Party, and that is fiscal responsibility. The Tea Party movement is in the strong tradition of our American democracy, and I believe that the Tea Party and I have the common goal of a return to fiscal responsibility. I hope that we have the opportunity in Congress to address it in a realistic way, and in my judgment, that’s only possible if Republicans gain control of the House, and I hope the Senate as well, although that is more problematic – at least with a week and a half to go. It’s my hope, obviously, that we gain control of both houses of Congress. The Tea Party can be enormously helpful in that regard, because I think there’s a clear distinction between the Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other.

MR. HANSEN: Are there any commonly pressed positions of the Tea Party that you’re less enthusiastic about?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: From where I view it, the Tea Party is principally concerned with levels of federal spending, the overall debt. I not only share those concerns, I think I have taken the lead on them here in New Jersey. I hope to be in a better position actually to effectuate policy in Washington come January as part of a majority. So I agree with the views that I have seen expressed.

The Tea Party, by and large, is opposed to the health care bill. I am, as well. I do think we need to reform health care, but my views are different from the major premise of the bill that was enacted into law. The promise was made that the bill would bend the cost curve, and we just had a report from non-partisan experts that at the moment, 17.3 percent of gross domestic product is expended on health care. This would be both in the public and private sectors with total GDP. It’s 17.3 percent at the moment, and in 10 years it’s going to be 19.6 percent. Obviously, we’re moving in the wrong direction, and this violates the principal promise of the president and the administration on health care reform. Certainly, I think the Tea Party has been one of the leading proponents of revisiting that issue.

MR. HANSEN: Now, this basically follows up on the preceding questions – which conservative principles or positions would you say are lines in the sand for today’s Republicans, both in New Jersey and nationally?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: Perhaps I sound like a broken record here, Peter, but obviously, fiscal responsibility. We have got to lower the annual deficits in this country, and as I took the lead here in New Jersey on a constitutional amendment central to that issue – the Lance Amendment on state borrowing – I’m increasingly of the belief that there has to be a constitutional amendment at the federal level. There are various proposals out there, at least to limit annual deficits. There’s a proposal by Jeff Hensarling. I believe I’m one of the co-sponsors of that proposal. I hope that the new Congress begins to address this issue, not only statutorily through our annual appropriations acts, but ultimately in some constitutional fashion. That is very much a work-in-progress, but I’m increasingly of the view that we have to address this fundamentally.

MR. HANSEN: What about with respect to public-sector unions and their role in deficit creation?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: Certainly, all aspects of society have to engage in reform, and this would be true of the public-sector unions. I hope they would recognize that they have to come to the table, as well as other sectors of the American nation. So, yes, I hope that they will come to the table.

MR. HANSEN: Looking at the federal and state relationship, New Jersey ranks lowest in getting tax dollars back from Washington in the form of spending. The last statistic I saw had New Jersey getting back only 61 cents on the dollar. So that’s a massive outpouring from New Jersey into the federal coffers. Can a conservative in good conscience seek higher federal spending on New Jersey, including perhaps through earmarks?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: I think the way to benefit New Jersey is to keep taxes as low as possible, and to that end I certainly favor retention of the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, and that would be for all tax brackets. That’s very clearly a debate now occurring in Washington. We should have enacted legislation in this regard in September. We did not do so because the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, refused to put a bill on the floor. I think that’s because some of her more moderate members agreed with us.

So I think the real way to help New Jersey is not to chase an elusive goal, but rather to try to keep taxes low. Mr. Boehner and Mr. Cantor, who would respectively become Speaker of the House and Majority Leader in the House were we to go into the majority, believe in fundamental reform regarding earmarks. I do not believe John Boehner has ever taken an earmark, so I would hope that a new Republican-controlled House of Representatives would engage in fundamental reform, moving away from that process towards competitive grants that do not involve the earmark process as it has occurred traditionally in Congress.

MR. HANSEN: Putting earmarks aside, do you think a conservative could in good conscience seek greater federal spending in New Jersey – in whatever form – to equalize the tax imbalance with the amount of money going out to Washington?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: I think we should be advocates for our states, but my philosophical belief is that we have to first and foremost try to keep taxes as low as possible. Obviously, we’re advocates for our states. If there is a massive flood in New Jersey, we have FEMA to come into New Jersey to help. And if there are ongoing issues of flooding, we ask that we be considered appropriately based upon the merits of the situation. But I really believe in fundamental reform in this area.

MR. HANSEN: So would you characterize your approach as kind of a flinty self-sufficiency, except in emergencies, but please don’t ask New Jersey to fund everybody at extravagant rates?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: Well, the way I would phrase it is that it is unlikely New Jersey would ever be at the top of the list, because on average, we tend to be more affluent than the nation as a whole. Of course, we have lost some of that affluence because of this horrible recession. So I don’t think New Jersey is ever going to win that game, and I prefer to keep tax rates low and to recognize that that’s the way to create jobs in this country.

MR. HANSEN: You voted in favor of cap and trade, which has not yet made it into law. What are your current thoughts on cap and trade, and do you think that EPA regulation would be a suitable substitute?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: That bill is dead. It had no chance of passing in the United States Senate, and I would not vote for it again were it to come back to the House. But I’m clearly in the belief that it is dead in the Senate and will not come back to the House. I do think we need an energy independence policy to a much greater extent than is now the case – much less reliance on dangerous foreign sources of oil from places like Venezuela with that horrible dictator, Hugo Chavez, and unstable regions in the Middle East.

I’m a strong proponent of nuclear power. As you know, we have not built a nuclear power plant in this country in maybe 35 years, or something like that. I hope that we can rely on more domestic sources of energy. This would include natural gas, wind and solar power – but I think it will take a generation or so for the latter two to come on line to any significant effect. In particular, I would recommend the building of new nuclear power plants in this country. I believe the environmental concerns have largely been addressed. The French have developed a system of reprocessing nuclear waste, and so I hope that the new Congress will address this in a way that recognizes domestic sources of energy, for example natural gas – this country has plentiful natural gas – and the building of new nuclear power plants. Regarding the actions of one of the federal agencies – what was the question again, Peter?

MR. HANSEN: Is EPA regulation a suitable substitute, for example with respect to carbon?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: I think very often in political life as a matter of public policy, where you stand is based upon where you sit, and I sit in the elected branch of government, the Congress of the United States. I do not believe that agencies in the executive branch should make fundamental policy. I think that that is the responsibility of the elected branch of government. I suppose that my views are based upon the fact that I sat in a state legislative chamber and had similar views regarding state administrative agencies. I believe that this is the responsibility of the Congress of the United States.

MR. HANSEN: Do you see any inherent conflict between conservatism and environmentalism?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: No, the word “conservation” has the same root as the word “conservative.” Those who believe in conservation are presumably conservatives. I believe that there should be that understanding. I am a conservative and I believe in conservation.

MR. HANSEN: Now let’s turn to a similarly simple and non-contentious subject, immigration. Towns like Princeton have been sanctuary cities since at least the 1980s, and now some municipalities are actually giving out IDs to illegal immigrants. What do you think of Princeton’s stance and actions?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: I do not think that is the way to proceed. I think we need several measures at the federal level on this issue, and I’ll be specific. We need to secure our border, particularly our southern border – and that is not now the case, in my judgment. Number two, we need to have some sort of e-verification system regarding employers, and that is not the case at the moment either. So those are the two matters that I believe we should address at the federal level. No country can long exist if its borders are not secure, and I think that those are the messages: securing our border, doing it in the southwestern states, and also an e-verification system for employment.

MR. HANSEN: You just mentioned the Congress again and what it can do. You’ve complained that Congress under the Democrats in the last session has not respected the bipartisan tradition. How would you describe this tradition, and could you explain its importance for conservatives?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: Yes, I’ll give you a prime example. In the year and three-quarters I have been in Congress, there’s not been an open rule on any bill. This is a technical matter. All of the bills on which we have voted on the floor of the House have been under closed rules, rules that come out of the Rules Committee. We ought to go to a system of – at least in some cases and I would hope in all cases, but at least in major pieces of legislation – having an open rule that would permit the minority to offer amendments on the floor of the House. That’s traditionally the way the system has worked, and I’m quite critical of Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership for engaging exclusively in closed rules during this Congress.

Also, in the Promise to America that our leadership put forth a month and-a-half ago, we indicated that no bill would be – could be – voted unless it was in the public domain, I think for 72 hours. So there are several procedural reforms where I believe we should move forward, and I think that would create a spirit of bipartisanship, or at least a greater spirit of bipartisanship that I perceive does not exist at the moment.

MR. HANSEN: Do you think that bipartisanship is important for conservatives and to advance conservative ideals?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: I believe that conservatives very much want to be part of reforming America, and reform takes many steps. The president will be the president for at least two more years, and I think that conservatives will prove that we can govern, or at least participate in governing if we’re given the opportunity of going into the majority in January. If the Republicans gain control of the House, it will mean that conservatives have gained control of the House, and I believe that we can demonstrate that we are competent at governing and that our views can win on the merits.

MR. HANSEN: Will you support bipartisan measures in the House if the conservatives and the Republicans take over, even if the leadership is not so inclined?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: I have confidence in our leadership, and I think that most – both Mr. Boehner and Mr. Cantor, and this is also true of Mr. McCarthy of California, who are likely to be our leaders – that they share conservative views. Certainly, I will continue to advocate strongly for what I believe is at the heart of conservatism, and that is reining in federal spending, fiscal responsibility, lessening the annual deficits, getting a handle on the overall debt, and as I say, perhaps advancing a constitutional amendment with others – since I will only be a sophomore in Congress, certainly working with others in leadership positions to advance some sort of constitutional amendment – regarding what I believe is the critical issue ultimately confronting the nation, and that is the level of the federal debt, which I believe threatens our pre-eminence in this century.

MR. HANSEN: Very last question. I just want to give you an opportunity to comment on the Clementi case. That was the student at Rutgers who was driven to his death by his roommate and his friend, apparently. I just want to get your thoughts on the case and any social policies that should come from it.

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: I think it’s a tragic death, and I certainly send sympathy to his family and to his friends. Regarding the legal situation, I have confidence in the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, and that’s a matter for that office to decide. My impression is that in this new world of all sorts of communications, it’s violative of privacy – terribly violative of privacy – to take video of someone in his dorm room, if indeed that occurred – I leave the facts of the case to the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office.

MR. HANSEN: In terms of social policy, however, do you see any inherent conflict between conservatism and homosexuality, so that in this case conservatives would be automatically unsympathetic in the Clementi case?

CONGRESSMAN LANCE: No. No one has expressed that to me, and I think it’s tragic that the young man has died.

MR. HANSEN: Thank you very much.

(Many thanks to Sue A. Terry for her expert transcription of the interview.)