SCV NEWSMAKER OF THE WEEK:
Howard 'Buck' McKeon
Member of Congress
Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor
Sunday, July 10, 2005
(Television interview conducted July 5, 2005)
"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is U.S. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Santa Clarita. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: You're a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee. We've been at war for over 3-1/2 years. How do you perceive the changing mood in Congress?
McKeon: It's a serious issue. When you see our young people who are not returning home alive or returning home with very serious injuries, that's a tremendous strain. Can you imagine what the president feels every day when he gets the first report of causalities, when he's the one who's had to order them to battle? Can you imagine what mothers and fathers are thinking across the country?
Since the creation of our country, we've had a lot of people who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. At Valley Forge we lost thousands who froze to death, starved to death, so that we could enjoy the freedoms that we enjoy here today. Sept. 11, 2001, changed the world. It changed it for America when we found that we could be attacked and lose over 3,000 lives on our homeland. Since then, we've been fighting this war against terror. And many people feel I, included that we're better off fighting it in Iraq than in Long Beach or Santa Clarita. So that's the decision that was made.
I've been to Iraq. I've seen the people. I've seen the troops. I've seen the sacrifices that they make. I see the great things that they're accomplishing; kids who are able to go to school now, who couldn't go before; women who are able to vote now, who had no freedoms before. I saw some of the places where Saddam Hussein tortured and killed people.
So, do I like it? No. Do I think it's necessary? Yes. Do I think it should go on forever? No. We needed to train the Iraqis so that they can be the ones who carry the ultimate fight for their own freedom. They're doing it now. They're dying in greater numbers than we are. We need to get them equipped, trained and able to handle this for themselves, so that we can leave that area.
I'm very hopeful and very positive that it will not go as long as we had to be in Japan since World War II or Germany since World War II or Korea since the Korean War. I don't see it going anywhere near that length of time. But I do see it going longer than a year or two.
Signal: At what point do we say, OK, we got Saddam. OK, they have a democratic government now. We won. Let's turn the peacekeeping over the United Nations.
McKeon: If we did it now, and if we walked out well, when you say "turn over to the United Nations," we're the ones who carry the main brunt of the United Nations.
We have a coalition of 30 countries that are over there helping us now, but they're not the ones carrying the heavy load. And they wouldn't be, if we turned it over to the United Nations. It would still be us.
The key is to get the Iraqis trained and equipped to where they can handle it themselves. And then the United Nations could just serve as a peacekeeping overseer, blue helmet-type mission. We're not to that point. And the Iraqis have the ability to do it. They need the training and they need equipment; they need the leadership training. And it takes a while to do that. You can't train somebody to be a general overnight. The ones that they had were all loyal to Saddam, and if we walked out now it would be a civil war, and everybody who died to bring the freedoms there would be for naught. So we have to wait until they're really able to handle it.
Signal: In terms of the "axis of evil," we've gone after one, Iraq. What in your mind would trigger a military response in either Iran or North Korea?
McKeon: I hope we don't have to come to that. But I think, if we had to go into Iran, we're better able to do that now than we were five years ago. We've got a lot of troops right next door, right now. And I think, before they decide to upset the apple cart, they'd think very carefully about that. We've got our forces there, and we could move to Iran very quickly. Do we want to do that? No.
Korea's another situation. We have troops there, and we have a lot of equipment and know-how and manpower there, but so does North Korea. I've been to the (demilitarized zone) and I've seen how close it is from there to Seoul, and I know the number of people who live in those areas and the number of people who would be put at risk South Koreans and Americans. We're talking many millions of lives. That's the last thing we want.
I think it's very important that we watch what they're doing. This is important to China, it's important to Japan, it's important to South Korea, that we maintain stability there. I think that the important thing is to have them involved in this, also; it's in their back yard. I'm hopeful that we'll be able to avoid any kind of major confrontation there.
Signal: Army recruiting numbers were down the first five months of the year. They recovered a bit in June with high school graduations, but with the overall numbers down, people have been using the D-word not "Democrat," but "draft." Where do you stand?
McKeon: There may be people talking about it, but nobody in Washington contemplates that.
There was, during the election, I think to try to stir people up, there were some Democrats who started saying that we should have a draft. The military doesn't want a draft. We have the best armed forces we've ever had, and these young men and women who are going in, who are volunteering for the service, are well-trained, well-equipped, (have) good morale. They are there because they volunteer and want to be there.
I think if we had to go to a draft or conscription and make people go down to sign up and then pull a lottery and then go through basic training and then be sent overseas and not want to be doing it I don't think we want to go back to that.
We're not in the type of situation that we were in World War II. I was a young boy at the time. My dad was drafted, and I remember what that situation was like. We had gone through Pearl Harbor. We were at war with the world, and everybody wanted to go serve, and we had a great military. We're not in that situation now. We don't need the draft; we don't want the draft.
We did have a period where the volunteer numbers were down. It's a scary thing to know that you're going be sent in harm's way, into war. But we have enough people who will fill a quota that will make that happen.
Signal: Donald Rumsfeld wanted to go to war with a leaner military, smaller numbers of troops. In recent years we've seen private companies fill roles that, in your dad's day, were the exclusive domain of the military. Is this good or bad?
McKeon: I see it as a sign of the times. When you can have people kidnapped in various countries around the world, they require security. We have companies that have employees around the world, and they want to make sure that those employees are safe, so they hire private security firms. We cannot have the military going in and providing security for every company as they move around the world to expand their markets. So the companies hire their own security.
I think that's a whole different thing than going to war. And you know, I don't think Secretary Rumsfeld "wants" to go to war. I don't think anybody wants to go to war. After 9-11, we had to go to war. When you're attacked, you're at war. There are two things you can do. You can fight back (and) you can go on the offensive, or you can retreat and surrender. I don't think the American people want to retreat or surrender to the war on terrorism.
Signal: The defense authorization bill that just came out of the House would provide some money for defense contractors in your district, both in the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys. Do we still have a viable military-aerospace sector here in the SCV that's contributing to the war on terror?
McKeon: We do. In the time I've been in Congress, just in the last few years, we've been able to bring home a lot of money.
In fact, I had my staff look it up the other day. In the last few years we've brought about $87 million home to Santa Clarita. And in that period of time, to the whole (25th Congressional) District, it's approaching $1 billion. Now that counts, like, $100 million that goes for B2 upgrades, $82 million that goes for B-2 upgrades. When you say that, that does not go all to Northrop-Boeing in Palmdale. We have over 15,000 subcontractors in our district a little machine shop that makes little bolts or little fasteners or a little part that goes in a tank. We have a lot of those companies here in our district, and a lot of people who live here in Santa Clarita and work up in the Antelope Valley who do the final assembly.
We now, every year, do upgrades on the B-2 bomber. We're beginning a major upgrade on that plane now. When that was first built you know how fast your laptop goes out of date; well, there are lots of computers in that plane. So you have to do a lot of different kinds of upgrades. They've made better equipment now to do the stealth equipment that goes on the outside of the planes. So they redo those things to keep them ever-able to carry out their missions.
Signal: Like retrofitting the space shuttle.
McKeon: Yes. At first (the B-2) was designed to carry 1,000-pound bombs; well, now, they've also been able to put racks in, to where they can carry instead of sixteen 1,000-pound bombs, they can carry eighty 100-pound bombs, to carry out many more missions. So they're constantly upgrading those things. Most of that work is done in Palmdale, and our subcontractors feed into that.
The joint strike fighter much of that is being built in the Antelope Valley and in the Santa Clarita Valley in these smaller shops that we've talked about. The F-22, same thing. We still do a lot. Parts that go into the Humvee, parts that go into tanks. There are a lot of them built here in our district.
Signal: Is as much of our tax money coming back to the 25th District, as we send to Washington?
McKeon: No. No. California is a donor state. We get about 12 percent less than we send out. That's a lot of money.
All I can say is, we're doing a whole lot better than we were before I was elected to Congress. And in fact I was talking to somebody today before I went to Congress, our congressman always was from another area. Santa Clarita had four or five representatives, so (Santa Clarita) was just a small part (of each representative's district). It's very important to me I live here, I lived here for a long time I think we moved out here in 1964, and we had one stoplight in this valley. And it's very important to me because I live here, because it's my home, and politically it's very important, and because I've lived here, this is where I've put my main emphasis and priorities.
Signal: Luckily, in spite of a state Legislature that likes to gerrymander districts, Santa Clarita has able to stay together in one congressional district lately.
McKeon: That has been a blessing to Santa Clarita, I think. But that didn't happen until 1992. We were a community a long time before that, but we did not get much of our tax money back before that.
Signal: You're in line to become chairman of the full House Education Committee. What needs to go right for that to happen?
McKeon: We have about 15 committees in Congress, each of them presided over by a chairman. All of those chairmen are from the majority party. The minority party's top member is called a ranking member. For me to become a chairman, we need the Republicans need to maintain the majority. And then I need to go to our steering committee, which makes the decision at the beginning of the new Congress, which will take place after the next election, either in late 2006 or early 2007. The steering committee is comprised of the leadership and geographical members from our conference. There are about 28 votes, so you need about 15 votes. Then if they select you, they bring your name before the full conference for a final vote.
I feel really good about it. We imposed term limits on our committee chairmen when we won the majority in 1994. Before that we had, like, (Rep. Dan) Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), who had been (Ways and Means) chairman forever. (Rep. John) Dingell (D-Mich.), (Energy and Commerce) chairman forever. They had gotten pretty arrogant and pretty abusive of the power, so we said, we're only going to let our chairmen serve for six years.
John Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee now, (is) a great member of Congress, great chairman. We've done some real good things under him. (He) will be term-limited at the end of this Congress.
It used to be, another thing, that chairmen were only picked (by) seniority. Now the steering committee looks at several things. They look at seniority, which is important; they look at your leadership; they look at what you do to help the team how you keep the majority, how you help bring other members along and make them part of the process, your general overall leadership; what your vision is for the committee; what you want to do if you're named chairman of the committee; where you want to see the committee going and what you want to see it do.
Seniority-wise, I'm No. 3 on the committee. The No. 2 member (Thomas Petri, R-Wis.) is supporting me to be the chairman; he's wanting to be chairman of another committee. So I think it looks pretty good for me, if we retain the majority, and if I win my election, and if I'm sent back again, I have a good shot at becoming chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee.
Signal: Is there a chance the Republicans won't maintain the majority in the House?
McKeon: There's always a chance. That's why we have elections. But I feel pretty good about us keeping the majority. I think we've done some good things.
We have passed legislation this year the bankruptcy law. That's one that we had passed in the House several times. This year, finally, the Senate was able to move it, with the change that was made over in the Senate. That was important, because each of us were paying for we know there are some deadbeats out there who would run up credit-card charges, file bankruptcy; we all end up picking up their share of that. Nothing is free.
So that was a good thing for the economy and for Americans. And it kept the protection there for people who really needed it. I've had members of my own family who had to file bankruptcy, who lost everything in business, and I was very close to it myself. So I know that you need a bankruptcy law. But you need to protect it from people who abuse it, and we did that.
We had other legislation that we passed this year that will be very class-action lawsuits, where attorneys would come in and sign up a whole bunch of people who got ripped off by Kellogg's or something. And then (the attorneys) end up getting all the money and the people get a gift certificate to get a free box of cereal, you know? Those kind abuses shouldn't happen, and we cleaned that up.
Most of those we did with bipartisan support. We had 73 Democrats (who) voted for the bankruptcy (bill); (House Democratic Leader) Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) voted against it. There's a split in their leadership. We had five pieces of legislation earlier this year that we passed, and we had anywhere from 40 to 120 Democrats (who) voted with us. Nancy Pelosi voted against every one of them.
So I think that while people aren't ever totally happy with what's happening in Congress, and rightfully so, I think we passed all of our appropriation bills this year before the July 4th break; first time since I've been in Congress. We have a new chairman of the Appropriations Committee; he's reorganized the process, cut the subcommittees from 13 down to 10, and then he kept one of the assignments for himself, as a full committee. So we passed 11 appropriation bills out of the House of Representatives by the Fourth of July. And like I said, I've been there 12 years now and that's the first time that's happened.
Signal: Is Social Security reform going to happen, or is it pretty much dead?
McKeon: I sure hope it happens. It probably won't make any difference to me. I'm 66 years old. It could make a little difference to you; it could make a heck of a lot of difference to my grandchildren and my children, and that's my big concern.
When Social Security was started, (Franklin D. Roosevelt) could have really been brought up on (charges of) a Ponzi scheme. It was a great idea. We're all going to put in just a lot of money, and when we hit 65 we'll retire and we'll have money coming in to help us. Well the life expectancy then of 60.
Most people would say that's crazy. But we had about 39 people paying in for every one drawing benefits. In the 1950s, we had 16 people paying in for every one drawing benefits. We're down now to 3.3 people for every one drawing benefits. We're living longer, our country is aging, we're having fewer children, more people are coming onto Social Security, and very few (are) paying in.
In 13 years, we'll have less coming in each year than money going out. In 40 years, or 39 years or 38 it varies a little bit it will be totally bankrupt, and anybody then drawing Social Security benefits will have to take a 27-percent cut in their benefits the next day.
Now, does it make sense to wait till then, or to try to do something to fix it now?
Signal: What's the fix?
McKeon: There are lots of different things. There are different components that go into it. One is, you've heard talk about personal accounts, where people have ownership. When I was a young man I paid into Social Security; I thought I was paying into my account. I had a number, and I thought that money was being put aside for me, and when I retired I would get it. That's not what happens. It goes into the general fund, and it's a pay-as-you-go system now. Fortunately we have, right now, a surplus; more is coming in than is going out. The government takes that money and uses it for other things.
We had a plan proposed a couple of weeks ago by members of the Ways and Means Committee that said: Let's take that surplus; let's not spend it for anything other than Social Security; let's let people put it in their personal accounts, if they desire to do that.
Now, somebody who's 55 and older, everything is going to just stay exactly the same. If you're under 55, you can participate in that kind of program.
Members of the government have that now. We call it the Thrift Savings Plan. People in private industry have it now; they call it a 401(k). They can set some of their money aside and invest it.
In government, we get five choices; they're all pretty conservative investments. We can go on the Web every day, and if we don't like what's happening, we can shift it into something else within that category of five. We're not investing in cattle futures or something like that; it's pretty safe investments that pay a lot better than what Social Security pays the 1.2 percent or whatever we're getting there.
That's one part. But we're going to have to do something else. We're going to have to make some changes. People are going to have to wait a little bit longer to start getting their money the younger age (group). The president talked about some kind of a means test where some people who are in better shape don't need to get as much as some people who don't have as much. There are lots of different things.
(Ways and Means) Chairman (Bill) Thomas (R-Bakersfield) is working on a broad retirement package. In our Education and the Workforce Committee, last week we passed a bill out that address the pension law. Nothing has been done in 25 years on the pension law. The Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. on the verge of bankruptcy. United Airlines went bankrupt. (PBGC) had to take over their pension (fund), and a lot of people lost a lot of their pensions. We need to address that and fix that. We passed a bill out of our committee that will work to address that. We may pass that as a freestanding bill, or we may roll it into a whole retirement package that Chairman Thomas is working on in the Ways and Means Committee.
We need to address these things. Why should we wait 40 years? That's what people think politicians do: They go to Washington or they go to Sacramento; they put in their two years or four years or six years, whatever; they come back and say, I'm doing a great job, elect me again. But (they) don't really address the hard issues. And that's OK, because I'm only going to live so long, I'm going to retire; somebody else will take care of that problem. And meanwhile, the people who are paying our (salary), who expect us to do the job, are going to suffer at some point. The older ones, no, but the younger ones are.
So I think the president is doing a great job with tackling this issue. To this point, the Democrats have not come up with one plan. In fact, we had a freshman member, a friend of mine, who said: Look, let's just at least try to get together and talk. So he invited five Republicans, five Democrats; let's sit down and talk to AARP. Nancy Pelosi told the Democrats: Don't you go to that meeting.
Don't even go listen? Don't talk? How does that justify being called a "representative of the people"? Two Democrats showed up; they had their meeting. Nothing was decided, but it was (intended) to be a start to talk. We have a couple of Democrats who are willing to talk, but their leadership has held them pretty tight. I don't think that's really living up to your job. I think we should come to the table, we should grapple with the tough issues, and we should try to solve them. I think that's what we're being paid to do. That's what people expect us to do. And I think that's what we should do.
Signal: You've brought home a lot of money for Santa Clarita's cross-valley connector and you've gotten some money for the Army Corps of Engineers to address the perchlorate problem on the Whittaker-Bermite property
McKeon: And we still need more for both areas.
Signal: Cemex the city of Santa Clarita and numerous local organizations are concerned about the sand-and-gravel mining project. You introduced a bill to reduce the scope of the mine, and you've talked to the president of Cemex's U.S. operations. What's the latest?
McKeon: This has been going on now for a number of years. It was actually a contract signed by the company (Transit Mixed Concrete Co.) before Cemex in 1990, before I ever went to Congress. In fact, I was on the (Santa Clarita) City Council then; we knew nothing about this.
But the (federal Bureau of Land Management), which owns the land, signed a contract with this company to let them mine. It would be the largest (open-pit) mine that I'm aware of in the country. We're talking about taking out (78) million tons, cutting down a mountain, to get about 56 million tons of aggregate to build roads
Signal: Like the cross-valley connector
McKeon: Things we would like to have, (but coming from) somewhere else.
But where we are right now, the county has fought it, the city has fought them greatly. I met with the president of Cemex, which bought (Transit Mixed successor Southdown Inc.) and had a little different attitude. He indicated to me a willingness to work with the community. I put him in touch with the major, the city manager, and then I facilitated a meeting where we all met in Washington. And since then, they have been negotiating.
In the meantime, I have done other things. I put in a bill to just stop it, which didn't go anywhere. My hope is that city leadership and the president of Cemex and his board, the one that makes the decisions, will come to an agreement of something they can live with, reducing the amount of ore or spreading out the time so we don't have as many trucks on the roads, so we don't damage our roads, so we don't have the problem with air pollution that this great amount of mining that they're talking about would cause. And the latest I've heard I'm not involved in those negotiations but I've heard that they've been making some good progress. What I'm hopeful of, is that they will come to some kind of a resolution...
(My district runs all the way) to Sunland-Tujunga over to Nevada, Victorville, Barstow, Baker we've made that drive north up past Bishop and Bridgeport to where the 395 comes into Nevada. Huge district. Within that district, we have 3 million acres of BLM land, and we've looked. We've checked all other acres. Can we find some other place where they can go and do this mining?
The largest area we have found is like, 2 million to 3 million tons. That shows you what a gold mine this is here (in Soledad Canyon, with 56 million tons of aggregate), and the problem we're dealing with. But I'm hopeful that they'll come up with some kind of solution (so) that I can then put legislation together, and then get the law passed. Because the BLM isn't going to want to give up resources. And that's what they're going to have to ultimately do.
Signal: And then there's another 200 million tons in Soledad Canyon, right behind Cemex, that BLM wants to sell the rights to.
McKeon: Well that one hasn't we can fight one at a time. At least we will know when they get close to signing a contract. This one (Cemex), we didn't even know about it for about 10 years. That won't happen again.
Signal: Deputy David March. Saugus resident, gunned down in Irwindale on April 29, 2002. His suspected killer fled to Mexico, where he remains at large. You pushed through a resolution calling on President Bush to renegotiate the extradition treaty with Mexico. What more pressure can you bring to bear, to make it happen?
McKeon: We passed more legislation last week in the House. I don't know that it will become law, but we had a couple of votes to cut giving any money to countries that will not extradite.
The first one was any countries that will not extradite criminals for whatever penalty. The Mexican government will not extradite a suspect from their country back to our country to stand trial if the potential would be for that suspect, if the crime would lead to the death penalty or life in prison. So the second amendment excluded death penalty and life in prison. It said if you would at least give us a shot at him, let us get him up here and try him. Anyway, both of those amendments passed. It's not just me, although David lived in our district and his younger sister went to school with our youngest daughter.
I had a meeting this morning with his father, John (March), and I feel for them, for their pain, for David's (widow). It's a tremendous thing for a family to lose a loved one, especially one who's serving in law enforcement, who puts his life on the line to protect us, who's totally innocent but killed in the line of duty, and then the suspect can just flee the country, go to Mexico and be free from having to stand justice for that crime.
In fact, it's worse than that because he shot David, and then he came back and shot him again to make sure he was dead because if he had just wounded him, he could have been extradited. So it's even an incentive for them to kill victims, rather than just leave them wounded. And we have, to my knowledge, about 200 of these situations in the country.
The (Mexican) Supreme Court has ruled that they will not extradite if someone is going to stand trial where they could spend life in prison or be put to death. Our laws stipulate, that kind of a crime, you're going to be put to death or be imprisoned for life. So we have a real conundrum there. I don't know the solution right now. Until their supreme court changes their mind I don't think there is, even though we passed that bill for the renegotiating of the treaty, I don't think the president can do that, because I don't think their supreme court would allow it. Just as if our Supreme Court passed something and some other country disagreed with it, we're not going to change because of that.
So I think we have to deal hard on this issue. I've met with our State Department; I've met with officials from Mexico. They've indicated that they want to go after these killers, but their hands are tied because of their supreme court. So it's just a very tough issue that I think is going to take some serious time to solve.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.