As a man who made it a point to frequently mix and mingle with his future constituents, the weeks following Dean Phillips’ election to Congress provided quite a change of pace.
Several weeks removed from the campaign trail, having defeated Republican Erik Paulsen for the 3rd Congressional District seat in November, Phillips met with constituents once again on Dec. 17 at Oak Grove Middle School in Bloomington to discuss issues he’ll face as a freshman lawmaker in Washington and to collect comments from those he’ll represent from the west and southwest metro area.
“I want to make my notes, and I want to do so by listening to all of you,” he said. “This is going to be a regular occurrence, as you all know, at least every quarter,” he added, spurring a round of applause. “You shouldn’t have to clap for that, but I understand why you do.”
Phillips, who announced he had become engaged since winning the 3rd Congressional District election, said part of his time has been spent participating in orientation activities in Washington, D.C., providing an opportunity for him to meet not only the rookies that will join him in Congress beginning Jan. 3, but the Democratic leaders he’ll work alongside, as well, he noted.
“There is a spirit of collaboration, a spirit of decency, a distaste for what’s been happening in this country over the last number of years,” Phillips said about his freshman colleagues, both Democrat and Republican. The ability to agree on shared goals is important for reaching solutions, he explained, using gun control as an example.
When asked about creating a universal background check for gun purchases, Phillips noted he supports the Second Amendment and is a firearm owner. He said the country needs a gun violence prevention policy as soon as possible and thinks such a policy is achievable. He prefers to refer to the issue as gun violence prevention because it’s a better way to start a conversation about the issue, as there’s not a gun owner who wants to see more gun violence. And how you frame the issue is important to creating a dialogue about solutions to reducing gun violence, he explained.
Approximately 80 percent of the country favors a universal background check, but the failure to create such a law requiring it is a result of the financial influence in politics, a concern he expressed more than once during his meeting.
Along with other freshmen representatives, Phillips is already part of a gun violence reduction task force that will address the issue, an issue that will be a top priority of Congress in 2019, he said.
When asked about the estimated $22 trillion national debt, Phillips said he is disappointed by the Republican abdication of its platform promise of fiscal responsibility. If there’s a spike in interest rates, the interest on the national debt will skyrocket, he noted.
Although there’s no magic wand that will solve budget issues immediately, Phillips said he will encourage efforts to whittle down the debt, rather than continue to pass it along to future generations. With a projected budget deficit of $1 trillion, Phillips vowed to be a voice of reason “to end this insanity,” noting that the healthy economy should be fostering reductions in spending and deficits.
He favors establishing bipartisan commissions that assess if government programs and departments are spending money effectively and efficiently. He didn’t have recommendations for where spending should be cut but suggested an examination of the national defense budget, to determine how money could be better spent in the 21st century. Focusing on cyber defense and intelligence would better serve the country than emphasizing old-fashioned warfare, he said, claiming the country could do more and spend less to do so.
Phillips also favors changing the attitude about government spending.
“People are rewarded when they spend money, and they are not rewarded when they conserve money,” he said.
He reiterated his positions on health care when asked about what the government should do to make it affordable for all. Noting that approximately one in five Minnesotans relies on subsidies for their health care coverage, Congress needs to make decisions that provide health care to all when they need it, regardless of age and income. “We’re the only developed nation in the world that has chosen not to do so,” he said.
Amending the Affordable Care Act and allowing Americans to buy into Medicare at a standardized cost, which would provide the competition Republics champion, are among ways Congress can help keep health care affordable, according to Phillips.
“If we don’t first and foremost address the cost of care in this country, it doesn’t matter what system we have, it’s not going to work,” he said.
Politicians are rewarded with Political Action Committee contributions when decisions provide profits to health care providers, but the system should reward outcomes that provide care while keeping costs down, according to Phillips.
Although the health care debate will continue in Congress, there are issues that need to be addressed locally, as well, such as providing mental health services in schools. We need a cultural shift that recognizes the importance of mental health issues, and efforts to address those issues need to be addressed in schools, which receive approximately 90 percent of their funding from the state. Changes in the way schools address mental health will happen much sooner at the local level than they will at the national level, Phillips explained.
When asked about wages, Phillips said that minimum wages should be set regionally, as $15 in New York City is different than $15 in Coon Rapids.
He favors policies that provide incentives for businesses to share more of their success and equity with employees.
“The best way that we can build wealth among the least served and most disadvantaged in this country is to somehow find ways to ensure that they can capture some equity,” he said, suggesting an employee stock ownership plan as an example.
Regarding climate change, Phillips said the issue is not a domestic matter. Climate issue policy should be global, he said.
“I believe in science,” he noted. “This should not be a political issue, it should not be a partisan issue,” he added. “Climate change is real.”
Phillips expressed disappointment in President Donald Trump’s effort to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord. “We should be leading that table,” he said, adding that without addressing climate change, other issues won’t matter.
Although the meeting revisited many issues Phillips discussed during his campaign, he also peppered his responses with anecdotes from his limited experience in Washington since winning the election.
The first resolution to be presented when the U.S. House of Representatives convenes in January will be a comprehensive ethics reform bill, voter protection bill and campaign finance reform bill, he said.
That resolution will call for the future presidents to release their tax returns, as it should be incumbent upon the leader of the country to be transparent, he noted.
He didn’t elaborate on provisions for campaign finance reform that would be introduced, but talked about flaws with the system.
The cost of running a congressional race is despicable, he said. “It takes millions of dollars.”
Although the election was held less than two months ago, representatives need to begin working on their 2020 campaigns, he explained, estimating that most representatives spend between one-third and half of their time fundraising, be it collecting contribution checks from PACs at dinners or making phone calls.
The morning after his arrival in Washington for orientation, Phillips attended a breakfast where new members of Congress were greeted by eight to 10 people handing out checks.
“And nothing made me more joyful than telling them to keep it,” he said.
Phillips refused PAC money and donations from other special interest groups during his campaign, and the influence of such funding is not a partisan problem, he noted.
As he begins his first year in Washington, Phillips will take his town hall meetings to cities throughout the 3rd Congressional District, and welcomes those who do not support him or his positions.
“I learn more from conversations with people who I do not always agree with,” he said.