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February 8, 2012

John Yarmuth talks politics, policy with LEO Weekly

The morning before U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth filed for re-election in January, LEO Weekly spoke with him at his campaign headquarters on Brownsboro Road. Among the topics discussed with the third-term congressman — founder and former publisher of LEO — were the political landscape in Washington, D.C., his hope that the Democratic Party will take back the majority in the House of Representatives, and why he’s running for office again.

John Yarmuth: One of the things that went into my thought process (on running again) was that as frustrating as it has been this last year in the minority, when you’re frustrated because of what I would consider poor behavior on the other side of the aisle, that’s the worst time to walk away. And I think the more extreme and radical and reckless that the congressional Republicans get, the more important it is for countervailing voices to be heard. And one of the things that you learn very quickly in the House is that if you go to the House expecting to pass all sorts of legislation, no matter if you’re in the minority or majority, you’re going to get a rude awakening, because you’re one of 435 and you’re going to need 217 people to go along with you to get anything done. So you have to look at the other elements of the role…

We’ve helped hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Louisvillians over five years get benefits they were entitled to, helped them with their immigration cases, with their passports. Even some military veterans with their medals they had earned but had not gotten. There’s so many ways you can serve the community in this role, and that compensates for the frustration you might feel when policies you espouse are not implemented in Washington. On the other hand, it’s a very hard job and it’s a physically difficult job, and I don’t want to be there when I’m 80, I can assure you of that. But as long as the emotional rewards are there, which they continue to be, then I love serving. I’ve never done anything as meaningful, even LEO.

LEO: Are you confident the Democrats can take back the House of Representatives in the elections this year?

JY: I am optimistic that we will be extremely competitive, and right now the odds are that we will take over the House. A lot can change in 10 months, I’m fully aware of that. But I do believe that if the election was today, we would have a better than 50/50 chance of taking back the House.

I think it’s a combination of things. It’s a combination of what is now perceived to be the radical agenda of congressional Republicans, with the recklessness with which they have handled their responsibilities as a majority party in the House. I think it’s the less-than-appealing presidential field on the Republican side. And I think a succession of issues have made the delineation between the two parties very clear. And I think while it is accurately perceived by the voters as being a polarized environment, that’s not necessarily a horrible thing in the sense that voters now have a clear choice. I don’t think there’s any question that voters think they have a clear choice between a party in Congress that wants to largely undo the social safety net and social contract in this country, that has very minimal respect for the potential of the federal government to do good things, and a party that believes government has and must play an important role in making lives better for all American citizens. I think the choice is clear, from the Paul Ryan budget that voucherizes Medicare, and essentially over time eliminates Medicare, makes Draconian cuts in many of the important programs that help hard-working families in this country, and the payroll tax debate, the debt ceiling debate — all of those things help draw a very clear line between Republicans and Democrats in Congress…

LEO: How united do you think Republicans are going to be over the next year? … Do you think their unity will continue, or are the cracks already beginning to show?

JY: There’s no question that the cracks are beginning to show. I don’t think that will necessarily manifest itself in the Republican presidential election. I don’t think that Republicans are necessarily going to sit at home in that election because I think they’re pretty much united in their dislike of the president. But I think it might very well — during the course of the next year — reinforce the problem that we have in the House, and that is that the Republicans really do have a radical agenda and are willing to do reckless things in order to advance an ideological perspective.

The Tea Party members on the Republican side are not going away. And we’re going to have a debate at the end of February on the payroll tax and unemployment benefits, the same debate that we had in December. We’re going to have another debate on shutting down the government, vis-à-vis the debt ceiling. And you’re going to see a split in the Republican Party there, which might highlight what I consider to be a very radical element in the Republican Party that has been wagging the tail of the dog in the House.

LEO: Is Democratic leadership pushing or encouraging you to go on more cable and radio talk shows and make you more of a national figure, speaking to their issues?

JY: I don’t know if they’re trying to make me a national figure, I wouldn’t say that. But I’m one of the people in the House that leadership trusts to go on and be an articulate spokesperson for us. And it wasn’t always like that.

It’s nice to be trusted that way. And also because when I do that, they don’t tell me what to say. And I don’t always exactly mouth the party line. I don’t use their talking points. But it is nice that they have that confidence in me.

(In the campaign) I will continue to talk about working to make this an economy and society that works for everybody, and not just the few. That’s what I said back in 2006, and I continue to say. My mantra is that government is the way we organize our responsibilities to each other, and I’m going to continue to be a voice for that theme that government has an important role to play in American life, economically and in other ways.

It’s a message that we can’t ignore government. Government is going to continue to play a very important role in our lives, and we need to make government work better. And one of the things that I’ve begun working on that is a passion of mine is to make it work more fairly, to get money out of politics. And I’m going to continue to work on campaign finance. I’m going to continue to push for a constitutional amendment to undo Citizens United. There is overwhelming public opposition to that decision, and to the impact it’s had. It’s going to get stronger after this election. So I’m very excited about continuing to work on that. We need to have the people own the government and not special interests, and that’s who owns it now.

LEO: Even though the payroll tax cut debate went the Democrats’ way at the end of the year, some have said they’re falling into a trap calling the expiration of the payroll tax cut a tax increase. Then on the same hand, if the Bush tax cuts for the rich expire, then that makes it easier to be labeled a tax increase, making it harder to get rid of.

JY: I think that is a very good point, and I’ve actually used that connection the other way. Saying that Republicans cannot be against extending the payroll tax cuts and be for the Bush tax cuts, because the payroll tax cuts actually save the average family more money than the Bush tax cuts do. But the distinction — and I’m sure it’s not a distinction that really is relevant in the national debate — the payroll tax cut really is a temporary deal. I don’t think anybody right now believes that it would ever be extended past the end of this year. But the principle is absolutely right, and it could make it hard.

LEO: By the end of this year, do you think construction on the Ohio River Bridges Project will have started?

JY: The key right now is the General Assembly here, and I’m certainly optimistic. I think it would be a tragedy if we didn’t exploit this very rare opportunity to move forward on this project. But if the General Assembly does what I think it will do, what we need to have done here, then yes, it will either be at the end of this year or early next year, there will be a great deal of activity in terms of bidding processes and so forth over the course of 2012. They will start almost immediately. And this is the best opportunity we’ve had yet to get these projects under way. And the bridges project will require a smaller percentage of the state roads funds than they have already approved in past budgets.

LEO: There’s yet to be a big name challenger come out against you this year, and I haven’t heard chatter about one coming. Is the GOP afraid to run against you? Do they think you’re unbeatable in this district?

JY: I think that there are a lot of Republicans who think it would be impossible to beat me this year. And I don’t want to dissuade them from thinking that way. (laughs)