In advance of next month's General Election, The Register-Herald invited all candidates on the ballot for U.S. Senator, U.S. House of Representatives, Governor, State Supreme Court, Attorney General and Agriculture Commissioner to appear before our editorial board. During the next several days we will feature those in-depth interviews. Today's candidate is incumbent Democrat Nick Rahall running for the U.S. House of Representatives, Third Congressional District.
In these difficult economic times, what can you do as a member of Congress to spur economic growth and jobs creation in the 3rd District of West Virginia?
RAHALL: Continue what I feel has been a positive record, using my experience and seniority to work across party lines to build coalitions that will help achieve legislative victories for us in southern West Virginia. I have worked for 36 years on behalf of the people in general, legislatively I mean, and personally in issues they may have with the federal government. So that's a dual role as a member of Congress and I feel I have done that successfully. And I'm running on that positive record. The 3rd congressional district has had a great deal of progress, I believe attributable directly to my efforts in the U.S. Congress.
First, infrastructure, whether it's highways and byways, or water and sewage projects or technology infrastructure. I've always said my record is built upon the three T's -- transportation, technology and tourism. I'll be glad to go into each one of those specifically but that's a broad sweep of what I feel is necessary for producing economic growth in southern West Virginia. Our coal industry is No. 1, without a question. Coal is No. 1, has been, is, and always will be. At the same time, that should not prevent us from diversifying our economy to seeking other avenues of employment, whether it's the three T's that I mentioned, or help to small businesses, or our agriculture industry, or our wood products industry, or our oil and gas industry, we have many other valuable resources upon which to draw in West Virginia for employment for our people. And that's No. 1 -- employment. Jobs, jobs, and jobs. Over the 36 years that I have really been in the trenches, working for our coal miners, their health, their safety which is No. 1, their retirement benefits and the coal industry itself. I have been there every day on the job, working for our coal industry and our coal miners. I'm proud of that record and I'll point to it any day of the week.
But again, as I say, we have to diversify and I believe I've used experience in the Congress to work across party lines, regardless of who controls the House of Representatives, regardless of who's in the White House. I don't agree with every president 100 percent. My record will show that. I do believe in giving a new president the benefit of the doubt, whether he be Republican or Democrat, in supporting his effort and hope and pray, as all Americans, I believe, that any new president succeeds for the best interests of our country.
For two years now the coal industry in West Virginia, along with some political leaders, have complained that the Environmental Protection Agency has engaged in what they call a "war on coal' that has thwarted operators from either opening new mines or expanding old ones. Is this true, or just rhetoric? If it is true, what can you do to reverse the EPA's policy?
RAHALL: It's true, No. 1. Yes, there's a war on coal. Let me quickly add that there are other factors affecting the coal industry today as well. As everybody in southern West Virginia knows, the industry is cyclical in nature. It's had its ups and downs many times over the decades. Today, it's, I guess for lack of a better term, a perfect storm that's affecting our coal industry. You have first and foremost, overstringent, overreaching, overzealous EPA regulations, without a doubt. You have, No. 2, the low price of natural gas is strongly affecting our coal industry. And those layoffs we've unfortunately seen of late will reference that factor. You've seen a mild winter that we went through last winter. You've seen a world economy in which the demand, especially for our high metallurgical, high quality, southern West Virginia coal is down. That demand is down. And a final factor would be that the high quality, easily reachable coal reserves are being mined out.
Now in the long term, that could mean more jobs, because that means you have to go underground to get the coal, which obviously employs more coal miners. But right now we're in a downturn. There's no question about it. And those factors which I just mentioned are all coming together to affect the coal industry. My heart goes out to those being laid off today. The announcements tear every one of us apart when they come out about layoffs in our southern West Virginia coalfields. I salute the coal companies that reach out and try to help those that are being laid off find other avenues of employment in other operations. That must continue to be done.
But you know it's a difficult time our coal industry is facing right now. And that goes back to my original comment, we need to diversify our economy so that we have other sources of employment on which to rely. We need increased worker training so we can retain our laid off coal miners for these other industries I've referenced earlier. That's an important part of helping us adjust to these downturns for which we're all too familiar in the coalfields.
Those "country roads" in West Virginia might put folks in a nostalgic mood, but many certainly are not conducive to commerce, nor are they pleasant to folks living in rural pockets trying to get to and from work and school on a daily basis. How can you funnel more federal dollars into our state for roads?
RAHALL: It's tough today. It's very tough. We all know the budget climate in which we operate. In addition, there is no more earmarking of the federal dollars that I and the late Sen. Robert Byrd used so effectively over the decades to help our roads in southern West Virginia. The infrastructure bill we just passed, the transportation bill called Map-21, we passed this past summer, maintains current federal funding for two years and three months. I had hoped it would be a robust, more than current funding, six-year bill. But the alternative was a cut of 30 percent from current levels that many in the majority party in the House, especially the new members, the so-called deficit hawks and more extreme right, wanted no transportation bill at all and you will see that in their 40 some votes that voted against this bill. They are of a philosophy, no federal funding any more, devolve transportation to the states and let them take care of their transportation needs. Unworkable. Totally unworkable. States cannot come up with additional funding.
Our Interstate system started in 1956 under Dwight Eisenhower was not a state versus state issue. It was a national program that built our Interstate program. We can't have federal highways going to the state border then falling off a cliff because the other states are not doing their fair share. Our transportation system has to be national in scope and it has to have sufficient funding. This is kind of, you know, we should claim it's a victory because we beat back those efforts to cut back federal funding and, most important, thanks to my efforts, we maintained the $2.18 that West Virginia gets back for every dollar we pay into the highway trust fund through our gas taxes. Superb return. That's always a very critical issue in these reauthorizations because other states come after West Virginia for getting that over 100 percent return. So that's why I consider what we did, although current funding levels, actually a victory, considering the climate in which we are. No earmarks, therefore there's no additional designations for King Coal, for Coalfields Expressway, for Shawnee Parkway, for Route 35 over in Mason County, the interchange at Bluefield, no additional earmarks for those highways that we've gotten earmarks in the past.
What we'll have to do under today's climate is work with the state, which has been excellent about doing their 20 percent match on these federal dollars, but they have to come up with more money out of their discretionary spending that they're given out of every transportation bill we do. We're in deep consultation with the secretary and the governor's office about increasing the state's discretional fund to go beyond the minimum federal match for funding for these roads that I mentioned. But in the day of no earmarks, it's very difficult. I'm a defender of the earmarks. It doesn't build a road completely. No, you never can earmark enough money to build an entire King Coal or a Coalfields Expressway highway. No, that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about using the earmarks as a leverage to obtain other dollars, whether they be other government dollars, other foundation dollars, other private sector dollars, which earmarks are often used for. It can be the spark to ignite a project. Earmarks, I believe, are our constitutional duty as members of Congress, I say to my Tea Party friends who defend the Constitution so hard. It's our constitutional duty to decide where this money is spent, not the president of the United States, who would have more authority when you eliminate earmarks, or any unelected bureaucracy downtown. And as long as they fulfill a questionnaire that we have in our Transportation Infrastructure Committee that asked a whole series of questions, that scrubs, scrutinizes, in every which way, every request, then I'm for earmarks, as long nobody benefits personally, as long as no private entity benefits financially, as long as it has local support from everybody, then I believe there is a role for earmarking for the federal government.
Do you think it's time Congress consider raising the federal gas tax?
RAHALL: Let me say, we're going to have to step up to the plate sooner or later and address the funding issue. There are myriad of ways we can do that. That being one of them. You have tolling, you have public-private partnerships, which I favor much more above all the other alternatives. Public-private partnerships have been used in West Virginia with the coal companies on the King Coal Highway down in Mingo County. We're exploring it now for the Coalfields Expressway, allowing coal companies to come in, mine the coal, leave the roadbed in place, saving the federal government millions of dollars to jump-start further expansion of these highways. Public-private partnerships are the No. 1 goal for financing these roads. Not only public-private partnerships, but using other sources of revenue as well, whether it's Appalachian Regional Commission or Economic Development Administration, other federal agencies, now because of no earmarking, because of the tight budget, we've got to think creatively. We've got to use innovative partnerships to fund not only transportation but a lot of other projects that we've been able to earmark in the past. And these innovative partnerships involve everybody, especially the private sector, because that's where we want the most involvement, first and foremost.
Our national debt is a whopping $16 trillion and growing every minute, one that some people see as a sword hanging over our nation. What can you do as a congressman to start drying up the red ink and put America back on the road to fiscal responsibility?
RAHALL: It's going to take a bipartisan solution. We were at the brink a year and half ago, when we went close to government shutdown, the last fiscal cliff. We're going to approach it again by the end of this fiscal year, another fiscal cliff that this country is going to face, because of that massive debt, because of the inability for us to work together in the Congress.
I have to say that Speaker (John) Boehner and President Obama came close a year or so ago to reaching that what you call the giant deal, the big deal, for not only having cuts, which are going to be necessary, but revenues on the other side of the ledger, coming in, increased revenues are going to be necessary as well. You had the two near an agreement. The president at the last minute wanted some additional revenues from the upper income groups. Speaker Boehner came in at the last minute, wanted additional cuts because what he had previously agreed to, he went back to his caucus, and those deficit hawks, the Tea Party I referenced earlier, said, no deal, Mr. Speaker. You got to get more than that. You got to squeeze the lemon harder than that to get deficit reduction, but you can't give in a penny on the revenue side. You cannot raise taxes one penny. The speaker's hands were tied. He had to go back to Obama and say the deal was off. So, it came that close.
Republicans have signed a pledge, the so-called Grover-Norquist pledge, that ties their hands on any revenue increases. Many of them wished they had not signed that. That presents an effective compromise that's necessary to reduce our deficit, which, you've hit it on the head, it does need to be reduced and we do need to get it under control. But those are the two big issues -- cutting on one side, and revenues on the other side.
Of that $16 trillion, and you've covered the reasons, the wars that we've been in, how much have they contributed to that?
RAHALL: That's a major cost, not only the two wars, but the Bush era tax cuts. President Clinton had it right, the arithmetic just doesn't add up. Those wars have cost us dearly. I salute our armed forces. I salute our men and women in uniform. They carry out their mission effectively. They are true American heroes. They carried out the policy as it came out of Washington.
But you have the cost of those two wars. You had the Bush era tax cuts that cost our economy dearly, that are major factors in that $16 trillion debt. Now you had the so-called Ryan budget coming along that is doubling down on tax cuts for the upper incomes. And this is where I vehemently disagree with the other side. Because not only do they want to extend the current Bush era tax cuts across the board, they want to extend it -- and I have voted for that in the past to give us more time. In 2010, I voted to extend all the Bush era tax cuts. So, I'm willing to go part way. I'm also willing to raise the threshold from $250,000 to $1 million and above, or whatever. I'm not stuck to that $250,000 threshold level. But there has to be some increase in those in the upper income tax brackets who agree they're not paying their fair share. Along comes the Ryan budget which would double down on the Bush era tax cuts by giving more tax cuts to the upper income group on top of the Bush era tax cuts amount to about $369,000 in additional tax cuts for the million and above tax groups. The arithmetic doesn't add up.
Iran's leader almost weekly intimates that he would use nuclear weapons to annihilate Israel and the United States, if we intervene. What kind of voice would you be on Capitol Hill for Israel in these difficult times or revolution and terror in the Middle East, as tensions begin to mount and a showdown seems imminent?
RAHALL: I strongly support Israel, their right to exist. They're an ally of ours in the region. They have been and always will be an ally of ours in the region. It's important to recognize that Iran cannot achieve a nuclear weapon. Our president has made that clear. The prime minister of Israel has made that clear. I think at the same time we cannot jump too quick.
I have voted for the tough sanctions. I'll vote for even tougher sanctions for Iran. Those sanctions, I believe, should be given time to work. War, striking at Iran, should be the absolute last resort -- I think Iraq has taught us that. I'm a little hesitant when the prime minister of Israel tries to interfere in American politics, as I believe he has and has taken criticism even back home on that last speech he gave in which he faulted the current administration for not drawing an absolute red line, or something, when his own intelligence, collaborated with our intelligence, would dispute when Iran would have the capability for a nuclear weapon. Those intelligence estimates are further down the road than what the prime minister of Israel would lead us to believe. So, while we have that strong relationship with Israel and it must always remain such, doesn't mean we don't disagree with friends at times.
And I have also, when it comes to foreign aid, felt there comes a time in our tough budget time we have to look at foreign aid and reductions across the board. Israel is our largest recipient of foreign aid. Some have attacked me because I'm for across the board cuts, therefore I'm not supporting Israel. That's a false attack. I believe that friends can disagree.
What about foreign aid to Libya where our ambassador and three other officials were murdered?
RAHALL: We have to get tough there. I'm not advocating either Libya or Egypt that we zero out all of a sudden our foreign aid to these countries. We have to, as President Obama did with the new president of Egypt when he got on the phone after these latest demonstrations and said, "Please don't fuel the fire." You have to crack down on them. And the president of Egypt did. We have disagreements there, but he is a democratically elected president. We supported the democratic revolution there as we have in other parts of the world. Then we go out and strike against the winner of those democratic processes. I don't believe we can do that. We have to learn we're not working with dictators any more in that region of the world. We're working with people that have been for the most part democratically elected, our friends. That's the case in Libya. Libya was the most western oriented presidency to come out of this Arab spring. So, no, we can't just go in and cut everything off immediately. But we have to crack down on those and find those that are responsible for these deadly attacks and the instigators of these revolutionaries that burned the American flag and have no respect for our values of our country.
Back in time, now. The 1960 presidential campaign mantra by Richard Nixon was "experience counts." How true is this in your case in this race?
RAHALL: I think it truly counts. I referenced it early on in this interview that I've been able to work across party lines, regardless of who controls the House of Representatives, regardless of who controls the White House. It's harder these days because the moderate Republicans I've worked with on issue after issue, they're now chairmen, which is OK. They're in control. They have a right to be chairmen. But they're really not in control of their committees.
Witness what happened on transportation, the committee on which I'm the top Democrat and would be chairman if Democrats ever gain control. Chairman (John) Mica (R-Fla.) and I get along very well. We've worked very well on anti-EPA bills. By the way, I have a list of all those bills and votes of mine, for anybody who says I'm defending EPA. There's eight pages of anti-EPA votes. But Chairman Mica, by his own admission, has not been in control of his committee because there's something like 18 new members of that committee who are Tea Party oriented. And they've made it tough for him. In his primary election, back in Florida, he was pitted against another incumbent member of Congress from his own state, in the Republican primary, a Tea Party member, who was accusing him of big spending when he authored the current transportation bill and used pictures of him at the White House and all that at the bill signing like has been done against me. But this was a fellow Republican using it against a moderate Republican.
So, what you're saying is being in Congress for 36 years is a distinct advantage over a novice who would come in?
RAHALL: I truly believe that. You have to know your colleagues. You have to be able to build the coalitions that are necessary. Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill used to say all politics is local. I would add politics is personal as well. You can disagree philosophically, but you have to be able to come together to do what is best for the country and that means compromise. That means compromise. Compromise built this country. Our Constitution is based on compromise. And yet these new Tea Party members will say that's not a word in their vocabulary. They didn't come to Washington to compromise. We don't know what the word means, Rahall. What are you talking about, compromise? That's not for the best interests of our country.
And I might add when look, just to get political for a moment, you look at my opponent's contributions you'll find where most of the money is coming from, those Tea Party members of the House of Representatives. Nobody on the committee which I serve and work with has given to him, not many, if any moderate Republicans. You'll find them all Tea Party members that have contributed to him.
This is your opportunity to summarize your campaign and tell the voters why they should elect you in November.
RAHALL: I feel I have represented the values of southern West Virginia across the spectrum. I have disagreed with this president on numerous issues. No. 1 is EPA. No. 2 is cap-and-trade. No. 3 is abortion. No. 4 is gay marriage. No. 5 is trade deals that have come before the Congress, whether it's NAFTA, CAFTA, or anything thereafter. I have voted against them because I view them as outsourcing of American jobs. I have voted against this president on the Eric Holder contempt citation before the Congress. There are six right off the top of my head where I have disagreed with this administration.
I'm not a rubber stamp for any president. I'm a rubber stamp for the values of southern West Virginia, the people that I have been honored and humbled to represent for 36 years. And I truly believe that I've been there for them again and again, whether its legislatively or personally. And I believe we need to continue to build on this solid foundation that we have in southern West Virginia. Now is not the time to go back. Its not the time to pass a Draconian budget that would wreak havoc in Medicare as we know it. Now is not the time to take those Draconian cuts. We must continue to build long-term partnerships at all levels of government and the private sector in order to move southern West Virginia forward. Democrat, Republican, profit, nonprofit -- all these, conservative, liberal. I don't consider myself extreme right wing. I don't consider myself left wing. I consider myself an extreme moderate. I believe it's necessary for us to bring everybody together to work for the future of southern West Virginia. So that's what I base my record on. Democrat or Republican, they're not mutually exclusive, they should be inclusive. And we all should be in this together.