Sunday Sit-Down: Sen. Joe Manchin
It’s been more than seven months since the murders in Newtown, Conn., and it appears the momentum to get something done with expanded background checks has come to a halt. Do you plan to continue your push for background checks?
Manchin: It was a common sense proposal, it was put together in a very bipartisan way, it was put together with the input of people that come from gun cultures such as myself, and also people out in the state of West Virginia who are real gun supporters. Once they saw what we were trying to do, and the first premise is as a law-abiding gun owner – I’m a law abiding gun owner, I love the guns I have, and no one’s going to take them from me – with that being said, I’m not going to sell my gun to a stranger. Law abiding gun owners who are enthusiastic and into the sport, if you will, whether it’s shooting, hunting or a host of different reasons, would take the same approach – they’re not going to sell their gun to a stranger, they’re not going to sell their gun to someone who’s mentally deranged, they’re not going to give their gun to a family member that’s not responsible, they just don’t because they’re responsible, abiding gun owners who protect and really appreciate and enjoy the right that the Second Amendment gives them.
… We didn’t create any new law, we didn’t go out and rewrite, all we did was close loopholes, and the loophole basically says that at a gun show today, you can go and a person who’s a licensed dealer still has to by law, even at a gun show, has to do a background check on you if you buy it from them. But if you go to the next table that’s not a licensed dealer, just a gun trader, nothing, nothing at all is asked of you. We thought it should all be treated the same. If you’re online today and you buy a gun online out of state, that gun has to be shipped to a licensed dealer and you have to go pick it up and have a background check before you get it, but if you do it in state, absolutely nothing. So we just made everything uniform, it made all the sense in the world. And with the big piece of legislation, law-abiding gun owners like myself, we got a lot of things back that we had lost. Basically through the Brady (bill), you lost the ability to go across state lines and buy a handgun. This bill returns that right. … The law abiding gun owners who are very protective of their Second Amendment rights loved all the provisions in this bill. But a lot of them haven’t read it, it’s what they’re hearing, the hype.
The NRA has come out against your stance on background checks. Are you surprised by that organization’s stance?
Manchin: I’m surprised by the leadership in Washington who’s very much kept involved and in tune with what we were doing and what we were trying to do in the most sensible, reasonable bipartisan way. Then, all of a sudden, after the bill passes cloture, then they went completely, absolute total opposite and against the bill. That all was driven here in Washington.
… What they’re trying to do, they think the fear tactics that are used in the political area, is that if they can scare me or change my numbers of people that support or believe that I’m going to represent them the best I possibly can, I have the facts on our side and I can go anywhere with the facts I have. … All they can do is try to discredit in some way, shape or form by other perceptions that aren’t accurate or true. The only thing I would ask the NRA leadership … is why don’t we sit down in front of all of your NRA members, and go over the bill and see what they think? Why don’t we put it online and let NRA members like myself vote on the contents of this bill and see what their reaction would be?
Last month, you attended a fundraiser held by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who opposes the use of coal for energy. Some in the state have questioned your wisdom for attending. Your thoughts?
Manchin: First of all, whether it’s Mayor Bloomberg or anybody … we disagree on nine things, we agree on one. So 10 percent of something we agree on, we found commonality, should we not work on that one thing to improve it, and maybe it gives you and me an open dialogue to where we can talk about the things where we disagree.
There’s no way that I would agree with Mayor Bloomberg on his stance on coal. I didn’t know Mayor Bloomberg, never had a chance to sit down and talk with him, there are differences. This allows me to open up that dialogue, to say Mayor, whatever your position may be and whatever you believe, or if you believe that we should have a carbon-free (society) and you want to get rid of all the coal, you don’t have control to do that. There’s 8 billion tons of coal being burned in the world; the United States of America only burns 1 billion tons. If you were successful in stopping every lump of coal from being consumed and burned in America, do you truly believe you’re going to change the global climate? It’s not facts. Maybe there’s things I’m able to talk to him about now that I’ve never had that dialogue. I’m hoping for that. I was appreciative to have the support on the thing that we did agree on, which was trying to make our community safer if we could, our children safer, by just truly saying all we’re trying to do is to keep the guns, if we can, out of the hands of the criminals, the terrorists, people that have been adjudicated mentally. I’m sure this is not the bill that Mayor Bloomberg would have like to had, but he’s a pragmatist and he probably looked at it and said this bill is not a perfect bill, it’s not the bill that I would have written, but it’s a bill that I think will do some good and maybe protect lives, and he supported that. And I think that basically when he saw all the money being spent against me, he felt well if he could raise a little bit and help me defend myself, it might not be a bad idea, and I appreciate that.
When you were in Charleston, you became known as a governor who could get things done. How is getting things done in Washington different?
Manchin: My evaluation would be that the Citizens United (decision), the amount of money that’s able to come, unencumbered, if you will, untethered and really without transparency, it’s really changed the whole game. So you’re playing politics on the grand scale in Washington with an awful lot of resources to spin … or defend your position. People are … a little reluctant to make a decision based on the facts, if you will, or willing to go out and work for what they believe in. … I guess the easiest vote in Washington would be to vote ‘no’ on everything. … You don’t have to go back home and explain what you did and why you did it and why you are for it. If you are for a piece of legislation like I have been for many (things), I need to go back and make sure my facts are correct, I support it based on the facts because I think it will help the state of West Virginia and the country as a whole. And I’ll work for that and I’ll fight for it, I’ll explain it and I’ll talk about it. … That’s my purpose for being here.
Do you feel you have a fairly good grasp on how things get done in Washington?
Manchin: I feel I understand the process. I’ve got good relationships with people, I might not agree with them philosophically, they might be in a complete different part of the political spectrum than I am, but at least I know how to approach where they’re coming from, and hopefully how to bring people together. That’s what I was able to do as governor. I’m very non-partisan when it comes time to get something accomplished. I know one thing: I can’t call you, call you names or talk about you and expect you to want to work with me. I can’t go out and campaign against you, raise money against you, and think you’re going to co-sponsor a bill with me next week. I understand human nature, and the bottom line is I’m your colleague, I’ll be your friend, might not always agree with you, I’ll tell you when I don’t, I’ll be upfront and honest with you, always want to work with you, my door’s always open and if I can’t change my mind I can’t change anything. If I see the facts and it’s good for West Virginia, and it’s good for this country, I’m going to support it. If it’s not, I’m going to try to improve it. I’ll never be against something for the sake of being against it unless I have a better idea.
Let’s move on to coal. President Barack Obama has been no friend to the coal industry. To turn the nation away from the president’s war on coal and toward a true “all of the above” energy policy will require a bipartisan campaign. Which senators – Democrat or Republican – do you think will work with you on that?
Manchin: On the Democrat side we have Joe Donnelly from Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota, they understand it, they get it, they’ll be right there with me. That’s great, I haven’t had that support from the Democratic side, if you will. I’d love to have more help from Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), they’re from coal states. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner (both D-Va.) both have been very supportive at times, they come from Virginia which southwestern Virginia has a very viable coal industry. We’re working as hard as we can on that.
Bottom line is that the president and I just totally disagree. … Respectfully so, but totally disagree. And again I’ll repeat: 8 billion tons of coal being burned, we burn 1 billion tons. We have no sovereign oversight … in these other countries. They’re going to take care of and govern themselves. China uses four times the coal – 50 percent of the coal that’s burned in the world, China burns. They’re not backing off, they’re building coal-fired plants, they’re going to continue to burn coal, they’re going to continue to produce reliable, affordable and dependable energy. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot economically. If the president and his advisers are really, truly sincere about global climate, then you ought to be able to find … and develop the technology that you’re going to burn the coal that’s abundant. We did it, and we built the greatest nation on Earth because of the coal industry. Domestic energy and the resources right here in our country, we took advantage of that to the betterment of all our society and all our people. Do you think that the other countries aren’t going to do the same? You don’t think they understand history, how we built our country, now we’re saying wait a minute, we did it but you shouldn’t do it. Don’t you think we have a responsibility and a right to maybe help them develop their countries also, but be able to do it in a better, smarter, cleaner way with new technology that we have available today? That’s not what’s happening here. We’re turning a deaf ear to it, we want to just put our heads in the sand and say no, you’ve got to quit, we don’t want any carbon.
Do most Americans really understand what would happen by shutting down scores, perhaps hundreds, of coal-fired electric generating units?
Manchin: I wish I could turn off the power to a lot of the people right now, I wish I could flip the switch to a lot of my colleagues, where they live, to see how comfortable they are. That’s really the effect they’re going to have sooner or later. … They’re going to jeopardize … dependable, reliable power, have a grid system that basically works the way it should work … I don’t think they really get it. You have almost 40 percent of the energy in this country produced by coal. If you take half of that away, 20 percent of the people aren’t going to have reliable energy, definitely won’t have affordable because everything else that would fill in the gap would be much higher cost. … It just doesn’t make any sense to me at all.
Late last month, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, in Morgantown this week, said coal is part of the president’s energy policy. Given what the president has said about coal – most recently during his climate change speech – how do you explain Moniz’s comments?
Manchin: They do talk a good game, and it makes sense when they’re talking, I’m just telling you the actions that have happened since I’ve been here. … I’ve not seen that willingness to put coal into an all-of-the-above energy mix. … They’re just in denial. It’s just a shame they’re doing everything – it truly is a war on coal, and not just a war on coal in America. The Export-Import bank, the United States has control of this, they’ve already shut down one plant in Vietnam. This president and his administration is putting their stamp on all the controls they have to eliminate coal as we know it.
You were the only Democrat to vote against new EPA chief Gina McCarthy. Do you plan to discuss with her your concerns with how the EPA is regulating the coal industry?
Manchin: I told her up front that … Gina, this is not against you, it is not about you. My vote is a vote against the president and his administration overreaching from the White House controlling the EPA, a regulatory agency, that basically has taken the primacy away from our states. For me, a former governor, I believe wholeheartedly in the 10th Amendment to the Constitution. … That was my way of saying no, I’m not just going to sit back, I’m not going to rubber stamp people, and the go along to get along, I’m just not going to do it.
The House of Representatives just recently approved, with bipartisan support, Congressman David McKinley’s bill on regulating coal ash. What are the prospects for such a bill in the Senate?
Manchin: We had (a similar bill) over on this side, and I’ll sponsor it (in the Senate) again. Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), we might even get Tammy Baldwin, a (Democrat senator) from Wisconsin. First of all, that product has not proven whatsoever to cause any type of harm to the environment. It’s been monitored and we encourage a more aggressive state-by-state monitoring to be able to keep tabs. The economic value of the byproduct is unbelievable. In West Virginia we have the gypsum board plant (CertainTeed in Marshall County). … There’s so many good things that can be done. We build blocks, fillers … it just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. I appreciate Rep. McKinley and the 39 Democrats (who support it in the House), and we’ll have the same vote here.
The new national health care law – Obamacare – seems to have more potholes in it than a rural road in West Virginia. Can it be repaired or should Congress repeal it and start over on health care reform?
Manchin: You’d like to continue to think you can fix things, that’s what they sent us here for. There’s no perfect piece of legislation – I’m sure Social Security went through its maturing time – the bottom line about health care, this one here reached pretty far, said OK you’re going to have to buy this product or we’re going to fine you. And people said OK, go ahead and fine me, I’ll pay the fine that way you’ll have to give it to me for free. It goes back and forth in the mandates. So you have to look at the good parts. … We kept children on, we kept young adults on their family’s policies. Pre-existing conditions, they can’t say well, we’re going to cut you off because you were sick before. You can’t go buy insurance. … With all that being said, there’s some good parts and we’re having some positive effects. … Can we repair the part now that seems to be really, really challenging, that’s been extended to 2015 that’s saying you’re not going to be forced to be fined if you don’t have insurance for your employees. … We’ll see how that works out. If that change is upheld … then you have to change the whole scope of the piece of legislation that is called Obamacare.
I think there’s a responsibility of every person who gets insurance, and that’s keeping themselves healthy. The healthier population we have, the more productive and less costly. … If you don’t hold a person accountable and you give them an insurance card, and they go and abuse it by say going to the emergency room because it’s more convenient for them, that’s so wrong. If they don’t have any incentives to be more responsible, there will be abuse. That’s the bottom line, and I think people have lost a lot of confidence thinking that government will give you whatever you want and they don’t hold you accountable or responsible for it. There’s some adjustments that have to be made.
You testified recently about the Toxic Substance Chemical Act. Can you explain what the act is about?
Manchin: Basically it’s something that affects all of us. The things that come through the chemical industry, we all use. Whether it’s the clothes you wear, the foods you eat … there’s so much intertwined in this. For the past 30-plus years we’ve not had any laws on the books to review these chemicals coming on the market. This is finally a bipartisan effort because we’ve always had the environmentalists on one side, and the industry on the other. (Former Sen.) Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who passed away, was a leader of this for many, many years. I got involved because I said Frank, what’s the problem when he and David Vitter (R-La.) couldn’t come together. I talked to David, I talked to Frank, talked to both their people and we got them to start working together and came out with a bipartisan bill that gives certainty, it gives an overview of all these thousands of products that are on the market, to find out if they’re harmful to people, or if they’ve been harmful or will be harmful. States don’t have the resources to do the intense regulations and oversight and testing. … This is a federal government and this should be a federal government responsibility because then it treats all 50 states the same. That’s really all they’re asking for – the businesses, the chemical companies are asking for a level playing field. Don’t have one state that’s just so far out in la-la land. … It was truly a bipartisan bill, worked in a bipartisan spirit, and we’re just praying to the good Lord they can pass the legislation. Sen. Frank Lautenberg is gone, he’s passed away, but this was one of his last requests … and I’m going to do everything I can to fulfill it for him.
I assume your time is more limited now than when you were in state government. What do you do for recreation – to unwind?
Manchin: My main thing is getting outdoors, we have a little place in Canaan Valley so if I’m going back and get a day or two, I can stop there and unwind. I go fishing an awful lot, I go back in the woods, I enjoy hunting, I enjoy riding my motorcycle, I still enjoy all the things I’ve always done I just don’t have the time to do them like I did. … Everything has been concentrated to where can I unwind quicker, can I get some relaxation quicker because of all the responsibilities. You just have to make your time count. Being with my family is probably my best way of unwinding. I go to my daughter’s, get my son and the grandkids together, there’s eight of them now. That’s a good day when we get together. And when we have dinner together, that’s a great day.