SCOTCH PLAINS-FANWOOD, NJ -- Marking Constitution Day, U.S. Rep Rush Holt (D-NJ) spoke to seventh-graders at Terrill Middle School about topics related to American government. The talk was followed by a Q&A session during which students asked about topics ranging from the current situation in the Middle East to the stress level of his job.
Holt, who earned his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in physics from NYU, taught physics and public policy at the collegiate level before moving to the State Department's Office of Strategic Forces - Nuclear and Scientific Division. He referred to the U.S. Constitution as our country's "greatest invention" and likened it to "an operating manual" for our system of government.
"The reason it has lasted more than 200 years is that it is not too specific, isn't too rigid, and allows for flexibility to change the balance of power between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of government," said Holt, who carries a copy of the Constitution with him wherever he goes.
"It is based on the premise that all are created equal. That's why it's important. It made possible the progress from which you benefit today," Holt told the students.
The congressman was hit with tough questions immediately after opening up the floor to questions. The first was, "What is your role in the ISIL/ISIS challenge?"
Holt responded by explaining that a group of people, which he categorized as evil, are calling themselves an "Islamic state."
"No religion is so brutal and disrespectful. They claim to want to set their own government. A lot of nations believe that it would be bad for a nation like that to exist," Holt replied, adding that under the Constitution, it is Congress that gets to declare war, although in recent history, the President has been driving the decision.
"The House is the branch that is closest to the people. Everyone has one representative who represents their district in Washington. I believe that a declaration of war should be made by Congress, rather than imposed by the President," Holt said. "I am really very reluctant to go to war. We have to ask whether it would make us safer. I don't think it would."
The eight-term congressman also fielded questions on the qualifications needed to run for office, the hardest thing about his job ("getting a sense of what 750,000 people think is in their best interest and then voting yes or no on issues such as whether to go to war"), what satisfies him most ("knowing that I can help someone each day"), and the differences between the Democratic and Republican parties.
"Republicans tend to talk about individual rights and being free from regulation, while Democrats talk more about community and believe in regulation," Holt stated. "If you all do your own thing, it becomes chaos... I bet some of your parents might disagree with me on that."
Holt was first elected to Congress in 1998, when his district included Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Hunterdon and Somerset counties. For the past four years, his 12th District has included Scotch Plains and Fanwood. Prior to that, the towns were represented by Congressman Leonard Lance (R-NJ), whose district still covers a portion of Scotch Plains north of Route 22. Holt arranged the visit after meeting recently with Dr. Kevin Holloway, principal of Terrill Middle School, in Washington, D.C., where he was recognized by elected officials after being named Principal of the Year in New Jersey.