I recently sat down for a one on one interview with Jim Huffman, perhaps the unlikeliest US Senate candidate in recent memory. Jim is a 65 year old law professor and former Dean of Lewis & Clark Law School. He’s financially secure, and his career is set. He is, in a word, comfortable. He’s no right wing radical, and he’s no politician. But he’s frustrated with the current course of government and fed up enough to get up off the couch and do something about it. In many ways, he is the ideal Tea Party candidate – filled with the passion and fire to work hard to restore our Republic to its Constitutional foundations, while also possessing formidable experience in practicing and teaching Constitutional Law.
I found Jim to be personable, easy to get to know, and very nimble on the issues. His command of the foundations of our governmental system is unshakeable. But far from the typical political neophyte, Jim comes off as nuanced in his approach and able to convince a wide range of people to try things his way. I was also impressed with his willingness to point out the weaknesses of his opponent, Ron Wyden. Jim was confident, surgical, devastating. I came away from our interview convinced that Jim Huffman is exactly what is needed in the United States Senate – not merely an accessible and responsible representative of Oregon, but also a Constitutional scholar who can guide his colleagues back onto the right path of fiscal restraint, deliberative legislation (i.e. not just reading bills, but having honest debate on them before votes) and a return to a truly limited Federal government that once again diffuses the power among the people instead of consolidating it in Washington DC.
Q: Why should we fire Ron Wyden and replace him with you?
A: Ron Wyden and I have fundamentally different philosophies on the role of government in creating jobs and the level of intrusion into private lives that is appropriate. I believe there is a clear choice between Ron Wyden and myself. I present a choice that is more friendly to individual liberty and freedom. I believe those values are critical to a thriving economy, not to mention personal happiness.
Q: Why are you running for US Senate?
A: Frustration and displeasure over what’s come out of Washington DC particularly over the past couple of years, but for much longer than that. The Republicans have their share of the blame for the spending, and they’ve lost their sense of responsibility and their principles. We need fundamental change in Washington. I can contribute to that effort as both a law professor and as essentially the CEO of the law school (Huffman served 13 years as the Dean of Lewis & Clark Law School). From the financial aspect, to marketing, to academics, it was much more akin to a private sector position than is generally acknowledged. But more importantly, I have a deep understanding of policy issues, so I have a lot to contribute to how we solve the current problems. Specifically, I have researched and written extensively about legal aspects of natural resource issues, public lands, timber, water rights, and mining. Also, the role of property ownership and its importance to a thriving economy. I have also researched a lot about how the tort system relates to the economy, as well as teaching Constitutional Law. Today more than ever, there is a real need to rethink the proper role of the Federal Government, and the impact the expanded Federal power has on not only state rights, but also individual freedom.
Q: Please expand on your statement about the importance of private property to a thriving economy.
A: Any market economy is based on two essential concepts – property and contract. If [two parties] enter into a contract without the confidence that it’s going to be enforced, that’s going to affect whether those two parties are willing to do business. Property and contract are essential to any market economy. Certainly property rights have been gradually eroded. Government has, over time, made property ownership less secure. And contract too – as governmental regulation expands, that limits our ability to enter into contractual agreements. I’m not arguing against all regulations, but I believe that we’ve way overregulated and ignored the Constitutional protections of contract and property rights.
Q: What needs to be changed in tort law?
A: The obvious example is health care reform. Tort law is handled mostly at the state level, but Congress can give the states incentives to engage in meaningful tort reform. The problem with the existing tort system is that it substantially drives up costs in healthcare by forcing practitioners to engage in defensive medicine. Many parts of our economy suffer from similar effects. Costs are driven up because companies, generally, have to assume they’re going to get sued.
Q: Devil’s advocate – those on the other side say we need more regulation to safeguard public safety. How would you resolve those two views?
A: The tort system does have an important role to play. But what’s happened is that the balance has shifted from provable damages to punitive damages, which are not quantifiable. Everyone can think of examples where liability is clear and damages should be paid, but what’s happened is that we’ve shifted from the objective of finding fault to compensate the injured party. That causes the system to focus not on who’s at fault, but who has more resources. That leads to the defendant being liable whenever someone is injured, regardless if they’re at fault. That’s not to say injured people shouldn’t be compensated, but we need to shift the focus back to fault. Much of the case law needs to be reversed, and liability needs to be capped.
Q: What advice would you give the Senate leadership about the job they’re doing?
A: I think there need to be fundamental rules changes about how the Senate operates. In particular, we need to get rid of the so-called “Hold”. Senator Wyden reminds us that he’s been trying to get this done for 13 years, which only speaks to his ineffectiveness. Good idea, but why hasn’t he gotten it done? The idea is that I as a Senator can hold up any piece of legislation without revealing my name, which is absurd. Good idea to repeal that rule, but why hasn’t Wyden gotten it done?
I also think the seniority system distorts the importance of particular senators. You can anticipate that Wyden will use that message, that he’s got seniority, and that’s good for Oregon, and it’s one reason he should be reelected. But from the point of view of those represented by those senators, they ought to have equal representation regardless of how many terms their senator has served. The seniority system is a corrupting influence which leads to someone like Robert Byrd being able to bring vast amounts of money back home, ensuring his reelection. I think everyone should take the lead of Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who has said he’s not going to accept anymore earmarks, being independent and going his own way. If I’m in agreement with party leadership, great, if I’m not, well, I’m not just going to go along because they might throw me a bone down the way. It’s a system that’s gotten too focused on reelecting incumbents and building up seniority, and I would focus on changing that.
Q: Imagine the Republicans retake the Senate. What’s the first bill you would sponsor?
A: The first thing I would do would not be in the form of a bill. I would ask all my colleagues to ask themselves, before they do anything, if they have authority to pass that particular bill. What we have now is a whatever it takes type of philosophy – we have a problem, we have the ability to solve it, let’s do it, without regard to whether or not we have the Constitutional authority to do it. I would favor a bill requiring a Constitutionality Statement – that would restore confidence in the American people in the way the Federal Government operates. There’s very little confidence state-wide in the way Congress operates, because they believe Congress is out of control.
Q: If there’s a problem, and Congress can fix it, shouldn’t that be more important than checking with the Constitution first?
A: No. I understand that philosophy, but I believe that the most important aspect of the American Constitution is protection of individual freedom. The way you safeguard that freedom is by strict adherence to the Constitutional structure and strictures that are there. They are there to define the way Government functions – to make Government cumbersome in a way. One of the greatest accomplishments of the American Constitution is that it makes it difficult for Government to act. There are certainly big problems in this country, but the Federal Government isn’t the only way to solve them. Many of them can be solved at the state and local level, and many of them can be left to the private sector.
Q: Where would you contribute in the US Senate? What is your niche?
A: There are three policies that would define me. One, I have a good understanding of the Constitution. We could use more of that in the United States Senate. Secondly, an understanding of economics. Much of my academic career has been spent examining the relationship between law, policy and economics. We enact laws that make absolutely no sense economically. We need to understand the impacts on economic incentives and unintendend consequences. Thirdly, I have a very good understanding of natural resource issues. Water, land, timber, etc. The economy of much of the state of Oregon has been devastated by not making good use of natural resources.
Q: What was your take on the lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice against the State of Arizona regarding their new immigration law?
A: It’s unfortunate, and ill-advised both legally and politically. Politically, because the vast majority of people in every state in the Union support what Arizona’s done. What Arizona has done is out of frustration with the Federal Government to enforce its own existing immigration laws. As a Constitutional scholar, I would say that what Arizona has done is to try to be helpful and supportive to the enforcement of Federal law. I don’t see any Constitutional problem with that. What makes it particularly galling to me is that we have the Federal Government doing nothing about Sanctuary Laws and Sanctuary Cities, which run in direct violation of Federal law.
Q: You’ve read the Arizona law. Is there anything in it that would lead to racial profiling?
A: No, The law makes every effort to avoid racial profiling. If an individual police officer engages in such behavior, we should fire and/or prosecute that person, but I don’t think the law itself is set up to discriminate against anyone.
Q: Is Obamacare Constitutional? If not, do you favor repeal or defunding as the more effective remedy?
A: There’s a good argument that it’s not. I would hesitate to make a pronouncement, because as we know, judges will rule however they wish. But I do believe that the individual mandate exceeds any reach of power authorized to the Federal Government. This law mandates participation in commerce. It’s telling you that you have to buy it. As to the remedy, assuming the courts don’t find it unconstitutional, repeal is the most desirable, but the least likely to succeed in the short term. Defunding is more practical in the short term. But we do have an opportunity in that the majority of the bill does not get implemented until 2014, so most voters don’t have a vested interest in it yet, other than the revenue collection by the Federal Government to fund the program.
Q: Your opponent recently changed his stance on the constitutionality of the individual mandate.
A: Yeah, I think it’s political opportunism at its worst. It was in his own alternative Senate bill, which he touted as a better idea than the bill that was passed. In fact, it (the individual mandate) was a central piece of his own legislation. Then of course he voted for the individual mandate in the Obamacare bill, and now he’s trying to exempt Oregon from the individual mandate. I think he’s trying to exempt the state of Oregon from the individual mandate because the vast majority of Oregonians don’t like it. So it takes a fair amount of gall on his part to switch like that. Everyone should be exempt from the individual mandate, not just the state of Oregon.
Q: You signed the No Climate Change Tax Pledge from Americans For Prosperity, as well as the Health Care Repeal It Pledge. We’ve discussed health care at length. Why did you sign the No Climate Change Tax Pledge?
A: Whatever you think of the theory of Global Warming, the proposed carbon tax will have severe economic consequences. It is aimed at a goal that cannot be achieved – to reduce carbon emissions to a level that will start to cause a reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide. This cannot be achieved because India, China and the other developing economies of the world are not going to participate. Americans will pay vastly higher prices for energy for a goal which won’t be achieved. A better goal is to accurately track climate changes and be ready to act when we’re ready to act.
Q: What can you do as a Senator in DC to create jobs back home?
A: There are two levels of solutions. One is very practical and short-term: work hard to open up the natural resources on public lands in Oregon. 53% of the lands in Oregon are controlled by the Federal Government. 80% of the resources on that land are inaccessible for a variety of reasons. The longer term fix is tax and regulation reform, to make them less accessible to the special interests to manipulate. We should absolutely extend the tax cuts from 2001 and 2003. The prospect of increased taxes on Jan 1, 2011 is part of what’s holding down the economy right now.
Q: I’ve heard pro and con arguments even from Conservatives on a balanced budget amendment. What’s your view?
A: I would favor a balanced budget amendment – perhaps with an escape clause, although we know that can be risky. I’m open to some discussion on limitations on that amendment, but in general it seems to me that it’s worked on the state level and it’s obvious that the Federal Government is incapable of constraining itself. A Constitutional constraint seems to be a good way to ensure that the Federal Government stays within its bounds. I think the deficit and the federal debt is unconscionable. It’s unfair to our kids who are going to be paying it.
Video of the complete interview can be found at http://www.youtube.com/user/TheChargerJeff