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Bill Flores interview: Congressman dives into immigration, health care debates

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Bill Flores

U.S. Rep. Bill Flores was elected in 2010 as part of a mighty backlash against the Democratic establishment. Now that the tables have turned to the GOP’s favor, he finds himself trying to thread a needle in a polarized time.

Flores, R-Bryan, has been receiving an earful from progressive constituents angry about the election of Donald Trump, whom Flores has mostly supported. In emails, social media posts, calls and visits, they have voiced fears that the Republican Congress and administration will turn Obamacare recipients out in the cold, trash environmental protections and rip apart families and communities with mass deportations.

Flores has made no secret of his plans to roll back key parts of Obama’s legacy in favor of conservative policies. He has often tweeted with the hashtag #maga, a reference to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.

Still, he said he hopes to find some common ground with some constituents and legislators to the left of him, staking out positions that distinguish him from politicians to his right.

In a Feb. 24 interview with the Tribune-Herald, Flores depicted himself as a responsible policymaker wanting to develop a health care plan that would preserve the coverage gains under the Affordable Care Act. A longtime champion of the oil and gas industry who wants to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations, he acknowledged climate change and pledged support for research into renewable sources of energy. And, departing from some GOP immigration hardliners, Flores said he wants to create a path to legalization for unauthorized immigrants and opposes a continuous wall along the Southwest border.

“My views on immigration, I think, are pretty forward-leaning compared to where they think I am,” he said in the interview, after a long day of meeting with concerned constituents in Bryan-College Station, Austin and Waco.

“Some people think I’m a Neanderthal because I support the Trump administration. But there is room where I’m not on the same page as the Trump administration. And there are some areas where they think the Trump administration is, but they’re really not. There’s a lot of propaganda and rhetoric coming out.”

Flores, an oil exploration executive and accountant, unseated longtime U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, in 2010. He is starting his fourth two-year term representing District 17. In that time, Flores has gained a profile in the House as immediate past chairman of the influential Republican Study Committee and a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Flores’ positions on many issues are close to those of House Speaker Paul Ryan, including on the plan to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act. The plan would preserve certain elements of Obamacare, including allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance and requiring insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions, while eliminating the requirement to have insurance.

Flores said in the interview that those covered by Obamacare will have a gradual transition over a couple of years, and he said he is confident that the uninsured rate will not increase to pre-Obamacare levels.

Nonprofit leader ‘pleased’

Dr. Roland Goertz, president of Waco’s nonprofit Family Health Center, said he was “extremely pleased” to hear Flores’ commitment to preserving gains in the rate of the insured. For his clinic’s mostly low-income patients, the uninsured rate has dropped from 32 percent to less than 27 percent since the Affordable Care Act started, he said.

But he said the Republican plan remains “nebulous.”

“I’m really unsure how they’re going to shift the costs and pay for everything,” he said. “I don’t have any doubt there’s a good intention, but the devil’s in the details. My belief is that they don’t have it ironed out yet.”

Meanwhile, Flores’ position on immigration is within the mainstream of Republican legislators, focusing first on border security, followed by a path to legal status for unauthorized immigrants and citizenship for those who came here as children. Flores said current unauthorized immigrants should have to pay a fine and should not be immediately eligible for citizenship. That goes too far for some immigration hardliners in the GOP.

“One challenge we’ve had is anytime someone brought up an immigration solution like the one I laid out, you’d have some far-right person yell out ‘amnesty,’ even though there’s no amnesty in what I said. The people who committed a crime would have to pay for the crime,” Flores said.

Sarah Pierce, an associate policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, said the last major push for comprehensive immigration reform was in 2013.

“As time goes on, problems with the immigration system have become more severe,” Pierce said. “I think there’s a recognition on both sides of the aisle that something needs to happen.”

She said the chance of another push may depend on Trump, whose stance on dealing with existing unauthorized immigrants appeared to shift toward legalization.

Flores said Trump’s leadership is needed on the issue.

“He’s modulated his rhetoric, especially when it comes to Hispanic immigrants, so I think we’re in a better position to wrap our arms around this,” Flores said. “It would be helpful if he would say, ‘I want Congress to sit down and come up with a solution. I don’t want to deport anyone but the criminals and drug dealers and people trying to abuse our domestic programs.’ ”

The following is a condensed and lightly edited version of the Feb. 24 interview.

Q What do you make of Donald Trump’s performance so far?

A About 90 percent of what he’s done has been really good. It’s the other 10 percent that has really hurt his administration’s credibility. I will say this: I do think it’s getting better. The good thing that the administration has done is to set up an office of congressional relations. . . . I’ve been able to go down to the White House and say, here are the kudos I have for you, here are areas where we’ve gotta change direction. One of the things talked about was the refugee executive order. It was the right thing to do, but the rollout was terrible. I mean it was the Keystone Cops. I asked him point-blank, have you learned anything? He said, “Oh yeah, we learned a lot.”

Q Why (ban travel from) those seven countries? Why not other countries that have actually supplied terrorists to the U.S.?

A Here’s the situation. We have more refugees coming from those countries than anywhere else, because they’re coming from disrupted states. Second, our vetting program has some material deficiencies. They’re repairable for the most part. Third, there is no central government in those states. Let’s say you have person come in from Syria. They might not have identification. We have no way to reach back into the Assad administration to identify them, to see if they have a criminal record. We don’t have that issue with Saudi Arabia, where the bulk of the 9/11 terrorists came from. . . . There are 40-plus majority Muslim countries in the world. We don’t have risks with the rest of them.

Q I wanted to ask you about immigration, since you said a lot of people get you wrong on that. To begin with, we heard a lot of talk in the campaign about a wall. Does the Southwest border need a wall from Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean?

A No. We need border integrity. Border integrity is a physical barrier where a physical barrier makes sense, where it’s feasible to have one. The bulk of the Texas border doesn’t represent an area where a wall is feasible.

QBig Bend?

A Yeah, Big Bend (is infeasible). I mean, go south down the Rio Grande Valley. The only place to build a wall is the middle of the river. It doesn’t make sense. The best place to do it, because of the way it snakes around, is to come inland and build it straight across, and then you cut off parts of Texas family farms and ranches. . . . You cut off livestock and wild game. And that makes no sense. Plus you have to use eminent domain, which in Texas is an F-word.

If you look at 1,800 miles of the border, there’s about 700 miles where it makes sense to have a physical barrier. You use airborne assets like aerostats. You use cameras, ground sensors, troops on the ground. This is doable. You don’t have to have a big, big wall.

QWe’ve talked before about (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which allows people who came over here as children through no decision of their own from another country without papers to have some protection.

AThe bulk of what are commonly labeled Dreamers don’t represent a risk to this country. I believe they should not be at risk for deportation. I don’t like the way President Obama promulgated DACA, because it’s a congressional responsibility. Nonetheless, we’re living under DACA today for that group of immigrants. I’m fine with that.

Q Should DACA be repealed so we can get a legislative alternative?

A No, what would be better would be for Congress to pass a path to citizenship for Dreamers. . . . Then you don’t need DACA. . . .

Look, if you take someone who was brought here when they were 2 years old and say, ‘Now we’re going to ship you to Venezuela,’ they’d be lost. They’re Americans. We’ve educated them. Why not make Americans out of them? Legal Americans.

Q What about other immigrants?

A We really don’t have good metrics. We have this large underground employee base of 11 million people. The bulk of them are working. When I talk to the construction industry here, they can’t get enough workers from here locally. So for me, there ought to be a construction visa.

You want an ag visa, bang, you’ve got your visa. All we need to do is make sure we’re not hurting local wages, not displacing someone from a job who wants a job, and they get quick access.

Once you fix the legal immigration system, there’s no reason for a business to hire illegally. So if they do, the fines and penalties should be significant, employer sanctions.

Q (Regarding Flores’ support for a path to legalization for some of the 11 million undocumented.) So should they never get citizenship?

A I’m not going to say that. But let’s just get them here, register them here where they can buy a home, where they can work, get a driver’s license and pay taxes and send their kids to school without fear of deportation.

QI wanted to ask you about the Affordable Care Act. Seventeen million more people have insurance than before. Can you do what you want to do with repeal and replace without causing that uninsured rate to go back up?

A Correct. We can. If you look at where the exchange markets are today, the uninsured rate is about to go up anyway.

In 70 percent of counties in Texas, we’re down to one insurer. They are losing hundreds of millions of dollars annually on their Texas exchange book of business. If they pull out, you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people suddenly uninsured. If they decide at the beginning of 2018 to pull out of the market, then Texas is hosed.

Q If those uninsured rates tick back up to where they were before the ACA, under the new Republican plan, will you say that plan has failed?

A Yes, I would say we haven’t designed a well-thought-out plan. But I’m confident that we have a good repeal-and-replace strategy.

Q The things they want to keep from existing ACA, including allowing young people to stay on their plans until 26 . . .

A . . . Correct, we’re keeping that.

Q. . . Requiring insurers to keep people with pre-existing conditions. For some people that’s reassuring, but I have to wonder, is that possible without the subsidies and mandates of the ACA?

A We’re going to have to have subsidies for low-income Americans to buy health care coverage.

We’ve got this disaster with the ACA, 25 percent annual increases in premiums last year. Huge increases in out-of-pocket and so forth. Where we want to be is either on Jan 1, 2019, or Jan. 1, 2020, we’d like to have the new 21st-century health care world up and running. So there will be a transition period. When we say repeal-and-replace we’re not saying your insurance blows up on that day.

Q If you allow people to come in with a pre-existing condition, say, after they get cancer, and before that not paying into the system, there’s a moral hazard there where people are taking advantage and everyone else’s premiums go up. If you don’t have the individual mandate, how do you keep that from happening?

A We’ll have to come up with, and I don’t have a good answer for you at this point, we will have what I call provisions to prevent the moral hazard, to prevent someone from getting car insurance after the wreck. You’ve got to come up with that so you have personal accountability and personal responsibility. But it’s not a mandate. You can’t compel somebody to buy something.

Q I want to ask you about climate change. Do you believe in your lifetime that human activity has contributed to climate change?

A Yes. What percentage, I don’t know. I believe it’s something we ought to address. But there are questions you have to solve before you start developing policies to deal with it. So as a policymaker, I want to know how much, what impact has human activity had, apart from all the other factors — sun, nature. How much can you actually bring temperatures down and at what cost? Is it better to mitigate climate change or adapt to climate change?

Q Are you opposed in principle to a carbon tax or carbon trading?

A I am opposed to a carbon tax. Let me say this first: It took us 150 years to get to the position we’re in. To me, we need a multidecade approach to get to a low-carbon economy. I think the way you get there is to create a knowledge base so the private sector can adapt and get us there. Then look at what are the impediments that current federal policy that keep us from getting there. What that involves is a bigger emphasis on basic research on low-carbon energy.

Q So you want more research on alternative energy?

A On energy. Look, if you could burn coal more cleanly, that’s probably a good place to spend some money, if you could change the carbon profile or find a way to sequester it. I’m not saying that’s in the mix, but you could. The problem we have today with alternative energy sources is that they’re all intermittent. To get to this low-carbon economy, you’ve got to produce baseload power. . . . You need to have research on storage. And don’t forget about what we’ve already got. The ultimate green fuel we have today for baseload is nuclear. There’s all kinds of new technology for nuclear, and we ought to look at it.

Q Do you think we’ll be using less fossil fuel in 20 to 30 years?

A I think we’ll get there. I think we’re on track. People say, ‘Oh, you’re a climate denier.’ No, I’m not either. I’m the largest residential producer of solar power in Brazos County. I did it because I could afford it, because I’m a geek. It will never pay for itself, and why would I want to impose those costs on the economy? Yesterday, I produced 80 percent of my power. On a year-round basis, it’s about 40 percent.

We have to rely on the innovation of mankind. One the areas where the government is good is in basic research. So you put your whiz kids at Baylor to work, your principal investigators at A&M and Texas to work, and we’ll solve those issues.

I’m an oil and gas guy, but to me nuclear is the way to go. Some things people are coming up with on nuclear technology are incredible.

J.B. Smith is the the Tribune-Herald managing editor. A native of Sulphur Springs, he attended Southwestern University and joined the Tribune-Herald in 1997. He and his wife, Bethany, live in Waco and have two children.

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