Congressman-elect Michael Grimm had a lot to say on health care, out of control spending, overblown budgets, Bay Ridge Muslims, the so-called Ground Zero mosque and his own diet during a spirited 50-minute discussion with Bay Ridge Courier Editor Vince DiMiceli, Brooklyn Paper Editor Gersh Kuntzman and Senior Political Reporter Thomas Tracy on Nov. 12. Here’s the unfiltered back and forth for your reading enjoyment:
Gersh Kuntzman: Let’s talk about the health care reform bill for a second. During the campaign, you said it was a jobs killer, yet the non-partisan congressional budget office says it will save hundreds of billions of dollars in our health care system and presumably save jobs. Is that not a positive thing? Or do you disagree with the findings?
Michael Grimm: I disagree with the findings. Ask any small business owner if they think they’re going to save money. I haven’t met one. I haven’t met one doctor who said it’s going to bring down the cost of health care. When you really get into the weeds and look at the analysis, I don’t see how [the findings] are supported. You’re adding more red tape to the process and the fact that you have to hire 1,600 new IRS agents to enforce this nightmare is the writing on the wall that there’s a problem.
Kuntzman: What’s the solution? Health care costs are escalating and it is a drag on our economy.
Grimm: A smaller, concise, step-by-step process. For example, let’s tackle tort reform. We can do that with legislation that should be somewhere between 10 and 40 pages that we can all read, we all understand and implement fairly easily. Then let’s look at portability. Then let’s look at opening up competition across state lines. Then let’s look at rules for pre-existing medical conditions — logical steps we can all digest and implement in a pragmatic way that all makes sense. This overhaul sends everything upside down and is scaring people. It’s creating uncertainty in the marketplace and the perception alone is hurting the economy.
Kuntzman: You say it’s scaring people. Do you think the bill is scaring people or the people who are opposed to the bill are scaring people?
Grimm: I’m a small business owner so I’m going to tell you for a fact that it’s scaring people. Every business owner I speak to says they don’t know if they want to expand and hire more workers because they don’t know how this health care bill is going to affect them. I’ve written several business models for myself and my friends. How do you create a model when you don’t have a variable for health care costs? On top of that, banks are not lending either. People can’t get their business loans because banks think they’re underestimating health care costs.
Kuntzman: So it sounds like you favor a universal single-payer plan that would eliminate a lot of this red tape.
Grimm: No! I don’t believe in the rationing of health care or reducing the quality of our care and that’s exactly what a single-payer plan does. And if you can show me a place in the world where [a single-payer plan] does better, I want to go and see it.
Kuntzman: Well, our life spans are decreasing and our infant mortality rates are higher than in other industrialized nations that have single-payer plans …
Grimm: You cannot go by that because they screw their numbers significantly. There are many countries that don’t count the mortality rate if the child dies automatically, just if the child lives for a certain amount of time and then dies. That’s bullshit. They are not real numbers. It’s not apples to apples. And if you think there’s a country out there that does better, put your money where your mouth is and take me there.
Kuntzman: My budget is not that big.
Grimm: There’s a reason why kings and queens, statesmen and [wealthy] families throughout the world come to the U.S. for health care — it’s the best in the world and everybody know that.
Kuntzman: It’s also very expensive.
Grimm: It is very expensive. That’s what why need to reform health care. But what we did with [President Obama’s health care] bill is try to reform insurance, not health care. The reasons why premiums go up is because the cost of health care goes up. If this was an honest reform of the cost of health care then there would have definitely been something about tort reform. The fact that it was left out tells me that this was nothing but politics. How could we discuss lowering the cost of health care and not bring up tort reform. It’s silly.
Kuntzman: Let’s talk about tax cuts. There’s widespread consensus that the Bush-era tax cuts should be extended for families making $250,000 or more. Would you describe families making $250,000 as well off or middle class?
Grimm: That’s tough because so many people are hurting. But most of those people in that $250,000 bracket are small business owners. They’re the job creators so the last thing I want to do is punish them. There’s no reason in this climate, which is a very, very weak economy, to raise taxes on anyone. We need more revenue and history hasn’t shown me that raising taxes increases revenue.
Kuntzman: But hasn’t history shown that cutting taxes increases deficits? Cutting taxes increased deficits dramatically under both Reagan and George W. Bush.
Grimm: I’m not a world-class economist, but I consider myself pretty practical. We need to keep taxes low, we need to stop the out of control spending and we need to grow our economy. But the only way to grow the economy besides lowering taxes is to make a more business friendly environment and get rid of the onerous regulations, renegotiate some trade agreements and make it a friendlier place to do business. As of right now, I think the U.S. has become unfriendly to business in many ways. The rules, regulations, fees, fines and penalties are too onerous. Let’s say I’m someone who wants to open a factory or even a green company. From the day I buy the land to the point I get all the permits to start building — it takes years. Between the [Department of Environmental Conservation], the Evironmental Protection Agency and everyone else, you’re going to go through hell to get approved.
Kuntzman: But in other countries without those steps, you have kids dying of pollution.
Grimm: I’m not saying you don’t need OSHA requirements. I’m a law-and-order guy. We need rules, but we’ve gotten to the point where we can’t grow our economy. And if we don’t want to have the businesses here, China, Brazil and India is going to take them. New York City is a perfect example. It’s a microcosm of the entire country. There’s a diner owner I know, he runs a clean restaurant — I’m licensed in this so I know — but New York City abuses the health code violations all the time. Your argument is that health code rules are there to keep everyone safe so we don’t have dirty restaurants. But if the guy cleaning the dishes at that diner accidentally drops a clean spoon into the hand wash sink and [the owner] gets a $500 fine for that, did we save someone’s life? Did we make a cleaner environment?
Kuntzman: So you’re saying the regulations are good, but the enforcement is too severe.
Grimm: When you use regulations to become a revenue stream, that’s a problem. It’s under the guise of keeping the environment safe and keeping people healthy, but it has become an abusive revenue generator and a business preventer. What happens is that this diner owner who has 46 employees and who’s 60-something years old finally says to himself, “I’m just going to retire” and moves down to Florida. We lose all that tax base and all 46 workers are put on unemployment until they can get another job. Who won?
Kuntzman: The winner is the new immigrant who will open a new business in that empty space and change the city in a positive way.
Grimm: If he can. Do you know how long it’ll take him to get permits and everything? [He chuckles.]
Kuntzman: We know you’re opposed to cap-and-trade, which has a bipartisan history stretching back to the first President Bush when everyone was fighting acid rain. Let’s just break it down. Do you believe that human activity is warming the planet? Do you believe in global warming as they call it?
Grimm: I can’t say that I believe or don’t believe. What I’ve seen are conflicting reports. Science has been unable to confirm or deny it. Until the science is there, I don’t know.
Kuntzman: But what would you do to reduce pollution. We do want to reduce pollution, generally speaking, so how do you do that?
Grimm: I’m a contentious environmentalist by nature. I believe we need clean air, clean water and we should conserve our natural resources. At the same time, any environmental policies that we’re going to implement need to be in line with our economic policies. If we don’t we’ll have the cleanest planet in the world and no more country.
Kuntzman: A country with a lower standard of living, perhaps, but the country isn’t going anywhere.
Grimm: The American dream is what I’m saying. The America I know and believe in is that if you work hard it pays off for you and you’ll be able to give your children more than you had. It’s the land everyone wants to come to.
Kuntzman: Do you think that’s going anywhere?
Grimm: Oh, yeah!
Kuntzman: Because of environmental regulations or just in general?
Grimm: In general, if we don’t improve this economy. People come here to establish a better life, which is all based on our economy and our freedoms and our liberties. It’s all inter-related and when government grows we have less individual liberties. I think they’re counter-productive.
Kuntzman: Do you have an example of that?
Grimm: Well, when government starts telling you you can’t put toys in your Happy Meal because they’re not healthy, I think that’s an individual liberty encroachment. That’s the government telling us what we can eat and cannot eat and what we feed our children. When will it end?
Kuntzman: But we use the tax code in a similar way. We tax cigarettes at a high rate so people will not smoke. Is that a bad idea? Should we not use the tax code to encourage certain behaviors that are healthy or safe or better for the country?
Grimm: I don’t want the government telling me that I can’t eat something. If the government is providing for you [with food stamps, for example] they have a little more to say. But in California, it was passed they can’t put toys in a happy meal and that is far overreaching.
Kuntzman: They can put toys in a Happy Meal if the Happy Meal was healthy, I believe that’s what it says.
Grimm: But again, they’re deciding what toys can go where. Now you’re talking about private industry being regulated to such a point that it’s become parenting. Should we now regulate how often we change diapers? I think it’s very scary.
Kuntzman: If the landfills were being filled with diapers and we couldn’t control it, than perhaps we would.
Grimm: Not in my United States of America, no.
Tracy: Are you against recycling, then? It’s basically the government telling the public what they have to do to help clean our environment.
Grimm: There’s a big difference between telling me what to eat and recycling. I don’t know why you would say something like that.
Tracy: During the campaign you kept talking about how you were angry with the direction the country is going in. Now that you’ve won, are you still angry?
Grimm: I don’t think I would categorize myself as angry. I have been angered by certain things that happened in the last 22 months. I think there’s been an overreaching and a tremendous amount of money spent and not wisely spent. I think there’s been a lot of ignoring the will of the people and that causes anger and disappointment. I’ve been very disappointed with this administration, because they haven’t kept their promises.
Kuntzman: How’s that? They said they were going to do all the things they did. You just don’t like those things.
Grimm: It was the matter in which they did it. I think they broke their promise by saying they were going to be the most transparent Congress, then they did all these things behind closed doors.
Kuntzman: You’re going to be behind those closed doors soon.
Grimm: No, I don’t think so. I think this Congress is going to be much more transparent than what we’ve seen over the last 22 months. This has been probably the least transparent Congress in a very long time. When they campaigned on how everything they do will be available on the Internet, that’s hypocrisy. The government is not telling the truth and people should get angry and they should use the power of the vote and they should use their voice. Still, while I’m angry about an overreaching government that is spending so much money, I’m extremely inspired and proud that democracy, on both sides of the aisle, has never been stronger. There are more people involved in politics right now than ever and the vast majority have never been involved in politics before.
Kuntzman: Everybody goes to Congress, Democrat or Republican, saying, “I’m going to control spending,” but neither party has done it. Every day we receive press releases from elected officials telling us they got money for their district to help a local organization or to fix something. They run on what they bring back to the district. Do you plan to do the same?
Grimm: Of course I’m going to bring stuff back to the district.
Kuntzman: But isn’t that pork? Isn’t that out-of-control spending?
Grimm: No. Where do you come from? Where is that out-of-control spending?
Kuntzman: I’m from Park Slope. What is out-of-control spending, then?
Grimm: How about spending almost a trillion dollars just so we could create 400 jobs here.
DiMiceli: But that was a one-shot deal to get us out of the financial hole we were in.
Grimm: But that makes it OK? Is the interest on that going to be a one-shot deal? Let’s be clear, you have to spend money in the federal government. There has to be a budget. If I’m bringing money home to repair a road or a bridge or to shore up a sea wall, I don’t think of that as out-of-control spending. That’s a necessary expenditure.
Kuntzman: But some of the stimulus money went to projects like that.
Grimm: Some, but how much? It only created 400 jobs here.
Kuntzman: But the $1 trillion wasn’t all spent here.
DiMiceli: Do you think that the work on the Staten Island ferry terminal and other district projects paid by the stimulus package was a proper expenditure?
Grimm: Here’s my problem with it. The money was borrowed. We can’t borrow anymore. We have to live within our means.
DiMiceli: So if you had the opportunity to get that money again, would you pass it by?
Grimm: I have to answer that two ways. If you ask me if I will vote for borrowing more money from China, I won’t. But if I’m outvoted and there’s nothing I can do about it, I’m going to fight like heck to make sure the money is spent in my district.
DiMiceli: But where would you draw the line? How can you control spending by telling us that you’re going to always try to get your piece of the pie? If everybody says that and nothing gets done, then we’re back to the same thing.
Grimm: Look, there’s always some kind of spending in the federal government. But I think there is a difference in investing and spending. Building a new bridge that would be higher so the new container ships could fit underneath them, that’s an investment. But, still, if we’re going to invest in infrastructure I want to see the plan. I want to see if it creates jobs and make sure it would pay for itself over time and grow the economy.
Kuntzman: But some of the bailout money did that. Some would say it was an investment in the country.
Grimm: Some of it was.
DiMiceli: Did Bay Ridge and Staten Island get anything from the bailout?
Grimm: Sure, there were bits and pieces. But I think when you look at it overall, what we did it was not wise. There was some good things done, but it seems that it was done without a plan. The investments should have been in the private sector, because jobs don’t come from government.
DiMiceli: We understand what you’re saying, but it still comes back to this point. If you think the strategy is not good, why would you go after the money?
Grimm: If the money is going to be spent anyway, why would I not bring it back to my district?
DiMiceli: On principle. Otherwise, how else does it change? If somebody stands up, says, “This is a bad plan” and rally against it, that can cause some change.
Grimm: I think we saw that with a few governors [who refused stimulus money]. But what benefit did the people in the streets of those states get? They said, “We stood up for our principals,” but the pothole wasn’t fixed. It’s just common sense that, if the money was going to be spent anyway, yes, I’ll fight like heck to get some of it. I’m not just going to stand on my principals. At that point, I would be an idiot.
Kuntzman: Why is this Republican Congress going to rein in spending better than the last time the Republicans were in the majority?
Grimm: Because they’ve heard the people loud and clear. People have specifically said, “Stop spending.”
Kuntzman: The people specifically said that the last time we had a balanced budget, which was in the late 1990s. Are they saying its louder now?
Grimm: I think this election sent a clear message to Republicans and Democrats alike that if you don’t do what we’re asking you to do, we’re going to fire you.
Kuntzman: Now Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who you are presumably going to vote for, will be the Speaker of the House. But he’s been there a long time. Why do you think he’s going to be different this time considering how long he’s been in Washington?
Grimm: Same reason. The country sent us a message.
Kuntzman: Have you spoken to him? What have you gleaned from him — that he’s suddenly going to be a balanced-budget guy?
Grimm: He told me straight to my face that we have to do a better job listening to the people. And we are going to do that. I take the man at his word.
Tracy: The early numbers show that Bay Ridge voted for Rep. Mike McMahon, and that you won the election in Staten Island. Are you going to hold that against Bay Ridge?
Grimm: Not at all. I get my haircut there. I eat at Sofia’s restaurant almost all the time. I like Bay Ridge a lot.
Tracy: What are you hoping to accomplish in Bay Ridge? Is there a specific project you want to work on?
Grimm: There’s a couple of community leaders I will be meeting with soon to discuss that. I also plan to be working very closely with state Sen. Marty Golden (R–Bay Ridge). One of the things I think they want to talk about is making the community a better place to live. Bay Ridge is one of the best communities in Brooklyn, but that takes work. Another thing I see is that Bay Ridge has a tremendous Muslim population, and I think helping them integrate more with the non-Muslim Americans is important. That was the message I got from my meeting with some of the leaders of the Muslim community. I’ve also heard that different communities in Bay Ridge have had trouble getting grants. So bringing in a grant writer will be a priority.
Kuntzman: We have a few lightning round questions for you. Where do you stand on abortion?
Grimm: I’m pro-life.
Kuntzman: What does that mean? Are you against capital punishment?
Kuntzman: Let’s get back to being pro-life. What does that mean?
Grimm: I’m pro-life, but I have three exceptions: Rape, incest and life of the mother. I also don’t believe in federal funding going to abortion.
Kuntzman: What about the so-called Ground Zero mosque? What do you think about that?
Grimm: I am adamantly opposed to it. It’s a matter of right and wrong, not rights. They have the right to build a house of worship of any kind there, but this is what I consider hallowed ground for so many who have suffered so much. Out of respect for that hallowed ground, this is not the right place to build a mosque.
Kuntzman: What about a strip club on the block?
Grimm: I think that would be disrespectful, too. This is hallowed ground and I don’t think that surviving families would appreciate a strip club there.
Kuntzman: There are a lot more Americans who are not surviving families who think it’s far more noble of us to adhere to the Constitution.
Grimm: But I think that’s causing another problem. When you really get into the issue, it’s very easy to say, “It’s the First Amendment and that’s it.” You go sit down [so the rest of us can] really talk about it. What is the goal? The goal should be for the Muslim community to get closer to the non-Muslim community here in America. It should be to build bridges no matter what, regardless of what project or where. There’s obviously tension between Americans and the Muslim community because of 9-11 and the global war on terrorism. I think this divides us more. So on those grounds, it’s wrong. It’s going to hurt more than help and the ultimate goal for Muslims is to reach out and be more assimilated with our society. This isn’t the way to do it; it’s the wrong path.
Kuntzman: Should that be their ultimate goal? To assimilate in our society? I thought the national ethos was live and let live.
Grimm: The Muslim community wants to be accepted and have the American dream like everybody else. That’s partly assimilation. This is America. You do want to come here to be American. Every Muslim person I’ve spoken to say they come here to be American.
Kuntzman: But the Constitution gives them the right to build that center. Isn’t that the ultimate expression of the American dream?
Grimm: I think I’ve answered that already.
Kuntzman: Not that part of it. You say they want to become American, want to be part of our society, but the ultimate expression of that would be to build something that’s as-of-right. It sounds like they’re living their dream.
Grimm: I’m going to give the same answers over, so I’m not going to go there.
Tracy: How did the Muslim community in Bay Ridge respond to you in the election? Did you get its support?
Grimm: I did. Two of the three main groups supported me and they helped my campaign hand over 2,000 pieces of literature.
Kuntzman: Despite your thoughts on the mosque?
Grimm: I think they respected my reasoning. You can say people shouldn’t be assimilated into a society and that they should keep their identity. That’s good rhetoric. But do you want animosity when you walk down the street? Do you want people to have animosity toward you? Everyone who came here went through some kind of prejudice if you will. The Italians, the Irish, they all did.
Kuntzman: Isn’t that a black mark on our history? Isn’t that a bad thing about America?
Grimm: I don’t understand why you ask that question.
Kuntzman: You just brought up something that said that American history shows we’ve had animosity to newcomers and I’m saying that’s a bad thing. Are you disagreeing?
Grimm: No, but it’s human nature that people don’t accept people different than they are.
Kuntzman: I would like to think we’re better than that.
Grimm: You could, but you would be living in a fantasy land. Where do you live?
Kuntzman: I told you: Park Slope.
Grimm: You’re going to tell me that it’s not human nature not to accept something that’s different?
Kuntzman: I won’t tell you that.
Grimm: That’s human nature. So it’s our job to overcome that. Now do you do that by offending someone?
Kuntzman: It’s our job to not be offended. You even said that it’s our job to overcome it, not their job. That’s my only point.
Grimm: No, it’s both. I totally disagree with you. It’s both.
Kuntzman: They’re doing something that’s as-of-right. So they think they are overcoming it.
Grimm: They think that, but if you were one of the people who lost a loved one there you would be offended by it.
Kuntzman: You don’t know that I’m not.
Grimm: That’s true and I apologize. But speaking in general if you were someone —
Kuntzman: But you don’t know what all of the survivors’ families think.
Grimm: The vast majority has spoken. You can have your opinion, but the polls say that 78 percent of the people are against it.
Kuntzman: I hope you’re going to judge everything by polls!
Grimm: No. I go all over. But let me ask you. Do you think you’re in the majority?
Kuntzman: No, I do not.
Grimm: I speak to people every day and they tell me they don’t want a mosque. They say they’re not opposed to Muslims, but this is a special site because it was — you know what it was. In the end, I want the Muslims in Bay Ridge not to have people looking at them like they’re terrorists, so I’m saying let’s embrace some common sense. Yes, in a perfect world everyone loves everyone, but if you think that world exists, good luck. It doesn’t. I’m just being real.
Kuntzman: Don’t tell that to my kid though!
Grimm: I would rather have all the kids playing in the same circle with the Muslim, the Catholic and Jew. We don’t live in that world, but we have to try. And the way we try is, sometimes, living with concessions. By saying, “I understand that I have the right to do this, but it offends you and I’m not going to.” Maybe that will be the olive branch that starts a better dialogue.
Kuntzman: Just so you know we’re on the same side. The only thing I’m saying is that we should be the ones extending the olive branch, not them.
Grimm: I understand that, but it’s not going that way. We have to work with the reality we have. They’re the new guys, so maybe it’s better if they extended it. I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s human nature to not welcome something new.
Tracy: On another topic. You’ll be the new guy in D.C. Are you going to be make concessions to the people who have been there for years, like Rep. Boehner.
Grimm: When it comes to ingratiating myself and showing a certain amount of respect, you bet your ass I will. If they say I’m not senior enough to be on Ways and Means, then it’s “Yes sir. Is there something else I can do?” You earn your way.
Tracy: But you have some very strong, clear ideas. If they tell you it’s not going to happen, are you going to say OK or are you going to stand up to them?
Grimm: I’ll stand my ground, but I have to do it respectfully. I have to show deference as a new guy, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to back down on my positions. I’m going to disagree with them sometimes, but I’m going to fight the good fight and choose my battles wisely.
Tracy: Happy the campaign is over? We imagine it’s an unhealthy time, physically.
Grimm: It’s all bread. When I’m trying to get in shape I don’t eat bread. It’s one of the biggest things… you stop bread and pasta and you’ll be like, “Wow.” When I was keeping in shape, I only had pasta once a week, during dinner with Mom.
Kuntzman: Maybe we should do a Grimm diet.
Grimm: I’d give you a diet to follow, but you have to combine it with exercise. Then I’ll get you into the calisthenics and the Marine Corps pushups and you’ll be an Adonis.
Kuntzman: You’ll kill us!
Grimm: Hey, nothing worth doing is easy.