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An Interview with Congressman Chaka Fattah
Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-PA 2) honoring Rosa Parks 

Chaka Fattah is currently serving his sixth term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He represents Pennsylvania's 2nd Congressional District, which includes parts of Philadelphia and Cheltenham Township. The following are excerpts from an interview with Congressman Fattah that took place on December 19, 2005.

PJV: How did you vote on the budget reconciliation bill the House recently passed, which includes deep cuts in social programs? 

I voted against it. I don't think it's representative of the priorities facing our country. The cuts were in a range of programs that I feel are vitally important, especially when you consider they're combined with some $70 billion in tax cuts for people in the top 1% of income earners in the country.

Editor's note: That bill went on to the Senate, where it passed by a vote of 51 to 50 on Dec. 20th. Vice President Cheney, serving in his capacity as President of the Senate, cast the deciding vote.

PJV: The GOP says those tax cuts are a major factor in what many consider an improving economy right now. What your response?

Just look at the headlines over the past few weeks. We've got a rising trade deficit and an enormous budget deficit that will exceed $300 billion by the end of this fiscal year. We've had to raise the ceiling of the national debt to accommodate a debt of over $8 trillion. Now, if you think we should have those tax cuts and wage a war at the same time and then have our grandchildren pay for it, then I guess these fiscal policies make sense. But the truth is, we're financing our government with borrowed money. The very week the Bush administration took office, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, a projected that the new administration could eliminate our entire national debt of the country with the surpluses left over from Clinton administration. We had a situation where Alan Greenspan was on the Hill discussing with four congressional committees the implications of being a debt-free nation. Six years later, we're not having that discussion, not with trillions we've added to the debt. You can't have a fiscal policy where you tell everyone they can have what they want, where the rich can have tax cuts and the nation can wage a war that's already cost us $271 billion. 

PJV: Do you support Congressman Murtha's call to begin the pullout of American troops from Iraq?

I held a press conference in my district on the eve of the war to announce my opposition to it. I felt that UN inspectors should've been given more time to do their work. I continue to oppose this war and I have made recommendations to the administration about how we can extricate ourselves from this conflict. So I completely back Congressman Murtha's efforts. As a distinguished and honored veteran who initially supported the war, he brings greater credibility to the debate than I do when it comes to suggesting a change of direction to the administration. A year ago he said the army had accomplished its mission. And when he now says that we should re-deploy our troops, it's because he's been listening to Pentagon experts who say that our occupation is actually fueling the insurgency and that having a smaller footprint there could improve the situation.

PJV: The administration maintains that Congress had access to the same intelligence as the White House, suggesting that those who originally backed the war have no right to criticize it.

Let me put it this way, if we're taking a trip and I'm driving the car and it becomes clear after days of driving in one direction that we're actually headed in the wrong direction, saying that we're both looking at the same map or the same sign posts is irrelevant. The question now is how many more young Americans have to lose their lives until we bring them home? The Iraqi people have to take responsibility for their own destiny. 

PJV: What about the recent Iraqi elections? The Bush administration touts them as a significant achievement.

In the administration's view, we've had a lot of important milestones in this war. I remember the scene on the aircraft carrier with the "Mission Accomplished" signs. I remember seeing the footage of the toppling of that statue of Saddam and the video of his capture. I remember the first election, the second election and now the third election. The reality is that the Iraqis who are shooting at us are doing so regardless of any election. They were killing American soldiers before there were elections and they're still shooting at them. Those milestones may have significance as political events along a timeline, but they have nothing to do with an insurgency and its lethal affect on our troops. You have to look at the facts on the ground, including polls that show that 80% of the Iraqi people want us out and nearly 50% think killing American soldiers is a legitimate thing to do.

PJV: President Bush has defended his decision to authorize the National Security Agency to tap the phones of thousands of Americans without first securing warrants. Do you think that was a violation of civil liberties? And if so, what are you going to do about it?

First we need a lot more information about this activity before we rush to judgment about it. But it's clearly very alarming and Congress has requested more information about it, first and foremost regarding the legal basis for the president's action. He wasn't acting on any authority in the Patriot Act or from any other known authority, such as the special court which handles intelligence matters. Among the many concerns that have been raised over how this administration asserts executive power, this is clearly the most disturbing. 

Editor's note: As the Philadelphia Jewish Voice is going to press U.S. District Judge James Robertson has resigned from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to protest the use of evidence from illegal warrantless NSA wiretaps to justify obtaining warrants under the FISA program. Meanwhile, Republican Senators Olympia Snowe and Chuck Hagel have joined two other members of the Senate Intelligence Committee in calling for a joint inquiry by the Senate judiciary and intelligence committees.

PJV: Many in the Jewish community are concerned that a consequence of the war in Iraq is a stronger, bolder and more dangerous Iran, whose president has called for Israel's destruction. What is your response to them?

I recently met with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. Tremendous concerns were raised in those briefings about Iran's nuclear ambitions. Nuclear proliferation is one of the greatest threats facing our country, the idea of nuclear weapons getting into the hands of irresponsible groups or regimes. If you listen to the statements of the Iranian president, we're clearly dealing with one of the most radical and irresponsible regimes in the region. Allowing them to have a nuclear weapons capacity would have unimaginable consequences and we need to do whatever needs to be done to prevent that from happening.

PJV: National attention will be focused on Lois Murphy's attempt to unseat Congressman Jim Gerlach next fall. How would you rate her chances?

We're still a year out from the election and a year is a lifetime in politics. But I think that at this moment, any Republican incumbent in a competitive seat is in jeopardy. The country is not happy about the economy and they're not happy about the war, which is why the president has been giving speech after speech to try and stop his polls from spiraling downward. Still, going up against an incumbent is a tough hill to climb. On the other hand, if anyone can climb it it's Lois Murphy. She's an excellent candidate who made a great effort in the last election. And having Rendell and Casey on the ticket will have an enormous pull in this part of the state that could benefit her. It could also benefit Patrick Murphy, a Democrat who's running in the 8th district. But even though things look bad for Republicans today, there's no way to know what the situation is going to be next fall.

PJV: What is your response to frustrated Democrats who are concerned that their party leaders are far better at criticizing the GOP than they are at articulating a clear message or agenda to the American people?

We've lost some elections and it's natural for people to second guess party leadership. But the truth of the matter is that this country is closely divided on many issues: abortion, affirmation action, gun control. It's really a 49% versus 49% situation, with one party winning based on how the political winds are blowing, or how the votes are being counted, in any given election. The key question for Democrats is how to energize the base without losing the middle. You have to have a political structure, and Howard Dean has established a party structure in all 50 states, including places that Democrats used to write off. We have to reassert ourselves as a national party and make clear that we're the party of fiscal responsibility and national security. Just today, a young lady in Illinois, a former Army helicopter pilot who lost both her legs in Iraq, announced her candidacy for Congress. She's one of 11 veterans, including Patrick Murphy right here in our backyard, who are running for congress as Democrats. No one can question her willingness to stand up for the country's security. But I'm sure some Republicans will try to, just like they did to John Kerry.

PJV: You voted to support House Resolution 579 which expresses "the sense of the House of Representatives that the symbols and traditions of Christmas should be protected." Do you believe, as some conservatives maintain, that there is a war on Christmas?

This resolution, forced by conservatives, was nonsense. Unfortunately, there are times when we're forced to vote on nonsense. In this case, it was a non-binding resolution that was put out to create political impediment to focusing on the real issues of the day. Rather than waste time trying to explain how I view Christmas, I voted for it because it essentially does no harm. You have to pick your fights in Congress. I decided that the better part of valor in this particular case was to vote for it. 

PJV: Do you think the Christian Right has too great an influence on the GOP?

They have a very significant influence. You saw it with the withdrawal of the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. I think you'll see that influence come to bear in the primaries in '08, on people like John McCain and Rudolf Giuliani. The religious right is part of the base of the GOP which is an interesting collection of special interests. It includes the NRA and those who want to live tax free and escape any civic responsibilities. And right now they run the country.

Interview by Charles Smolover

 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
  • December 2005: Rep. Jim Gerlach who is running for reelection in Pennsylvania's 6th district.