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An Interview with Congressman Jim Gerlach
Jim Gerlach
Congressman Jim Gerlach (R-PA 6)

Jim Gerlach, 50, served two terms in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives beginning in 1990, followed by two terms to the state Senate. He is currently serving his second term in the U.S. House of Representatives and is up for reelection next fall against Lois Murphy. He represents the 6th Congressional District which includes portions of Montgomery, Chester and Berks counties. The following are excerpts from an interview with Congressman Gerlach that took place on November 11, 2005.

PJV: Now that Israel has withdrawn from Gaza, should the U.S. put more pressure on Mahmoud Abbas to neutralize Palestinian terrorist groups and, if so, how?

Absolutely. Abbas has even greater responsibility now that the PA (Palestinian Authority) can no longer claim that they are under occupation, at least in Gaza. He has more of a responsibly to put pressure on the more radical elements of Palestinian society and crack down with his security forces on those who want to continue the violence against Israelis. We've supplied dollars to the PA to help with economic development and we need that tool as leverage to try to move him as far as possible toward gaining control of the violent elements within Palestinian society. How successful we're going to be remains to be seen. If that's not going to happen under his leadership then ultimately we need to move toward finding someone else who can.

PJV: Many members of the Jewish community are concerned that the conduct of the war in Iraq has strengthened and emboldened Iran, which seeks to expand its nuclear program and whose president recently called for Israel's destruction. What is your response to them?

When I was in Israel (August, 2004), I was impressed so much by the sentiments expressed by Israelis, how supportive they were of President Bush in taking on this war against terrorism. Israelis have suffered terrorism for many years, as everyone knows, and they finally saw an American president who recognized the terrorist network that's out there - the coalitions of terrorist elements that are working together to, in essence, destroy civilization, particularly democratic societies. But you still have rogue governments, like the government of Iran, with a president who is absolutely irresponsible with his incendiary comments. And that's a problem that has to be faced not just by Israel, but by all free nations. Everyone hopes we can get them to reverse their course and give up their effort to acquire nuclear weapons in a peaceful way through negotiation and diplomacy. But it's an extremely dangerous time. We have to use every means at our disposal, in concert with Israel, to demonstrate that we will not back down in the face of that kind of rhetoric.

PJV: In a recent interview, Gov. Howard Dean, who visited Israel just last month, said that while Israelis were initially happy to see the U.S. remove Saddam Hussein from power, they're starting to disagree with the assessment you just gave. He said there is growing anxiety among Israelis that the war in Iraq has destabilized the region, increased terrorism and emboldened Iran. 

Of course that's Howard Dean talking, and he's going to make his comments in a way that's going to be partisan in nature and deflect credit away from the Bush administration and Congress that has been trying, for the first time, to deal with the war of terrorism. So I don't take much stock in what Howard Dean says. But if you take a bird's eye view, you now have two countries, Iraq and Iran, former dictatorships with strong ties to extremist Muslims, that are now on the road to democracy, and that's a very positive thing in a broad, historical sense. It's not surprising that when you have the fall of Hussein, who served as counterweight to Iran, and you have the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, that a country like Iran is going to emerge as more of a player in that region. But that doesn't mean that the effort to bring democracy to the Middle East is wrong. In fact, it's a positive development for the continuing efforts to deal with jihadism in that region. Contrary to Howard Dean's partisan statements, I think the march against terrorism is moving in the right direction. 

PJV: A related question: Last week, 60 of your House colleagues signed a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. pressing for an unambiguous, formal United Nations denunciation of Iran's recent call for Israel to be "wiped off the map." You didn't sign it. Why not?

I never saw it. Many times letters get circulated but they just don't get around to all members. Had I seen that letter I would've signed on to it. But I just never got it. That happens in this business.

PJV: We contacted the office of the sponsor of that letter. They said the letter was circulated to every House member.

Well, we never saw it in our office. I would definitely have signed it because the UN has to step up to the plate and come out vigorously against the statements made by the Iranian president.

PJV: Do you feel that the so-called Christian Right has too much influence on the GOP?

It's very hard to define what the Christian Right really is. I haven't seen a lot of evidence where religious leaders themselves, say evangelical Christian or very conservative Christians, have much influence on the rank and file of the Republican conference or on the leadership.

PJV: Isn't what happened to Harriet Miers clear example of their influence?

I don't think it's the religious leadership itself. I think what you're seeing is that there are certain values that members coming from different districts try to promote as part of policy. There are those who say those views reflect the Christian Right and others who feel they reflect traditional American values. So it depends on the eye of the beholder, even in the case of Harriet Miers. Some members of the Senate Republican conference did not see enough evidence that she had the kind of "traditional values" that they think the next Supreme Court justice ought to have and so they were not really hot on getting her through the confirmation process. So she withdrew her name. But in terms of the leadership of the Christian Right, leaders who come forward and try to get members to vote a certain way, there's very little evidence of that and so I think it's more of a values type of debate that plays out in terms of policy here.

PJV: In June, you joined other House Republicans in voting down two proposed amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have required the Air Force to submit a plan to Congress for ensuring religious tolerance at the academy. Why did you vote against those amendments?

Because I was comfortable that the Air Force Academy and the Air Force Department were taking the appropriate steps to correct was what was going on at the Academy. I think the policies at the Academy were too pro one religious doctrine rather than an across the board acceptance of all faiths. But I felt comfortable, based on the information that I had, that those amendments were not necessary.

PJV: Then how do you respond to a letter to President Bush signed by 70 House Republicans and one Democrat complaining that the programs that have been instituted at the Academy are burdensome and anti-Christian? 

I haven't seen that letter. I'll take a look at it and try to get more information. Since I haven't had much connection with those issues since that amendment I'm not sure what their complaints are, but I'll be glad to take a look to see if they have any validity.

PJV: A Pennsylvania judge will soon make a ruling on the Intelligent Design case in the Dover School District. Do you think Intelligent Design should be taught in our schools as a legitimate scientific alternative to evolution?

It depends what you mean when you say "Intelligent Design." What I've read is simply the notion, in the Dover School District, where the proponents of Intelligent Design simply want the teacher in the classroom to say, and I'm paraphrasing here, that there is a view out there in the scientific community that there may be other causes for the evolution of the human race that may be somehow connected to something spiritual - I'm not sure what the word is - but saying something like that, very generic, very open ended. I don't think that is inappropriate at all because there are a lot of people who believe that our creation is divinely inspired and not just the result of the joining of cells and protoplasm.

PJV: Moderate Republicans who are also pro-life have the option of voting for Bob Casey, Jr. in next year's senate race. Does having Rick Santorum on the ballot help or hurt you in your bid for re-election next fall?

The voters are going to look at Santorum and they're going to look at Casey, just like they're going to look at the two candidates for governor and the two candidates in my district. I think we have pretty well-informed and discerning voters in the 6th district and I don't think what's happening in those other races is going to have an effect on my race. We're going to the voters, to demonstrate our record, the things we've tried to do for the 6th district, and I think the voters will make up their minds based on our candidacy.

PJV: Heating costs are expected to soar this winter, putting great pressure on low-income households. What, if anything, can Congress do to help?

Part of the reconciliation legislation that we're debating this week is language to appropriate an additional $1 billion for LIHEAP (Low Income Heating Assistance Program). We're still doing research to see if that's going to meet the need and we don't know exactly what kind of winter we're going to have, but $1 billion over and above what we spent last year should go a long way toward helping those families.

PJV: How do you respond to traditional Main Line "Eisenhower" Republicans who've become increasingly upset about this congress's fiscal approach, specifically the increase in the federal deficit? 

I think they've recognized that since the passage of the economic stimulus package in 2003, which really kick-started our economy and got it moving forward in a very strong fashion, our federal deficit has been going down significantly for the past couple of years. We were at $500 billion annually a couple years ago, we're now under $300 billion for the annual federal deficit. So hopefully, that policy of keeping the economy moving forward and keeping some fiscal restraint in the budget is paying off. But now there are the Katrina costs - $62 billion and climbing. More needs to be done to keep a tighter hold on the growth in spending. The bottom line is that there is going to be legislation passed that will put a tighter hold on spending at the federal level and I think those Eisenhower Republicans will see that come about and they'll see that federal deficit continue to come down year after year.

PJV: Earlier this year, the President said that anyone on the White House staff involved in the Valerie Plame affair would be fired from the White House staff. Karl Rove is still under investigation by the Special Prosecutor, and was clearly involved to some extent in the affair: he spoke with reporters about it, etc. Should he be fired, and if not, why not?

If I recall the President's statement, he said if anyone has been found to have broken the law by disclosing the name of a CIA operative, they should be fired. But so far, nobody has been charged with violating the law. Apparently the special prosecutor is continuing his investigation, but after two years of investigation there is no evidence that anyone broke a law. Just over the past few days, there have been people on national television saying that they were told by this Wilson fellow that his wife worked for the CIA. So I have yet to see any evidence of any crime being committed involving the outing of a CIA operative in violation of Federal law. And clearly the special prosecutor hasn't found anyone to indict for that.

PJV: The statement you mentioned was the second statement the President made concerning the potential involvement of White House staffers. He first stated that anyone who was involved would be fired.

I don't think you're accurate on that. Everything that I've read and seen is that the President feels that anybody who's done anything wrong in violation of the law, should be fired but there's no evidence of any wrong doing. So until that happens, I don't think people should be fired just because political partisans want their heads to roll. It's not fair and it's not right.

Charles Smolover

Note: According to numerous news reports (including the Washington Post), President Bush did indeed narrow the criteria for firing members of the administration involved in the Valerie Plame affair. 

 Previous Interviews

  • July 2005:  Chuck Pennacchio candidate in the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate.
  • August 2005: Lois Murphy who is running for Congress in Pennsylvania's 6th district.
  • September 2005: Pennsylvania State Representative Daylin Leach.
  • October 2005: Bob Casey candidate in the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate.
  • November 2005: Gov. Howard Dean, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee