BLUEFIELD, Va. — When the House of Representatives reconvenes later this month, members of the House Judiciary Committee will be calling on their leadership to organize congressional hearings into the National Security Agency’s wire tapping controversy.

“I have seen no convincing legal evidence that would warrant any of the wire tapping we are aware of now,” U.S. Rep. Frederick C. “Rick” Boucher, D-Va., said. “We need to ask: ‘Is there any legal basis for these wire taps? How broad is the scope of what the NSA is looking for? How many people are they spying on? And what has the NSA done with the tapes from the wiretaps they have already collected.”

Boucher, who was in Bluefield Monday as part of his annual tour of newspapers in Virginia’s ninth congressional district, is a member of the House Judiciary Committee. He said that members of the House learned about the NSA wire taps “about 10 hours before we adjourned for our Christmas break.” He said that within that brief time span, the committee members drafted and signed a letter calling for the chairman to call for House hearings on the issue.

“The NSA is going to get us some answers,” he said. “I’m very concerned that this is outside the scope of the law.” He said that U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has already taken action in the Senate Judiciary. “I think that the House needs to take action as well.”

Boucher also voiced his opinion on another hot-button issue nationally. “I will work to see that FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) is restored to the same effectiveness as it was in the Clinton Administration,” he said. “FEMA was extremely effective when President (George W.) Bush was elected. But when he redirected its mission from national disasters to response to terrorism, a lot of the FEMA management people with experience in natural disaster response left the agency.

“We saw the tragedy of not having experienced people in place to do the job after Hurricane Katrina,” Boucher said. “We need FEMA here in my district many times to help with flood response,” he said. “I don’t think FEMA can respond to a natural disaster now.”

Boucher took issue with the Bush administration on another issue — the administration’s efforts to privatize Social Security. “The system is not in trouble,” Boucher said. “Without change, the trust fund will continue to grow through the year 2018, and even without doing anything at all, the trust fund would be able to make full payments until 2042.

“In the mid-1980s, we had to make some adjustments to the program, but not a radical change,” Boucher said. “(Bush’s) privatization plan would be the worst thing we could do right now. As long as he continues to say it is his No. 1, domestic priority, I will keep raising my voice to oppose it.”

Boucher, 59, is now serving in his 12th term in Congress. In addition to the Judiciary Committee, he serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and was the original of the House Internet Caucus in 1996, and is a co-chair of the organization.

Boucher joined with one of his Republican colleagues in the House, U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., to introduce a bill called the “Free Flow of Information Act.” While the bill has been described as legislation that will allow reporters to protect the identity of confidential sources, Boucher believes it protects the public’s right to know.

He said that confidential sources “have a lot to lose,” but in many cases, their statements are the only way the public will know. “This bill is designed to make sure that our government functions appropriately,” he said. “I’ve always thought that (confidentiality) is an important part of the First Amendment.”

During the course of an hour-long interview, Boucher went through an extensive list of his accomplishments in 2005 as well as his hopes for the coming year. He said that the task force on tourism in Pocahontas has made great strides in securing funding to preserve the region’s past, as well as securing significant funds to build a trail along a section of railroad track from Pocahontas to Bluestone.

He pointed with pride to the $3 million grant announced last week to install a fiber optic “backbone” from Claypool Hill to Bluefield, Va., and from Richlands to Grundy, Va. That is just one element of Boucher’s high-tech initiative. He said he hopes to conduct Wi-Fi meetings throughout the district in order to get local communities interested in growing the Wireless Local Area Networks and taking advantage of the new mesh technology in wireless systems.

Boucher said the most recent $12 million in federal funds for the construction of the Coalfields Expressway places the project in a good position for the start of the coalfield connector. “That work should start in early 2006,” he said.

At the start of the session later this month, Boucher said he plans to address the dramatic climb in home heating expenses. He said that the cost of home heating has climbed 48 percent this year, and that oil prices have increased 25 percent. He said he will work to have the presentow income assistance program increased from the present $2 billion to $5 billion.

He also said that Congress needs to address the health care crisis. He said he would work to develop a program of tax credits that will make private health care insurance more affordable to the 46 million people in the U.S. who don’t have health insurance. “That is a way to break the cycle (of cost shifting),” Boucher said. He added that he would fight against any proposal to cut the Medicaid program.

Boucher looked with pride to his success in getting federal dollars ($650,000) to help build the new Bluefield, Va., town hall, as well as funds to continue the downtown flood control project ($717,000. He said funding for re-paving the Tazewell County Airport runway ($150,000), as well as $59,000 for Tazewell Fire and Rescue, as well as $21,000 for protective gear for Burke’s Garden firefighters.

He also said he plans to work on several energy industry related issues including promoting the Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle, something he characterized as “a major step” in terms of clean coal technology, and he also pledged to work to bring greater awareness of the use of smart meters that reward customers with lower rates when they use electric appliances in non-peak hours.

Boucher remains very proud of the developments in Grundy and said that a great deal of things will be taking shape related to the project in February. He expressed his appreciation to U.S. Senator John Warner, R-Va., for his bi-partisan support of the project.

– Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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