Perhaps if John Larson represented a different district, one where he competed with a centrist Republican, he might be more frugal with his opinions. Truth is, he finds himself in the safe Democratic First Congressional District, where he can speak his mind and vote his conscience.This past week, before Congress broke for summer recess, Larson voted in favor of 2006 military and intelligence budgets totaling more than $450 billion. He said “Yeah” for two nearly identical resolutions which would amend the Constitution to outlaw the physical desecration of the American flag.Showing his liberal stripes, Larson agreed to restore $100 million in funding public broadcasting. He also backed a failed effort for an independent investigation into prison conditions at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.Despite his busy week in session, Larson cleared a half hour for a discussion with ctnewsjunkie.com about flag burning, Iraq and his innovative ideas for campaign finance reform in Connecticut. Step one: Get rid of 37 legislators.
What do you think of the failed state efforts at universal campaign finance reform?I think the Democrats should embrace it. They should look realistically at how they fund it, look at four year terms in the process and stagger those terms and look at representation in terms of how many people does a House district represent. If it was 25,000 people per representative in the House and 100,000 in the Senate, we would have 30 members in the Senate, and 120 in the House, and if you staggered your terms, at any time, you have only 15 senate races and 60 in the House and it becomes very easy to finance, as opposed to the 187 races that would be going on every two years. That is a realistic thing. Have you pitched this to your Democratic peers in the state?For the people who ask the question, I’m more than happy to do it. [Speaker of the House] Jim [Amann] and [Senate President] Don [Williams] aren’t calling me up, telling me how to conduct myself on the war in Iraq, and so I don’t call up Jim and Don and tell them what to do. When people ask, I’m going to give my opinion. A valuable opinion it is.The Democrats ought to embrace and take Governor Rell at her word, and fund these things in a significant way. It becomes a meaningful way to finance reform, and Connecticut could be a national leader in this area.The ACLU sent me a postcard recently saying “Did you know that Representative John Larson votes to amend the Constitution to stifle political dissent by banning flag ‘desecration’?” What do you think of that?Well, obviously they didn’t read the Watt amendment (written by Mel Watt of North Carolina). My preference is not to amend the Constitution. I voted for the Watt amendment as the Democratic alternative to the bill what the Republicans submitted. All the bill does is simply recognize that is should be illegal to desecrate the flag.Why do you think it should be illegal to desecrate the flag? It is an amendment I supported while I was in the state legislature. My dad, who has been dead 18 years, really never asked me to do anything. He only asked me to do one thing, he asked me to remember the people in uniform, the veterans. Flag burning doesn’t occur anymore in society really, but burning the flag in the 70’s was tantamount to a hate crime. While I certainly would acknowledge the arguments about free speech, I think it is an equally compelling argument about what this does to a silent generation. You mean that the AARP, Tom Brokaw’s so-called Greatest Generation is civically silent, that they don’t vote or participate?No. They are not taking to the streets. The veterans groups would be vociferous, but for the most part people of that generation are not vocal in their concern about this. But they have strong visceral feelings. Justice Leonard Hand said it well, “Freedom and liberty is that which leaves you not too sure.” While I would certainly profess the preference for it not to be a constitutional amendment, if it is the only matter that comes before you in a vote and you have been consistently opposed to flag burning, that is one of the few ways I have to honor my commitment to my father.Let’s talk practically about this. These typically come up, and it is done on the basis of cultural and social agenda. It probably has little chance of passing the United States Senate. From a practical pragmatic purpose, this won’t pass. Yet, I stand with my father and I honor his request.How do your father’s wishes balance with my rights?I am wondering how a hate crime balances with your rights. If someone paints a Swastika on a church, or burns a cross on a lawn, how does that balance? For a million people who died in the second world war that my father fought in, flag burning is tantamount to that. Should it be a constitutional amendment? Probably not. It should be in the laws of the respective states. The vote that is not going anywhere, am I going to support it, yes.How many incidences of flag burning did we have last year?I don’t know.Last ten years?I don’t know.If it is not a problem, why focus on it? Don’t we have more pressing issues? Should the ACLU be focusing on Gitmo instead?You’re singing my song. I think the ACLU has the same important mission the American Legion has. It is America. All people should be speaking out in terms of what they believe. The ACLU has been zealous of making sure from the very purist standpoint that they are protecting the Constitution and the First Amendment. Do I agree with the ACLU on everything? No. Do I think that they serve an important role for everyone? Yes. The last thing I want is for them to stop their mission on this. Have you ever been a member of the ACLU?I don’t know whether I would have signed up or not. I joined when I saw they defended Rush Limbaugh. I despise him, but the test of a civil libertarian is whether you defend those you loathe.I applaud them for the defense of Rush Limbaugh. They stand on principal, and what they think is the right thing to do. I meet with people who are adamant about their concerns for flag burning. They have a right to know about how I come to formulate my opinions.They say “Jeez, we’re with you on so many things,” and I go through the same thing I went through with you.” I don’t think the Constitution should be amended lightly. This is a yearly process event, and every year nothing happens with regard to it. And every year it gets the American Legion and the ACLU worked up, and it all stays the same. In the Connecticut Senate we protect the robin, the whale, the praying mantis, the garnet. We have protected status for things, and it doesn’t appear to me for veterans to make that kind of request, given the feeling that they have, is every bit as much a hateful event for them. I certainly understand how people would say I don’t see it that way. Veterans like [U.S. Senators] John McCain and John Kerry would vote against the flag burning amendment. I feel honor bound by one of the very few things my father asked me.So you are not willing to criticize ACLU?No, they have an obligation. Just as the American Legion does. That’s what makes it America. But it takes away valuable time from more important fights.I do think that Congress should be focused on more important efforts. I think the ACLU and the American Legion should be focused on more important things, like veterans benefits and health care and how they are going to live out their final days in dignity. The ACLU is concerned about health care, the environment and access to jobs, but they also care deeply about free speech.Do you ever get tired of fighting battles that are 40 years old?It is not a pressing issue? I respectfully disagree. But we should be immersed in discussion about an exit strategy from Iraq and an energy policy that focuses on providing us with clean alternative like fuel cells. That rarely gets discussed on the floor of the House of Representatives. We should be talking about infrastructure problems in the country. The problems of globalization, the problems of job losses, and the problems of a nation where 44 million people have no health insurance are far more pressing than these that we get in arms about.This week you voted in favor of the new budget for the military, can you envision a day when we can stop funding the military and the unaccountable Pentagon budget?There always is going to be a need to protect and make sure the nation is secure, and to be able to use our military prowess as a deterrent. Obviously it was a successful deterrent in the cold war.But that’s over. Do we need to spend a trillion a year on the military when we lack enough cops to make our streets safe? What do you tell the soldier in the field, that you’re not going to give him the body armor he needs? I came out opposed to the war, and the fact of the matter is that we are the
re, and now you are saying to him, we are not going to send you the equipment you need.I voted against the war in Iraq, I thought it was a wrongheaded move. I think the facts have proven me right. The issue isn’t defunding the military. I think the issue is stop giving out the tax cuts to the richest one percent. It doesn’t have to be a Hobbesian choice where we defund the military. Police is just paramilitary as for what you are trying to achieve in a neighborhood in Hartford. They should be funded, too.What do you think of your colleague, Congressman Walter Jones from North Carolina and his recent opposition to the war in Iraq?He should get one of the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage awards. He has made a bold and conscientious step. He voted in favor of war. He has bases in his district. He has made a principled and honorable stand. Have you seen the articles of impeachment that former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark has drawn up?No I haven’t. It doesn’t surprise me that Ramsey Clark would do that. You have to take a step back. There is an enormous process here, everything has to go through an in accordance with the rule.What do you give the Democrats chances for taking the House back in 2006?The Democrats number one task is to get people interested enough to turn out at the polls. We lost the last presidential election because Republicans were better at turnout than the Democrats. When you consider that the percentage of people who voted in Iraqi election was greater than our turnout, we have along way to go. The Republicans, in their arrogance, in privatization of Social Security, in continued running up of debt, have cut across the broadest spectrum of unfunded liabilities they place at the feet of municipalities. Those issues should bode to our favor, but we have not connected to public.What would you do if you were Howard Dean?If you are Howard Dean, you continue to press that issue. That is an attribute that Mr. Dean can bring to the Democratic Party. He was able to connect with people in grassroots manner. That is what the Democrats have to get back to.