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Interview: One-on-One with Congressman Jody Hice

(Kevin D. Liles/The New York Times)

“There’s not a single one of us who has not made mistakes in our lives, and we have a number of people who were in jails and prisons that made mistakes that they regret.”

Congressman Jody Hice has represented Georgia’s 10th Congressional District since 2014. The Congressman joined us around this time last year to discuss priorities important to him. He joins Merion West editor Erich Prince for a conversation about some of the same priorities he outlined in 2018, including cutting back on federal waste and finding points of agreements with those on the other side of the aisle. This year, the discussion also included the issue of illegal immigration, the FIRST Step Act, and his membership in the House Freedom Caucus.

Congressman, good afternoon. Happy to have you back. Last year, we spent some time discussing the Presidential Allowance Modernization Act, which I understand has been a priority for you and Congressman Elijah Cummings. For one, it’s a notable recent instance of bipartisanship, and it also speaks more broadly to the issue of cutting down, in many people’s minds, federal waste. Could you speak about other areas, in addition to allowances to former presidents, where we might reduce waste in the federal government?

That particular bill was marked up out of committee yesterday, so I’m really excited. Chairman Cummings was very supportive of it, and I’m excited to see where that bill will go. Hopefully, the Presidential Allowance Modernization Act will cross the finish line this year. We’ve had a lot of help from Senator Joni Ernst, and we’re glad for that.

It’s amazing how much waste there is in the federal government. You start looking around and seeing areas to try to deal with. One in particular that comes to my mind deals with official time. Every federal agency has unions, and federal employees are allowed to use their official time to work for the union. We have come to find that that is an enormous waste of taxpayer dollars. We literally have hundreds and hundreds of federal employees who do zero work for the agency for which they were hired, and 100% of their time is used for union work. That means the agency has to hire someone else to do their work. That’s one area we’ve been working heavily on—to at least get a foot in the door to correct problems with official time. We’ve been working on that for years, and we’ll continue to do that.

In advance of our conversation, I took a look at your new podcast with the House Freedom Caucus. I listened to an interview you did with Congressman Mark Meadows, and you were addressing some misconceptions that you believe are floating around about the Freedom Caucus, as well as discussing other topics important to the caucus’ members. How has the venue of a podcast helped to inform the public about the goings-on in the House Freedom Caucus?

I appreciate you bringing that up. I’ve been elected chairman of communications for the Freedom Caucus. That, among other things, includes using a podcast, and we’re also looking at other avenues. We’ve got to re-educate the American people. We’re in the fight of our life for this country: socialism versus a constitutional republic, massive government spending versus fiscal responsibility, and on, and on, and on.

We started this podcast last month. We’ve had four of them now. This is our effort to reach out to the American people, and I would encourage folks to check it out on iTunes and Soundcloud and subscribe to it, or find it through our Twitter account. Episodes come out every Thursday, and they’re designed to educate the American people as to what’s really happening here in Washington and give an inside baseball look with some of the movers and shakers.

And you believe there are some misconceptions around the Freedom Caucus?

Some people think the Freedom Caucus is made up of a group of people who are going to vote “no” on everything. Nothing could be further from the truth. The issue surrounding the health care bill last year would not have happened had it not been for the Freedom Caucus. We’re the ones that stepped in and started the negotiating process from the White House to our own conference and pulling leadership in. That was the Freedom Caucus doing it. We’ve done several things like that along the way.

There is no group on Capitol Hill that has more honest, intellectual, passionate debate than the Freedom Caucus. One of the highlights of my week has been being a part of Freedom Caucus meetings, where issues are placed on the table like no other place that I’ve seen on Capitol Hill. There’s great debate and discussion on these things, and out of that, we try to formulate where the American people are. And, of course, our mission is to be a voice for millions of Americans who believe they’ve lost their voice in Washington. We stand on those principles that we ran on, we stand on those principles that the American people elected us on, and it’s an absolutely phenomenal group of men and women to work with.

I heard you and Congressman Meadows discussing this perception of the Freedom Caucus not necessarily working with Democrats, but Mr. Meadows was describing on the podcast working with a Democratic member of Congress from New England on a shared priority. Obviously, you’ve worked with Chairman Cummings on the Presidential Allowance Modernization Act. So, are there a lot of crossover efforts where you and this caucus are finding common ground with folks on the other side of the aisle?

It’s really remarkable to see. Just yesterday, I had two Democrats come to me indicating that they would like to work with me more closely on things of importance to them. Of course, we agreed to work together, and some of those conversations will get underway.

It really is an interesting thing that, I believe, goes back to the point that—at the end of the day—the Democrats realize that in order to get the President’s signature for much of what is important to them, they’re going to have to have the Freedom Caucus involved. It’s one of these things you sit back and scratch your head on, saying, “How is this ever going to work out?” But I can tell you that, so far, although the bills that I’m particularly involved with with Democrats are not major bills that will massively change a national policy or anything, the fact that conversations are underway and we’re having discussions with Democrats on the other side of the aisle, is an extremely positive thing. Personally, I embrace the idea, and hopefully we’ll be able to find common ground on more important things going forward.

Mark [Meadows] is exactly right. It is an amazing thing to watch right now, how doors are opening up to have discussions on issues that previously probably would not have happened.

I want to bring up the topic of immigration, particularly illegal immigration, which has been a major topic of national discussion recently. In the past, you’ve been fairly active on this issue, putting forth proposals such as the Tracking Reoffending Alien Criminals Act. So much of the debate, at least in my mind, seems to happen at a macro-level. Are there any impacts from illegal immigration that you’ve seen in your own district or heard from your constituents?

I don’t think there’s a district in America that—in one degree or another—has not been impacted by the immigration issues faced by our country; you’re dealing with agriculture (people needing to hire individuals on temporary work visas) or you’re dealing with families who have unfortunately faced tragedy because of an illegal in the district. I don’t think there’s a single district in this country that is not impacted in one degree or another.

The bill you mentioned that we’re working on—I find that people are shocked to discover that if an illegal comes to this country and commits a sex crime, after they serve time and when they are released, they are not placed on the National Sex Offender Registry. People are shocked to find that a person who is illegally in this country is not placed on that registry when citizens are placed on that registry for committing the same crimes.

Just today, we had a meeting on that bill. We’re hoping to reintroduce that to this Congress, and we hope that it makes some changes that we believe will make it better and more palatable for the Democrats to embrace as well.

Every district in this country is impacted by the loopholes—or just the overall need to reform our immigration laws—and that certainly applies to the 10th District as much as any other district.

Is there a backstory to how you became aware of these loopholes or differences in policy? 

That came about specifically through an oversight hearing that we had last Congress. I, personally, was shocked in the hearing, and as I was asking questions and learning more and more about this. We ended up having a couple of hearings on this type of issue throughout last Congress. I was shocked, as were my constituents when I shared with them this problem. I said, “Listen, this has to be fixed. It just has to.” So, we started working on it last Congress. We were not able to get it through the finish line, but we’re working on it again, as I said even today. I’m hopeful that we’re going to get some traction.

This is one of those things that should not be a partisan issue. It is something that ought to be embraced by both parties, so we’re trying to make sure the language is going to be acceptable for everyone up here.

Do you anticipate some of your Democratic colleagues coming on board with this?

Well, yes. And, obviously, it won’t pass without them. That goes to your previous question about reaching across the aisle and finding common ground. I mentioned that I’ve had Democrats come to me on issues of importance to them, and this is one of those cases that we’ll definitely be doing the same. And I anticipate that we will have a welcome reception.

The FIRST Step Act has been major news recently. Congressman Doug Collins has, of course, been instrumental in this effort, as well as other Georgians such as former Governor Nathan Deal. I saw you released a statement where you call the act, “a win for both redemption and public safety.” What are some aspects of the act that you think are particularly helpful in changing how the country looks at criminal justice?

The first thing that I would say about the FIRST Step Act is that I think this largely goes back to the legacy that will be left behind by former Georgia governor Nathan Deal. This is going to be one of the things that he will be most remembered for: his reforming of the criminal justice system in Georgia. That really became the foundation upon which the FIRST Step Act came forth. As you mentioned, Representative Collins is the one up here in Washington that has pushed this bill, and it came out of that in Georgia. I’m proud, as a Georgian, to see how our state has influenced this.

This bill does not let criminals off the hook. Those who have committed serious offenses will still have stiff penalties, and all of that remains sternly enshrined in law. But there’s a host of non-violent, low-level offenders to whom the First Step Act throws a lifeline, if you will. We’re talking sons and daughters, mothers and fathers. We’re talking about people that we know are able to contribute to society. They just need another opportunity to do so. Those are the individuals that the First Step Act is designed to help, and I believe it will.

There are a number of frames of reference by which someone can view this new law. There is this idea of giving second chances, which is almost a religious idea. Then there is the fiscal issue of saving taxpayer money. When you think of getting conservatives—both voters and political figures—on board with this new law, do you think a lot it’s a religious motivation, a fiscal one, some combination of the two? 

Every individual is going to have different motivations for this, but at the end of the day it makes sense. There’s not a single one of us who has not made mistakes in our lives, and we have a number of people who were in jails and prisons that made mistakes that they regret. They’re not the kind of mistakes that necessarily make them violent or a continued threat to our society, but they are individuals who have been given a second chance. They can turn it around. That’s the ultimate goal, isn’t it? To have productive citizens. That’s what the First Step Act is trying to accomplish.

Thank you very much for your time, Congressman. I enjoyed our chat.

Thank you very much. I did, too.

Erich J. Prince is the editor at Merion West. Erich has contributed to a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Hill. His opinion writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress.

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