Leveraging seniority. Republican Charles Grassley is maintaining a high profile in the democratically controlled U.S. Senate. A conversation with Iowa's senior Senator on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: Chuck Grassley knows how to win elections ... first winning a seat in the Iowa legislature's House of Representatives. That was back in 1959, 53 years ago. Moving to Congress in 1975, serving three terms in that House of Representatives until being elected to the U.S. Senate. That was in 1981. And even though democrats are holding now a slim Senate majority, Senator Grassley's tenure gives him significant ranking on Senate committees, most notably making his presence felt right now as ranking republican on the Senate's Judiciary Committee. Welcome back to Iowa Press.
Grassley: I'm always glad to be with you and I wish I could be with you more times because I'm sure I'd get invited more times than I show up.
Borg: I don't know about that. One thing I didn't say was your age and tell us that.
Grassley: I'm not ashamed to say to people, like I say at my town meetings, I've spent my entire 78 years around New Hartford, Iowa which is just west of Cedar Falls.
Borg: All snowed in right now.
Grassley: That's right.
Borg: The people across the table you know well, Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Glover: Senator, let's start off by talking a little politics.
Grassley: Sure, go ahead. You usually end with politics.
Glover: Well, we'll start with politics. It is kind of on the fore of everybody's mind these days. A couple of weeks ago the Iowa Republican Party said that Mitt Romney won the Iowa caucuses. This past week they said Rick Santorum won the Iowa caucuses. And then they said, well, I guess we really don't know who won the Iowa caucuses and we probably won't ever know. How big of a black eye did the Republican Party give itself with that?
Grassley: Well, if you listen to the news recently on the national news they want to give us a black eye and I don't think it does. Some people might but I think we better concentrate on a couple of things. One, whatever shortcomings there were that made it so let's say eight precincts didn't report, we need to correct that. But we better start looking to the future, 2016. Republicans and democrats in Iowa have stuck together for the last 30 or 40 years for caucuses to be first in the nation. Both the republican and democrat parties of New Hampshire have stuck together and if we want to maintain it we need to maintain our unity. We've got good reasons to be first in the nation because people that can't raise big money and can't or aren't wealthy can run for president in Iowa and if you don't have these sorts of environments we're going to squeeze a lot of people out of possibilities of being president. So, I want to look for the future and keep New Hampshire and Iowa together and our two political parties working in unison so we're first in the nation.
Glover: The republicans and democrats go about their caucus thing differently. Democrats begin electing delegates at their precinct caucuses, republicans, in essence, do a straw poll. Are there procedural process changes that are needed in the republican caucuses to avoid what happened this year?
Grassley: I wouldn't say that there should be -- yes there should be procedures from the standpoint of making sure that the paper ballots that are submitted are secured. I think that is the most important thing and a more secure way for the reporting from precinct to precinct to headquarters, yes.
Glover: How do you go about that?
Grassley: Well, obviously I haven't thought of that yet because who would have thought this would ever be an issue. But I think that republican central committee -- well, if we do it different than the democrats I guess then we'd have to say this is just within the republican party but I think that this is something we've got three years to work on and it can be worked on and you can secure balloting in the United States, we can do that whether it is within the party or whether it is within just the normal state election process. Go ahead, ma'am.
Henderson: I run into a lot of Iowans who express relief about their ability to watch television again and listen to the radio without hearing all of these campaign ads that they heard in the run up to the Iowa caucuses. Mitt Romney a couple of days ago said that he wants super pacs to go away and he wants Congress to change the law. As a member of Congress would you change the law and forbid these so-called super pacs from existing?
Grassley: I would change it this way -- I've been through one new law when I first went to Congress, I didn't vote on that and then two successors to that and I've come to the conclusion that people are going to find legal ways to get money into political activity in both parties or outside of the parties because people want points of view or candidates to be better known and maybe it's the point of view as much as it is the candidate and so I have come to the conclusion that what we should do is abandon the laws we have now and make sure that total transparency is the rule of whether or not there is undue influence. So, whether you give a dollar or whether you give $100,000 you have to report it in 24 hours, everything we spend we have to report and then let the voter be a judge or even the non-voter be a judge by going to the FEC computer and get the information to make that judge because I don't know how you're going to write such a perfect campaign law because McCain-Feingold was supposed to be a perfect campaign law but super pacs come out of it, you know, and the previous campaign law of the 1980s was supposed to wipe out certain things. But, in the end, people found legal ways to get more money into campaigns.
Glover: So, you'd just do away with all campaign finance rules and just only require reporting?
Grassley: Yes. But total transparency, you understand. In other words, you're smart enough to decide to look at what a certain candidate gets and how he votes and make a determination of whether or not that person is under the influence.
Glover: What do you say to people who argue that voters don't pay that close of attention?
Grassley: Well, then voters ought to pay that close of attention and we ought to encourage more than that.
Borg: But let me just pick up on what Mike is saying here -- what do you think is the mood of voters right now? Number one, are you a bit embarrassed by what happened in the Iowa caucuses? Some Iowans are, many Iowans are.
Grassley: I know it. But here, it's like crying over spilled milk and we're past that and there are things that weren't right about it so we look to the future. Let's correct what was wrong and let's move on but I think the most important thing we have to do is if we think this process is good for Iowa and good for the country and good for having people that aren't wealthy or raise a lot of money be candidates for president and people like Carter get elected and if Obama hadn't beat Hillary Clinton in Iowa he wouldn't be President of the United States. We make presidents, we ought to preserve that system and we ought to be concentrating on that.
Henderson: Back to your campaign finance scenario. Super pacs would still exist, people would just know who was contributing to those organizations. Mitt Romney said during the recent debate that candidates should be responsible for what is being said about the candidate on air. These super pacs allow outside groups to essentially be a sub-campaign for an individual candidate.
Grassley: Well, okay, from that standpoint the independence is very important but then you aren't going to have the super pacs because they're going to be able to contribute directly to the candidate.
Borg: You didn't endorse a candidate and you haven't so far and so that gives you a perfect opportunity right now to assess where we are in the republican nomination process. How do you shape up the field right now?
Grassley: Well, it's obviously going to be two people against Romney instead of eight people against Romney, we've made that much progress and it tends to be Santorum and Newt Gingrich against Romney and I don't think you're going to know until you get down to one against Romney and you'll probably know a little bit more after the South Carolina thing but I don't think it's going to be over at that point.
Glover: This race, the republican presidential primary race, is getting increasingly heated. The charges are getting sharper, the television ads are getting harsher. How much damage are republicans doing to themselves with this primary race?
Grassley: I presume that we are giving a lot of ammunition to Obama. But even if we weren't giving that ammunition to Obama they're smart enough. We’re going to have the toughest campaign that we've had for a long time against getting rid of an incumbent president. I think we've got a very, very good chance of doing it. Any of the candidates I think can beat Obama today. I don't know how it's going to look in November but I think we are going to have a lot of negativism coming from Obama campaign whether republicans are doing this to each other or not and then I think you've also got to realize that there's a lot of time between now and November and I always say, whatever happens between now and Labor Day it's a whole new ball game after Labor Day so I don't worry about it too much.
Glover: Is there a danger that republicans could ding themselves up enough to not be able to beat Obama in the fall?
Grassley: Of course but I don't know whether it's reached that point yet but I still go back to what I just said, time is a healing factor and it seems like every presidential election there's certain things that go on through the spring and summer but it's a whole new ballgame after Labor Day, until November.
Henderson: Speaking of a whole new ball game, will you run again?
Grassley: You know, you asked me that question a year earlier now than you're asking it now. Immediately after I was re-elected in 2004 you asked me if I was going to run for re-election and I said, yes, I'm going to run for re-election. I just announced that I'm 78 years old and I think I have a responsibility to the people to be a little more cautious this time and maybe why don't you ask me that question about two or three years from now and I think I've got to be in very good health, I'm in very good health now but I've seen too many people like Strom Thurmond or like Robert Bird when they were 90 years old or 100 years old took two or three people to get them around the Senate, one of them even had a nurse with him all the time and Chuck Grassley is not going to try to represent the people of Iowa in that state of health. So, if you would give me a little bit of time I'll let you know.
Glover: One of your colleagues said right after the last election, the presidential election that the main priority of republicans in Congress ought to be to assure that Barack Obama is a one-term president. Do you agree that should be the top republican priority?
Grassley: No, the top republican priority has to be to get the budget deficit under control, to make sure that we don't have the biggest tax increase in the history of our country that is going to come at the end of this year to make sure that we put a two-year moratorium on regulations to make sure that we harvest all of the energy we can within the United States, not outside the United States, expand export opportunities and mostly that adds up to turn the economy around and create jobs.
Glover: Well, how responsible is it for one of your colleagues to say the top republican priority is ousting Barack Obama?
Grassley: I think that we ought to concentrate on the good of the country and the best policy is the best politics as opposed to the best politics being the best policy.
Henderson: President Obama had a deadline by which to make a decision about a pipeline that would stretch from Canada down through the United States for the refining of oil. He decided against allowing that. Is that going to be a key issue in the fall election?
Grassley: It ought to be a key issue not just because of the pipeline and the necessity for harvesting more of our own energy in North America but it ought to be a perfect example of a President that doesn't have a policy or who has got a policy of talking out of both sides of his mouth because he has gone around the country of the United States for the last year saying get on the republican Congress, get them to pass my jobs bill and he has an opportunity to create 20,000 jobs with the pipeline and he says no.
Borg: Even so, may be done if some environmental concerns are straightened out.
Grassley: Well, isn't it funny that both the Bush state department and the Hillary Clinton state department have said that we ought to go ahead with it. The only thing that held it up was two things, Nebraska had some objection, Nebraska worked out their objections with the pipeline and the President got caught between the environmentalists on one side of him and the labor unions on the other side and he says, you know, we're going to put this off until after the election. Why doesn't the President of the United States that says we ought to create jobs have guts enough to make that decision between the labor unions and the environmentalists, go with the labor unions, create the jobs and fulfill your goal and your own political rhetoric and move on. But he is too afraid of himself and getting caught up in the election. So, we thought that after he made that decision in October that we put it in the bill, you're going to make the decision by February 21st. Well, we thought that there was only one reason in law he couldn't make the decision to build it, it was "that if it's not in our national interest". Well, then he says, you know, they didn't give me enough time to decide, it's not in our national interest so we'll still wait until after the election. So, this president is shredding congressional intent, he's shredding the constitution by making recess appointments, he is doing so much that is unconstitutional, violating rule of law. How much are we going to let him get away with?
Glover: Senator, it would be fair I think to say that Congress has not been all that productive recently. We're ten months from an election. Is Congress essentially frozen until we have an election as a deeply divided Congress?
Grassley: Yeah, as long as Reid is running the Senate and we normally have 600 votes, this year we had about 300 votes, we usually have long debates on a lot of major pieces of legislation and I'll bet you can have on one hand the number of bills that we've had extended debate on, he files cloture motions, he has got 23 democrats up for election, only 10 republicans up for election. He shut down the Senate last year, it's going to be shut down this year because he doesn't want his people to take any tough votes. Why do you think that we haven't had a budget for the last 900 days, three years, because budget votes are very difficult and he wants to protect himself against budget votes even though the law says that you have to have a budget every year.
Glover: So, the short answer to my question is yes.
Grassley: The answer to your question -- it is not going to be productive as long as Reid is going to protect his 23 democrats from having to take tough votes.
Henderson: This past week you withdrew support of draft legislation on Internet piracy. What do you need to see in legislation for you to support it?
Grassley: Okay, if I can describe a perfect balance without getting into detail because quite frankly I don't know what the detail is and Reid must not know what the detail is because we're going to have a vote next Tuesday and he took off to Djanga. But we've got to protect the freedom of the Internet because it's very good for the economy, very good for communication, just good all around, it's very good. We've got over here the constitutional right of copyright, trademark and invention being stolen by offshore Web sites and if we can all agree that stealing our protected intellectual material is wrong and if we can agree that we want to stop stealing I think between protecting the Internet and stopping stealing we can find a proper balance but we've got to have that agreement and I think everybody agrees we shouldn't allow people to steal somebody else's property.
Glover: As Dean mentioned in the open you are in a powerful position in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Is the Senate going to confirm any judges before the election or are they on hold?
Grassley: No, we're going to confirm judges until about July, August period of time and whether you have republican or democrats in control of the Senate that soon before an election generally it shuts down. So we have already had hearings on 88% of all the judges the President has sent up to the Hill. We have actually confirmed 72% or 77% of all those judges and we're way ahead of where the democrat Senate was under the Bush administration and so we are doing very well. We could do a lot better if the President would send up, get more of his nominees processed and get them up to us. He is very slow in doing that.
Henderson: You mentioned recess appointments. Without going into that minutia, at issue here is what is called the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and it seems a game of chicken between the Obama administration that wants to have this thing function and republicans who just don't like the agency. Isn't that at the root of this problem?
Grassley: Well, because the agency is responsible to no one. They get their money from the Federal Reserve, they don't have to come to Congress to justify their spending and money. There is very little control over the regulations that they issue. But where the President made the biggest mistake in appointing somebody that wasn't confirmed by the Senate, this law on the head of an agency is a little bit different than other laws, it specifically says that none of the regulations issued by this agency can be issued by somebody that hasn't been confirmed by the Senate so he goes ahead and gives somebody a recess appointment, he's going to issue regulations and somebody is going to take him to court and the court is going to say that these regulations are errors because the guy hadn't been confirmed by the Senate. So, what is the President accomplishing?
Borg: You pride yourself on being an active farmer and I know there are pictures in your Senate office in Washington of you on the farm. How much with farm, record farmland prices being publicized across the nation, very good commodity prices right now for corn, soybeans, beef, even pork -- how much is that going to affect the rewriting of farm legislation that is up now in this Congress?
Grassley: It's going to do away with the direct payment, save $15 billion. We're still going to have a very strong crop insurance program I believe. It's questionable whether we'll have a counter-cyclical payment or a revenue assurance program. I hope we can do that. We probably won't have the acronym SURE which is an acronym for a disaster program that was recently set up, it will probably be done away with.
Borg: What about the conservation reserve programs?
Grassley: They'll probably be about three or four billion dollar less spent on conservation but there will still be 28 million acres in the conservation reserve program.
Glover: And as Dean mentioned, farm prices are at record highs, land prices are at record highs, how do you justify spending money, if you eliminate direct subsidies, how do you still justify spending a lot of money in farm programs?
Grassley: Well, about the only money that will be spent as long as prices are as high as they are now is whatever combination there is between government money and private money for private health insurance. But you'll understand the government ...
Henderson: Crop insurance?
Grassley: Crop insurance, you'll understand the public money is the minority of that. But anyway, because the government ought to promote risk management just like we do through flood insurance, as an example.
Henderson: One of the mantras of your party is government is bloated, we must cut the budget. The U.S. Agriculture Secretary proposes cutting the USDA budget and closing some farm service agency offices. You have expressed opposition to that. Why?
Grassley: Well, I have only expressed opposition to it from this standpoint, we've got to -- we have already instructed the Secretary of Agriculture through the farm bill to save and be more efficient. We haven't said close down so many offices or even close offices. But this is going to save $150 million, you can't sneeze at $150 million. You've got to find some way to save it. I've got to look at is the application to Decatur County and to Appanoose County and to Union County, is it fair and equitable compared to the workload some place else or what about Iowa as a whole compared to the rest of the other states. So, I've got to look at it from the standpoint of fair and equitable and I don't, we haven't studied that yet because it just came out. So, when we get back we're going to see that it's done that way.
Borg: Talking about closing offices, it occurs to me post offices closing across -- are you going to intervene in some of that?
Grassley: We can intervene in three ways from the standpoint of a congressional action. If there is any Saturday closing or if there is any change in the retirement system or the health care system Congress has to enact that. But under the 1969 law they have got to operate within their budget, they're $15 billion in the hole ...
Borg: So, you'd support closing some offices?
Grassley: Well, you're going to have to. But here's what I can do for my constituents and what I have tried to do and that is you urge everybody to go to their town meetings. 150 people showed up in New Hartford when that post office was going to be closed. It was so much opposition to it that people walked out. The Post Master General come to my office a couple of weeks later to apologize for that. So, then he went back and we're going to have other criteria. So, get a petition up and I'll send a letter to the post office department about it. But we're not going to take the post office back under the federal government with a trillion and a half dollar deficit, we're not going to assume another $15 billion.
Glover: Address the broader question if you would, Senator ...
Glover: Address the broader question if you would -- it seems like a lot of people in Congress said oh spending is out of control, we've got to cut spending, we've got to get things back into control, get rid of the deficit and every time somebody floats an idea, oh no, we can't do that, can't close post offices, can't close farm service offices. How do you balance that?
Grassley: Well, I think we just balance it. I haven't said none of this stuff should be done. I just want to make sure it is done in a fair and equitable way and there's going to have to be give across the board. You know, 44% of the budget is entitlement, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. That is part that we don't appropriate for. We've got to deal with that separately, that is going to have to be done in a bipartisan way or nothing is going to be done, it's going to have to be done in a bipartisan way with presidential leadership or it's not going to be done but annually, so we don't review this annually, but over here 44% of the budget we review annually. If you don't think elections make a difference, the 2010 election has made an extreme difference because if you look at 2011-2012 budgets you'll see it pretty much flat for this 40% of the budget.
Borg: Okay, I'm going to have to interrupt there because we're out of time. We'll have you back again soon.
Grassley: I'm sorry -- I'll be glad to come back.
Borg: Next week on Iowa Press we're talking with key players in redesigning Iowa schools -- Education Department Director Jason Glass, the School Board Association's Tom Downs and the teacher's unions' Mary Jane Cobb. You'll see them all on next week's education conversation at 7:30 Friday night and our new time at noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.