Just weeks away from his return to Congress, Rep.-elect Rick Nolan of rural Crosby said he barely had time to celebrate his 69th birthday Monday as he discussed the impending fiscal cliff, gun control and rapid rail service in interview with the Brainerd Dispatch this week.
Nolan, the DFLer who defeated Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-Minn., Nov. 6, said that while the Constitution and Supreme Court have affirmed gun owners’ rights the recent shooting in Newtown, Conn., may have changed some minds regarding gun control.
“I sense a tremendous mood shift that says we’ve got to do something about it,” he said. “There are a couple of things emerging. No. 1 people don’t need military assault rifles to protect their home or go hunting.
“We’ve had bans on all kinds of military weapons,” Nolan said. “Bans on machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades.”
He also said more money should be spent treating people with mental illness. Mental illness, he said, has a wide range of costly consequences including alcoholism, drug abuse and family and spousal abuse.
Nolan, a Brainerd native, predicted that President Barack Obama and the Republicans may reach some sort of temporary solution to avert the so-called fiscal cliff (a series of mandated cuts and tax increases that go into effect after New Year’s Day) only to pass the problem on to the next Congress.
“I anticipate — and I hope I’m wrong — their reaching some kind of temporary solution and passing it on to the next Congress,” he said.
Nolan said most of the current Republican House and Senate members — particularly the tea party Republicans — won’t support a tax hike and most Democratic lawmakers won’t approve of serious cuts to Social Security and Medicare. He said he sees more possibilities for compromise with the incoming class of lawmakers.
“They all seem to have gotten the same message from the last election,” Nolan said. “People are fed up with the gridlock.”
Spending much of last week with the 80 new members of the House at a bipartisan conference at Harvard University, Nolan said he was able to meet and discuss common legislative interests with the men and women he’ll be working with next year. The 1962 Washington High School (now Brainerd High School) graduate joked that in his student days he wouldn’t have been able to get into Harvard with a crow bar. He said he was impressed with his new colleagues.
Since his term in Congress hasn’t started yet, Nolan is watching the fiscal cliff negotiations with somewhat of an outsider’s perspective. Like all of the new lawmakers, however, he holds fast to certain principles.
Social Security and Medicare, Nolan said, are social compacts that he characterizes as earned benefits.
“Neither of them have contributed to the $16 trillion debt we’re in right now.” he said.
He indicated changes in those programs could be made to ensure economic viability in the future. He suggested raising the cap on taxable income for Social Security.
“In Medicare, there’s a number of things we can do there without altering benefits,” Nolan said.
He said the federal government could negotiate for prescription drug prices under Part D as it does for veterans. He also cited a National Institute for Medicine report which stated that $750 billion is wasted annually because of nonproductive expenditures, the administering of unnecessary procedures, fraud and complicated bureaucracy.
“We need to address all these issues,” he said.
Nolan is opposed to increasing the Social Security retirement age from 65 to 70, noting that measure is advocated primarily by people with what he termed cushy office jobs.
“I’m familiar with construction trades and factory workers,” he said. “Their bodies are beat up. You work in a factory. You work in the construction trades...those people don’t have the same life expectancy.”
Nolan served three terms in Congress, starting in the mid-1970s. He’ll retain his seniority, he said, which allowed him to pick his office ahead of Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn. He said he recently met Bachmann for the first time.
“She’s quite engaging,” he said.
Brainerd City Hall is currently the site of a constituent services office for the 8th Congressional District and Nolan said he intends to keep an office in Brainerd. A rent agreement between Nolan’s soon-to-be established office and the city of Brainerd was part of the Brainerd City Council’s consent calendar at Monday’s meeting.
While at Harvard he had the opportunity to talk with newly elected Republican U.S. representatives about areas where they might cooperate.
“It’s going to be interesting,” he said. “I find the new class members to be bright, committed to cooperation, solving problems, working together and getting things done.”
He said syndicated columnist Jack Anderson listed him on a list of the 20 most respected members of Congress during his first stint.
“I was a good legislator,” Nolan said. “I had a Republican partner on everything I did...That’s what made it work. We, quite frankly, have to go back to that.”
The first bill Nolan plans to introduce is legislation calling for a constitutional amendment to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision on campaign expenditures. His own congressional race was one of the most expensive in the country with an estimated $20 million spent. The majority of that money came from outside expenditures rather than the parties, he said.
“It’s toxic and it’s changed the way Congress works.” he said of the current campaign financing system. “For the most part, the one who gets the most money wins.”
He said congressional candidates are expected to spend about 30 hours a week making calls to raise money.
Transportation projects will likely gain an ally in Nolan when he joins the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. His other committee assignment is the Agriculture Committee.
“The 8th district relies heavily on surface and water transportation for our economic well-being,” he said.
He is a proponent for transportation to serve the district’s forestry, mining and tourism interests and, in particular, rapid rail transit service for Minnesota. Nolan admitted an expanded rail system wouldn’t come without a tremendous investment.
“I see it as the equivalent of the investment in the Interstate Highway system back in the ‘50s,” Nolan said.
He said such an investment would save energy, is less expensive than expanding highways and airports and produces a smaller carbon footprint. The representative-elect said that having working and traveled internationally, he has seen the benefits of rail systems. He said he dreams of an entire nation connected with a rapid rail transit system.
“That’s something we just have to do,” he said. “In politics you blend the ideal with the practical...That’s a dream but it’s a practical one.”