Health Care, Immigration, Energy and Football: A Conversation With Congressman Joe Barton

It’s not often that I am glaringly, irretrievably wrong.  Sure, I may flub a number or two, but as a guy who has been trained to see both sides of an argument and anticipate the other side’s best shot, when it comes to Texas Congressman Joe Barton, boy did I swing and miss.  And not gracefully, either.

It was back in December, and as I was preparing to take a final exam I noticed a story hit the wire about a Republican congressman from Texas who was advocating legislation which, as I interpreted it, would essentially push a playoff system on NCAA football.  As much as I was personally in favor of a playoff system in football–as I mentioned to the congressman and here at America’s Right before, I was not only in the room when the Bowl Championship Series was unveiled, but my Alma Mater also got the short end of the BCS stick in 2004–I was absolutely frustrated that, at a time when the GOP should be trying to show America that it once again understands that the federal government has its limits, here was a congressman who had been so good on energy and immigration issues arguing that the government should be involved in college football.

A sampling of what I wrote on December 9, 2009, in A GOP Fumble in Progress:

Over and over again, the GOP is hearing from the American public that we want less government intervention in our lives, that we want more adherence to our founders’ ideals and founding documents. This bill should have been shelved indefinitely, in that there is no constitutional authority whatsoever permitting congressional intervention in collegiate sports or anything even close, and that every legislative effort at this time should be focused on preventing the Democrats from murdering our economy with health care reform and cap-and-trade.

To a certain degree, I still feel that way.  To me, for the sake of appearance, it still looks like Barton’s legislation oversteps congressional authority.  However, perhaps it is the Auburn Tiger in me, or perhaps it is just my affinity for a deliciously fantastic argument, whatever the reason I simply cannot help but make a near complete 180-degree turn and agree with the good congressman.

For more information on what precipitated my about-face, you’ll have to read to the end of the conversation I had with Congressman Barton last Wednesday.  In the meantime, before you get to the end, he has some very interesting things to say on the possibility of repealing the Democrats’ health care reform, about the impact of illegal immigration on health care, and the possible return of cap-and-trade.  Our time was limited, and of course I spent a lot of it talking about football, so I look forward to getting into more depth with the congressman at a later time — that is, if he’ll let me.

*     *     *

America’s Right: First, Congressman Barton, I want to thank you for not only taking the time out today for me, but also for all of the assistance that your office has provided with regard to hydraulic fracturing and other energy issues in the past.  Now, I do have some questions about health care reform and other issues, but I would be remiss if I did not ask about the energy policy we’ve seen a glimpse of today.  So, first of all, does the president’s small step forward today [Wednesday, March 31, 2010] do enough in terms of offshore drilling?

Congressman Joe Barton: I haven’t read the exact text yet and I don’t know what the implementation statement is.  But, you know, it is a positive step by the president saying that he wants to go forward.  I am not opposed to that at all, but what we really need is explicit instructions to the Minerals Management Service, that they go through the permitting process and expedite it and develop the process that is designed to facilitate, in an environmentally-acceptable fashion, the leasing programs and exploration programs and, if they find things that are commercial, the production programs.

And that is just saying that you want to allow it — if the bureaucracy continues to find reasons to say “no” and drag their feet and slow things down, then it doesn’t mean anything at all. But, as I said, I haven’t read the exact text yet and I don’t know what the implementation statement is.

AR: Absolutely.  Fair enough.  Now, in terms of health care, a lot of folks from outside of Texas might not know that you have been in Congress since Ronald Reagan’s second term –

JB: That’s right.

AR: Because of that tenure, you have had the chance to see the evolution of the modern Republican Party.  As a conservative, you have seen high points and low points.  Before getting into specifics with regard to the health care reform just recently signed into law, how has the reality of that bill changed the GOP?

JB: Well, I don’t know that the bill itself has changed the GOP.  I think that because of the cost of the bill, there are going to be more people who look favorably toward the GOP if, in fact, we can coherently delineate a policy to change or repeal it.  This bill is not popular.  It is not going to become popular in spite of what the president and his advisers might think.  And if it is implemented, fully implemented, it is going to become more unpopular, so we are the party that, if the voters have the willingness, has the ability to change the bad parts of the bill and make a health care policy that America actually supports.

The health care bill which is now law is the worst major bill to become law since I have been in the Congress, so as Republicans, our obligation is to do everything possible to help organize political operatives and hope for the elected people to help us to repeal the worst parts of the bill.

AR: Speaking of Republicans, I guess what I was trying to ask was whether you think that the overreach of this administration has shaken a political party that, for a while there, looked as though it had forgotten or at least abandoned its conservative roots?

JB: Well, I think that Barack Obama becoming president and the policies which followed has energized conservatives all over America, and also independents and some conservative Democrats.  And I think they are looking for an alternative to the Democrat Party and I hope the Republican Party can be that alternative.

AR: For Republicans, the word of the week seems to be “repeal.” Even if the electoral result in November is as positive as I think it will be for Republicans, can you really repeal the Democrats’ health care reform in the sense of the word, or is it more about denying funding and gutting the most offensive and patently unconstitutional provisions?  What is the process involved?

JB: Well, if you go back to 1989, they passed the health care bill that Ronald Reagan signed.  There, Reagan signed the bill and then President Bush signed the repeal of it a year later.  And that was a bi-partisan bill and the people that mainly opposed that bill were senior citizens.  This bill is opposed by all ranks, by the rank-and-file of every segment of America, so I don’t think it’s inconceivable that we could actually repeal a big part of it, nor do I think it’s inconceivable that the president might accept that repeal — because his own political party would vote with us to override his veto if he vetoes it.

Yes, I think that it’s possible.  If we don’t have that kind of strength after the election in November, I think it is very conceivable that a Republican Congress would definitely not fund implementations of some of the worst parts of the bill, and you would probably get some bi-partisan support on that approach. So, while I do think that it is very possible that we will get the House back and make a very big move toward getting the Senate back, I don’t think that we will have a veto-proof majority by ourselves.  If we are going to overturn presidential vetoes, we are going to have to do so with bi-partisan support and, again, if there are enough conservative Democrats and Blue Dog Democrats, that is possible.

Still, I am absolutely certain that this bill as it currently now is law might not be implemented in its current form.  It is simply too detrimental to too many Americans.

AR: I agree.  And when you hear about Caterpillar and John Deere and AT&T and everything else, we are starting to see that come out.  When it comes down to repealing the bill, though, how–politically speaking–do the Republicans plan on getting around the inevitable arguments from the opposition?  For instance, we saw Barbara Boxer on the Senate floor not too long ago saying that Republicans bent on repealing the bill would be taking away benefits from children, taking away tax credits from — well, will it be a new political “third rail?”  Do you think that the level of popular opposition against this new law will prevent that?

JB: Well, you know, it is a debatable proposition.  The primary benefits in the bill that I think will be maintained is coverage for pre-existing conditions, and Republicans support covering pre-existing conditions, just as we support preventing rescission of an insurance policy unless something was said fraudulently in the application.  So those two parts, we will maintain.

And it is not that expensive from a cost standpoint to maintain those, but the mandates, the employer mandates, the employee mandates, the tax increases, the Medicare cuts … we are not going to mandate that and we are not going to mandate–at least I would oppose mandating–the expansion of Medicaid to include 133 percent of poverty level in America.  The states cannot support the states’ share of that, and even according to the CBO almost one-half of Medicaid expansion is due to illegal aliens in this country.  And I do not believe that it is a requirement or guarantee that we fund routine health care for people who come into this country illegally.  I do not thing that is an electoral winner for the Democrats and, quite honestly, I am not sure that the people who come into this country illegally expect that kind of benefit.

AR: Well, I would argue with you about that point from an entitlement society standpoint.  Nevertheless, what do you think will be the implications of, with regard to health care reform, illegal immigration?  I mean, the cost alone –

JB: It is going to put the immigration debate front-and-center at some point in time.  If you try to implement that, it will increase the opposition to amnesty overall.

You know, I believe that people who come into this country illegally need to go back to their country, pay a fine, or have some sort of probationary period so that they can come back legally.  I really don’t see how you maintain law and order if you acknowledge that people who broke your primary law–illegal entry into the country–are allowed to stay with no penalty and no requirement that they return to their home country.

So, you know, if you start expanding guaranteed entitlement benefits, you’d better really begin to enforce the immigration laws on the books, and I would think that you would have absolute oppositions to these amnesty programs.

AR: That’s all well and good, but the Democrats were obviously able to twist enough arms to pass health care reform.  What do you think the chances are of successfully opposing comprehensive immigration reform like we saw back in 2006?

JB: I don’t think the Democrats have the stomach for that fight.  I don’t think their moderates and people in the swing districts are going to want to have to come down that trail.  I think, if you try to force them, the tide has turned enough that we will beat them on it.

AR: Is it frustrating to work so hard in opposing so much of this agenda coming from the left and then see someone like [Senator Lindsay] Graham, who is a very nice man, who I have met a long time ago on a few occasions, come out and sponsor an energy bill and look as though he is going to sponsor an immigration reform bill?

JB: I have not spoken to the senator for a while, so I cannot comment on what his motives are.  But what little I know about the South Carolina electorate, and the electorate that voted for him, I would be surprised if they support that.  I mean, I am all for bi-partisanship and working together, but I’d like to see bi-partisan policies that are in the middle, rather than where we’ve been ending up, which are with policies that, in my opinion, are left of center.

AR: Speaking of a possible new energy bill from the Senate, between the hacked “Climate-Gate” e-mails and the calls for Al Gore to come back to Capitol Hill and correct his record, do you think that cap-and-trade will pass?

JB: No, no, no.  It is incomprehensible to me.  I think the bloom is off the rose on that one.  All these revelations about how they faked the numbers and how they crunched the numbers and all that — I think they’re done.  I think they have reached the high water mark, and it is going to be a long time before that has any political viability.  When it comes to the open-ended questions asked of Americans about what concerns them most, it doesn’t even make the top twenty-five.  Global warming is not something too many people are concerned about.

AR: Not now, especially.  People are concerned about jobs.  Now, stepping away from all that, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you about for a while now … I don’t think anyone would disagree that the overreaching tendencies of this administration has brought out in Republicans a new-found understanding of the merits of a limited federal government.  Is that a fair assessment?

JB: I think that is fair. I think most conservative Republicans have always felt that way.

AR: And would you agree that an integral part of the argument against health care reform is centered on the idea that the federal government has no business in the insurance industry to the point which the government mandates how insurers evaluate risk and decide whether or not to provide coverage?

JB: I would agree with that.  Conservative Republicans support free markets and we only intervene in the markets when there is a market malfunction.

AR: Last year, you introduced the College Football Playoff Act of 2009.

JB: That is true.  It is still in play.

AR: Now, I am an Auburn University alum.  We went undefeated in the SEC and got robbed of a championship shot in 2004. So, I am overwhelmingly in favor of a playoff system in college football.  But the question remains — if the federal government has no business forcing insurance companies to change the way they provide coverage to their insurers, what business does it have forcing a playoff upon the NCAA?

JB: Well, use your same logic.  I said that we only intervene if there is a market imperfection — the BCS [Bowl Championship Series] is not a market.  It is not a free market.  It is a cartel.  The playoff system is the antithesis of a cartel. It IS a market.  It would let the people prove their point on the field of play; that’s the point of a playoff where any college football team in America that’s at that level could have a chance to win the national championship.

It is also interstate commerce.  And while we seem to view sports as something that is just a recreational activity, but big-time college football is big-time interstate commerce, and if the market isn’t working–for example, in the ten years of the BCS I think that twelve teams have played in the so-called national championship game–I’ve got no problems intellectually maintaining that, as a free market conservative, I am being consitent by supporting the playoff system.

Incidentally, my bill does not mandate the playoff system. It simply says that the BCS cannot call itself the “National Championship Series” or the “National Championship Game” if it is not as a consequence of some sort of open playoff, which we leave up to the BCS.  We don’t dictate what it should be.

AR: I have got to tell you — I was actually in the room in Birmingham in July 2008 when former SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer unveiled the BCS for the first time to a bunch of puzzled-looking reporters.  I remember talking to [then Florida Gators head coach and now head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks] Steve Spurrier afterward and he made a whole lot of arguments in favor of a playoff system, but as much as it makes complete, obvious sense I’ve never heard the words “free market” used in a “settle it on the field” argument before.

JB: Look at it logically.  I mean, that’s what a playoff is.  The teams that do the best on the field would get into the playoff and, if they keep playing well, they go forward.  That’s why Butler was in the Final Four.  You know, Butler would never make it if they have a football team — Butler doesn’t have a prayer in NCAA national championship football, but they are still going on the basketball court in Indianapolis because it is an open playoff.

AR: Oh, I agree.  But can you understand how people already weary of government interference in their lives see government interference in the Major League Baseball steroids debate, and now government interference in college football — can you understand how people would naturally be a little weary of that?

JB: Yes, but we are really not interfering.  We are just trying to get them to do what they would have done in the first place.  I mean, what is more indicative of a free market than a playoff?  And yet you’ve got a cartel right now.  We are trying to destroy the cartel.

AR: Makes sense to me.  Thank you, congressman.  I may have to call on you when cap-and-trade heats up.  There is nobody better.  In the meantime, I definitely appreciate your taking the time out for me.

JB: Yes, sir.  Good to talk with you.



  1. Hugh says:

    Health Care is a States Rights’ issue. Congress may defund ObamaCare, but if the Supreme Court does not declare it unconstitutional the it will come back to bite We the People.

  2. JD says:

    Excellent article as usual Jeff I really enjoy your site and your opinions. And Roll Tide :)

  3. CJBernard says:

    Great interview, Jeff. I remember you running an article a long time ago when Mr. Barton authored the GOP energy policy response to cap & trade. I was impressed then, and I’m even more impressed now.

    However, I still would like to see Republicans talking about repealing the healthcare bill in total. It seemed like Mr. Barton wanted to keep some of it.

    What do you think? Is that okay?


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  6. great interview.

  7. The time when the GOP should be trying to show America that it once again understands that the federal government has its limits.

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