With key battles on health care, energy, and telecommunications already looming, National Journal Live hosted House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., for updates on Republicans’ goals within his panel’s wide jurisdiction. National Journal Group Editorial Director Ronald Brownstein questioned Upton on February 8 on the status of the GOP’s “repeal and replace” health care strategy and the prospects for a national clean-energy standard. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ Let’s plunge right in with health care. You passed the repeal legislation in the House, but it fell short in the Senate. What happens next?
UPTON I’m going to ask a number of governors to come in and tell us what they’re going to do, and states’ attorneys general, as well. But we are also going to proceed, I’m convinced, on an effort on the replacement piece. [Rep.] Marsha Blackburn has a bill [that allows] people to purchase health insurance across state lines. The idea is that maybe you can’t afford your heavy-mandate, high-cost plan, and maybe there’s another state that provides a little better of a plan. We’re going to be looking at tort reform.
NJ These are some elements of the alternative that the Congressional Budget Office assessed in November 2009. CBO said that the Republican alternative at that point would have covered 3 million of the uninsured by 2019, leaving more than 50 million still uncovered at the end of the decade. Is that an acceptable outcome for you?
UPTON I think that all of the things we do would add to the mix in terms of providing benefits for folks who are uninsured. I don’t know what the number would be when you tally them all up.
NJ Will you consider legislation to repeal just the individual mandate?
UPTON I think it’s a good idea. I think we’ll get more votes, quite frankly, than we did on the repeal, and that’ll be something we discuss with the leadership. I know a number of Democrats who voted against our effort to repeal who, I’m convinced, will vote to repeal the individual mandate.
NJ Yet, the individual mandate first appeared as the Republican alternative to Bill and Hillary Clinton’s health care plan.
UPTON Well, two courts have said it’s unconstitutional. I wasn’t involved in that debate back 16 years ago, but I know that ideas do change and folks do change. Part of the Republican plan was that we want incentives, not penalties, for folks.
NJ In the bill as it now stands, there’s a limited provision that one state would have to agree with another state to allow the interstate sale of health insurance. The version that Republicans have proposed historically is that any plan that can be sold anywhere can be sold everywhere, in all 50 states. Why is that better?
UPTON Because the individual ought to make that decision. Maybe New Jersey has a lot more mandates than Arizona. So if a person in New Jersey says, I can’t afford this plan, and therefore I have to risk myself, my spouse, my three kids, we just can’t be covered because I cannot pay these premiums. But all of a sudden you’ve got another state—pick one—and they don’t have the same mandates and therefore you have a lower cost. Why not let that individual pick and choose what they want?
NJ How do you want to change the law’s abortion provisions?
UPTON We’re going to have a hearing on that, and I expect it’ll reach the floor next month, to codify the president’s executive order as it relates to abortion in the health care law.
NJ On energy, let’s start with the draft legislation that you put out on climate and the Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon rules. The bill is provocative right from the preamble. You say your goal is to prohibit EPA from “promulgating any regulation concerning possible climate change.” Are you saying that you are not convinced that climate change is occurring?
UPTON What we’re saying is this: The Clean Air Act, when it was passed in the early ’90s, did not give EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Congress ought to have that responsibility, not the bureaucracy at EPA.
NJ But you say “possible climate change.”
UPTON That was to get people like you to read the bill.
NJ So your view is that climate change is occurring?
UPTON Well, I have said many times, and there was a report a couple weeks ago, if you look at this last year, it was the warmest year in the last decade. I accept that. I do not say that it is man-made.
NJ So you’re saying, “I think the climate is changing, but I’m not convinced that human activity is causing the change.” Is that your position?
UPTON It is.
NJ Is this a repeal-and-replace kind of scenario? You’ve already said you oppose the cap-and-trade approach; you’re saying that EPA should not regulate carbon through the regulatory process. Should there be any explicit federal policy to reduce carbon emissions in the U.S. as a matter of national policy?
UPTON Look, I support greener energy. I think there ought to be incentives. I’m a strong supporter of nuclear power, which has no greenhouse-gas emissions. There are a number of different things we can do that I think promote nuclear power. I’ve supported wind and solar; I support clean coal, natural gas—a whole number of different things that I think bring a cleaner energy standard to the United States, and without greenhouse-gas standards set by EPA.
NJ One last question on carbon: If not cap-and-trade, if not EPA regulation, the third alternative that people have talked about is a tax on carbon emissions that would fund a reduction in payroll taxes or some other tax.
UPTON No. It’s a nonstarter. With the Congress we have today, it’s a nonstarter.
NJ Beyond dealing with the EPA issue, do you anticipate pursuing either comprehensive or piecemeal legislation that addresses energy supply and access?
UPTON We need offshore drilling, that is clear. On the nuclear side, the French, the Japanese, they can go start-to-finish in four to five years; why does it take us 10 to 12? We’re going to find out why. We’re going to call in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, we’re going to ask some of those questions. We have to deal with the issue of high-level nuclear waste. A number of countries recycle that, which is a good thing. Why aren’t we doing it here? We’re going to pursue, maybe, legislation to look at that as well, knowing ultimately you still need a Yucca Mountain, but why not recycle the waste, too.
NJ You have vowed to overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s network-neutrality decision with a resolution of disapproval. How do you expect that to proceed?
UPTON I’m not quite sure when it’s going to be introduced, if it is. My philosophy on net neutrality is this, and I think George Will has said it right. Most Americans think the government doesn’t work very well and the Internet does. Why are we putting the government in charge of the Internet? That’s exactly what this proposal does. It will be tested in the courts. I’m not a lawyer, but I bet the FCC loses. We’re going to use every tool in the toolbox to stop it. This is not just a nasty letter. The Congressional Review Act is probably the most likely vehicle to be used.
NJ You said “every tool in the toolbox.” What else is available to try to block this if that CRA resolution doesn’t pass the Senate?
UPTON We’ve got a couple different ones, and we’ll see next week when we take up the [continuing resolution] on the House floor. Unlike the last two years, where we were denied having an amendment [that said], “No funds shall be used,” that is a possibility as well.
NJ This week, the FCC announced a new policy for the Universal Service Fund, shifting its focus from expanding telephone service to extending broadband service to rural areas. The FCC has said it does not believe that it needs congressional authority to make this shift. Do you agree?
UPTON No, I don’t agree that they have the sole right. I do believe this is an area of common ground where Republicans and Democrats, as well as Congress and the administration, can work together on a better policy. We have seen the Universal Service Fund increase from $2.8 billion collected from consumers to almost $10 billion today. Our view will be that this fund needs to be capped, it needs to come down. Let’s figure out the right uses of where the money ought to be spent. My thinking is that we could get a bipartisan bill to help the FCC along as it relates to this issue.
NJ Some communications companies are asking that broadcasters be required to vacate some of their spectrum to make it available for wireless broadband. What do you think of that?
UPTON The spectrum issue is an area, again, that I think we can find some common ground. We’re going to look for additional devices, but we’re going to need more spectrum. We’re going to have some hearings about that, particularly about what’s called the D-block. The president indicated that maybe some government users might want to vacate some of the spectrum, but we had a problem with that a few years ago.
NJ What will you have to accomplish over the next two years in the areas under your purview for you to feel that this congressional session was a success?
UPTON I want to create a better environment for jobs. Government doesn’t create the jobs, we help businesses. We have to have the right legislative policies that do that. On telco issues, spectrum is a big issue, especially as we look at 4G and beyond, trying to get the government out of the way and let consumers win. On health care, we are going to have to work together with our leadership to talk about the replacement pieces that we stand for that really do help businesses and families have greater access to affordable health care. We’re going to do a lot of oversight. I chaired the oversight subcommittee at some point. Our job is to find fraud and abuse, and I haven’t found anyone who’s for it yet, and we’re going to find it, identify it, and do our best at trying to fix it. And on energy, of course, it’s what is the plan that can help our industries produce our power with rules that are livable, that really makes us a factor as we look to compete with the rest of the world.
This article appears in the February 12, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.