An Interview With Senator Arlen Specter

Sunday, October 4, 2009 - 00:00

Saler: How will Pennsylvanians be affected by your recent party change?

Sen. Specter: My return to the Democratic Party after an absence of 44 years brings Senate Democrats closer to the filibuster-proof majority they need to enact President Obama's plans for economic recovery, affordable health care and energy independence, among other critical initiatives.

Personally, the switch brings me closer to my philosophical home. It's no secret that I have been more popular among Democrats than Republicans for a long time. The reason is that I've always shared the core values of Democrats - values that touch the lives and welfare of all Pennsylvanians. Politically, those values include commitments to such things as a woman's right to choose, stem cell research, periodic increases in the minimum wage, the right of workers to join a union, freedom from warrantless wiretaps and other infringements on civil liberties, equal educational opportunity, victory over diseases like cancer, fairer trade policies, a cleaner environment, immigration reform, more help for veterans, support for Pennsylvania farmers, workplace safety and a sound jobs policy. Democratic values place people above party ideology. That showed itself in my willingness to use stimulus funds to create thousands of new jobs by rebuilding Pennsylvania's aging bridges, tunnels and roads; modernizing its rail and mass transit systems; cleaning up its polluted waterways; and dredging the Delaware to handle larger ships.

If there is a common theme to my long years in the Senate, it is getting government to meet the needs of ordinary citizens. As a new Democrat and potentially decisive vote in the Senate, I'll have a better chance of fulfilling those goals. As the senior Senator from Pennsylvania, I'll continue to bring federal dollars and projects to the state.

Saler: Throughout your tenure in the Senate, there have been many major changes in several areas you cite as a main priority or key issue. What accomplishments in your career are you most proud of?

Sen. Specter: Aside from enacting our nation's laws, a Senator may have no more important function than his or her Constitutional mandate to offer "advice and consent" on presidential nominees. As a member of the judiciary committee since 1981, including a two-year stint as chairman - I was involved in confirmation hearings for 11 Supreme Court nominees, including all but one sitting justice. In a procedure that has become fraught with partisanship and delay, I strove to maintain an orderly and timely process.

My own personal battle with Hodgkin's disease has raised my awareness of the importance of medical research, including stem cell research. I believe I owe my life to the treatment I received and the research that lay behind it. As a former chairman and ranking member of the Labor, Health, and Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, I helped increase funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from $13 billion to $30 billion and then won an extra $10 billion for NIH in the stimulus. The latter, incidentally, will create 70,000 jobs, many of them in Pennsylvania.

I have been a consistent friend of labor on issues from the auto bailout to unfair trade practices, mineworker hazards and job safety. Since 1981, I have voted to raise the minimum wage 20 times and was the only Republican co-sponsor of the bill to raise it to its current level of $7.25.

I take pride in my record of constituent service. I have offices in seven Pennsylvania cities, and I make it a point to visit all 67 counties on an ongoing basis. I maintain a running dialogue with voters through town meetings and a heavy schedule of personal appearances and appointments. I've had 29 years in the Senate to listen to what people are saying and thinking. I've listened and I've learned. Few people know Pennsylvania as well as I do.

Saler: You've said that education is "the single greatest capital investment we can make in our nation's future," and you serve as a senior member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. What progress has education made during your career and what changes do you think still need to be made?

Sen. Specter: When I became chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (LHHS) Appropriations Subcommittee in fiscal year (FY) 1996, the level of discretionary funding for the U.S. Department of Education was $23 billion. Throughout my tenure as a member of LHHS, I have strongly advocated for increasing discretionary education funding to today's level of $66.5 billion in FY09. This is an increase of $43.5 billion or 189 percent since FY96.

Throughout my Senate career, I have battled to increase the maximum award for Pell grants. This important financial aid program makes post-secondary education more affordable for our nation's neediest students. Since FY96, the maximum discretionary award has risen from $2,470 to $4,860 in FY09 when combined with stimulus funds. It is a 100 percent increase. Additionally, the mandatory funding of Pell was increased by $490 by the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007. Today, the total (mandatory and discretionary) maximum Pell grant award is $5,350.

I have worked to secure funding for GEAR UP, which provides tutoring, mentoring, financial aid counseling and college scholarships to low-income students from the seventh grade through high school graduation. I took the lead with Rep. Chaka Fattah in securing funding for the program. The goal of the program is to provide services and incentives for disadvantaged students to help increase their secondary or postsecondary educational attainment. Since the program began in FY99, I have consistently supported increasing funding from the initial $120 million to $313 million in FY09, an increase of $193 million or 161 percent.

It is important that every child have access to the quality of education necessary for success in the 21st century. I have worked from my Appropriations Subcommittee position to highlight the critical need for early childhood development programs. In FY09, I worked to secure nearly $7.1 billion for Head Start, which is a comprehensive community-based program providing educational, nutritional and medical services to low-income preschoolers. Since FY96, federal funding for Head Start has increased from $3.6 billion to nearly $7.1 billion, or 97 percent.

I have been a strong advocate for our nation's education systems and the students and families that are served by them, and I will continue to be in the future.

Saler: In 2006, Time magazine named you one of the "10 Best Senators." What do you think has led to this type of recognition?

Sen. Specter: Time said it chose "those who made a difference." I would like to think I've made a difference in the lives of ordinary citizens. Time called me a "contrarian." I prefer to be described as an independent, someone who puts people above party orthodoxy. The stimulus vote, which sealed my doom with the Republican Party, is a case in point. Because I refused to join the Republican party-line vote in the face of the worst economic crisis since 1929, the party in effect rejected me. I believe I also chose principle over ideology in joining three Senate Republicans to vote for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which removed time limits on the filing of equal pay lawsuits. Republicans said the bill would invite lawsuits and President Bush threatened a veto in the previous Congress.

I have championed stem cell research, education, civil liberties, criminal justice reform, the right to join a union, workplace safety and a cleaner environment because those issues directly affect people. What could be more in the public interest? Nearly half a century ago, John Kennedy urged Americans to ask, "What they could do for their country, not what their county could do for them." Those words inspired me then and still do today.

We live in challenging times. By the middle of this century, our country will have no racial or ethnic majority. Industrial output will be redefined with advances in robotics and nanotechnology. Health care will enter a new era of organ replacement and stem cell cures. Information will be instantaneous and everywhere. Our stewardship of the environment will be tested as never before. It will be up to government to address the challenges that lie ahead. My experience of serving in the Senate for the past 29 years shows how the legislative process can help change the world in which we live.

Please email jsaler@stradley.com with questions about this interview.