Rep. Heath Shuler defied national trends last year when, as a Democrat in a Republican-leaning district in a year that saw major GOP gains, he defeated Hendersonville businessman Jeff Miller by a 9 percent margin.
While Shuler's caucus, the conservative Blue Dogs, lost more than half its membership, he not only survived but went on to oppose former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s bid for minority leader. Shuler lost by a mile, admitting later that the run was a symbolic gesture. He also wrangled an appointment to the powerful Budget Committee and proposed legislation aiming to depoliticize redistricting.
Earlier this month, Shuler voted with the majority of Republicans (and 66 other Democrats) to extend the Patriot Act’s surveillance provisions. The initial attempt failed, with 26 Republicans joining most Democrats to oppose the measure, citing civil-liberty concerns. But a later vote carried, and the legislation is now before the Senate.
Along with nine other Democrats, Shuler co-sponsored and voted for legislation to eliminate most remaining direct or indirect federal funding of abortions. In its original form, the only rape-related exemption in the bill was for "forcible" rape (a change from long-standing federal practice). But critics said this could deny funding to victims of incest or date rape, and the word “forcible” was subsequently removed. Still, Shuler appears to be gearing up for another fight with the majority of his Democratic colleagues. Pelosi has denounced both this bill and other anti-abortion legislation co-sponsored by Shuler as “dangerous to women's health.”
In a Feb. 11 interview, Shuler discussed these and other matters:
Mountain Xpress: In your opinion, how has the 112th Congress gone so far?
Heath Shuler: The Republicans are making the exact same mistakes that the Democrats made when we took over the House: They're looking backward, in the rearview mirror. Nothing's been done on the economy and jobs. Everything's being based on the past, and now there's a huge division between their leadership and their folks. We've only had 28 votes, so it's not been very productive. Our leadership went to the far left, and theirs is going to the far right. In both cases, you're not doing what the American people asked you to do.
One item that came up in the House was the attempt to repeal health-care reform, which was defeated in the Senate. You said during the campaign that you'd oppose that repeal, and you did. Why?
The president's not going to take down his own legislation. Morally, it's not the right thing to do. We have things that are in place: Children can be on their parents' insurance up to 26, closing the “doughnut hole” for seniors (which is very important for our district), and insurance for children with pre-existing conditions. Those are three things that are now law.
The things that are not law at this time are the things that are controversial, and those are things we can fix. I think it's very important that we fix the things that need to be fixed — things I think everyone would agree need to be fixed. Also, we need to agree on things that are in the legislation that have already become law.
It becomes a moral issue to me. You don't want to take away [insurance] from kids in our district with pre-existing conditions, who actually have coverage for the very first time. There's some things we can certainly do better. Cost is one thing we've really got to undertake. That's why I voted [against health-care reform] initially. We can make some really good progress in this legislation over the next two years.
What are some areas you think need to be changed?
I think the 1099 issue is a perfect example. Requiring small businesses that, every time it's over $600, you'd have to send out a 1099 to someone that purchased goods from you, that's just almost impossible.
I want to really define cost. In one sense the bill saves money, but the real issue I have is the rising cost of health care itself. It's that $100 aspirin you get when you go to the hospital; it's duplicating services. We've got to lower the cost of health care in our system and address waste, fraud and abuse.
What are your legislative priorities?
Being placed on the Budget Committee, it's fiscal responsibility, as it's always been. We have to get control of our debt and the deficit spending that's occurred. If you look back, Reagan increased the debt limit 17 times; Bush increased it seven times. We're already at three or four times with President Obama. We've got to get control of that spending.
The second issue is to start building things back in America. Make it here in America, build it here in the U.S., incentivize companies to do business here in the U.S., not send U.S. dollars abroad. We have to get control of the tax structure to incentivize corporations to do business here. Tax reform, I think, is something we'd all agree upon, on both sides. That's a way we create jobs, incentivize companies to stay here, do business here. Get that $2.1 trillion off the sidelines and get corporations to invest in America, not abroad.
You've had some obvious disagreements with Minority Leader Pelosi, and you ran against her. How have your interactions with your party's leadership been so far?
I've always had a good relationship with the leadership. I think it's a difference of opinion about the policy. But I think everyone's starting to realize that without the moderate Democrats, they don't have their chairmanships anymore. There's starting to be some real eye-opening experience that some mistakes were made in the policy when we were in a recession and were talking about a lot of other things when the most important thing we should have been focused on was jobs, jobs, jobs. Now here we are again: The Republican leadership is making the same mistakes.
You said recently that the Blue Dogs represent the views of about 80 percent of the country. If that's so, why did the caucus decline in the last election?
It's because of the way our country has gerrymandered. Gerrymandering is a real issue, and it's divided our country. Anytime you have politicians drawing lines for politicians, you're going to have problems. There's legislation Jim Cooper and I have put forward that talks about gerrymandering. Democratic districts become more Democratic; Republican districts become more Republican. The more and more you divide those districts, the more the American people are being divided based on judicial lines and not based on what the true American is.
Look at how gerrymandered the state of North Carolina is. Here in Western North Carolina, we've got the least gerrymandered district. My district is not gerrymandered; therefore, you've got to have a moderate. When you don't have these gerrymandered districts, you have more moderates in Washington; when you have more moderates, you have more compromise — and more successful government.
So, going forward, you're asking the House leadership to embrace this view?
I think we've got to, and that's what the Blue Dogs have continued to stand for. We have to be the compromising voice, because we have the extremes in both political parties. Right now, we've been in recess for well over two hours, because legislation's coming forward and the Republicans aren't on the same page with one another. That's why the Blue Dogs reach out — not just to Republicans, but also to our Senate colleagues as well, on both sides. At the end of the day, we're all on the same team: We're all Americans. We may differ sometimes in the approach, but we all want our country to be successful.
One issue that recently split the North Carolina delegation was the extension of the Patriot Act provisions. You voted for that; why?
We have to be able to protect the liberties of American citizens. When we're trying to keep a watchful eye on our enemies and those who are willing to do harm for the United States, we have to be able to get the information to the authorities that's necessary to find out what issues or problems could arise before we have a major disaster in this country. Through that, the Patriot Act obviously gives the authorities the opportunities to stop problems with terrorists.
Critics say that some provisions — such as roving wiretaps and warrantless surveillance of non-U.S. citizens who aren't affiliated with a terrorist group — actually harm civil liberties. You think those should be maintained, along with the other provisions?
Technology changes every single day. You get an iPad today, they introduce another one in April. We have to be ahead of the technologies. I don't think it interferes with liberties.
I know one of the controversial things is one person who has a cell phone: There's a wiretap on it, they go out and get another one. Does that extend the wiretap provisions? I'd say “Certainly, yes,” because it is the same person you're trying to listen to. There are problems and issues that have arisen that have given the authorities concern. Look, at the end of the day, we can't have the problems we saw happen on 9/11. Look at all the things [we] have stopped abroad, all the times that our intelligence has stopped bombings from these terrorist groups, because they have the authority from these different provisions.
So you don’t think those provisions have been abused?
No, they haven't been abused.
You're a co-sponsor of the H.R. 3 bill, along with a number of Republicans and some Democrats. Why do you think there's a need for such a bill?
Every single piece of legislation that comes forward, we're always having the debate based on the provisions of the federal government supplying funding for abortions. I've been pro-life since I started running in 2005. I've always been outspoken about that, and it's important we don't have an argument on every single piece of legislation going forward.
Now there were some concerns about the force issue; I think that's obviously been addressed. And I've been a part of helping that be addressed, and that's taken care of. We go through this process on every single piece of legislation, so why don't we go ahead and define it early, get it as a part of true legislation, so we don't have to debate it every time?
The force issue came up as a major complaint with the bill. Why was it in the bill in the first place, and why was it changed?
It's like anything: You have two attorneys look at a piece of legislation and one word can certainly stand out. Anytime you have a word that's utilized in a different manner, you have to fix it. I think it makes it much more sound, not having that word in there.
You mentioned this debate coming up repeatedly. You don't believe existing federal guidelines and rules on funding for abortion are sufficient?
This is the law, and it codifies the existing law that we have.
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at email@example.com.