Q&A: Congressman Garret Graves

Baton Rouge Republican Garret Graves, until recently head of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, will represent the Capital Region in the new Congress. Business Report spoke with him about flood insurance, taxes and ISIS, among other issues.

You’re going to be on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. What role does the federal government play in improving transportation in your district?

Local, state and federal folks have to come to a consensus about what the interim fixes are, such as an additional lane both ways on the I-10/Mississippi River Bridge, looking at new options for transit and ferry, improving access to bridges with excess capacity, and looking at a rail line between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Longer term, there’s going to have to be consensus around a bypass or loop [around Baton Rouge].

The federal Highway Trust Fund is insolvent. We’re going to have to look at new funding mechanisms and new approaches, focusing on top priorities. And we need to make sure Louisiana gets its fair share of funds.

Can the federal government do more to support Louisiana’s $50 billion coastal restoration plan?

Absolutely. The federal project implementation process is one of the most inefficient things I’ve ever seen in my life, and money is being wasted. Congress spent close to $150 billion in response to Hurricane Katrina. If we had put a third of those dollars in protecting and restoring the coast, we could have saved lives and money.

If I’m a taxpayer in Utah and I read that Louisiana officials are against making the oil industry pay for its share of the damage, why should I support restoring Louisiana’s coast with federal dollars?

The primary cause of land loss in Louisiana is the federal government’s construction of levees on the river system. The nation benefits from those levees and from the energy production in south Louisiana. Yes, the energy companies contributed to land loss. But the energy companies are paying revenue to the federal government. The federal government should share those revenues with us and allow us to invest those dollars in coastal restoration.

Should property owners in the federal flood insurance program have to pay unsubsidized actuarial rates?

We need to acknowledge those home and business owners that complied with requirements in place when they built their home or business. To move the goal line on people is unfair. Yes, south Louisiana has become more vulnerable, but that’s because of the federal government’s actions. This is going to be a tough battle, but I think that through an education process, we’ll be able to get a permanent fix in place [to control costs for property owners].

Beyond wanting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, where are you on health care reform?

I’m against having the federal government intimately involved in health care. We need to look at allowing insurance companies to cross state boundaries. We need to look at other entities than just employers to offer insurance. We need more transparency and consumer choice in health care costs.

You say you don’t want the federal government intimately involved in health care. What about Medicare?

If there are private sector alternatives that are more affordable, that is absolutely something we should look at. I’m not saying we should wipe out Medicare, but if there are viable private sector alternatives, we should consider them. Going back to the pre-ACA status quo is not an option.

What about people receiving benefits now under the ACA? If I like my Obamacare policy, can I keep it?

If folks want to keep the policies without the subsidies, sure.

How would you reform the Environmental Protection Agency?

I think the EPA is operating beyond the intended scope of the Clean Air Act, which is a threat to Louisiana’s petrochemical industry. I think Congress needs to step in to determine what’s regulated.

Taxpayers are paying for federal, state and local environmental regulators, so maybe some of the federal role should be delegated to states. We’ve got to recognize that our agencies and our citizens also care about the environment, and I think there can be more tailored solutions than having Washington come in and apply uniform standards to all 50 states.

Business interests are pushing for more worker visas. Do you support that idea?

Once we enforce border security, I would be open to a discussion of increasing visa quotas. But let’s figure out what the true needs are, because I would rather see Americans get those jobs.

Would you have voted for the recent omnibus spending bill that was supported by Louisiana Republican Reps. Bill Cassidy, Steve Scalise and Charles Boustany?

No. I feel that the American public wants to see a new direction, and I don’t think that bill represents the mandate that I was elected under to change the fiscal condition of this nation.

What about tax reform? Does it need to be revenue neutral?

Yes, which is why it needs to be paired with spending reform. The tax code needs to be simpler and fairer. I would be open to some sort of FairTax or flat tax approach. [The FairTax http://archive.fairtax.org/u/Overview.pdf proposal replaces all federal income and payroll taxes with a new system that includes a national sales tax.] Reform is going to be a monumental task because you have so many institutions that support the status quo.

Should Congress make the war against the Islamic State official?

Yes. Basing military actions on an approval from Congress that dates back many years to a very different situation is not the right approach. I think Congress needs to step in and provide authority based on the conditions now.

Interview edited for space and clarity.

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