with Fran Eaton, IR Editor
A year ago, when Republican State Senator Peter Roskam announced his intention to run for the 6th Congressional District seat being vacated by retiring Congressman Henry Hyde, he had only a slight inkling of how important the topic of the war on Iraq would be.
Since last year's interview with IR's editor Fran Eaton, the war on terrorism has become a key issue in the 6th CD, as the Democratic opponent Roskam faces lost both her legs as a helicopter pilot in the war in Iraq. Tammy Duckworth, who until very recently was in active military service, defeated two others in a heated Democratic primary. As a result, America's war on terrorism has been thrust to center stage in this nationally-watched race.
When asked if he agrees with the President philosophy of pre-emptive strike in the war on terrorism, Roskam replied:
You mean fighting in the Mideast versus the Midwest? I think it took him about ten seconds to come to that conclusion. I think you really get the feeling that when he said we are at war, that was clear. This was not about subpoenas and wire taps, the President’s attitude was, this will be answered clearly and aggressively and proportionately. It has paid dividends.
Since this interview, Congressman Hyde has endorsed Roskam. Read his thoughts about Hyde, Barack Obama, the federal role in education and more . . .
Part 1 of the Roskam interview (as published last May in Illinois Leader) has been granted re-publication rights on Illinois Review.
FE: You have a unique perspective on an important issue on both the national and state levels – the issue of tort reform. As a trial attorney yourself, how as a Republican do you deal with making important votes that directly affect your profession?
Roskam: I have come down in favor of the tort reform issue of supporting caps. I was the deciding vote on the caps bill back in 1995 – I was the 60th vote. And I did that for several reasons: one is even back then, physicians were being truncated at the front end by what they could earn and what they could charge through lower reimbursements from Medicare, lower reimbursements from Medicaid, managed care. It was really putting a restraining effort on physicians at the front end. It seems inherently unfair to be truncated at the front end, and yet have all this exposure at the back end. That’s issue number one.
Issue number two is that this has moved from a theoretical issue to real. Here’s what I mean: when we first started debating this in the mid-90s, when I first got involved in the issue, it was theoretical. The public viewed it as doctors versus lawyers, fighting about who gets to drive the Mercedes.
Now it’s not theoretical. Doctors are leaving. And now we’re looking at empty doctor’s offices and emergency rooms with a dial tone at the other end, when you’re trying to reach an oral surgeon on the other end. Doctors have left.
The only thing that will improve the situation is a more predictable court system. And one of the drivers of predictability is a cap on non-economic damages. So those of us in the Senate Republican Caucus, for example, were all united behind Senator Dillard and Senator Leuchtefeld’s Senate Bill 150 which caps non-economic damages. Remember, this does not cap economic damages, it doesn’t cap medical expenses and so forth.
Plus to reflect my district, if you asked the question in my district on caps, the answer is going to come back in the high 80s in terms of the percentages who support caps.
FE: You will hold the same views serving in Congress?
R: Right. If I get to Washington as a member of Congress, I will support federal tort reform.
FE: As a partner in a law firm which does personal injury cases, how do your partners respond to this political position on this issue?
R: I haven’t given them a whole lot of eye contact.
Listen, the system has to change because it is unsustainable. So, I’m the policy maker and that’s my job.
FE: If you go to Congress, what is your motivating force in running? What will you do when you get there?
R: I learned a good lesson when I came to the state Senate in the year 2000. I resolved as a new senator not to speak on the floor for one year. It paid dividends.
First of all, I’ve got a firm grasp of reality. As a new person, nobody really wants to hear from you anyway. So I would intend to go and listen for a period of time and try and learn from my colleagues how to effectively advocate on behalf of families and businesses in this district.
The 6th Congressional District is home to many businesses – large and small – who are feeling the bite of taxes, it’s home to thousands of families who are raising children in a sometimes difficult environment, and it would be my hope to be out advocating on behalf of families and businesses to create an environment that lets them flourish.
FE: What are your thoughts as a conservative on taking on the lofty challenge many suggested in the mid-90s like abolishing the Department of Education?
R: The Department of Education is not going away. I’m interested in trying to focus in on things that are achievable. One area I think we need to review is the No Child Left Behind Act. The premise is a good one, and that is to create an expectation and a sense of responsibility so that the school system is accountable for the success of every child in the system. That’s a good motive, that’s something everyone can agree upon.
But you, know characterizing some of these schools as failing schools is inaccurate. The risk of that, over a period of time, is that the sanction against a school is disregarded. The idea that, oh you’re a No Child Left Behind failure, you’re not a real failure.
I’m interested in learning how we can recalibrate that. There’s a subtlety to it because we can’t do it in a way that jeopardizes special needs children, we can’t do it in a way that jeopardizes the underlying premise of the act, that is that every child matters. But it seems to me that there needs to be a discussion about recalibrating that.
FE: So I know there are situations where schools are being deemed failures based on the assessment of certain groups within the schools, for instance, ethnic groups and minorities. In those cases, an assessment of a small group may cast a shadow over the whole school’s image, when the truth is a small number of students are affected.
R: Let me give you an example of what can happen. Where a school district is held accountable for a child they had for maybe six weeks, but has just moved in six weeks before the test, and they sit for a standardized test and the school district is evaluated based on thirty class days, maybe? That doesn’t make sense. It’s those types of things that should involve recalibration. Let’s unpack these numbers a little bit.
FE: Are you uncomfortable with the details on education coming from the federal government that should be in the hands of local school boards? This is a basic question about how involved the federal government should be in this area. Should the seven percent of federal education funding be enough to force such a large overhaul and change in local public schools? Are Republicans now shifting in their political approach to use federal mandates to pressure local districts to change?
R: This is an area that President Bush with his enormous popularity within the Republican base has been able to eclipse those natural instincts that many Republicans have. He was successful in doing it, and he was transparent in doing it.
He said, 'This is what I’m going to do,' and he did it. It is here. The question is, how do we improve this, how do we make it actually accomplish the goal completely.
We’ve all seen the movies of amazing things that children have done in schools when teachers believed in them and placed high expectations on them. The children just soared. That’s the spirit of No Child Left Behind, and it’s that spirit which we have to animate to excite people. You do that by inviting them to participate rather than allow the NCLB to be perceived as a hammer. We can refocus the debate and try to make it a great thing, make it exciting. You want to participate in it.
FE: In south suburban Hazel Crest, there was not one school in the district that was not assessed as a failing school, to the degree that parents were allowed to transfer their children out of the school according to the No Child Left Behind provisions. Every school in the district was at that level. There were no schools acceptable for the kids to go to get out of the failing schools other than private schools in the area. What are your thoughts about including private schools as potential alternative to failing public schools?
R: In an opportunity scholarship program? That’s a necessary component. It creates a false sense of options for children and their families if it turns out that their schools are falling short of the mark, but the next page of the memo says so are all of the other schools as your options. That’s not satisfactory.
FE: So you’re open to vouchers for these children?
R: You have to in order to make it a more wholistic system.
FE: Federal money would not be enough to allow an average family to make that move, but perhaps with the backing of the state level funds, it could happen?
R: I think so. I understand the reluctance of people on vouchers – you know, on both sides. There are folks who are very concerned, and I respect that. My suggestion would be, let’s do a pilot program. Let’s try it out.
Some people say the private school costs will go up, indexed by the voucher number. Well, then, let’s have something in there that would prevent that. You know what I mean? Let’s try it out and let’s see if it would in fact helps because we know that money alone, alone, doesn’t solve school woes.
The Heartland Institute had a study out a few years ago that said there were three factors that were the most important in the success of a child in school. One was obviously, the involvement of the parents. Second was the leadership of the principal. You can sense that when you go into a building, and there’s a principal that has it together and is a good leader and is dynamic. It’s transforming.
And the third factor is money.
FE: Is education an important issue to the people of this district, or is it just a feel-good campaign topic?
R: No, I think it’s an issue of importance. I think, like you mentioned earlier, we need a thorough discussion about the appropriate role of the federal government. I think the discussion in this area on education tends to focus in on Springfield, and, you know, SB 750 and its various incarnations.
FE: As we finish up here, I wanted to ask your opinion about Homeland Security and the war in Iraq, two issues at the federal level with which you’ll need to give opinion. This week, we had an incident at the U.S. Capitol that was sort of a breath-taking reminder of our nation’s vulnerability to terrorism and the concerns our security raises. There is a lot of criticism of how Homeland Security money is being spent. That is a big issue. This week, we woke up a little.
How is the nation doing in making our homeland secure?
R: Well, first of all, there has not been a terrorist attack in America since 9/11, which is enormous. I think the President’s plan to take the terrorists on on their home turf has caused them to play such defense, all thoroughout Asia that it has made it difficult for them to operate. They were operating with impunity before. Those days are over.
This past week, one of the top Al-Queda people was caught. We are going to continue to hear more and more and more of that. So number one, something’s working.
Number two, Illinois, ironically, is one of the most prepared states in the country. If you started asking people what’s going on. I think it’s a reflection of federal dollars that have been appropriated and wisely used in Illinois. If you talk to the fire services and the way things have been coordinated and so forth, there’s something good happening here. You know, when asked about these various issues, I intend to reach out to some of the folks – you know, for example, Carl Hawkinson who is the state’s Homeland Security director here in Illinois, a former state senator. I intend to reach out to Carl and get advice from him as I’m asked to make decisions as to Homeland Security that are unfamiliar to me. I think we have some expertise here that are being recognized nationally.
FE: Are you in agreement with the President’s philosophy of pre-emptive strike on terrorists?
R: You mean fighting in the Mideast versus the Midwest? I think it took him about ten seconds to come to that conclusion. I think you really get the feeling that when he said we are at war, that was clear. This was not about subpoenas and wire taps, the President’s attitude was, this will be answered clearly and aggressively and proportionately. It has paid dividends.
FE: This is new territory for you – moving out of domestic policy into international policy. Do you have to cram on these issues or look to others with expertise to apply your principles in forming positions on these topics?
R: I’m not much of a crammer, that’s never worked for me. I always came up short when I crammed. I think some of this, we know by common sense. We know in our lifetime we know that the strength of President Reagan and the clarity of George Bush, we are winning. That’s a winning formula.
President Reagan said there is not one war that ever started because the United States was too strong. That is clear thinking. The changing role of the military in the new millennium, where things need to be deployed and so forth, I have a lot of listening and learning to do. I wouldn’t presume to know what number of troops need to be deployed in Korea versus some other part of the world, but some of this is, I think, intuitive.
You know we need a strong military and you know we need to be able to rapidly respond around the world. Then the question becomes how do we best do that?
FE: You worked with Barack Obama for a while in the state Senate. What are you thoughts about his rise to political stardom and working with him in D.C.?
R: I like Barack a lot. Barack is somebody who can disagree and not be disagreeable. I like that. I think he would probably describe his meteoric rise as completely unpredictable, and I’m happy for him.
FE: You are diametrically opposed to him on most issues. Is there anything you could work with him on?
R: I think so. If I’m a member of Congress, we could probably work on issues that are important to Illinois in the form of transportation funding, or some of those things where we really do need a cohesive delegation that is working together and can put aside donkeys and elephants when it’s appropriate.
FE: Is getting federal funding for transportation a big issue for this district? Unbearable traffic in this growing area is a growing complaint.
R: The traffic issue is significant. Infrastructure needs are significant. The amount of money needed on the federal highway programs is enormous. Not only from taking care of transportation needs, but the economic impact of that. Not only just the convenience of getting to the grocery store quickly, but the economic impact that can move traffic and cargo through quickly and the jobs related with that. The influence can take your breath away.
FE: I’m hearing you say that you’re really focused on the message of education and jobs.
R: We’re trying to create a climate where families and businesses can flourish.
FE: That’s what you’ve been doing in the Illinois Senate, as well. Probably would be a little more fun to be in the majority though, wouldn’t it?
R: I would enjoy being in the majority.
FE: And having the U.S. Speaker of the House in a neighboring district would be nice, too?
R: He is highly respected, universally respected.
FE: Do you think he’ll endorse you?
R: I wouldn’t presume on that. My feeling is people need to see what I can put together. And it’s my hope to demonstrate that my campaign is worth supporting.
FE: How about Henry Hyde? Will he endorse you?
R: I wouldn’t presume on Henry Hyde. I’ve had what I would describe as a warm relationship with him over the years as I’ve represented areas in his congressional district. But I don’t want to be presumptuous that he will support me.
FE: But you did keep your promise to him and finish law school . . .
R: I kept my promise to stay in law school.
Read Part One of the Roskam interview published on Illinois Review (here).