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John Katko on the Campbell Conversations

Congressman John Katko
Congressman John Katko

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks to Congressman John Katko about a range of issues from home and abroad. Katko has represented New York's 24th congressional district based in Syracuse since 2015.

Program Transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to The Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Congressman John Katko. The Republican represents New York's 24th District. Well, there's a lot to talk about in the world, in the nation and also here in central New York. And I'll try to touch on all of those things in the next half hour or so. But first, Congressman Katko, welcome back to the program and it's good to see you again.

John Katko: You, too, my friend. And I always love being on the show. It's hard to believe we've been doing this for eight, almost eight years now.

GR: Yes. I think that when you first announced I think that you're first sort of large, long interview was on this program, so yeah.

JK: It was, just about eight years ago now. That's right.

GR: That's right. That's right. Well, well, let's get to it. Let's start with the most pressing and distressing world developments and then more closer to central New York. Obviously, I'm going to ask you first about the war in Ukraine. How would you assess the Biden administration's and more generally, the West's response to Russia's invasion so far?

JK: Yeah, I think it's a really a two-stage answer. And the first stage is we should never come to this. And I have been gravely concerned before the war started about President Biden's lack of strength on a foreign stage. Afghanistan, I think, emboldened bad actors like Putin to maybe do take some liberties you wouldn't otherwise take. And I think when you at the beginning, when you take things off the table like, signal to a bad guy, no military intervention under any circumstances, that's akin to me saying something as a prosecutor, going into gang territory and saying, no matter what happens, I'm not going to prosecute you guys. I want to stop what you're doing. And of course, they’re not going to listen. So from that standpoint, I was concerned. Since the war started and since he started taking a tough stance on the sanctions, I think it's been a big, a very, very positive steps. And I think as a necessity that the West has coalesced around each other in a more united fashion than they were beforehand. And we can all go back and say, why were they united before and where was our leadership? But now that the horse is out of the barn, I got to give the president credit for you know, coming up with tougher sanctions. Now the oil sanctions, another one, I think we should keep going on the sanctions. I think we should keep pushing hard. I think we should go right up to the edge of getting involved militarily, not getting involved militarily, doing everything but that. Because I think when you see people slaughter like were seeing people slaughtered in Ukraine through no bad acts of their own, and Ukraine basically being a westernized country is very, very disturbing. And I'm very concerned about the parallels between a very bad actor, pre-World War II with Hitler, and how when he went into Sudetenland and all those other places, no one did anything. And as he gained steam and gained bravado, it became too late by the time we actually got involved. And I hope it doesn't come to that. And I hope that our sanctions are strong and I hope that we take all the types of actions we can take to try and thwart him and disincentivize him to go further.

GR: So there are two things that you said that I want to follow up on. And the first one is President Biden. And, you know, when President Biden ran for president, one of the core things that he staked his campaign appeal on was you will want me in a situation like this. And this is exactly when you would want me instead of President Trump. So could you talk a little bit more about how you would assess Biden's leadership? It sounds like it's kind of on the one hand. On the other hand, you didn't like what the signals that he was giving earlier.

JK: I'll be succinct as I can. I don't like what he did before the invasion and I'd like a lot better what he did since the invasion, I guess. But my concern is you don't want to take things off the table like the no-fly zone. I'm not saying you should have the no-fly zone. You don't, you don't. You don't. You never should signal to the bad guys what we are or are not going to do in advance. I guess that's the biggest beef I have with him. With that aside with this, the sanctions have been tough. The sanctions have been strong. There are some exceptions and loopholes I’d like to close, but I got to give him credit to some extent with respect to the severity of the sanctions. And I think I think they're having the intended effect back in Russia. And but, you know, as time goes on, when you take things off the table, options off the table, and we see this horrific slaughter like a bombing of a pediatric or maternity hospital, you got to wonder, is that a good move? So I guess my point is, I'm not saying advocating for us to get involved militarily but we should take nothing off the table with this animal in the things he's doing.

GR: And then on the sanctions, I wanted to ask you, you mentioned the ban on Russian oil. There have been some concerns expressed about the effects that this could have in this country, that we've already got an economy, that that might be being weighed down by inflation. Inflation certainly a problem. And then the effect of this on the price of oil could provide a further shock that some analysts are concerned could tip us over into a recession. Is that something that worries you there with the oil ban?

JK: Yeah, of course. Of course. Look, there's an irrefutable fact here. Prior to Biden becoming in office, we were a net exporter of oil. And since he came into office, we became a net importer of oil because he took a lot of restrictive moves in the oil markets and oil exploration on federal lands, which is a vast part of the West. And a lot more things made it much more difficult, lots, much less incentivized to be energy independent. And that's what caused, I think, a lot of that rise in oil prices prior to what happened with that with us imposing the sanctions on Russia. But now we're at this point now because of the restrictive programs where, you know, are we going to go hat in hand with bad actors like Iran or even Venezuela to try and plug the gap because of things? And maybe you should show some leadership and put some heat on some of the oil producers that are holding back on producing in our markets for strategic reasons and push them too. But I think that, you know, we got to feel a little pain if we want to have a salve because what's going on in Ukraine, we cannot just sit there and close our eyes and hope it's going to be okay. We've got to endure a little pain. And that means enduring a little pain at the pump for the short term, I think we have to do it.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with Congressman John Katko from New York 24th Congressional District. So one last question. Here are a couple more questions perhaps on Ukraine or things related to Ukraine. There was some criticism in the other direction on Biden in that by not by making it, but by not signaling to Russia or not saying to Russia that Ukraine could be kept out of NATO, that that was kind of one of the things that in the negotiators from Russia were looking for and that now it looks like that very thing may be a part of one of these exit ramps to give Putin a say, a face-saving option in Ukraine. So I'm just wondering maybe do you think that we could have avoided this perhaps by just giving him that right at the beginning?

JK: I think we kind of avoided by showing much more strength to date at the beginning. And we didn't and I think Putin took liberties with Ukraine twice and once with the Obama administration. And once with the Biden administration. I don't, I can't go back and revisit history, but I doubt he would have done this under President Clinton. I doubt he would have done it under President Reagan. And I doubt he would have done it under the Bushes. So I think projecting strength is a very important factor and the world is the safest when NATO is strong and the U.S. projects strength and when that's not we have a problem. So I think when a bad guy comes to you and says you either do this what I want and give me a guarantee that they're not part of NATO or we're going to invade and bomb the hell out of the place and murder thousands of people. I think you got to go tell the guy to pound sand, because if you don't, you're not projecting strength. What's he going to do in six months, hold you hostage on another country in Europe? I mean, you've got to draw the line somewhere. And it really is very important that the United States is strong and NATO is strong. And it's the ironic thing is it's the inverse of what Putin wanted to have happen is happening. Finland and Sweden want to join NATO. You know, that's what's ironic about this. So, NATO's arguably never going to be stronger after this incident than they have been since World War II. So I think Putin has failed on so many levels.

GR: Well, it also looks like he's succeeding in completely decimating his own economy as well, so.

JK: Absolutely. Absolutely.

GR: So you obviously and your career there in Congress, you've developed an expertise in security and cyber security. So I was wanted to ask you whether this conflict with Russia that we're in now heightens our risks in that regard. And particularly thinking about cybersecurity.

JK: Cybersecurity is the number one threat to the homeland, bar none, and that five years ago you might have said it would be ISIS-inspired acts of extremism in the United States bar none right now that cybersecurity is the biggest issue we face. And I've spent an inordinate amount of time leading the Homeland Security Committee addressing that time on cybersecurity issues. In fact, I just got off the phone earlier today with the head of the cybersecurity apparatus, was at Homeland Security. It's grown exponentially over the last few years. The latest budget has plussed up spending again. There's a thing we're doing now. It's called incident reporting that passed and is going to get signed into law. Incident reporting means that private sector, if you get a significant cyber-attack within 72 hours, you must report it to Homeland Security so that they can then figure out what that malware, what the problems are, who the actor is, and then get it out to all the other advisories, to all the other companies and businesses and individuals in the country to make our systems as secure as it can be. But make no mistake about it, Russia is highly capable of sophisticated cyber-attacks and it's a virtual certainty that at some point we're going to suffer a pretty significant cyber-attack again from them like they have in the last couple of years. So the more we can work together with the private sector, the better off we're going to be in securing our systems.

GR: Is there anything significant that we should be doing about that heightened risk that we're not currently doing?

JK: Not every business takes this following mantra. You should think that you are going to be the subject of the next cyber-attack and not hope it's not you. So a lot of businesses think it's not going to be me I'm going to take that risk. If you're taking that risk, you're going to end up paying the price someday, right? So we've initiated this thing on CISA dot gov called Shields Up and any individual or business can go to Shields Up on CISA dot gov and they can have a whole tool kit at their disposal offering to help them harden their systems. And in conjunction with CISA. CISA is not a regulatory agency, they’re like a partnership. It's kind of like the joint terrorism task forces that were stood up after 9/11. It's a collaborative effort between the public and private sectors to make make the country safer from cyber attacks.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Congressman John Katko. He represents New York's 24th Congressional District. Now, I want to ask you another question about cybersecurity and security at the borders as well. But in President Biden's recent State of the Union address, you issued a statement that praised him on some things, but was also critical about his relative lack of mentioning and dealing with both the border situation and cybersecurity. And we've just talked about cybersecurity. You've also been focusing a lot on our border with Mexico. You've been down there and looking at the myriad of problems that that situation is raising. So just give us an overview, if you could, because of Ukraine and other things, I don't think it's in people's attention that much. What's the current situation right now at the border and what should we be doing again that, you know, we're not currently doing?

JK: Okay, sure. Well, the situation at the border that the president acknowledged during the State of the Union, basically that there's a major problem at the border, that he didn't have any real solutions for it. But if you want to really get it in a nutshell, what's going on at the border, just Google today and look online and see the six individuals who are down in Fort Lauderdale on vacation. College kids who got some cocaine, they didn't know it was laced with fentanyl and all of them overdosed. And that's just a microcosm of what's going on across this country. Fentanyl is coming across the border in record numbers. The reason it's coming across the border in record numbers is because the border's not secure. And the reason the border is not secure is because the president has signaled to individuals, if you come across you basically are you have a very good chance of being able to stay here while you wait to litigate your claims to come in here or asylum or whatever. Millions of people came across last year, the highest number ever. And enough fentanyl was seized at the border last year to kill every man, woman and child in the United States. Approximately eight times over. And that means if you're seizing that much, that much more is getting through. And we're seeing it in the results of the number of overdose deaths in this country for the first time in our nation's history, we've had 100,000 people die of drug overdoses last year and the overwhelming majority have fentanyl in them and it's all coming across the southern border. So by taking resources to try and deal with this huge influx of humanity, the border is wide open and the drugs are coming across and they're killing our kids. And to me, that is a huge concern. And on top of that, there's probably a several dozen, at a minimum, individuals recaptured at the border last year that were on a terror watch list. And if you capture that many, just like the drugs, chances are that many go through. So it's a real national security issue and it's a real problem going forward. And it's not good. It's not good.

GR: So how do we tighten up the border? I mean, are we back to building a wall or are there other things we can do?

JK: That's part of it. Listen, we need to have a revamped immigration system, but you can't have that discussion until you secure the border and you secure the border by building the barriers and reinstituting the Remain in Mexico policy, do all those things But you also got to spend as much time in our hemisphere, the State Department as they do in the Middle East and elsewhere. I would love to see our secretary of state in Central America dealing with the issues that cause these people to want to come here. If I was in Central America with my family, I'd want to come to the Holy Land of America as well. But we can't have just have an open border. There's no country on earth that would tolerate what we're doing at the southern border. But there is ways we could better use their labor, especially on a temporary basis, because so much of the labor shortages are so acute here. And you but you have to secure the border and then have real discussion about immigration reform and do those two things together and pay attention to economic development in Central America, I think we can really solve a problem.

GR: All right. Well, let's look more specifically at things here in the United States, although the border obviously affects those. But you voted a few months ago for the big infrastructure bill. And you took some flak for that. You took some flak from the right.

JK: That’s an understatement.

GR: Briefly explain. And I know you could talk about this for a very long time, but briefly, explain your thinking and voting for it. And why, you know, why you supported it.

JK: Sure. It’s one of the quintessential functions of government to create infrastructure with tax dollars. Right. And we've abdicated that responsibility over the last several decades. And anybody, if you want to see that going on, roads and bridges go turn on the news and see issues with drinking water, for example, or the grid. So in 2017, I chaired the Problem Solvers Caucus, which is an equal number Democrats and Republicans, chaired their infrastructure committee. I wrote a report with my colleagues and refreshing the report this year, and I presented to a group of governors, senators, and members of Congress. That formed the basis for the infrastructure bill that came out of the Senate, came out of the Senate with about 70 people on board, including Mitch McConnell, very bipartisan. Came to the House and then ex-President Trump issued his edict from the mountain saying, thou shall not support this because now shall not give President Biden a win. And to me, that was an inherently un-American thing to say, because to me, the infrastructure bill was critically important for our country. So I backed it and I and I and I backed it wholeheartedly. And I took a lot of flak for doing it. In fact, I was the first Republican to cast a vote in favor of it. And I'm very, very proud of it because I think for central New York, there's all kinds of things and in New York state, all kinds of things in here. I'll give a couple examples. New York state's going to get $24 billion for roads and bridges. $24 billion. That's kind of important. We have 81 rebuild coming. The airports going to get $27 million. Centro to help the poorest of the poor get around, going to get $74 million. And I can go on and on and on about clean water, drinking and all that. But you get a kind of a flavor of it. We have, this is going to be huge for infrastructure and it's going to cause more investment to come into this country because right now we struggle to keep up with the world's infrastructure developments. And this is to help us get back in the game. And I think it's really important.

GR: So the Congressional Budget Office concluded that this infrastructure bill would add $256 billion to the deficit over the next ten years. That's considerably lower than the much than the figure that they produced for the much more ambitious American Jobs Plan that President Biden originally proposed. Is this not the right time structure? About right.

JK: Well, the way I look at it is there may not be a perfect time to do it, but there is, this is a very good time to do it. First of all, we used a vast majority was paid for by unused COVID money and unused unemployment insurance money. And the CBO also estimated that 33% return on investment will happen. For every dollar you spend, you're going to have a 33% return on investment for a positive economic development in your communities. American Enterprise Institute came out and said that they didn't think it was going to contribute to inflation, and the Penn Wharton School came out and said that the net benefit to economy over 30 years was that it wasn't going to it would decrease the deficit, not increase it. So I think there's a lot of positives. You know, obviously short term with the inflation issue going on and might there might be some issues, but the spending retrospective structure is not going to really go full bore until the next couple of years. So I think we'll get hopefully get inflation under control and then allow this to really make us a really strong economy going forward.

GR: If you're just joining us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is Congressman John Katko. Now, there's another law that just recently passed which also has a lot of impacts on central New York that I wanted to get you to speak about a little bit. And that's the omnibus funding bill. I understand that there are significant federal funds coming to central New York there. Tell us about those.

JK: Yeah. So what happened in the old days? They had something called earmarks. And they were abused by legislators, especially those on Appropriations Committee. And it was kind of like pigs at the trough. And I think the quintessential example of that would have been the bridge to nowhere in Alaska. So in 2009, earmarks were ended, and rightfully so, because they were abused. What we have now is, is a system whereby once budget levels are agreed to, in a budget, they will take a very small percentage of those budget levels, not increases out of that budget level, and allow individuals in their communities to submit proposals for a nonprofit and public works projects. Nothing other than that, not nothing for profit and requires financial disclosures by the members, it limits of members in the House to ten requests. And they have to have demonstrated community support. So it's all transparent. And under those under that guise, we've been able to work very successfully this year to get things that are very important for central New York again, out of the money that was already there. And I think the idea is sometimes you can send money to a state like in an a block grant programs and they because of politics, let's say, in New York state for example, vast majority of money goes downstate. We dont get a proportional share upstate. So to give everybody in their district a little more ability to steer things to important projects. That's what we're doing. I'm going to give an example. We're able to get $3 million to help build a highly needed homeless shelter, emergency homeless shelter. And that's going to put it over the top. Oswego County needs to modernize a wastewater treatment facility to help to develop business. We got $3 million for that. Onondaga County needed a new emergency operation center because what they have now is really lacking. We're able to give them $1,000,000. So the total was about $9 million for everything. And these are projects that are going to absolutely help out our area. There's no waste. It's all public. And everyone can see on our website what we did and I think it's a fair balance to come back and allow some of the local leaders to help you identify what are the key projects for them?

GR: Yeah, it's much.

JK: Worked out well.

GR: Yeah, it seems much more targeted. And so…

JK: It really is.

GR: A good substitute for the earmarks. I wanted to ask you about the House's January 6th committee. It's been working away. What do you make of its findings so far? How do you see it's investigation. It's obviously politically very controversial.

JK: Yeah. I mean, last when I was the last term or two terms ago, I endured the session-long, two-year-long Benghazi Commission, which was a very partisan commission that the Republicans commissioned that was very unbalanced. And that was basically a two-year sideshow, for lack of a better term. This is a very solemn topic, January 6th committee. And as you may remember, I submitted an alternative to this worked out with my colleague and Homeland Security, the chair and me, the ranking member, Bennie Thompson and I. And it had for a very balanced commission five on each side, not political appointees. You can't be a politician. They had to be people from outside the area, outside the political spectrum. It had to have equal subpoena power. You couldn't, as a Democrat, subpoena something without being Republican and all that. We patterned it after the 911 Commission. The 911 Commission was wildly successful and it has gone. It is dramatically improved the safety in our country. So that got subject to the political winds and was shot down. So now we have a committee where it's top-heavy with Democrats and a few Republicans. And they didn't focus on what I think is the most important thing, and that is the making the capital safer and making the Capitol Hill police better. And it's gone at lot of other things a lot of other committees could do. For example, the House Oversight Committee can do it. The judiciary can do it. And so we're in a lot of these things. But be that as it may, there obviously are some things in there that are that have that they've discovered that is very, very concerning. I think Department of Justice could have found this stuff out, too, but they're doing it. And the problem is because it's so top-heavy on one side, I sometimes get concerned about whether people will dismiss it as not being legitimate enough because it's not balanced. And that's my concern. And my biggest concern is we need to make sure that this never happens again from a security standpoint, because the security just blew it that day. It just wasn't there. And that's my biggest concern. So I guess that's my take. And I hope that makes sense.

GR: Yeah, it does. And I you know, it's an interesting point there you made at the end about how the ultimate effect of this may be to increase the forces that led to this in the first opposite. So we've just we just got about a minute and a half left. But I want to try to squeeze in two more questions, if I can. First one, what do you think about what the New York legislature did to your district? Because your district does not look like this district any longer?

JK: Well, it blamed gerrymandering. And I think it's very amusing that Democrats will scream about gerrymandering in places like Alabama, and then Republicans will scream about gerrymandering in places like New York. They both do it and they're both wrong. And it really does suck because we suffer as people here in central New York for that's that's the best I can say to you.

GR: Okay. All right. And then with about a minute left, I just want to give you a chance at the end to relay anything else about your district, the work of your office that central New Yorkers should know.

JK: I appreciate it. As you may remember, most of listeners probably know or have heard that I'm going to be retiring at end of this year, very confident I could have won again. And I'm not being cocky. I just looked at the numbers. It's just a time for my family. That being said, we're going to run through the tape. We're going to continue to work very hard to make ourselves available to the public. I was out meeting with constituents today and I'm going to continue to do that. I've got a lot of work on homeland security to do, especially in the cybersecurity arena. That's job one for me right now. And we're going to continue to do the great constituent services work we do here. So I'm not going anywhere until the end of the term. And I am going to work very hard till that time. I’m going to earn after my retirement. How's that?

GR: All right. Well, we'll have to speak again as you get closer to it.

JK: For sure, my friend, for sure. For sure.

GR: That was John Katko. And Congressman, as always, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me and also be well.

JK: You too, my friend. God bless.

GR: You too, thank you. You’ve been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, Conversations in the Public Interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.