Property Rights Foundation of America®
Founded 1994

 

Property Rights in the United States Congress

Congressman Tom Reed
U.S. House of Representatives
23rd Congressional District, New York

Nineteenth Annual National Conference on
Private Property Rights
October 17, 2015
The Century House, Latham, N.Y.

 

Well, thank you very much. First of all, I did not realize we were going to get an award today so I just want to say to the organization, to the Property Rights Foundation of America, Thank you, Carol. Thank you for that recognition but it truly is unnecessary because I believe in what we're doing.

I'm doing this not for the awards, not for the attention, but because it's the fundamentally right thing to do. And I applaud you for being here today and sharing your time to come together to fight for this fight. And I will tell you, as Carol pointed out, I'm a relatively new member of the United States House of Representatives, going in 2010 with that big wave on the Republican side. There was eighty-nine of us that went to Washington.

And we were talking a little bit earlier and some people are frustrated with Washington, D.C. I share and I empathize with that frustration. But I can attest to the fact that there are a lot of good men and women that are there.

And I was up in New Hampshire recently and we were hosting some of the presidential candidates and we were talking about issues before a town hall and some of the people expressed the frustration in the crowd in the town hall meeting we were having and I said, "What's happening is there's a critical mass behind the scenes that's coming together where people are saying, 'Enough is enough.'" We're not moving as fast as possible and fast as we want but we're going in the right direction. So, don't lose faith.

I will tell you what they want us to do, from Washington, D.C., is to try to divide and conquer, to try and take our eye off the ball, fight amongst ourselves, and forget the cause as to why we went to Washington, D.C. Because I expressed to them, you've got to realize seventy percent of the men and women in the House of Representatives and Senate today have not served under any other administration than this president's. That should be a breath of fresh air. And it is a breath of fresh air because the colleagues that I associate with, the people that we're kind of bringing a critical mass together with, they went there to get something done.

I leave my family every week. My wife and my two kids. They're fifteen and seventeen. And I leave every week because I travel back and forth from my home in Corning [New York] to Washington, D.C. We drive down Route 15. It's a five-and-a-half-hour drive. I do it on a Monday. I come back on Thursday. I spend the weekend in the district and then just keep going back and forth. Every time I leave — and we gave up our business, we gave up that family time because we believe, I believe. My kids, I look at them in the eye and say, "Why I'm going there is because I want to make sure that America is great for future generations to come."

We're going to do our part. We've got a lot of fiscal issues to take care of. We've got a national debt. We have an economy that's stagnant. But one of the things that we have focused on in our tenure is the right of private property. And I know that's why you're here today. And I'll tell you we enjoyed so much the opportunity to go in front of Cato because they do yeoman's work in that institute fighting for these issues day in and day out. And we addressed the group there and we brought these issues up. I was reminded that this fight is never done. This fight is never done. If you look at the history and Roger [Pilon] has gone through all the cases over time, this fight has been going on since the founding of our country. The recognition that private property rights are fundamental. They're in our Constitution. They're protected in our Constitution. They are something that our Founders have fought for and shed blood for. People of every generation have fought for these rights and I can assure you we cannot give up this fight on our watch because they want to take these rights away.

So, as we go forward, one of the things that really brought this to a head to me here in New York State, is the whole issue of hydraulic fracturing, natural gas development. You've got to realize I represent the 23rd Congressional District. So, we go all the way from Erie, Pennsylvania — it's eleven counties about the size of the State of New Jersey — from Erie, Pennsylvania, over to Binghamton, essentially, and then up through the Central Finger Lakes Region. And I can tell you first hand all the family farmers that were waiting for the opportunity to use their property, to use those mineral rights that they're paying taxes on, that they're maintaining the property in order to enjoy those rights.

And when that decision came down from Albany, I can't tell you how saddened I was when I watched the Governor's press conference and he came down with the conclusion that, "You know what we're going to do? We're going to say, no, we can't and we're going to take those rights away." With the stroke of a pen he took that right away from our fellow property owners in that area of New York in particular.

I can tell you first hand. I had family farmers, a gentleman by the name of Neil Vitale who was my guest at the State of the Union, who was saying, "Tom, I live on the Pennsylvania border. My farm is about two hundred acres and essentially I can see right over into Pennsylvania and I can see them developing their property and now the Governor says I can't use mine." That's wrong. It's not right. I'll tell you I've fought this fight because I also have in the district Thompkins County, Cornell University, Ithaca, kind of the heart of the anti-fracking movement in New York State and across the country. I go to town halls. We've done over two hundred town halls. I stand in front of groups, people that adamantly disagree with me because I do believe, being the youngest of twelve maybe it's in our blood, my Mom was a single mother. My father passed when I was two and she raised us all by herself. There were six of us and we were always taught you have to talk with people. You have to listen to people. Even if they disagree with you, treat them with respect. But at the end of the day we're all Americans, we're all of this family and friends. We're all neighbors and you treat them with respect.

So, we go up there and, boy I tell you, they are hostile. They are hostile to this concept. They have attacked me. They have attacked me by the hundreds. And all is say is, "Look, I'm standing up for these people because this is their property. It's not your property. Be careful what you ask for because it may be turned around on you and the government may be coming after your property in a way you don't like it to occur." And so, we have continued that message.

I will go anywhere to have that conversation. In one of those town halls I had a young lady who got up and said, "You'll never come to my family farm in Northern Pennsylvania to see what happened. This group came in, developed the property, ruined the family farm." I said, "No. I'll go." I do it all the time because I've gone down Route 15, as I said, back and forth to D.C. and everyone knows the Route 6 corridor in the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania. Every once in a while I'll get off just to see what's going on in the backyard. And I'll get off there at Mansfield. I'll go towards Wellsboro. People don't know who I am and I'll go to the local gas station and I'll sit there and go, "What's going on in the community? How's this going." And, you know, it's amazing the stories you hear. I said to this young lady, "I'll come." So, we set it up. We went to her family farm. It was one of the best experiences in my career. We walk into her family farm and we sit down and her father comes up and he says, "Congressman Reed…" And I say, "First it's always Tom and it always will be Tom." He says, "Tom, let me tell you. I know she's adamantly against this. And she thinks this destroyed our farm but I can tell you it did not. I lived on this farm for generations. Yeah, it was a little crazy for about six months. The trucks were coming up and going to the well site. Developing the well pad and all that." Then he says, "Do you want glass of water?" He gave me a glass of water right out of his sink. We drank the water and it was perfect. I mean, I'm still here. I don't think I'm any worse for the wear. We had a great conversation. But he said something that day that resonated with me and also fuels my passion on this issue. He goes, "Tom, I know she's adamantly against it but let me tell you something. I get a check from that well pad on the back of my property every month. And guess what I do with a big portion of that? I'm paying for her kids to go to college." And what I said is, there's a man, there's a grandfather, who is showing his grandkids and providing an opportunity. Because I truly do believe in education. Education is the key to advancing our efforts in the world. And I said there he is using his property in a way that's going to arm generations of kids in his family for many generations to come.

So, then I think about the War on Poverty. I'm thinking about the trillions of dollars that we spend in Washington, D.C. on the War on Poverty directed by government bureaucrats who think they know what's best and they say this is what we're going to do when we send trillions of dollars to D.C. in order for it to come back to the district and here this man is using his property that he has maintained, that he has developed, and is making sure that they're doing it right. They're protecting the environment. They're doing it responsibly. And he's arming his kids with a college degree that they're going to get for free because he's developed his property in a responsible way.

That is the face that we're fighting for. That's what we're trying to fight for down in Washington. So, when that decision came down I said, "I have to do something." That was kind of the straw that broke the camel's back for me. And we've been looking at property rights for quite some time. We've been kind of indirectly involved with it hearing the stories from across the country. But that was the moment that I said we have to get more organized, we have to get more coordinated, we have to get more dedicated, we have to work harder in order to take this fight on. And that's when I went back to Washington right after that. We started the Private Property Rights Caucus. We have members now from Maine, Alabama to California. They get together on a regular basis to highlight this issue, to hear from folks across the country as to what's going on in their backyards so that we can take their stories to the floor of the House and develop reforms in order to take back and stand for those fundamental private property rights that I know you hold dear, just as I hold dear.

And so, that caucus is thriving. That caucus is engaging. And I will tell you I've heard from people. You know, you hear the stories. You've got the family owner of his home that he's lived in all his life. He's a piano teacher in Atlantic City. Mr. Birnbaum, I believe is his last name And Charlie came in and he talked to us and he says, "You know, I just want to use my property. I'm a son of a Holocaust survivor. I just came here to live the American dream. I just want to be left alone." And here you've got a casino authority that wants to take his property. Not to use it for a road. Not to use it for a school or anything like that. But to take it from one private owner to give to another private owner for casino development. That's crazy. That's crazy! And he said, "I just want to teach kids piano. I just want to live in peace and quiet in my house."

Now, those are the stories. I can't tell you how important those stories are because when we go to colleagues and we have this conversation and a lot of times I'll have the conversation about our legislation in the Defense of Property Rights Act that we put together to reform this and kind of claw back the power that's been delegated from Congress to the Executive Branch. Now, the courts are hesitant to get involved because of all the doctrines that have come down over the years that Roger talked about earlier.

And what we're saying is that these are the faces. These are the people that are losing their property because we have delegated to the government all of this authority. So, some of the reforms in the Defense of Property Rights Act, to me, they're common sense. To streamline the court process so that everyone has a right to go to federal court or state court, wherever they so choose and they don't get the runaround or the judges and the government attorneys kick you out of federal court to go to state court. And then when you're in state court they say, "Well, you've got to go to federal court." And then we have that whole mill. It sounds like you've been in that process for thirty-plus years.

Audience member: Thirty years.

Congressman Reed: Thirty-plus years dealing with that. We need to reform that so people have a clear way to get justice.

Audience member: I think you shouldn't really be a judge unless you believe in the Constitution.

Congressman Reed: Ha! I agree with that. And then other simple reforms like when we look at the regulatory taking. This is really the heart of the matter, I think, today that's going to ignite this movement across the world as we see regulations continue to come out of Washington, at the local, the state level. And because it's a regulatory taking, you guys all know, you're very much astute, most crowds are not, that when those types of takings occur, there is no recourse. The courts essentially say that unless the property is rendered completely useless and valueless you have no right to pursue a claim. So, what we did in the Defense of Property Rights Act is we said, "No, no, no, no, no. Property is a bundle of rights. Property is not just the title to that fee interest in someone's property. You own multiple pieces of that property. And if the government is going to take that property, at least, we should honor the Fifth Amendment and say you have to compensate the individuals for doing that." And I will tell you we've hit a hornet's nest with that. We have hit a hornet's nest.

So, those town halls I'm telling you about in Cornell University, Ithaca, Thompkins County… It's funny because so many people that are opposed to us, I see their heads going, "Oh, that seems fair. Okay, I guess I can understand it. That's a fundamental right, the Fifth Amendment." We all get that. If the government is going to take your property, those mineral rights with the Waters of the U.S. and render your pieces of your farm unusable, the least the government should compensate you for it. And you get the head nod. You get the head nod going like this. That tells me we're on to something because you've got the Far Left coming with us who are standing up for the Constitution saying that it's a fundamental fairness question. We have an opportunity to potentially ignite a movement across the country.

What will that do? Because a lot of times the counterargument I get that people put up are, "Those are taxpayer's dollars. Who's going to pay those bills?" I say, "Yeah, that's it. They're taxpayer dollars." But I can tell you I've been an elected official for a very short time. 2010, 2008 when I became mayor in the City of Corning. What is the most critical time when you get an elected official's attention? Election, right? And what do they usually ask? "Did my taxes go up? Do my taxes go up?" If we have this issue before them when they adopt a regulation they say, "Oh, my goodness. We now have to quantify how much this is going to cost to pay out to landowners and in order to cover that bill we may have to raise taxes?" So, I'm doing this by design, ladies and gentlemen. I'm doing this on purpose in the sense that not only is it the right thing to do, not only is it the fair thing to do, it is also a chilling effect on the government agencies. Because if you can hold them accountable and they have to pay out of the taxpayer coffers as elected officials, that compensation bill, I can assure you the conversation that's going to occur in those legislative and city council board rooms, is going to be much different than what it is today because now they don't think about it. Because they know they don't have to pay the bill. They can take your property and you're done. Please go right ahead.

Audience member: No, I was just going to say that I always put the cents on it. If you support something pay for it. I do know how important it is. That will determine what is or what should be.

Congressman Reed: I totally agree with that and it will allow us as citizens to understand what's going on in our bodies. Because a lot of times these decisions are made and no one knows because people are busy. I go around the district and it's amazing to me how busy people are. They have their kids. They're at soccer. They're going to work two jobs, three jobs a day and then they're going to supposedly monitor city hall and town hall and the halls of Congress and the state capital here in Albany.

So, this legislation, hopefully, will have that effect and I'll tell you we're getting support across the country. Sir, go right ahead.

Audience member: When is it likely, do you think, this legislation will pass?

Congressman Reed: We're just in the beginning. We've got a long way to go. But this is what we're trying to do. That's why I drove up here today. We need an army of people that go across the country to utilize your list, the fifteen hundred folks, Carol, on your mailing list and say we need to engage, get our elected officials to co-sponsor. We're getting co-sponsors. I forget the number we're up to. We're up to over twenty at the present time.

Audience member: The more you get the better the support action will happen

Audience member: What would you say? A year, two, three?

Congressman Reed: This is probably going to be post-presidential. This is going to be a multi-year, four or eight year it depends on what cases come down the pipeline, too. Remember, when I looked at the Kelo history, there was an immediate response from that. That was put in the Republican Contract with America. There was a lot of work done immediately after that. There was a lot of the reasons why I think there was a shift in power in Washington, D.C. A lot of that had to do with that overreach by the case of Kelo. So, we're seeing more and more cases that are coming down where people are getting truly engaged because they're saying that this is not the American way. So, it's going to take that PR, that public campaign in order to move Congress. We're just at the tip of it. And so, it's going to be multiple years. And then when we have the presidential debate, and as we talked about, you know, some people mentioned. I saw Donald Trump make the comments he did about eminent domain in the flippant, "I love it. I love it. It's going to be great. It's huge." And all that stuff. I'm a Republican, too. I'm not much I was just with Donald Trump the other day and I said, "I adamantly disagree with you. That's not the American way. Just because you're a big developer doesn't mean you have the right to take someone else's property and just flip it to another person. That's not the American way." And so, we need to make sure the presidential debate has this as a highlight and we have a real debate on it.

Roger, Yeah?

Mr. Pilon: Tom, just to pick up on those last points that you made with regulatory takings, I think they're extremely important because when I debate this issue and you get to the regulatory takings you say to the person, "Look, you want that lovely view for the public, you want that wildlife habitat for the public, there's a way to get it under eminent domain. You've got to pay for it." But they say, "But we can't afford it." To which I say, "Well, I can't think of any difference between that and what a thief would say." What they can't afford to buy, they just take it. It seems to me that what this amounts to is putting on budget what is already, what is today, off budget. Because the payment for it goes to the single guy whose property is taken so that the public can enjoy this lovely view or the public can enjoy this wildlife habitat. In other words, it turns the Welfare State on its head. The Welfare State is lots of people contributing so that those people who can't quite make it will be able to have sustenance. This is all the people getting the goods all at the expense of the one guy whose property is taken from which the goods come. So, it seems to me it's absolutely essential to put this on budget because then we'll know whether that view is worth it. Whether that wildlife habitat is worth it because right now we have no indication. That's why. You know, when, as Milton Friedman said, "When something is free the demand is infinite." Right? And so, if it's free, let's save as much as we can.

Congressman Reed: Amen. I couldn't say it better. No doubt about it. Go ahead, please.

Audience member: I'm going to follow up on that, directly follow up on it, what's not being told. We got a Constitutional Amendment passed in Virginia. What they used against us time and time again were these fiscal impact statements. And they would say, "We can't afford to justly compensate owners. And we said, "That's because you're not looking at the entire cost of the project." What they forget is when an owner is not compensated, he or she is incurring damages. Those damages are part of the cost of the project. Whether they're paid or they're not paid, what we see is, we see businesses go out of business. We see people end up with vacant land which they can't develop that would generate tax revenue so that whole part of the cost is not put into the equation. When we finally started firing back in Richmond, to tell them that you need to look at the entire cost, we were able to get past that hurdle. And I think that's something that needs to be remembered when they're firing back at you about the cost. If we're going to look at the cost, we need to look at all of the cost including the property that's not generating revenue, including the business that goes out of business because we're not justly compensating that business. I just wanted to put that out there to say we need to look at the whole cost and not pick and choose what costs we're going to look at.

Congressman Reed: Amen.

Mr. Pilon: If I could just follow up on that?

Congressman Reed: Please, Yes, this is what we want.

Mr. Pilon: This is the obverse of what the environmentalists tell us, namely, look, when you're polluting your neighbor, when you're putting junk into the rivers and so forth you're not taking into account all the costs that come from your doing that. So, they understand that argument when it comes to pollution. This is just the obverse of it.

Congressman Reed: And I can't tell you how many town halls I had, because I do them all the time, where you catch them in that logical twist and they say, "Oh. Well, that makes sense. I guess I'm doing that from my perspective in that I want natural gas to be banned on my neighboring property because it's going to contaminate my water, etc., etc." Well, what about the other way around? That person trying to use his property and then you potentially win it. What can I do? Can I come on your property and say that you have to get off your property because I don't like you being out in your backyard at five o'clock at night because it's too loud? You have a right to your property. Go ahead.

Audience member: I'd like to say a couple of comments today. Among other things we're small business owners. One of the things we find coming out of Albany is costs, particularly when it comes to the standpoint of small businesses going out of business. If fact I run most of my small businesses out-of-pocket to keep people employed. Okay. That's the very point. People lose jobs when there's no small businesses. When they lose those jobs they've got to look somewhere to survive. They go to food stamps. They go to the [unintelligible] programs. They go to the government handouts. You've taken the dignity away from the people. And that is a fundamental right as far as I'm concerned. And so we talk about these things as a total cost, we've really got to look at it from the standpoint of where you come from, the grassroots. Because that's where it's destroyed. And that's who we lose the impact. It filters up and through all the government agencies to Washington and sometimes we feel, and I know Steve Daines and a few other folks, that's who we feel you're not hearing the message from the lower level where the [unintelligible] meets the road. I'm very glad that I had the opportunity to mention that to you. I appreciate you're coming, myself personally.

Congressman Reed: I appreciate that. That's what we try to do. I always go to members because they're always laughing at me when they're saying, "Why do you do so many town halls? We see you getting laughed at. We see you getting yelled at," and all that stuff. I say that it's refreshing because if you can't stand in front of a group of people and tell them why you feel the way you feel and what your basis is for making your decision, how can you sit in Washington, D.C. and make real decisions if you can't do that when you go back to your district to represent people?

So, I encourage people to tell their elected officials to get out there. Stand in front of us. And what I find too, when I leave these town halls, for example these adversarial town halls, and they're not all adversarial. I've been elected and we've won overwhelmingly, we represent some of the hardest Libertarian side of New York as well as the most Liberal side. It's a very good thing I guess being the youngest of twelve it's very helpful to have that skill set. To learn from that. But tell people to do that because it is so important because when we walk away from a lot of these adversarial town halls settings, I have people coming up all the time saying, "I respect you. I disagree with you. But I appreciate the fact that you're thinking and that you have a rational thought behind why you're doing what you're doing. Now I can look at it from a little perspective of a different outlook on life." And I will tell you that's important because in order to tackle America's problems, it cannot be "us vs. them." At some point in time we're going to have to come together as a country to solve these issues. These are big issues. These are generational. Inside, we were talking. And one of the reasons that Roger pointed out with this delegation of authority.

I was on the floor of the House — I'll share a story with you. John Dingell authored the Clean Air Act, right? I went to John Dingell and he just retired. He's been there forever, was there forever. And I say, "Did you really intend, when you drafted the Clean Air Act, for them to be doing what they're doing with it, like with carbon dioxide and everything that they're doing?" And he says, "Not in a million years. I just want clean air." And a lightbulb went off in my mind. What has happened is that Republicans and Democrats for generations have found it is easy to pass a piece of legislation that says, "We want clean water. We want clean air. But we're not going to tell you how to do it." When you talk to a lot of these careerists over at the EPA, the Corps and other things they'll come back to me and they'll challenge me and they'll say, "We're doing what you told us to do. You told us you wanted clean air. You wanted clean water. We're just interpreting it in a very broad and vast way." So, if you notice one of the reforms that we're advocating for out of this Congress is that when we delegate that authority to those agencies, we are very sensitive to the language that we are drafting because once you give it, it is very difficult to take it back. But we are going down that path.

And now with this administration I don't have a lot of hope that we're going to be able to get back from the Executive Branch a lot of the authority that's been delegated to them over eighty years. But at least we're stemming the tide and saying, "No more," and we're starting to go the other way. And that's where it's going to take all of you. It's going to be rooms of people like you who are standing together screaming from the mountaintop to say, "No more of this. We want to get back to our Constitutional underpinnings and respect private property rights." It is one of the cores of who we are as a people.

I was raised in that environment where you work hard and you pay your bills and you get your house and you raise your kids, that's the American dream. You don't have that anymore. Essentially, you may own your house, but especially here in New York, I get it all the time from people, myself included, when I write that tax bill, it's like I'm leasing it. And I actually own it. I'm just renting it from the government each month with a rental payment. That is where we have to get back. I think about it also, just from a lot of people are looking at it and trying to say, "Okay, if we compensate people." I also raise a bigger issue here. I live in a house my grandpa built back in 1921. I don't know a price tag that I would accept to say if someone knocked on my door from the government to say you have to go and here's a check. There's something in it, here. It's who I am. And we cannot ever lose that. That's why I try to show up in front of people. We just did another hearing and people from Washington, D.C., these residents came in saying "No one's listening to us. No one's listening to us." We're taking on that fight now with them as their going through a condemnation case in their homes that they've been living in for years are being taken. That's another piece of this. It's not just the compensation factor. It's that American dream that is being chipped away because people's property is being lost.

Maam?

Audience member: Very quickly, and I appreciate what you say. My grandmother lives on my property. We are fifth generation dairy farmers and it wouldn't make any difference how much money someone offered me. I'm involved now in a [unibtelligible] but to compensate me for my property. There's just too many memories and I'm sure you have the same. I hate to go back to the issue of the Keystone Pipeline but I'm with the Federation of Connecticut Taxpayers. I subscribe to Google anything eminent domain and the focus of eminent domain, right now, is the Keystone Pipeline where the people are saying, "I don't want to talk about compensation. I don't want you on my property. I don't want you to take my property." Also indicating that they believe this is [unintelligible] company that is usurping their rights. Here is the thing that is predominant in many of these issues: where are the Republicans in Washington? Many of them in those areas are Republicans and they're saying, "Why aren't the Republicans helping?" So, I just bring that to your attention. And I hope that you subscribe to this as well.

Congressman Reed: Please send them my way because I'll put them into [unintelligible] stand up for them I will. I promise you that because I get this. I get this. This is in our heart. I also understand the intent of the Fifth Amendment. When you look at the history of it. When you look at it there are things that we as a country, when it comes to national security and things like that the Founding Fathers their wisdom always amazes me each and every time you reread the documents. They recognize there is going to be this conflict at times but where we are today in the Twenty-first Century is not what our Founding Fathers envisioned when it comes to eminent domain. They did not believe, in my opinion, that we would be in this position as a country.

There's an army of us that are coming together in the Private Property Caucus. There's an army of us coming across the country that are ignited, again, on this issue. I just ask you to help me identify the other people that will stand with us and take on this fight because it is something we need to do. It's just as important as the other freedoms that we're fighting for day in and day out. So thank you for the opportunity. Thank you for the award and to be with you here today, Carol.

Thank you.

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