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Capitol Insider EXTRA: Congressman Cole On Immigration, Guns And More

Caroline Halter
Congressman Tom Cole spoke at a town hall in Norman on Aug. 19, 2019.

In this episode of Capitol Insider, KGOU's Dick Pryor speaks with Republican Congressman Tom Cole. The two discuss immigration policy, national gun control efforts, what he thinks about Oklahoma's Medicaid expansion effort, and support for President Trump heading into 2020. 


Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politic and policy. I'm Dick Pryor. Shawn Ashley is under the weather. My guest is U.S. Representative Tom Cole, Republican from Moore, who represents the fourth congressional district. Congressman Cole, always a pleasure to be with you.

Congressman Tom Cole: Hey, Dick. Great to be with you.

Pryor: Thank you. The long August recess gives members of Congress an opportunity to meet with constituents, and you're hosting a series of town hall meetings over the next several days. What will be the message that you are bringing back from D.C. to the people in Oklahoma?

Cole: Well, you open up every town hall trying to explain the inexplicable, which is Washington D.C. and what's really happened. After that I don't try to do much other than just open it up and let folks take it where they want to take it. It's their questions that are really important, not my opinion, other than when they solicited directly. So I will let them decide. And, you know, it's interesting. It varies by region and community what that message would be and frankly by what's topical in the news.

Pryor: Following the mass shootings this summer in El Paso, Dayton, Ohio and Gilroy, California there has been increased pressure to enact stricter gun control measures. Where do you stand on ways to reduce this kind of violence?

Cole: A lot depends on what you want to do. People forget the last Congress actually did some things on this. It sort of gets forgotten. You know, we had a tragedy in Texas where we had an ex-service person go to a church and kill a number of people. It turned out in retrospect he should have never had the weapon. He was under a domestic abuse citation and had been literally forced out of the military because of that, and the Air Force simply hadn't entered the data in the system. So the seller didn't have any reason to know that, you know, that this was a person that was inappropriate. So we actually passed major legislation, put major resources to try and improve that. It's also forgotten that the last Congress also (and really the administration deserves even more credit) got rid of the bump stock thing. That had been made legal by the Obama administration. Not at the highest level, but it had been made legal by the Office of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. How they came to that opinion in 2011, I don't know, but it got undone after we had the terrible incident in Las Vegas.

The House--I did not vote for it in full disclosure--has already passed a piece of legislation. I think the main action, though, is going to be in the United States Senate. The votes are there whether I agree with it or not for a variety of different measures on gun control in the House. The real question though is what can you get through the Senate, and what is the President willing to sign? And that's the challenge for every legislative thing we have. And to move something in the Senate you've got to get the 60 votes. It'll have to be Republicans and Democrats to come together, and I assume the White House will be deeply involved in that as well.

Pryor: Immigration continues to be a hot button issue. In June you were among those voting in favor of legislation to provide supplemental assistance for humanitarian assistance and security at the southern border. What else do you think Congress needs to do to address the ongoing issues of immigration in the near term?

Cole: Quite a bit, but I'm not optimistic it's going to happen. You know, right now the legal immigration system works pretty well. We let in over a million people a year. There's some fixes that need to be made in that. For instance, we have about 50,000 people that we let in just through a lottery. I think that's sort of senseless. We should keep the spots, but we ought to be dividing them up into areas we need, or refugees, or something like that. Not I just happen to draw a number out of a hat... I think that's a silly way to proceed. So there's some fixes there, but by and large the legal system works pretty well. The real question is literally, you know, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people showing up illegally at the southern border and coming across.

The real question is people coming to the border with claims for asylum. Those have to be adjudicated. They take a long time. People have already walked a thousand miles in cases, or come in buses or caught rides on trains. They've gone through a pretty dangerous journey, and they do it all for the hope of getting there. Most of them, by the way, are not legally entitled to asylum inside the United States. Asylum is very strict. It's not just I have, you know, difficult economic circumstances. If we had that literally, you know, most of the world would be eligible to come to the United States. So you have to be able to adjudicate claims of violence or claims of imminent danger. Again, there's a big difference between living in a country that's not well governed, versus living in a country where you're part of a minority, like let's say the Yazidis in Iraq where you are literally facing genocide, or that thing. So, again, the intricacies here of the law are very, very difficult, and what you need is a real effort that combines both security and, you know, a thoughtful... What are the appropriate measures that would really make a difference policy-wise?

The immediate humanitarian crisis is easing. The numbers coming across are down. Part of that's the weather. Part of it is also, frankly, cooperation... enhanced cooperation from Mexico, which the President deserves some credit for. But, I think you have to have a serious look at what are the tools that the Border Patrol tells you that they need to both police and protect the border from people coming across illegally.

Pryor: This is a state issue, but here in Oklahoma a working group has been formed to study health care and what can be done to improve it in the state. What would you like to see in Oklahoma?

Cole: You gave me my out up front. It's a state issue, so... [laughs]. You know, I really do try to be careful there, because I don't have a vote and I don't have a voice any different from any other Oklahomans. Number one, I'm encouraged that they're doing this. I think that's a good thing. And we have a sort of dual track approach. There's a petition drive underway, as I know you know, that would put on the ballot a the option that Oklahoma could join Medicaid expansion. This working group, which may or may not deal with that issue, as I'm told, you know, I hope looks at this. I've actually mentioned this to state officials when they've asked. I said you've got an administration right now that will work with you on waivers, that would answer a lot of your concerns and believes in local control. Again, I'm glad the Governor set up this group, that the legislature is deeply invested in it. We have a couple of legislators from this district, Sen. McCortney from Ada and Rep. McEntire from Duncan who, have been big leaders in trying to push Oklahoma toward some kind of appropriate participation in Medicaid expansion. So, I think that's where we're headed one way or the other, but, again, it's much better, I think, if the state takes control of it, designs its own system.

Pryor: You have long been one of the most politically astute people around.

Cole: If I was that good I would have seen the rise of Donald Trump, and I didn't![laughs].

Pryor: You didn't, and many people didn't. Do you see that strong alignment between Republican candidates and President Trump heading into 2020?

Cole: I do. Look, the president is exceptionally popular amongst Republicans, and the first election that you have to win is your primary election. The next election you require, you know, as much support out of your own natural supporters as you get and then you worry about reaching across politically, obviously, to get other people. So I think as long as the president has that... Oh, and you have to remember the only time a Republican president has been more popular among self-identified Republicans was George W. Bush right around 9/11, when his numbers, quite frankly, were spectacular across the board. In the aftermath of a crisis Americans rally around the president. But this president has been able to consistently hold that. So most elected officials listen to what the members in their own party, who are their most reliable voters, have to say.

Pryor: Congressman Tom Cole, thanks for joining us.

Cole: Thank you very much.

Pryor: And thank you for supporting KGOU.

Cole: It's really my pleasure. I wake up to you guys every morning I'm home.

Pryor: Very good. That's Capitol Insider. If you have questions e-mail us at news@kgou.org or contact us on Twitter at @kgounews. You can also find us online at kgou.org and eCapitol.net, on Apple podcasts and Spotify. Until next time, I'm Dick Pryor. 

Caroline produced Capitol Insider and did general assignment reporting from 2018 to 2019. She joined KGOU after a stint at Marfa Public Radio, where she covered a wide range of local and regional issues in far west Texas. Previously, she reported on state politics for KTOO Public Media in Alaska and various outlets in Washington State.
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