On Jan. 6, Republican John Katko began his service as representative of New York’s 24 Congressional District. He defeated Democratic incumbent Rep. Dan Maffei (D-Syracuse) in November by 20 percentage points. A few weeks prior to taking the oath of office, he spoke with Grant Reeher on the Campbell Conversations. Feature Photo: Ryan Delaney/WRVO
Grant Reeher (GR): What’s the one thing you’ve learned during freshman orientation that surprised you the most?
John Katko (JK): It didn’t surprise me, but the sense of history was awesome. Going down to Washington and attending some of the events reinforced the seriousness of it. You are at a pretty high level of governance. The biggest surprise is you think you have a lot of money for a (office) budget, and it’s not a lot of money. It’s hard to try and make all the pieces fit. It’s nowhere near as easy as I thought to put together a budget and execute the plan. It’s very tough.
GR: What do you think you still most need to learn?
JK: The intricacies of parliamentary procedure — pretty specific rules on when to speak, how to speak, how long to speak, and all that. And I have to understand how the committees work in a technical fashion. I am going to be on two committees, and trying to figure out exactly what I will be doing with those committees, that is going to take a while to learn.
GR: What are you worrying about most, in terms of the transition?
JK: I am not worried about the transition. I have a fantastic staff and I am really happy with them, so I am very much at peace with that. The biggest thing I am worried about is that we get off on the right foot as a new Congress. We have got to get things done, and my biggest concern is that off the bat we get moving.
GR: Has there been much mixing between the Republican and Democratic freshman during the orientation period, or have you done it pretty much within your own party?
JK: There has been a blending of both. Some of these people I didn’t even know were on the Democratic side; I first saw them at orientation. As time went on, you realize they are on the Democratic side of the fence, but it doesn’t matter to me. We all have to work together and I think we are all excited and we are all excited to get something done.
GR: Any of those members in particular that you have begun to think you could work with?
JK: Yes, some of the folks in the New York delegation, for sure. There are some people that seem to be pretty extreme right, on the conservative side of the spectrum, and I have a feeling I am going to struggle with them, but everybody else I am fine with.
GR: It looks like you’re going to get a lot of early tests of your campaign claim that you would be a more moderate and cooperative force in Washington. What do you make of how national politics have gone since the election?
JK: I am disappointed by the president, but I am not daunted by it. We will get around it. The bottom line is this, when you are a leader and you see a resounding victory by the other party, I think the first thing you should do is reach out to them and try to work with them. And the very first thing he did is take a unilateral and highly controversial action, with immigration. I understood his frustration over the years, and I share his frustration, but when you are dealing with a Congress that you know for the next two years is going to be completely controlled by Republicans, the first shot should not be something as controversial as that. Maybe he should have said, “I will give you until June 30th to get something done. If not, here’s what I’m going to do.” At least give us a chance to work with him on immigration. Right out of the gate, we are going to be fighting with him about immigration and trying to repeal what he has done. That’s not what we wanted to do. But be that as it may, I think that there is still a consensus amongst the leadership and among the vast majority of Republicans that we have to get bills to his desk for him to sign. And try and get bills that he will sign.
GR: It did seem like there were early gestures of potential cooperation between the leaders, but they evaporated pretty quickly. It sounds like you are placing most of the responsibility for that on the president.
JK: He had an opportunity to lead and he didn’t. He hasn’t reached out to any of the Republican freshman. If I was president and the Democrats had a resounding victory, the first thing I would do is have them over to the White House, just say hello. This president doesn’t have that leadership ability. Despite that, I still think that between the House and the Senate, we are going to get things done. For example the medical device tax — that is not very controversial, and I know Sen. (Charles) Schumer (D-N.Y.) has indicated a possible willingness to work with us on that, and some of the other things.
GR: This is removing a particular tax that was in the Obamacare package?
JK: Correct. It is a pretty draconian tax for medical device manufacturers. The bottom line, to answer your question, it wasn’t ideal for the president to do that, but who’s wrong and who’s right doesn’t matter. We still have to get things done.
GR: It looks like you are going to get a chance to vote on repealing Obamacare. That was a big conversation in this campaign.
JK: Like I said during the campaign, and I am going to stick to this — and the leadership knows this — I am not voting for repealing Obamacare unless there is a replacement in place because we are too far down the road with health care for everyone. I don’t think we can turn back time on that one.
GR: What is your opinion of exactly what the president has done on immigration?
JK: I think from a legal standpoint, it’s arguable that it’s unconstitutional. He took executive action that really appears to be legislating. From a practical standpoint, he is not working with Congress on a very important issue, and he is doing it because he says he is frustrated with Congress so he is acting on his own. That is a very dangerous thing in a democratic system. I think it upsets the balance of powers between the executive, judicial and legislative branches.
If you look at immigration itself from a policy standpoint, we have to do something. There are multiple layers. Seasonal labor help — we’ve got to streamline the process so you can get in and out of here quickly. People that are in the United States illegally, are committing crimes, are not leading productive lives — I don’t think there is a place for them here; they should be deported. The millions of American’s who are here illegally, but are otherwise leading productive lives — we can’t ship them out of here, but just giving them a blank amnesty like he did is probably not a good idea. I think maybe giving them some sort of resident status, I’d be happy to talk about that. I just don’t know if you reward them with a path to citizenship when they are here illegally.
GR: What do you make of the actions he has taken regarding Cuba?
JK: I understand what he did with Cuba, but my biggest concern is that America is a leader, a watchdog for human rights. Cuba still has substantial human rights problems. By opening up the ties to Cuba, a lot of people argue, we are saving the communist regime because they are in dire economic straits. Is that the right thing to do? I don’t know. Nothing we have done is going to address the human rights issues they still have. From that standpoint, I am concerned. From a business standpoint, I have heard from business leaders that this could be a great thing. I am still sorting it out in my mind because it came out of nowhere, but the thing that keeps ringing true to me is the human rights issues. If we get those settled, I say let’s do business.
GR: Have you begun to raise money for 2016?
JK: The second day in Washington, they said your campaign re-election starts now. I was like, you have to be kidding me. But, yes, we are starting to, and we have to. We are going to keep our campaign office open, and have a skeleton staff there for now. We have our fundraiser there and we will be out raising money right away.
GR: If you could choose, what song would you like played at your swearing in?
JK: There is a song (we played a lot in the campaign) by Clarence “Frogman” Henry, that they would never let me play. But I would love a patriotic song. I would love “The Star Spangled Banner,” because that still chokes me up when I hear it.
GR: If you could have one do-over from the campaign what would it be?
JK: That’s a good question. I am very happy with how the campaign went. Probably having a campaign van that didn’t have 100,000 miles on it and didn’t smell like a dirty sock at times.
Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.
Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.