ePluribus Media: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Tony Barr. You are running for Congress in the 9th district of Pennsylvania against Bill Shuster, who inherited the seat from his father. If you would, could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself, your family, and what brought you into politics?
Tony Barr: I was brought up by my parents to value family, hard work, education, and to look out for everyone in the community. My first professional job after college was as a Teacher/Counselor at a wilderness school for juvenile delinquents. I worked shifts of five 24-hour days per week. Two of the five days of my shift, I was worked alone with 10 youths who were adjudicated for stealing cars, sexual offenses, beating people up, etc. At the wilderness school, I learned the importance of solving problems. Little problems not effectively solved early led to much larger problems later on. At present, I am a school teacher at Everett High School where I have worked for the past ten years. As a school teacher, there is not a social or economic issue that does not walk through my doorway every day. I know what average people are facing. I believe that their government should work for them not against them. I have been married to my wife Liz, also a school teacher, for 5 years. We have two sons, Silas (4) and Zeke (2).
ePMedia: You present immigration reform as having three aspects: 1) Securing borders by creating more equitable cross-border conditions, 2) Providing opportunities for illegal immigrants already here, and 3) addressing the root economic problems outside of the US. Numbers 1 and 3 are, in some ways, one and the same, so I am going to combine them, asking only two questions relating to immigration:
First, what sort of specific programs could the US sponsor that would have a significant impact on the "working conditions and living standards" in neighboring countries?
TB: When NAFTA was passed as law, there were many assurances that labor laws and environmental concerns would be addressed later. It has now been over ten years since the passage of NAFTA, and labor and environmental concerns have not been addressed. It is time to bring the labor and environmental aspects of NAFTA up to the standards of the United States. If this is not possible, then it is time to withdraw from NAFTA.
ePMedia: Second, many people argue that the US is a nation of laws, and so the country cannot reward law-breakers by providing advantages for people who have "jumped ahead in line" to get into the US. How would you meet their objections in development of a plan allowing illegal immigrants to "gain legal status"?
TB: Yes, the United States is a nation of laws. However, we need to be realistic. Do we really want to spend the money to find and deport some 12 million illegal immigrants? I think we have more important things to spend our money on. I also think spending money to build an "American Iron Curtain" is a tremendously bad idea. It is un-American, and it will be not effective. This is a very complex issue, and it needs to be addressed from many different angles. In short, I think we need to reinstate enforcement dollars that have been cut from the budget by Bush/Cheney/Shuster et. al. I think that we need to enact real penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants so that employers who hire illegal immigrants purposely will face the very real possibility of going out of business. Next, we need to help those employers who hire migrant workers who want to hire American citizens or legal immigrants for those jobs. At present, the workers only stay in one spot for a few weeks, but it takes at least 6 months for paperwork to clear. We need a 21st century solution to this problem. I'm guessing that there is even more that can be done to effectively solve this problem. I will find it.
ePMedia: One of the problems I had in my days as an employer was meeting all of the requirements and expenses associated with paying my employees. I wanted to pay the employees more (and I always did pay at a rate quite a bit higher than minimum wage), but the total cost (in terms of expense and time) of maintaining even a small number of employees made that difficult. Do you have any ideas for helping employers simplify their tasks (which then saves them money) and streamline their other employee-related expenses as a means for reducing resistance to the concept of requiring a basic living wage?
TB: No legislation is perfect. One of the duties of Congress is to hold public hearings so that all interested parties can weigh in on legislation. This present Congress has the worst track record regarding the amount of public hearings conducted. Democracy dies in secret, so does good legislation. Regarding your described situation, I believe that we would need to hold a hearing regarding a specific requirement. All parties would have a chance to comment. If working together we can streamline the system and still protect workers, let's do it.
ePMedia: On a related topic, you argue for strengthening OSHA and improving worker rights and conditions. One problem for employers is that they end up trying to conform to a patchwork of regulations that are not only expensive but sometimes contradictory. Do you see a way of making it easier for employers to meet the needs of workers rather than simply demanding that they do so?
TB: In the past couple of years, we have witnessed what happens when the enforcement budget for OSHA is cut drastically. As much as I would like to hope that companies will do what's right on their own, I know that they will only do what's right if there is enforcement with real penalties. If people have other ideas, I will be glad to hear them. I will be in favor of testing them on a small scale. If results are favorable, then let's begin to implement them on a larger scale.
ePMedia: Pennsylvania has been experimenting with paper ballots -- my precinct used them in the primary this year and I found the ballot quite easy to use -- but the methods of voting are diverse in the United States. Would a standard, nationwide system of paper ballots be possible, or would that be an infringement on states' rights?
TB: I don't believe that standardizing the ballot is right, but I believe that a paper receipt must be mandated. A standardized ballot would be a violation of state and county rights, but we must have a paper trail. There are too many possibilities for fraud associated with Black Box voting methods. Our elections must be conducted at a level above any kind of doubt. H.R. 550 must be passed post-haste.
ePMedia: What, specifically (outside of balancing the current budget), would you propose for brining the national debt back into line?
TB: Balancing the budget needs to be priority. Again, there are several angles that need to be pursued to bring our budget under control. First, earmarks, a.k.a. pork barrel spending, must be controlled. Earmarks and their associated spending have been rising dramatically. The time is right to eliminate earmarks completely. Second, billions of dollars have vanished in the occupation in Iraq and the response to Hurricane Katrina. Public hearings must be held to find out where this money has gone. If wrongdoing is found, wrongdoers must be held accountable and be forced to pay restitution. My opponent, Bill Shuster, has repeatedly voted against these type of hearings. Third, the tax cuts for the richest Americans must be eliminated. These tax cuts did not provide stimulus to our economy. These tax cuts took the burden of financing our government off those most able to pay and placed it on the backs of those least able to pay. Fourth, we must increase tax payment enforcement dollars focusing these new enforcement dollars on the richest Americans who are most able to pay and most able to cheat.
ePMedia: You suggest a bullet train between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as one means of reducing our oil dependence, and back development of "renewable fuel sources, such as wind, bio-diesel, solar, and hydro-electric." What about public transport within the district? For me, for example, it would be a delight to take the train from New York City (where I spend a great deal of time) to Lewistown -- but I really have no way from getting from there to Belleville. And so I drive. Many others in the district have similar problems. What sort of public-transportation solutions do you envision?
TB: I think that regional mass transportation can be a solution to both our energy and traffic problems. Though our area does not have the traffic problems that more urban areas do, we still have problems spots that we are under pressure to build more and bigger roads to address. Due to geographic realities, many people in the district travel large distances to and from work. For this reason, I believe that regional mass transportation is something that needs to be looked into. I believe that bus routes along existing main travel courses to be the best bet, but I would definitely listen if someone came up with an alternate plan with adequate numbers.
ePMedia: Funding of education needs to be increased, but how? Leaving aside local problems of property tax, how do you see the Federal government easing school budget woes -- especially in light of the huge recent Federal deficits?
TB: Right now the federal government is funding testing, not education. It is not even funding its signature effort, No Child Left Behind. No Child Left Behind has been underfunded every year of its existence. This fiscal year, No Child Left Behind has been underfunded by $13 billion. If we are not going to fund a project, then it should be terminated.
ePMedia: Any argument for Universal Health Care runs up against the belief that a Federal program will be unwieldy and expensive. Certainly, the private systems in place now (in addition to not covering everyone) are bureaucratic nightmares -- and extremely pricey -- but how would you insure that a universal program would do better in that area?
TB: I propose expanding Medicare to cover all Americans. Medicare is 98% efficient. That is, $.98 of every dollar spent on Medicare goes towards actual health care. In private health insurance, $.77 of every dollar spent goes towards actual health care with the remaining money being spent on administrative costs, advertising, and profit taking. Emory University did a study that found that an expansion of Medicare would save this country between $320 billion and $1.1 trillion over the first 10 years. The nice part of this plan is that if one has a problem with the federal health insurance system one can have his or her congressperson take up their case. One does not have that option with our current system of private health insurers.
ePMedia: If public financing of all Federal campaigns were instituted, how would you determine which candidates would be funded? What would be the position concerning third parties?
TB: If all candidates are qualified according to federal and applicable state laws, candidates would be funded on an equal basis. Independents and 3rd party candidates presently have requirements to qualify to be on the ballot. If they satisfy these requirements to get on the ballot, they will also get an equal funding amount.
ePMedia: One of the problems with creation of a level playing field to underlie fair and free trade is that the American consumer benefits from lower prices for goods made at nearly slave wages ... sometimes making people forget that they are also losing jobs to the lower-wage countries. How can you tie these together so that Pennsylvanians will understand that the cheaper prices are not even real savings for the individual?
TB: "Most Favored Nation" trading status is given to open diplomatic doors. However, I believe that we need to be realistic when it is not working, and we need to rescind that status when it hurts our workers. As far as explaining this to the voters, I believe in straight talk directly to the voters of the 9th district. Bernie Sanders of Vermont regularly holds policy discussions in his district where he explains his positions on tough legislation. I think this is fantastic, and I look to do the same thing once I am elected. I believe that Pennsylvanians are an honest, conscientious, and fair lot. If policies are explained telling how they benefit the common good, I believe that they will support such policies. Everybody I talk to agrees that we need good jobs in this area. They all agree that we need jobs that we can raise families with. Once the connections are made and the repercussions of 'free trade' are explained, I believe that they will support fair trade.
ePMedia: Do you think there is a real possibility of a resurrection of the Equal Rights Amendment? If so, how could this be accomplished?
TB: At this point, I don't see the resurrection of the Equal Rights Amendment on the political horizon. I support the ideals of the ERA, but at this point, I believe jobs, universal health insurance, and a common sense energy policy to be more pressing issues.
ePMedia: As a baby-boomer myself, I have no objection to the raising of the retirement age or even to a reduction in benefits -- if this will give the younger generation confidence that Social Security will be available for them, too. How would you approach this issue -- which has been made into a generational divide -- so that all generations can come to support the Social Security concept?
TB: The preservation of Social Security is of the utmost importance. You brought up two of the ways to address the problems that we won't see for another 30 years. I believe there is a third way which is the best. I believe that we need to raise the present ceiling on wages for which Social Security revenues are raised. At present, wages are capped at $94,200. This gives those who make more than this ceiling an effective 6% break on their taxes. If we raise the ceiling on these taxes to $110,000, Social Security will be solvent well into the future. This answers how we will raise the revenues to fund Social Security, but if this is all we do, Social Security will remain vulnerable. I propose a law that will make it illegal for the Federal Government to use Social Security revenues for anything other than Social Security Benefits. I realize that this will cause big disruptions to the budgetary process at first, but this country is in trouble. It is Congress's jjob to fix this mess.
ePMedia: Support for veterans is completely separate from support for war. People talk a good line of support for soldiers, but rarely follow through for the former soldiers. One of the greatest problems faced by returning combat veterans is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an "unseen" disease that destroys thousands of lives after each war. Do you have any specific proposals for alleviating the problems presented by PTSD?
TB: I agree that there is too much flag waving and not enough real, effective action when it comes to supporting our troops and veterans. I have heard that the Department of Defense has much improved its actions towards PTSD in the last 15 years. I would definitely look forward to public hearings on this matter to evaluate the current programs and what, if any, improvements can be made. I am sympathetic to the plight of our veterans. I believe that it is the responsibility of our federal government to help those who have sacrificed so much to rebuild their shattered lives. I look forward to working with members of the mental health field, the DOD, and other interested parties to develop an effective, compassionate plan for dealing with this serious problem.
ePMedia: As you know, there is now quite a controversy going on in the body where you wish to serve over delay in dealing with inappropriate contact between one Representative, Mark Foley, and House pages. Do you have any comment?
TB: Of course we were shocked and disgusted by the news and appalled at the allegations of cover up, but it just goes to show that the truth always comes out.
ePMedia: Thank you again for taking the time to answer these questions.
Tony's campaign site - http://www.tonybarr2006.com/
Thorpe study from Emory University - http://www.nchc.org/materials/studies/Thorpe%20booklet.pdf
ePluribus Media contributors: JeninRI (fact check),
Tanya, cho, roxy, cedwyn