Interview: Seven questions with Congressman Joe Pitts

Congressman Joe Pitts
 Official House Portrait
Since 1997, Congressman Joe Pitts, who resides in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, has represented Pennsylvania's Sixteenth Congressional District in the House of Representatives. editor-in-chief Benjamin Pontz had the opportunity to ask him seven questions relevant to high school students and the Lampeter-Strasburg community. Here is what he said:

Q: A few months ago, you were quoted as saying, “There are too many tests. We have testing galore. Teachers are teaching to the test.” You voted against No Child Left Behind in 2001, the support of a Republican president notwithstanding. Recently, President Obama announced his support of limiting educational time spent on testing to 2%. Do you support the President’s proposal? What role should the federal government have in legislating education?

A: I used to teach math and science at a public school, and so I have a different perspective from many other legislators. I know what works. I’ve seen lives changed by a good education; I’ve seen young people set on fire with a desire for knowledge.

Bureaucrats don’t have that same perspective as our teachers. Our teachers know better. I opposed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) despite pressure from my own political party because it ultimately was an improper and wasteful expansion of the federal bureaucracy. Testing is not the problem so much as federally mandated testing. The evidence of this is the massive fraud that has occurred in places like Atlanta, Georgia, where teachers have been caught lying about test scores in order to comply with big government mandates written by politicians. Teachers know their students a lot better than bureaucrats do.

Currently, Congress is negotiating reforms of NCLB. Speaker Ryan appointed conferees for negotiating with the Senate on November 17. Upon the conclusion of these negotiations, I will either support or oppose the reforms they propose.

Q: Higher education affordability is another issue on the minds of many high school students. In 2008, you introduced the Help Kids Save for College Act, which would have expanded tax-free opportunities to save for college. It died in committee. Is it your belief that the burden of paying for college should rest squarely on the shoulders of students and their families, or is there a role the government should play? 

A: The solution to high costs—whether in education or health care or anything else—is not to simply move the costs onto someone else, but to actually deal with the costs and reduce them. We can bring down costs the same way we bring down the cost of anything else: by increasing supply and by making use of the competitive nature of the free market. Using the government to force people who do not or will not go to college (or their parents) to pay for other people to go to college does not strike me as fair. Neither does simply funding whatever colleges ask. It is a historical fact that the more the government has guaranteed in funding to colleges and universities, the more expensive attending them has become.

Q: Over the years, you have been a staunch advocate for religious freedom, even mentioning it in your email to constituents announcing your retirement as an issue you would continue to pursue. Many young people are leery of religion overtaking the government. You have supported prayer in schools, including “God” in such national creeds as the Pledge of Allegiance, and school vouchers, which could allocate taxpayer monies to religious-based private schools. How do you reconcile those positions with your belief in a separation of church and state?

A: The Constitution protects the human right to exercise one’s religion, and part of that includes prayer.

The addition of Abraham Lincoln’s phrase “under God” (from the Gettysburg Address) to the Pledge of Allegiance is a testament to the bedrock role played by people of faith, like Abraham Lincoln, throughout the history of our country. It honors not only our greatest President but every one of the countless Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others, who, strengthened by their faith, have strengthened our country.

Without vouchers, many students are trapped in schools that are failing them. Vouchers allow their parents, especially those most in financial need, to choose a better school if they would like, and makes schools compete against one another for students. This is not about forcing children to attend religious schools; on the contrary, it is about choice.

The phrase “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. The right to free exercise of religion is, and so is a prohibition on Congress “establishing” a state religion. Allowing prayer in school does not constitute establishing a state religion; neither does the mention of a deity (one shared by Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Bahai, Zoroastrians, and others) does not establish a state religion either. Still less does allowing school choice establish a state religion.

Q: You recently announced you would not seek another term in office. Not having to “face the voters” again, are there any issues you plan to pursue more stridently during your final year in office? What are your legislative priorities for the remaining 14 months of service?

A: My legislative priorities are the same as they have been for years now: modernizing our health care system as Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Health Subcommittee, protecting religious and ethnic minorities as Co-Chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, and standing up for the American family as Co-Chairman of the Values Action Team.

Image for the news resultQ: State Senator Lloyd Smucker, a resident and father in the Lampeter-Strasburg School District, recently announced he would seek your seat in the House next year. Do you endorse his candidacy? On the Democratic side, Christina Hartman has declared her candidacy. Looking at the shape of the 16th District, it is hard to argue that the District is not gerrymandered. Although drawing congressional districts is a state’s prerogative, personally do you feel your district is balanced to allow candidates of all views to have a fair chance to win? Is gerrymandering of concern to you?

A: Congressional districts ought to be fair. Because they are drawn by state legislators, this question is better directed toward them.

Note: A spokesman for Pitts declined to answer the first part of this question, citing federal law that prohibits the use of government resources to promote political candidates.

Q: What lessons have you learned serving in the House since 1997 that you would share with high school students ready to embark on their future? What plans do you have in retirement?

A: My advice to high school students is to study hard, develop your skills, and to be informed about the issues. Millennials are already the plurality of the American workforce and the plurality of American voters. You are not only the future of our country: you are the present.

I have always thought that public service is important, and would advise all young people to dedicate themselves to serving others and making their community a better place.

I plan to focus my future work on human rights and religious freedom, both domestic and international, as well as on matters of culture and the American family. Serving my neighbors in the Sixteenth District has been an honor and I am grateful for the trust they have placed in me. Nevertheless, my years of public service have been demanding, and I look forward to spending more time with my family.

Q: You have been in Congress longer than any high school student has been alive. Some will have the opportunity to vote for your successor. What traits should they look for when heading to the polls?

A: A good legislator, above all, ought to have the right principles. Without these, nothing makes sense—not even compromise. Legislators ought to bear in mind the first duties and proper scope of the government—namely to protect people, uphold their rights, and create conditions for peaceful order and prosperity.

Voting is a right, and political participation is a moral duty. People in a republic get the government they deserve—the government they ask for. Keep informed so that you may make wise choices at the ballot box.

--Benjamin Pontz, Editor-In-Chief

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