As Congressman Matthew Cartwright states below, great leaders are those among us who drive themselves to achieve what most see as impossible. Be it creating solutions to student debt or transforming the health care system, enacting change in America takes the diligence and courage of a determined few. Congressman Cartwright is one such man. Against the backdrops of both our community and capitol hill, Cartwright stands proudly for what he believes in, pushing to change both worlds for the better. Read on.
DN- Tell us a bit about the road that led you to where you are today?
MC- I’ve always been interested in history. I ended up being a history major in college. Because of that, I’ve spent a lot of time just learning about the leaders of the world, from a couple generations ago to a couple of centuries ago, the struggles they had, the decisions they made, their motivations. It’s all fascinating.
The daily headlines we read tend to focus on uninspiring, unintelligent, and unworthy people in positions of leadership. That has an effect. It makes us skeptical and negative when we think about politics. History books don’t do that. They concentrate on interesting, uplifting, daring, amazing people.
The old saying is, “truth is the daughter of time.” In other words, given enough time, the truth always comes out. So reading history, you learn about leaders in a light that sheds most of the political spin, and strives for the truth. And the one constant thread of truth is that the greatest leaders were people of immense integrity and courage, who drove themselves, and inspired those around them, to achieve goals that for almost all of their contemporaries were so lofty as to be unimaginable.
I think the end result is that if you read a lot of history, you tend to admire the people who make the sacrifice to serve in public office. I do, and that’s a major reason I ran for Congress. I hope to make a good account of myself.
DN- Unfortunately a lot of people aren’t really aware of the different functions of our government, explain to us your role as a congressman.
MC- The main legislative functions of a U.S. House member include introducing bills and resolutions, offering amendments, serving on legislative committees, and voting in the House. In Washington, the days start early with briefings, caucus and committee meetings, and hearings. I also meet with constituents and professional groups, review constituent correspondence, answer questions from the press, and review reports on policy issues. Behind the scenes, I do what I can to find agreement in a Congress that can be polarized, which affects its productivity. I believe we must find a way to work across the aisle on issues where we either can agree or must compromise. I’m proud to both be a strong supporter of workers’ rights, seniors, veterans, education, and the environment and to have a slate of bills I’ve introduced that often include Republican and Democratic cosponsors. I’d rather work (harder) to make progress on policy than spend the bulk of the time in Washington attacking or blaming.
Locally, I have a great team of federal benefits/programs caseworkers and economic development specialists in my district offices. They help me assist constituents as they navigate federal agencies with issues ranging from veterans’ benefits, federal taxes, visa or immigration applications, passport renewals, and various Social Security and Medicare issues. One of my offices is located in downtown Easton. My economic development staff and I promote awareness of federal funding opportunities, connect applicants to resources, and provide my official support when needed. Looking over your magazine, I imagine many creative people are among your readership. I want them to know that there are funding opportunities available to individuals and organizations through the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities. If your readers need help dealing with a federal agency or applying for federal funds, I hope they will give one of my offices a call. Contact information is on my website: cartwright.house.gov.
DN- What do you feel are the key issues facing your constituency right now?
MC- I held a mayors’ conference in April this year to talk to municipal leaders about their most challenging issues and the federal funding programs available to help. Cities and boroughs seem to share the challenges, among others, of removing blight, invigorating urban centers, and remediating brownfields. Thankfully, there are federal funds available to support these efforts. I will be a fierce advocate to not only increase funding to these programs, but also to secure funds for the Lehigh Valley and northeastern Pennsylvania. Small cities and boroughs have great potential as regional economic drivers. The City of Easton and its improvements really serve as a model of how to renew neighborhoods and bring people back to an urban center.
There are some critical issues in play right now on Capitol Hill that affect the 17th congressional district and the country as a whole. For the rest of this congressional term, offense and defense are called for, so to speak. Congress really needs to find agreements (and hopefully not just a short-term fixes) to fund our surface transportation system, rewrite and simplify our tax code, address the deficit, and continue our economic recovery. At the same time, like-minded colleagues and I will have to spend a good deal of our time defending the administration’s admirable work safeguarding the environment and protecting the important gains made in the last two years in expanding health care coverage to Americans who could not afford it.
DN- How do you feel about the role of “big money” in politics?
MC- The First Amendment right to free speech is one of the most sacred tenets of our democracy. Our system relies on the principle of every citizen having an equal voice, and I think that the
Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allows for the drowning out the voices of ordinary people. This happens when political organizations wielding tens of millions of dollars from undisclosed donors with unknown agendas buy up and flood the airwaves and “e-waves.” So I support looking for a legislative solution to reverse course on the Citizens United rule. Also, to hold corporations accountable, I introduced the OPEN Act, which would require corporations and unions to disclose political expenditure details to shareholders or union members. I am committed to achieving and maintaining a system where political campaigns and elections are transparent, fair, and free from anonymous influence.
DN- How can the government assist the struggling middle class?
MC- The federal government can and is assisting the middle class in several ways:
Right now, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is helping make health insurance more accessible and more affordable. The ACA now covers one in four uninsured Americans – more than ten million. Gallup estimated that, in Pennsylvania, the uninsured rate in 2014 was 10.3%, down from 11.0% in 2013. The ACA prohibits coverage denials and reduced benefits, eliminates out-of-pocket costs for preventive services like immunizations and certain cancer screenings, and it phases out the “donut hole” coverage gap for 297,058 Medicare prescription drug beneficiaries in Pennsylvania, who have saved an average of $948 per beneficiary. Additionally, over 348,000 Pennsylvanians have used tax credits to purchase coverage through the health insurance marketplace. All in all, a pretty good health care program, and one based largely on private health insurance.
College affordability is a critical issue to middle class students and their parents. Congress needs to take an in-depth look at the issue of student debt. On average, this year’s college graduates will owe $35,051, more than students at any point in history. As a result of these debts, millions of Americans cannot buy cars, purchase homes, start businesses, or otherwise realize the American Dream. That’s why proposals like the president’s, which would conditionally make two years’ worth of college education free, are ideas that would move us in the right direction on helping the middle class. Additionally, Pell Grants, Stafford loans, and other forms of financial aid for students should be robustly funded, and we need to expand options for quality trade and technical schools. I support capping federal student loan interest rates at 3.4% and allowing all existing borrowers whose educational loan debt exceeds their income to convert their private loan debt into federal Direct Loans, which have more manageable pay-back options.
We can also greatly help ourselves by investing in an energy future with renewable forms of energy. Solar and wind have already seen massive decreases in price, and the federal government should continue its support of these clean, renewable, domestic sources of energy. We must also invest in energy efficiency, the lowest hanging fruit which helps businesses and schools and our environment all at once. To this end, I’ve introduced three energy efficiency bills, one focused on manufacturing, one focused on the nonprofit sector, and one that did pass the House last Congress that would help schools reduce their energy usage. Lowering energy costs would help everyone’s budget.
DN- Do you support marijuana legalization? Do you feel the war on drugs is effective? Is incarceration the correct way to manage the issue?
MC- Medical marijuana has a role in the prescribed treatment of certain ailments, such as cancer, seizure disorders, and ALS, and should be legal. While continued research is needed to fully understand marijuana’s potential uses, benefits, and drawbacks, patients with serious illness and chronic pain should not be denied access to effective medical treatments that relieve their symptoms and suffering.
On the issue of keeping children safe from drugs, there is no single correct approach. It will require a better job of educating both parents and youth on the dangers of illicit drugs, and it will take the necessary resources to assist those encountering drug problems. An effective approach must also include alternative positive outlets for teens, like access to community-based recreation leagues.
In dealing with adults who are addicted to drugs, treatment is by far the most successful avenue for helping those struggling with such a difficult problem to get over. And providing multiple treatment methods, including medications and behavioral therapy, is the most effective strategy. I would also expand substance-abuse prevention programs and counseling. This is where I think we can be most effective.
DN- How can we encourage the use of mass transit? What can we do about our crumbling infrastructure?
MC- Today, America’s use of public transportation is actually higher than it has been at any point in the last half century. If we want to sustain this positive trend, and increase use in communities with mass transit growth potential, we must continue to provide people access to convenient and efficient transportation options. Public funding is needed to do this. Investing in commuter rail projects, bus systems, and other modes of public transit will be critical in meeting everyone’s goal of keeping our highways from becoming critically overloaded. And investment is also key to growing local economies and protecting the environment. I have been pushing to find a long-term funding source for all of our transportation programs, including transit.
Estimates currently put the cost of fixing our nation’s infrastructure at $3.6 trillion over the next five years, and that is just to achieve a state of good repair. We simply cannot continue to ignore this issue and must fully commit our financial and technological resources to improving a system that is the backbone of our economy and way of life. This will include developing new and innovative funding sources, such as a national infrastructure bank, and establishing a long-term plan to capitalize the Highway Trust Fund. Without greater and consistent investment, the deterioration of our nation’s infrastructure will continue, decreasing our standard of living, hampering our global competitiveness, and costing America jobs.
DN- What has been most challenging in your role as congressman? What have you been most proud of in your role as congressman?
MC- A great challenge I’ve faced is working to close loopholes and update our environmental laws to keep pace with the evolving oil and gas sector and new methods of drilling and resource extraction. We need to take advantage of the natural resources we have in Pennsylvania, but we need to do so in a careful and responsible manner. Unfortunately, many in Congress still support oil and gas exemptions in the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and several other seminal environmental laws, but I intend to fight to see these loopholes closed.
Improving infrastructure and encouraging smart growth are both big challenges and big opportunities. In 2013, I supported a $1.5 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration’s public works program to the Redevelopment Authority of Easton for water, sewer and parking improvements to the Simon Silk Mill complex, thus laying the foundation for further development. Awards for these projects are highly competitive and often reserved for large-scale initiatives. I want more funds for smaller-scale projects, and this itself is a challenge. I am confident, however, that Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle ultimately believe that the federal government should help communities and businesses flourish, and thus am hopeful for more economic development funds in the future.
Comprehensive economic development will require investment in projects of all sizes as well as improvements to our failing roads and bridges, mass transit, and workforce training. We can expect increasing freight traffic via truck, air, and rail in the near future. As a prime commercial location, it is vital that the Lehigh Valley have sufficient capacity. I want a long-term solution to infrastructure improvements, as well as programs that incentivize protecting our natural resources, harnessing renewable energy, and integrating multimodal options. A big challenge, but I’m certainly proud to join local leaders and activists to take it on.
I was particularly proud last year to twice increase the pay of our federal wage grade employees. They need it, and they certainly deserve it. The president had the power to increase the pay for other federal employees in order to partially adjust for inflation, but, by law, he needed an act of Congress to provide the same increase to thousands of federal employees across the country, including hundreds at Tobyhanna Army Depot who are paid by the hour. Legislative language I introduced and pushed for was enacted, and it was the right thing for Congress to do.