January 10, 2016

Manchin emphasizes need for collaboration to expand energy sector; ways to clean up political process in Washington | Clarksburg Exponent Telegram

CLARKSBURG — U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he hopes state leaders will look at working with officials from Pennsylvania and Ohio to form a regional energy hub to take full advantage of each state’s natural gas reserves.

Manchin told The Exponent Telegram Editorial Board that he believes it will take a unified effort to give all three states ample opportunities to do their best for their residents.

“Government shouldn’t take the lead, but they should be an investor,” Manchin said, emphasizing that the private sector should head the effort but wouldn’t be willing to take the risk alone.

By combining funding resources, the three states could develop pipelines and other infrastructure needed to transport the gas to other regions, he said.

“Just like Louisiana and Texas,” Manchin said. “They have ports; we’ll need to have inland ports.”

But the former governor also said West Virginia’s leaders must do more to develop industries and expand those already here that utilize the state’s energy strength.

“We have chemical plants,” Manchin said. “We’ve got a great footprint to build off of, and we have to make sure we make the most of the opportunity for state residents.

“We’ve been fortunate, but we have to take advantage of it to build our economy. The state needs to invest to create development.”

Manchin discussed the state’s and nation’s energy strengths and issues at length during an almost 1 1/2- hour session with the editorial board, talking about President Obama’s decision to delay the Keystone Pipeline and Obama’s unpopular — at least in West Virginia and other coal-producing states — environmental policies.

The state’s senior senator said the decision to allow oil exports is good policy, especially since safeguards are in place to protect American consumers.

“I’ve always felt that we should allow free trade of oil,” Manchin said. “We’re already allowing kerosene and other oil products to be exported.

“And the American public are protected, as exports would be cut off if the price would go up.”
Manchin said there are enough energy sources in the U.S. to allow the nation to be an independent producer and exporter, instead of having to import oil.

“It would change the whole landscape of the world,” Manchin said. “… We’re in so many conflicts — they can say what they want — but it’s because of energy.”

With energy independence, “we can make moral decisions based on humanitarian aid,” not energy needs, Manchin said.

As for the Keystone XL Pipeline, Manchin was succinct: “It should have been built. And it will be built, just not while this president is president. ...He’s adamantly opposed.”

Manchin said the pipeline makes sense for public safety and national security reasons.

“Pipeline (transportation) is better than rail,” Manchin said. “The product’s already being moved, just differently. And it’s not responsible. The public is better served by pipeline, not rail and roadways.

“Plus, I would rather buy from our friends in Canada than from Venezuela.”

As for the president’s efforts to turn power generation away from coal, Manchin believes Obama’s faulty logic has left the U.S. power grid at risk.

“The reason I’m so opposed to the power plan is the technology he’s reaching for has not been perfected,” Manchin said. “It will be, but it’s not ready now.”

In the meantime, the U.S. is at a competitive disadvantage as countries like India and China continue to build coal-fired plants and burn the economically feasible fuel.

Manchin believes there is a more logical approach that should be taken — one that allows coal to remain a prominent player while newer, cleaner burning methods are fully developed.

Until then, the current policies weaken the nation’s economy and create hardships for businesses and potential security issues, Manchin said.

“So you believe that if we create economic hardship and self-inflicted wounds in our economy, (India, China and other countries) will follow right along?” Manchin said.

In a previous visit with the editorial board, Manchin had said Obama’s policies were putting the power grid at risk, noting the cold snap last winter that put the power system for the Northeast only 700 megawatts from projected collapse.

“And we’re not at all any safer,” Manchin said last week. “The system hasn’t changed; the criteria hasn’t changed.”

The senator pointed out that, as of now, only coal and nuclear are set up to provide power 24/7, while natural gas is getting there rapidly.

“We don’t have nukes here. Most of the nation has been powered by coal; 96-98 percent of power comes from coal.

“… They are moving an unreasonable amount (of electricity production) to other fuels” that aren’t as reliable or ready to handle the capacity, Manchin said. “They are taking coal-fired units off line and not replacing them.”

He said part of the problem is that national media seem to want to vilify coal. He also blamed leaders who don’t want to be upfront with the American people about coal’s importance.

“They should answer: What would happen to the U.S. if there was no coal produced for 90 days? Maybe then we can have a concrete, responsible dialogue.”

Saying that current policies cause too much self-inflicted pain for the nation’s economy, Manchin said a reasonable approach is needed.

“There is a responsible approach to be taken. We have to meet demand to grow the economy,” he said.

Workforce development

Creating a qualified, trainable work force is “one of the most challenging things we face in West Virginia,” Manchin said.

“Why do we have the lowest rate of participation in the work force?” he asked. “(Lack of) education or drug dependency or both; they are impaired one way or another.”

Manchin said there are jobs available, just no enough state residents able to fill them.

“I don’t know of anyone who has said to me that they have too many good applications,” Manchin said. “They tell me they need 50 new people and they can’t find them.

“We have too many people dependent on social programs, on drugs.”

Changing the outcome: Restoring hope

Like many leaders who have met with The Exponent Telegram Editorial Board, Manchin honed in on the state’s drug problems, but he was more direct than most.

Acknowledging that leaders, including himself, have been wrong in their approach, he said it is time to change the model for addressing drug addiction in the Mountain State.

“Politicians fear being viewed as weak on crime,” Manchin said.

But he said he can’t support failed policy when it’s clear new methods are needed.

“What I’ve done, what we’ve done, in the last 25 years hasn’t worked,” Manchin said.

Like others who have studied the issue, Manchin said focusing on treatment instead of prison, at least for first-time offenders, should be tried.

“First offense, you get treatment,” he said, adding that the offense would have to be a misdemeanor, not a felony that can cripple opportunity later in life.

Those convicted also would have to report to community corrections, such as a day report center, and seek employment and training.

But the question of what to do with second- and third-time offenders gets murky in some people’s views.

Manchin wondered whether drug offenders with children — who oftentimes receive government support because of that — should have their children removed from the dangers of a drug-infested home.

After parents’ second offense, children would go to foster care; parents who become third-time offenders could lose their children for good through adoption.

“Can I get that passed into law? I don’t know,” Manchin said.

But the senator was adamant about one aspect of fighting drug issues: “Any money confiscated from drug dealers needs to go into treatment. … You have to have revenue directed to build new treatment centers.”

Manchin’s stance on drug issues has been moved by his efforts to reach out to young people.

“I go to schools, lot of schools, where hope has been lost because they don’t see a way out,” he said.

Breaking that cycle, especially in Southern West Virginia, where the opioid trade combined with the faltering economy has hit hard and continues to decimate areas, will be difficult because of a culture that has become ingrained, Manchin believes.

“Five years ago, I visited (one school), and the kids talked about how they’ve lost their families, their homes” because of drugs and lack of jobs, he said. “Now they are talking about watching their moms killed over drugs. ...It’s heart-breaking.”

He’s disappointed because much of the problem stems from public housing, where there are few restraints, Manchin said.

But even if drug-testing were mandated, there is no system in place currently to take care of the children, he said.

Still, Manchin holds out hope, believing children are looking for a way out of the chains of poverty and addiction.

“If they know somebody cares, they will fight their hearts out to do better, to do well,” Manchin said.

Cutting supply and demand

No serious conversation on the state’s drug problems can be held without understanding the role pain medication has played.

Manchin said the proliferation of highly addictive opioids helped to create the problem.

That’s because doctors have insufficient training in how to prescribe the medication, Manchin believes.

“Doctors weren’t getting any training on prescribing these drugs,” he said. “(In their years of training) maybe a week. There was no responsibility on the doctors for (proper) pain management and understanding what these addictive drugs do.”

Manchin cited instances when patients were given 30-day prescriptions when a few days’ worth of the potent drug would be enough.

Once the government determined that being pain-free was one of the five criteria for good health, the focus turned to ways to curb pain, with treatment becoming more available, Manchin said.

“Up until then, we didn’t see this when we were kids,” he said. “If you needed morphine drips (for pain), you did that in a hospital.”

Manchin is focused on challenging the pharmaceutical industry to find non-addictive ways to relieve pain. But he also thinks government can play a bigger role in curtailing the number of painkillers.

“How does the FDA continue to put out new products? We don’t need that,” Manchin said, adding that companies want new products because current law allows for a 12-year exemption for exclusive marketing of the product.

He said government insurance programs, which insure the majority of Americans, could help fight the problem by mandating alternative pain-relief efforts instead of addictive pills.

“If that happens, you will see change,” Manchin said.

But with a touch of foreboding, Manchin added, “If we show we can break the cycle, we have a chance to survive. It not, it’s going to get worse.

“There are no easy answers.”
Gun “sense”

In addressing questions about President Obama’s latest efforts to control gun purchases in the U.S., Manchin reflected on his efforts following the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting at an elementary school in December 2013.

Twenty students and six staff members lost their lives at the hands of a mentally troubled young man who had ready access to guns purchased by his mother, who he also killed.

“It was a horrible tragedy,” Manchin said. “And you have to think: Can we do something to make it safer in this country?

“Any places in the law that allow someone who could be insane, could be a criminal, (to buy a gun) — we need to stop it.”

Manchin said critics still bring up how his efforts, which fell four votes short in the Senate, saying they “caused him problems” in West Virginia.

“It caused me problems until I could explain it,” Manchin said, adding that his proposal actually expanded and protected law-abiding citizens’ rights to legally buy a gun.

“I understand, and I have the same feelings I’ve always had about responsible gun ownership and shutting down the loopholes.”

As for current gun-control efforts, Manchin believes Obama should have made more effort to include Congress instead of going it alone.

“I don’t believe the president should have universal executive privileges to do major policy,” Manchin said. “If that’s the case, you don’t need us.

Adding that he understands the president’s frustrations to a point, “You’ve got to figure different ways to bring people together. You have to work through the system. You can’t just say I’m going to do it anyway.”

Success in Washington?

While some may point to the bipartisan effort to pass a federal budget as a success, Manchin has reservations, instead citing the highway funding and educational standards bills as major successes over the past year.

“Highway funding is a big success,” Manchin said. “It was great for the state of West Virginia.”
Saying the five-year highway bill allows for better planning that will lead to more fiscally responsible spending, Manchin recalled his time as governor and efforts then to strengthen the state’s road system.

“What they are going to be able to do is put together a maintenance plan for existing infrastructure and a construction plan for new” roadways and bridges, Manchin said.

He said the state’s rural nature makes the highway system critical for the state’s economy and residents’ quality of life.

“If you don’t drive, you aren’t mobile in this state. You’re in real trouble,” Manchin said. “We must have good, safe roads.”

As for education standards, Manchin believes the Every Student Succeeds Act will help eliminate the stigma that critics brought to the Common Core debate.

“The bill gives states more options, but they still have goals,” Manchin said.

“Common Core became a rallying cry. And it wasn’t true. Common standards were the efforts of state governors,” he added, saying he was governor and involved with the National Governors Association when the issue was addressed.

“The thought was that if a family relocates and a student transfers, shouldn’t a third-grade student in Florida be on the same level as one in West Virginia?” Manchin said.

“But it became a political football, with critics saying the federal government was trying to run education ... and it wasn’t.

“… We still need standards. How are we doing (compared) to China? Are we competing for global education, a global economy?

“But the new law gives flexibility and more oversight.”

As for the federal budget deal, Manchin was troubled by the additional debt that will be incurred by future generations, which he saw as totally unnecessary.

He also questioned the process in which all 12 appropriations bills were lumped into an omnibus bill that didn’t allow for thorough review or questioning.

Manchin liked aspects of the $1.1 trillion budget because it gave additional money and flexibility to key services, such as veterans care.

“But to get that, they added some sweetness — $680 billion more for certain projects,” Manchin said. “It’s totally unpaid for, unfunded, added strictly to debt.”

He wanted that funding request to be separate from the budget bill, but he couldn’t get enough votes to change it.

“People said, ‘Oh, you’d shut down the government.’ No, we could have passed continuing resolutions until we came to our senses. My stance was we’re not going to incur more debt that we can’t afford.”

Changing Washington

With much venom aimed at lawmakers in Washington, especially as the presidential campaign heats up, Manchin said several changes could help the governing process.

One is the willingness to change.

“We have to learn by our mistakes,” Manchin said. “(Sometimes that’s the) biggest problem we have in public life. “But if you can’t change your mind, you can’t change anything.”

The senator said that if he’s presented with new information that leads to a different conclusion, he wouldn’t be serving the public if he weren’t willing to listen and possibly change, if that’s what’s best for the citizens he serves.

“How does it hurt me politically if you try to do the right thing?” Manchin asked. “They shouldn’t keep me in power if I try to defend a bad decision.”

He said the culture of attacking opponents instead of finding room for compromise has led the political parties to play to the edges instead of finding common ground.

“There’s a lot of meanness out there today: How bad can I make you look?” Manchin said.

Well-known for his willingness to work across party lines for the good of the majority, Manchin summed it up: “I’m wanting to fix things.”

And he champions an effort to remove sitting politicians from the gamesmanship that often marks campaigns.

“What would change Washington?” he asked. “Ethics laws that would keep a current congressman from campaigning against a sitting senator or congressman from another state. Just say you can’t work against other candidates while you hold a seat in Congress.

“How can I campaign against someone and then come back next week and try to work with them to develop legislation that’s good for the country?

“But that’s the atmosphere we live in,” he continued. “If it’s election cycle and I’m a ‘D’ and you’re an ‘R’, you’re expected to campaign against sitting lawmakers.

“It just doesn’t make sense at all.” 

By:  John G. Miller