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Vocal Minority: Representative Steve King (R-Kiron)

posted on February 11, 2009

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Borg: Vocal minority. While democrats are exerting their sizable majorities in the U.S. Congress, Iowa's Fifth District Congressman Steve King is making the most of his republican minority voice. A conversation with Congressman King on this edition of 'Iowa Press.'

Funding for 'Iowa Press' was provided by 'Friends,' the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association ... for personal, business, and commercial needs, Iowa banks help Iowans reach their financial goals. By Iowa's private colleges and universities, enrolling 25 percent of the total Iowa higher education enrollment and conferring 44 percent of the baccalaureate and 40 percent of the graduate degrees in the state. More information is available at The Iowa Hospital Association, supporting the missions and visions of Iowa's 117 community hospitals. The Iowa Hospital Association, we care about Iowa's health.

On statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, February 13 edition of 'Iowa Press.' Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: So far there's not much evidence of change in relations between democrats and republicans in Congress. Even as President Barack Obama calls for bipartisan cooperation in expediting economic stimulus legislation, his public statements are getting tougher, showing a bit of impatience. In fact, House democrats passed the stimulus package without a single republican aye vote. Representative King is among that republican minority voting no, and he's in his fourth two-year term now representing western Iowa's Fifth Congressional District. In Congress he's sitting on the Agriculture, Small Business, and Judiciary Committees. Congressman King, welcome back to 'Iowa Press.'

King: Thanks. I'm very happy to be here.

Borg: It's been a while since you've been here.

King: It's been too long and I'm very glad to be here today. Thank you.

Borg: nice to have you back. And across the table Des Moines Register Political Columnist David Yepsen and Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover.

Glover: Congressman, it wouldn't be an official 'Iowa Press' show if we didn't talk a little politics, so we decided we'll just start with politics this time. Give us your take on what happened in 2008. It was a lousy year for republicans. You lost seats in the legislature, in Congress, and the country elected a democratic president. How come? What went wrong?

King: There was inertia in play I think to some degree over the last ten or more years that republicans didn't maintain the level of conviction that they had when they took over the majority in 1994. It diminished some. The convictions were there, but they were diminished in their fervor. And then we had an unpopular war in Iraq going on. Then also on September 19 was day that Henry Paulson came to Congress and said, I insist that you give me a check for $700 billion and I'll figure out the best thing to do with it and we'll pick up this toxic debt. So even though the sky was starting to fall, he was running around and claiming that it was, and it drove our agenda down where they didn't -- we didn't have anything going on that really gave the public confidence in republicans. We've got a lot to earn back, Mike.

Glover: Then what do you have to do to fix it by 2010, because you're right, you've got a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it? How do you fix it?

King: First I'd just take us back to the bailout bill, that $700-billion bailout bill. That passed with republican and democrat votes. We had the ability at that point to stop that bailout vote. We could have stopped it with republican votes, and I don't think there would have been enough democrats to support it. So now we've taken the stand that we're opposed to the stimulus package. We put up zero votes to pass it out of the house, and 11 democrats voted with the republicans to do that. That's at least a base to stand on, and it has energized the republican base. They understand now that we do have a core of fiscal conservatives in Congress. I was not very optimistic over the last Congress because I didn't think that we had found -- we didn't have the spring in our step, we didn't find our convictions, and I'm seeing that now. We have mostly a new leadership team. They're ready to go out and carry this message outside of the beltway, and I'm among them. I think we have to take it to the people. It isn't going to happen inside the beltway.

Yepsen: Congressman, will you run for governor in 2010?

King: You know, I don't know the answer to that. It's something that I have over the last few years worked across the state. I think I've said here on this program several years ago my job was to stitch the Fifth District to the rest of Iowa so it doesn't become the eastern Nebraska district. I have a job today that I very much enjoy. I'm eager to start every day, and I'm sorry to have to give up on each day. And yet there's a duty for me, I think, and it's a wonderful privilege to serve the people of this country and the state of Iowa, but I've made no decision, Dave.

Yepsen: Is it safe to say you're thinking about it or keeping your options open? How should we couch that?

King: Well, I think we can say that it would be foolish to foreclose options, and I think it would be constructive, though, at this point, for me to say that our most important job right now is to bring together and reunify the Republican Party in this state. And I think with the leadership in the Iowa House and Senate, along with a new chairman in the party, we have the tools to do that, and I want to continue to support that before we start competing against each other.

Yepsen: Well, what about 2012 and beyond? One of the political dynamics that's going to happen in our state in 2010 is there will be a census. In 2011 they redraw Congressional district lines. Iowa will lose a member of Congress. We're down to four. So does that make it more likely that you'll run for something in 2012 as opposed to 2010?

King: You know, it's something I have to look at. I really don't game it out there far. I do think it's very important for us to come together and win back at least one majority in the house so we have a voice on the redistricting here in the state. And I wouldn't necessarily concede that we lose a seat, although the numbers point in that direction. Most of the scholarship says so. I want to count all the people like the Constitution says.

Yepsen: What about the political dynamic of the 2010 election? Is this going to be a year like 1934 in which the democrats in hard economic times come off a successful election and then go on to continue their majorities, or do you think it will be more like a traditional election where the party in power loses seats? It's kind of an interesting dynamic, in my estimation, between hard times, which traditionally help democrats, and yet the fact is a lot of those Obama voters are not going to be at the ballot box in 2010. How do you feel about this?

King: Well, I guess to boil it down, it would be am I an optimist or a political pessimist.

Yepsen: Well, I want your assessment more than anything.

King: And I assess it with that in light. And I believe -- And I've said this to the republicans this week in the Statehouse, I think that we will gain seats in 2010. I'm very confident that that's --

Yepsen: In the legislature.

King: In the legislature -- In the Iowa legislature and in Congress. And I say that for a number of reasons. But we have people that are coming out today that said they didn't want to commit themselves to a life of public service. Now their frustration is driving them. Our recruitment it better. They're seeing the cliff that we're being driven over economically, and they want to pull us back from that.

Borg: I want to talk about that economic cliff. Do you -- President Obama is pushing frantically now for an economic stimulus package in addition to the bailout package that you referred to earlier that's already been passed for financial institutions. Do you have the same sense of timing that just is imperative that something be passed?

King: The short answer is no, but the main reason to that is that -- I think we're in economic crisis. I think it's worse today than it was a month or two or three months ago, but I don't agree with the solutions that have been proposed by President Obama. Therefore, I don't want to rush off of that cliff because I think it is a huge mistake to commit ourselves to -- All together Bloomberg reported just this week that the Congressional commitments on the bailout, if the stimulus is culminated and finally signed, $9.7 trillion in risk and exposure, that's enough to pay the mortgage -- the home mortgages of -- 90 percent of home mortgages in America. That's a huge chunk to bite off, and I think that's the wrong solution.

Borg: There are two things there: timing, you don't think that timing is so imperative; and also getting the right thing. So what should the timing be, and what is the right thing to do?

King: Well, I offered some legislation that I think was right on the timing last fall. It was called the Rescue Act. What it did is it suspended capital gains taxes on those who would invest in picking up toxic debt and also on U.S. capital stranded overseas. That would have put trillions of dollars into this economy. I'm still for that. I think the thing to do is immediately suspend capital gains taxes, bring those trillions of dollars into our economy. That's a stimulus package that will return -- We are looking at -- It would cost about $68 billion in lost revenue next year and $61 billion the following year. When we're talking about a $9.7-trillion package, we can suspend capital gains. We need to reform -- We need to reform the community reinvestment act. We need to privatize and -- capitalize, regulate, and then privatize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. We need to dig into these finances and look at what went wrong, mark to market accounting and credit default swaps, and fix it. We haven't done anything to reform the mistakes that have been made. And Eisenhower said that you cannot solve a problem with the same mind-set that created it.

Glover: Congressman, let's turn to a political question, but it's also a politics question. And that is there are those who argue that Barack Obama won the presidency by an easier vote since 1984 when Ronald Reagan got elected. In other words, he has the 'M' word, the mandate. The country voted for him. Why shouldn't Congress go along with his initial proposals?

King: Well, we all won elections too, and we have an obligation to our constituents.

Glover: But the point being everybody in America voted for him.

King: And then we are -- We are living in a Constitutional Republic. It's a representative form of government, and our obligation is to lay out the principles that we believe in, take that case to the people within -- our constituents, our future constituents, ask them to hang their values on that framework. And we owe -- and I owe my constituents my best effort and my best judgment. And that's how we put together this Constitutional Republic, and that's why we have a separation of powers.

Glover: But is there a risk for republicans in this? I mean pretty clearly the polls I've seen suggest that voters want, quote, something done. They may or may not support the stimulus package. They want Congress and the President to act. Are republicans running a risk of being viewed as obstructionists standing in the way of a solution?

King: We run that risk. I've heard it from republicans. I've heard them say we can't criticize president Obama because his approval ratings are so high. I think that's irresponsible to take a political position and hide behind a poll. We have to do what we believe in, and we have to take the risk. And I think you'll know that I haven't necessarily been risk averse, and I intend to continue that way.

Yepsen: Congressman, talk a little bit about tax cuts. The democrats will criticize that position as saying republicans, all they want to do is cut taxes. That's always their solution. They did it for eight years and had a huge deficit. And particularly on a capital gains tax cut, that's just a break for the rich. So how do you respond to those arguments?

King: Well, the capital gains tax cut, it puts the most money into the economy the quickest. There's nothing that can bring us around faster than just simply eliminating capital gains taxes. I do that for two years today. I didn't advocate going that far last November, October when I introduced that legislation. Today I would because I think our economy has slid down some. But you cannot -- You cannot help the poor by punishing the rich. We have to have investment capital in this country. That investment capital goes into the private sector, into the productive sector of the economy. We're growing the government sector of the economy instead, and I think that's where our mistake lies.

Yepsen: What about increasing food stamp benefits? Some economists say that that money turns right around. You put a dollar in somebody's pocket, it will rattle around and create $1.73 worth of impact. What about that? Do you buy that?

King: Well, you know -- Then I'll say this, that I don't see that money being invested. It might be a short-term stimulus in the economy, just like the $150-billion stimulus package from about a year ago, but that's not real investment dollars.

Yepsen: Congressman, one more question about tax cuts. Why aren't republicans talking about cutting the payroll tax, social security tax? Everybody pays that, including the people at the lowest wage levels. If the goal is to get money into the economy, why aren't we talking about cutting the payroll -- Why aren't you republicans talking about cutting payroll taxes for social security?

King: Well, actually we do have legislation out there that would do that. Congressman Louie Gohmert from Texas has introduced legislation that would suspend everybody's payroll tax. He started out for a year, and he's backed it back to two months now. So that's something that is part of the discussion, and I'm confident that he will seek to put that on as an amendment, but the rules don't allow very many amendments to come to the floor, as you know.

Glover: One of the issues that you became known nationally for is immigration reform. You were a very prominent voice from a point of view on immigration reform. (A) What happened to that issue; and (B) do you continue to advocate for it?

King: I haven't changed my position, Mike. And what's happened is we had a presidential election where neither candidate wanted to talk about immigration, so it didn't come up in the debates. It didn't come up in the speeches very much at all. It's still there and I am the ranking member of the Immigration Subcommittee in the House. So I do have to carry that banner and I do so willingly and I think it's a responsibility. I'm going to stand and defend the rule of law. I don't intend to provide amnesty. There was a bill that would have legalized 557,000, and they brought that in kind of a late delivery of it. And I sat there alone and offered amendments for over nine hours until finally everybody gave up and went home for the day. So I will stand on the rule of law; the record shows that. But I don't think that they're going to push that in the first couple months of this administration. There's too much to do otherwise.

Glover: In retrospect, was that a mistake on the part of republicans to nominate a candidate who effectively took immigration away from you?

King: I think that the mistake was made when President Bush decided that he would support McCain and Kennedy's immigration legislation. That divided our party. The President gave that address. It was January 6 of 2004, if I remember right. I remember I was on the phone with Karl Rove for 35 minutes the night before, and I pleaded with him: stop the President; don't let him give this speech because it will split the republican party in two and it will erode our base and it will give them a chance to reach across to the other side and erode the rule of law. That's what happened and I think that's when the mistake was made.

Yepsen: Do you sense that the immigration issue is losing some of its potency? We're told illegal immigration is down because of the economy, people just aren't coming here. The fence is up in some places and is working. Has it just lost its potency here?

King: I think it's lost some of its potency. The economy has made a difference. The enforcement has made a difference. I saw some data -- It's a little bit dated now, but from last August to the previous August, we had 1.3 million that self-deported. That was a ratio of about seven for every one that was deported through an act of law enforcement. There's that piece and then the economy and the message in the south. But I think that it will keep coming back to us because we have so much lawlessness on the south side of the border. The Mexicans are very unstable and it's spilling over on our side of the border and I think that will be the next eruption of immigration.

Yepsen: How do you feel about the conduct of the federal government in the Postville raid?

King: Well, the raid had to be done. And if we're not willing to enforce the law, then those kinds of things would go on and they would expand. So for those that were critical -- the people that have been critical of the Postville raids have generally not been able to define how they would go about enforcing the law in circumstances like that. I think that ICE looked ahead and they covered a lot of the contingencies in that, and I think the law had to be enforced. So it was a good thing in the long rung.

Yepsen: I want to expand Mike's question on immigration out to other social issues. You're known as a good social conservative. Abortion, objections to gay rights and gay marriage, those issues didn't seem to have the relevance to voters this time that they have in past elections. Is that your sense of this too?

King: I think so. Part of it's because neither candidate advanced those issues. I think Sarah Palin reflected both of the issues, the abortion and the marriage issue. But I do also think that the public hasn't focused as much on abortion and on marriage. It's a broader topic now. And in fact, if you poll it -- And I'm not much of a person to look at polls -- they're interested in their economic well being. And even pro-life people would put the abortion issue in the top three but necessarily the top one.

Yepsen: Fair point but what do you do about it? Do you just drop the issue and move on to something else? How do you reinvigorate some interest in the debate on this subject?

King: Well, I think it's just as important to articulate the principle that life begins at the instant of conception and that we believe in the sanctity of human life and carried by that argument. But I am wanting to -- I'm watching the supreme court pretty closely these days, and I think that we could be in a situation where President Obama could make two or three very liberal appointments -- young liberal appointments to the Supreme Court, and that could end the activism that could be successful through the courts for probably my lifetime. I'm very concerned about that.

Glover: You may not look a lot at polls. I suspect you look a lot at your district, which is one of the most rural Congressional districts in the Congress. You now have a former Iowa governor who is secretary of agriculture. You're a conservative republican. He's a liberal democrat. What's your relationship with him?

King: It's actually been a good -- a good professional relationship with Governor Vilsack. We served in the Iowa Senate together, and then I was in the Iowa Senate as he was elected to be governor. Throughout that period of time, then I went to Congress and we continued our working relationship. I'll tell you this, that Tom Vilsack is a smart man and he understands the policy. And even though he probably doesn't have a lot of agriculture experience, he's going to be able to -- through his administrative skills, having been an administrator and a governor for eight years, he will be able to adapt coming from an Iowa -- from a farm state like Iowa. So we'll work together like we have on these issues when we were in the Senate together, when he was a governor, when I'm in Congress, or as a state senator. And it's a very good -- It's a very good matchup for Iowa. I had a conversation with he and Christie at the National Cathedral the day after the inauguration that I think has laid the framework.

Glover: And what do you want from him? Like I say, you represent one of the most rural districts in America. What do you want from this former Iowa governor?

King: I would say to Governor Vilsack that he has to be the clearest defender of corn-based ethanol in the country. We have to look to him to do that. Much of the administration is going to be looking at it the other way, finding another way to do renewable fuels. But there will be no ethanol if we can't have a healthy corn-based ethanol. It's not going to be cellulosic if we can't hold corn together. And we really need Tom Vilsack to defend it for us, and he can be the articulating voice in the cabinet.

Yepsen: Congressman, can Tom Vilsack -- everybody talks about its great that Tom Vilsack is the Agriculture Secretary. He can do a lot for Iowa. Can he really? If he comes off looking like he's playing favorites, like he's doing something for the ethanol industry, for example, heavily based in Iowa you've got to admit, won't that hurt his effectiveness inside the administration and it will look like he's being parochial here? What can he do for Iowa?

King: I can't guess on the dynamics with inside the cabinet, but I can think a little bit about how that works politically across the country if Tom Vilsack steps up and defends ethanol. I think that will help the cabinet to support ethanol. It will help President Obama support ethanol. I think he'll have that voice of credibility, and we must have it. It's ethanol -- especially corn ethanol, is under assault across the country today. And there are a lot of people who think that they have a voice of authority and knowledge and, truthfully, they only know a bumper sticker.

Yepsen: What about ethanol from sugar cane, Congressman? Why don't we get rid of that tariff?

King: Well, we set up a 54-cent tariff on Brazilian ethanol so that we would see the infrastructure investment dollars going into the United States rather than Brazil. I looked those people in the eye, and they asked for $8 billion of your tax money, Dave, and I told them no.

Yepsen: Aren't you a good free market republican? What happened to that?

King: I am. Let's build the infrastructure and then we'll get to the market.

Glover: And, Congressman, do you think that he will continue the traditional farm subsidies that have been part of farm legislation for a long time, and should he?

King: I think that there's a reasonable chance that that will happen. And from my standpoint, we've had the farm subsidy since clear back in the '30s. It's there. I will say that the blenders credit on ethanol, which has -- If you want to argue there's food verses fuel, it has saved the taxpayers billions of dollars because it eliminated the requirement for countercyclicals and LDPs. I think that, knowing the politics in the house where the bill would start, I think we'll see -- we'll see farm subsidies. And they're always going to be expanding the specialty crops and out in California, the things they raise out there. So it's not going to go the other way once the people that raise fruits and nuts are getting their subsidy.

Borg: Congressman, I want to shift our focus now to another crisis or crises, and that is Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq. First of all, look at Iraq. Has our intervention there been successful?

King: Absolutely it has. I've made six trips into Iraq, and from the earliest times through the darkest times and now the last trip was just after Labor Day. And I have drafted a resolution that defines those events and takes us to a conclusion that we have achieved a definable victory in Iraq. And it's something that's to the credit of all of our men and women, their patriotism, their courage, their nobility, including our commander in chief who made a very tough decision in the face of some advice that went the other way. So I'll say today we have a definable victory in Iraq. Since the first day of July, we have lost more Americans there to accidents than we have the enemy, and 17 of 18 benchmarks have been completely or substantially achieved. So I think that now it's time to call upon President Obama to preserve the achievements there in Iraq and let history decide whether he's able to maintain the achievement of a definability victory in Iraq.

Borg: Tell me what that has to -- what he has to do then. You said it's time for him to define and take into consideration the victories we have. How does he do that? Is it time to pull out?

King: Well, first, he's got to refrain from -- And he said responsible withdrawal. And I'll agree with that language. He's got to refrain from an irresponsible withdrawal from Iraq, and it's got to be timed. It's got to be militarily -- I'll say militarily approved. The President can call whatever shot he wants to call, but we need to have prudent advisors in Iraq that will make sure that those achievements on the ground in Iraq are maintained. They just had a successful election there. There's still much at risk, and we need to do it in a carefully timed fashion. Plus, get them out of the cities. Get them out of the line of fire. The base is there. We paid for it.

Glover: Congressman, step two, Afghanistan. President Obama has suggested he's going to step up the effort in Afghanistan. I've heard the theory that Afghanistan is a more difficult task than Iraq ever was because of the terrain, because of a number of reasons. It's a tougher task. (A) Should we be thinking about going into Afghanistan; and how tough of a job is it?

King: Afghanistan is a very tough job. I have said from the first time there that we would be in Afghanistan longer than we'll be in Iraq. I say that because Afghanistan is a lot closer to the Stone Age. There's problems there that have to do with a sanctuary and a sovereign nation that's next door. The Taliban and seven or eight other definable enemies including Al Qaeda come in and out as our forces advance and withdraw. They are raising -- At least 90 percent of the poppies in the world are raised in Afghanistan. They have a gross domestic product that's equivalent to the beer made in Wisconsin, and of that $7.5 billion, $4 billion of it is the poppy trade. We have a lot to do there, and it's going to be complicated. It can't be done simply with military. It's going to take a broad approach to get this done, and we can't do it without the cooperation in Pakistan.

Glover: how long?

King: I don't know. I don't know what kind of calls are going to be made from the White House or the Pentagon, and I don't know that I could predict -- If I could make the calls, I don't think so. It's going to be tough and it will be a long time. And I don't think history leaves an example of an achievement in Afghanistan that we would like to say today would be our goal.

Yepsen: What makes you think the American people are ready to pay that price? Some people would say the price in Iraq was too great. What makes you think they're ready to pay a price even greater in Afghanistan in terms of treasury and blood?

King: You know, I don't know that. I don't know how that will be, except that President Bush made the commitment and we went in and had a short-term phenomenal achievement there with the Northern Alliance and that alliance with the Northern Alliance. And President Obama has campaigned on the need to be successful in Afghanistan, and he's made those comments about Pakistan. So I think there's going to be bipartisan support for a while. I think as long as we're making progress and we understand that it takes ten years to defeat an insurgency on average, I think the American people will stay with us.

Borg: Fifteen seconds. Diplomacy in Iran?

King: I suppose they'll go ahead with that. I would sit back. I don't think it will do us any good. The people that are there, Ahmadinejad, has made too many broad statements that tell me that negotiations are not going to change his mind.

Borg: You'd be harsh.

King: I would be strong and I would be bold and I would be doing some back channel negotiations in order to feel them out.

Borg: Thank you for being our guest today.

King: Thank you, Dean.

Borg: We'll have another edition of 'Iowa Press' at the usual times next weekend: That's 7:30 Friday night; 11:30 Sunday morning. I hope you'll watch at that time. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

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Tags: Congress Democrats Iowa politics Republicans Steve King