by Noelle McDowell
Andy Harris has been the U.S. Representative for Maryland’s 1st District for the past decade. Before joining Congress, Harris served as a member of the Maryland State Senate for 12 years. Dr. Harris is also a physician and has practiced anesthesiology for over 30 years. During his time in the Navy Medical Corps, Harris was called on active duty to serve during Operation Desert Storm.
Noelle’s questions are in bold, and Rep. Harris’s answers are in plain text.
What sort of person were you in high school? Were you already interested in medicine? What about politics?
I was already interested in medicine; I knew that was what I was going to do. I went to do a natural science major at the University of Pennsylvania and then went to Johns Hopkins Medical School after that. I was always interested in policy, because my parents had left Communist countries. They understood that policy was important, that politics was important, and that who controls the government is important and can interfere with your liberties and freedoms. That’s why they came to this country and set a very good example for involvement, voting as often as possible and staying on top of current issues.
You got your Bachelors of Science, your Medical Degree, and your Masters of Health Science all from Johns Hopkins University, making you a triple alumnus. Why did you always choose to go back?
Well the Bachelors and the Medical Degree came as a part of a five year program, at the end of two years you got your bachelors degree and at the end of five years you got your medical degree. It was an up-and-coming anesthesiology department, so I decided to continue there. At the end of my training, I was offered a faculty position, so I decided to stay on the faculty. As I realized more and more that medicine involved policy, I got my Masters of Health Science in the Health, Policy, and Management Department at the School of Public Affairs.
After so many years of successful medical practice at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and your time in the Navy Medical Corps, why did you decide to run for the MD State Senate in 1998?
Like I said, I’ve always been interested in policy, and at the time I was involved in the State Society of Anesthesiologists. The opportunity arose, and the attraction of the MD state senate was that it is a part-time legislature. I could be a legislator for three months out of the year, and for the other nine I could continue my practice and my research at Hopkins.
Ten years after that, you ran for Congress for the first time. What made you want to take that bigger role? Were there any particular issues that you were motivated to address?
Health issues are incredibly important at the federal level. I frequently talk to medical groups about the federalization of health care policy that’s occurred over the past twenty years. I saw the opportunity to have an even bigger impact on health care by being in Washington, so I took it.
Do you think that the federalization of health care policy has been a good thing?
No, but my observation was that it was occurring. [laughs] Obviously health care is not mentioned in the Constitution, and it’s still something that I think is best left at the state level to a large extent. In general, I think a lot of things can be handled very well at the state level, and I think health care is one of them. Through the increased number of people, for instance, in the Medicare program, with the aging of that demographic, it’s just become clear that we have increased federalization of health care. The ultimate federalization would of course be what’s being discussed right now, Medicare For All, in which case all health care would be handled at the federal level.
The Constitution prescribes you a two-year term limit as a US Representative, which was intended to keep representatives accountable to their constituents, but it also means that you practically have to be campaigning all the time.
Yes, you have to be listening to what your constituents are thinking about all the time, which is actually what you should be doing as an elected official. [laughs] So I fully support keeping it at a two-year limit. The Senate is fine with a six year limit; that house was designed to run differently. I think that Maryland would actually be much better served by not having all their elected offices at the state level for a four year term and not having everyone elected at the same time. I think they should stagger it as other states do. That keeps you more responsive to the people.
Tell us a little more about campaigning. Is it stressful? What’s enjoyable?
In the past few years, it’s gotten contentious with threats of violence and things like that. That should not be part of the American process. I’ve always held town hall meetings; I enjoy hearing people giving their opinion. Hopefully they do it in a respectful manner, where you respect other people’s time and the people there. If we do everything in a respectful manner, that’s what this country is all about. In the countries where my parents fled from, if you came to a meeting and criticised a government official, you probably ended up in jail that night. You didn’t get to go home, you got to go to jail. That’s not the way America is, and we have to preserve that.
For a while, D.C. residents have protested their deficiency of representation in Congress. In June, you testified on the House floor suggesting the retrocession of DC land back to Maryland. From a Constitutional perspective, how would that work?
The same way it worked for Virginia back in the 1840’s. The bottom line is that the land given for the specific purpose of establishing a federal government could be given back to Maryland (obviously Maryland would have to agree). You could give back fairly large parts of the district and still maintain the protection of the federal government that I think is necessary and was wisely decided on by the people who wrote the Constitution. I think we see that very clearly by the protests that occurred literally right outside the White House. If that land was not federal land, those federal police could not have been there. You could imagine that if you had a leadership in a state that disagreed, they could actually promote that kind of activity right on the doorstep of the federal government. That had in fact occurred in Philadelphia before the Constitution was written, and that was on the minds of the writers when they established a federal enclave that no state could control.
What do you think about the question of statehood for other non-represented territories? Take Puerto Rico, for instance.
If they get the number of votes in Congress, then they will have statehood. It’s a very different circumstance from the District of Columbia, which is specifically described in the Constitution as a federal enclave. There was a clear way to make a territory a state, but there was no method outlined in the Constitution to make the District of Columbia a state. That’s why people believe that if the bill for statehood passed through the Senate and had been signed by the President, it likely would have had a Supreme Court challenge. I think the Supreme Court likely would have said, “No, you followed the way to make a territory a state, but the District of Columbia is not a territory; it’s dealt with very specifically in the Constitution.”
As a medical professional and a legislator, what guidance can you give for the government’s response to the Coronavirus?
What we need to realize, from the very beginning, is that with a respiratory virus like this, unless it mutates in a favorable direction (which it doesn’t look like it’s doing), everybody or almost everybody, will eventually get this virus if you don’t develop a vaccine. So the only way out is to develop one. That’s why I was fully supportive of Operation Warp Speed. For the first time ever in history, we will likely have an FDA-approved vaccine literally within nine months of its conceptualization. That’s just completely unprecedented; we have never before been able to cut through the red tape while maintaining safety to that extent.
In May, you co-sponsored House Resolution 955, which expressed dissatisfaction with government officials across the nation who had “abused their authority by infringing on the Constitutional rights of Americans, ordering private businesses to close, requiring citizens to stay in their homes, and imposing draconian punishments for violations.” The pandemic has raised questions about the right to assembly, the free exercise clause, and our liberty in general. How can we balance citizens’ rights with safety?
The freedom of religion and of religious practice, as well as the freedom of assembly, are specifically guaranteed in the Constitution. I was particularly bothered when some governors would, in some instances, treat religious institutions, churches in particular, differently and more stringently than they did the local Walmart or Home Depot. This is not the way it should be. I strongly resist the idea that the government should ever tell you, first of all, whether or not you can assemble for a protest against the government, which some governments attempted to do early on, and second, whether or not you can assemble to practice your religion.
Have you seen any positive results of the Coronavirus pandemic?
Obviously it’s a tragedy that people die of a medical virus. That’s why I went to medical school, to improve people’s health. Fortunately, this virus is less deadly than it could have been, especially among younger healthy people. At first, it was predicted that one to two million Americans would die from this. We’re about to pass two hundred thousand, which of course is a tragedy, but it’s not one or two million. It’s also allowed us to have a program like Operation Warp Speed, where we’ve realized that if we need to develop a vaccine, we can do it quickly. We funded ten billion dollars of research to make vaccines much more easily developed in the future. I think it exposed some of the weaknesses in our supply chains that we will need in the future. So the silver lining is that we will have made tremendous advances for the next pandemic.