Q&A with Rep. John Curtis

John Curtis 01

3rd District Republican John Curtis spoke with UtahPolicy.com last week about a number of issues, including his reaction to the Mueller report, pollution control and the trade war with China.

He also spoke about immigration, the Trump administration’s stance toward Iran, and public lands issues.

Our conversation is lightly edited for grammar and clarity.


What were your impressions of what special counsel Robert Mueller had to say about his investigation last week?

Well, I had kind of an interesting experience when his report first came out, I happened to be flying home that night. You can toggle between Fox News and CNN. I was convinced after that flight that there were two reports based on two different news sources. Based on the report you got from one biased news source, then there was another report based on another biased news source. I share that based on Mueller’s statement, the same thing can happen. Most people already have their mind made up. Those who already had their mind made up listened to Robert Mueller and used what he said to confirm what they already thought. I think you can find in his statement evidence to validate whatever your feelings are.

For me, I think there were a couple of takeaways from his statement. One was, there was no new information. He didn’t reveal any new information that wasn’t in the report and I think the most important thing he said was the very last statement, which is Russia interfered with our elections.  I think for all of us our single biggest takeaway should be Russia interfered with our election and what are we doing about it? That, I think, is not getting near enough attention. I hope we talk more about how Russia did intervene and what we are going to do about it.

Agreed. There was a very stern warning about how Russia interfered with our election in 2016 and is likely to do it again in 2020. It’s clear that Congress is not really doing anything about this. It’s clear the Trump administration is not doing anything about this. Do you think there’s any way we can get past the partisan fighting to try to fix what is a critical problem?

I think we need to break their interference into a couple of categories. One category would be social media. The reality of it is I don’t think you’re going to stop that. I think what stops that is educating potential voters and people seeking information. Another category was the hacking of emails and the release of that information. And you know, if you’re going to stop that, you’ve got to have campaigns, you’ve got to have better security and people paying more attention. And then the third category would be actual hacking into government databases, voter files and election voting structures. That one to me personally is the most terrifying, the fact that somebody could hack in and manipulate vote counts. We all share some responsibility with that. The government needs to come together on a bipartisan basis and find a solution to that.

One of the things that prevented this from being a wide-scale problem is that we have 50 different election system. But, just because you can’t hack all 50 at once doesn’t mean you can’t influence an election. But, I do think we need to take that into consideration.

You recently conducted a clean air tour across the state, talking about the effects of pollution and climate change. Can you talk about what you discovered during that tour? Is there anything we can do to improve air quality in Utah? It seems we’re just trying to take incremental steps toward that.

One of the points of my tour once that incremental steps are incredibly important, let me give you an example. Imagine on a red air day f every single Utah reduced one vehicle trip per day, not hard to do. Right? The impact of that would be substantial. And so that was something I was trying to point out with me taking the bus, FrontRunner, Trax and other mass transit. We need to be thinking along these lines in our own personal lives, what small thing we could do that added up with millions of other small things would dramatically move the needle. There’s not one federal solution that’s going to wave a magic wand and solve this.

On any given Sunday you can find a community church with a full parking lot, no more than six blocks away from the furthest home. And, not only is that parking long full, one family will have multiple cars in that parking log. My point is, look, if we’re not willing to walk three blocks to church, how will we ever learn to really solve this?

You said there’s not going to be a federal program that’s going to wave a magic wand and fix this. But, it seems that the Trump administration is trying to incentivize coal and oil over more renewable forms of energy. Are you making the argument that this is better handled on a local level?

I don’t want to downplay the federal role or say there’s not a role there. Too often we look to that as the only answer. In the meantime personal responsibility has to play into this.  The results the states are getting passed have to be acknowledged and recognized and appreciated. We have 50 incubators around the country, all doing marvelous things, right? We need to be learning from the best. I feel like in this debate rarely do we talk about that. These small incremental things can make a big difference.

As to your comment that oil and coal are being incentivized. I don’t know if that’s the case so much as I think it’s fair to say there’s a movement to stop the  I think it’s fair to say that there’s a movement to stop the villainizing of the people who work in those industries. I think of Price, Utah where people have given their entire lives and, in many cases, their health, to make sure that our friends on the East Coast could go and turn the thermostat to 68 degrees in the summer and 72 degrees in the winter. I think too often we villainize those who have made that a possibility for us, instead of saying to those people you bear the responsibility, why do you keep turning your thermostat to 68 in the summer? Somebody has got to produce fuel to do that.

I think that’s really important and in many cases, market forces are changing this quicker than anybody could’ve imagined. Just look at the demand for coal. Market forces have done more to reduce the amount of coal used than any government program has ever done.

I completely understand that there communities around the country that depend on energy production. But, if market forces are accelerating this, then why should the federal government be doing things to prop up some of these industries? It seems like it’s a very delicate balancing act to make sure that Americans are not overly impacted by this acceleration in the market. Because at some point, you know, things are going to tip over and we’re going to be moving towards more of a renewable energy economy. Do you see the role of the federal government as trying to help those who might be left behind economically?

Absolutely. I think one of the tragedies is that we have not stepped in to help these communities transition. They would not fight it so much if we were helping them transition and I regret that we have done so little to help with that transition.

I’m very in tune with this issue because of the districts I represent. This is where I say we were quick to villainize them, but where are we to step in and help in this transition?

Let’s talk about your work on the House Foreign Relations Committee. Let’s start with China. The trade war between the Trump administration and China is having a big effect, on farmers, on industries. Walmart just announced they’re probably going to have to start raising prices. Do you see that there’s any way to fix this or are both sides digging in for the long term?

You know the cliche, nobody wins a trade war. It’s a difficult thing to claim victory on. You mentioned Walmart, but most of those who are impacted the very most are small businesses and that includes agriculture and farming. My district is 99% small businesses and hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear from somebody who is dramatically being impacted to the point of having to close their doors because they’re a small business. Large business are better able to weather this because they have the reserve capital to hold on. It’s the small businesses who, are impacted the most.

I’ve been pretty vocal along the way that this is not the path I would have chosen. But, we do have to acknowledge that things are out of balance with China and we do need corrective action.

But, do we have to approach it as a zero-sum game where someone wins and someone loses? Is there a way to approach this so that both sides get something out of it? I think of the Pan Pacific Partnership, the trade deal that President Trump ended when he came into office. That was not a zero-sum game. Everybody got something. It seems like that sort of trade agreement would be very much welcomed at this point.

I look at it a little bit differently than that with China because it is so one-sided right now that I think it’s fair to say we’ve got to even this out. What I would do differently though is I think there were a number of tools in the toolbox that could have been used before tariffs that were not used. I think that’s unfortunate. Almost where we’re at now, those tools are rusty.

I don’t know how we get out of it other than putting our heads down. That sounds a little gloom and doom. I think it’s incumbent on the administration and those in the administration working on this to expedite this process and move forward as quickly as possible to find a resolution because the status quo is really difficult.

Let’s talk a little bit about what’s going on Iran. There’s been a lot of saber rattling that came out of the administration specifically national security advisor John Bolton, who’s leading the charge on that. President Trump had to come out and say, or he’s reportedly said he’s not interested in a military conflict with Iran. Are you troubled by some of that rhetoric around what’s happing there?

I’m convinced that the powers that be in our government are far more concerned about diplomacy on this issue than they are with actual boots on the ground or conflict. It’s interesting from my perspective to see how quickly the press and the American mind are reading the signals and saying that this is accelerating. I don’t read the same signals from the administration. I think it’s fair to say they’re very well aware of the many terrible things that could come out of a conflict over there and are functioning accordingly.

You recently went on a trip to central to several Central American countries. I think you mentioned Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador. Can you talk about what you learned during that visit?

It was sobering, Bryan. It really was. I stood on the Venezuelan-Colombia border and watched thousands of people moving back and forth on that border. People walking hours. My paradigm was changed. I thought they were coming across the border into Columbia and not going home. But the vast majority who come across that border will walk for hours, come across the border for a meal, for vaccinations, then try to carry back anything they can. I saw people with suitcases on their back and large bags and bundles trying to bring food and supplies back into Venezuela. The average Venezuelan lost over 20 pounds in two years in a country that had a million percent inflation in two years.

I watch that and say to myself, which one of us would not take our family and flee that and try to find a better life? I think the reason that’s so important in our dialogue right now is until we acknowledge that and address issues in Venezuela, Colombia, we’re going to have these immigration issues.

And part of the solution to immigration must be the rising of the tide of our neighbors. The United States has a vast interest, even if you want to call it a selfish interest in helping out.

Every situation is different, right? The Venezuela situation is very different than Colombia. There’s not one single answer that’s going to solve all of these things.

But, I saw first hand how American aid was being used in Colombia. Just hours before we met with the new president of El Salvador, President Trump announced he was withholding that aid. I think it’s fair to have expectations and demand results on how that money is spent.

I think it’s important that the American people know that that actually saves us money, that there are many benefits from that to our country. Yes, it helps those in that country, but people need to be aware that money also helps us and ultimately saves us money. I think our influence in the region can’t be underestimated. Our responsibility in the region can’t be underestimated. Our stewardship needs to be constantly looked at and evaluated to make sure that we’re doing what’s not only in our best interest but also in the best interest of the region.

You’ve done a lot of work on public lands, including forest management and fire suppression. Can you give me an update on those efforts?

I’m really hopeful that we can find some bipartisan common ground on these forestry issues. There’s a lot of reasons that’s important. Climate change, for example. If you look at the pollutants in the air last year, just from Utah alone, you could see that we should all be motivated on that basis only, but there are many other reasons. You have a threat to life and property, the damaging of our forests. So, I’m hopeful we’ll find some bipartisan ground there to make headway.

We need to find and resolve the funding levels for our national parks and for the BLM. I was down in Moab as part of this clean air tour where they just lamented they didn’t have the BLM resources there to do what needs to be done. That’s no fault of those good people that work for the BLM  in the region. It’s just a resource problem.

The Emery County bill, we feel really good about that. We’re hoping that brings some momentum to other public lands issues in the district and the state.