Interview #5 – Rep. Tom Garrett
Representative Thomas Alexander Garrett Jr. is an American politician and former prosecutor. He is the United States Representative for Virginia's 5th congressional district. A Republican, Garrett formerly represented the 22nd District in the Virginia Senate.
The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. The views shared here do not reflect nor do they suggest the views of the Virginia Review of Politics.
Transcript of Interview
[0:00] James Davis (Virginia Review of Politics): Thank you for joining us today Congressman. I really appreciate you getting to sit down and talk with me today for the Virginia Review of Politics. Just give us a quick rundown of your background and what led you to run for Congress in general, because you are currently the Congressman of the 5th district of Virginia, which encompasses the Central Virginia region.
Tom Garrett: Well I lost a bet. Uh, no I’m kidding (laughs). I grew up with a father who espoused the Socratic method of teaching and trained my sister and me to be thinkers and always ask the second questions. All the questions that face us politically are easily answered. For example, should everybody have health care? Obviously, the answer is yes. With the second question is where the answer gets tricky. How do you do that within a Constitutional framework? So I developed strong opinions, and probably a relatively decent ability to advocate on behalf of those opinions and a real value for the incredible sacrifice for men and women, most of whose names we’ll never know, who gave us the opportunities that we have in this country.
I think there are two fundamental American entitlements. The first is opportunity, which we should strive to make as close to equal as we can, and the second is the ability to define success within the Jeffersonian construct, for yourself. The role of government is to perpetuate, I’d say, the best system on the planet, and to have the opportunity to do that is a pretty high calling. So it’s really about trying to do the best I can with whatever gifts I’ve been given, to ensure that people who come after me, my children and my children's’ children, have an opportunity to do what they like in life and to be free and to make decisions for themselves without too much outside interference. So that’s it. It was something that, when we realized it was a possibility, I felt like if you have the ability to serve, and the opportunity to serve, and the potential to hand something good down to posterity, you probably ought to do it.
[2:15] James: I understand too that you have a military background, so obviously [you] did have the ambition to serve in the first place.
TG: Yeah, so on the military thing, we talked a little bit about that pre-show, and better people than me have given more than I’ll ever give for me to have the opportunity to make decisions for myself and be free, so it seemed like an easy decision to make. Obviously anyone who contracts with the military, and the reason we hold our military and veterans in such high regard, is that anybody who contracts knows that they might give up their life for something bigger than themselves. But I understand that the most indispensable person is the one who knows they aren’t indispensable. I was willing to take that risk because so many better people than me have given so much more than I ever could, and it was an honor to serve.
[3:08] James: I understand that recently you introduced two bills: HR 1227, which has to do with the end of federal prohibition of marijuana, and HR 1937, which is the Student Security Act of 2017, something you touted very much during during the campaign. Could you explain your reasoning for introducing these two bills, and what you really hope to accomplish with them?
TG: To be clear, we’ve introduced far more than two bills, I think our agenda is very ambitious for a freshman member. We have a bill honoring civil rights hero Barbara Johns, we passed a bill to reduce waste in the Department of Homeland Security in procurement, so pretty proud of that.
But the two you mentioned: The marijuana bill, I call it a federal regulatory repeal. Let me be real clear here: I don’t think it’s the purview of the federal government to determine what American citizens do with a plant that would grow naturally and abundantly if we allowed it where we live. But, I have voted against decriminalization at the state level because I really wanted to watch Colorado longer and understand the implications for Virginia. What we have now is a paradigm where there are two areas, the first is immigration and the second is marijuana policy, where the federal laws on the books that we choose not to enforce or we enforce completely non uniformly. So when I was a prosecutor, and I did that longer than I’ve done anything else as an adult, I used to say “justice that isn’t blind isn’t justice.” Consider the paradigm where if you have five pounds of marijuana and $100,000 in Virginia, you’re probably going to go to federal prison, federal being the key word there. If the same circumstances were met in Colorado, you’d be considered an entrepreneur. And that absolutely leads to unequal outcomes, which is unjust, and the federal government has refused to address that fact because of fear and lack of political will. People are more afraid of getting unelected than they are of doing what’s right. Jeff Sessions was spot on correct when he said “If you don’t like your laws, change them.” So what we’re trying to do is change the laws.
There are three primary reasons for this. First, justice that isn’t blind isn’t justice. Second, the paradigm as it relates to medicinal use of cannabinoid extracts or derivatives is ridiculous. It’s stupid with two O’s. That is, right now, thirty-something odd states have allowed some level of medicinal use, but truly, every one of them is violating federal law because the federal government won’t change its law and it also won’t enforce their law. That means that a parent of a child with intractable epileptic seizures who’s found after trying literally dozens of medications – you might gather that this is a true story – the cannabinoid extracts that don’t make her daughter high, they only cut in half the number of seizures she experiences, that parent might have to drive to Colorado and break the law of multiple states and the federal government on the way back. These aren’t people who are stereotypically marijuana advocates. These are parents who love their children. It’s not just intractable epileptic seizures, it’s digestive intolerances due to chemotherapy, it’s chronic pain management in a terminal stage of cancer, it’s glaucoma. There are so many things, and I think people should make decisions with their doctors. Right now they’re doing it in a lot of states and they’re breaking the law. I don’t like when we have laws we don’t enforce and make criminals out of people who are otherwise law abiding citizens. The third thing is, industrial hemp would be an additional crop for the farmers of Virginia, where we are literally in the equivalent of the French wine region of hemp cultivation. You can smoke hemp all day long, all you’ll get is a headache, but it does make superior quality products. It’s a billion dollar a year annual industry and our farmers can’t do it because it’s the first cousin to a plant that the federal government, in its draconian hand wave, has deemed to be somehow detrimental. Now, again, what this will do is repeal the federal regulatory scheme and defer to the fifty states, which I would hope, would uniformly enforce their laws so that we might see something more closely resembling justice, and so that people would not see law as less valuable or relevant by virtue of the fact that we keep laws on the books that we choose not to enforce.
Student security really is a no-brainer. Senator Sanders was right when he noted the student loan debt crisis. We talked about student security on the campaign trail. The unique thing about us compared to some people is that if I say I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it. That’s why we introduced that bill. What it would do is allow a young person who chose to defer receipt of social security benefits for, as it’s currently constructed, up to six years, in exchange for which they would receive student loan repayment. You’d actually be getting less student loan repayment than you would get in social security benefits, and so it saves money and it creates long term sustainability of social security, but it also allows young people with up to $40,000 in student loan debt to, only by their own choice, opt-in to a program where that debt would be forgiven in exchange for them moving up their social security receipt age. A unique feature of the bill is also that, if you are a parent who’s been economically successful, you can defer your own social security receipts in exchange for student loan repayment for your children – if you chose to. But it wouldn’t change a single iota of the social security system benefits therein as it relates to folks just like my mom or even myself who have worked and invested in the system.
So it allows more people, more choices, to decide what’s right for them. It gets young people out from underneath the onerous cloud of student loan debt that stymies their ability to stimulate the economy by doing things like buying homes, and buying cars, and moving out of their parents’ house, and most of all, starting small businesses and bringing their ideas there. The single most creative generation is always the youngest adult generation. Creativity and ideas are what generate economic growth and opportunity, and we’ve saddled the most creative generation with an incredible amount of debt. This allows then, if they choose, to get out of it. The other thing that I’ll point out is that we’ve just got the numbers back on this thing from the Social Security Administration, that – and I think their numbers are low – they anticipate $700 billion dollar savings if we were to implement this program. So it makes Social Security sustainable for a lot longer by virtue of essentially having people voluntarily raise the receipt age, and it opens the idea of opportunity to our most creative generation at the same time.
[10:00] James: That’s excellent, especially hearing those numbers from the Social Security Administration.
TG: Well their estimate was that 50% of eligible individuals would take advantage of all or part, I really think that number is low.
[10:15] James: We know that many members of Congress serve for many years, decades even, and they do have short term goals and long term goals. I don’t know how long you want to serve in Congress–
TG: Neither do I (laughs).
James: Especially as a freshman member, this is all relatively new to you because it’s a lot different than the state legislature I’m sure, with this being full time and the state being a part time legislature. Right now, as a freshman member, what impact would you like to leave?
TG: Well if we pass Student Security, we will literally rescue Social Security and we will stimulate the heck out of the economy by allowing young people to do things like buy cars and homes and get married and have children and go pursue their dreams and create new jobs and economic opportunity. If we were able to pass that bill, I could hang up the hat that day. But we’ve already had great successes as a member of the Foreign Affairs committee and freeing religious prisoners from third world prisons. I mean mean we’ve actually done than on more than one instance.
James: Could you explain that?
TG: When the Republic of Sudan and South Sudan split into two nations, the bulk of the Christian population of that former Sudan ended up in the South Sudan, but “the bulk of” means that some didn’t. So in the Nuba mountain region in the south of the Republic of the Sudan, there are Christian minorities who are vigorously prosecuted and persecuted. We found an instance where some individuals have been in prison since 2015, and [we] put forth some polite pressure on the Sudanese regime, and were able to secure their release. Right now we’re working with customs and immigration to expedite review for them to get refugee visa status to the United States. It would be a total of nine people, the leadership of whom essentially went to prison for giving food and medicine to their brothers and sisters. It’s frustrating up here in Washington, because it’s hard to accomplish things. But on the Foreign Affairs Committee, if you do things right – a lot of people have written letters to get out some of these dissidents – we wrote a letter, then we got in the car, drove to the Sudanese embassy, knocked on the door and sat down with the ambassador. They said we were the first member of Congress to be there in a decade, because they are on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. That’s how we’ve really been able to put a little bit of pressure to bear, because they want to normalize relations with the United States. President Obama suggested that they be removed the day before he left office, President Trump said let’s do a six month review and put that on hold. What I said is, I’m going to talk to the administration [as] a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and we’ll either tell them you were polite and helpful, or we’ll tell them that you weren’t. I don’t control the ultimate decision of the administration, but I’m happy to put in a good word for you if you’ll act in good will and let these prisoners free.
They’re free now, they’re all congregated in a safe area, we hear, in the Republic of the Sudan. We’re in contact with their attorney, ironically enough, on a fairly regular basis, and it’s our hope that we will be able to get them here to the United States very soon where a lot of people have already done a lot of work in the private sector to find a place for them to stay, to make sure they have toiletries, to make sure there’s plumbing and heating and air conditioning, and to look for opportunities to hold down jobs. I tell everybody, you can like a bill, you can lobby for a bill, but you can’t give a bill a hug and you can’t take it to dinner, you can’t say a prayer with a bill and you can’t shake its hand. We’ve already done things that I think make it worthwhile, but student security is a legacy type bill, [HB] 1227: letting states make their own decisions as it relates to marijuana policy is a legacy type bill. I tell people, we’re not here to do small things.
[14:17] James: Since you are the member of Congress for the 5th district of Virginia, what would you say in your favorite thing about the 5th district?
TG: I’ll start with the fact that it’s the best congressional district in the United States. Unequivocally, without hesitation, I would invite any member to line up their district against the 5th district of Virginia, and I’ll tell you why it’s the best one. The first member of Congress from Virginia’s fifth district was James Madison, the father of the Constitution. In his election he travelled with his opponent. Prior to the 17th amendment it was the role of the General Assembly of Virginia to appoint a Senator. They became so close that James Madison went to the General Assembly and asked that his opponent James Monroe be made a US Senator. He subsequently was and he became President of the United States. Also in the 5th district resided the father of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. Also in the 5th district resided perhaps the most important jurist in American history, in the form of John Marshall. Also in the 5th district, retired champion of liberty, Patrick Henry. Also in the 5th district, Lee and Grant sat at a table in Appomattox and hammered out an agreement to end the worst and bloodiest conflict in American history that ended the horrible and evil institution of slavery. Also in the 5th district, the civil rights movement in Virginia really began when a sixteen year old girl named Barbara Johns led a walkout of students at RR Moton High School in Farmville in 1952. I told that story to a group of people including Speaker Ryan, and after I was done telling him about how the 5th district was the best district in America, Speaker Ryan deadpanned and said “Yeah, in my district we make cheese.” I’m a history guy, I just love this country. I think the fact that a slave owner like Jefferson could give us a document like the Declaration of Independence, that is intentionally crafted to allow an exit from the most horrible institution, and that while we weren’t a perfect union, we had near perfect documents that have allowed us to move forward and forward and forward, and that a young girl like Barbara Johns could be a leader of human beings at an age where I was more concerned with whether I had a zit on my nose or could get a prom date. It’s humbling. You know that you’re around greatness when you drive through Virginia 5. That’s the neatest thing about serving the 5th district.
James: As a history buff yourself, I remember during your time on the campaign trail, you’d always talk about the history of the district.
TG: I keep telling the same story, James, because if you haven’t heard it, by the time you’re done here, you’re like “wow.” I know the district is gerrymandered as heck, I didn’t draw the lines, but they happened to gerrymander the most amazing congressional district in America.
[17:20] James: Before you were a member of Congress, and I know this happens to a lot of staffers, there are a lot of things they don’t understand about Congress and the way things work up here. There are a lot of misunderstandings between what happens at home and what happens in Washington. Could you just talk about a common misunderstanding that people have about Washington and what happens here at the Capitol?
TG: It’s usually AM talk radio where I hear people say “Congress is in recess again, those people never work.” The thing that’s been a mind blower for me is that we’re usually up by 6:30 or 7:00 – I like to sleep in – but we’re usually done with work around 9PM. That 14 hour hour work day in DC we’ve also had I think 3 weeks of recess this year. That sounds like a lot, except when I’m on recess, my job is to get in the car and go to Pittsylvania County and Henry County and Lunenburg County and Fauquier and Greene and Madison and Rappahannock. The district is about the size of New Jersey plus Delaware. So it’s a workload. And you have people who are your friends sending you to internet memes about benefits that they think you get that you don’t get, saying “we need to fix this” and you going “I totally agree but that’s not actually how it works.” So the workload is something.
It’s frustrating: I jokingly have said I’ve never seen a bunch of people work harder not to accomplish any more than this, but with all that said, it’s an amazing honor, not just to do the job, but to do the job for Virginia 5. Madison...that’s some really big shoes to fill. But it is an insane amount of hours per week. Our dog Sophie was just in Top Capitol Hill Dogs Competition, and I think I posted one thing on Facebook at 10:00 on a Thursday night and said “please consider voting for Sophie,” and a person I considered to be a friend replied “no wonder nothing’s getting done if this is how congressmen spend all their time.” I mean one Facebook post at 10:00 on a Thursday and I got that from a friend of mine. So you’re held, I think legitimately, to a high expectation, the workload is tremendous, nobody understands it, even the people who appear to understand what we’re doing on Saturday at 9, Sunday at 3...Maybe my wife gets it. I’m not complaining, it’s a wonderful honor.
[20:12] James: Where do you see this country being fifty years from now?
TG: Well I’m an optimist. But you can’t know where America’s going to be. This isn’t where you want me to go with this question, but I think Iran on a nuclear trajectory is an existential threat to human civilization, and I think North Korea right now is an imminent threat to millions. I wouldn’t say an existential threat to civilization, but to millions. But I’m an optimist. Republicans lamented eight years of President Obama, and they said “oh, he’s destroying America,” and there was a lot of hyperbolic rhetoric, and I certainly can find a million things I disagree with that gentleman on. Democrats are doing the same thing as it relates to the Trump administration. The reality is that this country has survived a revolution, a subsequent invasion, a civil war where nearly a million people died to terminate the most abominable institution known to man – Slavery – two world wars, a civil rights movement that was necessary to start to keep the promises made to all people, eight years of President Obama, and how many years of President Trump, but the United States has continued to be the United States.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, perhaps this is the worst place in all the world except for all the others.” So in fifty years I think that America will still be special. It will certainly be different, and I really hope because I’m a history guy, that people will acclimate themselves to Federalist concepts, foundational ideas to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, to the legitimate Article 1 [of the Constitution] role of Congress, and the legitimate responsibility of the federal government versus the good idea syndrome that seems to take place in legislative bodies from your county board to supervisors to Congress, where we go “that sounds like a good idea,” and we vote for it without even considering whether it should be the job of government to be involved in it. So America’s going to be great in fifty years. I hope we can get around some of the hurdles in a certain manner, but every time somebody screams “the sky is falling,” so far at least the United States had continued to maintain a special place in the world, and I don’t see that changing as long as we work hard to understand what makes us who we are and why we’re great.
James: Thank you so much for joining me today.