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Molinaro discusses House majority, debt ceiling

Congressman-elect Marc Molinaro says he hopes representatives of "purple" district will drive House policy. (KT Kanazawich/WSKG)
KT Kanazawich
Marc Molinaro on election night last year.

Freshman Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-19) is confident House Republicans will move on from last month’s contentious speaker election, and will agree on cuts to spending tied to raising the debt ceiling.

Vaughn Golden: It's been about a month since freshman GOP Congressman Marc Molinaro officially took office. The former Dutchess County Executive is representing the 19th Congressional District, which covers Broome and Tompkins County's east to Columbia County. Here to discuss his first few weeks on the job and how the 118th Congress is shaping up is Congressman Marc Molinaro. Thanks for coming on.

Marc Molinaro: I'm glad to be with you. Thank you.

Golden: So a few days ago, President Biden delivered the State of the Union address. This is your first as a member of Congress. I and all the other cool kids who were watching on CSPAN might have seen you get a few words in with the President as he was exiting the chamber. What did you have to say to President Biden?

Molinaro: Well first, to be in the room, no matter what your political affiliation is, no matter who the president is, is still, it's an honor. And by the way,  the idea that that I am there representing the 750,000 folks and plus or minus in the 19 Congressional District wasn't lost on me. Right. You know, it's actually one of the, a real tangible moment, where you feel like I'm their person for this moment and that wasn't lost on me at all. You know, I had been having a conversation with Senator Gillibrand at the end, at the end of the State of the Union, and quite candidly, we spoke so long there were only a handful of us left a few New Yorkers there, and we looked over our shoulder and President Biden hadn't left. So I did meander over I will say, we spoke for about three minutes. It was a it was a good exchange, obviously, you know, exchanged pleasantries, but I said to him, what what I've told others and you should know, I said, I was raised by, by a mom, who was diagnosed depression, grew up on on food stamps, have a child with disability. Mr. President on issues related to mental health and services for those with disabilities, you'll have support and partners as Republicans. He said, you know, some of my Democratic friends don't want me to reach out but but on these issues, we can and then we spoke for few more minutes. And I would say as a local, a little bit of local flavor, he remembers driving through Broome County as a college student, going to a Syracuse and, and stopping and a couple of Italian restaurants on the way.

Golden: Sure, sure. Have you heard any follow up from the White House or anything on those issues that you can kind of discuss?

Molinaro: So I mean, not not formally as as far as their outreach, but we've been talking with the White House liaison who's been assigned to me and and several other members they are aware of, and we'll be chatting about mental health access. The president you heard at the State of Union talk a lot about meant or some amount of mental health support for veterans. And while I wanted him to confront more extensively, border security as it relates to fentanyl, the acknowledgement that that fentanyl is taking too many lives, synthetic opioids, taking too many lives, is a place for us to start the conversation. And we're gonna continue to talk to the White House and my colleagues both sides of the aisle about how to how to build out to support for important policies.

Golden: Got it. Got it. And last on that on that exchange with the President. I know historically, there are some members who sit in the chamber like all day to get one of those aisle seats. Were you in that crowd?

Molinaro: No, I was not. Although I was very happy to be among several of the New York freshmen. We did sit together during during the speech, but no, my wife would never allow me to be that kid.

Golden: Got it. So switching gears a little bit on election night, after it was pretty clear you were going to win the 19th. District. You were talking with reporters and one of the things you said and this is a quote from that night, you said "Americans are struggling too hard, and they're too tired of watching politicians yell at each other and blame one another. They're going to need us functioning together. And that's what I'll intend to do" end quote, in your opinion right now, are House Republicans functioning together, especially after a pretty contentious speaker election?

Molinaro: Short answer is yes, we are. I do see, in fact, there are very clear glimmers of bipartisanship on issues that you might not report about often enough, and that's not a criticism, there will be moments where these bills and ideas filter into bigger policy. But I would offer without taking too much time. But I would say I've used this analogy and I and I want people to, to kind of hear it if you choose to share it whether whether or not you do is up to you. But you know, as I've explained, imagine inviting your entire family over for Thanksgiving. And we all agree we're not going to talk about politics we have committed to not talking about politics. Then we all arrive and Uncle Ernie starts talking about politics. Next, you know, think about what happens, then the place kind of blows up a little bit. It takes a while to settle down and get focused again, it probably takes 15 votes in a couple of weeks for that to happen. And so that's what we experienced early on, not the way I wanted to start, certainly, or anyone wanted to start. But the truth is, two years of not being here, right, members of Congress didn't necessarily come here often because of the COVID restrictions. There was a rigid structure here, it was top down and again, criticism or not, it was basically a top down approach, that changed instantly, when when Republicans took the majorities, open, you know, a much more open setting. And, of course, there were internal grievances, ideological differences that, you know, all erupted. And they were flashpoints early on. I'm not naively optimistic. I am hopeful. And I think grounded optimistic that that some of that that early consternation, debate and struggle to come to consensus does provide us the opportunity to move forward. And I'm seeing it on the on the ground around around the Capitol, which, which is is, you know, it's encouraging.

Golden: Right. In one of the other things you mentioned on election night is your hopes that members from purple districts like the 19th, the very clearly a battleground district, pretty evenly split registration between Democrats and Republicans. And you were kind of said that you hope those purple districts and members from those districts would drive the agenda in this Congress. You know, going back to the speaker election. Now, Speaker McCarthy did make some pretty clear concessions to some of the further right members of the Republican conference, you know, committee appointments and some other promises on the campaign side. Based on that, how much clout do you think representatives of these purple districts really have right now, in the House?

Molinaro: Oh, significant. And and I'll say to you that some of the reforms in the rules that were adopted, yes, they were shepherded by some of the more conservative members of the conference, you know, empower members like myself, that the and by the way that I embrace. The concept that there should be germaneness. What does that mean, you know, what it means that listeners should know that, you know, too often, there are these massive bills that have topics and policies that aren't associated in any way stuffed into a document simply because it's the only way to pass them. That can't necessarily happen certainly as easily as in the past, and so having, having that occur is important. If we're, we're going to raise a tax, and I don't intend to raise taxes we need three-fifths approval of the House in order to make that happen. That's important. Individual members can force amendments, and not necessarily have to go through the leadership and bureaucracy structure that limits that. Those are all things that empower me to and so and members like me, that's encouraging, that's important. But every member now slim majority, as it is, has that leverage and can use it. And you're going to see it by the way, in the big bills, we have to reauthorize the farm bill that's important to the 19th Congressional District and opening up opportunities for small family farms, all across upstate New York. And by the way, creating access to food stamps and nutrition programming, programming in upstate New York. My vote in my ability now is in this slim majority to really push those topics is so much, so much stronger today and it's being listened to. And the other I'll tell you is I associate myself with those members, the good governance members and main street members, the folks that, you know, want want to hear both both sides want to try to mold the consensus strong on principle, we all have our ideal ideology and beliefs, but but a willingness to work together. That's why I was sent here. And I will tell you that that it is being listened to, you know, early on, you're gonna see bills that frankly, you know, they move through and yeah, you're gonna see, you know, some party line votes. But there were a few that that weren't I mean, this concept of holding China accountable, was embraced in a bipartisan way, not using the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to support China and Chinese industries support in a bipartisan way. There was a push, you remember to to consider what what folks refer to as the fair tax is this fairly, fairly large consumption or sales tax? It was Republicans like me that basically said it's dead on arrival. It's not fair, it's regressive, is going to punish hardworking and lower income families is that it may come to the floor was not gonna pass. So yeah, there are these moments and, frankly, we're going to we're being heard and this consensus being molded around our voices too.

Golden: You said you wanted to join the Problem Solvers Caucus. How's that worked out?

Molinaro: The short answer is we're joining the longer answer is they I don't think they fully formed and I feel like we're going to have to have a meeting the week we comeback, we'll be in-district for the next two weeks, and then the caucus is going to assemble itself in the week we comeback, but I've told them and I'm waiting to join and get active.

Golden: So switching gears a little bit, what is shaping up to be one of the more contentious fights, at least in the early part of this Congress is raising the debt ceiling. This in itself is not new spending, it just allows the government to finance its existing debt. To start if speaker McCarthy put a clean bill raising the debt ceiling on the floor today, would you support it?

Molinaro: There will not be a bill that doesn't include some fiscal reforms. And that is that's the message that we've sent to the White House. It's the commitment that we've made to the American people as well. That doesn't mean that...

Golden: So are you saying that you you would only support a bill with some concessions involving spending cuts on it?

Molinaro: I, first of all, will tell you that we have several months. The President has, despite saying he wasn't going to negotiate, has begun negotiating. By the way, Joe Biden himself rarely voted for a debt ceiling increase, without without some spending reforms. And quite frankly, most fiscal policy gets crafted in the in the pressure of discussing and ultimately debating and approving debt ceiling increases. I will say my position is the President comes to the table with a proposal to make sure that we don't continue to simply spend, without, without concern for the cost to taxpayers, the impact on inflation, and the rising debt. And I'm hopeful that we can come to the table with a with a reasonable approach that's sensible and responsible. And I believe that we will achieve that.

Golden: So a clean bill is a nonstarter at this point for you.

Molinaro: The speaker is made clear to the President that we're not taking up what you what the world refers to as a clean bill. I believe that this has to happen in the context of at least acknowledging and agreeing to certain spending reforms that will protect the American people and by the way, take seriously the massive debt that America continues to amass in future

Golden: In the future, would you support legislation to permanently do away with this political mechanism of the debt ceiling and allow treasury to continue issuing debt as it's done in a lot of other countries?

Molinaro: Well, in this country, the House of Representatives is responsible for appropriation, the power of the purse, if you will, I'm not interested in in in further empowering an executive who already has a monarchical, like authority. In many cases...

Golden: Appropriations and financing debt are two different things. Of course, the House holds that...

Molinaro: They're not two different things. They're all monetary policy, that that by the way, financing debt has a direct connection to the appropriation, the ultimate expense of dollars. The Congress has already given the administration a significant amount of authority, by the way, to act well beyond congressional authority or the statute is written, statutes as written. I'm of the view that Congress provides the appropriate oversight, Congress makes the decisions as it relates to, to federal spending. And I and I believe that we need to maintain that check and balance.

Golden: And so Republicans have said, you know, as you've said, you want to see spending cuts, here. You tweeted, tweeted the other day, quote, you do not support social cutting Social Security and Medicare. What do you, but you do support reforming those programs to make them more sustainable. Should they be part of these talks over the debt ceiling, or should those be separate discussions?

Molinaro: They should be separate discussions, although in the context of acknowledging the need to preserve and protect Social Security and Medicare, I support a bipartisan, bicameral, and and approach commission that would would evaluate the steps necessary to preserve and protect Social Security, Medicare. I think that needs to happen, certainly, to ensure the future of those programs and under no circumstance, do I support cutting or diminishing those within the, period. I think there needs to be a solution that I think can be can be achieved through through a bipartisan, bicameral commission to achieve. In the context of spending reforms, I want the President to take seriously the need to be more effective efficient in in spending federal dollars, and if there's an honest, earnest effort to do that, he'll find common sense, sensible and responsible Republicans like myself, willing to meet at that table.

Golden: And, real briefly, what are some areas do you think you could find some bipartisan support for for cuts to include in a debt ceiling negotiation?

Molinaro: Yeah, you use the term that that I have hesitated to use from the day I became a village mayor. And the reason I say this is that the you say cuts, I say efficiencies, they are very different things. I came into office as a County Executive some years ago. I had a $40 million budget gap, and I was most people told me, you're gonna have to cut stuff. And thank God, I didn't take that approach. And I don't think the president should start there either. There are real efficiencies that need to be taken. And to your point earlier about, you know, the debt ceiling conversation is about debt already accumulated. That is true. And so my point is, we need a roadmap that gets us to a balanced budget, the way you do that is by demanding greater efficiency, effective delivery measurements of the outcomes, how do we spend dollars? Are we effectively doing that? If there is a commitment to that kind of roadmap, meaning over the next 10 years, there's a commitment to showing that we're going to rein in waste and abuse like the unemployment insurance fraud that occurred in New York State $10 or $11 billion of spending that we can't account for if there's an honest effort to justify the use of taxpayer money for certain programs and real measurement tools to decide whether or not we're getting outcomes we safe to say we are. That is that's what gets us to balanced budget. And it's what gets us to a more effective and efficient government. That's my focus. Having been an executive the President is obligated like it or not to come to the table with that kind of roadmap. And he'll find people like me and others willing to come to the table, to have that conversation and hopefully to come to agreement.

Golden: Got it. And you've introduced legislation to implement the ThinkDifferently program on a more national scale. This is something you piloted in Dutchess County as county executive, can you explain a little bit more about what you're trying to achieve with this legislation on the federal level?

Molinaro: Sure, you know, the way we treat those with intellectual, physical and developmental disabilities, was all almost could be seen as an acceptable prejudice. And it isn't. You know, that that those who live with disabilities have so many obstacles placed in their way to accessing support services, jobs, housing, transportation, and the fulfilment of life, the ability to pursue their own happiness. We launched Think Differently in Dutchess, I promised to make it an effort as a member of Congress, and start with a ThinkDifferently database, which is basically the ability to bring together in one single point of access, the services and supports that exist all across the country. And encourage the creation basically of an intuitive website that helps families and individuals navigate that system. In order to connect with the services and support they have aright to. It's the place we're beginning it's a good start and it's basically how we started in Dutchess by like creating this, this the single point of contact people, individuals, whether you're living with a disability or caring for it, or serving somebody with a disability, having the having the ability to more easily navigate that system is the is the place to begin. But I will tell you, I was happy to have Anna Bruce, with me at the State of the Union, launched Gigi's Playhouse in Broome County a support and service center for those living with Down's Syndrome as an example of the good work that exists, but also the challenges that people face every day, working with Republicans and Democrats in the House and locally, to tried to build out more steps that we can take to break down barriers and create create opportunities for those with disabilities. So there's more to come.

Golden: Got it. What real briefly, what are the hurdles you think you need to overcome to get this passed?

Molinaro: Well, I mean, it's a it's a big, you know, someone criticized me and said "it's a website?" I said, well, it's a big idea, you know, and the fact that we still need one suggests why we need one. Just navigating the committee process and how we get ultimately bills to the floor, we'll continue to navigate that and advocate. And I'm confident that we're going to we're going to have some, some advancement and some policy wins, if you will, for those who who live with disabilities. And as I committed, both during the campaign, and since, as new ideas come up, I want to be the champion on these. So I'll be working with Republicans and Democrats to to move the needle as fast and as much as we can.

Golden: Got it. Alright. I've been speaking with freshman Republican Member of Congress, Mark Molinaro. Congressman, thanks again for your time. Vaughn

Molinaro: Thanks. Always, always great to be with you, and I mean that.

Vaughn Golden has been reporting across New York since 2016. Working as a freelancer while studying journalism and economics at Ithaca College, Vaughn has reported for a number of outlets including the Albany Times Union, New York Post, and NPR among others. Prior to coming to WSKG full-time, Vaughn was a reporter for the Watertown Daily Times. Vaughn now covers government and politics for WSKG.