`Laughs.` No, I wasn’t a C student, but I remember that joke.
I was reviewing the changes that the Senate and House just made to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which has been pretty controversial. Any thoughts on that?
I think that the President didn’t get everything that he wanted — which he certainly didn’t need `it` to be used as an expansion of the Patriot Act — I think it goes in that direction, but I think there was a lot of compromise that was done to keep him from getting everything that he wanted. I am concerned about what the Administration has contined to do from the standpoint of usurping the powers of others. You know I specifically was involved in filing suit against AT&T, for example, for giving the goverment people’s phone lines so they could tap into American citizens — I don’t think that that’s appropriate. I think throughout its 230-year history, we’ve watched in times of supposed war a usurpation of civil rights by the Executive only to have that usurpation drawn back when there’s been overreaching. I think we have to be very wary, especially with this president in charge, of overreaching.
This new law expires in six months, and in the House Rahm Emanuel is already talking about introducing something sooner than that. What would you like to see the Senate do?
Well, I think one thing that is very important is you put time limits on any extensions. I think if you have an absolute abdication of Congressional oversight over the Executive’s powers, which is frankly what I think happened in the Patriot Act, that you need to have some Congressional oversight and the ability to modify it sooner than — in this case I guess we’re going on six-and-a-half, seven years — and I think that’s too long because this president has shown over and over and over again that they’re gonna take a very expansive view of Executive power. And I think that that’s unfortunate that the legislative branch wholly abdicated its job to keep a check on the Executive.
Do you have any feedback for your fellow Texas lawyer, Alberto Gonzales?
`Laughs.` Well, you know, I think Alberto Gonzales’s problems are, I wanna say almost a metaphor, but it’s symptomatic of what this administration has done, and that is that they’ve taken the levers of government power and used them as an arm of a political party. I think that’s completely inappropriate, and I think that the firing of United States attorneys, while offensive in and of itself, is more disturbing in that it’s a small example of the repeated examples of the Bush Administration utilizing the levers of government to advance the cause of the right wing of the party.
I think that even a number of the Democratic lawmakers have been fairly circumspect in being critical up until recently of those actions. Do you think you’d be more outspoken?
Yeah, you have to be. I think that what we learned is when you keep your mouth shut, and you keep your eyes shut, for a period of four or five years, you can have in a very short period of time a situation where you go from co-equal branches of government to one branch of the government dominating the others, and I don’t think that’s what our founders had in mind. So I think that more important than the particular power struggle today is the Constitutional implications of allowing the executive to completely overwhelm the legislative branch and the judicial branch. I think we have to stay very cognizant of that and we have to raise objections, even when it’s politically unpopular to do so to make sure that the executive doesn’t usurp the constitutional checks and balances.
You’ve criticized Senator Cornyn fairly strongly on the issue of CHIP, which he voted against recently, and in doing so you’ve talked about the health-care system as a whole being broken. How would you address the larger issue?
I think it’s something where you basically have to start with the concept that it doesn’t make economic sense to have 50 million people with no access to health care. and when those 50 million people have zero access to low-cost preventative medicine, low-cost health-care maintenance programs, and their first introduction into the health-care system is through the most expensive mode of medical-delivery service ever invented by mankind — i.e. the emergency room — you’re not economically doing it in an efficient manner.
So I think first you just have to start with the precept that everybody has to be in the system. Democrats would say it’s morally the right thing to do. Republicans used to be against it, but now you have seven of the top 10 companies in this country having their CEOs go and ask Congress for universal health care. And the reason is when you have somebody like General Motors spending $1,500 a car on health care, and the Japanese spending $200 a car, Americans can’t compete. So we have the irony of 50 million of our people with no health insurance, and yet our largest corporations are outsourcing American jobs overseas because they say they can’t compete due to high health-care costs. And so the system is not sustainable. The number of people who get their health care through their employers is dropping precipitously and so you’re gonna go from 50 to 60 to 70 million people without health care, and that’s just gonna exacerbate the problem. So I think first you just have to make the policy judgment that what is right happens to be smart, and that is you’ve got to get everybody in the system and give them access to health care and health insurance. Then, and only then, with everybody in the system, can you put the leverage in place to lower the cost. But you know, having health insurance rise at the rate of 25 percent a year, as it’s been doing the last six years, is not sustainable, and we’ll end up with a minority of people with health insurance, which clearly is not gonna work.
You’ve come under fire from me personally, as well as from other folks, for not coming out and saying I’m in favor of a woman’s right to choose, although I understand that you do support access to birth control. Could you elaborate on that?
My position is that I’m opposed to abortion except in cases of rape and incest, and when the life of the mother is at risk. I do not believe in slippery slopes, from the standpoint of, I think what President Bush and Senator Cornyn have done on stem-cell research is very, very unfortunate, and I fully support stem-cell research.
Thirdly, I think that the entire debate needs to focus on how to reduce unintended pregnancies, whether you are on the pro-choice side or on the so-called pro-life side, everybody agrees that we have too many abortions in the country and would like to reduce the number of them. I think that where the Republican party has fallen off the track is, they claim to be pro-life yet they want to take no steps to reduce unintended pregnancies. Statistically, providing dollars for public education with respect to how to avoid pregnancies, and providing dollars from the standpoint of availability of contraception, reduces unintended pregnancies by 86 percent, whereas abstinence-only programs have reduced them by only 14 percent. It’s fine to be in favor of abstinence — as Planned Parenthood is — but you also need to have the information available so people know what to do should they choose to engage in sexual activity.
So you have the ironic situation where during a pro-choice presidency, the number of aboritons went down in the early 1990s, but during a so-called pro-life presidency, the number of abortions has gone up. And that’s because of the cuts in funds that are necessary to educate people as to how to avoid unintended pregnancies. So the statistics are pretty clear, and if your goal is to reduce the number of abortions, you need to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies.
Before you get to the general election you’ve got to get through the primaries. Representative Rick Noriega out of Houston has an exploratory committee, and it looks like folks supporting him are hitting you hard on that issue and also trying to position you as the money candidate and him as the grassroots candidate. What do you think your strengths and weaknesses are in the primary?
Well, I think that I consider myself a candidate with broad appeal across the spectrum of grassroots of organized labor folks, of political activists, of certain people on the internet. I do not consider myself as being at a disadvantage from the standpoint of people who are contriuting over the internet. If you look at the raw statistics, thus far we have more supporters, giving more money, and we intend to continue our appeal for a broad base of support across the state. I’ve traveled to every corner of this state, and continue to do so, six days a week from 6 a.m. to midnight, and to garner as much support as we can. `Editor’s note: Elaine Wolff’s husband, Michael Westheimer, has contributed to Watts’s campaign.`
Christian Archer is working for your campaign, so he will keep you in front of those people, I know.
`Laughs.` We are all working very hard.
You, of course, are from Corpus Christi. What is your position on the immigration issue?
Well, I think that doing nothing and saying no to any legislative initiative, as Senator Cornyn has done, is not an option. If your true concern is about the number of undocumented individuals in this country, saying no to every legislative initiative is the fastest way to increase the number. Because of what John Cornyn did, the next time there is political willpower to address the immigration issue, we’ll have over 15 million undocumented workers instead of 12 million. The appropriate thing to do is to not inject racial demagoguery into a sensitive issue like immigration but to attack the issue on a policy-driven approach.
Secondly, I don’t think to throw red meat to the right wing of your party you should flip-flop on an issue like the wall. John Cornyn traveled across this state for three years, saying he was against the wall, and would not vote to fund it, told the San Antonio Express-News in September 2004, “We cannot and should not build a wall along our border with Mexico,” and last month he votes for it. I think that it is important that you consider the interests of people in Texas before you consider the political advice of Karl Rove, and if you’re trying to conduct immigration policy by a political barometer being fed to you by Karl Rove, you’re gonna come up with bad policy, and I think that’s what happened to him.
Read the Current’s August 8 interview with Houston state rep Lieutenant Colonel Rick Noriega, another Democratic challenger to Senator John Cornyn, here.