KET 2019 Congressional Update: Rep. John Yarmuth

By John Gregory | 7/15/19 4:41 PM

On his flights between Louisville and Washington, D.C., Rep. John Yarmuth, the Democrat representing Kentucky’s 3rd district, has had time to develop a friendship with another regular commuter: Rep. James Comer, the Republican who represents the state’s 1st district. Yarmuth admits they have their policy differences, but he says they also enjoy talking about sports and their families.

According to Yarmuth, such relationships are not uncommon. So while the media may depict Congress as bitterly divided along partisan lines, and politicians themselves can play up those disputes to incite their bases, Yarmuth says most of the men and women serving on Capitol Hill actually get along pretty well together.

“We all get that we’re involved in political theater,” the congressman says. “That’s unfortunate, but that’s kind of what the times are about.”

Yarmuth appeared on KET’s Congressional Update to discuss his views on health care, immigration policy, the mental health of President Donald Trump, Sen. Mitch McConnell’s 2020 reelection bid, and more.

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Health Care Policy
As chairman of the Budget Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, Yarmuth says he’s working to re-imagine the panel into a group that doesn’t just look at government spending, but will examine the issues behind those numbers. So the congressman has scheduled hearings on how issues like artificial intelligence, immigration, poverty, and the Medicare-for-all idea could impact the budget.

“We’ve taken a kind of futuristic approach to the committee,” he says. “I think our members appreciate it and I think the discussions are very useful.”

Although Medicare for all is a hotly debated topic among the Democratic presidential candidates, Yarmuth says only one bill on the topic has actually been proposed in Congress. He describes that measure as providing all the health care anyone wants with no cost to the consumer, a strategy that he says is unworkable.

“It essentially transfers every bit of health care expenditure that’s now being made in the country to the federal budget without any compensating revenue,” says the congressman. “It would make it very difficult for us to fund anything else in the government.”

Instead, Yarmuth says a high priority is to shore-up the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But he admits that won’t be easy given Republicans’ long-term opposition to the law more commonly known as Obamacare.

“We always knew when we passed the Affordable Care Act that it was going to require a lot of adjustment,” says Yarmuth. “Unfortunately we never had the cooperation from Republicans to make those adjustments… They would rather see it collapse of its own weight.”

In fact the Trump Administration in partnership with Congressional Republicans have helped facilitate that collapse, according to Yarmuth. He blames them for ending of the individual mandate, eliminating funding for health insurance marketplace navigators, and dismantling mechanisms to protect insurance companies from the costs of covering large numbers of unhealthy individuals.

Even though both Democrats and Republicans say they want to protect coverage for people with preexisting conditions, Yarmuth says the GOP only pays “lip service” to the idea. He says Republicans want to guarantee the right to buy insurance, but not guarantee an affordable price.

“So you can’t be refused a policy, but [insurance companies] can charge you anything they want, which in effect is not being protected,” he says.

Yarmuth is also critical of Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin for his efforts to rollback the Medicaid expansion that Obamacare allowed states to pursue.

“We have about 450,000 Kentuckians who gained health coverage because of expanded Medicaid,” he says. “That brings $3.5 billion of federal funding a year into the economy. That keeps many rural and smaller hospitals alive.”

Bevin has said the state simply can’t afford the costs associated with that extra coverage. When the expansion began, the federal government paid all of the expense. By 2022, the state will have to pay 10 percent of those costs. Yarmuth contends that having the federal government pay 90 percent of the expense for 450,000 Kentuckians to get much needed health coverage is a good deal.

Prospects for Immigration Reform
Democrats and Republicans also remain at loggerheads over immigration policy. Yarmuth says he thinks President Trump would accept the right reform plan, if Congress can agree on the details. The congressman says any legislation that has a chance of passing has to include strong border security and a guest-worker program that allows properly verified individuals to pass into and out of the country on a seasonal or as-needed basis.

“Then, of course, the toughest question is what do you do with the 10 or 11 million undocumented immigrants who are here now,” says Yarmuth, “many of whom are working, have American-citizen children, and are contributing to the economy.”

Yarmuth was among a bipartisan “Gang of Eight” in the House of Representatives that negotiated a comprehensive immigration reform package in 2013, which he says included a 15-year path to citizenship for undocumented individuals as well as $40 billion for border security. (That proposal never got a House floor vote.) But the congressman says a wall across the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border simply doesn’t make sense. Yarmuth says border agents have told him that a wall in the desert only delays people in their crossing, but it won’t stop them.

It’s not just party-line divisions that are complicating the work of representatives. House Democrats are themselves struggling to remain united among their moderate and more liberal members. More than 60 Democrats are in their first terms in Congress, and Yarmuth says he’s excited to have them as colleagues.

“We live in a world that is changing more and more rapidly,” he says. “It’s nice to have some younger thinkers in the body who are not set in old ways and willing think outside the box.”

Concerns about President Trump
Since the early weeks of the Trump presidency, Yarmuth has questioned the mental stability of the commander in chief. The congressman says he believe the president’s mental health continues to decline.

“He has a difficult time now putting together a coherent sentence, he rambles incessantly,” Yarmuth says. “He has absolutely no shame about lying. He throws things out that he just totally makes up.”

Yarmuth sites the work of psychiatrist Dr. Bandy Lee of the Yale University School of Medicine, who edited a 2017 book about the president’s mental health. Two years later, Lee and more than two dozen mental health professionals who contributed to the book contend the president’s mental state has gotten worse, according to Yarmuth.

“The behavior he manifests is a classic indication of someone who poses a danger to people around him,” he says.

Mental instability may not create a case for impeachment, says Yarmuth, but it could be the basis for invoking the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which lays out the procedure for replacing an incapacitated president. Yarmuth acknowledges that’s not likely since the process requires the participation of the president’s cabinet. Yet the congressman still wants to bring the issue to the public’s attention.

“I think the most important thing now is for the American people to be on the look out, to watch for the signs of mental deterioration,” says Yarmuth. “If he gets to the point where he can’t function, the nation would understand the need for some action.”

Some Thoughts on Sen. Mitch McConnell
As the lone Democrat in Kentucky’s federal delegation, Yarmuth is often called upon to comment on the actions of his Republican colleagues, especially Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The two men have known each other since 1968, and because Yarmuth was a Republican until 1985, he and McConnell were once political allies.

Relations between the two politicians these days are “always civil,” according to Yarmuth, but he admits that’s not always easy.

“I’m not going to mince my words: when I disagree with him I say it,” says the Democrat. “That kind of casts a little bit of a chill on the relationship, but overall Mitch is a professional, he’s been at this a long time, and I think he understand where we both are.”

Yarmuth says McConnell could face any one of a number of formidable Democratic challengers next year when the senator is up for reelection. He says retired Marine Corps fighter pilot Amy McGrath, who was the first Democrat to declare her candidacy, comes to the race with a strong base of national support that she built during her failed bid for the House of Representatives last year.

News reports also have Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones and state House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins considering the race. Yarmuth describes Jones as a “very, very smart guy [who] can run circles around Mitch verbally.” He says Jones could also draw financial support from around the country, and might convince some Republicans in his radio audience to vote for him.

Yarmuth says Adkins ran a strong race in this year’s Democratic primary for governor. Despite Adkins’ second-place finish in that contest, Yarmuth says the eastern Kentucky Democrat should not be underestimated.