ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Rep. Joe Morelle (D-25) is getting acclimated in Congress after his first full year on Capitol Hill.
While in Rochester this week, Morelle made time for a sit-down interview, to talk about the political climate, the differences between Washington and Albany, his re-election campaign, and more:
Adam Chodak: Let’s get started, so you have been in Washington for more than a year, general impressions?
Joe Morelle: Yes, there are a lot of differences between Washington and Albany, a couple of
things have struck me: The inability for the Senate and how to communicate effectively. The
second is, and I’m not sure if this is anomalous because I have only been there during the Trump administration, but when I was in Albany, any governors that I worked with were always an essential part of discussion on important public policy issues, and that is not the case with the White House. I mean they really have not engaged for the most part in conversations about the issues that we are working on.
You can see the results of that, in that we have not been able to reach legislative agreement on some of the really important issues that we care about: how to deal with preexisting conditions in health care, lowering the cost of prescription drugs, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure.
So I think there has really been a lack of leadership in particular of this White House, but hopefully that will change over the next year and moving forward.
AC: We have seen some activity in progress with trade deals, your thoughts on that?
JM: Yeah, the USMCA, which is obviously the Canadian, Mexican one, great improvement over NAFTA. This original trade deal sent to the House I think was lacking in many ways. Labor protections, environmental protections, protections on pharmaceutical prices and we were able to make significant improvements to it, so I am pleased it got done.
Obviously Canada is an important trading partner of New York, and I was involved a fair amount with a number of folks in the house side, I’m pleased it worked out. I had a conference with my colleagues, who I had worked with, and it was good.
People will sometimes say to me, “Well you don’t want to get this done? Won’t this give the president the win?” and I say “This isn’t about giving the President a win, it’s about giving the American public a win.” Prescription drugs and infrastructure seem to be bipartisan, there seems to be a great deal of consensus, perhaps not about the details, but definitely for the big picture, I remain hopeful with.
AC: Any other piece of legislation that you have been involved with that you’ve been proud of?
JM: One of the things that I am currently working on; several years ago I was at the state level, we were working on how to end surprise billing in New York, and I was one of the co-authors of what became a national model in many ways, but the New York law does not protect people who are under self-funded plans — that covers about 100 million Americans. I have been working on, very closely, with people like Donna Shalala, and we have been working to take consumers out of the surprise bills. So we want to take consumers out of that and work to protect both consumers and providers. Because I have worked in New York, I have been able to have an impact here, and I want to use that to help in a national way.
AC: Because New York is no longer providing DMV information to some federal authorities, the Trump administration has said New Yorkers cannot participate in the trusted travelers program. What are your thoughts on that? Should Cuomo ease those restrictions? Where should we go?
JM: I’m going to have a conversation with the governor, hopefully in the next week or so. I don’t think these are mutually exclusive, what I do know is that law enforcement was considered when the state was implementing the Green Light registration. And law enforcement can get whatever information they want to, and I think this is a little bit of the Trump administration trying to flex its muscle and try to punish the states that have opted to provide to folks that are undocumented to stop them from getting access to driver’s licenses.
The truth is that it is really important for us to ensure that people are insured when they drive, they are licensed when they drive. I don’t think that needs to be exclusive, I think we can meet all the needs of the enforcement community and still allow for what NY has done. So hopefully we can find a solution to this, I am anxious to talk to Cuomo about what his conversation with the President was about.
AC: When I interviewed Congressman Reed about Ukraine, he declined to answer this, but do you think it’s appropriate for a President to withhold military aid in order to garner some type of personal advantage or to forward their own personal interest when dealing with a foreign government?
JM: That’s effectively what the decision to impeach was all about. There is compelling evidence that he withheld military aid. It’s clearly not appropriate. If you look at what the founders did and why impeachment exists — I think that the President committed an impeachable offense.
AC: What is your take on the quid-pro quo transcript?
JM: We didn’t rely entirely on that phone call. There’s a mountains of evidence, testimony from Ambassador Sondland, testimony from Ambassador Yovanovitch, testimony from a number of people in the National Security Administration, frankly had John Bolton been willing to testify in front of the House and I think his book is clearly going to say that he felt there was quid pro quo and there was clearly a deal on the table he called it a drug deal. We couldn’t get Rudy Giuliani to testify so if there was exculpatory evidence which means evidence which cleared the President and provided evidence that he had not commit a crime we would have hoped that they would have they would have presented that to us, but it was just simply that phone call which the President calls perfect which it was clearly not, but it was far beyond that and had the Senate paid any attention to it or looked it is mountains of evidence that shows a clear pattern that the President did this, did this intentionally and used a number of players including Rudy Giuliani, it was not clear what role he was playing, he was not an officer of the government, he was the President’s personal lawyer, he had private business dealings in Ukraine but it’s clear they went after people, but I think it’s true too that if you look at Lt. Col. Vindman who testified and I was really heartened to see so many come forward on the part of the national defense, on the part of the diplomatic corps who testified who do their job who are faithful to their oath, they came forward and all told the same story so that evidence was there it’s not simply that phone call that was troubling as troubling as that was.
AC: When I brought those points up to Congressman Reed, who had said he hadn’t seen a smoking gun, that we hadn’t heard from people who were in the room where it happened, he said he would have liked to see that play out in court to see whether they would fall under executive privilege, I relayed the Democratic concern that this was a stalling tactic, to which he said that may or may not be, but he would have liked to see it play out in court. Do you think it was a mistake not to bring that to the court to try to compel them to testify?
JM: We could not have done that. Here’s the truth of the matter that in each of the two modern impeachments, Nixon and Clinton, the DOJ appointed special prosecutors to review the case, take depositions, gather information and in both cases the Nixon WH and the Clinton WH provided Congress with thousands and thousands of documents, they took depositions, they participated. What President Trump has claimed is the executive privilege extends far beyond anything any President has every claimed, number one, and number two he extended executive privilege to people that didn’t even work in the White House. I mean, trying to say that somehow Rudy Giuliani is protected under executive privilege, he never worked for the United States government, he never worked for the United States government, you can’t just extend privilege to those that you know you like and they didn’t provide a single document…
AC: Why not press that in the court system then?
JM: Well, we could have but I think the fear at the time was that would literally draw us out literally 4 or 5 or 6 months and put us right in the middle of a presidential campaign and I think there was sensitivity to the fact that we don’t want to be doing that and frankly Adam there were reams of evidence already, it wasn’t necessary. It’s almost as though we have enough evidence to present the case, could there be more evidence, absolutely, would we have liked to see even more evidence, absolutely, but what you had was sufficient to make the case, I think we did that in the hopes that it would be resolved one way or another and now this is clearly being proven out as we’re headed to the 2020 election people will make whatever decision they’re going to make. I think history will judge harshly President Trump, not only in his activities related to Ukraine but essentially in the way he stonewalled the United States Congress and preventing us from doing one of the most important responsibilities we have under Article I which is oversight of of the Executive. And that’s why the Presidency is limited in so many ways because the Founding Fathers basically knew that executive overreach was the great concern they had and you have to remember they had just a decade earlier come through the war for independence so they were very fearful of a monarchy, they were fearful of many of the things that were happening right now and I dare say if some of the Founding Fathers were here and seeing what the President was doing I believe, reading the Federalist Papers, reading back on the historical lead-up to the Constitution being written, I think they would be aghast.
AC: Would you call this a constitutional crisis?
JM: I think we’re nearing one. I say this to people when the President of the United States declines to answer subpoenas that I rightfully submitted to him by the Congress, when he prevents any member of his administration from talking to people, when he says to his DOJ and attorney general I want this person who has been convicted of a crime to have their sentence reduced despite sentence recommendations and now 2,000 prosecutors from the DOJ urging the AG to step down, when there is no attempt to follow the rule of law, I think we are at a constitutional crisis.
AC: You said we’re nearing one, but it sounds like your saying we’re at one…
JM: I think we’re at the point that if the President continues to fail to meet subpoenas, remember there are a number of other oversight responsibilities being carried out today, I’m not sure what happens when you get to a point where the Supreme Court orders the President to meet those subpoenas and if the President refuses to do it then we’re clearly in the middle of a constitutional crisis.
AC: When I speak with some people who still support the President or now support the President they may look at these claims about Ukraine or how he might act on Twitter and they certainly don’t condone it, but they point to the economic numbers and they say I don’t want to disrupt a strong economy, I think he’s doing a good job there, what’s your response there?
JM: So I think it’s interesting. I’d say most Presidents get too much credit and/or too much blame for the economy. There are a lot of forces going on around the world, we’re an interconnected economy. But the truth of the matter is this economy has been expanding since 2008 under Barack Obama who stepped in and stabilized the banking system, saved the automotive industry and if you look at the number of jobs created it was actually greater under Obama’s tenure than it is in President Trump’s. I think the economy is continuing to be fine. The fundamentals continue to be in place for the economy to grow and the stock market to respond. I think one of the things people ought to be concerned about is whether that economy has expanded for all people and when you look at the disparate impacts of the economy on people, income inequality, that’s a real concern, which we have not fully addressed so I think we’re going to continue to see an economy that grows. We’ve had Jerome Powell the Fed chair come and testify before the budget committee which I serve on. The fundamentals are still in place, the economy will continue to grow so I don’t think a change in the White House will affect that, but I will say this, when you have a President who has violated his oath who literally lies on an ongoing basis, I mean, there’s documentation, this isn’t just Joe Morelle’s opinion I think people should think very carefully about the kind of leadership they want in this country, whether we’re going to respect the rule of law, whether we’re going to get back to a what I call normalcy with the President, who doesn’t spend all day tweeting about his enemies and taking retribution because people in the military or national security apparatus did their job, I think people need to think carefully about that.
AC: My last question is a sneaky one. I know that you haven’t endorsed anyone for the Democratic primary so I’m doing to ask it this way: Do you see any platforms out there from any of the candidates that you think would work best for Western New York?
JM: I tend to believe in government that is limited. All the government we need but only the government we need. I think my friend Louise Slaughter used to say that so I want to make sure we’re addressing economic concerns in this country, that we allow people who have not participated in our economy to more fully participate, but I think any efforts to move the country to the far left or the far right to either extreme I don’t think that’s where the people are so I think so I’d like to see a platform that’s obviously more center left, I’m a social progressive, but also thinks about how we’re going to continue to move forward with economic growth and giving opportunity for people.
AC: Any particular candidate’s platform that’s appealing to you in that regard?
JM: There are a number of candidates that I have enormous respect for. I think a great deal about Joe Biden, I think he’s done a good job. I don’t think it’s run a particularly good campaign, but he has a long history of service. I think Mayor Buttigieg is a refreshing new voice in the Democratic Party, I think Elizabeth Warren has said some really important things about wealth in the United States and income disparity so I think there are a number of candidates, I’m sure I’m forgetting a handful and I obviously had a chance to work a little with Mayor Bloomberg and I know there’s criticisms of many of the things he’s said, but I worked with him on the whole issue of gun registration and the explosion of guns on our nation’s streets so I think we have a lot of talented people, so I’m looking forward it. I’m not taking a position right now. Sort of focused on being the best member of the House of Representatives I can be right now.
AC: Anything else that I might have missed that you might want to touch on?
JM: I’m really excited about the direction of the community, obviously I have a good relationship with the new county executive. You’re seeing a number of changes that are going to happen at the state delegation level, we’re going to have a lot of new and exciting people so I think it’s a good time for Monroe County and the region. I have real concerns about the nation and where we’re going and the direction and the tenor of the debate and the lack of civility, but generally I’m optimistic about the region and what we’re doing in Rochester.
AC: Any thoughts about your new opponent George Mitris?
JM: I haven’t had a chance to have a conversation. I don’t really know anything about him. And I’m really focused and my team is really focused for the next several months on trying to be the best I can be and representing the region. There will come a time for politics in the fall and to me it’s still an eternity away, several months anyway.