Congressman Tom MacArthur doesn’t mind standing in the middle of Washington’s vast political divide.
It’s a position that served the freshman lawmaker well during his first term in Congress, where he found success bridging the gap between his own Republican Party members and those across the aisle on legislation to protect Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, aid Superstorm Sandy victims, as well as help families and law enforcement deal with the national heroin epidemic.
It also helped him win a new term representing New Jersey’s 3rd District, whose voters re-elected him by a large margin, even those in Burlington County, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a close to 40,000 margin.
MacArthur believes his victory validates his “no labels” approach to governing.
“The people could judge what I did — not which party label I have — and decide whether my actions resonated with them,” he said during an interview last week. “It’s an easy district for me to be myself in, really. The way I vote and the things I stand for — that’s who I am. So to win by very solid numbers, it means that who I am suits the people of this part of South Jersey, and I appreciate that.”
A new Congress will kick off on Jan. 3, and it’s expected to bring some big changes and new challenges for the 3rd District representative.
For starters, MacArthur will take on a new leadership post as the Republican co-chairman of the Bipartisan Task Force to Combat the Heroin Epidemic.
It’s a key assignment for MacArthur, who has made tackling addiction one of his top priorities, both because of the alarmingly high number of heroin deaths in New Jersey but also for personal reasons.
“For most of us, there’s a personal overlay here. You don’t have to go far to know somebody struggling with addiction,” he said.
For MacArthur, that somebody was a longtime friend and former co-worker who died from an overdose six years ago.
“He was a family man. His kids were friends with my kids. We went to church together. For a time, we even worked together,” he said. “This was a hardworking, decent human being who got stuck in the web of addiction and people can’t just will their way out of it. That’s the problem we’re facing.”
As the task force’s co-chairman, MacArthur said he hopes to continue the group’s bipartisan success. During the last year, it managed to get a package of bills dealing with prevention, treatment and recovery signed into law, as well as another measure providing about a billion dollars in funding help.
But he wants Congress to go further in helping families assist loved ones struggling with addiction, including extended family members, and he also wants to help the medical field address over-prescription of painkillers and for the federal government to crack down on banned substances and new synthetic opioids designed to mimic fentanyl, a prescription painkiller up to 50 times stronger than heroin.
“My view, if certain substances cause specific kinds of results … like short-lived euphoric highs, addiction, mental health breakdown — you can change the compounds all you want, that’s still a banned substance.”
Foreclosures and flooding
In addition to the heroin and opioid crisis, MacArthur hopes to help tackle two other thorny issues: the still-lingering foreclosure crisis, which has hit New Jersey hard, and the National Flood Insurance Program, which is up for renewal next fall and is being targeted by some Congress members, who point to the program’s debt and argue that taxpayers shouldn’t be responsible for funding flood coverage.
MacArthur, a former insurance CEO, said shutting down the program would be disastrous for coastal communities and small businesses.
“If we don’t have a federal backstop for flood, it’s going to be very difficult for people of modest means to buy a home. It’s going to be hard for most people to have a home on the shore,” he said.
MacArthur is expecting a tough fight, similar to the political battle Northeast representatives waged over Superstorm Sandy aid. In order to better position himself, he’s hoping to land a third assignment on the House Financial Services Committee, which focuses on legislation and oversight over banking and insurance programs.
MacArthur already serves on the Armed Services and Natural Resources Committee. He said it’s still too soon to say whether he will succeed in getting a rare third assignment.
“All that stuff was deferred into the first week of Congress, so we’re still talking through what I can do and how I can do it. I’m certainly going to try to position myself to have the most influence,” he said.
A spot on Financial Services would also put him in a better position to assist with expected changes in health insurance and banking laws.
In a recent opinion piece, MacArthur argued for changes to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law, arguing that many of the restrictions on banks were well-intended following the 2008 financial crisis, but that they have also made it harder for small businesses and start-ups to get loans and lines of credit.
“I understand why (Dodd-Frank) was done. I understand it was trying to address some genuine concerns and abuses. But it was a massive pendulum swing that has gone too far in the other direction, and now it makes it hard for banks to want to loan money,” he said. “We have to do some things to moderate it and make sure we’re controlling bad actors but not making it harder for business to take place.”
Changes to the ACA
Changes to the Affordable Care Act is another tricky area. Like most of his Republican colleagues, MacArthur has long called for the Obama administration’s signature health care law to be scrapped and replaced with more market-driven reforms. But now, with Republican President-elect Donald Trump poised to take over the White House next month, the party can actually follow through with its promises.
MacArthur sees it as a chance to fix a broken system, but also a risky one.
“We’re no longer passing messaging bills. We’re shooting live rounds now,” he said. “When it comes to the Affordable Care Act, we have to do it very carefully.”
Some immediate changes are needed and will likely occur quickly to try to address problems such as rapidly rising premiums and market collapses, he said. But caution is the message he has tried to convey to GOP leaders and colleagues.
“The repeal of the bad parts of ‘Obamacare’ will be relatively easy. The replacement is going to be hard,” MacArthur said. “I think one of the things we’re going to have to do is take our time with that and make sure we don’t disrupt the markets while we take our time with it.”
Including Democrats in the rewrite is another must, both for replacing Obamacare and other efforts, he said. In that area, MacArthur hopes to help bridge the considerable Capitol divide.
“The risk, as I see it, is the Republican Party goes too far, too fast, with too little input from the minority,” he said. “The risk to Democrats is that they just become obstructionists and say no to everything because they think it will help them in the future.”
MacArthur said he hopes the new Congress targets issues and fixes with broad, bipartisan support.
“I think the Republican Party needs to do things for which there is a broad consensus across the country, and we need to resist the temptation to use our power to ram an agenda down the throats of half of America that doesn’t want it,” he said.
“There needs to be a voice of restraint and making sure we do what we do right. Let’s have a government that can actually function with a majority and a minority and get things done.”
MacArthur hopes to be that voice and bring other members to that cause. He also pledged to continue the hallmarks of his first term in office: constituent services and strong advocacy on military issues, particularly those involving the joint base and veterans.
He also had a message for residents worried about the new Congress and the change in power at the White House: “People in this neck of the woods can know their congressman is not afraid to stand in the middle. I’m very comfortable speaking my mind and trying to work with people from both sides to keep the train on the tracks.”