U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo. ( Press of Atlantic City/ Danny Drake)

Danny Drake

U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo has represented the region in Congress since 1995. Elected along with a wave of Republicans in 1994, he has established himself as one of the more moderate members of the GOP, even as his district has grown more Democratic in recent years. He handily won re-election in November.

Q: What’s your take on the situation in Benghazi, Libya?

A: Very disturbing and that’s the mild version of it.

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You know, we’ve had an ambassador and three other Americans who’ve lost their lives. The story has changed repeatedly, but it’s pretty clear that this was a coordinated attack and it’s very frustrating there does not appear to be anything happening.

If we’re going to give money to our friends, we should expect something in return, and Libya gets a lot of money from us. It’s pretty clear that the Libyans who were tasked with the responsibility to help protect the Americans just abandoned it. Now, whether they just up and ran or whether this was preplanned from something else, we don’t know for sure.

We have not gotten anywhere near the bottom of the request from the ambassador (before the attack) for additional security. We’ve heard these are very routine. Well, from what I’ve heard, it was very specific and there are Marine detachments that are in places all around the world that don’t appear to have the same security challenges as Benghazi or Libya ... so many, many, many unanswered questions.

And I don’t think that we’ve still gotten to the bottom of what (American U.N.) Ambassador (Susan E.) Rice was talking about on that particular day when she went on all the talk shows. (She said initially that that a spontaneous demonstration over an anti-Muslim video produced in the U.S. triggered the attack.)

And the other question that I would like to have answered, is why Ambassador Rice? Why wasn’t it someone who knew something about it when she claims that she didn’t really know anything about it, and was given some talking points? Well, we know now that she did have access to classified versions or materials. But why was she picked to go out there and do this, and why were they so aggressive with it, and how could it be so far from reality?

Q: What specific things will happen in South Jersey should the White House and Congress not come to an agreement on taxes and spending and the nation goes over the so-called “fiscal cliff?”

A: Well, the consequences are enormous for South Jersey, as they are for the rest of the country. Virtually everything, every federal program is cut. There is going to be, I think, a loss of confidence from consumers. With businesses, it’s going to hit just about every program you can think about, so there’s a very serious and dire consequence if this isn’t solved.

Q: What about the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) project?

A: That’s one of the projects that could be subject to cuts.

So, I’ve obviously met extensively with FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) officials and others associated at the Tech Center (William J. Hughes Technical Center) with NextGen. The project will move forward. It will be more challenging.

I think there’s a solid, long-term commitment to changing our air traffic control system, for those who may not be aware, from a radar-based system that we’re operating under now, which is not nearly as efficient as it can or should be, and not nearly as safe as it can or should be. We’ve heard so many reports of near-misses and accidents that have almost happened.

“Next Generation” of air traffic control means that we move to a satellite-based system, which, first and foremost, is much safer for the traveling public, and then the efficiencies to be realized could be tremendous in terms of dollars, in terms of fuel that is saved, in terms of time that is saved. Additional flights — we’re not building runways, we’re not building airports. This is a way to increase flights and increase efficiency without making that capital expenditure.

Q: What is the likelihood that an agreement on taxes and spending will be reached by end of the year?

A: I’ve not been optimistic.

The last week or so, I thought (President Barack Obama) complicated the solution tremendously by throwing in two items. Now, I don’t know whether these are negotiating items or whether these are really on his list, as he said, that must be. But for the president to insist that the debt limit be raised, and be structured in such a way that it’s never voted on again, that it’s raised automatically, is impossible. That is asking for everything to fail.

Now, as we speak, we know there have been private, secret, call-them-what-you-want meetings with the speaker and the president, that they — I think rightfully — have agreed not to comment on. And I can only hope that there’s progress being made with two people of good will who understand that this, nothing good can come for the nation and only a lot of very negative things if we don’t solve this.

Q: What sorts of ways could the federal government raise revenue?

A: Well, one of the things that should have been done a long time ago, and again, we’ve not had specific hearings on these measures, but on the subsidies. I think they’re outrageous.

I’m one of the Republicans who believe that the subsidies to oil companies should be eliminated. Sugar, cotton, corn — all of these things add up to a huge amount of money. The ethanol program is a disaster. Maybe when it was created in the ’70s there was a good reason for it. There’s certainly not a good reason for it now. It’s driving up the price of food.

Q: You have signed anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist’s pledge to not raise taxes. Does this close any options for you?

A: No. That was 1994, and, understand that that was coming on the heels of a big (former Gov. Jim) Florio tax increase for the state of New Jersey. President (Bill) Clinton had just instituted a huge tax at the federal level that I thought was counterproductive, and I don’t think raising taxes is the answer as we move along.

But Grover Norquist would say that eliminating the oil subsidies is an increase in taxes, and I just think he’s flat wrong.

Q: What did you learn from this year’s election?

A: That voters are very concerned about the direction that the country is taking, the direction that their local communities are taking, their counties are taking, and that if you’re serious about doing a good job, you better be very tuned in to how people feel and why they feel that way.

Now, that’s really not anything new, but I think it’s more intense this time around than it’s been in the past, much more intense.

Q: Why?

A: I think the state of the nation, the constant run of bad news, the lack of ability of Congress to settle on some meaningful solutions that actually produce results, the bad news that comes from any number of levels, the unemployment rate being so high.

I think that the stated unemployment rate is very off. I think it reflects — it’s much higher than that. The number of people who’ve given up looking for work. The unemployment rate in most of the counties, or our bigger counties here in the 2nd Congressional District, are double-digit and are unacceptable.

So, if you’re out of work, if you’ve been out of work and especially if it’s a two-(income) family and they’re both out of work, and you have children and the children are suffering, this is a very negative situation. There’s not a lot of prospect of good news coming down the line as far as what’s going to create jobs and how it’s going to create jobs.

We’ve got our small businesses that have been pretty negative about what the future is going to hold. I think they fall into two categories. And most of our businesses in this district, and most in the country that produce the bulk of the jobs are small. Businesses that are hanging on just by a thread, not sure how they’re really going to make it from one week to the next, they obviously can’t think about hiring anybody new or spending any money, they’re thinking about how to contract.

And then you have some businesses who are solid financially, but are very nervous about where things are headed. They’re very uncertain about the economy. They hear how much money we’re borrowing at the federal level, they know they can’t do that.

They’re very uncertain about regulations — ten, eleven thousand new pages of regulations in the last couple of years, driving people up a tree. If you’re a small business person you’re spending more time — doctors are hiring people just to do extra paperwork, small business people are hiring people just to comply with regulatory increases that have no reality to their business, and then health care costs. We haven’t begun to see the real cost of health care that’s going to hit people within a couple of years.

And I think businesses have held their cards pretty close because they’re just concerned that if they spend any money or hire any people, the government’s going to come after them.

They don’t know what their tax rates will be next year. Many small businesses file their businesses taxes under their personal income (taxes), so this has them pretty nervous. So there’s a whole combination of things that are resulting in keeping hiring from increasing the way it needs to.

Q: During the campaign, you were criticized for not debating the Democratic candidate Cassandra Shober. While there were campaign forums, do you defend the decision not to debate?

A: We were always planning to participate in a number of forums.

The decision to not participate in the (Richard) Stockton (College) debate, which is the one I think you’re talking about is, you know you can always second-guess things, but the decision was made.

I participated in a number of public forums. No one had any problem understanding what my positions are and why. (I’ve) got a long voting record. Some people like it, some people don’t like it. Very few people don’t know what it’s about.

So, I feel my outreach to the public, and my ability to talk to people one-on-one ... serve the purpose of informing anyone in the public who’d like to know what my position is and why.

Q: You’re 66 now. Is this your last term?

A: Don’t know. I want to be able to give 150 percent to everything I do.

I want to be able ... not to second-guess what’s going to happen. I mean, the decision to run is two years away and I’m focused on giving my best effort to the people that I represent. This answer hasn’t varied in the last 12 or 15 years.

Q: Post-Sandy, what should locally happen with beach replenishment?

A: Well, most of our beaches in our district, with a couple of minor exceptions, are what we call authorized for 50 years.

That doesn’t mean the money is appropriated automatically. So we have had to struggle with the challenges of the fiscal situation that we face, to try to make sure that we get the authorized projects that are funded, so that we can get the protection afforded that I think is necessary and critical.

There are a number of projects that have been authorized and have been due for replenishment but were not funded for the replenishment.

Gov. (Chris) Christie talked extensively with the president and the vice president about the disaster recovery number, including not only the damage that was done to the projects that have been recently engineered, but to fund the authorized projects as well. We don’t know the status of that or the extent to which that can or would take place. (It) certainly would make life a lot easier, if that were to be part of the solution that we end up arriving on.

Just last week the administration announced they were moving forward with a request for an emergency supplemental (budget request). I don’t think it meets our requirements the way (it) should, and I don’t think we’re going to get another bite at this, so I’m concerned about exactly how it’s going to move forward.

But we don’t know the breakdown of the money that’s been requested, of whether it’s only for that which was damaged or whether we can do any preventative maintenance with any of those dollars.

Q: How do you make the beach replenishment argument to those who do not represent shore communities?

A: Well, they suffer natural disasters, too, and they expect the rest of the nation to rally around them. When there’s a flood along the Mississippi, when there’s an earthquake, when there’s a tornado, when all those natural disasters take place, there’s always a move to come together, to understand this is something that the nation needs to do.

I don’t think New Jersey should be treated any differently. We struggle to get back close to our fair share from what we send to Washington to begin with.

If someone wants to change the rules in the middle of the game, do it when there’s not a disaster that we’re dealing with. Let’s have a debate, let’s have a discussion and weigh out the pros and cons and see what the suggestion is of how to move forward.

But don’t single New Jersey out when we’ve had what some would argue was one of the worst storms in our history, to say that now’s the time when the federal government shouldn’t be involved in helping out.

There’s not a way to get ourselves back on our feet in any expedited manner, or maybe in a manner at all. And for the rest of New Jersey, the tourism industry is tens of billions of dollars. If we don’t have beaches, people don’t vacation here. It’s not about getting a suntan; it’s about jobs and the economy.

So, we don’t have those small businesses, the bait-and-tackle shops, the small restaurants, the rooming houses, the motels — people don’t come and vacation, then they don’t spend their money here. What does that do to the state of New Jersey and for the rest of the country?

Once again, we’ve never hesitated when we’ve had these natural disasters. There wasn’t a hesitation when there was (Hurricane]) Katrina. And there’s some suggestions that the dollars that this storm, Sandy, will cost can exceed Katrina. So I feel pretty strongly about this.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: Just a couple of things that I think a lot of people don’t realize or think about very much, and that is the enormous role that the Coast Guard plays in the nation and the district.

We have the only Coast Guard recruit-training center in the entire nation. The training base at Cape May has had repeated upgrades and is something that we all can be very proud of, for the commitment that’s made to train these young men and women who are entering the Coast Guard.

We have the campus at the airport, so people either think of the airport or they think of some of those entities individually, but on that campus, besides the airport, we have the FAA Technical Center. Thousands of people work there. Premier facility in the nation for safety and security research and development. Nobody else in the country does the kind of work that we do here. And the NextGen validation is just the latest in a huge national role that they play.

We have the Transportation Security Agency’s explosive laboratories on that campus. We have air marshal training for the whole world on that campus.

We’ve got the 177th Fighter (Wing) base, which is the premier homeland security base in the entire nation. When NORAD alerts our jets, our pilots, they’re the only ones in the nation who can be over top of New York and/or Washington, simultaneously, in nine minutes or less.

So, this has tremendous implications economically, for the area, and has tremendous homeland security implications.

The Coast Guard air station is the largest helicopter air station in the nation, because we have the capitol patrol mission. It is done from here. So this is a source of enormous pride, because of the exceptional work that’s being done by all the people at these facilities. The tech center would not be picked to do the work they’re doing if there would not be a daily commitment to excellence that’s being made by the people who work there.

So, this is an enormous economic driver for the area and again, it has enormous national consequences for how we handle homeland security and the Coast Guard, et cetera.

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