Primary Conversation: 1st District Congressional Candidate Rich Ashooh

Sep 7, 2016

Former defense industry executive Republican Rich Ashooh is running for Congress in New Hampshire’s first district. He’s hoping to unseat incumbent Republican Frank Guinta. 

In recent interviews and debates, he’s characterized himself as an outsider, a new face, someone who could succeed where the incumbent has failed. Rich Ashooh spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello about his ideas.

Let’s start with the state’s opioid crisis. More than four hundred overdose deaths in New Hampshire last year. That number may exceed 500 this year. What specifically would you do to address this problem?

What I would do is treat it like the crisis we all say it is. When you have a crisis, it means you need to take emergency measures. We see this all the time in government. In New Hampshire, you may have a snowstorm that’s devastating. More recently we’ve had this drought. In each case, the governor or some leader will call for emergency measures that would allow resources to get put on the problem right away.

We don’t have that in New Hampshire right now. What we have is a number of proposals, many of them well-meaning, working through a process—some in Washington, some in the state—and yet, we haven’t done the thing I would do, which is cut through the red tape so that we could put the resources that are in the system now on the problem. The hope is that that will make the progress we need in prevention, in treatment. Certainly with law enforcement, you know. A multi-faceted approach. But we don’t have that now.

You talk to anyone who is providing treatment and they’d tell you about the thicket that exists between them and existing resources. So let’s start there and try to solve the problem from the beginning.

Can you give an example of red tape you’d like to cut through?

Yeah, the specific kind of red tape is, you know, look, agencies (and I’m going to talk at the state level, though I’m running for Congress, but this is a multi-faceted problem) at the state level…you’ve got multiple agencies that claim jurisdiction over these problems. As you might expect, in any complicated human enterprise, those jurisdictions get protected, and while they all believe they are serving the public, the fact is is that they need to do something differently because this is a different problem.

It was not long ago—and I hate to be an expert on something that is so tragic as this opioid crisis, but I’ve had to do that, as a candidate—Hope on Haven Hill in Rochester, they are still waiting for the resources that exist at the state level through these agencies, but we haven’t cut through that red tape.

Red tape on the state level, but how would you address that as a Congressman?

Certainly there are resources to be brought to bear at the federal level as well.

Such as?

Always money. That’s certainly what the federal government looks for, or what people look to the federal government for, but in particular, as a member of Congress—and this can be a red tape issue, but I happen to believe it is more of a focus issue—we need to attack the supply chain on the law enforcement side for the opioid crisis. You know, if you talk to law enforcement in New Hampshire, they will generally see the threat as being Merrimack Valley, Lawrence, something like that. That’s the kind of battle line for them.

But the fact of the matter is, these drugs are being produced and transported along many state lines and quite frankly international borders. That’s squarely in the role of Congress to deal with. And I don’t believe we’ve been paying enough attention there. So that would be one of my priorities as a member of Congress.

Border security as a means of stopping the flow of drugs into New Hampshire?

Border security is one of it. Fentanyl is really the drug that’s killing so many people. The components actually originate in China. I don’t think we’ve contemplated that. It’s a crisis, so we need to take extraordinary measures. That includes putting this on the agenda of the nations that are responsible for transporting these drugs.

Your opponent in this primary race has co-sponsored CARA legislation, which did provide some funding. Is that effective?

It has authorized funding. Not a single dollar has shown up—and I’m not being critical, but I think we need to be honest—that is authorizing legislation that may do some good, but has no effect yet. In the meantime, people are dying. That’s why I’m calling for action now that isn’t reliant on legislation.

You’ve spoken about the country’s debt which is growing. What would you do about the debt?

We need to balance our budget. It seems like common sense to most of us who, in our daily lives, in our businesses, municipalities, the state of New Hampshire all balance our budgets. Yet we can’t seem to get this right at the federal level.

Nearly 20 years and we haven’t had a balanced budget. So what does that mean? Is it just because I don’t like an unbalanced budget? No. It means we’re not planning well as a nation. Every unexpected cost, one could argue the opioid crisis, Zika funding, national security issues, these all become traumatic on us because we haven’t done appropriate budget planning. That’s why we keep ending up exceeding our revenues. We’re addicted to deficit spending and we can’t seem to get agreement.

Now I come from a tradition where balanced budgets are not only important, it’s how you survive. In the private sector, if you don’t have your fiscal house in order, you don’t exist.

You’re referring to your business experience.

Absolutely, but even before my business experience, I had the honor to work for a great New Hampshire senator named Warren Rudman, who was known back then as a deficit fighter, who was a crusader on responsible budgeting. At that time, we had $3 trillion of debt, which was about 30 percent of our GDP. Now it’s $19 trillion, which is 70-plus percent of our GDP. The urgency to deal with this issue was greater then when the problem was a fraction of what it is today. That’s what needs to change. I’m trying to draw attention to that as a candidate and also point out that my opponent, who has sat on the budget committee and sits there now, has offered no solutions on this, and he’s not alone.

We need Congress to step up and do their job and balance the budget.

Although, speaking of the deficit, the past few years, since the recession began—of course the deficit ballooned in 2009—but it has been steadily shrinking with the exception of this year when it went up slightly.

The deficit went down because of what I consider to be disastrous, across-the-board spending cuts. No thought was given during the sequester. I don’t want to get too wonky, but the sequester was allowed to take effect because politicians couldn’t find agreement. That sequester is not the way to balance a budget because it indiscriminately cuts a fixed percentage across the board. That hit New Hampshire very hard. It hurt our defense industry, it put our shipyard at risk, and it hit domestic spending programs on which we rely.

So sure, the deficit went down in a temporary way. It’s going up and it’ll continue going up until we get it into balance.

It doesn’t seem like eight years is a temporary thing. It seems like an actual trend.

The deficit going down?

Yes.

It is absolutely not a trend. The deficit is trending upward. And again, let’s look at how we got there. That’s across-the-board spending cuts. That’s not budgeting. That’s meat-ax cutting. Why have a Congress? Why have a budget committee, if they’re not going to do their job?

Would you support tax increases to help balance the budget?

I don’t believe we need them. I think we need tax reform, though. There are ways to grow your tax revenue without necessarily raising tax rates. In fact, I think the opposite is true. I support a simpler tax system on the corporate and the personal side, because I believe too much of the American economy goes into tax compliance rather than generating revenue.

We have an economy right now that is struggling. It should be surging. The improvements in the economy have largely occurred because of the intrepid nature of the American worker, American innovators and businesses—not because government has gotten out of the way, incentivized growth, reduced taxes, done the things that would unleash the economy.

Unleashing the economy is going to be the best medicine for getting our budget into balance.

Productivity of Congress has not been as high as many voters have wanted it to be over the past few years. What would you do as a representative of New Hampshire to make sure your legislation gets a vote and gets passed?

That’s an important distinction. Thousands of bills get introduced. But votes do not equal results. I come from a tradition of progress, of results. Again, the business community, where if you don’t have results, you don’t achieve anything.

I’m also one who believes that if you agree on the goal, it doesn’t matter who’s opposite you. You can figure out how to do it.

In the private sector, we have fierce competition. Fierce competition. Yet, I’m in a business where we can protect our war fighters, and if your competition and you agree that that’s the goal, then you’ll find a way to do it, and sometimes you’ll team with them. Sometimes you’ll compete with them. Congress needs to behave the same way.

Let’s agree that balancing the budget is a laudable goal. Let’s agree that border security is laudable. Let’s agree that solving the opioid crisis is—those are all things that everybody can agree on. But politicians to this day—and by the way, I think voters are complicit in rewarding this behavior—have been more about the fight and less about the result. And I believe this election really needs to change that dynamic.

So it sounds like you would be more than willing to work with Democrats who share a common goal with you.

Absolutely. Party loyalty has its place. I’m a life-long Republican, a conservative, but I also believe that standing clearly on those principles makes it easier to work with me.

If you know where I stand and you can find where the common ground is—and I believe that’s true on the other side—as long as there’s trust and integrity built into that system, you can absolutely agree.

Look, we’ve had these problems before and we’ve solved them. We’ve had houses of Congress that differ in party from the president. And yet we seem to be able to solve the nation’s problems. But we’re not now. So I believe you need to change the people.

Let’s talk about veterans’ issues, and the Veterans Choice program in particular. It’s important here in New Hampshire because we don’t have a full-service VA hospital. We have one in White River Junction, Vermont, but it’s not in New Hampshire. What would you do to fix the Choice Program?

The Veterans Choice Program—and folks who aren’t aware—was created as a Band-Aid for the existing problems in the veterans medical system. Long lines, veterans having to wait far too long, not getting the quality of care that they need, not getting it in time. So Veterans Choice was created to say, “Well, when the regular system goes awry, Veterans Choice will be there for them.”

My view is: Veterans Choice should be the standard. We need to do a better job of taking the capability that exists wherever it exists, which could be the private sector, and marrying that to the needs of our veterans.

I come at this from a personal way. I’m involved in a number of charities—Veterans Count, Liberty House—that try to serve veterans where government fails. Those charities should not need to exist, but they do, because the veterans bureaucracy is not doing the job.

One of the other things I do, is I’ve been on the board—I’m not now, because I’m running—but I’ve been on the board of Catholic Medical Center, which, as the crow flies, is about three-quarters of a mile from the VA in Manchester.

Why would we build a new, competing medical center when Catholic Medical Center would like nothing better to serve our veterans. I’m sure the same is true of the Elliot and Dartmouth and every other great hospital in New Hampshire. Right now the system does not incentivize that behavior. In fact it disincentivizes it. And it’s only when a veteran goes through a crisis of delay that they get to use the Veterans Choice card to get there.

Or if they live far from a VA medical center that offers the treatment that they need. You mentioned bureaucracy, the VA bureaucracy which has been blamed for numerous things, including delays for payments for civilian doctors participating in the Veterans Choice Program. How would you reform the bureaucracy?

We need to turn it on its head as well. Because the fact is, there are many great people at the working levels in the VA, and I don’t want to send the message at all that people aren’t doing a great job. There are many positive stories that we don’t get to hear about on the campaign trail.

But at the top in the VA—this is through several leadership changes—we’ve seen a defensive crouch taken by senior bureaucrats when you want to change the nature of the system. If the question were: “What is best for our veterans?” You would get a very different system than what we have today.

Until we truly have that cultural change at the top, we’d be nibbling around the edges. It’s a lot for a Congress to take on, but we can’t keep responding to the symptoms, we need to get to the root cause, and the root cause right now is a veterans’ system of bureaucracy that exists mostly for itself and not for the veterans.

I would absolutely expand Veterans Choice. You could start this on a state-by-state basis so that it is the default program rather than the emergency measure. I think having veterans being able to go wherever they get the best quality of care with the shortest wait is the right approach. Our veterans deserve no less.

Your opponent, Congressman Frank Guinta, has introduced legislation that challenges some of the bonuses that the higher-ups at the VA have received in recent years. Is that legislation a good idea, a good approach to that kind of problem?

I definitely believe, as you’ve heard me say, that results should matter, and when the government rewards results that are the wrong results, sure, of course, that’s a problem. But I do think we need to go further than that.

The problem is not that they got bonuses. It’s that their job description does not focus on the very simple thing that I mentioned, which is: how can we get the best care with the shortest wait to our veterans. It does not seem to be the approach.

Let’s talk about immigration. There are lots of people in this country here illegally, some from crossing the borders, many from overstaying visas. How should we approach the issue of people who are here illegally?

We need to prioritize. There are differences in the people who are here illegally and we need to prioritize so that the system is mainly focused on the first place on serious criminals, serious law-breakers, in particular, we just talked about the opioid crisis. That’s an area of focus.

What we can’t do, though, is have any sort of amnesty system. The reason for that is: in 1986 we had immigration reform and that deal was struck with the promise of exchanging amnesty for the illegal aliens in the country at the time for border security.

Well, they front-loaded the amnesty and never got around to the border security. We can’t make the same mistake again, because it only exacerbates the problem. So if we deal with border security up front—and our borders are porous, and there are many things we can do—the next step is to make sure that we are not looking at the 11-14 million who are here illegally as one monolithic group. That wouldn’t make any sense. It wouldn’t be compassionate, and I believe at the end of the day we are a compassionate country.

Finally, though, we also need to address our legal immigration system. For many people who want to enjoy the blessings of this country, the American dream is a nightmare. Trying to do it the legal way is also extraordinarily bureaucratic and strenuous and shouldn’t be.

And costly.

And costly, and rarely discriminates between, you know…look, we have nations, Canada, England, Australia, that are friendly nations, and yet we simply don’t reward the good efforts that people put in to become American citizens. We need to that.

So, two issues you mentioned there. One is border security. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump say she wants to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it. Is that something you agree with?

When I hear “wall” I respond with “system.” The border that we have now—it’s not unlike national security. You know, national security, the approach is: take the best people, train them, equip them properly, and then give them a very clear mission. We need to do the same on the border. We’re not doing that now. Our border agents are under siege.

Part of that is definitely physical security. I understand there’s a certain simplicity to saying “wall,” but it’s not simply physical security. It’s technology. It’s training. Absolutely our physical assets need to be improved. But there are so many more assets that can be brought to the table. If it were a simple answer, it would have been done by now.

There’s no question that there’s a cost to doing these things, but there’s also a savings to doing these things. What we need is focus. The administration did attempt something called the secure border initiative. I was aware of it because as part of industry, we were looking to support the government on this. It’s a great name, and the right idea, but it failed. We can’t give up on border security. We have to go back and try again.

So let me be clear on what you’re saying. Donald Trump prefers a literal, physical wall, you prefer a metaphorical wall that is a system.

A system. Exactly.

And as far as deportations: it seems like you are drawing a line between different groups of illegal immigrants who are here. Tell me where that line is. Who would be on the side of that line that would require immediate deportation?

Anybody who is a threat to this nation or is in question of posing a threat. If there’s a question, then, immediate deportation. Deportation needs to be on the table for anyone who is here illegally otherwise we’re creating an incentive that we simply cannot have. That does not mean we cannot adjudicate or otherwise insert human consideration. I believe our system ought to be capable of contemplating those nuances. But we can’t contemplate them until we take that first step, which is, again, border security, and ensuring that people know there is no incentive to illegally enter the country.

On Social Security, you said in a debate on NH1 that it needs to be “modernized.” What does that mean?

It means making the system appropriate for the people it is trying to serve. The current system we have now was appropriate for the people it was serving 80 years ago. We have a very different workforce. People, human beings are very different in so many ways.

Let’s keep in mind that the system, at its base, is a pay-as-you-go system. Current workers pay for current beneficiaries. At the time we had upwards of 20 workers per beneficiary. That does not exist anymore.

Right now we’ve got three workers for every beneficiary. So we do need to modernize the system that is fundamentally unsound. But the first thing we have to reassure people is that any modernization would occur to people who are not anywhere near this system now. Current beneficiaries—we have a contract with them. We need to keep it. Anyone who is nearing Social Security needs that assurance as well.

Now we live in an age where people want to work more, change jobs a lot, want to take control over their own money. There’s incredible tools over personal financial investment and awareness. Those are things that need to be accommodated in this system. If we leave it as it is, you’re going to get solutions that we hear frequently, like: raise the retirement age. Means testing. Things like that.

To me, those are the wrong answers. We need to change the system in a way that accommodates the people who are going to be using it.

So to dig into what you said: “more appropriate” for today’s workforce. What would be “more appropriate”? You mentioned alternative vehicles. I’m not sure if you used the word “investment” but are you talking about some kind of public-private partnership? A slight privatization?

I don’t like the word privatization because that would suggest the government doesn’t have a role in providing this safety net. It does. The government needs to continue owning the responsibility of caring for older Americans who are not able to afford it themselves. But, yeah, I believe there are elements of this that can include a private investment, and again, not forced on people.

I would envision a system that would have two choices. One would have a basic safety net like we have now, but another version of that system that people can choose that rewards behaviors that would ultimately not only help the individual but also make the system more sound.

If you want to work longer, I think there should be a benefit to that. Right now there isn’t. If you want to take the money that you’re investing for social security and augment it with your own savings or perhaps move it around in ways that you think would benefit you, I think you should be entitled to do that, and that should be rewarded as well, because it’s going to take pressure off the basic safety net and, I think, grow the wealth of the beneficiary but the program.

On the Affordable Care Act, you’ve said that there’s been way too much energy spent on repeal. You say you’d rather reform it. How?

Well, don’t get me wrong. We do need to repeal it. But I think reforming healthcare costs is the way to get Obamacare repealed. Congress has voted 50-plus times to repeal Obamacare. It’s not working.

Are you saying you’d rather have the reform in place before you repeal?

No, I’d rather speak to Americans about what we are going to do to reassure them about the cost of healthcare. The problem with Obamacare from the very beginning was that it didn’t deal with the cost of healthcare. It just dealt with insurance.

We too often interchange insurance and cost. Both are important. But you need to talk about them separately and Obamacare didn’t go anywhere near the problems that caused the cost of healthcare to explode in this nation. Again, coming at this from somebody who has been involved with a provider of healthcare, Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, it is impossible to try to meet the mission in a costly way with Obamacare in place. So it absolutely needs to go, but we do need to reassure Americans about what we’re going to do for them.

My view is: this is one of the most personal areas you can have in public policy. Your own healthcare. Your family’s healthcare. And yet most Americans feel powerless over their choices, over the cost of things. It’s very hard to figure out what things cost in healthcare. If you started with that—just transparency—then you’re now empowered to make choices that you didn’t know you had. We don’t incentivize that in our current system.

Incentives for choice?

Incentives for choice, but transparency. You don’t have choice if you don’t have transparency first.

There’s a great company in Portsmouth that has an app that allows you to cost-compare specific procedures. The reason this is a fairly bold startup app is because our basic system keeps costs opaque. Insurance companies keep costs opaque. Americans feel like what they pay for insurance is what they’re actually paying for the cost of a procedure. We need to break that down.

So what I’m hearing you say is that you would try to bring costs down by making hospitals make public what they charge for specific procedures so that healthcare users can choose.

Yes, I believe that kind of transparency is fundamental to patient freedom and we do see pockets of this happening, but again, the overall system, in particular Obamacare, does not incentivize that. It incentivizes opacity and that’s something that’s got to change to bring the cost of healthcare down.

I can hear Republicans saying now: this is a government intrusion on private businesses, hospitals. You’re making them do more work. Is that something you think other Republicans would go for?

I think hospitals are already one of the most regulated industries ever. What hospitals need is stability. They need to understand where the revenues are going to come from. And I’ll tell you that in the past five years they have been whipsawed around on government regulations. Anything they think would allow them to better serve their customers is something they would be in favor of.