Welcome to my third interview posting on the 52nd Congressional District.
On Monday, May 12, I sat down at the Santee Trolley Center Starbucks with Mr. Bob Watkins, Republican candidate for the 52nd District and currently President of the San Diego County Board of Education. Mr. Watkins was born in Great Britain and moved to the U.S. at the age of 10. His family eventually settled in the San Diego area and he grew up there and in La Mesa. He credits the community for giving him a strong foundation, and for teaching him that “if one took personal responsibility for their lives, you can achieve great things.” Mr. Watkins has looked for ways to be involved in giving back to the community, and was one of the five people who founded and built the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. He was appointed to the Board of Education, and then won election for a full term in 2004. He decided to run for Congress in part because of what he sees as a “lack of decisiveness” in government in terms of making hard decisions. He pointed out that this indecisiveness stretches out the time it takes to get things done, which then makes the process cost more. He wanted to do something “bolder” than his position on the Board of Education, and so decided to run for Congress.
Mr. Watkins’ background has been primarily in business, including manufacturing and business management. He has started five companies, including his own company, R.J. Watkins and Co., and has experience in international business. He believes that this background will help him in Congress if he is elected.
Since he is on the County Board of Education, we started with that topic. Mr. Watkins would like to see the federal government almost out of education except from a major policy point of view. In his view, Congress should declare education to be the “second highest priority” and then provide funding at a modest level to help states deliver the highest quality education possible. On the subject of oversight, such as “No Child Left Behind,” Mr. Watkins pointed out that NCLB was actually based on legislation from the Clinton era and the earlier Freedom of Education Act. It is a policy of the U.S. that education is important, but the changes in policy and focus on accountability over the years have brought about a belief by the public that teachers are “teaching to the test” rather than for comprehension. Mr. Watkins feels that this is a misunderstanding of the intent of the law, and that it is really about accountability at all levels of education, including students, and the ability to produce a highly-educated workforce that can compete in globally. In short, NCLB is a framework for states and local communities to take a national policy and “drive it through into the classroom” to provide quality education – the federal government provides standards and funding, but it is the job of states to decide how to get the job done.
On the related topics of Social Security and Medicare, Mr. Watkins says that “when you make a promise, then you need to deliver.” The government made a promise to working people that by putting money aside, there would be a retirement program – a supplemental program – for them. He sees the possibility that the government could be forced to print more money in order to cover its obligation, something he does not support, but “if the government promised it to you, then they should deliver it to you.” Mr. Watkins would like to eventually see some alternatives to Social Security where people could opt in or out, so they could have personal accounts of their own and government could give tax credits. This would be a strict retirement account that people could not borrow from, such as with a 401(k) program. His big concern is that currently there are 20 people contributing to Social Security for every one receiving benefits, but in 20 years or less there could be only 3 contributing for each one receiving. There will have to be some decisions made in Congress on how to deal with this.
Medicare is a similar situation, in that the government has made promises to people that they would have some sort of healthcare. Mr. Watkins would like to see some type of “market-based” healthcare system, which would be based on value to the consumer and the consumer taking more responsibility for their own insurance coverage. There would be tax credits for purchasing coverage, which would be portable between employers, and for health care savings. Interestingly, Mr. Watkins has found that while 5% of the unpaid medical costs are for illegal immigrants, the majority are people in the 18 to 34 age range “who think they are immortal, and so they don’t buy insurance.” He has personally seen instances where having insurance has made the difference between recovery and disaster. He is also strongly against a single-payer program, which he feels “smacks of socialism.” Having lived in the United Kingdom, which did have a single-payer program for years, Mr. Watkins sees the possibility of such a system becoming an “entitlement” program that takes the incentive away from people to help themselves.
Speaking on immigration, Mr. Watkins said that even though, or perhaps because, he is an immigrant, he is possibly tougher on the subject than many native-born Americans. He feels that “the sovereignty of the United States is at risk with illegal immigration,” and that we need to immediately strengthen our border security. Once this is done, we could then look at other factors that affect immigration, including imposing employer sanctions to remove the draw of jobs. Mr. Watkins feels we need to look at immigration from a larger perspective: why we need an immigration policy, what that policy should look like, how many people should we allow in, and for what reasons. Currently we allow in about 1 million people “through the front door,” and about 60% of those are for “family reunification” reasons. Mr. Watkins would like to see a return to more “needs-based” immigration, meaning allowing people to immigrate based on skills needed here first, and”compassionate” reasons second. The country was built on immigration, and reasonable immigration is still important, but immigration primarily to help the country to grow. His concern about the 1986 amnesty bill was that it gave amnesty to 4-6 million people who then were eligible to bring family members into the country. Mr. Watkins would like to work on a committee specifically for the purpose of considering immigration. He also believes that illegal immigrants should not be eligible for taxpayer-covered benefits, such as health care and free education, nor should children of illegal immigrants born in the United States be automatically made citizens.
On the Mortgage situation, Mr. Watkins believes the problem is based on “greed” and on the opportunity that people had to get into mortgages, whether or not they were good for them. He would first start by looking at the “lack of transparency” in Wall Street’s dealings, and on the actions of banks and other funding organizations, then at the actions of buyers who may not have looked carefully at what they were getting into. He does agree with Washington’s decisions to step and shore up financial organizations without collapsing the financial system. Mr. Watkins feels that the market will adjust itself in time, and that the government should not step in and subsidize mortgages. On a side note, he also feels that the government should have not given out the tax rebates, but rather should have used the money to help pay down the national debt.
Speaking on the environment, Mr. Watkins believes we need to balance environmental programs with economic programs. He feels the environmental movement and environmental programs have pushed things so far that there is little room for compromise when dealing with economic programs. This causes increased costs that are then passed along to consumers. Mr. Watkins feels the environmental movement has done what has been needed, but that we now need more balance with the economic concerns. On the subject of energy needs, he pointed out that we are an “oil dependent” nation, and will remain so for the future, but that we still need to be looking at alternative energy sources. He applauds the direction the governor has taken in this area, but would like the nation to start moving more in this direction as well. He would not like to see places like Yosemite ruined by poor environmental decisions, but that we can put the right standards in place to protect the environment and still acquire the resources we need, while at the same time putting more emphasis on developing alternative fuels. He pointed out that many organizations, such as the airport authority, are using alternative fuels, and that more needs to be done. Speaking on the costs of oil, he pointed out that part of the cost is based on the actual cost of drilling and pumping, but part of it is based on speculation in the oil market. Mr. Watkins would like to see the government step in and make the speculation side more transparent, to prevent another situation like Enron’s manipulation of the market. Other influences on cost are global demand, which has been increasing, and subsidization by governments such as Venezuela and China – an open and equal market system would help to balance these forces. Mr. Watkins also feels that an equal market would help to increase the value of other types of fuel sources, making them more cost-effective to use.
On the topic of the recent fires, Mr. Watkins repeats that there needs to be a sensible balance between the needs of the environment and the needs of the public – for example, clearing brush on government land versus protection of the environment. The inability of the government to clear brush resulted in an abundance of fuel when fires broke out.
In closing, Mr. Watkins spoke about his passion for serving this country and his desire to help the government to make more decisions. He pointed out that part of the problem with oil production is that there have been no decisions made on building oil refineries since the 1970s. Part of the problem is the economic issue, but part also is the government’s subsidising of the oil industry. Mr. Watkins would like to see the end of subsidies for the oil industry and farming, replaced with tax credits for things like oil exploration and the growing of certain crops. Let the market manage costs – market demand will manage the economy better than government intervention. Government, in Mr. Watkins mind, should do three things: provide for national defense and a strong military, provide for the administration of law and order and public safety, and finally it should provide infrastructure for the country in terms of policies that bring federal monies back to the states for the people. All else the government should stay out of.
After our interview, Mr. Watkins asked that I make certain to mention that he is a strong supporter of a free and open economy and that an open market will go far to providing this.