Congressman Christopher Smith, age 57, has served New Jersey’s 4th congressional district in the US House of Representatives since 1981. Smith, a Republican, is a champion of pro-life causes as well as human rights and religious freedom abroad. He serves on several congressional committees, including the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health. He is also co-chairman of the Congressional Pro Life Caucus. Congressman Smith recently spoke with CWR about his 30 years in Congress and what we can expect from the new Congress.
How does your Catholic faith inform your policy-making?
Rep. Chris Smith: It’s been my faith and my family. My wife is a very, very devout Catholic, and has been the inspiration for virtually everything I’ve done. When I get down over these fights on the culture of life, she’s always the one who’s there quoting the appropriate Scripture, encouraging, even admonishing—committing all things in humble trust to the Lord. She is a pillar of strength and a very wise woman—my best friend. We’ve been married 33 years.
What I like so much about our faith, beside it being true and the revelation of God’s will for us on earth, is the heavy emphasis on selflessly caring for others—Matthew 25—and especially caring for the disenfranchised and the weakest and the most vulnerable. The Catholic Church radiates Christ to the poor and forgotten. For me, that means human rights, and that means humanitarian issues. And the definition of human rights absolutely has to include the unborn child and his or her mother, who are co-victims of every abortion.
For a political conservative, you have taken some unorthodox stances on everything from climate change and illegal immigration to issues related to gun rights and organized labor.
Smith: Well, labor issues were critical in the fight for freedom in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. John Paul II, the trade union Solidarity, Ronald Reagan, and the Catholic Church in Poland—and prayer by millions of people—ushered in democracy. Lech Walesa fought for labor rights and fundamental human rights. Labor rights are part of the family of human rights, and they should not be denigrated. There are excesses. But frankly, workers need collective bargaining and other protections. When you see the absence of it, like in China, where independent labor unions are banned by law—yes, they have labor unions, but they are run by the government, a totally bogus entity—many brave people go to prison, just like Lech Walesa did in Poland, arguing for those rights.
Does it cause a lot of conflict among Republicans?
Smith: It does with some, without a doubt. And I try to persuade, whether it be on culture of life issues, especially abortion, or any other human rights issues, like religious freedom. On labor issues, it’s the same thing. People are entitled to a decent salary and a workplace that’s free of occupational hazards to the greatest extent possible. And the employer is entitled to an honest day’s work on the part of the employee. And that’s right out of the encyclicals, right out of the Church’s teaching over the centuries. Which is why I feel not just comfortable with it, I believe it is bedrock.
How would you describe your political philosophy?
Smith: It is very pro-human rights, pro-humanitarian, pro-growth. I believe the best anti-poverty program has always been a job. And [government can] create the atmosphere for jobs; it doesn’t create the jobs. So I take that very seriously.
The government needs to be incentivizing certain things, like homeownership, which we do to some extent with the tax credit. But also it needs to be very protective of the weakest and the most vulnerable, whether they are unborn or children with special needs or some other potentially vulnerable population, and I do that domestically and internationally. It’s a seamless approach to all those at risk. If you narrow it down, it’s Matthew 25 : “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
The Humane Society often gives you a very high score for co-sponsoring and voting for laws that protect animals. But you are one of the few Republicans who score well on those issues. Where does that come from?
Smith: It’s part of the magnificent legacy of St. Francis of Assisi, of treating both the environment and all creatures that God created with respect. Of course, I’ll eat a hamburger. I’m not a vegetarian. But I do think we need to treat all animals with respect and dignity. There may be a place, in dire circumstances [for experimenting on animals]. But for perfume or some other consumer product? So I do take a very pro-animal perspective.
But I wish those people who are on the animal rights side [and] are also pro-abortion would see that unborn babies deserve protection. I don’t know if you ever saw the great political cartoon of a seal, holding up the sign saying, “Save the Baby Humans.” I’m sure you remember that one. So when I meet with my animal rights friends [in Congress], I often segue into, “Hey, be consistent, we need your help defending children and mothers from the violence of abortion.”
What are your most significant legislative achievements?
Smith: I’m very serious about the bills I introduce. The empirical record bears this out. The nonpartisan congressional watchdog organization GovTrack monitors lawmaking performance and reports that over the past two decades, since they initiated coverage, I rank third among all 435 members of Congress in the number of laws authored. Anyone in Congress can introduce a bill. Turning that bill into a law is another thing altogether.
I have one bill pending, [which is] strongly backed by Covenant House, that is on life support over in the Senate, called the International Megan’s Law, which would notify destination countries of people who had been convicted of a sex crime against children, so that when they get out of prison and plan on traveling abroad, they must inform our State Department, which in turn notifies the destination country. Convicted sex offenders go to countries like Thailand and Brazil and other places and abuse little children all over again. It’s passed the House and it’s pending in the Senate. But I’m going to stay with that bill until it is law. I hope it becomes law in the next couple of weeks.
It’s being held up in part because of funding. There are 700,000 people on the Megan’s Law list, the registry [of those convicted of sex crimes against children], across the country. Four and a half thousand people every year on that list get a passport—valid for 10 years—so we know pedophiles are traveling. And when they go to destinations where they can abuse kids, we need to tell that country, so it can deny a visitor’s visa or at least be aware of that potentially dangerous person.
How would you rate the job the Obama administration has done defending human rights and religious freedom abroad?
Smith: An F. He simply hasn’t made human rights a priority. And I think it’s a tragedy. [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton stated publicly that she won’t let human rights “interfere” with our relationship with China—a serious retreat and surrender for the US. Instead, Obama and Clinton are promoting abortion and the gay rights agenda. That’s our new foreign policy…. They have done some good things in implementing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, a law I authored to combat sex and labor trafficking, but the zeitgeist of this administration has been promoting abortion and the gayrights agenda all over the world.
Can you talk a little about what recently happened in Kenya— about the Obama administration’s involvement in supporting passage of the country’s new constitution, which includes language that liberalizes abortion law?
Smith: Kenya’s a microcosm of what Obama and Clinton are doing everywhere in the world—in Asia, in Nigeria, Ghana, Bosnia, all over the world, including and especially in countries that are writing new constitutions.
America comes in using its enormous influence and linkage to foreign aid and uses paid mercenaries—proabortion organizations, all with one message: legalize and provide unfettered access to abortion. The US tells sovereign nations to put abortion in their constitutions and in their national health strategies. And that’s what Obama just did in Kenya. The Obama administration just spent $61.5 million subsidizing more than 80 organizations, including the Kenyan Federation of Women Lawyers, to ensure that the right to abortion was included in their new constitution. We paid for the whole thing! The whole bill. There might be a little from the European Union, but we funded the non-governmental organizations with no parameters on how they could use the money in regard to the abortion issue. That violates the Siljander Amendment, which prohibits taxpayer money used to lobby either for or against abortion. The Government Accountability Office is investigating.
In May 2009, President Obama announced a new Global Health Initiative to be funded at $63 billion over six years—a consolidation of several Bush initiatives including the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and both the Malaria and TB initiatives. There are several fundamental concerns with the GHI that require immediate congressional inquiry and bold, effective action.
For example, even though I successfully led the effort to strike reproductive health language from the law that reauthorized PEPFAR for an additional five years—Secretary Clinton now unilaterally defines health, especially reproductive health and maternal health, as including access to abortion, and today the Obama administration is systematically “integrating” HIV/AIDS programming and other health care contracts with funding for pro-abortion non governmental organizations.
This new, massive, unprecedented funding and strategic empowerment of Planned Parenthood and other proabortion NGOs, often at the expense of faith based health groups, will, if not reversed, exponentially expand abortion around the world. Making matters worse, this huge multi-billion- dollar funding stream is in addition to the 50 percent increase in population control funding enacted under Obama—all without the prolife guidelines contained in the Mexico City Policy revoked by Obama during his first week in office.
What do you think about the recent statements of some prominent Republicans, like Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, that the country should call a “truce” on debates over cultural issues like abortion and marriage until the economy improves?
Smith: I’d say it’s uninformed, unnecessary and unconscionable. I mean, we can address the economic issues and simultaneously aggressively promote the culture of life. To think that you can’t do one if you’re doing the other is legislative incompetence. At the end of the next Congress, in 2012, if we have not used every opportunity to defend human life wherever children or the elderly or the disabled are threatened, we will have another two million dead babies and wounded mothers, two years hence and we will have squandered an opportunity that is crying out for justice and compassion.
And the social and economic issues are linked, because the government spends hundreds of millions on abortion.
Smith: In part. But it’s really an artificial division, and I think it’s more of an insight into those two individuals’ priorities. We can do both and we should do both…. The good news is [incoming House Speaker John] Boehner and [incoming House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor are deeply pro-life. And that’s going to make a difference.
Where can progress be made on abortion in the new Congress? Can Planned Parenthood be defunded? How about repealing taxpayer funding of abortion in the new health care law?
Smith: Yes, I hope so, but we still have a difficult Senate and the “Abortion President” to deal with. Going forward, we need disciplined tactics, and we need to manage our expectations. But we’ve been here before, so we can’t let huge challenges inhibit our pushing the envelope in order to protect life. To that end, I’ve introduced—along with 185 co-sponsors—the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, to comprehensively and permanently end public funding of abortion in every federal program and under all federal government authority. Today Obamacare authorizes public funding of abortion. There are at least a half a dozen places in that misguided law where—at the time and place of Obama’s choosing, and certainly in 2014 when the exchanges kick in—abortion will be publicly funded. Unless we stop it.
Internationally, as I said, Obama and Clinton are integrating our foreign aid—especially our health funds—with the abortion agenda. It is tragic beyond words…. They are promoting abortion-on-demand until birth as a false means of mitigating maternal mortality. And the facts are, what these women need are skilled birth attendants, safe blood, antibiotics, and prenatal care. A woman with an obstructed delivery needs a life-affirming intervention like a safe Cesarean section. Abortion kills babies and wounds their moms.
At one of my congressional hearings, a woman from the World Health Organization, a doctor, testified that, because hemorrhaging is a real problem, if Africa had sufficient quantities of safe blood, 44 percent of the maternal mortality in Africa would disappear. So humane, humanitarian-oriented, promother, pro-baby initiatives are the ways you reduce maternal mortality.
What are the prospects of repealing Obamacare, especially since the president would probably veto any repeal legislation, not to mention that it probably wouldn’t pass in the Senate?
Smith: That’s very true. To completely repeal it we need a new, pro-life president. And there will be a huge push in 2012 to achieve that. Of course, we’ve got to find a way of [insuring the uninsured]. But incentivizing the elimination of employer-based health care—as may happen under Obamacare—is not the answer. [Republicans] will look into ways to defund it, but [to completely repeal it] we must vote someone into the White House who will sign legislation to repeal and replace it with a law that is much more helpful.
Who are your friends in Congress?
Smith: The guys in the New Jersey delegation are close. [Virginia Republican Rep.] Frank Wolf is one of my best friends. We work on human rights issues all the time. [Arizona Republican Rep.]Trent Franks. Joe Pitts from Pennsylvania. There are many, including my own outstanding staff. Generally, [my friends are] conservative, very faithfilled people, and people who are very passionate about life. We have a bond that’s very, very strong.
When your time in public office is done, what would you like your legacy to be?
Smith: To have served God. And if someone were to mention that I worked on Matthew 25 issues, that would say it all.