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Debriefing session with Chris Gibson

by Stephen Kaye
Tue Dec 20th, 2016

Susan Lerner, executive director of NY Common Clause, interviews Chris Gibson as he retires from the US Congress

Chris Gibson answered questions posed by Susan Lerner Monday night at  the Student Union at SUNY New Paltz, ranging over issues that have been at the center of Lerner’s organization, Common Cause, for years and especially since Citizens United.  

Gibson has just wound up a six year term in the US Congress as representative of the 19th CD.  He is one of the very few elected officials to have self-imposed a term limit and lived up to his original commitment.  In his remarks, he mentioned that he follows the example of George Washington who announced he would serve no more than two four-year terms. He mentioned term limits as one of the recommendations for systemic change to make congress more representative and less dependent on money and lobbies which he acknowledged plays too large a role in the US Congress.  He said he did it; he hopes he is an example that others will follow. 

He thought a constitutional amendment would be necessary to limit funding and fund-raising for elected officials.  His suggested amendment would give congress the power to regulate elections, a broad mandate that takes such power away from the courts and the states.  He said he thought both houses could live with a 12 year term limit, a length of service that would remove entrenched incumbencies yet provide enough time for elected officials to become expert in particular areas of government. 

The third area is reforming how legislative districts are formed.  He said voters are supposed to choose their representatives.  Now, through gerimanding, representatives choose their voters.  We need an independent system free of political influence to design districts.

Gibson stressed accountability and transparency as key factors in reducing the influence of money in politics.  He mentioned that he and his wife own no shares in corporations.   As a retired Army Colonel he was entitled to a pension. He turned his pension check back to the US Treasury while he was on the federal payroll as a congressman since he didn’t think he should receive two checks while in government service.  Although he received help from the Republican Party in his election campaigns, he told them he would not be their slave – he voted as an independent whenever he thought there were issues that ran counter to what he believed in or when the interests of his district was an issue. He voted against the renewal of the Patriot Act because of it sacrificed liberty to government’s desire to have access to private communications.  

When asked what were the accomplishments he was most proud of he mentioned 

1- restoring faith in self-government; 2- constituent-driven legislation and 3- accountability and transparency.  

The legislation he cited as being constituent-driven was legislation recently signed into law that made the Center for Disease Control more responsive to diseases like Lyme where the norms are not well settled and where a rigid system made it difficult for doctors to use out-of-the norm treatments and for patients to enter clinical trials.  Gibson listened to doctors and patients dealing with Lyme and worked his way through the system to find out where it failed and developed legislation to make it more responsive.  The changes have now become law. Medical insurance will now cover a wider range of treatments for diseases like Lyme and patients can more easily get into trials.  (This paper chronicled a portion of this story in “In the Crucible of Chronic Lyme Disease” 2/8/16)  He described how the peer review system for publishing scientific papers discriminated against science that challenged prevailing norms by giving “peers” anonymity.  This too has been changed at the CDC.

He also was proud of the repeal of No Child Left Behind and making it possible for states to opt out of Common Core without sacrificing federal dollars.  NY has not opted out of Common Core, but Gibson hopes it will.

In answer to a question from the audience, he said he prefers local based curriculum decisions to state or federal mandates.  He said the market will do a better job than a centralized bureaucracy in shaping education decisions. 

He was also proud of legislation he sponsored that made its way into the farm bill.  Funding and education for young farmers will now be available.  Gibson cited business education for young or beginning farmers that is now available through the extension service.   Much of that bill came directly from a young farmer in Columbia County. 

When asked about the environment under the new administration, Gibson expressed confidence that the House would be responsible.  He got 16 Republicans to sign on to a resolution (H.Res 424) that he introduced in 2015 that said 

Resolved, That the House of Representatives commits to working constructively, using our tradition of American ingenuity, innovation, and exceptionalism, to create and support economically viable, and broadly supported private and public solutions to study and address the causes and  effects of measured changes to our global and regional climates, including mitigation efforts and efforts to balance human activities that have been found to have an impact.

He said that the House Republicans do not want restrictions on fossil fuels but they would  support technology to capture CO2 from coal and other fuels so jobs would be protected and created.

Gibson’s term in Congress is now over.  His next posting is to Williams College where he will teach a course on leadership and another on the military and government.