Just Getting Started

Steve Driehaus counts banking, health care reform and advocacy for Cincinnati as major accomplishments in his first term

Aug 17, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Steve Driehaus was one of many Democratic challengers to grab Barack Obama's coattails in 2008 and sweep into Washington, D.C., handing the party large majorities in both houses of Congress.

Driehaus defeated longtime 1st District incumbent Steve Chabot, whose ties to the discredited Bush administration finally caught up with him.

As Driehaus points out, 2008 wasn't a great time to begin your Congressional career … unless you were interested in solving huge problems.

“Two years ago we were in a downward spiral that was out of control,” he says. “In September 2008 the global financial markets almost collapsed. We were on the precipice of the greatest recession we’ve seen in the last century. ... We’re in a far better place today than we were two years ago, and I take responsibility and ownership for those solutions.”

Congressional Democrats have passed a number of significant reform bills in the current term, most notably sweeping health-care legislation and Wall Street regulation. Driehaus gained notoriety for bucking his party leadership on the health-care bill over concerns about the inclusion of abortion funding and, after personal lobbying by President Obama, he voted for the bill. Obama signed an Executive Order banning abortion services funding from the new bill.

Driehaus sat down with CityBeat on Aug. 12 to discuss his first term in the House of Representatives; his advocacy for local companies and projects in Washington; his frustrations with the current political climate; his positions on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and other military issues; and his reelection battle against Chabot.

CityBeat: When you ran for the 1st Congressional District seat in 2008, you criticized Steve Chabot and the Republicans for creating a mess. Now that you're in office, the problems are your problems and you're the bum people want to throw out. How do you face the anger people are directing at you and all elected officials?

Steve Driehaus: Any time you have an economy as bad as the one we walked into after the election, there’s so much anxiety in the country that it’s expressed through frustration and anger, which is going to be pointed at the decision makers, the president, the Congress. I understand that.

My job is to walk them through what we’re doing in Washington and to get them to understand how we’re laying the groundwork for future economic growth and how we’re looking to protect their children’s interests. I find that when I can sit down and have conversations with people, their anger dissipates.

People feel sometimes that Washington isn’t listening, but they also hear a lot of information that isn’t true. When reasonable people can sit down and work through tough challenges, they see that there aren’t easy solutions. It’s wrong for any elected official to represent that there are simplistic solutions to these difficult challenges.

That doesn’t mean people still won’t disagree with me, and that’s fair. That’s part of the political system.

It’s far, far more difficult to be the one who steps up and says we have to make decisions and work toward solutions. Sometimes those solutions will require us to change our behavior, which won’t be comfortable.

I think elected officials who are willing to make those decisions and get out and explain them are leaders. We’ve had far too many followers in Congress and not enough leaders.

CB: The Tea Party seems to have tapped into voters' anger, but they tend to push people's buttons by exaggerating or misrepresenting what's really going on. How do you deal with them?

SD: I’m going out to senior centers across Greater Cincinnati mainly to talk about health care because there’s a lot of misinformation out there, especially about Medicare, so I’m trying to clear up that misinformation and have a conversation with seniors about health care.

So some Tea Party activists showed up at an event I was at in Colerain, which is fine, and they were asking me about their new talking point about why Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae weren’t included in the new financial reform bill. And I said they’re both in conservatorship right now and, given that they underwrite or back up about 50 percent of the mortgages in the U.S. and given the fragile nature of the housing market right now and the fragile nature of this recovery, we thought it best not to allow them to fail and thereby jeopardize 50 percent of the country’s mortgages.

I personally believe they should be wound down significantly, but I think it’s safer to do that once the economy has recovered and once the housing market is stable. I think that’s just common sense. I asked the Tea Party folks why for the past 14 years when Steve Chabot was there and the housing market was imploding and Freddie and Fannie were out of hand, why didn’t he do anything about fixing it?

When I mentioned to the Tea Party folks that it was a directive of the Bush administration that both Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae start securitizing mortgages in the subprime market, they went ballistic. It’s a fact, a directive of the Bush administration. But it’s as if you can’t talk about the facts.

The challenging thing for me is when people are just wrong on their facts yet they believe them deeply.

Let me give you a great example I hear from seniors, mostly because this misinformation is continuing. Seniors have said to me, “Why did you accept a pay increase when my cost of living adjustment for Social Security isn’t going up?” I tell them not only did I not accept a pay increase but I voted against the pay increase twice because I think it’s wildly inappropriate for Congress to be giving themselves a pay raise when the economy is in this condition.

On top of that, I returned $300,000 out of my own office account, more than any Congressman in the state of Ohio, because I believe in being personally and fiscally responsible and I believe you have to walk the walk.

Tea Party folks will tell me I’m lying, that in fact I did take a pay raise. The facts in this case are crystal clear. There’s no gray area.

I’m seeing more and more of this in the electorate. People believe what they believe, and evidence just doesn’t matter.

CB: You took a position against abortion funding in the new health-care bill that was criticized by many liberals, yet conservatives are painting your vote for the bill as evidence of your pro-choice leanings. What's the truth?

SD: It’s been the policy of the United States since the 1970s that federal government doesn’t pay for abortion. We wanted to make sure that status quo was maintained in the health-care bill. It has been maintained. President Obama's Executive Order has been strong and has had two tests through the Department of Health & Human Services that said not a single dollar from the federal government can be used to pay for abortion services under the directive of the Executive Order.

Despite that, you have national conservative political groups saying I voted for the greatest expansion of funding for abortion in our nation’s history. You have Jack Willke and Right to Life here in Cincinnati saying the exact same thing.

I’m a pro-life Democrat. I have folks on the left who don’t particularly like me for this position, and I have folks on the right who continue to purposefully mislead the public on the issue, facts be damned. They don’t worry about the facts.

CB: Speaking of “facts be damned,” how would you rate the truthfulness displayed by Rep. John Boehner, your neighbor to the north in the 4th District?

SD: What’s really disturbing to me is the irresponsibility of some elected officials who knowingly misrepresent the truth. Boehner knowingly said, for instance, that the stimulus bill hadn’t created any transportation jobs in Ohio. The Department of Transportation the next day outlined a whole variety of transportation jobs created through the Recovery Act.

Just two weeks ago when we went back to Washington, Boehner said this bill we just passed for teachers and Medicaid that I supported would continue to add to the deficit. A reporter called me for a comment, and I said, “At what point can we just call the Republican leadership liars?” What Boehner is saying is a lie.

The Congressional Budget Office looked at this bill and said it will actually reduce the deficit over 10 years by more than $1 billion. The bill is entirely paid for and then some by cutting programs in other areas and by closing a tax loophole for corporations who are taking jobs off-shore.

Now you can disagree with whether or not that’s the right policy, but to say it’s increasing the deficit is a lie. And at some point elected officials have to be held responsible for what they’re saying, because they’re intentionally misleading the public. One of the great failings of our current system is that it’s become commonplace.

I understand that not everyone trusts politicians. But politicians bring it upon themselves when they knowingly disregard the facts and say things in order to influence votes.

CB: Boehner and his fellow leaders in the Republican Party have said “no” to everything the Democrats have proposed in this term. What do they stand for beyond gridlock?

SD: Part of the challenge for the Republican Party is they have no new ideas, unless you count privatization of Social Security as a new idea. And when the leadership of the party is apologizing to BP, when the leadership suggests that if they were to win back control of the House they’d take us back to the economic policies of the George W. Bush, I can understand why they might want to misrepresent the truth.

I hear a lot about getting the deficit under control, but the deficit is a two-part equation. It’s spending and revenue. The biggest contribution to the deficit right now is the dramatic loss of revenue due to the recession. If you fall into a depression, that revenue loss is exacerbated and grows even greater.

The alternative being offered by the Republicans is to allow the Bush tax cuts to continue to drive a gaping hole in our budget and to further the deficit without showing that they’ve had any significant contribution to economic growth. When you have Alan Greenspan and David Stockman coming out and saying these tax cuts don’t pay for themselves and, especially the cuts for the wealthy, are bad public policy, I think we should take notice. These aren’t liberals. They’re free-market economists who are saying, “You know what, the tax cuts were irresponsible to do at the time, didn’t lead to the economic growth we anticipated and contributed rather significantly to the deficit.”

It’s wrong for Republicans not to admit that significant revenue loss due to tax cuts for the wealthy hasn’t contributed dramatically to the deficit. They want to take people’s eyes off the ball by bringing up spending issues.

All summer your office has issued press releases announcing new grants and funding for local projects from federal agencies and departments. What's your role in procuring those funds?

SD: This is where I’d draw the biggest distinction between myself and my predecessor. I believe a member of Congress should be an advocate for the communities he represents. I’ve been a very strong advocate in my term so far, and it might not be on issues everyone agrees on.

For instance, the competitive engine of the Joint Strike Fighter out at GE. The president and I disagree on this issue. But I will continue to go to bat for GE in this area because I believe a competitive engine program saves us money in the long term and it creates jobs here in my district.

Similarly, when there’s a grant competition for funding for Greater Cincinnati, you better believe I’m contacting the secretary of the particular department and saying I fully support this and I want to see it come to Cincinnati because we need the resources.

That’s why I had the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (James Oberstar, D-Minn.) here a couple weeks ago. I wanted him to see the Brent Spence Bridge first-hand, to see the Queensgate rail yard, to see the barge traffic on the Ohio River and put it all together. The result of that visit is that a couple days ago when I was back in Washington, he pulls me aside on the floor and he’s like, “That bridge is the definition of multi-modal transportation.”

And now because of his visit, I’m seeking other support in addition to making our bridge a priority in the reauthorized transportation bill. I want to see if we can’t go back through other federal funding sources and grants to get additional funding for the project. That’s the value of an advocate in Congress who speaks up for local projects.

CB: When you're interacting with voters, what feedback are you hearing on health care, Wall Street reform and other big issues?

SD: The financial reform bill is playing very positively when I’m out talking with people. I just met with a group of community bankers, who didn’t come into the meeting saying, “Gee, we’re looking forward to more government regulation.” But we’re working closely with them on consumer protection measures in the reform bill.

Once the average person realizes what we’ve done with regard to Wall Street reform, they’ll very much appreciate it. When you go to close on a mortgage loan, you’re no longer reading something that takes a lawyer hours to figure out. You’ll have a contract in front of you in plain English.

Now on your credit card statement, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but now it tells you how long it will take to pay off your balance if you pay only the minimum amount. That’s because we passed a credit card reform act that requires them to do that. That new regulation isn’t burdensome on Visa or MasterCard, but it is fair to a consumer to allow them to know what they’re being charged and how long it’s going to take them to pay off the credit card.

More than anything else, people are talking about the economy. The vast majority of questions I get are about jobs and moving the economy forward. I don’t see the same type of emotion anymore about the health-care reform bill. As people learn more about the specific legislation, they’re more comfortable with it.

CB: You said you've been combating misinformation about the health care bill. What do people tell you about it?

SD: People want clarification. Some parts of the bill are already in effect: no more pre-existing conditions, the Medicare donut hole is being closed, you can stay on your parents’ health insurance up to age 26, age 28 in Ohio, and you can no longer be cut off from health care if you run up against your lifetime limit. These things are making a difference right now.

A lot of times people don’t want to accept change because they don’t understand where it’s going to take them. That’s a very legitimate fear.

Unfortunately, private insurance companies are using the health care law as an excuse to continue to dramatically raise their rates. It’s my hope that in 2014 the insurance exchange this bill mandates will create a competitive marketplace that brings down prices.

CB: Did your eight years in the Ohio House adequately prepare you for life as a Congressman, or is the scale of the work in Washington so large that you're still trying to figure out how to get things done?

SD: The difference between Columbus and Washington is like Double A baseball vs. the Major Leagues. It’s unfortunate that the General Assembly in Columbus gets very little attention from the press. The vast majority of people, unfortunately, don’t know who their state rep is, despite the fact that they’re working on very significant issues.

Congress is different. There are three newspapers that just cover Congress and the White House. The media attention is intense. And the magnitude of the issues we deal with are huge.

You’re talking about addressing the greatest recession in our lifetimes while passing the most significant health care reform plan since Medicare or the biggest Wall Street reform since the 1930s. These are huge issues. It’s right that people are paying attention and holding us accountable.

Most elected officials know a little bit about a lot of things, then focus on certain areas and develop expertise. For a long time my focus has been housing and community development, which is what I focused on in the State House in Columbus. So to see that come full circle with our Wall Street reform legislation was very fulfilling.

I saw the impact that the mortgage crisis was having six years ago here in Cincinnati, and we addressed it at a municipal level, a state level and finally a federal level. I was glad to be part of the solution at every step of that process.

I’ve got a very keen interest in foreign policy. My background is in foreign affairs — I was in the Peace Corps for a few years and spent time in southern Africa as well. So I go back and forth between international affairs and community development.

CB: A recent article in The New Yorker described the U.S. Senate as a dysfunctional body. The House seems to pass a lot of legislation that goes to the Senate and dies. How do you and your fellow House members view the Senate?

SD: I have a good relationship with both Ohio senators. I’ve worked with Sen. Voinovich on the Brent Spence Bridge project, and of course I work closely with Sherrod Brown. The personal relationships are great.

The U.S. Senate itself is broken. It takes 60 votes to get anything done.

A filibuster is no longer a senator taking to the floor; it’s done administratively. You file a piece of paper saying you’re going to filibuster. All of us in the House are saying, “Make him get up and filibuster. Make that old man go down to the floor of the Senate and speak for 24 hours.” Let the American people see how the Republicans are holding up the process, how they’re holding up extension of unemployment benefits, holding up health care legislation, how they’re hindering the economy because of their obstinacy.

The rules in the Senate were always designed to protect the rights of the minority party and to promote consensus thinking, but these rules are harming the country and our government, and they need to address it. The House can’t do anything, since these are the Senate’s own rules, but I wish people would hold Mitch McConnell accountable for how the Republicans are manipulating the rules.

CB: John Kasich, the Republican running against Gov. Ted Strickland, has said if he's elected he'll kill the proposed Cincinnati-Columbus-Cleveland 3C high-speed train project, which you favor. Why do you favor this project?

SD: The 3C project is a microcosm of the upcoming elections at every level. There’s a clear choice here. The Republicans want to take America back, I want to take America forward. John Kasich wants to take Ohio backward.

Part of taking America forward is investment in infrastructure and transportation and retooling Ohio to again be able to compete globally in manufacturing, but that manufacturing is going to be around new energy technologies. The Republicans would have us not invest in that.

There’s no reason we can’t lead with new energy technologies. We’ve got the capability and knowhow. We should be fabricating the thousands of parts that go into a windmill here at home here in Ohio. We should be making the passenger train cars and the rails here.

CB: Do voters bring up the wars? What are their concerns?

SD: We talk a lot about Afghanistan and Iraq in Washington, but I don’t get asked many questions about that here. Not nearly enough Americans appreciate the fact that we’re fighting two wars right now, because they’re not engaged. How many Americans make a sacrifice day in and day out for the young men and women who are putting their lives on the line in Afghanistan and Iraq? Very few.

Our investment is up to $1 trillion on the wars. What could we have done with that money for this country?

Some people don’t want to go back to the decisions made by the Bush administration, but the idea that we were going to fight two wars and not pay for them is something we’re dealing with now. The Republicans’ plan back then was to have our kids and grandkids pay for these wars, and now they’re complaining about the deficit. And then they simultaneously cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans and further reduced revenue, creating the very situation they’re now complaining about.

We passed “pay/go” legislation to pay for the wars as we go, but that has exemptions we need to address. We need to move our troops out of Iraq as quickly as possible, as the president is doing.

CB: What are the next steps in the Middle East?

SD: There’s an attitude among many of us in Congress to give the president the latitude he deserves initially for his strategy in Afghanistan. However, that’s not an open-ended license for the president. Congress has the responsibility to determine the effectiveness of that strategy and to determine if we’re going to continue to fund it. There are benchmarks that need to be met by the president and by the military.

Afghanistan is an extremely complicated situation. Our fight against terrorism isn’t limited to that country. Al Qaeda has a presence in Pakistan, East Africa, the Philippine islands, so this is a more complicated war than we’re ever fought. That’s why this is taking so long and why it’ll continue to be fought into the future.

CB: Obama campaigned on closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center in addition to ending the wars. What's the status of Guantanamo Bay?

SD: The effectiveness and utility of Guantanamo Bay have dissipated, and it’s become a symbol to too many people of mistreatment by the U.S., and that’s unfortunate. I don’t buy into the fears pushed by some on the right that suggest that we can’t detain and put on trial on American soil combatants who are threatening the U.S.

The president’s intention is to close Guantanamo Bay, but he’s realized that it’s a tougher nut to crack than he initially thought. We’ve insisted in Congress that a plan be in place if we’re going to close Guantanamo Bay so we can try these individuals and detain them.

We stand for principles in the U.S., and I believe it’s wrong to detain someone indefinitely without charging them with a crime. If someone is a threat to the U.S., then let’s show that they’re a threat and let’s convict them and detain them. There should be a process we respect and follow.

CB: How do you view the role of U.S. military contractors, particularly in the Middle East?

SD: I believe contractors taking U.S. dollars to work in Iraq and elsewhere should play by the same rules our military does. We had a situation here in Ohio where it was pretty clear that the contractors were not playing by those same set of rules. There was a loss of life of an American citizen, who was from Youngstown — I believe he was killed in Iraq in a traffic accident. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Niles) and I have been trying to get information, and we can’t. The contractor isn’t been held accountable the same way the military would be held accountable.

Oversight over government contacts is necessary for procurement and for military-related services. We should definitely be asking the question whether the contracted services are absolutely necessary and if the taxpayer money is being spent wisely.

CB: How do you contrast yourself against Steve Chabot?

SD: This campaign is a clear choice. I’ll put my record of the past year-and-a-half up against Chabot’s record of 14 years. I continue to ask the question as to what project Chabot led on in Greater Cincinnati in his 14 years in Congress.

I know when I was creating a multi-neighborhood housing task force in the Ohio legislature, when I was pushing the governor to create a foreclosure task force, when I was working on legislation with Cincinnati City Council members and state legislators to crack down on predatory lending and scam lease options, Chabot never held a single public hearing on housing, which was the biggest challenge our community faced. That disturbs me, because as I’ve said, I believe a Congressman should be a leader and an advocate.

Now, not everyone agrees with what the Democrats are doing in Washington. I don’t always agree with my party, as has been clear on many occasions. But I do believe I’ve shown far greater leadership for this community in one term than what Steve Chabot did in 14 years.

One of the great things about this job is that I get to meet with the Hispanic community, the Orthodox Jewish community, the African immigrant community, the West Side Catholics, the Clifton liberals, the gay community, the business community. Representing all of those interests is what I think a member of Congress should do. I’ve endeavored to meet with as many people as I possibly can and understand all of their interests and then try to advocate in a coherent way on behalf of all of them, not always to all of their liking.

I don’t believe Steve Chabot ever did that. I believe he represents a very narrow viewpoint shared by a segment of our district, and for 14 years everyone else was under-represented.