How do you assess the Trump administration so far?
Cummings: This, in truth, is the fundamental, constitutional question that the next Congress to be chosen by the American People in November will be obligated by our oath of office to answer. It is a sobering and historic question that has been raised, inescapably, by the actions and inactions of this President while in office, as well as by the ongoing congressional, civil and criminal inquiries regarding his prior conduct. This question is far more profound than any disagreements about public policy – one of such lasting and consequential import that, for the unity and future of our democratic republic, must be answered by the next Congress so completely that those who support this President and those who disagree will reach a unified answer as to how our nation must respond. We are fighting for the soul of our democracy with deeply troubling revelations coming to light every day, despite the President’s resistance and that of his Administration and their congressional allies - and the facts revealed to date are alarming. Yet, I remain confident that our nation and her Constitution will survive this turmoil. In the 1974 words of Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, “My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution.”
Do you support or oppose the federal tax cuts passed in 2017? What effect do you believe they will have on the economy?
Cummings: The Republicans’ 2017 tax bill will provide massive tax cuts to the wealthy while leaving middle-class families behind and ballooning the deficit by $1.5 trillion during the next decade. Far too many Maryland families will be harmed. Most experts expect any positive impact on our economy to be minor. Even more alarming, unless the American People elect a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, the Republicans will utilize the deficits that their tax bill has expanded in an attempt to justify forcing through substantial, partisan cuts in federal aid to education, health care and our social safety net. Along with other Democrats, I stand ready to reform our nation’s tax code in a transparent, bipartisan fashion that is revenue neutral, benefits working families and the middle class and preserves our commitment to education, health care and the social safety net.
Is the level of national debt a concern? What, if anything, should be done to reduce it or constrain its increase?
Cummings: As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has concluded, the current fiscal picture is a cause for concern, but no reason for alarm – as long as the growth in our national debt does not significantly compromise economic growth. This is why proposals to cut billions of dollars in non-defense funding from the government funding bill that Congress passed last month are misguided. This category of spending has borne the brunt of deficit reduction in recent years and — even after the increases that the recent bipartisan budget agreement provided — will remain well below historical levels. The Congressional Budget Office’s recent projections show that the aging of the population, rising health care costs, and other factors are significantly driving up the cost of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. As a result, even with further efforts to slow health care cost growth and find other efficiencies, total federal spending and revenues will need to be larger in relation to the size of the economy in coming years than they have been in the past. Demand-side (not supply-side) economic policies that stimulate expanded economic growth by supporting necessary spending by working families are the key. Unfortunately, the tax bill moved the budget in exactly the wrong direction and should be reformed with measures that increase the average take-home pay of working families.
Is the level of economic inequality in the United States a problem, and if so, what should the federal government do to address it?
Cummings: Several years ago, Senator Elizabeth Warren and I launched an initiative called “the Middle Class Prosperity Project” because middle class wages have remained flat even as worker productivity has been increasing to historic levels and major corporations are thriving. The cost of basic necessities like housing, health care, education and transportation has been rising faster than wage growth, forcing Americans to work longer and harder — even as many sink deeper into debt. Our conclusion: America should adopt the economic policy reforms recommended by Nobel Laureate and Columbia economics professor Joseph E. Stiglitz: “Some would argue,” Dr. Stiglitz has observed, “that the economy needs this inequality to continue to grow. We now have enough data to show that this is simply not true. Greater inequality leads to lower growth and more instability.” “What does create jobs,” he has continued, “is demand: where there is demand, America’s firms … will create the jobs to satisfy that demand. Our growing inequality is in fact weakening demand – one of the reasons that inequality is bad for economic performance.” We all understand this — but we have been fighting, politically, during this whole period since the 1980s, about how to accomplish this. So, from our perspective, in order to move forward toward that “opportunity for all” that we are pursuing, we must get the “supply-side” and the “demand-side” forces working together.
Should federal gun laws be changed, and if so, how?
Cummings: Yes. Our system of background checks should be strengthened and rigorously enforced, and the domestic possession of military-grade assault weapons should be significantly limited. Gun violence has devastated the lives of tens of thousands of American families every year, including my own. Yet, opposition by the NRA has prevented us from taking the reasonable steps that would better protect us, including an expanded and more effective background check system and assuring that those with serious mental health issues do not have access to firearms. For example, in past sessions of Congress, I have been proud to be among those leading the fight to pass the bipartisan Gun Trafficking Prevention Act of 2015 [H.R. 3455], which would have directly addressed concerns by law enforcement officials who testified that a dedicated federal firearms trafficking statute would help them combat the flow of thousands of firearms to violent criminals, international drug cartels, and a host of other dangerous people. Our legislation would have made firearms trafficking a federal crime and impose stronger penalties for “straw purchasers” who buy guns for convicted felons and others who are prohibited from buying guns on their own.
What should Congress do with respect to the Affordable Care Act? Should it be strengthened, and if so, how? Should it be scrapped? If so, what if anything should replace it?
Cummings: I have long supported universal access to healthcare under a single-payer system based upon expansion of Medicare to all Americans at birth. Although I have strongly supported the Affordable Care Act as an important first step toward this goal, I was disappointed that we were unable to overcome opposition to a public option in the legislation. I continue to believe that creating a public option for Americans in the individual market, together with stronger federal efforts to control the rising cost of prescription drugs, would significantly improve the ability of all Americans to afford the high-quality health care that every human being deserves.
What role should the federal government play in helping cities like Baltimore?
: Released in 2015 by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, the Baltimore Regional Plan for Sustainable Development, funded by a $3.5 million Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, provides workable guidelines for the federal roles in working with our Region, focusing upon the areas of housing, workforce development and public transportation. < https://www.baltometro.org/our-work/the-opportunity-collaborative
>. I strongly support the initiatives outlined in this Plan. In addition, as a world leader in 21st Century health care, Baltimore’s economy is directly strengthened by federal efforts to expand affordable health care to every American. I will continue to strongly advocate for strong federal, state and local partnerships in all of these critical areas, as well as federal support for our port, BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, and our national role as a major, inter-modal transportation hub.
What can Congress do to address the opioid epidemic?
Cummings: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and I have introduced proposed federal legislation that will begin to provide the sustained federal resources needed by local and state health providers to treat the opioid crisis like the critical public health emergency it has become. Our proposed federal legislation would provide $100 billion over the next ten years, targeting a major share of these new resources directly to our nation’s hardest hit communities as they mobilize to provide the medically-assisted treatment that has been shown to work. Tragically, some of those targeted communities are close to home. This is why, under our CARE Act, we estimate that Maryland would receive more than $98 million each year from federal formula grants. Based upon the extent of documented need, $48 million annually would be directed to our Maryland state government, $14 million annually to Baltimore City, and just over $10 million to Baltimore County. Competitive grants could increase that federal funding. To more effectively and humanely combat the disease of addiction and save lives, the CARE Act also would provide funds for research, train health professionals to diagnose and treat substance use disorders, and provide $500 million annually to purchase naloxone at discounted prices and provide it to first-responders and public health agencies.
What changes if any should Congress make to our immigration and deportation laws and policies?
Cummings: We need immigration reform that will ensure strong border security, reasonable financial penalties, and a path to legal residency for the nearly 12 million undocumented workers already here in the U.S. (and a path to citizenship for many, including the Dreamers brought here as minors). In this way, we can strengthen our country for years to come. There is a broad-based consensus that the U.S. immigration system is broken. The number of foreign-born people residing in the United States is at the highest level in U.S. history and has reached a proportion of the U.S. population—12.6 percent—not seen since the early 20th Century. I have many concerns regarding the protection and security of our borders, as well as transitioning immigrants to permanent resident status. Resolving problems associated with illegal immigration also requires enforcing sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants. Congress continues to take action to improve both of these policy areas. I also recognize, however, that enforcement alone will not solve the problem. The combination of stronger border security, reasonable financial penalties, and a path to legal residency / citizenship will allow us to regain our territorial sovereignty. I will work in a bipartisan manner for the passage of reform that balances the needs of our economy with national security and upholds the principles reflected in our nation’s immigration history.
Should the United States continue with the free trade policies it pursued for the last several decades, or should it enact restrictions in an attempt to help domestic industries?
Cummings: With some caveats regarding implementation, free trade has been good for our country – and higher tarrifs, generally, are not. International trade is an essential part of our economy (nearly 25% of our annual GDP). At the same time, however, for millions of Americans, global trade has failed to live up to its promise—with too many countries breaking the rules and too many corporations outsourcing jobs at the expense of American workers and communities. All too often, trade agreements have boosted the profits of large corporations, while at the same time failing to protect workers’ rights, labor standards, the environment, and public health. We need to end the race to the bottom and develop trade policies that support jobs in America. Any future trade agreements must make sure that our trading partners cannot undercut American workers by taking shortcuts on labor policy or the environment. We should fight to significantly strengthen enforcement of existing trade rules and the tools we have, including holding countries accountable on currency manipulation and significantly expanding enforcement resources. These are the standards I believe must be applied to any future trade agreements. Our trade agreements must protect workers and the environment and not undermine access to critically-needed prescription drugs.
Do you support the Iran nuclear deal?
Cummings: Yes. The long-standing, non-partisan and publicly-declared foreign policy commitment of the United States is that we will do whatever is required to prevent Iran from possessing nuclear weapons. On separate tracks, we also have a serious national interest in limiting Iran’s missile development program and countering Iran’s destabilizing actions in the middle east. Although I would have preferred even more stringent and comprehensive limitations upon Iran’s ability to construct and deploy a nuclear weapon, some of our best nuclear scientists concluded that, without approval and implementation of the JCPOA, the current “breakout time” for Iran’s ability to produce an operational nuclear weapon was only months. I concluded that the JCPOA significantly enhanced our ability to change that deadly timetable, both immediately and in the longer term. Iran was required to reduce the number of its centrifuges by two-thirds, cease production of weapons-grade plutonium, halt construction of a heavy-water reactor, get rid of 98 percent of its existing enriched uranium, and halt enrichment of uranium above 3.67 percent purity. That resolution to the immediate threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program was compelling, as were the longer-term security capabilities gained by the intrusive nature of the inspections provided by the JCPOA and our nation’s unilateral ability to “snap back” the whole range of sanctions in the event of any future Iranian noncompliance.
How should the United States address the rise of North Korea’s nuclear program?
Cummings: North Korea is perhaps the most repressive regime on the planet. It has conducted several nuclear tests and is attempting to develop the capability to put a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile that could directly threaten the United States. We must protect America and our allies, press China and Russia to restrain North Korea, and sharpen the choices for Pyongyang to convince it to abandon its illegal nuclear and missile programs.