In a one-on-one interview with Merion West, Georgia Congressman Jody Hice explains how his background as a Christian pastor informs his worldview, his bill to address the taxpayer burden of former presidents’ pensions, and a possible solution to easing division in a polarized America.
On March 22, Congressman Jody Hice (R-Ga.) joined Merion West’s Michael DeSantis to discuss his background as a pastor and his advocacy related to the Johnson Amendment, promoting business in his home state of Georgia, and the state of political divisions in the United States today.
Good morning, Congressman Hice. It’s a pleasure to have you with us today. I read your op-ed in The Hill about protecting free speech rights through the tax bill and your efforts to address the Johnson Amendment [the provision in the tax code introduced in 1954 that forbids nonprofit organizations from expressing opinions on political candidates]. As a pastor, how do you see the current state of affairs in the country when it comes to religious freedom?
Religious freedom obviously is a cornerstone in America. What we’re seeing today is that it’s being pushed into the backseat. Actually, religious freedom is literally under assault these days. Religious liberty and the faith that people hold dearly should not be a matter of just toleration.
This is something that is an inherent and inalienable right that’s granted to us by our Constitution. It’s something that’s granted by God and not by our government. To see these attacks against religious liberties these days extremely alarming. You mentioned specifically with the Johnson Amendment. As you know, I was a pastor for almost 30 years, and my first and utmost calling is to serve and honor the Lord. Thus, religious liberty is very important to me.
With the Johnson Amendment, I’ve been there. I was one of the 33 original pastors, who challenged the IRS and its attempt to take away tax-exemption status, if pastors or nonprofits discussed about certain political issues. This has a chilling effect. I have been there personally and have experienced this.
We are going to continue pushing against the Johnson Amendment. Unfortunately, it was taken out of the tax bill at the last minute by the Senate parliamentarian. We are going to continue pushing this. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and I are looking at next possibilities, where we go from here. We’re not laying down or rolling over. We are going to continue keeping this on the forefront. It is a major religious liberties issue.
I wanted to ask you what prompted you to sponsor the Presidential Allowance Modernization Act of 2017 and how you see this bill relating to fiscal restraint more generally. We see headlines about the potential cost of the Barack Obama Presidential Library totaling in the hundreds of millions, for example.
Right. That is a great point. We all saw this past week our federal deficit top $21 trillion. I mean that’s just an unthinkable amount. Now we’re looking at another spending bill [this week] that will be more than $1 trillion.
The whole issue with the presidents came to my attention probably a year or so ago. Actually, it was originally a good idea. We used to have presidents who were literally struggling financially after they left office. But that is no longer the case.
For example, former President Bill Clinton is now worth nearly $130 million dollars. Most of [this income] comes from speaking engagements, but now our former presidents are not cash-strapped like many of them used to be. It’s not just President Clinton. It’s also President George W. Bush.
Many of our presidents, now, they leave office, and they have multi-multi-million dollar book deals they sign almost immediately. The Presidential Allowance Modernization Act tries to reign in what is unnecessary spending on the taxpayers.
So what this bill does is set the annual pension for a former president at $200,000. Then it gives $500,000 to their staff for salaries. It does not touch security, so [former presidents] still have security. What does it does is that if a president has earned income of over $400,000, then dollar for dollar that $200,000 pension is decreased. So the tax payers are not on the hook for it.
Basically, this is going to save the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. It’s a common sense measure. If [certain former presidents] don’t need it, there’s no point in having the taxpayers pay their salaries. If they do need it, it’s there for them. I think it’s a great common sense measure, and it has broad bipartisan support. I am looking forward to this getting across the finish line.
There has been a lot of buzz this past month about businesses such as Facebook and Amazon potentially coming to Georgia. Some have called on the government of Georgia to take measures to incentivize these potential moves. You wrote an op-ed earlier this month in The Covington News entitled “Georgia, U.S. building a business climate.” What are the best policies for creating a pro-business climate at home?
I was very much honored to actually be there with Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and many others to announce that Facebook is actually coming to the 10th District of Georgia. But those type of decisions don’t just happen by accident. There’s a lot of groundwork that takes place. Gov. Deal has been a champion in leading the way in creating a strong business climate in Georgia.
Georgia, of course, has been recognized now for five consecutive years as the number one state in America in which to do business Why is that? It’s because of taxes. The policies created a climate where businesses can actually make a profit. Now that we’ve passed this tax bill federally, that itself has just made Georgia even more attractive. In fact, it caused Georgia now to lower even further tax rates and income taxes.
All those factors go into play in creating a business–friendly atmosphere, and Georgia has been leading the way with this—from the governor to the state legislature to economic development offices throughout the state. I can speak directly for those economic development offices in the 10th District. I could not be more proud of the work that they’ve done and the economic engine they have created—not only for Georgia but across America by lowering taxes and creating a business-friendly environment.
This is just the beginning of great, great days ahead for Georgia.
On our first question, we touched on free speech and the tax code. Recently, in Georgia, the state legislature acted to penalize Delta Airlines for actions they took against the NRA following the Parkland, Florida school shooting. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Of course, that came from legislators in Georgia, not out of here on the federal level. I think the overall attitude is that many states, Georgia included, are tired of businesses trying to dictate policy. They are there to do business. When they come in demanding one thing or another, people get tired of that. So I think that the Georgia legislature took exception to some of the demands. And the legislators made a statement, and they certainly have the right to do so.
What gives you hope that our country can become less divided?
There are a couple of factors that sit with me. Number one, we have faith. We started off this conversation with attacks against religious liberty and attacks against faith. Faith is the bedrock of our entire system, our families, our friends, our communities, and our country as a whole. So I think, at the bottom line, we have some spiritual issues that we’re going to have to address. We need a spiritual awakening or revival in our country and I think that will do more to mend the division than anything else.
In addition, I would hope that we would all, as Americans putting aside partisanship, gather around those things that we do agree on, regardless of party. Things like freedom and liberty and constitutional protection and unalienable rights that are beyond the scope of government. Those type of things are the only things that will help us deal with some of the division in our country. So I would just encourage people to continue to pray.
As the Scripture says, “Pray without ceasing.” Pray for our spiritual and governmental leaders that we would be able to come to peace and find those multiple things that we all agree on and can bring us together. Those issues are extremely important. The division is not going to be able to be fixed politically. It’s a spiritual problem, and it’s a worldview issue of who we are as Americans. Those are the issues we need to focus on.
Lastly, even though the midterm elections are hardly going to fix the divisions you’re describing, I’m wondering your thoughts looking ahead to the midterms after the recent victory of Democrat Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District’s special election.
Special elections are special for a reason. Those elections come and go. At the end of the day, people are going to look at things that directly impact their lives as we enter these midterm elections. Wages are growing, growing jobs are coming back, our military is stronger.
People are feeling more confident across the board and on multiple fronts. We’re more secure in our borders. All these type of things, I believe, ultimately are going to impact the midterms more than a special election. So we certainly can’t take anything for granted, but I think we have the winning message and the winning solutions that are impacting people’s lives.
That’s the message that we need to stay on top. The Democrats, for example, have already come out stating that if they regain control, they are going to the first thing try to do away with the tax bill that was just passed. [This tax bill] is impacting people’s lives and bonuses. [The Democrats] would actually raise taxes, so I think the message of what has actually been accomplished is that we’ve got ridden of tons of regulations. This is going to have a greater impact than a special election in Pennsylvania or anywhere else for that matter.
By the time the November gets here, people will be experiencing more and more of the benefits of the Republican majority. And, hopefully, they will take those concepts, those ideas and those benefits to the voting booth with them.
It has been such pleasure talking with you. Have a wonderful day.
Thank you so much. God bless you.