An Informal Conversation with Congressman Tom Allen - Representing Maine's First District

by Ramona du Houx

Congressman Tom Allen works tirelessly for the people of the First District in the state of Maine. When he’s not fighting for the needs of Mainers in Washington, DC, he is at home attending meetings, talking to constituents, or visiting businesses and schools.

Recently the congressman sat down for an informal discussion.

Do you think we will win back control of the House?

"I believe we’re going to get control of the House for a host of reasons, mainly because of the failure of the president’s policies in Iraq, his effort to privatize social security, and his failure to do anything about the health-care crisis that is really driving small business and the uninsured crazy."

Does the lack of health care make Americans more afraid to take risks?

"It’s adding insecurity. It’s not the bankrupting of America, but it’s putting us in a fiscal hole that is totally unnecessary; totally exorbitant tax cuts for the wealthiest people and reducing programs and services that make a difference with the middle income and the poor. I believe these are all reasons why we can take back the House."

Investment in R&D through the efforts of the governor enables the availability of federal funds, which you help secure. Recently you and the governor attended the Jackson Lab extension celebration that will add 125 research scientists to the facility, helping grow the economy. How do you feel Maine is doing economically?

"Too many people in Maine feel that we are doing worse than the rest of the country economically when in fact, even with this Bush administration, economic growth has been slightly above the national average, and the unemployment rate has been below the national average.

"York County is the fastest growing county is Maine. The in-migration now is significant. People are — for a whole host of reasons — coming to Maine.

"Maine is a relatively high-tax state, but I think too often people don’t realize that 87 percent of our state budget goes to K–12 education, the university system, and Medicaid. Our expenses in those areas are somewhat higher than other states, because we have so many people spread out through such a large area."

Recently you introduced a new small business bill; tell me about it?

"I have a seven-point plan, and the center piece is first a small business health plan act, which would essentially provide people working in small businesses — with 50 employees or fewer — with a kind of health insurance that federal employees get. And each state would have two or three — at least — health-care plans to which small-business members could sign up. It wouldn’t necessarily be the responsibility of each business to get one plan, but individuals could sign up for one of any number of plans.

"The plans would have a bit of a federal subsidy in that the federal government would pick up the cost of catastrophic health-care cases, and that would reduce the cost for the commercial insurers, entice them into the bargain, and then you’d wind up covering a lot more people and at the same time driving down the insurance cost of the small-business owner.

"The other parts of the small business plan involve provisions to help businesses that are especially dependant on oil — heating oil for buildings, or gasoline and diesel for trucking companies, for example — and it would give them a bit of a tax break for two years to get them through this rough period."

What should we do to be less dependent on foreign fuel?

"In the long run we need to reduce our consumption by adding more efficient vehicles and by converting more of those vehicles to run on non-fossil fuels, particularly ethanol, and different varieties of ethanol. Ethanol can be made from corn. Eventually it will be made efficiently from grass and wood chips. Then we’ll have cleaner fuels, more widely available, and we won’t be so dependant on Middle Eastern oil."

You’re a champion for the environment. What have you done?

"I have either written or cosponsored legislation to clean up aging power plants and to take broader steps to control carbon emissions, which are the primary causes involved in climate change or global warming."

What’s it like with the anti-environmental Bush agenda?

"The battle just keeps going on. Basically, we’re trying to stop bad things from happening. When Democrats get control of the House, we’ll finally get a positive environmental agenda. I think it’ll be a helpful contrast which could lead to more important changes in the Senate."

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You always opposed the war in Iraq. When the president failed to solicit real international support, you and then Congressman Baldacci voted against action in Iraq. What about the war in Iraq?

"The war in Iraq is a very important issue for millions of people in this country, and people finally realize that the Bush administration’s "stay-the-course" policy is taking us nowhere. We need to get out of Iraq next year in a way that will give the Iraqis the best chance of avoiding a civil war. They are partially in one now, but it can get even worse, and we need to set a general timetable on getting out in order to put the maximum amount of pressure on Iraqi politicians to resolve their differences. Whether that is through the means of a tripartite state or something that’s closer to a federal system, they’re just going to have to come to terms, because we can’t stay there. There’s too much loss of life.

"Having made the instability worse, the question is: What is our moral responsibility to leave it in the best possible condition we can? Bush is wrong — we’re not going to finish the job, have success, and then leave, having accomplished all of our objectives.

"We have to leave because we’re part of the problem. We don’t have enough of a military force — and we’re certainly acting in ways that make it clear that we don’t have enough political smarts — to build the country for the Iraqis. They have to do that.

"We don’t control the rest of the world. This is a battle going on within Islam over the interpretation of their scripture, and part of this is the resistance of fundamentalist Islamists to the culture of the West. We didn’t create all of this, but we certainly have made it worse by invading Iraq under the pretense that it has something to do with Al Qaeda.

"All the good things that are happening over there — there are good things happening over there — are because of the ingenuity of the American military, but their leadership leaves a lot to be desired."

Do you think we can pull out by next year?

"That should be the goal. I’m not confident that George Bush is going to do that, because it’s hard to imagine circumstances in which he could draw down troops and claim a victory. I think he will keep people on the front lines. The bloodshed has been so intense that he has not a prayer of pulling people out saying that the mission has been accomplished, and therefore he can’t bring himself to reduce the force."

By taking back the House do you think we’re getting closer to bringing the troops home?

"Probably, because although the House doesn’t determine foreign policy, we would start doing investigations; we would start conducting oversight over the administration’s foreign policy and domestic policy that would hold them more accountable. But right now the administration basically does what they want."

Clinton did so much in a short time, can we get back to that kind of agenda and progress?

"The hardest part about living with the Bush administration and the Republican Congress has been to watch them be so fiscally irresponsible; they’ve increased the national debt dramatically, and it’s very hard to dig out of that hole, but Clinton proved it could be done.

"The deficit got smaller every year Clinton was in office until it became a surplus, and then it became larger every year.

"Bush took office and turned everything around. We went back down in the other direction to the largest deficits in American history. We can turn that around, but it won’t be easy. And everyone needs to contribute. Everyone’s got a role to play. Everyone has to sacrifice to some extent for the common good in order to make this country more competitive economically, to have a cleaner environment, to deal with the threat of climate change and to make sure our kids are healthy and educated."

So, helping rebuild community will help us recover our democracy?

"Yes, that’s a major part of the American experience.

"I think fundamentally, that these Republicans are only focused on one half of the American experience — the part that emphasizes standing on your own two feet, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and not getting help from other people. But there’s another half to the American experience, which is all about community, which is grounded in the notion that everyone needs a helping hand, that no one does anything important alone, and that if you’re going to have a healthy society we need to care about every single member, that we don’t have a person to waste, and therefore, through our governments at every level, we need to invest in people, to make sure we have a well-trained, well-educated workforce.

"The majority of immigrants came to this country so that their children could have a better life than they did. And some of the stories of one generation sacrificing for the next are legion. And here we are, far from investing in our children, we are putting chains around their necks, in the form of increased national debt, a rapidly changing climate, and a health-care system in crisis. All of which needs our attention and action. The current administration just defers to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries for their good ideas, just as they defer to the oil and coal industries to deal with energy problems. It’s that link between multinational corporations and the federal government that is really leading us in the wrong direction."

Are multinationals in control now?

"The industries that supported Bush have done very well. They got a big return on their investments."

Tell me about the tax cuts.

"The Republicans operate under the delusion that if you reduce taxes, revenues to the government increase. Revenues to the U.S. Government almost always increase, but they increase regardless, if you increase taxes, or if you reduce taxes, for a whole host of reasons related to the level of economic activity in the country.

"The incomes of the upper one percent are expanding faster than any other group in the country. From 2003 to 2004 people making over about $380,000 a year got 30 percent of the entire growth in wages and income in the entire country. Thirty percent of growth in income went to the upper one percent. And that’s why middle-income people feel stuck — because they don’t get anything. Almost all the gains have gone to people in the upper 20 percent, and a third of the total gains have gone to people in the upper one percent."

It’s been about year since you worked with Governor Baldacci and the congressional delegation to fight for Maine’s bases. And despite overwhelming odds PNSY remains open.

"That was the most intense collaborative experience I’ve had. We were a team. We just knew we had to save jobs, and we all worked very hard to do that. It was an important accomplishment. PNSY represents a major part of Maine’s economy. We have work to do in Brunswick, but I think that the Brunswick facility can be adapted to a variety of different economic uses. The area will be okay in the long run."