Interview of Heather Wilson, Republican candidate for the United States Senate. Conducted by Harold Morgan, October 13, 2011, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the headquarters for Wilson for Senate.
Harold Morgan writes a weekly column that is syndicated to ten newspapers around New Mexico. The interview is the basis for two columns. This transcript been edited to remove verbal pauses, repeated words and similar interference that come with the spoken word.
Morgan: We’re here with Heather Wilson in her headquarters. Heather, I had three things that I (said we) might talk about, with focus, since our time is limited; one being just what has happened in the last couple of years, what you might have seen. Then this whole “conservative” thing. And, thirdly, the money, the main issue in your campaign as you’ve stated it. So what’s happened in the last couple of years? What have you seen? Learned? New problems?
Wilson: I got a dog, subscribed to Netflix. There were times with my family. Survived cancer. Started a business.
Morgan: Yeah, there was that cancer thing, right.
Wilson: Those were the superficial answers. I spent a lot of quiet time, which I hadn’t had in a long time, and I really enjoyed that. I had an opportunity to read and think in longer stretches. That was great. And I really needed some time, but I enjoyed it. I found that there is a geometry to reading. For every book you read there’s usually three that you add to your list, and so, as my husband puts it, the circumference of darkness is roughly three times the size of the diameter of light.
Which, if you do geometry, is actually true. The more you read, the more you know there is to read, and so my reading list is longer today than it was when I left the Congress. I started that that way, and then got back in depth into some of the issues that I care most about, defense and intelligence, and did that work for a couple of years before announcing that I intended to run for the Senate.
So I guess it was an opportunity to reflect, to observe and to become, frankly, deeply concerned with what I was seeing; the decisions about the direction about this country, particularly its financial directions.
Morgan: That seems to answer things, I think. Anything to fill in on that?
Wilson: Well, with respect to the financial direction of the country, we’ve just had a fiscal year that closed on the 30th of September. In the three years, in the three previous years, we had a thirty-percent increase in federal government spending. Three-zero. So a thirty-percent increase in federal government spending in a three-year period of time.
This country has not had that steep an increase in federal government spending since we chose to defeat the Nazis. It was 1941 to ‘44, roughly. The difference is that instead of defeating one of the greatest evils that has ever faced the planet, what we really did was had an increase in spending that was largely domestic spending. That’s at a time when every family in America was cutting back on spending, tightening their belts, worrying about their jobs, the federal government went on a spending spree: $787 billion stimulus bill.
Put this in context: When Bill Clinton decided he want to try that stimulus bill and spend federal government money in order to stimulate the economy, he proposed a $19 billion stimulus bill. It was rejected by the Senate, including democrats in the Senate, because it was too expensive and was the wrong way to go.
The Democratic Congress and the President of the United States spent $787 billion and did not generate the economic activity that they promised, and the reason is they’re wrong in their approach. Government cannot create wealth. Sometimes there’s a short-term sugar high, but it doesn’t do much more than that, because that’s not where the wealth and jobs come from.
Morgan: In Las Cruces, at the Domenici Conference, Alice Rivlin told us that, that we would outgrow the deficit spending eventually with a growing economy, and that the real issue was entitlements, Medicaid and Social Security. What’s your observation on that?
Wilson: If I look back on the things that I did not get accomplished when I was in the House that I worked on and wished we had made more progress on, one was reform of the Medicaid system. It is one of the fastest growing parts of the federal government and it doesn’t serve very well the people who depend upon it. There’s a subspecialty of the bar on how to qualify mom and dad for Medicaid in the nursing home while protecting your inheritance. That’s not what Medicaid was intended for. There is that piece of Medicaid I think needs reform, and Medicaid as a program doesn’t improve the health status of the people who depend on Medicaid.
It is very much focused on paying for episodes of critical illness rather than improving health status. There needs to be a significant change in the way the program is run that improves health status and reduces the cost of healthcare, reduces this escalating growth. So I would probably start there, looking at what we can do with that program, and it is one of the things I most regret not having made more progress on.
With respect to other kinds of programs, it seems to me that if Ronald Reagan and Daniel Patrick Moynihan can get together in 1983, ‘84, and figure out how to extend the solvency of Social Security and protect it for another 30 years, that our generation can meet that challenge too.
Morgan: One of the other things that they talked about at the conference was the notion that there have been the three or four groups examine the federal spending and the deficit, including the Domenici-Rivlin group, and that more or less they had agreed that the main issues are just sort of obvious. The next step then is doing something, having the courage to do something. Again, observations on that point?
Wilson: I was kind of disappointed when the President of the United States proposed a budget for this year. We’re now in the first month of twelve months of our fiscal year (and) still don’t have a budget yet. But the budget he proposed for this year projected over a trillion dollars in deficits as far as the eye can see. This is unsustainable, and his budget was rejected by the Senate. Every single Senator, including all of the democrats, rejected that vision of where we need to go financially. And then, when the House proposed a budget, he calls everyone down for a speech and sits them all there and just blasts them. And I thought, you know what this really means is he’s chosen to make this a political issue rather than trying to figure out what’s right to do for the country and start working to figure out how we’re going to bridge these gaps and get back on the right path to something that’s fiscally sustainable. I just found that tremendously disappointing. So it does require the political will to say we will do what is best for the country.
I think there are two parts to this: One is major reforms, like Moynihan and President Reagan did. The other one is the day-to-day hard work of oversight, to try to find things that aren’t working in the federal government and stop doing them. I’ve done that, both in the federal government and in state government. Everyone talks about waste in government, but it’s actually very hard work to identify the things that are not working and stop them.
Morgan: Such as?
Wilson: The ones that I did or the…
Morgan: Yeah, or ones that you think ought to be stopped.
Wilson: Well, $25 million for EPA conferences, including going to Paris, and that doesn’t sound like a very good idea to me. The Agriculture Department spends $550 million dollars a year in federal subsidies to private landowners who allow hunting on their land. I’m not sure that’s something the federal government should be doing.
There are $2 billion in un-obligated balances in the Army Corps of Engineer budget. Those are just examples. They come from one of these commissions. It does require, though, that people focus on those issues and make decisions on those issues and build consensus to get rid of some of that stuff and do some common-sense things.
What I did in state government, we terminated a lot of contracts that were not getting value for money for the, the taxpayer. We eliminated bureaucratic positions at the top of the department and pushed them down to the field; the priority was customer service. And when I chaired the Technical and Tactical Intelligence Subcommittee in the House for House Intelligence, we did a complete review of all of what would be called overhead architecture. Just technical collection from, from overhead, to see how we could we could look at the system instead of just buying the next version of a particular widget.
If you’re in charge of widgets, you always want widget 2.0. Well, is there a different way to do this by looking at the architecture? Look at the whole thing and figure out how to maximize and meet all of your needs with a system of systems, rather than just individual pieces, always getting the next version. One of the things that that resulted in was the cancellation of a very, very expensive program.
Morgan: The Joint Strike Fighter has been an example of an attempt to do that, that maybe hasn’t quite worked.
Wilson: That’s a very expensive airplane, there’s no question. There are moments when I think the F-16 is still a pretty good airplane. But one of the problems with something like the Joint Strike Fighter was that you’re much better off committing to a program and doing it in a fairly truncated period of time. It’s when acquisition stretches out over decades in the law and beyond is when the cost per unit, it just goes through the roof. That’s another thing that needs to be changed is federal government acquisition, particularly of major systems.
If you think about it, and when the first satellite program was established, I think it was called “Corona.” The first 13 crashed. This was when they—it’s now declassified, but it was, would have been when Eisenhower was president—were trying to take pictures from satellites. The first 13 didn’t work. There were all kinds of problems. But they learned from each one, and they were doing. They were tweaking things as they went along and gradually getting better, not waiting another year to launch the next system, but they were (launching) in weeks and months. So, they rapidly learned and got better, and they succeeded. We don’t buy things that way now.
Morgan: Your illustrations draw my comment on the same issue. Some time in the recent past a federal review of how highway signs should be designed has fallen through somehow to neighborhood street sign design. Right here in Albuquerque. I don't know how those things happen. Had you heard of that one?
Wilson: I missed that one.
Wilson: So they’ve got new standards for street signs or something?
Wilson: Yes, it costs a lot of money.
Morgan: And it’s a federal mandate on municipalities to replace the street signs and design them in a different way. It seems a little bit of overreach to me.
Morgan: In talking a couple of years ago to some other Senate candidates, the two of them cited one specific thing about why they wanted to be a United States Senator. Is there one specific thing -- I’ll tell you what this is in a minute, but is there one specific thing that, for you, that says this is why you should be a United States Senator?
Wilson: It’s not a specific thing, but it is a thing. I told you I’m very concerned about the future of this country: our financial future; our ability to defend ourselves; a healthcare system that’s probably going to be near collapse between 2014 and 2016 if we allow this new federal healthcare program to be implemented in the way that it was passed and designed. So there’s huge challenges facing this country, and I believe that every generation before ours had faced those challenges and met those challenges. That’s who we are as Americans. Now’s the time for our generation.
We are blessed by our parents and our grandparents to have inherited a tremendously strong country, full of tremendous opportunity. But it’s not assured. It’s up to every generation to make sure that we steward the freedom that we’ve been given to build a better country for our children and for our grandchildren. I see that as at risk. And I don’t want to be the first generation that failed the test.
Morgan: These other folks, by the way, the one single reason, if you cut it all away down, for wanting to be a United States Senator, is they said that one Senator can stop something. That’s what I was told.
Wilson: That’s true. But that to me is tactical. That doesn’t resonate with me. I’ll just leave it that way.
Morgan: Interesting. You have called for the repeal of Obamacare.
Morgan: Not just pieces of it -- the whole thing?
Wilson: I think it needs to be repealed and replaced. There are challenges that we face in healthcare in America. There (are) a number of things disappointing about Obamacare, but one of them is that the biggest challenge is the escalating cost, and Obamacare does nothing about that. In fact, it’s going to exacerbate that problem.
The estimate is that one in four Americans who has private-sector health insurance today will not have it come 2014 because of the so-called Minimum Essential Benefit Package that will be required by the federal government; and every small business that’s able now to offer health insurance is going to have to probably expand what they’re offering for their employees. A lot of them will just say we just can’t do this and keep customers coming in the door. So, so people are going to lose their health insurance and the cost of the insurance is already going up. So cost is the central element to me that we need to really focus on.
I also think that competition works to help hold down costs. You see that in Medicare Part D, where, where competition—choice in the marketplace—resulted in a program that’s much, much less expensive than it was predicted to be.
Likewise, if you look at most of the things that aren’t covered by third-party insurance without any co-payments, and those that cost share, like elective plastic surgery, or eyeglasses or hearing aids, the inflation rate for those things is much closer to the normal rate of inflation than we see in the other parts of healthcare because consumers are making informed choices about their options and helping to keep things competitive and costs down.
Fundamentally I think that the Obamacare bill is unconstitutional for two reasons: One is, that it is the federal government mandating that every citizen purchase a government-approved private-sector product. And if the federal government can tell you what you have to buy with the money you earned, then there is no limit to government power.
And the second constitutional argument that few people focus on is the mandatory expansion of Medicaid forced on the states. Here in New Mexico, this new law will force New Mexico to add 120,000 people to the Medicaid rolls. That is supposed to be a joint federal-state program, and it should have been some kind of a joint federal-state decision. But it’s not, it’s a federal government mandate, and a lot of states just can’t sustain it. The kicker is, the first two years the federal government borrows the money—prints it—and there’s no cost initially for the State of New Mexico, but starting in 2016 it starts to go back to the state and federal match, and the State of New Mexico has to find $300 million dollars a year out of its budget, to cover the cost of the Medicaid.
There are only two places that can come from—K to 12 education, or from increases in taxes. And anyone who says that you can add 120,000 people on the Medicaid rolls and it won’t cost anything has a math problem.
Morgan: At best.
Wilson: There are people who claim that this really is going to reduce healthcare costs. But it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work that way. Life doesn’t work that way. It’s unconstitutional, and it is likely to cause the cost of healthcare to go up. Here in New Mexico, it’s probably also going to have a severe impact on seniors who use Medicare Advantage, and here in New Mexico it’s a very popular program. One in four seniors get their healthcare through Medicare Advantage, and that’s where they took half a trillion dollars out of—do you have Presbyterian Senior Care?
Wilson: Yeah. That is Medicare Advantage, and they took half a trillion dollars out of that program to start all of these other things that are probably less important to seniors.
Morgan: What about Dodd-Frank? Has anyone called for repeal of that?
Wilson: Yes. But Dodd-Frank passed kind of in the wake of Obamacare. People were paying less attention to it. But I’ve got to tell you, when I’m out and about and talking to people in the financial services business or even people who manufacture things that are publicly traded companies. It’s a nightmare. Thirty-three thousand pages of new regulations on banks. That’s probably three-quarters of a mile of paper.
Wilson: Maybe CitiBank has enough lawyers to figure out what these regulations mean, but most small- and medium-sized banks don’t. I was talking to somebody who works with a regional bank, not a huge bank, a regional bank in the southwest. They had to hire 44 new compliance people to cope with the rules of Dodd-Frank, so they went from nine people to over 50 people.
Wilson: You and I are paying for that as customers, just for compliance. In addition to that, there’s all kinds of things in that bill. There is a requirement in there that got added in to have every company traded on the U.S. Stock Exchange has to do an audit and certify that anything they sell or manufacture does not have any minerals in it that come from the Congo or any of the 12 surrounding countries. Now, it doesn’t prohibit using those minerals, but it requires an audit to say, yes, this particular metal in this particular thing comes from the Congo or the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Equatorial Guinea or whatever the 12 surrounding countries are. It’s a blood diamonds provision. This is a cell phone. How many minerals are in this?
Morgan: A lot.
Wilson: Do you know how many cell phones are sold in America every year?
Morgan: A bazillion.
Wilson: Well, just from AT&T they sell 25 million of them (With materials) from 60 different countries. Now, what does that do? Obviously it’s a huge auditing nightmare for anybody. What it really does is that any company that’s looking to potentially go public, better not go public in America or on an American stock exchange. Go to Singapore or London or Delhi. It’s a nightmare.
Morgan: And those things, the requirement like that and the compliance requirement on the financial institutions, (it) seems to me they in effect amount to tax increases.
Wilson: Certainly cost increases, for the cost of doing business. The other thing that’s so ludicrous about this, so they have to audit their whole supply chain with 50 different suppliers for this cell phone or 60 different suppliers in 50 different countries, to say where all the minerals came from in this little piece of equipment. If you were willing to sell blood diamonds, would you be willing to lie to an auditor? What good is this going to do anybody? Well, this is stupid.
There’re a lot of things in Dodd-Frank that just prove another drag on business, another point of reluctance for anybody who is an entrepreneur or creating a company or creating wealth to say, gosh, do I really want to do my initial public offering here in America? Maybe we’d be better off in Delhi.
Morgan: My suggestion that these things were a tax increase, is they (are) government-driven that fall through to individuals by increasing the cost , and that seems to me a tax, in effect.
Wilson: It’s a regulatory compliance tax.
(Discussed Farmington Daily-Times op-ed with staff)
Wilson: I did a piece on the regulatory program, the federal government. There is a requirement that the federal government—the executive branch—provide notice of any proposed rule making next year that is anticipated to cost more than $100 million. This coming year, there are two hundred and ninety, a 15 percent increase over last year. Seven of them have an estimated over $1 billion economic impact from just a single regulation. It’s just growing like topsy. This is amazing to me.
Some of it is things to implement by regulation, Cap and Trade. But there are also all kinds of weird things, like saying that fly ash from a power plant—the ash that’s left when they burn coal—that has to be treated as a hazardous material. Never has been in the past. You know who that really effects? The cement manufacturers who use the fly ash to make cement, because now it’s a hazardous material.
Morgan: I haven’t heard that.
Wilson: That’s a proposed new regulation, and it’s not really intended to protect the environment, it’s intended to shut down coal-fired power generation.
Morgan: All these things seem pretty conservative to me, the viewpoints, that is. This whole thing over the years that has trailed you, that I’ve always thought was strange, was Heather Wilson is somehow not conservative enough. You had your announcement there a few months ago, and (it) seemed to me you checked off all the “Capital ‘C’” Conservative points. You have any observations on this item at all?
Wilson: I’m a free-trade, free-enterprise, pro-life, pro-Second Amendment person. I also believe that the things that government has a responsibility to do, it should do exceptionally well. I think that we should have Medicare. There should be a safety net for the elderly and the poor. Maybe for some people that’s just not good enough. But 12 of 15 sitting Senators in the Legislature and almost two-thirds of the state representatives and an overwhelming third of the elected and local officials from around the state who’ve endorsed my candidacy, basically think I’m okay.
Morgan: Doing something excellently, though, brings back to my mind, as you put it, New Mexico’s unique role in the defense of the country, and your stance on defending that.
Wilson: We do have it—New Mexico makes a unique contribution to our nation’s defense. We have three Air Force bases, two national laboratories, White Sands Missile Range. The stewardship of our nation’s nuclear deterrent is largely done by New Mexicans. There are a few Californians as well, but it’s largely the responsibility of New Mexicans, and we need to make sure that that deterrent is safe and secure and reliable in the absence of nuclear testing. That is an extremely difficult problem.
In addition to that responsibility, our national laboratories have taken on other national security responsibilities, including in intelligence, and try to make sure that not only is our nuclear deterrent safe, for example, but seeking to understand what other countries are doing. And they play an important role in a lot of that. I think New Mexico needs a United States Senator who is able to articulate the importance of that contribution and is willing to stand up and fight for it.
And there are three Air Force bases here, and, of course New Mexico only has about 350 good flying days of the year.
Wilson: It’s a great place to train; very supportive of the Air Force in general. I’ve worked with the Air Force and other military services. Of course, most important to us is our New Mexico. We have a long history of serving national interests, and I think that needs to continue.
Morgan: Well, I guess other air forces think we do some of that pretty well as, and train at White Sands.
Wilson: We can do things here in New Mexico without a whole lot of disruption that are very hard to do in other places—in the air and on the ground.
You’re blessed and defended by the world’s most powerful United States’ military. We need to keep it that way.
I do think (that) of Martin Heinrich, Hector Balderas, myself and Mr. Sanchez, I’m the only one that’s ever served in the military. (Greg Sowards, a Republican candidate for Senate, served in the Army.) There are a declining number of members of the United States Congress who have military service, and that’s really a change in the nature of the military. And in the passing of generations. The World War II generation, the Korea generation, Vietnam generation are retiring now, or passing away. My generation has fewer people per capita, certainly, who served in the military, and yet that is the first and foremost responsibility of the federal government, so that matters.
Morgan: Well, I agree with you. Just one more point, our time is going really quickly, but on our defense capability and nuclear, there was a Sandia team, I gather, sent to Japan last spring, pretty quickly, and the other nuclear resource people. A whole bunch of them were there, so it’s broader.
Wilson: There were Sandians who were there. There were also Sandians and Los Alamos folks who supported the effort in the Gulf of Mexico to stop the spill. When the Secretary of Energy says, hey, do you have anybody who could do a very revealing x-ray 3,000 feet below the surface of the water—to try to figure out what’s going on in this wellhead, through murky, gucky water and everything else, yeah, I think we can do that. So their engineers were very important, their engineers and scientists, and they’re important in the nation in a lot of different ways.
Morgan: Well, again the time has grown short. Any final two cents worth here?
Wilson: So I think you covered most things, defense, healthcare, the financial situation the country finds itself in. We’re now almost at the point where our ratio of debt to GDP is close to 100 percent, just roughly where Greece was when things started to come apart. America’s a stronger country with a stronger currency and all those things. I don't know where the point is where we have a similar kind of problem, but I certainly don’t want to find out.
Morgan: Good place to stop. Thank you.
Wilson: Thank you.
(Discussion continued as Morgan looked for the stop button on the recorder.
Morgan: The point you were making dawned on me a few years ago. I haven’t done anything about it. It dawned on me that the broad society was very separate from the military, and basically had no clue. That’s disturbing. I guess it really makes it easier to, let’s say, oppose the Iraq war if you’re not in it, or if it doesn’t touch your life.
Wilson: It is disturbing to me, and it should be a concern to all of us. And it’s not just that, we’re at a point where only two in a thousand serve in uniform. We are such a powerful country. In World War II, one out of ten served in uniform, so, that during World War II, every third house on the block had a blue star in the window. Today you have to go 167 houses to find the next blue star in a window.
Now, with the draft ended in 1973, we now have kids in school whose grandfathers were not subject to the draft. So that’s how far away that sense of mutual honorability is, and it does really leave a gap between the protected and the protectors. One of the things I did say to my classmates and colleagues, who were former military, is that the obligation to serve doesn’t end when you hang up the uniform. You need to have more of them step forward, whether it’s in the city council or the school board or Congress.