Borg: Decision looming. The U.S. Congress pondering major decisions ... healthcare ... more troops to Afghanistan ... financial reform. And voters will soon be deciding whether their representatives and senators should be re-elected. We're questioning Iowa's 4th District Congressman Tom Latham on this edition of Iowa Press.
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On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, October 9th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.
Borg: Tom Latham has been representing Iowa's 4th Congressional District for 15 years, first elected in the 1994 republican contract-with-America sweep into a congressional majority. Now in his 8th term, Congressman Latham is serving on the House Appropriations Committee and several subcommittees including agriculture. Congressman Latham's 4th district includes central Iowa, that is the Ames region and somewhat south up to Mason City in north central Iowa and then eastward along the northern Minnesota border counties to Decorah and Lansing in northeast Iowa. Congressman Latham, welcome back to Iowa Press.
Latham: It's great to be with you, Dean.
Borg: Nice to have you back. Across the Iowa Press table Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Glover: Congressman, you have come under criticism for some of your fundraising practices. You have formed a leadership pack under the acronym of FARM. Some of your critics say about a quarter of the money in that pack was spent for you to travel to exotic places like Palm Springs. How do you answer that?
Latham: Well, I'm very proud of the efforts that we have to try and help my colleagues and the Congress itself and candidates here in Iowa for their election because the issues are so critical before this country as far as trying to change the direction, hold down spending. Every one of the members from Iowa in the Senate and the House have leadership packs and some of which -- Senator Harkin actually has two of them, one where he spent about 80% on travel. My efforts over 60% go to help other candidates, I have a broad base of support, well over a couple thousand people supporting those efforts to help republicans get elected.
Glover: Does there need to be new restrictions on these kind of packs and how you can raise money and what you can use it for? Your critics say that you get a lot of contributions from people like big pharmaceutical companies that pay for your travels and we shouldn't really be surprised you're opposed to health care.
Latham: Well, I think transparency is everything and certainly there are efforts that we need to put forth to have it more transparent so there is reporting out there so everyone knows what is going on again. But, again, my efforts in that there's a broad base of support and those few individuals or whatever that is really such a small part of it. I'm worried about changing the direction of this country today.
Glover: So, the only thing you think needs to be changed is perhaps a little more transparency, better reporting, things like that? Or do you think the current system is okay?
Latham: Well, no, transparency I think is everything, let people decide whatever if they like what you're doing or not, if it's transparent -- I fully believe in reporting everything immediately and that is part of the system.
Henderson: You do not serve on either of the house committees which have passed a health care reform plan but you serve in the House and will soon be voting upon a health care reform bill. Do you support the so-called public option?
Latham: Well, after doing 20 town hall meetings in August and hearing from constituents and we just did a survey of over 12,400 of my constituents responded to that and overwhelmingly, about 60% say no to the public option. What they do believe is that we have got to transform the way health care is delivered, health insurance today, cost is the big factor and what we're seeing in the bills today that are before Congress actually increase the cost to individuals themselves to purchase a policy and the public option really does nothing to help. In fact, in Iowa what they're going to do with the public option would be to lock in the Medicare reimbursement rates to a much larger percentage in Iowa and we're already at the bottom as far as reimbursement. What has happened in the past is the private insurance, the cost shifting goes on to subsidize the health care providers because of the low Medicare reimbursement and what we're going to do is have more people pay to Medicare, we're going to find out that we're not going to have, especially in rural Iowa, any kind of health care available or doctors out there if that goes through.
Henderson: You said health care costs are too high. If there is not, in the words of some people, a public option to compete with private insurance there is no incentive or competition there to drive down private health insurance rates. How would you drive down rates?
Latham: Those folks are the same folks that think the government should do everything and take over health care entirely. What I think we should do and have proposed, I have a bill in Congress that will do this, as far as having competition in the marketplace itself allowing individuals to purchase health insurance across state lines, to have association health care plans where people can pool together small businesses, to have leverage, to create real competition in the marketplace rather than have the government come in and have a huge subsidy that is going to raise taxes dramatically on Iowans and cut the Medicare I think is just the wrong way to go.
Glover: Let's talk about the potential risk that republicans can face here. Most polls I have seen show the majority of Americans want 'health care reform' although you can argue about what that means. Is there a danger for republicans to become viewed as the party of no, simply standing in the way of health care reform?
Latham: Well, I don't think so because like my bill that I have in Congress there are proposals. The problem today is in Washington that no one is listening to each other. What we have said for months and the leadership in the House wrote a letter to the President, to the other leaders on the democratic side saying let's get together and work together. I think what the American people, certainly Iowans in my district from the town hall meetings want us to do is step back, work together to find real solutions that are going to solve the problem. But we have proposals out there and unfortunately it's just like most of the bills that come before Congress there has not been the ability or has been allowed for republicans to have input.
Glover: So, you're not satisfied with the status quo?
Latham: No, we have to do something, absolutely because the system today has excluded so many people simply because they can not afford or because they have pre-existing conditions don't have access to health insurance. We've got to do something.
Henderson: Mike mentioned the GOP in opposition to this bill. Sarah Palin identified this bill as having death panels in it. Senator Grassley didn't use the phrase death panels but he said that there is a legitimate fear that the public should have about pulling the plug on grandma. You at a town hall meeting in Indianola told people there are no death panels in the bill. Are you satisfied with the way that republicans have been handling the opposition to this bill?
Latham: Well, I think there are some interpretations out there that are incorrect certainly. What I want to do is have an honest debate about what is actually in the bill and what is not. There are a lot of concerns that people have that you do have in the House proposal, the HR3200, a panel that will have no congressional oversight, has no oversight as far as courts or being able to have litigation, anything that is a panel that makes all the decisions on the public option without any kind of outside oversight and there is concern about that.
Glover: But you say you want to have a rational discussion about healthcare. Haven't republicans contributed to this irrational discussion by doing things like pointing out that there are death panels, we're going to pull the plug on grandma. How much bullying does your party bear for that lack of discussion?
Latham: Well, I think there are statements made on both sides that maybe are not accurate. When the President came out and said that AARP was supporting his plan and all this which there was no plan to begin with and they had specifically said, no, they weren't supporting any particular piece of legislation. I think there's enough on both sides. This is what the problem is in Washington today is that people don't, they want to play the partisan politic game. Let's sit down together and work for the American people. That is what the people told me in my town meetings, that is what people are saying across this country, let's solve the problem rather than all this bickering going on.
Henderson: What do republicans have to show for the town hall meetings? Wasn't the angst that was on display at those town hall meetings about incumbents of either party, not just democrats, but republicans as well?
Latham: I think that's true but also, Kay, I will tell you I did a series of town hall meetings back in June and early July and my crowds then were four or five times larger than ever before and this was before health care became an issue. What people are concerned about and really are scared today about is the fact that we have a huge expansion of the federal government spending way out of control, 1.4 trillion dollar one year deficit this year. They are worried about their kids, about their grandchildren, they are worried about the government coming in and running businesses. They are worried about taxes going up.
Borg: What are they trying to tell you? What do they tell you? Yes, they are dissatisfied, they are frustrated but what do they want?
Latham: Well, there's a lot of coming out of Washington and not much that people like. And the fact of the matter is there is outrage going back to the TARP bailout bill, the Wall Street bailout bill last year, stimulus package, $787 billion that hasn't worked obviously, we were guaranteed that if it passed, unemployment wouldn't go above 8%, not it's 9.8% and rising. The spending, the way Congress operates today, we're getting bills in the middle of the night that are 1400 pages long and no one has a chance to read them. That's what people are upset about is that the government, the intrusion of the federal government, the spending that is going on, they fear exactly what is coming out of Washington.
Borg: Speaking of bailouts, the agricultural industry, particularly pork producers and dairy producers are in deep financial trouble right now. A lot of that pork and dairy is concentrated in your district, up through north central Iowa and over to the Mississippi. But what role does the federal government have in something like that?
Latham: I think certainly as far as policies that are in place as far as trying to help in assistance to those producers is very appropriate. Some of the things that can happen, especially in the pork industry, the trade has basically shut down, international trade and purchasing from foreign countries. What we need to do I think is send a message by passing things like the Columbian free trade, a Korean free trade agreement to actually open up markets for us would send a large signal and we're also purchasing pork and also giving subsidies to the dairy producers today also that are trying to help them. It's not going to be enough to save them, though.
Borg: But is there an immediate need, that is there were bailouts for financial institutions, I don't think that pork producers and dairy producers are asking for 'bailouts' but is there more that the federal government should be doing?
Latham: Well, just this week in the ag appropriations bill there was $350 million in that for dairy farmers and a specific infusion of capital into dairy farmers themselves. What the USDA has done and I have written to Secretary Vilsack to make sure that as we purchase, say for school lunch programs, that we look at the pork industry to try to purchase more and more of those products and there is some response. We have spent about $150 million which scratches the surface but we have purchased more pork trying to help with the demand side of it. But certainly there are things we do. But fundamentally we've got to get to where those markets are open overseas, that has been the real problem as far as pork is concerned.
Glover: Another problem that Congress is looking like it's trying to tackle is climate change. There is controversial and important climate change legislation before Congress. Where are you on that?
Latham: Well, I think there are things that we need to do today. The cap and trade bill that was passed in the House ...
Latham: Well, this is the bill that was put forth supposedly to address climate change where in fact any projections show, even the advocates of the bill say by the end of this century 90 years from now it will change climate by about two-tenths of one degree. But what it does do is increase our utility rates here by 20% to 25%, costs in Iowa about 17,000 jobs a year, each in the next 20 years. What I think we have to do is kind of the all of the above approach and to look at conservation, to make sure that we're doing everything to be efficient whether it be winterizing our homes, more efficient vehicles, all of those things. We have to look at renewable and wind, solar, ethanol, biomass, soy diesel, all of those things. We have to look at nuclear energy, the most environmentally friendly source of electrical generation we can have. We haven't built a new plant in this country for 30 years because of the restrictions as far as licensing. But we also have to go after the resources we have in such abundance here. When you talk about oil and gas we have three times the amount of oil in this country than what the Middle East does but we're not allowed to go after it. We can take the royalties, if we open up those resources, plow that back into ...
Glover: You're talking about the national parks?
Latham: No, no, we're talking about drilling out in the Dakotas and Montana and in the Rocky Mountains, not in parks necessarily. But why can't we go after the resources we have in this country? We are deeply involved in the Middle East today whether you look at Iraq or Afghanistan or throughout the whole region because of our dependence on foreign oil. It is a national security issue. But I also say when we open that up the federal government would get resources and royalties that we could plow back in to research to make that great breakthrough for the future that is going to be environmentally friendly, to have a positive effect across the board rather than just to try to tax energy. We're going to drive jobs out of this country faster than ever before.
Glover: You mentioned fuel efficient cars. Are you willing to raise fuel efficiency standards?
Latham: Actually I supported raising that in the last Congress.
Henderson: Your district suffered some flooding last year although Cedar Rapids bore a great brunt of it, Mason City and other areas of the 4th congressional district were flooded. Were you happy with the pace of flood relief?
Latham: It's been very frustrating to a lot of folks and if you go to Mason City there's still some homes up there that have not been either purchased or there is still uncertainty up there and there have been some mixed signals sent from FEMA where basically we filled out all the paperwork, sent it to them and then they said, whoops, we're going to change that, what you have to do so that delayed it again and then they came back and said, well, what you submitted first was okay. It's very frustrating with the bureaucracy. But we have done everything we can to make sure we keep the pressure on FEMA, to make sure that the dollars are there to help them but also the community development block grants to be able to have the communities use those as matching for the relief is very, very important because these cities are strapped and obviously the folks who are devastated don't have a lot of other ways to go about it, we've got to help them in every way possible.
Glover: It wouldn't be an official Iowa Press show, Congressman, if we didn't spend a fair amount of time just talking about some politics. Let's go to that right now. Are you going to endorse a candidate in the republican gubernatorial primary or are you staying out of that?
Latham: I do not get involved as far as any primaries, I just have not in the past and won't in this one.
Glover: What is your take on that primary?
Latham: We have great candidates. I think across the board we have some outstanding individuals who want to step up, they see the problems here in the state of Iowa, they are concerned about the leadership in this state. When we had the 10% the Governor announced yesterday and then he also last week signed a letter supporting the health care reform that is going to put another $222 million unfunded mandate on the state of Iowa so he's going to spend more that way but now he's having to cut. There are a lot of very good candidates out there but I just do not get involved in primaries.
Borg: If you're not going to get involved in the primary what about your own? Are you running again?
Latham: I haven't officially announced that but certainly we're working towards that, yes.
Borg: So, you're going to seek re-election?
Latham: I would assume that I would, yes.
Glover: I ask a lot of politicians this question. It strikes me that next year is a very interesting political year. It is the first mid-term election of a newly elected democratic president. History would tell you that would be a pretty good year for republicans. Typically that first mid-term is good for the party not in power. But the economy is at the center of the political agenda right now. Typically that helps democrats. Give me your take on what the climate is going to be like next year.
Latham: I think it's all about jobs, I really do and when we look at the unemployment today nationwide at 9.8%, when we look at those numbers most people predict that that's going to go well over 10% in the future, the President having said with the stimulus bill that it wouldn't go above 8%, they look at the spending that is going on in Washington, it's all about the economy and all about jobs. What people are concerned -- you talk to a small business person today and that is where the heart of any job creation is going to be they are scared to death because they see next year that the President, the democratic Congress has said that they are going to raise their marginal tax rates, they are going to raise capital gains rates on them, they have a fear of the cap and trade bill which is going to increase their utility costs by 20%-25%, you're going to have health care that is going to dramatically increase the taxes they have to pay and expenses for health care for their employees whether they have purchased it or not. All of these things create a huge uncertainty out there and you talk to the small business people, I come from that background of family business, why would anybody invest today knowing that they are going to be punished for it next year?
Glover: So, you think that next year we'll buck history and that the economy will be the center of the political agenda but it won't help a democrat?
Latham: Absolutely, going back to the town meetings again I think they are such a great indicator both in June and in August that people are so concerned, they are so frustrated with what they see in Washington today and they understand that the democrats control the White House, they control large majorities in the Senate, have an 80 vote margin in the House of Representatives. They own the federal government and they are the ones who are going to be held accountable for it.
Henderson: A defining issue of the 2006 election was the Iraq War and public dissatisfaction with it. Do you think dissatisfaction with the war in Afghanistan will have an impact on the 2010 election?
Latham: It may, I still think the economy and jobs are going to be the focus for most people because Americans are hurting today, they are scared for their jobs, a lot of people are underemployed even if they have a part-time job they don't have the income. But certainly the situation in Afghanistan, throughout the Middle East with Iran today are a great concern to a lot of folks. Now, how that plays out politically that's another thing which I don't pretend to understand but I think for the safety and the future of this country we've got to do the right thing I think in Afghanistan and certainly Iran is a huge, huge threat to us.
Henderson: So, what is the right thing in Afghanistan?
Latham: Well, I believe that we should follow what the generals basically are telling us, that if we want to be successful that they need certain tools and it's either a matter of following what their recommendations are or getting out in my mind.
Borg: Are you saying you support the surge for 40,000 more or greater troops to Afghanistan?
Latham: If in fact they are allowed, if the generals are allowed to use those troops as they believe are needed. Having said that when we have political involvement in military decisions I'm always very concerned and I'm afraid what's going to happen is that we're going to have a slight change in policy, we're going to only have about half of the people, new troops sent in that were requested, it's going to deepen our involvement but have little chance of success. And I think if we're going to do it let's make sure that we give the people on the ground the tools they need and what they are requesting otherwise we're setting ourselves up for another long-term problem in Afghanistan and very little chance for success.
Glover: Those who argue that America ought to do this and any other foreign policy question only that which is in America's own best interest. America's own best interest means we don't really care what kind of a government they have in Afghanistan, America's best interest is protecting ourselves from Al Qaeda and that's what we ought to focus on, let's forget about nation building. How do you respond to that?
Latham: Well, anyone who doesn't understand that what happened on 9/11 was because of what was going on in Afghanistan ... with Al Qaeda but the Taliban was in control, they allowed the training camps to be in Afghanistan, those people were trained there that came over and attacked us. And so anyone who doesn't understand -- going back to our pre-9/11 mentality I think that's pretty concerning to a lot of folks as far as the security right here.
Glover: And there are those who argue that America focuses on the government in Afghanistan and trying to create a stable, democratic government and that is wasting money, we ought to be spending our time, energy and efforts fighting Al Qaeda.
Latham: Well, we are and I think we can do two things at once here. We are going after Al Qaeda in a very, very strong way. Twice now I've been in Afghanistan, it is an entirely different situation than what Iraq was because you talked about governance, there was never a strong central government in Afghanistan. You have tribal leaders there who control everything in their individual little areas. In Iraq at least they understood Saddam Hussein's strong federal government, they understood governance much to their own detriment.
Borg: But what you seem to be saying is it's not like Iraq so you still support sending 40,000 or more troops in to a country that is just different factions?
Latham: If in fact the policy is to be successful in Afghanistan, to protect America from future expansion of Al Qaeda there and giving them safe haven then I think we have to follow the recommendations of the generals on the ground. If in fact that is not our policy and the President is making that deliberation right now and maybe there is a brilliant new strategy but why we were successful in Iraq was because we actually followed the recommendations.
Borg: Are you yourself reserving judgment? Is that what I'm hearing you say? You're not decided yet?
Latham: Anyone who believes that Afghanistan is going to be something that we're going to win in one or two, three or four years doesn't understand the problem. I think we're talking actually as far as changing Afghanistan, if that is our policy it's going to take decades.
Henderson: Is Karzai a legitimate president?
Latham: He was elected -- yes, he is. He will be recognized as a legitimate president of Afghanistan.
Glover: Ask him to reverse about a thousand years of history with this country, it's just been governed that way for a thousand years so let's change it?
Latham: Well, I'm saying to do that it's going to take decades of commitment there and whether we have the resolve to do it is the real question. And they are just masters as waiting people out and they have always -- I'm a realist, this is not going to be easy. In fact, we have to have a commitment to decide whether or not we're actually going to try to win there and secure the country or not and make that decision consciously.
Borg: I kind of waited you out. We're out of time. Thank you so much for being with us.
Latham: Thank you, Dean.
Borg: On the next edition of Iowa Press back to state issues, Governor Chet Culver is going to be here. He is nearing the end of his first term in office facing big challenges and coping with declining state revenues and a hungry republican party that hopes to re-take the governor's office in the 2010 election. You'll see the conversation with Governor Culver at the usual times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. A reminder too if you want to contact the Iowa Press staff go to the Internet. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd like to hear from you. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.
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