It's no coincidence that U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross is becoming a more familiar face in Hillsborough County.
Ross, R-Lakeland, represented Florida's 12th district his first two years in office. Redistricting moved him to Florida's 15th district and shifted his constituency west to include all of Plant City, Temple Terrace, Brandon and Lutz.
Ross, 53, has held several town hall meetings in recent weeks to introduce himself to those voters and hear their concerns. He is married, has two grown sons, served eight years in the state House and previously was a partner at a law firm he founded in Lakeland. Recently, he sat down with Times staff writer Rich Shopes for a broad-ranging political discussion.
What impact did redistricting have on your office and did you gain an advantage by having more Republican voters?
It made it more geo-compact. It cut Polk in half and it expanded us into Hillsborough. I don't know if we gained an advantage, maybe nominal, about one or two points, but it gave us complete cities or areas in Hillsborough. Before, we had half of Plant City and part of Brandon and part of Temple Terrace. Now, we have all of those areas.
Voters and politicians often complain about gridlock in Washington. Why are the sides at an impasse so often and what will break the gridlock?
The art of compromise can be a very difficult thing to do. It requires a starting point and it requires leadership. Gridlock is indicative of a lack of strong leadership, not only from the president, but from Congress. It's not a question of making compromises, but do we have the resolve to take action, to take hard votes? As a lawyer, I've had to negotiate, to find common ground, and I think that's what we need to do. Ronald Reagan and (speaker) Tip O'Neill were adversaries but they were also friends.
The Senate recently passed an immigration bill. Do you support that bill?
The Senate plan contains some good measures. … To get something passed we need to have enforceable border security. We also need to redevelop the guest worker program. What we have hasn't been effective, and we need to reform our visa program. If someone wants to come here for 10 months they should be allowed to come and do the work. Then they won't be inclined to over-stay. Forty percent of our illegal immigration issues are related to over-stay visas.
Do you agree with the bill's path-to-citizenship provision for undocumented workers?
I don't agree with that. My concern is the Senate bill is good in that it provides documentation to pay fines and pay taxes, but to give automatic citizenship is not what our country is about. I think we should do the first part, strengthen our borders, and focus on the guest workers and visas in order for them to be able to earn their citizenship.
What about the undocumented immigrants here now? What should happen to them?
It's not logical to deport them. There are 11 million undocumented immigrants. But there's no reason why they can't apply for citizenship when they have a visa, and they should definitely be given a chance to apply for a visa. I think in the House, the biggest issue of, do you guarantee citizenship after being here so many years, that's where you'll find some difficulty.
Does the Republican Party need to adapt to attract more Hispanic voters, women and younger voters?
I don't think we should do immigration reform for votes but what's best for the country. We need to draw on our principles, empowering the individual, having less government in our lives. Many Hispanics believe in our principles, that the individual can accomplish more if allowed to succeed. It's not about changing our principles. It's about the inability to message what we preach.
Turning to health care, are there aspects of the Affordable Care Act you agree with?
Government will have a role in health care. It's been that way since Medicare and Medicaid were established. But the private sector can have a significant role to play if we allow them to participate. We should reward those who take care of themselves. If someone has a pre-existing condition they should not be turned down for coverage. We can incorporate that into assigned risk pools so that everyone can have coverage. It's one size fits all under Obamacare. Why can't the consumer have a choice? The more mandates, the more the cost of coverage will go up. Let us bring that down. Let us have more choice. If we would be allowed to have the interstate sale of health plans, the consumer would be able to pick the coverage that's right for them, so I could shop in Michigan and Ohio and Florida for the plan that meets my needs. You could allow coverage under a personal health insurance policy to come out of a tax-free health savings account, or allow what you would spend in preventative care to be deducted from your taxes. Tax policy affects behavior. If taxpayers are given a choice to help themselves, this would allow them to make choices that meet their needs.
What about people with long-term conditions who cannot afford health care?
Health care is a primary need and we should all budget for it. I have no problem supporting a program in a temporary way for periods of unemployment or hardship. It should be transitional, not a permanent way of life when providing health care.
There's been a lot of talk lately about tax reform. What's your position on tax reform?
We should be prepared to do something to show we're going to reduce our expenditures and simplify our tax system to where we gain more revenue from a growing economy and not from raising the tax rate. Long-term, we should simplify our taxes and create a fair tax system based on consumption. I think in the short-term we should simplify the tax code. As an individual, pay 10 percent for income under $100,000. For people over $100,000, it should go to 20 percent. And the only deductions would be for charitable contributions and mortgage interest. My belief is if people are allowed to keep more of their money they will invest it in the system.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.