Appalachian Perspective: Congressman David Price

Hosted by Appalachian State University's Chancellor Kenneth E. Peacock, Appalachian Perspective cable television program has featured prominent and interesting North Carolinians, the university's leading academic and public service programs, and other topics of statewide interest. Episodes air across the state on cable operators' community access channels. The 30-minute program is a production of the university's Office of University Communications.

The 111th United States Congress is tackling some of the most historic issues ever in our democratic society, including the reform of health care, financial services and campaign ethics as well as how to protect our natural resources for future generations. My guest Congressman David Price and I will discuss these topics and more.


Chancellor Kenneth E. Peacock: The 111th United States Congress is tackling some of the most historic issues ever in our democratic society, including the reform of health care, financial services and campaign ethics as well as how to protect our natural resources for future generations. My guest Congressman David Price and I will discuss these topics and more when we return on Appalachian Perspective.

KP: Welcome to Appalachian Perspective. My guest today is Congressman David Price from the 4th district of North Carolina. Welcome, Congressman. You are here speaking at the 75th anniversary celebration of the Blue Ridge Parkway and we are thrilled to have you here in Boone and thank you for being on Appalachian Perspective.

Congressman David Price: It's great to be back in the mountains, great to be with you.

KP: Before we get started on some of the many contributions you have made and the issues before congress, tell us a little bit about yourself. Who is the gentleman here?

DP: Well I feel like I'm coming home in a way because I do come from this part of the world. I grew up in Erwin, Tennessee—just over the border. I went to Mars Hill College when it was a junior college before I transferred down to the University of North Carolina, which is of course the area I now represent. I grew up not knowing quite what I wanted to do. I didn't have a set vocational path. I started out to be a civil engineer until I figured that probably wasn't in the cards. I ended up going to divinity school at Yale University and then taking a Ph.D. there in political science and decided that I wanted to teach. My parents were both teachers. My dad was high school principal over in Erwin. My mother was an English teacher. I had education in my blood I guess, and decided to go the higher educational route and was fortunate enough to, after having my Ph.D. and teaching at Yale for a few years, get a job at Duke University that let me teach political science and also be in on the ground floor of founding of what's now called the Sanford School of Public Policy.

KP: Wonderful.

DP: So that was my real career. I had gotten drawn in to politics and had my attention called to the importance of politics, you might say, during my college years, especially my years at Chapel Hill when the sit-ins were sweeping across the South and our political, social and religious views were all being challenged in a very profound way. I was impressed by that and heartened by the way the country responded fairly quickly, as these things go, and enacted major civil rights legislation. I was an intern and a summer staff member up in the U.S. Senate during those years while I was in graduate school and I watched that civil rights battle unfold. So I think that guaranteed that whatever I was doing in life I would be attentive to politics and understand the people full of goodwill banding together to use the political system to achieve good ends. But I didn't necessarily think that I would run for office myself. I was perfectly happy to undertake a teaching career and it wasn't until I got to Chapel Hill and began working in other peoples' campaigns and dabbling in politics on the side that I decided that I might run for office myself.

KP: Well we are certainly glad that you did decide to run. You've been there some 22 years. So tell us about some of the things that have happened during that 22 years, things that you are proud of, or challenges that you've faced during your 22 years of great service to the people of North Carolina.

DP: Well it has been a very significant period of history I think and it's often hard to pick out the most decisive moments. I think personally being able to get on the appropriations committee and work for some very important North Carolina needs is a highlight. It's something I'm very proud of. We took nine years, for example, nine long years to complete the appropriations work for this state of the art Environmental Protections Agency lab down in the Research Triangle. But now it's the premier environmental research facility in this country and it's something that is based in North Carolina, draws on our education system and is just a tremendous thing. I'm very proud to have worked on that. Of course you remember the big votes, you remember the big budget votes where we took some tough decisions back in the 90s to balance this country's budget and it was the kind of decisions we're going to have to take again as we look at our fiscal situation down the road. This health care vote recently is right up there, that was a historic vote I think, one that our country will benefit from for a long time to come. But there is no question that there were lots of pressures and questions surrounding that, and it was not easy and we didn't make it look easy, you know. It was a day I'll remember—the day when that final vote was taken.

KP: Congressman, in 2009 you became the chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee for Interior and the Environment. Tell me about the work of that committee, what do they do.

DP: Well I just got on that committee, I'm actually Chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee, which is a real plate full. I have not until now been on the interior subcommittee simply because you're limited in the number of you can have. Fortunately that opened up and I am very glad to be on that subcommittee. It has a special importance to this part of North Carolina because that committee has to do with environmental protection and with the interior department, with the parks service, with the land purchases—the efforts we make to protect land—so it's let me work on a number of key items including some efforts to protect the Blue Ridge Parkway viewscape, as they call it, some critical purchases there we are working on. Tomorrow I'm going to be going over to my home turf in Tennessee to see the Rocky Fork tract up along the Appalachian Trail in Unicoi County, which is, the Forest Service tells us, the most valuable piece of land we're trying to acquire right now and protect for future generations. So we work a lot on that. There is a time with education as well, because for some reason—it seems strange—but it's always been this way. The interior committee also appropriates for the National Endowment on the Humanities and the National Endowment on the Arts and so that is important to our academic institutions and the arts community and I'm happy to work on those items as well. There is also some critical research, of course, that the EPA does in cooperation with academic institutions and occasionally we are able to get some other research funding in there as well. So it's a broad-gauged committee, it's very much focused on the interests of North Carolina and I am happy to have that as a third committee assignment.

KP: You are co-sponsor of the Blue Ridge Parkway's protection act. Could you tell us a little bit about this legislation and what it will do to preserve our parkway.

DP: Well, Congressman Heath Shuler and I have taken this on as well as the bipartisan pair of senators from North Carolina—Richard Burr and Kay Hagan—and the senators from Virginia. As you mentioned when we opened the show, I'm here this weekend for the symposium celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Blue Ridge Parkway. That is kind of a homecoming for me because I remember very well Sunday afternoon drives on the Parkway and picnics and family excursions. We know the Parkway has been under a lot of pressure from development and just the maintenance needs—we need a plan for the Parkway's future, protect it, maintain it adequately and get a fresh fix on just how important this resource is for the people of North Carolina and Virginia and, indeed, for the entire country. It's one of the most visited national parks in the entire country—much, much more visited than any of those big parks out West. So, what Heath Shuler and these senators and I and a few others have done is put this legislation in which would be a framework for future work protecting the Parkway. We want to authorize the expenditure of funds to acquire lands and otherwise to enhance the Parkway. That wouldn't keep us from having to do the hard work each year just like we do right now to get the funds appropriated and to get the specific projects underway. But we feel like this would be a way of not just calling attention to this but also providing a legislative framework for future efforts in to many years to come to just make sure this parkway is being protected and enhanced and that we treat this in a little special way. It doesn't get lost in the shuffle. We really understand the uniqueness of this resource.

KP: It is a unique resource and something, one that we want to preserve here in the Boone area so much. Last night at the dinner at the Blue Ridge celebration our superintendant was there and expressed great joy that for the first time the sitting President and first lady visited the Parkway yesterday and that was a great point of pride for us here. It wasn't on our campus—we'd like for it to have been—but still to go to the Parkway while we're celebrating that here on this campus meant a great deal to us.

DP: When we heard that the Obamas were going to be spending the weekend in mountains, my wife said "Oh maybe he'll come to the Blue Ridge Parkway Symposium" and I said well I don't believe I'd bet on that but it turns out she was closer to being right than I thought because there he was ... he and his wife yesterday took hike in into the mountains for about a mile, I understand, to one of those Parkway vistas near Asheville and the park's superintendant was really delighted. The first sitting President to ever visit the Parkway. I'm sure the parks superintendant did a pretty good selling job, don't you imagine?

KP: I'd say he did.

DP: So hopefully this will be on the President's radar screen and we're certainly going to need all the help we can to get this legislation passed to get some of these land parcels purchased.

KP: Well let's put the spin on this when you go back to Washington and say now the President visited at the same time that the Parkway celebration was being held at Appalachian State. Just get that name in there.

DP: We'll get Appalachian State in there, one way or another.

KP: Yeah get that in there.

DP: Alright.

KP: We'll take some credit for that if we can. Alright, another big area of concern for our nation and certainly a supporter of the health care reform legislation, talk a little bit about that. How will that help people of North Carolina?

DP: It will be helpful and reassuring almost no matter what your situation in life. There's a lot of talk about people who don't have insurance and indeed it is important to them. These are not the poorest people. These are people who are often working but not covered at work. People who have pre-existing conditions, or just because of their age, have a really hard time accessing the insurance market place at an affordable price. They are excluded. So the market will be opened up to people so that everybody can obtain coverage and we can say to our fellow citizens, you will never again be denied the ability to protect yourself and your family in the case of health care needs. That's a huge thing to be able to say and to guarantee and that's exactly what this legislation will do. A lot of people say, well I'm already covered or why do I need this? Well, maybe you don't and if you're covered at work and you value that coverage you can keep that coverage. The trouble is a lot of people once they get sick they find out that some of those policies have fine print. There are lifetime limits or annual limits and the plug gets pulled when they really need to draw on those policies. That sort of business is going to be outlawed. What you see is what you get, or it is going to be what you get, with your health insurance. Moreover, if you lose your job or find yourself between jobs, you're going to be able to pick up the insurance at an affordable cost. You won't lose out. For young people there is going to be insurance available at affordable rates and young people are going to be able to stay on their parents' policies longer if the parents want that. I know that would have been helpful to our family when our kids were in their mid-twenties, to be able to keep them a little bit longer on the policies before they got established out in the workplace, so that's changing. Small businesses under fifty employees are not absolutely required to cover their people but we make it easier for them to cover, or to include their people in insurance coverage, by giving them a nice tax break—a very generous tax break to small businesses so it will be easier for them to cover their employees. Some of these things are kicking in immediately those things are going to be there immediately as is a forbidding of the denial of insurance for your children because of any pre-existing conditions they may have. Senior citizens are going to see that infamous donut hole—that range of drug costs under the drug program under Medicare—that's going to be closed so that those drug costs are covered up and down the line, and that's going to close immediately that gap in coverage. So whether you are young or old, male or female, covered or not covered there is a lot in this that is simply going to make our insurance system more fair, more reliable and more affordable. And I believe that as the provisions unfold people will understand that, even though there were a lot of questions raised, a lot of devil in the details as we always say. I think on the whole this is a very important measure and there is going to be some long-term challenges in terms of cost control—those are things we know we need to continue to work on—but I am very pleased we've taken this step and I think that most North Carolinians will be as well.

KP: Another area - education. You have been unwavering in your support for education. Perhaps this is because you were a professor. Perhaps it's because your parents were public school teachers as well. We greatly appreciate that support and I thank you for that. I just want to get that on the air here. But what now are some of your top priorities for education? What are you looking at and trying to accomplish now?

DP: Well, the main higher education provision has been the reforms to the student loan program and. As you know, that was tied in—for parliamentary reasons—with the health care bill just enacted and signed by the President, where we're getting rid of the middle man in the student loan program and are going to have, therefore, tens of billions of dollars available that was going to banks and lending institutions, it's going to go to students. It's going to let the loan terms be more favorable. It's going to permit us to have more Pell Grants and otherwise to support higher education. And I believe this direct lending will be—it's already working in half the country I think it'll work quite well where the federal government will contract with carriers to administer the program. But there won't be a skimming off of the profits the way there has been. I just think it's really going to be a good thing for students. In elementary and secondary education, the big news is that we are going to renew and reform "no child left behind." That's the modern name of it, the name given in recent years to the elementary and secondary legislation first passed back in the 60s. I think we need to have continued accountability for the performance of our schools and teachers, but we need to do this in a less negative way. The point shouldn't be to declare that schools are failing, but rather to have flexible measures which give a reasonable indication of growth and progress and then to have ways of incentivizing that kind of progess, rewarding it, and then for the, we hope, few schools that actually fail have ways to come in and effectively revamp them. But, I think almost everybody agrees that the education program is important and it needs to be improved and therefore I hope this will be one area where we get more bipartisan cooperation and get this done this year.

KP: Some people in my life that meant more to me, outside my family, were teachers that I had and those individuals in high school and even junior high were individuals that seemed to have taught a long time and you just thought they would be there forever and many of them did and retired in those positions. But now it seems like we're losing those teachers in K-12, they are not staying like they did, perhaps when we were coming in our schools.

DP: I think there is a big problem there. There's a big problem in recruiting teachers and, you know, North Carolina has this teaching fellows program. I'm sure there are many students in that program at Appalachian where we get the best and the brightest and we give them a nice scholarship and we say you can repay this by teaching in the public schools, and by the way we hope you will stay in teaching. But you know that retention is just as big a challenge as recruitment and my personal addition, I hope, to this elementary and secondary education bill will be precisely in that area. I think we have some good programs in North Carolina and elsewhere that have given teachers in mid-career, they've given them a new lease on life, they've let them go off and work, for example, with laboratory scientists for a while. They've let them do all sorts of things that have renewed their skills, renewed their interest and given them inspiration to stay in teaching. That's what we need to do. There is not a single formula for that, though, so I've proposed that there be a small grant program that would help us figure out what best practices are, help us figure out what has worked to retain teachers to enhance this kind of mid-career beefing up of credentials and see if we can't make that more widespread nationally. So I do think teacher retention is a huge challenge and I hope in the end this bill will do something about it.

KP: Is that bill called "Keep Teachers Teaching"? Is that the one?

DP: Yes, that is the one—Keep Teachers Teaching Act—and we're looking to incorporate some of those provisions in the overall bill. I'm working on it and I have no idea what the traffic will bear in terms of what we could include but we'll keep working on it nonetheless.

KP: I certainly hope that it's successful.

DP: That would be a nice thing to get done.

KP: That is something we need. Improving our education efforts in the science, math and technology areas is something that we all hear about that we need at Appalachian and at other institutions, too, and certainly in our public schools. At the same time we don't want to lose that love for humanities and liberal arts. Any ideas on how we do that?

DP: Well I think we need to appreciate our strengths as well as our weaknesses in education generally and not be too quick to assume that our competitors, our international competitors, have it all right. It's always interesting to talk to educators from other countries. We understand we have some work to do in science and math education, no question about it. We need to, at a very early age, we need to help children understand the excitement of this, that they can do it and to draw them in to these fields and that's a matter of better teaching and better equipment and lots of things. So we do have a challenge here. But you know if you talk to people from other countries about American education, they will often say that our liberal arts education, our humanities education, it's something that they envy and why is that? It's because often when a curriculum is so focused on science and engineering and math it can take a kind of a rote quality, almost routine, it doesn't necessarily encourage analytical thinking or creative thinking. The humanities, the arts, literature, teaching people how to write and express themselves and make an argument—those things are critically important and they have economic importance as well. Often employers are looking for those skills, not just for the math and science background. In my own office people would say, what should we do to prepare for this kind of work? I'd say the most important thing is actually the background in writing and composition and we often say to our employees, we can teach you anything but we really would rather not be your English teacher. It's nice you come to us with the ability to read with comprehension and to make a good argument and to write well to express yourself. That is very basic and I do think that a lot of our educational programs do pretty well with that. We need to enhance it. We certainly shouldn't sell it short.

KP: Recently I read an article in the Harvard Business Review and the gentleman was saying what we look for now is not what or where a person has studied. Well that caught my attention because Appalachian—you went to Yale, we're not a Yale—we're a great institution but not quite that, and you think about you don't look for what or where a person has studied—great news for Appalachian—but you look at a person's drive, initiative, cultural sensitivity and the willingness to see the world as their oyster—a global perspective to it. And the recruiters that come here to campus will say to us, we look for those communication skills—exactly as you said Congressman. That's what they say they are looking for. They say they can teach you some of the other technical things of our particular job—our corporate way of what we're doing—but those other things we look to the university to do.

DP: Sure, and schools like Appalachian and the schools I went to—Mars Hill and then UNC Chapel Hill—these schools I think often do a very, very good job. In a big university like Appalachian or Chapel Hill, it's a challenge for the university to not let students get lost in the shuffle. They're a lot of students and a lot of big classes. So, to the extent that there can be good counseling, some seminar opportunities as well as lecture classes and I know you've worked very hard on that because to get to students early and develop those personal skills and put the students on the spot. You know, they are not just sitting there in a lecture hall taking notes and absorbing things. They are in a seminar room or a smaller class giving and taking and being asked to answer questions. You know, that's extremely important, I think, and often it's a place where a smaller and less formal school has some advantages.

KP: Well in just a couple of weeks Appalachian will be graduating some outstanding college graduates, prepared, I believe, for the world, as prepared as anyone would be. But finding that job right now is a challenge for them. So, any advice you could give a young person today—whether it's Appalachian or Chapel Hill or Duke or anywhere. What can you do to really find that job?

DP: Well that's a good question and one that I should say at the outset that is not terribly easy to answer. We know the value of persistence and of staying at it and not getting discouraged. It is sometimes hard to tell a young person that when they don't see the opportunities immediately. We have a lot of students coming to Washington—interested in working in Washington—and I've never known someone who persisted at trying to find an entry level job and sometimes it has to be entry level it usually does. You can't exactly have a job, immediately, probably, that is going to fit everything you know or think you know. You know there is going to have to be some willingness to be flexible. But for someone who is looking hard and persistent at that, they will virtually always find a nitch where they can get started and prove themselves, or maybe they even take an unpaid internship and show their worth or they use that as a perch for other things. That's in Washington but I think the same kind of rules apply elsewhere. You just have to persist in looking for opportunities. You have to offer yourself in a flexible and adaptable way so that you can meet the employers' needs and not be overly rigid about what you expect. But there are still plenty of rewards for people who work hard, who get the training and who develop their aptitudes and their skills. Our job, of course, in government is to try to keep those opportunities opening up to keep this economy coming back and there are some positive signs now. Even the job picture is looking better now. We shouldn't kid ourselves, this economy is not going to be recovered until Americans are back at work everywhere and jobs are as they say, a lagging indicator, you can have other things looking better but companies are going to be very careful about hiring and adding positions. But it will happen, it will come. So I think our job, we have this threefold challenge with this economy to not stop the recovery efforts, the countercyclical efforts, prematurely, secondly to follow through on financial reforms so we don't get into this kind of meltdown situation again with abusive financial practices and thirdly, to chart our course back to fiscal balance. I'm hopeful that if we stay on the case that these young people will find their perseverance rewarded.

KP: Congressman, the students of today really want to know that their voices matter, they are being heard and listened to. It seems to be a society now where they are very involved in and concerned about the political processes that we have. What advice can you give them to assure them that they are connected to the heartbeat of our nation.

DP: That's something that I think we all have our individual histories of, and sometimes an illustration or a recounting of your own story is about the best example you can give. There is certainly no neat formula. As we mature and as young people learn more about the wider world, they understand how important it is to pay attention, to be exposed to the news—and not just the news and viewpoints that reinforce your point of view—but news and information that broaden your view and question your view. That's something an education is supposed to achieve—not just to reinforce you but to open up new possibilities. And it's going to be something that people discover for themselves—what they care about and how they are going to contribute to it. Most people come out of this part of the state, this part of the country, come out of a strong faith tradition. Well that faith tradition is not just about my individual obligation or my individual well-being or my personal morality. It's also about the kind of society we want to live in and the obligation we all have to seek a more just and a more inclusive community. I think as we mature we gain some sense of that and we have to decide, what does that say about the situation I'm in? What does it say about my obligations? Maybe it's something I need to do to make my community better right where I am. Maybe it's going to help build a habitat house or volunteering to visit patients at the hospital—helping in those kinds of ways. Eventually it's also going to mean forming political views, working for candidates, voting and taking a public stand. So there again, I don't have a neat formula but I think we all have stories. We need to talk with each other about this and encourage in the generation coming on that kind of awareness and that kind of engagement. But it's going to be something that individuals have to take responsibility for themselves.

KP: Congressman Price, thank you for being here today, that's all that we have time for. I am honored to have you on the show and I'm honored to have you here at Appalachian to help us celebrate the 75th anniversary for the Blue Ridge Parkway.

DP: Well thank you. It's been a great weekend and I'm glad to be with you and I hope to return soon.

KP: Thank you for your leadership, too.