‘We’ve got to make a choice’

Congressman believes less federal spending, tax reform will grow economy

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The November 2010 elections ushered in renewed strength for the Republican Party and put the national spotlight on Eric Cantor, congressman from Virginia’s Seventh District.
After Republicans retook the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, Cantor was elected majority leader, the chamber’s No. 2 leadership position. He was elected minority whip in the House in 2008.

Cantor’s new role gave Virginia a senior position in Congress — a void created in 2008 when Sen. John Warner retired after serving 30 years in the Senate. 
Since his election as majority leader in November, Cantor has been an aggressive advocate for House Republicans’ agenda, becoming a key voice in the party’s public battles with the Obama administration and a Senate controlled by Democrats.

Cantor’s primary battle cry has been fighting the country’s rising deficits, which in the current year is expected to rise to $1.6 trillion. He says all aspects of the federal budget need to be considered, including defense spending and popular entitlement programs. He has suggested Social Security reform for Americans under the age of 55.

Politicians — and economists — disagree on whether government spending bolsters or hinders the economy, but the majority leader’s stance is clear. “Less government spending, to me, means more private sector jobs,” says Cantor. “And we are in the situation right now where we are borrowing nearly 40 cents of every dollar that Washington spends. That’s simply unsustainable.”

Republicans have come under fire for focusing too much on budget cuts and not enough on plans for creating jobs. That second piece has been a recent focus for the party. “Fiscal discipline is the first part,” Cantor says. “The next part is about growth and how we provide an environment for job creators to get back into the game.”

To Cantor, business growth comes from reducing regulations, cutting the corporate tax rate, promoting free trade and tax reform. “We’re trying to work to create an environment that fosters long-term growth and therefore bring down unemployment,” he says.

In addition to his policy clashes with Democrats, Cantor is leading a congressional caucus where one-third of its members are new. Eighty-seven of the 241 Republicans in the House were first elected in 2010, and many of these are members of the tea party, who aren’t afraid to publicly denounce fellow Republican congressmen who they believe aren’t doing enough to slash federal spending.

Virginia Business sat down with Cantor in his office in the U.S. Capitol to discuss his leadership role, economic growth plan, health care and his fight to cut the federal deficit.  The discussion occurred in late March before the congressional budget battle that threatened to shut down the federal government had concluded.

Virginia Business: You’ve been majority leader now for a few months.  Is there anything about the job that surprised you?

Cantor: It’s a job that’s full of challenges. I’m very privileged to be the one representing the Seventh District of Virginia first and foremost. And then to have the privilege of being elected majority leader in the U.S. House. I don’t know if it’s surprising or just [that] it’s certainly a job that holds a lot of potential to try and do some good.  But it also is one that requires a lot of work. I’ve just been trying to live up to the expectations of the people who put me here.

VB: Do any of the priorities of being the majority leader and representing your constituents ever come in conflict, and how do you juggle those roles?

Cantor:  I always start, hopefully, by referring back to the people that elect me at home and try to look through the prism of their eyes. And whether it’s a small-business person in Midlothian or the working mom in the West End of Richmond, I am trying to focus on what it is that I think is so important to them, and that is to get this economy going again so there can be more jobs. And by being majority leader, I hope to be able to take that vision and that goal to work for the constituents that elect me, as well as my colleagues who have put me in this position. So hopefully we can do good, not only for the commonwealth but for the country.

VB:   You talk about the economy, and obviously reducing the deficit is a [key priority], and a lot of Americans agree with that. But the polls seem to show that they don’t agree with cutting some entitlement programs, or cutting defense, or a lot of things that have been suggested.  How do you sell [your ideas] to the American public?

Cantor: Well first of all, less government spending, to me, means more private-sector jobs. And we are in the situation right now where we are borrowing nearly 40 cents of every dollar that Washington spends. That’s simply unsustainable. And we’ve got to make a choice here [about] what kind of country we’re going to be.

Either we’re going to be the country that’s reflected in the protests across Europe over the last year and a half, where you’ve got young people joining others in the streets demanding more retirement benefits. These are young people who have barely entered their careers yet. And that to me means people are conditioned to think the government is the thing to rely on for your economic future. 

Or we’re going to be about what this country saw about a year, year and a half ago and continues to see, and that is people taking to the town squares and the community halls insisting the explosive growth of government stop, and that we really are more about individual-driven opportunity. 

And if that’s what we’re going to be, we [need] to shrink government. We’ve got to rebalance the public sector and the private sector. We’ve got to make sure that the government borrowing is reduced because right now, given the levels of debt that we’re incurring and those required to service the deficit going forward, you’re going to see eventually the crowding out of private capital. You’re going to see inflation come up, interest rates go up, and taxes raised.  That’s not what we want.  We want to make sure that opportunity is there for everybody and not just the super wealthy.

I’m concerned about the working mom in Mechanicsville just as I’m concerned about some of the big investors that may live in the city. We really want to make sure that everybody has a fair shot, and that means reducing the reach of government, ensuring that there’s an even playing field of opportunity.

NewsVB:   And in looking at the deficit, is everything on the table — entitlement programs, defense?

Cantor: Absolutely.  We [have] to learn in this town that government needs to reflect the will of the people. And most families in Virginia and across the country are tightening their belts, having to do more with less. And it’s time that Washington does the same.  And that’s why you’re seeing such a focus on trying to instill some fiscal discipline and to get [our fiscal] house in order.  It is an essential part of trying to grow this economy.

But what we’re also saying is fiscal discipline is the first part.  The next part is about growth and how we provide an environment for job creators to get back into the game. And we’re going to be looking at an attempt to move a tax reform bill through Congress.

The Ways and Means Committee is already looking at that to bring down rates so that we can see job creators benefit [and] hire more people. We’re looking at items that promote free trade because their estimates are that we can create 250,000 new jobs nationally.  Many of those will be in Virginia for our exporters that will have access to more markets. 

And we’re going to try and continue to focus on and identify regulations that are being promulgated by this administration that are [standing] in the way of job growth.  And so we’re trying to work to create an environment that fosters long-term growth and therefore bring down unemployment.

VB:   What are you hearing from small business owners?  I know you’re going to do some job forums, but what kinds of things are you hearing from them?

Cantor:What I am hearing is there are many federal agencies here … pick your acronym … and most likely they are involved in something that is making it more difficult for a small-business person to keep the lights on or to create jobs. 

And so we’re going through a comprehensive assessment of what those regulations are and the need for us to stop the agencies from making it more difficult.  You [have the Environmental Protection Agency] that has simply run amok trying to replicate some of the ideological goals that were attempted last Congress and weren’t successful through the legislature, through the Congress.  Instead they’re trying to push them through the agency, through the rulemaking process.

We don’t want to raise the cost of energy right now.  We don’t want to make it more difficult for small businesses to hire people.  So we’re about focusing on trying to make sure we remove impediments at the same time we’re providing some of the growth prospects of tax reform and trade policy.

VB:   What is your assessment of the attempt by Sen.[Mark] Warner and the “Gang of Six” in the Senate to reduce the debt?

Cantor:  I think any time we have people coming together worried about the deficit [that it’s] good because that’s what we’re trying to do, is to bring down a deficit and to allow for less government spending and borrowing. I don’t agree with Senator Warner’s commitment to raising taxes. I don’t think that many people believe that Washington needs more revenues. I think they believe Washington needs to stop spending.

VB:   Have you gotten a lot of good ideas from the YouCut Initiative? [The program allows people to submit ideas online or with their cell phone to reduce the deficit.]

Cantor: Yes, we have. We’re continuing to [take] these ideas that come out of the YouCut program and bring them to the floor. In fact, that was our commitment prior to the election, that if we did assume majority, we would bring a bill to the floor every week that would cut spending. And that is consistent with what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to change the culture here.  I think what the election was about was the lack of results. People wanted to see an economy that was growing. They want to see jobs come back. And what happened was there was an agenda in place that was explosive in terms of the spending growth.

And we said, “Look, we’re going to be different.”  For once we’re going to come back in and say, “We’ve got to have a commitment every week to start cutting spending, start looking to the private sector and see what we can do for the private sector, the small businesses to create jobs.”

VB:   You’re continuing to try to defund [the federal health-care law].  What would be next after that?  What types of reform do you think we need to see in health care?

Cantor:  The health-care bill that passed last year was not a bill that did anything to address increasing costs. We’re seeing now premiums go up for everybody. We see the continued increasing costs of the government programs. And the mandates in the “ObamaCare” bill are going to really present problems to the Commonwealth of Virginia just like every other state.

So, what we’re saying is, focus on costs first.  That’s a way you can allow for folks to have more access to health-care coverage. We can do some of the things that people want and deserve. We can make sure their insurance companies don’t deny folks coverage for pre-existing conditions, but we can do it in a way by creating high-risk pools, by making sure that the cost of that coverage is not spread and borne by all, but that we can have states properly fund these high-risk pools along with some federal efforts, and then allow for competition. We’ve got to allow people to choose their own health care and not have Washington say, “We’re going to tell you what kind of health care is good.”  So it’s more of a patient-centered prescription, more of one encouraging choice and competition.

We also believe strongly you’ve got to get the lawyers out of the examining rooms. We all know that runaway litigation costs have added grossly to the bill of health care for families. These are some of the common-sense reforms that we’re going to be talking about and hopefully putting in place in our attempts to get health care right.

VB:   You’re the leader of a huge freshman class.  How does that make the job different?  How has it been to deal with so many new people in Congress?

Cantor: Well, look, a third of the Republican caucus is made up of first-timers. And this is a wave election. We have 87 new Republicans, nine new Democrats. And so this was an election in which the people of this country said “enough.” “Taxed Enough Already” is what the [tea party] acronym stands for. And that’s the spirit, I think, in which we come to this job. And that is to make sure that you stop the reach of government and you quell, if you will, or stop the appetite for more spending so that there’s no need for any more taxes, and we can see more money stay with the people who earn it so that we can continue to see growth in jobs for the next generation.  That’s what it’s all about.

VB:   In the wake of the tsunami in Japan, do you think that should affect Dominion’s [potential plan] to build a third nuclear reactor at Lake Anna?

Cantor: At this point, we don’t know all the facts in Japan.  I think what we do know is the situation surrounding the nuclear reactors was caused by the tsunami and not necessarily the earthquake.  And these are certainly factors to weigh.

My commitment is to see what lessons we can learn from the experience in Japan but, at the same time, recognize that nuclear power is an integral part of the energy mix of this country.  And we can and have proven to conduct nuclear policy for power in this country in a safe way.  And the president has embraced it, and I continue to embrace it as part of the mix. 

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