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Monday, May 3, 2010
An Evening with Neil Walter

Finally, my notes on a substantive evening with congressional candidate Neil Walter, touching on fiscal and economic matters, immigration, and other topics.

A few weeks ago, in the middle of my recent, unintentional blog blackout -- April 8, to be precise -- I finally had an opportunity to spend some serious time with Neil Walter, a candidate for the Republican nomination for the US House of Representatives seat currently filled by Congressman Jim Matheson. Previously, I had been able to listen to him for only about 15 minutes at an event at which I arrived very late. I based some comments here at the blog on that experience, augmented by some reading.

This was a meeting in a home in Highland. There were five state delegates there when it began, among a few other people, and eight delegates present by the time it ended.

I had an opportunity early on to ask one of my staple questions: If you win the election and arrive in Washington in January with a small Republican majority in both houses of Congress, but not a conservative majority in either house, and a Democrat in the White House for at least two more years, where will you start to push back? What can you accomplish in that situation, and how will you accomplish it?

Among Walter's thoughts on this subject were these:

  • About $300 billion of TARP funds are either unspent or already repaid to the government. The Democratic majorities want to spend these funds on other things, which would require new legislation, rather than reducing the budget deficit. Such legislation can be blocked.
  • He thinks there may be enough momentum to roll back most or all of the combined 30 percent increase in the federal budget from 2007 to 2009. (I am skeptical that there will be the veto-proof majority I think this would need.)
  • He wants to work on entitlements, particularly "matching future obligations with expectations." This would involve an end to irresponsible promises about future benefit levels. He'd like to see the federal government stop administering Medicaid -- leave it to the states -- and he wants higher barriers to entry into that program (as opposed to the lower barriers favored by many Democrats). He noted that Medicare and Medicaid combine to total $36 trillion in unfunded obligations in coming years.
  • He later noted that he thinks there will be some relatively conservative Democrats in Congress who are willing to work seriously with Republicans in pursuit of fiscal responsibility and common sense generally.

There was a general sense among most of those present that government will soon go after funds locked up in pensions. On the general theme of pensions, Walter noted that federal law used to require private pension funds to be 30 percent funded, but that requirement is now 94 percent and may soon move to 100 percent.

Walter repeatedly emphasized his financial credentials. "I understand finance," he said. "I've been teaching it and practicing it for ten years." I see no reason to dispute this claim. He also said, "The federal budget is the largest financial statement analysis problem in the world."

There's almost always someone in these meetings who is a firm protectionist, and even if there isn't, the subject of free trade is a matter of serious concern. It came up this evening. "In principle," Walter said, "I am for free trade." But he noted that we impose costs on American companies through taxes, environmental and safety regulations, artificially inflated energy costs, etc., which make those companies less competitive. We either need to stop handcuffing them in comparison with foreign competitors, or we need to erect some trade barriers. These could be tariffs, quotas, or non-tariff barriers such as quality and safety requirements or a prohibition on goods manufactured with child labor. In the long run, however, we cannot force companies to stay in the US, and in any case these measures are effectively a tax on Americans, because they increase the cost of living. To me, this seems to be a sensible response by someone who understands the implications of trade barriers, among other things.

At present, he said, "The federal government is promoting uncertainty and destroying confidence in the economy." He cited the health care takeover and cap-and-trade legislation as prime examples.

When the subject of immigration reform came up, he noted that the current processes are absurd. For example, he said, businesses must study a 150-page instruction manual to participate in eVerify, which allows them to verify the citizenship or immigration status of job applicants. He said that incentives are wrong, that we ought not push the burden of enforcement onto the private sector, and that we need to dismantle the "anchor baby" incentive. Instead of allowing illegal immigrant parents to stay in the country with their baby, who is a citizen if born in the US, we should send the baby home with the parents. When the child is grow and able to live on his or her own, returning as a citizen would be welcome.

I asked if a national ID card had any place among his solutions for our immigration issues. (A lot of right wing nuts, among others, think a national ID card would be absolutely the end of the world as we know it.) I don't see how we can face the issue effectively without one -- something better than a Social Security card, a photo ID of some sort, perhaps a wallet-sized passport? -- but Walter calls a national ID "unnecessary" and "a false solution." Seriously, if non-citizens are required to carry documentation of their status but citizens aren't, then how does one quickly and easily determine whether a person without such documentation is illegal or a citizen? But there's room to disagree, and I could be wrong. In any case, a national ID is not a huge issue for me; I mostly asked about it to give Walter one more chance to offer evidence that he is a wing nut. In this matter, and in the evening as a whole, he gave no sign whatsoever of . . . I need a word here . . . wing-nuttery.

In further discussion, Walter decried the undue influence of special interests and suggested that term limits are imperative. (Pushing these buttons doesn't really help with me.) He emphasized the importance of sending people to Washington who have "real-world experience," who "understand issues regular people are dealing with." He declared the urgent need for policies realistically tuned to economic recovery and fiscal responsibility. Emphasizing his own financial background again, he complained that -- particularly in the current banking legislation -- "we have a Congress that is going to egulate [financial] instruments they know nothing about." He also noted that we need to send to Washington people who will do what they say they're going to do; otherwise, it doesn't very much matter what they say they will do.

Walter acknowledged that his views and rival Morgan Philpot's are very much alike. The chief difference between the two, he says, is their background and their priorities, once they get to Washington.

My concise take on Neil Walter at this point is much as it was before: His conservatism seems to be genuine, impassioned, and intelligent. (The first two are of little use without the last.) His campaign seems to have gained some energy, and -- forgive me, if you must -- it seems real, unlike about half of our current Republican Senate campaigns. I don't think he would be a bad congressman; I think he would be a good one. I wish there were more candidates like him in more races.

For my part, however, I still favor Morgan Philpot. I think he has a stronger campaign and more charisma, both of which are useful in the practical challenge of beating a Democrat incumbent. Moreover, as critically important as fiscal issues are, I prefer Philpot's inclination to focus first on the Constitution and its enumeration of limited government powers.

To my mind, the fiscal and economic challenges are one end of the stick; the constitutional matters are the other. They are closely connected. On one hand, the Constitution cannot long survive economic collapse. On the other hand, if the federal government were adhering more closely to the Constitution, much of what got us into the present fiscal mess could not have happened, and the things the government is doing to prolong and deepen the crisis could not be done.

They say that, if you pick up one end of a stick, you pick up the other. True enough. But my personal view is that we should pick up the constitutional end of the stick first. I think we can get a firmer grip there. Hence, for me, Philpot over Walter -- and Mike Lee over Tim Bridgewater in the Senate race, for very much the same reason.

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