Same candidates, new election. Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks again challenging incumbent democrat David Loebsack to represent Iowa's second congressional district. We're questioning the candidates on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: Two years ago second district Congressman David Loebsack, riding the Obama democratic wave, held off republican Marinnette Miller-Meeks' run for his seat in the House of Representatives. Republicans nominated her for another try. The second district encompasses fifteen counties in east central and southeast Iowa including Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Ottumwa. Democrats there outnumber the republican registered voters. Incumbent David Loebsack is a professor emeritus at Mount Vernon's Cornell College. Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks, formerly on the University of Iowa faculty, is currently an ophthalmologist in Ottumwa. Congressman Loebsack, Ms. Miller-Meeks, welcome to Iowa Press.
Loebsack: Thank you, Dean.
Miller-Meeks: Thank you.
Borg: And across the table Gazette Political Writer James Lynch of Cedar Rapids and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Henderson: Mr. Loebsack, the list is bailout, stimulus, healthcare. Is Congress, led by democrats, guilty of overreaching? And as that develops, are you a vulnerable incumbent because of that record?
Loebsack: I stand by my record, obviously the votes that I made on those various bills and if we have time I'll get into the rationale for each one of those. But at the outset I would like to just say that I'm running for re-election and asking folks to vote for me once again based on a number of issues but three areas in particular that I'm proud of my work on and want to continue to work on and that is on jobs and the economy, the first one. I have my own sectors bill that passed recently that will assist local communities, stakeholders and industries come together to work on those industries, to improve those industries and I'm working hard on tax cuts and other benefits for small businesses as well, just passed a bill on that issue and doing a number of other issues as well.
Borg: I'm wondering, do you feel like you maybe have two opponents in this election? It has been said that this election isn't so much republican, democrat, it is the people versus the establishment. You are part of the establishment. Do you feel that that is an opponent?
Loebsack: Well, I have to tell you, Dean, I'm far less concerned about sort of the dynamics of the race, if you will, than I am about making sure that I'm back home every single weekend for the extended district work periods, making sure I'm talking to as many people in the district as I possibly can.
Borg: But do you have a fear against being identified as being part of the establishment that people are tired of?
Loebsack: Well, I wouldn't be surprised if some people feel that way but, again, my concern is to make sure that I'm in the district every single weekend, that I'm doing the right things for the people of the second district and I’m representing the people of the second district and that is my focus.
Henderson: Ms. Miller-Meeks, you are running against an incumbent. Most incumbents who run for re-election are re-elected. This is your second tour of duty in this regard and you haven't raised as much money compared to other republican challengers in Iowa. Are you a legitimate challenger?
Miller-Meeks: Because, one, you have name recognition that is at least at 78% if not higher than that. Two, I have ran a good campaign last time without alienating or offending people that I need to come to my side, as Mr. Borg had said, when you have a voter disparage such as we have in that district. Three, I'm intelligent, confident, capable, well-spoken, articulate and certainly can reflect the values of our district.
Henderson: What do you mean by alienating voters?
Miller-Meeks: I mean I didn't do negative attacks in the last campaign so I didn't alienate voters or alienate people in our district and in Iowa who don't necessarily like negative campaigning.
Lynch: You won a spirited four-way primary against some more conservative opponents and I'm wondering given the success of Sharon Angel and Christine O'Donnell and the tea party movement would your party be better off with a more conservative challenger to Congressman Loebsack?
Miller-Meeks: I think our party chose the candidate that they felt was the most qualified to go up against an incumbent, especially given the demographics of our district and especially the fact that incumbents typically win. So, I think that the voters chose very wisely and we're ready to go forward into the general election and await November.
Lynch: How does that primary success translate into general election success?
Miller-Meeks: I think that it underscores that there, in contrast to what Mr. Loebsack said, there actually is very much an anti-establishment sentiment, there is an anti-incumbent sentiment and people don't feel that they are being listened to by members of Congress, they don't feel they have a voice.
Borg: Do you buy into the republican pledge to America that was unveiled this week?
Miller-Meeks: I haven't read the entire pledge to America, there are portions of it that I have read as far as representative government and people having a say within their government and the leadership policies within the government. The things on the tax cuts and extending the tax cuts and on reducing federal spending, those things would certainly be in line with my platform.
Borg: And that is better fiscal policy that you are buying into, is that right?
Borg: But others are saying it looks to us like more of the same, same thing we saw in the mid-90s under Newt Gingrich.
Miller-Meeks: Again, I haven't read the entire document but I think to roll back spending to levels of 2008 maybe they should be rolled back to 2006 but fiscal policy going forward needs to be addressed, spending on the federal government level has to be decreased in order to have, one, a government that is solvent and two, a government that can meet the needs of its people.
Lynch: Mr. Loebsack, in 2006 you benefited from an enthusiasm gap on the republican side. This year Ms. Miller-Meeks is saying that people are anti-incumbent. Is there an enthusiasm gap on your side this year? And how do you overcome that lack of enthusiasm among the democrats?
Loebsack: Well, again, go back to my first answer, I believe. I'm not as focused on those particular aspects of this. I am more concerned about making sure that I'm doing the right thing for the people of the second district and obviously the old saying that good policy will lead to good politics, I believe that. If I'm doing the right thing, and I think I am, but I'm listening to folks and I will be not only up until election day but should I win re-election, after election day, so long as I'm doing the right thing for the people of the second district, so long as I'm voting the way they want me to vote, so long as I'm doing the right things within the district and we mentioned off camera about what is happening in Ottumwa with the flooding, so long as I'm doing those things then I'm obviously concerned about how the election is going to turn out but I think it will turn out well and I'll continue to do my best representing the people of the second district for the next two years.
Henderson: Mr. Loebsack, one thing on which you did vote was the healthcare reform plan. You voted for it. It has proven to be unpopular with the general public and it has proven to be unpopular with the Democratic Party base who think you didn't go far enough. Have you backed yourself into a corner in that it's unpopular with the people who you need to be enthusiastic for your re-election and it's proven to be unpopular with the general public?
Loebsack: Well, when I voted for that bill I wasn't thinking about whether it was popular or not, I voted for it because I had held a number of town meetings around the district, sixteen town meetings and the consensus was that the healthcare system was broken, that we needed to have fundamental change. I voted for it because there are over 400,000 Iowans in the second district who now have stable and secure health insurance. I voted for it because children now who have pre-existing conditions can get health insurance, young adults can get health insurance with their parents' policy up to age 26 and that's why I voted for it.
Borg: I don't notice you out on the campaign trail, though, saying look what I did for you and this is why you should re-elect me.
Loebsack: As a matter of fact, I have talked about my vote for the healthcare bill. We had a forum in Coralville and I'm proud of the vote that I took on the healthcare bill because of the phrases I've cited and many other reasons. So, clearly this is something that I think was the right thing to do for Iowa, for Iowans in the second district and indeed for the country.
Henderson: Ms. Miller-Meeks, conversely, some point to you is perhaps the poster child for what is wrong with the system because you currently aren't insured by healthcare insurance, primarily because it's too expensive, correct?
Ms. Miller-Meeks: There was a change in my husband's job situation through which we had our coverage and that has been remediated and I think my very short hiatus not having health insurance you're picking up one of the most important parts which is that it's not portable, people are still tied to their jobs in order to have health insurance. That really is not addressed within the healthcare bill and I would have to take a little bit of umbrage that I don't hear Representative Loebsasck talking about the healthcare reform act on the campaign trail nor do I see it in his television ads nor do I see it in the recent ads that came out attacking me from the AFL-CIO on the Representative's behalf. I went to five of those town hall meetings and I can assure you that the majority of people that were at those town hall meetings did not want this healthcare reform to pass. There was a great amount of discontent, there were people who had tremendous questions, concerns, concerns about what was in the bill that had not been read before the bill was voted for.
Henderson: So, if I can interrupt then, what is the answer? Republicans said that healthcare needed to be reformed yet they never did anything when President Bush was president and republicans held control of Congress to move on those things that you have mentioned. So, what is the answer?
Miller-Meeks: It's a great point to say that the republicans did not do anything on it in the time from 2000 to 2006 when they were in charge and I certainly hold fault with my party for not having done anything because the system has to be reformed, we have to bring costs down. In my viewpoint, being a doctor, having been a nurse, been both in academic medicine, private practice and having a veteran's status and having worked within the military healthcare costs too much and we should be addressing why it costs so much, addressing how premiums can be affordable, how to make portability, still put people in charge of their healthcare and the bill doesn't do those things for us. It does create 112 odd new agencies where do we really think that that money is going to filter down to patients and to giving coverage or is that money going to be trapped in the bureaucracy and more money spent at a higher level that doesn't really get down to addressing care needs?
Borg: But do I understand, I've listened to you on the campaign trail and I understand that you're campaigning saying, you elect me and I'll help repeal what was just enacted. Is that your stand?
Miller-Meeks: I think you need to repeal and reform the bill. There are parts of the bill that are patient friendly and consumer oriented and those things, when you address the excesses of insurance companies, I think those parts of the bill are good. So, addressing those and bringing them in. The bill could have been done in an incremental fashion to address the most important needs which are access and I do appreciate the fact that there is more access although it's not universal access but the biggest things are controlling cost, controlling cost, affordability, premiums are not affordable and as a matter of fact, we now know that premiums are going up and the response to that has been a letter from Kathleen Sibelius telling insurance companies not to talk about the fact that their premiums are going up.
Borg: So, you'd trash everything that has been, I will say, accomplished or done within the past year and start all over again?
Miller-Meeks: I would have to ask what has been accomplished? If you talk to people out on the campaign trail in the second district they are not necessarily feeling any benefits from the reform that was enacted but yet they have already gotten letters from their employers that their health insurance premiums are going up and that their costs are going up.
Lynch: One of the things that voters are feeling the effect of is the Bush era tax cuts and they are up for extension or not and Congressman, you have sort of modified your position in saying that you might support extending those tax cuts even for the wealthiest people. Ms. Miller-Meeks, you have modified your position on Social Security and not favoring privatization at this time. Explain your flip-flops and should candidates be allowed to change their positions in vital issues?
Loebsack: Well, first of all I guess I dispute the assertion that I have flip-flopped on this. I said that I'm open-minded obviously about this and where we might go but where I've been very consistent all along is making sure that we do extend those tax cuts for the hard working middle class Iowans and that we also do everything we can to benefit small businesses. And if I could broaden it out a little bit as well, I think we have got to do even more with our tax code, I think we have got to do everything we can, for example, to close those tax loopholes for businesses who ship jobs overseas and take advantage of those tax loopholes. I think we have to do everything we can when it comes to biofuels and that industry here in Iowa. I voted last December in the House of Representatives to extend the biodiesel tax credit. There are over 20,000 jobs that are dependent upon that tax credit. That is something because of the dysfunctional nature of the Congress, the hyper partisanship between the two parties and the differences between the house and the senate have simply gone nowhere. So, look, folks are frustrated obviously about not extending the tax cuts at this point and I have said first and foremost that it would be irresponsible if Congress didn't take action on this before we come back to campaign for re-election. So, I think that is the first thing, wherever we end up on this, but I think it's really important to emphasize that it's got to be the middle class, it's got to be small businesses, it's got to be these other aspects of tax policy that I mentioned.
Borg: Ms. Miller-Meeks, he accused you of flip-flopping, he used that word, on Social Security. Have you?
Miller-Meeks: I would say a flip-flop is when in 2006 on television you say that you would not have voted for the Bush tax cuts, then you say that you would not have extended the Bush tax cuts, you say that while you're in office repeatedly and then all of a sudden this year while it's not popular and the majority of Americans say that the Bush tax cuts should be extended, now you're for extending the Bush tax cuts. In 2008 when I mentioned only under age 50 that you could have some privatization of a small portion of Societal Security, at that time the data and information we had was that Social Security would be solvent and would not pay more out in benefits than it receives until 2017, that has now moved up to this year. I think given those circumstances that we want representatives to look at the data, look at the information that they have and make policy decisions in concert with new evidence that they have.
Henderson: In regards to military policy, Congressman, you sit on the house committee which oversees it. This past week there was a senate vote on the "don't ask, don't tell" policy connected to a budget bill. Let's not go into the details but let's go into what you think about that. Do you think the policy which forbids gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military should be repealed?
Loebsack: I do and I voted for that repeal. I actually agree with the top military leaders in our country, Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they have both said publicly that we need to repeal that policy. It's not in the interest of our country to keep that policy in place. As you probably know, a number of folks have been excluded from the military who are more than qualified to serve and it just does not serve well. Now, of course, at the same time I 'm looking forward to the military, the Defense Department completing its study as how best to implement the repeal of the policy but I do support the repeal of the policy.
Henderson: So, you would like to wait until December until the top brass acts before Congress acts?
Loebsack: Well, as a matter of fact, what Congress voted on was just that, to make sure that this gets implemented properly and with the advice of the experts in the military.
Henderson: Ms. Miller-Meeks, you have served in the military, do you support repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy?
Miller-Meeks: We were asked this question at a forum in Linn County in February I think it was and I think Mr. Lynch was at that forum and I said at that time that if it was the recommendation of the Pentagon, the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the generals on the ground that it would not affect retention or recruitment that I would be in favor of repealing "don't ask, don't tell". So, I think you have to take that in concert with the people that are actually there in the military, does it affect morale, retention, recruitment and if not then I would be in favor.
Henderson: That position will be unpopular with some republican voters.
Miller-Meeks: As I said, this was a forum in Iowa City, not in Iowa City, in Cedar Rapids, prior to the primary, I said it openly, it was with a group that was sponsored by the Mount Vernon Political Science Club and the Linn County pro-life people so be it popular or unpopular I think given my stance in the military, given the needs of the military, people who have served their country, willing to serve their country and also the fact that we also have some translators who are in our military services or helping our military services that we need to remain in the military given our conflict in the Middle East.
Borg: Congressman Loebsack, I remember two years ago when you were on the campaign, you kept using the phrase accusing the Bush administration, which was just leaving office at that time, of taking their eye off the ball. You used that several times as it relates to Afghanistan. Well, here we are, we're still in Afghanistan, more intensively. What is your stand on Afghanistan now? Stay the course?
Loebsack: Great question, Dean. I did talk about a recommitment to Afghanistan and that we had taken our eye off the ball in Afghanistan. That is there the 9/11 attacks emanated from, we all know that, we just commemorated the 9th anniversary of those 9/11 attacks. We have real national security interests in Afghanistan and in the region. Clearly I think that what has been done in Afghanistan, that recommitment was the right thing to do. At the same time I don't agree that we should have an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan. That is why ...
Borg: Does that mean putting a date on we're going to be out of Afghanistan by a certain time?
Loebsack: Well, that's a great question and I think that's a very difficult question obviously for anyone to answer. I do support, however, the beginning of the draw down of our troops there in July of 2011 but that is why it is all the more important I think that those national guard troops from Iowa are going to Afghanistan, they are on their way, those 2800 or so because they are going there, as you know, to train the Afghan National Security Forces, the police and the military. And on the Armed Services Committee my job has been to do everything I can as a member of the readiness sub-committee to make sure that those troops have the proper training and equipment and not only that, so that when they come back here to the state of Iowa so that we do treat them with the dignity and the respect they deserve as veterans as well.
Borg: Ms. Miller-Meeks, what should we be doing differently if anything in Afghanistan?
Miller-Meeks: One thing is that regardless of what someone's political party is, if they agree with the conflict to begin with then they should support what is currently going on unless data and information tells them otherwise. And so when people say they are totally against the war and then there's a change in the affiliation of the president and now they are for it, that is a little bit disingenuous to me. However, going forward I would not have agreed to a timeline, I would not have set a timeline. You have to wonder if in working with a presumably corrupt government in Afghanistan if our willingness to say we're going to draw out at this certain time lends to them some credibility that the United States is not going to stay the course and it's not going to help them so then President Karzai may align himself with other forces which are not in the best interests of going forward. So, I would not be in support of a timeline for withdrawal but I do not support an unending conflict in Afghanistan either.
Borg: I just want to clarify something, I don't think you said totally against the war, I don't think Congressman Loebsack was totally against the war when he said take the eye off the ball, he was saying step up the intensity in Afghanistan, is that right?
Loebsack: The word I used at the time was recommitment to Afghanistan.
Miller-Meeks: I think in 2006 prior to his beating Jim Leach he was against the war in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Borg: Is that true?
Henderson: She has accused you of being disingenuous.
Loebsack: No, it's not true.
Borg: Jim Lynch.
Lynch: Moving along, Congressman Loebsack, you have taken a lot of credit for getting earmarks for flood recovery assistance in the second district. At the same time, earmarks is a dirty word for a lot of voters. How do you defend those earmarks? And both of you, how do you rate the federal response to the floods of 2008 and where we are at some two years later in terms of recovery?
Loebsack: Two different issues. While earmarks constitute only about one percent of the budget so long as we have earmarks I'm going to do everything I can, as Senator Grassley does, to make sure that Iowa gets its fair share. If I had not done that we wouldn't have had the $182 million committed to the new federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids and if I had not done that we wouldn't be doing any number of other projects around the district. Rockwell, for example, wouldn't be developing a new generation of handheld GPS receivers for the war fighter in the field. I'm proud of the investments that I have been able to obtain for the second district of Iowa. When it comes to flood recovery obviously we can do much better than what has happened up until this point, especially getting the money that has been allocated to the people who need it. Now, when the flood happened in 2008 and the second district of Iowa suffered over half of the damage of the whole state of Iowa I felt that I had to be a leader in the house delegation on a bipartisan basis to make sure that we got the money that we need in the state of Iowa and that is something that I have done since the June 13th crest, obviously, and I've worked as hard as I can to bring as much of that funding here to the state of Iowa and to make sure it gets to where it is supposed to go.
Lynch: Ms. Miller-Meeks, do you agree with the federal response?
Miller-Meeks: I think that there has been difficulties in the federal response but certainly it has been better than the response with Katrina. There still is a great deal of difficulty in different agencies interacting together and working together and getting needed relief to people and I think that we've seen that. If I'm not mistaken I think Representative Braley is going forward in trying to do things and coordinating the efforts of all of these different agencies. There is a myriad of different agencies that all have part of the function in disaster relief and those efforts still are not coordinated and they're still very piecemeal.
Borg: But what could you have done differently that Congressman Loebsack has not regarding flood relief?
Miller-Meeks: Well, one, I think that when you look back at the total recovery efforts or the total assessment of damages there was a policy piece on that from the state of Iowa, it was about $8 billion was the assessed damages for the eastern part of Iowa and we haven't had near the amount of revenue coming into recovery and relief, coordinating efforts, being on the ground, trying to interact and connect what is happening on the county level, the state level, the federal level with the different federal agencies certainly that is part and parcel of what you expect your representative to do.
Henderson: A nationwide recall involving Iowa produced eggs has certainly been in the news. Mr. Loebsack, is there a way to put Jack DeCoster out of business?
Loebsack: I don't know if there's a way to put him out of business but if in fact he is responsible for what happened I think he needs to be punished as extremely as we can possibly punish him because he's been a bad actor for a long time not only with respect to eggs but other operations in Iowa as well. I was glad that the Energy and Commerce Committee had a hearing this week, took them to task on this but it's a much larger issue I think that we're facing here with respect to food safety. We have already passed a food safety bill in the House of Representatives, it is sitting in the senate like many other bills and I think we should be a little cautious too when folks talk about reducing regulations on business. Everyone would like to provide business with the best opportunity to flourish but we have to be very careful when we talk about reducing regulations because while this may have been a case where regulations were not implemented to the extent to which they should be, I think we have to be really careful when we talk about reducing regulations when it comes to food safety and any number of other issues.
Henderson: Ms. Miller-Meeks, you have been an advocate for reducing regulations in general. Republicans in the senate have balked at the food safety bill because they say it's too aggressive in addressing regulation. Where is the balance?
Miller-Meeks: I think Congressman Loebsack already said that. We had regulations on board, in place that should have affected what was going on in the DeCoster Farms and nothing was done. So, there were regulations that were there, there was a private, as I recall, there is a private agency that also did reviews and had given them superior ratings and this private firm that businesses use as far as their safety issues is also, it examines and investigates other facilities in other parts of the country and that was a place where perhaps their ratings were maybe a little bit friendly, should we say. But it seems that there are, in listening to the two different agencies, one agency wants to have more teeth so it can do more but it seems to me that there was information from one agency that found fault that didn't get to the agency that had the authoritarian process to do something and so there were regulations in place but nothing was done about the regulations that were in place and they were not enforced.
Borg: We have less than a minute so I need to interrupt. Congressman Loebsack, what would you like voters to remember as they enter the voting booth in November? Two more years, give us a chance, we've made some mistakes, give us two more years, as President Clinton said the other day?
Loebsack: I'm running for Congress in the second district and when I began I was going to mention three areas where I think I've done a lot of good work and I hope that folks remember this and vote for me again and that is on jobs, floods and my work on the Armed Services Committee.
Borg: Ms. Miller-Meeks, what do you want people to remember?
Miller-Meeks: I would say according to the Iowa Workforce Development our unemployment rate in the second district was 2.9% in 2006 when Representative Loebsack was elected, it is now 7.1%. I don't think I'd be touting my record on jobs.
Borg: Thank you both very much for spending time with us today. On our next edition of Iowa Press we're moving to western Iowa's fifth congressional district where democrat Matt Campbell of Manning is challenging republican incumbent Steve King of Chiron. That will be at the regular Iowa Press times, 7:30 Friday night, 11:30 Sunday morning. And a reminder too that you can communicate directly with our Iowa Press staff using the e-mail address at the bottom of the screen, it's firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd like to hear your comments. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.