January 11, 2018

Getting things done in Washington: Freshman Democrat Josh Gottheimer talks taxes, infrastructure, Israel, and moocher states

This season, the Flying Wallendas were back at the Big Apple Circus.

The Wallendas’ high-wire act is even more frightening, even more pulse-intensifying, even more heart-stopping than other, always-terrifying wire dancers. They specialize in building pyramids high in the air, athletes holding athletes holding bigger rows of athletes, all on a thin taut wire, moving slowly, with grace and dignity and great care.

It is perhaps understandable that the image of this balancing act comes inevitably to mind in conversation with Josh Gottheimer, the freshman Democratic U.S. Congressman representing New Jersey’s 5th District.

Mr. Gottheimer went to Washington as a centrist, a problem-solver, someone who believes in reaching across the aisle to come up with the kinds of solutions and compromises that good government demands.

He also went to Washington at a time of unparalleled tribal animosity, when such gestures seem rare, at least to outside observers, and also at a time when his tribe — the Democrats — have control of nothing, not his body, the House, not the Senate, and not the White House.

So how does Mr. Gottheimer find Washington? How is his balance? Is he wobbling? Or moving with all deliberate speed?

He laughs at the question. “This is certainly a challenging time, but it is even more important now than ever that we find places where we can come together and work together,” he said. “And they are there.

“That’s why I ran,” he added. “People are very frustrated by the bitterness and extremism on both sides. That’s why I believe you have to keep soldiering on, to find those areas of common ground.

“Both sides are exercised. The feelings are very deep on both sides. And I’m not interested in the blame game. “There are people on the Tea Party right who are unwilling to give any ground, and there are plenty of people on our side who believe that obstructionism is the right thing to do.

“But that is not my formula. I want to get things done for people here, in this district, and that means you have to be willing to sit down with both sides. And that includes the administration.

“The bottom line is that you have many people on many fronts who are concerned with the policies coming out of this administration,” Mr. Gottheimer continued.

There are many policies under discussion that affect not only his district but the entire region, he said. Chief among them are infrastructure and the just-passed tax bill, with its ban on allowing taxpayers in blue states, chiefly New Jersey, New York and California, to continue to deduct state and local taxes in excess of $10,000. Infrastructure affects transportation; this region’s bridges, tunnels, and roadways are old, crumbling, and not helped by the coating of salt that Superstorm Sandy brought; the storm’s largesse often still is doing its corrosive work.

Mr. Gottheimer is joining other Democratic politicians in trying to craft “a tax-cut plan that will allow towns to use the charitable deductions for tax relief,” he said. Last week, he held a press conference with Governor-elect Phil Murphy, Congressman Bill Pascrell (D-9th Dist.), and local mayors.

According to his plan, and to a press release from the meeting, “States and local governments can establish or support funds that pay for local services, including schools, law enforcement, and infrastructure. Taxpayers can make voluntary contributions to these funds, for which they will receive an offsetting tax credit. The contributions will be deductible for federal tax purposes under existing law, even for those who pay the alternative minimum tax. This structure effectively restores the benefit of the lost state and local tax deduction to the extent of the contributions for most taxpayers who itemize.

“Governor-elect Murphy will take all necessary steps to ensure municipalities have the tools they need to implement this strategy at the local level.”

Local mayors will take it from there; the mayors of Fair Lawn, Paramus, and Park Ridge all came to the press conference and voiced their support.

“It was one of those ideas I had in the shower,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “I thought I had struck gold. And then I learned that 22 other states do a version of it, through the state’s charitable deduction. The IRS already has ruled on it, and said that it’s kosher.

“Not only does the governor-elect support it, so does the state Senate president, and the chairman of the state appropriation committee.

“This is just for property taxes, but I see no reason why the state cannot do it too for state taxes. After all, 22 other states do it. Most of the them are red states.”

And many of those red states, he continued are “moocher states, who continue to pilfer our dollars for their gain.”
Mr. Gottheimer was in a meeting with the president, Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, and with Steve Mnuchin, the secretary of the treasury, to discuss taxes. “A lot of the people I deal with in the administration are very smart and competent,” he said. “I don’t agree with a lot of their decisions, but we had engaging discussions.

“There was a clear disagreement on taxes, and I made my argument to the president, and he said ‘I understand,’ but they decided to stick us with the bill.

“It was intentional, a trillion dollars in double taxation for us, and a gift for certain other states.

“Not for our state.

“I obviously have real problems with the tax hikes, and I think it is counter to our values, and to what we do and should believe in, but I guess my opinion is that you have got to go in there and make the case. I know that some of my colleagues prefer not to do that, but I think that if I can get an audience, I will go and make my case. I will continue to do so.”

There is also the question of infrastructure. At the end of December, President Trump made comments that seemed as if he no longer supported the Gateway Project, which would build a new tunnel under the Hudson as well as undertake major repairs to much of the infrastructure that connects New York City’s various islands to the mainland, most particularly New Jersey. Gateway replaced the ARC Tunnel project, which would have worked in different ways to similar goals and would have been nearing completion by now. Governor Chris Christie killed the project in 2010.

“You look outside and you see why we can’t wait,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “One third of our bridges are considered unsafe. We have the eighth worst roads in the country. And we’ve got a mass transit system that clearly is overburdened and in need of repair and upgrades. New Jersey Transit has the worst on-time record in the entire country. And this speaks to the larger economic problem we are facing.”

Improving our infrastructure “is critical to safety, and if it shuts down the whole Northeastern corridor will shut down.” And if it goes, so eventually will the economy of the entire country. “The stakes are high,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “We can’t wait.”

Taken together, the problems of infrastructure and taxes mean that “we have a storm brewing here,” he said. “The infrastructure problem adds to commuting times. From Wyckoff, where I live, which is probably about 16 miles from the city, it takes an hour and 45 minutes to drive, and the train doesn’t save you much time.” And, of course, there is no train service whatsoever in the county’s eastern corridor. “There are buses, but the Port Authority isn’t exactly Shangri-La,” he said.

As a result, “when people call me and ask about moving to New Jersey, I made a strong case for it, but people are worried about infrastructure and mass transit and taxes.”

Mr. Gottheimer has not given up on the idea of the Gateway Project because he doesn’t think that the Trump administration has — or at least he hopes it has not. “I hope it’s a negotiating tactic,” he said. “The president seemed to be receptive.”

Mr. Gottheimer ran on the platform that New Jersey is paying far too much in taxes, and receiving far too little. He is extremely unhappy with the new tax bill.

“There is a way to make a tax cute that is paid for in a reasonable way,” he said. In fact, he and Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7th Dist.) presented a plan. “It does not stick it to our state and bloom the deficit. And so now, we are banging our heads against the wall.

“I have no problem with cutting corporate tax rates for businesses of all sizes. That is a positive step. But the way they did it, and the cavalier fashion in which they targeted states like ours, will bloom the deficit. And they are not taking into consideration what it will do to the property values, and what it will do to business and jobs — which then of course will have economic consequences for them.

“We on the East Coast are the economic nerve center of the country. If they think there will be no economic consequences, they’re just not thinking.

“We give far more than we get, and Mississippi gets $4.84 for every dollar it pays in taxes, and now they — the moocher states — want to take even more from us. It’s an offensive joke.

“People are panicking. If you’re on a fixed income and all of a sudden your tax bill goes up, and your value goes down — what are you supposed to do? My next door neighbors’ kids have graduated, and they are going to move. They love it here, but they say ‘What are we going to do? We can’t afford it.’”

He fumes quietly. “I was in a bipartisan working group, and I was talking to a guy from a moocher state,” he said. “I like this guy personally. He is smiling on the day of the vote on the tax bill, and I ask him why, and he says ‘Today is the day we get to stick it to the Northeast.’”

Israel is another big issue for Mr. Gottheimer, who is Jewish.

“Israel has become an increasingly partisan issue,” he said. “I tend to be on the hawkish side. If I get grief over that, then I get grief over that.

“Until recently, it was not a partisan issue at all,” he continued. “It is our key ally in the region, and it provided not only itself but also us with security in the fight against terror, in opposition to Iran.”

Mr. Gottheimer still is opposed to the Iran deal, which he thought was unwise before it was adopted, and about which he has not changed his mind. Iran has continued with “flagrant testing of long-range missiles and support for Assad, and they have bolstered their development of conventional missiles, and poured billions of dollars into terrorists groups, including Hezbollah, and Hezbollah has been unabashed in its march into Syria. As Isis has moved out, Hezbollah has moved in.

“There were snap-back provisions in the deal, but there need to be stronger sanctions on their terrorist activity,” he said. He was an early co-sponsor of a bill to increase sanctions on Iran as it continued to support and fund terrorist groups. “It is clear that money is moving, and that Hezbollah and Iran are sophisticated in their financing,” he said.

When it comes to President Trump, Mr. Gottheimer is nuanced. “I agree with him on Jerusalem,” he said. “I think that where he has reached out for a deep, strong relationship with Israel, that is a step in the right direction.”

On the other hand, Trump “has unleashed anti-Semitism in general, from the extreme Tea Party right and the extremists, which is rearing its head in many of our communities.

“That is one reason why I have been aggressive against BDS, and is also why I have been speaking so strongly about why we must not abandon our core values as a country. When we let people spew hatred, we are letting our fundamental values slip away.

“We have to be aggressive and stamp it out everywhere,” Mr. Gottheimer said.

Despite his centrism, Mr. Gottheimer is a Democrat, and as a freshman in a district that had been represented by a Republican for many years — Mr. Gottheimer defeated the incumbent, Scott Garrett, to win his seat — and that went for Trump in 2016, he is seen as vulnerable. So his high-wire act continues.

But he seems comfortable and confident as he stands there, high on the wire, and looks out at all sides.