News Gleaner: It's Allyson's Turn - 9/14/2006
Schwartz sits for a Q&A session with the News Gleaner.
Allyson Schwartz is the Congresswoman of the 13th Congressional District, which includes the majority of Northeast Philadelphia, and Montgomery County. She is running for re-election against Republican Raj Bhakta. A 14-year veteran as a State Senator, Ms. Schwartz is also finishing her first term in congress. She sat with the Editorial Board of the News Gleaner last week, to talk about that first term, her plans for the future and the election. The questions were asked by Executive Editor Patrick McNally, Staff Writer William Rice and Guest Editor Jordan Fenster.
News Gleaner- The 13th Congressional district encompasses both Northeast Philadelphia and Montgomery County. How do you balance the needs of each region?
Allyson Schwartz- I've been in Congress for two years, but also was the state senator in Northeast Philadelphia and Montgomery County, so I have long experience in both areas. Northeast Philadelphia has its own particular needs. I am very excited about my success in bringing back federal dollars for economic development and revitalization. We work closely with the community development corporations in meeting very specific goals. With Mayfair CDC, we're working on Frankford and Torresdale Avenues, and of course the development we're doing on the North Delaware is very exciting. A lot f the issues that I deal with in Washington are ones that need to find common ground not just in the district, but all over the country.
NG - You served for over a decade in the state senate. What are the differences between getting things done in Washington, compared to Harrisburg?
A.S. - It's an interesting comparison, I suppose. One of the things is that as a Democrat, I served all of my years in a Republican controlled senate. I served with Republican and Democratic governors, and I figured out a way to get things done. You know how proud I am of the work I've done with health care, and getting the CHIP program done as a national model, and the work that I did in my district as well. It's about how to get things done. Some of those skills have transferred well. The republicans control the house, senate and the White House. They're not looking for common ground or finding solutions. They
decide what they want, and push it through. We can make enough of an argument, as we did with Social Security. We need to find a solution to social security, but we have to do it together. But at least we stopped privatization.
It was important for me to have my experience as a legislator. I'm really proud of one of the first things that I did was attend a hearing about oil spills on the Delaware River. As a result of working with Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) and Rob Andrews (D-NJ) Jim Saxton (R-DE) and me, we put together the Delaware River Protection Act. And it got passed. It was tucked into another bill, but we got it done. It was pretty exciting.
NG - Is there any issue in your first term that you haven't been able to get done?
A.S. - There are some big issues. We've been debating energy policy. I've been involved with discussions where in an $18 billion bill, a huge amount would go to oil industries. I want to see those dollars used to develop alternatives to fossil fuel. We need to do this to address the energy crisis, and reduce our reliance on foreign oil. I pump my own gas. The price came down (to below $3 per gallon), and it was like we got a gift. It's hard for people to fill their tanks and go to work and afford everything else for their families. We need more fuel efficient cars, and I want to buy American.
We need a real commitment. The President refuses to push for more fuel-efficient vehicles. We should improve the café standards; we should have fuel efficiency on light trucks and SUVs. We should be encouraging and giving incentives to the auto industry to create more fuel-efficient cars. They are playing catch-up, but I hope that they are successful.
NG - This past Monday marked the fifth anniversary of the attacks on 9/11. What more needs to be done to make America more secure?
The 9/11 commission came out and showed too many failures. We have our own fights here. I have met with security at the Ports and at SEPTA. I met with the Police Department. I wanted to know more, and to know what more we could do at the Federal level.
The Federal government has been slow to do what they need to do with Port security. I offered an amendment to the budget committee to put money back - they were cutting (funding) for port security. It took too long to agree on providing ID cards for port workers. It was tested in Wilmington and the administration finally made a decision, but why did it take so long? I'm concerned about communication between first responders. One of the things that the Police and SEPTA said to me is that there is no way for the Philadelphia Police to talk to the SEPTA Police under ground. This is completely unacceptable. And yet SEPTA applied for federal dollars to take care of that, and were denied. The federal government should say that every one of our major cities has to meet requirements, and be given federal dollars to help them do it.
I don't think that we should spend money on anything that makes no sense. We need a short-term solution, which I've pushed for, and they have a temporary fix. But we also need a long-term solution, and we're going to need the federal government to help.
I called a meeting in Washington of SEPTA, city (officials) and Police. They came down to brief the other members of congress. This is the kind of work I can do, to move things forward. To use the power of my office.
NG - A lot of the recommendations by the 9/11 Commission were slow to be implemented, or not at all. Do you think that we'll see them implemented, if Democrats take control of the house?
A.S. - We've already put forward a 'real' security plan. At the top of that list is to implement the suggestions of the 9/11 Commission. They did a terrific job of identifying some of the problems, and the ways that we have to deal with them. It's at the top of our agenda, if the Democrats do take control. We still have this president for two years - he's still in charge. But if we can win back the congress that can ask hard questions of this president and demand answers, and can move forward, that's what we're hoping to do.
NG - What are the difficulties of keeping America secure, without infringing on the basic rights of Americans?
A.S. - It's a difficult balance we have to look at. I believe that there are serious threats against America. It's a reality that is hard to live with. We have to make sure that we have the finest intelligence, that they talk to each other and act on the information.
The president just said that watch lists would be handed over in a timely fashion (to airports). Why wasn't that done four years ago? There should be no one on a watch list that gets into this country, through an airport, or any border.
I voted for the Patriot Act, but have concerns about this administration overstepping its bounds. Even the Supreme Court has said he has. But I do believe that we have to give the federal government the authority, within the law, to protect Americans.
We have to make sure that we have a ready and able military, which is now really stretched, and our recruitment is not reaching its goals. We've used a lot of equipment, that will have to be replaced.
We have the best military in the world. I've met with young men and women who have come back from Iraq, and told me about their experiences. I've met with young men and women who want to enter our academies, and serve their country. They are as patriotic as any of us. They need the government to supply them with what they need, so that they can do a good job.
NG - Can you expand on the security issue, such as wire tapping?
A.S. - The president overstepped his bounds with wire tapping, and going after telephone records in the broadest way possible. He's been told that by the courts. The president can go to the courts 72 hours afterward, to explain why he did something. He doesn't want to do that.
We have three branches of government, and the American people rely on the checks and balances of the system of government. The president no longer acknowledges two of the branches, the legislature and the courts, are overstepping his bounds. Instead of looking where the real risks are where people might do us harm, this takes time and attention away from the kind of the intelligence that we should be doing. It's illegal and ineffective.
Repercussions have to be made, but impeachment is not going to happen. We have to define what the parameters are, to call the administration to report back to us. If something is not working, tell us. We are together in wanting to fight terrorism, so don't do it secretly. We represent people, and it's our job to demand that type of accountability from the president, and it's his job to respond.
NG - What is your response to President Bush recently admitting the secret prisons?
It's pretty stunning. Our first priority is to protect Americans. But we are also a leader of the nations of the world. To disrespect the international way that prisoners are treated... I have no sympathy for prisoners, but I do want to make sure that Americans are treated the right way. The best way to do that is to treat our prisoners the right way. But why hold some of them for years? Why not charge them and punish them for terrorist acts.
The reason that I called for the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld is because of the way that the war in Iraq has been handled. Because of his failures and lack of anticipation throughout the conflict, the miscalculations of the Iraqi forces. Instead of recognizing his mistakes, he is unacceptable for him to stay that we're going to stay the course. He feels that nothing he did was wrong, and he would have done nothing differently.
The big thing is to bring our reserve troops home. They have been there far too long, some on their second tours. It's very difficult for their families. We also have to let the Iraqis know that we are not there to stay. But we do have to make sure that their government is functioning. To do that, we'll probably have to bring in some of the other international players. We have to finish the mission, and bring our young men and women home.
NG - You voted against a house resolution to support the war in Iraq, without putting in a time table.
A.S. - It was not a meaningful resolution. It was an effort to stay the course and support the president. To say to the president that everything that you're doing is fine, that's not right.
We have to listen to people on the ground, and people who understand the culture and politics in and around Iraq.
NG - You have proposed a bill with Congressman Joe Schwarz (D-MI), which would offer tax credits to employers who hire Iraq veterans. Whose idea was that?
Actually, it was mine. I am the daughter of a Korean War veteran. He left when I was three, and returned when I was five. I know from personal experience that it's not easy for families. I think that the military is doing a better job, but if we can help them get a job and get back into civilian life, they'll feel good about what they're doing. They just came back from a tough assignment, so to help them get back into the work force, and to help employers who want to take a risk, is a good solution. We have 165 co-sponsors, Republicans and Democrats. I'd really like to get it done.
NG - Recently, you secured funding to help stem the rising tide of gun violence in Philadelphia. What else needs to be done?
A.S. - We are all concerned about this. We need to support law enforcement, and get the guns out of the hands of the criminals. One of the weakest links is to stop the illegal "Straw Sales" of guns. We have to do more. We have to hold gun dealers accountable, and put gun purchasers in jail. The police talk about Philadelphia becoming a hub of illegal gun sales. I'm getting involved. We need federal prosecutors to be much more aggressive. There's legislation moving in the house that would make it easier to buy guns. We're moving in the wrong direction.
I have no issue with legal gun buyers, who know what they are doing and are competent gun owners. That's not what we're talking about here. We have to work with law enforcement, but also to give them the tools to enforce the laws.
Philadelphia used to have different licensing requirements, where you had to show a purpose before purchasing a gun. But legal use isn't the problem - it's illegal guns. I support Philadelphia being able to limit gun purchasers to one per month, but that would be to go after these "Straw" purchasers, someone who buys 10 or 20 guns, drives around the block and sells them to illegal dealers. I support federal legislation for background checks, and to prevent interstate transport of guns.
NG - Has Mayor Street contacted you about help with gun crime?
A.S. - He has not approached me. I was as distressed as I'm sure your readers were, when the Police Commissioner said that there was nothing he could do about it. Things were quieter in August, so maybe some of the things that they did made a difference. I talk to people on the ground, and the police I talked to say that we can do a much better job of how we deploy police officers. Having more police is a great idea. Working with neighborhood groups is good. They work with police to stop crime, before it becomes violent crime. Town Watches looking out for each other works as well. We can't have a revolving door, with people with bench warrants. If they have a crime that involves a gun, there should be a bigger penalty, and it doesn't always happen.
We're fortunate in Northeast Philadelphia. We have the lowest crime rate in the city. We want to make sure that continues. People in the Northeast are proud of the neighborhoods.
NG - If the democrats had control of the house, would there be a push to renew the ban on assault weapons?
A.S. - Yes. There's no reason for anybody to have a semi-automatic assault rifle. The ban worked, and should be renewed.
NG - What can be done at the federal level, to stop the outsourcing of jobs from America?
A.S. - Part of the existing tax code allows for companies not to pay taxes on profits made offshore. It's called a loophole, but it's not - it is just allowed. We should be doing the opposite. We should be giving incentives to keep the jobs here. We should make those changes in the tax code. We also have to help business pay the benefits that they need to pay.
We do know that our workers are more productive. Wages are stagnant, but productivity is up. Our workers are highly skilled. Some businesses have come back from offshore, because our workers are better. They have to look at the rich assets that we have right here. We should be doing more promotion about the fantastic opportunities for young people, to work and stay in the area.
Finally, we need to educate our young people, and continue to have lifelong learning, to make sure that people can have skills for the 21st century. You have to help people to get the skills that maybe they didn't need 25 years ago.
NG - You were involved with the Coast Guard and Maritime Protection Act. How safe are our ports?
A.S. - My district includes the ports. Here we have a lot of fruit and produce coming through. A company told me that they pay for their products when the ship leaves the other shore. We have to make sure that the cargo is screened. The better that it is screened at the port of origin, the better off we are. That means building good relationships with foreign ports. But we still have to screen it at some level.
The perimeters of our ports have to be secure. A lot of our commerce comes from the ports. I want to put more tax dollars into port security. That might be one of the few things that we get done before we leave the congress before elections.
The Coast Guard has acted magnificently. Many of us watched them during Hurricane Katrina. I visited New Orleans, and they couldn't say enough about the Coast Guard. We watched them do what we expect our government to do. To go into an extreme emergency situation like that, we expect that response. You can't say the same about other branches of the federal government.
NG - Are we ready to respond to another emergency, on a federal level?
A.S. - I don't think that we made enough improvements. We need to do things in anticipation of things like Katrina. There's a whole list of things that could be done differently, just by having competence at the head of FEMA.
There are about 1,000 reservists, if you want to use that term, from FEMA, who are available to be called up in an emergency. Unlike reservists from the military, they cannot get time off from work. I was contacted by a constituent, who was one of these reservists. He was asked three times to go to New Orleans, but his employer told him that he job would not be waiting for him.
There's not many of them. It would have been helpful to have more skilled people in emergencies, so I have a bill that would allow FEMA to allow this happen. I found out from a constituent, and we're trying to do something about it.
NG - Your opponent (Raj Bhakta) says that he believes in people, and is independent of his party, you believe in government and the strict Democratic platform. How do you respond?
A.S. - I think anybody who has seen my work, knows that it's all about the people that I represent, and about the quality of their lives. I worked in the private sector for 20 years, and made a choice to go into public service. I served 14 years in the state senate and two in the congress. I pledged to work on behalf of my constituents, to make Washington work for us. Sometimes that means fighting as I do to address the concerns of everyday Americans.
My opponent likes to talk about his family heritage, but I can tell you that I think every day that my mother came to this country as a refugee from the holocaust. She believed and loved this country, and instilled that in me.
It isn't just about each one of us - we have to stop thinking just of ourselves. It's also about looking out for one another. That will make us stronger as a family, community and a country.