This year, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat, will run for reelection in a newly-drawn Second Congressional District that takes in a more diverse demographic cross-section. As a result, Thompson faces several viable challengers in the fall election.
Thompson, a native of Bolton, was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in a special election in April 1993. A former adjunct professor at Jackson State University, Thompson has been a lifelong civil rights activist. He currently serves on the House Committee on the Budget and the House Committee on Agriculture.
The Mississippi Business Journal asked Thompson about transportation, the farm economy, tax policies, Social Security reform, and why he led the charge against nomination of Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Mississippi Business Journal: What is your assessment of federal tax policy and the local economy?
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson: The Bush tax plan puts an enormous strain on our ability to adequately fund entitlement programs and the like. Congress will have to tap the Social Security Trust Fund to come anywhere close to balancing the budget. At the local level, I’ve made concerted efforts to engage businesses in investing in the Second District. Anderson-Tully, for example, is now considering moving its headquarters to Vicksburg — in large part because of federal initiatives. The Ports of Greenville and Rosedale will be crucial elements in the long-term improvement of the Mississippi Delta.
In my district, manufacturing job after manufacturing job has left for Mexico. Jockey Manufacturing and Fruit of the Loom are just two examples of large employers that have shut their doors. Eight years ago, Republicans touted NAFTA as some great saving grace for rural economies. I voted against NAFTA.
If we look at what has happened over the last year, we see the effect of the tax plan that President Bush advocated. When he took office, there was a $5.6-trillion federal budget surplus. One year later, $4 trillion of that was gone. Even before Sept. 11, 2001, the outlook was grim at best. Hefty tax cuts for the wealthiest do little to stimulate economic growth. Instead, they lead to poorly funded programs for the neediest.
MBJ: What will be the major issues in the race for the Second District this year?
BGT: I am convinced that three issues are top priority for the people of the Second District — education, economic development and health care. My record on all these issues is an excellent one. I have fought to make sure that every school in my district is wired to the Internet. By reaching out to the business community and others, we were able to make that happen. I continue to support full funding for the Headstart program, also. In terms of economic development, I have worked to secure Nissan suppliers from the Second District. The farm economy is a tough economy these days, but I believe that if we want a stable, safe food supply, there is a proper role for government; so, I support a number of farm programs that ultimately contribute to Americans being able to purchase the cheapest food as a percentage of income anywhere in the world. Health care is an issue that I’ve championed in Congress. I introduced health care disparity legislation in 1999 that ultimately became law. The Second District does indeed face many of the same problems that Mississippi as a whole faces, but there is hope.
MBJ: You have opposed many of the proposed Social Security reforms, especially ones allowing people to invest a portion of their money in funds to provide a better return than that from the Social Security program. Because of predictions of the program being in financial trouble in 30 years, what are your proposals for a remedy?
BGT: I am a strong supporter of saving Social Security, and intend to continue to support the existing Social Security program. Social Security has grown to become an essential facet of modern life. One in six Americans receives a Social Security benefit, and about 98% of all workers are in jobs covered by Social Security. Social Security benefits comprise about 5% of the nation’s total economic output and provide income security not just to the elderly. The SSI program provides needed income support to over six million recipients, 31% of whom are aged individuals; 56% disabled adults; and 13% disabled children. Furthermore, Social Security benefits provide over $70 million dollars each month to over 129,000 beneficiaries of Mississippi’s Second District.
Social Security’s problems can be resolved without altering the program’s fundamental nature. Creating personal accounts in place of Social Security benefits would erode the social insurance aspects of the system that favor low-wage earners, survivors and the disabled. There are large transition problems by requiring today’s younger workers to save for their own retirement while simultaneously paying taxes to support current retirees. Further, there will be no guarantee it would increase national savings because a higher level of governmental borrowing would offset the increased private savings. There is some concern and fear that the investment pool created by the accounts could be difficult to regulate and could distort capital markets and equity valuations. It would also expose participants to excessive market risk for something as essential as core retirement benefits and, unlike Social Security, which provides annual cost-of-living adjustments, would provide poor protection against inflation.
MBJ: You’re a strong proponent of community transportation issues. What type of transportation systems would you like to see in place in the district, especially for rural areas?
BGT: The problem of transportation is tied to economic development. With I-69 coming through Tunica, Coahoma and Bolivar counties, there is a great opportunity on the horizon for people who live in the Delta. The anticipated job creation associated with interstate traffic is tremendous. On another note, we must make sure that the poorest of our citizens are served. The 1998 Transportation Act authorized $750 million in 50% matching funds over five years for matching grants for job access and reverse commute grants for welfare recipients. That program can serve as a basis point as Congress prepares for TEA-21 reauthorization.
I strongly support community transportation. Mississippi needs transportation choices enabling transit-isolated residents to reach urban, populated communities. Although the largest transportation demand is in the urban areas, the rural demand has had, in many ways, as great or greater impact on long-term economic and social conditions. Raw materials and agricultural products generally originate in rural areas. Inefficient and inadequate facilities for moving these materials out of rural areas increases distribution costs and the cost of the finished products. In today’s international economy, a small margin of cost can mean the difference between market share and market loss.
Many finished products also originate in rural areas and require transportation to their markets. More products could be produced in rural areas if adequate transportation systems were available. Urban problems could be reduced if transportation systems aided and encouraged manufacturing that was more decentralized.
The vast majority of transportation systems are located in rural areas. For example, nearly 80% of the highway-lane-miles in the U.S. are located in rural areas. Many of these are inadequate, both geometrically and structurally, resulting in poorer safety and higher transportation costs for materials, products and services originating or terminating in rural areas. In many cases, other transportation modes could be more efficient than highways if they were available and adequately linked to origination and destination points.