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Q&A: Utah Rep. Ben McAdams talks the Equality Act, gun control and what to do about health care

Utah Rep. Ben McAdams sat down with the Deseret News to discuss the issues facing the country.

SHARE Q&A: Utah Rep. Ben McAdams talks the Equality Act, gun control and what to do about health care
Congressman-elect Ben McAdams talks about his hopes and expectations as he prepares for his move to Washington, D.C., during an interview at the Salt Lake County complex on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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tah Rep. Ben McAdams recently sat down with the Deseret News to answer questions relating to immigration, the Equality Act, debt and the deficit, gun control, health care and the nature of bridge building in the Capitol. Here are his responses:

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: Could you give us an update on how things are going?

Ben McAdams: It’s been a busy nine months in Congress. I have really made it a priority to try and build bridges on both sides of the aisle to make sure that I want to be part of healing a broken Washington. I think in order to do that, collaborative policymaking has to start with collaborative relationships and having respect for each other and understanding the motivations and thinking of people who are trying to engage in the space and trying to solve problems, too. And so I’ve tried to do that with my nine months in Congress. I think Washington is incredibly broken and it’s going to take a lot of work to do that. 

DN: Who have you built bridges with in the past nine months?

BM: I had a close relationship coming in with Rep. John Curtis, because we were both mayors together. And so I think there’s a style of a mayor, which is, you don’t have time or attention to be partisan, you’ve got to get something done, you’ve got to come to an agreement and you recognize that there’s value from different perspectives. And at the end of the day, we can find common ground and we move forward. So John and I had a good relationship, our offices are across the hall from each other. We don’t always agree, nor is that what’s expected in this republic like we live in, but we work together, we talk to each other, and we try to find common ground. 

I have built some good relationships. A lot of the new members are the people who you get to know because you’re in a lot of new member trainings and things. So I got to know a lot of new members. I built a good relationship with Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, who (Deseret News reporter) Matthew Brown met and did an article about our bipartisan trip to the U.S.-Mexico border. And I joined the Problem Solvers Caucus, which is a group of Republicans and Democrats — in fact, we keep it an equal number. So the two-by-two approach, the Noah’s Ark approach to problem-solvers — you have to have one Republican one Democrat. And so right now, there are 24 Republicans, 24 Democrats who are members of the Problem Solvers Caucus. And I’ve really enjoyed my association with that group. We get together once a week for a meeting, usually a morning meeting, to just talk about legislation, and then how we can bring a problem-solvers mentality to break into the logjam in Washington.

Immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border

DN: What is the issue that has risen to the top for the Problem Solvers Caucus right now? 

BM: The most poignant example was we took a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border — that was a Problem Solvers trip. So there were 10 Republicans and seven Democrats who went to look at the situation and hopefully collaborate on finding some solutions. We came back from that trip, and that’s where we’ve all seen some of the disturbing images on the evening news, and people wanted to do something about that. We came back and the House had passed a bill to provide some humanitarian funding at the border. I voted for it. I think it was a good bill. It was broader reaching in that it was looking to solve some bigger issues and longer term issues relating to immigration, and it passed the House and it was dead on arrival in the Senate. 

Democrats don’t have a monopoly on compassion. Republicans don’t have a monopoly on security.

So the Senate passed legislation that was much more narrow in scope, focused on immediate challenges at the border. It did receive, on the Senate side, pretty strong bipartisan support. I want to say it got 85 votes, two or three no votes, and some people who were absent. But it passed with strong bipartisan support. And we were told that it was dead on arrival in the House. And the Problem Solvers came together and said, “You know, after what we just saw at the border, doing nothing is not an option. And sure, it would be great if we could solve all problems related to immigration in one bill. There’s not a will to do that.” And so we went to Republican and Democratic leadership in the House and said, “We want this bill that has passed the Senate, we want a clean vote on that border appropriations bill.” And we threw down the gauntlet and got coverage on that, and passed it, and then it was signed by the president. 

I’m pretty proud of that. But I think there’s still work to do on immigration, to be certain. But working together, we passed an important piece of legislation that helps streamline some of the system that was overwhelmed at the border, and also brings some humanitarian relief to people who are in some pretty awful situations. 

DN: That was difficult for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She took a lot of heat for that.

BM: As did the “blue dogs.” We were called out specifically — I’m a member of that group — and criticized specifically for that. But I stand by my vote, I was proud of it. And it was a vote in support of humanitarian relief for kids who are suffering at the border.

DN: You started this conversation by saying Washington is broken. Is this an example of it being broken?

BM: I don’t think so. I think it’s an example of where it worked. And I think at the crux of it working was Republicans and Democrats seeing that we have different opinions. But, you know, Democrats don’t have a monopoly on compassion. Republicans don’t have a monopoly on security. We went there and it really humanized each other. We saw it firsthand, which I think was important, but to see it at the same time as my Republican colleagues were seeing it — everybody broke down and cried at different points in this visit. And to see both sides feel compassion for the awful situation that’s happening at the border — and both sides, at least of the people who were on the trip, care about protecting the safety and security of our country. As mayor and briefings I received as mayor, there are dangerous people bringing dangerous things across the border into our country. And border security is important. The solution has to be bipartisan. And so it humanized and made real the challenges we face, but it humanized the decision-makers in a way that you could come back and say, “we’re going to work together to get this done.”

Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, conducts an interview in his new office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019.

Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, conducts an interview in his new office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019.

Cheryl Diaz Meyer, For the Deseret News

DN: If you could do one or two things more at the border, what would it be? How would you secure the safety and also show some compassion to those who are trying to come in?

BM: Well, I would first of all, (we should recognize) that the situation is much more complex — you want to paint one side as not compassionate and the other side as not caring about safety. That is a gross oversimplification of the challenges of the border. There are bad actors on both sides as well. But I think you can ascribe pure motives to people on both sides — not everybody on both sides. But there are actions that we take that are, I think, justified on the surface, but we have to recognize that they have unintended consequences. 

I’ll give a great example. We said the situation of families being separated at the border is un-American and beneath us. And so what we’ve done is we’ve said we are going to prioritize a family unit that arrives at the border, and they’re going to get priority processing. That’s the right thing to do. But one of the things that I saw while I was there was it also has an undesirable outcome in that some people realize, drug cartels realize and some people coming to the border realize that if you bring a child with you, you’re going to get bumped to the front of the line. And so while we were there, there was a 10-month-old baby who was brought across the border, and they had just implemented randomized rapid DNA screenings. And so the “father” of this 10-month-old baby was informed he was going to receive the DNA screening, at which point he confessed that the child was not his. He didn’t know who the child belonged to. But it was not a biological relative. He turned it over to Customs and Border Protection. So there’s a 10-month-old baby with no name that was brought to the border because the person who brought them knew that families would be given priority. 

I’m not saying that we don’t continue to give families priority. But I think you recognize that there are no easy solutions, right? We were told that the entire Mexico side of the border is controlled by drug cartels. This is, again, where I think we oversimplify the problem. On intake when somebody crosses the border and claims asylum, they do an intake and they have a series of questions they ask, one of which is were they subject to the drug cartel in trying to cross the border? And so we asked how many people coming across the board have been under the stewardship of the drug cartel. And they said, “Oh, well, according to our data 100%, not 99.9%, but 100% of people are subject to the drug culture.” So they control the border. You don’t cross the border without paying a fee to the drug cartel. 

The day we had been there, about two dozen people had come the night before. There weren’t very many, so the facilities weren’t as horrific as you see on the news, just because they had been able to process people through the system. Right now, there aren’t as many coming, but they said the week before they’d had almost 1,000. So what they said is the drug cartel will hold people back, because they’re paying to get across the border. So they’ll hold them back until there’s a bunch of them and they send them all at once, which swamps all of the Customs and Border Patrol resources, and then you can run drugs across the board. So we are, in our oversimplification and finger-pointing at the problem, there are other things happening that we are not adept at reacting to. 

So the takeaway for me? I don’t have the answer on that. I know we can’t oversimplify the problem. We have to be compassionate; we also have to recognize that there are border security issues. I think there are technological solutions. I have never been opposed to barriers  in the right places. And I think especially in urban environments, some barriers make some sense. I think a 2,000-mile wall doesn’t make economic sense. It doesn’t make security sense. There are better places to spend border security dollars than on a piece of infrastructure that can be gotten over, or under or around. But there’s other types of technology that can be used. One of the best things we can do to secure the border is to fix the broken immigration system. If there’s a streamlined way that people can immigrate legally for employment or other reasons that we want people to come, then you take away that pressure from the border. And then you can almost with a surety know that someone who’s crossing the border secretly is doing so for surreptitious reasons. And so fixing a broken immigrant the system has to be part of border security.

Gun control

DN: There have been more than 50 people killed by mass gun violence in the past two months. Would you agree we have an epidemic of gun violence?

BM: Yeah, and I appreciate several of your editorials.

DN: Given that, what can you do to stop the epidemic of gun violence in America?

BM: I support universal background checks. And I think that’s not going to stop every instance. I think it will stop some. When I announced my support for universal background checks, I received some criticism. I’m a gun owner, I believe in the Second Amendment, support the Second Amendment, but people were saying that you’re treating law-abiding citizens like criminals. And my response to that is, you have a constitutional right to travel. And I fly on an airplane twice a week, most weeks. And I always go through a security screening. And I’m OK with that. Because it means that every other passenger on my flight went through a security screening. I’m safer because I went through a security screening. I don’t see that as me being treated like a criminal. It’s not going to stop every act of violence on an airplane, it’s not going to stop all terrorists, but it does improve the safety of air travel. So I support universal background checks, closing the loopholes for gun shows and private sales, which is what that is. And I think with rights come responsibilities.

DN: What else on gun safety would you like to see from a federal level?

BM: That’s the bill that’s most defined. There are other ones that are concepts that I’m interested in. I think it depends on what the legislation looks like. Red flag laws — they can be crafted in a way that I would support them. You know, there’s debate about high capacity magazines. And, again, that could be crafted in a way I can support. I think it depends on the details.

DN: Do those need to be handled nationally as opposed to state by state?

BM: I think either approach could work, right? I haven’t thought about it at the state level. I think it’s something I’m willing to entertain at the federal level. Again, I do think that there is a constitutional right, and I recognize that, and I think we have to be careful when we’re talking about any restrictions. But I think we should have a sincere debate about that. I also think that Utah has come a long way. And I think we’ve got to make sure that we continue to recognize that in some instances, not every, but in some instances that does play a role. And I think red flag laws can be part of that, but just treatment. And you know, at the same time we’re talking about mental health as a part of a gun violence epidemic, there are people who are talking about undoing the ACA and Mental Health Parity that would close doors to treatment to tens of thousands of Americans, millions of Americans.  

DN: Why do you own a gun? 

BM: Well, I grew up shooting. My dad would take us to a gun range, and we’d shoot. We went hunting. I didn’t have a close relationship with my father, not to get too personal. But I do have good memories of twice going out hunting with my father. So for me it’s about family relationship, about heritage, it’s about memories and time spent together. I don’t have a lot of time to go out shooting now. I’ve taken my sons out shooting a couple of times. It’s a form of recreation that we’ve done together. Not something we do often, but it’s a form of recreation.

DN: What type of gun do you own?

BM: I have handguns, and I have rifles and shotguns.

DN: Do you have anything that would be considered an assault rifle?

BM: No.

DN: What do you think about a ban on assault rifles?

BM: I mean, I have a friend who owns an assault rifle, and he has invited me to come shooting with him. Look, I want to consider any option that will save lives of our kids. My kids go to West High and so that incident last week — it turned out, you know, fortunately, there was no danger to life. And it wasn’t a mass shooting incident. It was I think it was a risk of gang violence. Scary to get texts from my kids about their school on lockdown, and it was a scary moment. So I think I’m willing to consider things that will help to protect our kids. I think it needs to be done deliberately and thoughtfully and not in a knee-jerk way. I don’t know that this friend of mine, who is a respected community leader, who owns an assault rifle that he shoots recreationally with his sons — I don’t think that he’s a risk and his ownership of that weapon is a risk to society. But you know, one of the things that I’ve talked about is raising the age limit to purchase an assault weapon. That’s something to consider. Or, you know, certainly making sure that background checks, things like that, relating to assault weapons is something. So I don’t have a position right now. I do want to see what the legislation looks like. I do want to be thoughtful about anything that could save the lives of our kids. 

Congressman-elect Ben McAdams looks over his table in his office as he talks about his hopes and expectations as he prepares for his move to Washington, D.C., during an interview at the Salt Lake County complex on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. McAdams, who was e

Congressman-elect Ben McAdams looks over his table in his office as he talks about his hopes and expectations as he prepares for his move to Washington, D.C., during an interview at the Salt Lake County complex on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The Equality Act

DN: You voted in favor of the Equality Act and were a sponsor of that act for Speaker Pelosi. Do you support the Equality Act as it’s now constituted?

BM: I think in my mind, what we are trying to accomplish is we want people in society to feel comfortable to bring their whole selves to the table. Whether they are LGBTQ, or a person of faith, or a person of a different ethnic background, they can bring their whole self to society and feel comfortable and respected and not discriminated against. And we do have discrimination in our country. We have discrimination against the LGBTQ individuals, we have ethnic discrimination, we have religious discrimination. And so what the Equality Act is doing is, I think, the conversation is starting but not finished. 

Utah has led the way in finding a way on respecting and (making) protections for LGBTQ individuals and for people with faith. And I was the original sponsor of that. This is the issue that propelled me into public office when I was working for Mayor Ralph Becker. He had proposed that, and the legislature had threatened to overturn it, and there was opposition. And I spent a year of my life  talking to people and building consensus and building bridges on Salt Lake City’s ordinance, that then passed with support, unanimous support in the City Council, with support from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and from Equality Utah — both spoke in support of it. It was soon after that, that I was elected to the State Senate. Largely, I think, because of the reputation that I built with people who had seen me working on this legislation. 

As a newly elected state senator in 2010, I introduced Utah’s nondiscrimination bill, and it didn’t go anywhere, as you know, that first year. What happened is the first year we had a small little debate about it. Second year, I was able to get a Republican co-sponsor. Third year, we got a committee hearing. And at that point I was elected mayor of Salt Lake County and handed it off to the Republicans, who sponsored it. And it was then the following year that it passed. And so I know what consensus-building looks like around this. I also know it takes a long time. There were people who encouraged me to drop it and not even bring it up, that the timing wasn’t right. But if we’re going to find consensus to respect all people, the conversation has to happen. And the conversation on the Equality Act is a step in that direction. I don’t think it’s perfect. I think it still needs work. And I think I’m uniquely situated to continue to be part of that work.  

DN: There has been a lot written about the Equality Act and the threat to Christian colleges like Brigham Young University and hundreds of others across the country. What have you done in Washington to kind of move this conversation forward?

If we’re going to find consensus to respect all people, the conversation has to happen. And the conversation on the Equality Act is a step in that direction. I don’t think it’s perfect. I think it still needs work. And I think I’m uniquely situated to continue to be part of that work. 

BM: I was approached by people of different faiths to express some of their concerns with the Equality Act and had extensive conversations with different religious organizations about their concerns about the legislation. I was then able to take some of those concerns to leadership. I took it to the sponsor of the bill, had a meeting with the sponsor of the legislation, as well as with leadership, about these concerns and said that I believe that we need to have ongoing discussions about how to refine that and how to make it so that we can fully protect the rights of LGBTQ members of our society and also fully protect the free exercise of religion as a constitutional right. And we had a very constructive dialogue. This was a bill that had been worked on for many, many years.

I offered an amendment to the Equality Act that I think could have helped to fix some of those things. The amendment, unfortunately, was not considered and is not going to become part of the legislation. And I’ll be interested in continuing to work on that to really find how to make these fit. What I then did is had a colloquy on the House floor with the sponsor of the legislation, where I wanted to talk about the importance of the free exercise of religion. And we discussed another aspect of the legislation that was concerned about what would happen in a church. Could a church continue to worship according to their beliefs? And, you know, you may or may not believe what a church does, but I think there’s a fundamental right. I’m a person of faith. I believe there’s a fundamental right to freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. And we respect someone’s beliefs and someone’s words, even if we disagree. And so I wanted to establish clearly, first and foremost, that worship practices in a house of worship were entirely exempt and immune and protected, in spite of the Equality Act, and received that assurance. 

But I do think there’s additional work that needs to be done. The legislation is not going to pass the Senate. So it means that we will be back at it, working at it numerous years, like I did in the Utah State Senate. We’re going to be back working at it at the national level. And I think Utah has to provide some leadership on that, and I think I have a unique background and experience, both as a practicing, active member of my church, but also someone who cares about getting this right and making sure that we protect LGBTQ people.

DN: Were you speaking with Speaker Pelosi about the act?

BM: I was meeting, in this case, with Hakeem Jeffries, who was playing point from a leadership perspective.

DN: Are there any specifics in the Equality Act as passed that you feel need to be addressed?

BM: I think the conversation that needs to be had, and this one that you’ve referenced, is around housing at religious schools. And I don’t know where that actually comes out. I mean, there’s strong feelings on both sides. The sponsors and supporters of the Equality Act felt that housing is housing. Housing is not an expression of religion, that housing should, even at a religious institution, not be discriminatory. Others believe that implicates the free exercise of religion on a faith-based campus. And so I think that, I would say that’s probably the heart of the toughest issue.

DN: What about Pell Grants, federal grants, research grants and all kinds of money tied to the federal government that supports higher education? Are all those the next part of this conversation?

BM: My understanding is I don’t think Pell Grants are implicated. A student can receive a need based grant regardless of what institution they’re going to.

2020 presidential election

DN: Is there a presidential candidate who most aligns with your policies and beliefs?

BM: At this point there are so many candidates that my head is spinning a little bit. I’m not sure who. There’s nobody that I endorse at this point. I’m waiting to see the primary process play out before I decide. I think that process is just getting started. ...

So ultimately, I’ll decide who I’m going to vote for. But I don’t know that that’s something that I’m going to state publicly. For me, a lesson of the 2016 election is that voters aren’t in the mood for authority figures to come in and tell them who they have to pick or who they have to vote for. Part of the divide that’s with us today with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton is that, you know, people resented authority figures coming in and trying to push it one way or another. And so I think people don’t want me to act as if my vote carries more weight than any other folks. So I don’t know that I’ll ever declare who my candidate is. I’ll make my mind up before I go in the voting booth.

Debt and the deficit

DN: We’ve talked a lot about the national debt and deficit. What can you do, or where are you in terms of the importance of the debt and deficit?

BM: I would say this is my top issue right now. And every American should be concerned about the deficit and the debt. And the first bill I introduced was a balanced budget amendment. And it turned some heads because it was coming from a Democrat. And I got the support of 26 other Democrats — the blue dogs, signed up — who agreed that deficit and debt is important. 

I don’t have to tell you how dire I think it is. But this year for the first time, we will be adding a $1 trillion per year to the debt that is already $22 trillion. The fastest growing segment of the federal budget is interest on the debt. We’re not paying principal, we’re only paying interest in the fastest growing segment, to the tune of over $300 billion. By the year 2025, we will spend more in interest on the debt than China spends on national defense. So I talk about deficit spending and the debt as a national security issue. And this is with record low interest rates. 

If you don’t have that hard backstop that you have to balance the budget at the end of the day, it’s pretty tempting to just kick the can down the road and think about getting to it next year.

So any one of the factors that we have right now, if the variables change, we’re going to be in a world of hurt. The economy slows down if interest rates go up. It will be a front burner issue for everybody in Washington. The earlier you take action the more options you have. Now, we’re not early by any means. We’ve been saying, you know, “what we’re doing to the next generation” — we’ve been saying that for a generation. Now it’s us. So our options are increasingly limited. 

DN: What are those options right now? 

BM: That’s why I’m taking the balanced budget manner approach. The Salt Lake Tribune has criticized me, they say you don’t need a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, you just need Congress to balance the budget. If it really wants to do it, it could. Sure, I think that’s true. My experience as mayor in balancing a budget that’s a fraction of the federal budget is it’s really hard. You’re making some tough, tough decisions, and you’re choosing between one good thing and a different good thing. You can cut the fat and frivolous spending, but that only gets you so far before you’re then having to choose between really good things that have a lot of public support and how you’re going to get there. 

If you don’t have that hard backstop that you have to balance the budget at the end of the day, it’s pretty tempting to just kick the can down the road and think about getting to it next year. And so I do think you need a balanced budget amendment. I don’t know what those answers are right now. I guess I have some ideas. But I think the first step is to instill in law that hard backstop that forces people to come to the table. So Simpson-Bowles came up with some ideas. They were painful. But they came up with constructive ideas about how to get there. But because there was no requirement to do it, it was just easier to not do anything. 

DN: They included some tax increases as opposed to the tax cuts that we’ve seen. Should the tax cuts be rolled back?

BM: Well, I think the problem with balancing budgets, what you’ve seen over the last 20 years, is somebody throws out an idea and then you blink at the airwaves with attack ads on that. And they’re out. And so it’s another reason why I think a balanced budget first is the right way to go. And then you have to hold people’s feet to the fire. So I have ideas.

I think when you’re in the hole as deep as we are, you stop digging. I voted against the $300 billion increase in spending this year through the appropriations process. First, stop digging. And then the other thing we’ve done, and this gets a little bit wonky, but you guys know, I nerd out on data and data-driven government stuff like that. I think the worst way to do it is when you’re talking about 10% across the board cuts every year. There are things that should be cut 100%. And there are things that maybe should be increased. But so much of federal spending is done without empirical data — whether it’s working or not — that you need to bring in quantitative analysis of what’s working and what’s not working. So I formed the What Works Caucus. We have a bipartisan caucus that we formed, and we’re building out this What Works Caucus. It has 127 nonprofits who are supporting it. It’s to bring data driven decision-making.

Health care

DN: Where are you today on health care?

BM: I don’t support Medicare for All. I do think it is a goal to ensure that everybody has access to affordable health care, and the Affordable Care Act solved some problems in that regard, with things like allowing children to be on a parent’s insurance through age 26 and can’t be denied coverage for preexisting conditions. So I think that was a step in the right direction. It also caused problems. It didn’t solve every problem, first of all, and there are also some unforeseen consequences of the Affordable Care Act. So my position is we’ve got a system that works well for the people who it works for. And there are people who are left out of that system, and we need to work to have a goal that everybody has access to quality health care. But there’s no one-size-fits-all approach that’s going to do it.

DN: How does that balance with trying to pay for people that are in desperate need?

BM: I’ll tell you what we did at the county level. I know that little Salt Lake County isn’t a direct corollary to the United States of America, but we were seeing healthcare increases at the county by about 20% a year. And our revenue grew by about 2% a year. So it was quickly consuming everything we did and was not sustainable. 

When I came in, we had a high deductible plan with the county. That I think was just legal gambling — if you were healthy and you were healthy over the next year, and you’re on the high deductible plan, congratulations, you won. But if somebody had an accident or somebody got sick, then you lose big. So I said, “I don’t really feel comfortable as an employer having that plan where our employees’ quality of life is hinged upon a roll of the dice.” 

... What is the incentive on the consumer to be educated about their health and make smart health care decisions?

What we did is we shifted to what we called a personal health savings plan. That was you went under the high deductible plan, and the county would contribute a lump sum into your health savings account. So then you were faced with the choice. If you had something come up — my son got stitches, right, and we were on the traditional plan where we just paid a $5 copay. My son got injured, ran him to the emergency room, we paid 50 bucks, the county paid thousands of dollars. And we got five stitches. 

We shifted to this other plan where I had a little bit of money in a health savings account. But I was responsible for the high deductible so I was really responsible for all of it. Another child gets hurt. My wife says, “Before you take him to the emergency room, I’m going to find the closest clinic. Oh look, there’s another one another 10 minutes away, it’s not that bad. Here’s a bag of ice, drive him to the clinic.” So we made a choice that saved us money in our health savings account and saved thousands of dollars for the county. So we gave employees the option to shift to this health savings account with a personal health savings plan. And they did. The county increases in health care went from about 20% to about 5% increases per year — way down. 

One of the solutions that I think — this is why I have concerns with the Medicare for All approach — is what is the incentive on the consumer to be educated about their health and make smart health care decisions?

4th District race

DN: You have a number of Republican opponents in the race. How do you feel the race is shaping up against you?

BM: Again, I think we drag out election cycles too long. And there’s a time for elections. Right now I’ve got a job to do. And I really think that this election, probably the single biggest factor in my election is going to be the job that I did. And so to turn and focus on the election too soon I think is absolutely the wrong thing to do for my constituents and the wrong thing to do for my election. So I remain focused on doing my job. 

DN: Do you expect an internal challenge from within your party?

BM: Anybody can run. I think that’s a possibility. I don’t know, I’m not hearing anybody right now.

Bridge building

DN: Is there anything that surprised you the past nine months? 

BM: I’m a Democrat in Utah, and I think there’s no better training to learn how to work across the aisle and build bridges than being a Democrat in Utah. One of the things that I did was I got to know people on a personal level. And while we would disagree sometimes on a vote or a debate, I think we had a level of respect and trust for each other. I could go and ask questions about a bill and not worry that I was going to be recorded and attacked for that, and I wasn’t going to do the same thing. We had candid dialogue, where we built understanding out of disagreement. And the thing that surprised me in Washington is I expected it to be partisan. What surprises me is how little interaction people have with each other. And I’ve focused on the concept of trust, which I think is absent in Washington. You have to have trust before you can bridge build.

I think we’ve dehumanized each other to the extent that the gulf between the parties is great.

I don’t think it’s nefarious, I think it’s a really busy job. I’ve never been so busy. When I’m in Utah, it’s 15-hour days, when I’m in D.C. I don’t keep track. But it’s probably, again, we start the first meeting at 8 and I get home at 10 or 11 every night. So it’s really busy. And a lot of that is with very limited interaction on the other side. 

So shortly after I got there I did tell my staff that I need to invest the time to get to know my colleagues. That’s important if you want to be successful and really build bridges. So we started finding time to get together with members across the aisle. To a limited extent, you do get to know people on your own side of the aisle, but much less so on opposite sides of the aisle. So I made time to do that, to have lunch or breakfast. I did do this trip to the border. I’d had numerous offers to go to the border, but I wasn’t interested in going on a partisan trip to the border because I know what Democrats think about the border. I wanted to go and see it through the eyes of some of my colleagues and get to know them for broader, longer-term reasons, but also on this issue, to see the problem through their eyes. And so I’ve made it a priority and I’m making it happen now. But to me now it’s no surprise that there’s no trust and no bridge building in Washington when I see that people just don’t organically cross paths and get to know each other on a human level. I think we’ve dehumanized each other to the extent that the gulf between the parties is great.