Incoming House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith
HH: Chairman Smith, welcome, and congratulations on taking over the gavel next month.
LS: Thank you, Hugh. I’m looking forward to an exciting and productive two years, and I think it’s really going to be, I think, good for the American people to have a balanced government, and not just have one party control the White House and the Senate and the House. We now have Republican control of at least one of the three legs of the stool in the House. And I think that we’ll end up with better legislation and bipartisan legislation. And I think we’ll be able to benefit the American people.
HH: Chairman Smith, I want to cover a few things with you, but I want to start with something that’s a little bit esoteric. Almost every year, the Chief Justice of the United States appeals to Congress to please address federal judicial pay. Last year, Chief Justice Roberts did not include that in his state of the judiciary. He’d kind of given up hope on that.
HH: But that really is a problem, and we’re losing great judges left and right, and we’re going to end up with only academics if that doesn’t get fixed soon. Is that something that your committee will look into this year?
LS: We will look into it. It’s been harder to pass in an economic climate where there is 9.8% unemployment, and then you’re talking about pay raises for federal judges. But they haven’t had a pay raise in many, many years. They do have a generous retirement system, and I think we can maybe reform that at the same time we give them a pay raise. And we came within just, literally, I’d say a day and a couple of votes of being able to pass it last year. But in the end, it didn’t happen, and now we’re just going to have to start over again. But federal judges now, sometimes make less than someone out of law school working in New York City. So we do need to have a better balance, to have a little bit more pay for federal judges, and at the same time, reforming their retirement system. So that is something I support. I don’t know if it’s going to happen, as I say, in the current economic climate. But as soon as the economy starts to improve, and people feel better about their jobs, and other individuals are getting salary increases and cost of living, we can do that for the judges as well.
HH: Yeah, I’m betting even the Tea Parties would support that, because we’re losing originalists left and right. And when they can’t pay the college bills, that’s when you start…
HH: …because you’re right. First year associates in New York make more than federal district court judges.
HH: And that does tend to have them leave. So I’m glad to hear that’s on the list. Let’s turn to the key issue, which is immigration. The President’s press conference last week, Chairman Smith, was all about the DREAM Act. How about a narrow bill that focused just on citizenship for honorably discharged veterans? Do you think the Republicans could support that?
LS: Well, a couple of things. Of course, the DREAM Act that we considered, and the Senate was able to defeat, was far more than just a few individuals…if you’re a veteran today, you do get on a fast track to become a citizen. And this, beyond that, said uniformed services, which didn’t necessarily mean military. So they were trying to be very, very broad. They were saying it applied to anyone under 30 years old, and not just students and those in the military. And they didn’t, it had not been approved by a single committee. There had not been a single hearing held on it. So it was just a political document, and everybody knew that it was a political documents. But they were pushing hard for it. But once you pass a bill like that, that gives amnesty, in this case, to two million people, if you don’t have secure borders, you’re just extending an open invitation for more people to come into the country illegally, and either take advantage of this law, using fraudulent documents, or waiting for the next time there’s an amnesty bill. So before we can even, say, narrow a bill, we would have to have secure borders. We’d have to have to reinforce our laws that you cannot hire someone in the country illegally. And once we did all that, then maybe we could talk about some of these hardship cases. But the problem is that everybody wants to do both at the same time. But what will happen if you do that is that the enforcement provisions will be tied up in court for years. Meanwhile, the amnesty provisions will go into effect immediately. And that is not a good situation.
HH: Now I am one of those who believes in the wall, and the fence across the entire border. And so from that perspective, I hope you do the fence first. But I also can see, and I’ll bet you 95% of the country wants to extend residency and citizenship to people who honorably serve the United States in the military. Do you think that is the consensus position?
LS: Well, like I say, that’s already law. If you serve in the military, you’re on a fast track to being able to be a citizen. That is current law. So there don’t, we don’t need to make any changes for that, and you’re right, most people support that.
HH: Let me push that from a political perspective, from someone who is a conservative as well. Even if it’s already law, if you put it into a bill and just drew a line underneath it and crossed the T and said veterans, you get in, that would serve to I think defang a lot of this political opposition, because I think that’s where the DREAM Act got a lot of its support, Mr. Chairman.
LS: Yeah, well, that’s true, and let ms distinguish what I just said from what you’re saying. And you’re right about that. What I was referring to is if you’re in the country and a legal immigrant, and sign up for the military, then you can expedite your citizenship. Now you’re right with the so-called DREAM Act. If you’re in the country illegally, then you could join the military and then become a citizen. So it was more expansive. It was broader. And I do think there’s a certain amount of sympathy for people who served in the military, or who graduated from college, and has been in the country for many, many years. But again, if you start giving amnesty to those under the DREAM Act, at least one to two million people, conservatively speaking, and you sure better have secure borders, or you’re just going to have millions more come in here illegally. And today, you have at least a million people coming into the country illegally. About 500,000 are apprehended. The border patrol says that at least two come in who are not apprehended, and that’s a conservative figure. And twice the 500,000 is 1 million, and it may well be a lot more coming in illegally every year.
HH: Well, I agree with that, but does the Republican…I’ll stay fixed on this for just a second longer. On the illegal, not the legal resident, but the illegal resident who goes into the military, if 95% of the country thinks that four years in the uniform of the United States qualifies you…
HH: Why not give that up, pass that as a DREAM Act, forget the college stuff and the education…
LS: Right. Well, first of all, I don’t know if there’s 95% or not. And under the DREAM Act, they would serve two years in the military. And I’m trying to recall the number. I think it’s still, to be eligible for citizenship for that track…again, that’s something to talk about, but before you give amnesty to anybody, I do think you have to have secure borders, and make sure that people aren’t going to take advantage of it. And I’d also like to know the number of people, but you’re right, that is what I would call the sympathetic group. If you served in the military, and served the country, then you ought to get special consideration.
HH: Let’s go to the border itself. Where is this border fence, Chairman Smith? And are you going to hold hearings as to why…it just seems like everybody’s for it, and it never gets built.
LS: Well, two things about the border fence. We built, the current law that we passed called for, I think, 800 miles of border fence. We built 650. It doesn’t look like the Obama administration is going to complete the border fence. And then you have individuals who will say well, if we build a ten foot fence, they’ll erect an eleven foot ladder and whatever. That simply is not the case. And we have a real life example. You take San Diego, which erected a barrier, it’s actually two fences with a road in between, that reduced the number of illegal immigration coming through that area by 95%. So a physical barrier beyond just the vehicle barrier, or a pedestrian barrier, is in fact going to reduce illegal immigration significantly. We can’t do it along the entire border. We can certainly do it along the high-trafficking areas, and we are not doing that. It would be nice if the Obama administration enforced the law and completed the last, the other areas now that are so much in the way of illegal drugs and human smuggling that occur.
HH: Do you think you’ll be having oversight into fence construction, so the American people get a good fix on this?
LS: I think we will at some point. The first few months here are going to focus on anything that has to do with job creation or oversight of the administration. And when we talk about oversight in the immigration area, we’re talking about making sure they enforce the laws that say you can’t hire someone in the country illegally. We’re talking about making sure we can actually enforce the laws that are already on the books, and that would include the border fence as well.
HH: In terms of other oversight issues, Congressman Smith, with the border, with Gitmo not closing, and that fiasco we had in New York City, do you think your committee will be looking at stopping additional trials of terror suspects in the United States?
LS: Well, as you say, they tried a terrorist in New York City. That was supposed to be their best case, they had their best witnesses. That was the one that they were going to use as an example and say you know, here, yes we can conduct a trial of a terrorist in the United States. And even if they get some rights as citizens, we’re still going to be able to find them guilty on all counts. Well as you know, this individual was found guilty on one count of, I think, 254. And even though he was found guilty of building the explosives, he wasn’t found guilty of killing, I think, 254 innocent people who were killed, among them several dozen Americans. So in that situation, it clearly did not work as the administration had planned, and it kind of blew up in their face, and the judge didn’t allow some of the evidence and some of the testimony that would have been allowed if this individual had been tried at Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, the so-called Gitmo. And so I think the administration has had to take some steps backwards, and that’s why you’ve just recently seen in the last couple of days administration officials saying we don’t have any plans to close Gitmo. And in fact, they’ve also admitted that they will be doing exactly like George Bush, President Bush said had to be done, and that is you’re going to need to indefinitely detain some terrorists, because the countries don’t want them back, we can’t try them in the United States, there is an ongoing war going on against the terrorists, and so we have every right to hold them as we have for the last half dozen wars. And I think the Obama administration frankly made a very, almost reckless promise when he admitted later on he didn’t really understand all the issues about it, it was a campaign promise. And it’s a campaign promise the President ought to forget.
HH: There are some other issues involving the Department of Justice. For example, Andrew Breitbart has been covering the Pigford settlement. Is that on your radar, Chairman Smith?
LS: Yes, it is.
HH: We lost you there for a second. Can you repeat that, Chairman?
LS: It is a concern. Whenever you’re giving millions and sometimes billions of dollars, in this case, it was several billions dollars away from the taxpayers, you ought to know it’s going for the right reason, and it’s not being misallocated, and it’s not a result of fraudulent request or applications. And there are still a lot of questions about those, that money that was spent, and whether those individuals had really been discriminated against or not. And that would be a right subject for an oversight hearing. But again, it’s not scheduled anytime in the next month or two. We’ve already got those hearings set.
HH: How about the voting rights question about the black panther case in Philadelphia?
HH: Do you think that will get an oversight hearing?
LS: I…we’ll have to see. Again, that, like the other issues you’ve mentioned, that’ll be sometime in the future. The priority is going to be on job creation. And let me come back to that for a minute.
LS: Because you had this entire flurry of bills that were passed in the waning days of this lame duck session. And not a single bill was passed, after all that flurry of activity, after all those days of voting, after all the posturing by the Democrats, not a single bill that was passed is actually going to create new jobs. And I think the American people wanted us to create jobs, they want us to rein in government spending, address deficit reduction, get our economy under control where it’s growing again. And so all the hearings that we have on the Judiciary Committee, and the immigration subcommittee is just one of my five subcommittees, but every single subcommittee is going to be having hearings and oversight on creating jobs. And that’s why we’ll have an oversight. For instance, on the immigration subcommittee, on e-verify. And that’s the system whereby employers can very quickly in a few seconds determine whether it’s likely somebody who has applied for a job is legal in the country or not. That’s why we’re going to have a hearing about the Obama administration’s almost abandoned worksite enforcement. It’s down 70% in the last two years as far as the efforts by the administration to actually make sure that illegal workers are not working in the United States, and that we save and protect those jobs for American citizens. So anything that has to do with jobs that we can save or create for American citizens, and for legal immigrants alike, that will be our focus on the Judiciary Committee.
HH: Let’s close with two job issues then. One is the Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act of 2008. Is that in the jurisdiction of your committee, Chairman Smith?
LS: It is not.
LS: It is not.
HH: The other one is, and that is the attempt by the musicians, et cetera, and record labels to destroy radio by putting these royalty issues out there.
HH: Is that going to come before your committee?
LS: Yeah, that’s the so-called performance rights and royalty issue. That is entirely within the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committee. And there is a big push to try to do something along those lines last year. It did not reach fruition. And what I am hoping occurs is that all of us sit down, and they are in negotiations, and have been for the last few months, to see if they can’t work out some kind of an agreement, some kind of a compromise that will benefit all parties. But I don’t think anything is going to pass unless it’s some form of compromise among all the parties.
HH: Chairman Smith, we look forward to talking to you a lot in the coming year. Good luck, and a happy new year to you.
LS: Thank you, Hugh, same to you and your listeners.
End of interview.