Maintaining continuity. Iowa's senior senator republican Charles Grassley serving in Congress since 1975. A conversation with Senator Grassley on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: The new session of the nation's Congress is already underway. Officially it is the 113th U.S. Congress. Republican Charles Grassley was there when the gavel fell to convene, just as he was for the convening of the 94th Congress back in 1975 and every session since then, first serving three terms in the House of Representatives and then moving to the Senate in 1981. Now, if you're counting that is six terms in the Senate with the current term expiring four years from now, that is January 2017. He is familiar with the guest chair here at the Iowa Press table. Senator, welcome back to Iowa Press. I said that you were there for the convening but you were there over the holidays too and Congress never ends these days.
Grassley: It seems that way. Thank you for having me as your guest.
Borg: It's nice to have you back. And across the Iowa Press table, James Lynch who writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Henderson: Senator, it appears that Vice President Biden plans, at least by next Tuesday, to present Congress with a gun control proposal. What do you expect?
Grassley: I expect a mix of some control of firearm sales, something dealing with mental health issues and maybe more federal programs in that area and doing something to get states to do what they are supposed to do under existing law passed about seven, eight years ago that for every felony and for every mental health illness to report that to the FBI so it is in the database so that people like the incident in Connecticut, Aurora, Illinois, Congresswoman Gifford, I think we had a case in California recently. People that shouldn't have had guns, had guns and they shouldn't have had them because of mental health issues. Beyond that I don't know whether I have got enough information to tell you what else might be in there.
Henderson: Well, one point of discussion immediately after the incident in Connecticut at the school was the discussion of an assault weapons ban which had been in effect earlier in the last part of the last century. Do you support an assault weapons ban?
Grassley: I would have to say no to that now although I think that Senator Feinstein is writing a little bit different bill but I did vote against it. But I think you'll want to remember that in this instance passing a law on sale of guns is not going to solve the problem you just bring up that we had in Connecticut because the Columbine school affair where twelve people were murdered in Colorado, that was during the ban on the sale of guns. So we've got to look at things different than just guns. I'm a supporter of the 2nd amendment, I think you know that. I also think though that we do have to do things to make sure the database of the FBI has all the information so people can't buy guns that shouldn't have guns.
Borg: There is a corollary movement that is getting momentum too and that is to seize on the momentum of this occasion, not only for gun control of some type but also for some sort of mental health intervention. How do you feel?
Grassley: Well, obviously we want to know that people have mental health issues shouldn't have guns. I think knowing that ahead of time and getting that information in is kind of a touchy issue that involves the constitutional rights of people, the extent to which I think it's been 40 or 50 years ago, these people used to be institutionalized and it was declared unconstitutional to institutionalize them. We have medicine now that helps some people all the time. I think it's a very difficult thing to deal with. But since every one of these three or four cases that we're basing this discussion on that have taken place over the last three or four years or going back to Columbine it is a very important issue we've got to deal with. And I don't have an answer for it but we do have to deal with the mental health issue but also the states aren't reporting the felonies that are committed in their states that should go to the FBI as part of the database.
Lynch: Senator, Vice President Biden has suggested mental health background checks before someone can purchase a firearm. Should that be part of the legislation?
Grassley: I don't know how you would handle that without interfering with the privacy of the individual and the protection that comes from HIPPA type legislation. But if there is legitimate reason to think that somebody is trying to purchase a gun has a mental health problem, yeah, we should know that. But if James Lynch wants to purchase a shotgun, should you have to have a mental health test? I don't think I can go that far.
Henderson: What about the size of the ammunition? That has been a part of this discussion as well.
Grassley: I think that is a whole different issue and it can maybe be dealt with without violating the 2nd amendment. But I want to see the legislation.
Henderson: So you might vote for something that would limit the size of what they call magazines, the number of bullets --
Grassley: I would not say at this point because Senator Feinstein has said her bill is going to be much different than the law she got passed in 1994 and I think I better wait until I read the legislation.
Henderson: Also this past week the video game industry went to the White House to talk about this issue. What, as a U.S. Senator, can you do to restrict the freedom of expression of Hollywood and the video game industry?
Grassley: Under the 1st amendment, which is a fundamental right just like the Supreme Court has said the 2nd amendment now is a fundamental right, it's a very difficult issue because you've got to remember the Bill of Rights was to protect people from the government and so we have to respect the fundamental rights that we have.
Lynch: Senator, another issue you're facing in Washington when you go back to Congress will be the fiscal cliff which seems to have become the fiscal cliffhanger with more deadlines looming in the coming months on sequestration and the debt ceiling. What do you expect to happen here? Is this just a continuing argument between the parties going ad infinitum?
Grassley: I hope not. But before I say that I probably ought to go back to what Kay brought up and you brought up and it fits in right now with your question. I think it is very, very important that a lot of issues in Congress are second to this whole fiscal cliff issue, the debt limit increase debate and also another thing we don't talk about much yet but by March 27th we've got the continued resolution coming to an end so how do you fund the rest of the government? Those three things have to come up between now and March 2nd and March 27th and they are much more important than all these other issues that we probably will talk about in this news conference. So, my answer to your question is that I think that it needs to be done if we're not going to reduce the credit rating of the United States as some threat has been. But most importantly the creation of jobs and to make sure that we leave a strong economy for future generations to build on and deal with it all. And more importantly than just dealing with the fiscal cliff which deals with about 40% of all the money we spend, we need to get engaged in this the debate about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid because that is 44% of the spending and nobody wants to touch that. And if you really want to preserve these programs, and I do want to preserve them and strengthen them, as part of the social fabric of our society, we have to deal with that 44% as well.
Borg: Another thing -- go ahead.
Lynch: I was just going to say House republicans have shown reluctance to raise the debt ceiling, the spending limit. Do you think the President has the authority to do that on his own? And do you think he would take that step?
Grassley: You're talking about the 14th amendment provision. I read the 14th amendment because this is a part of the 14th amendment you tend to forget about. So I just recently went back and read it and it seems to me that the authority that comes from the 14th amendment to our federal government is related to preserving the benefits of people that fought against the resurrection which was a civil war. It seemed to me connected to that very much that the fiscal integrity of the federal government isn't used to help those who rebelled against us as well as to protect those who fought to preserve the union. And so I see it unrelated but it keeps coming up. Now I haven't read, I don’t think there's any constitutional law on it, court cases but that is my reading of it.
Henderson: Do you think a government shutdown is a bad thing?
Grassley: Of course it's a bad thing. But on the other hand $5 trillion of national debt under this presidency is much worse. And I think that what the House of Representatives is trying to say is that the President is talking about raising taxes, we have raised taxes now and we've had a spending problem. We don't have a taxing problem. And what taxes have been raised, the decision that was made on New Year's Eve is this simple, that if you've got $1 trillion plus annual deficit it takes care of about six, eight, at the most ten percent of that. What are you going to do about the other 90%? And that is what the debate between now and March 27th is all about is dealing with the expenditure side of the ledger.
Borg: Another thing on your agenda coming up are confirmations that President Obama is sending over for new cabinet officers. And one of them is your fellow republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. You've been reticent to say whether or not you'd vote for that confirmation, said you want to wait and see. What gives you pause? What do you want to know? What gives you pause about a fellow republican serving as Secretary of Defense?
Grassley: Yes. I think three areas. One, statements he has made about our relationship with Israel. And secondly, he supported going into Iraq but later on, something that was successful, the surge of Bush's, he opposed that. And thirdly he has been against sanctions for Iran. I think Iran is very much a threat to world peace and to our own national security and particularly to that area of the world. And I've got to be satisfied of his soundness in those areas if I'm going to vote for him.
Borg: And so right now you could possibly vote against that confirmation?
Grassley: Yes I could. But here's another thing I should say in a more generic way, I generally don't make up my mind how I'm going to vote on somebody until the hearing has been over and I've had a chance to read the hearing record. And these three issues and maybe a lot more about Senator Hagel will be the foundation of most of the questions about him at that time and we'll get answers that will satisfy me or not and I'll vote accordingly
Borg: But you've already made up your mind, have you, on John Kerry, another colleague in the Senate?
Grassley: I have said that the chances of my voting for him are pretty good but I also said that I should wait until the record is done. But I know John Kerry I think a lot better than I know Chuck Hagel.
Henderson: Jack Lew has been nominated by the President to be the Treasury Secretary. What questions do you think need to be answered by Mr. Lew before you would vote for him?
Grassley: Well, first of all, I think Senator Sessions is very much opposed to his approval and Senator Sessions being the ranking republican on the budget committee is going to be a very strong point. Now whether Lew goes before the budget committee, I'm sure he comes before our finance committee. So if Sessions doesn't get a chance to ask questions of him I'm going to ask questions of him that Sessions brought up February 2011 when the budget was presented and he says this is a balanced budget, we're going to be able to start paying down the national debt. Well, that's just not the real world. It's the way the world ought to be but it's not the way the world is, it is the world we've got to make happen if we start making tough decisions on spending right now.
Henderson: So did he lie to Congress? Is that what you're suggesting?
Grassley: I would suggest that he either was speaking in a rose colored glasses or else he was misleading Congress. I'm not going to say anybody is lying because I don't know what is in their heart. But he is absolutely wrong on the facts.
Henderson: The President has also nominated John Brennan to be the head of the CIA. He is widely regarded as the person who is most closely associated with the administration's drone program. Do you approve of the way the drone program has been run in the Obama administration? And do you have any concerns about the Brennan nomination?
Grassley: I approve of the drone program but I have been hammering the President along with even Senator Leahy, the chairman of the committee that I serve on. We do not have the written statements and the legal justification for the use of the drones and I think that ought to be a matter of public record and they even deny it to democratic members of the Congress. But beyond that it isn't the drone issue in Brennan that worries me, it is what did he know about Benghazi and what did he do in the White House to change the wording of CIA memos that were then used by talking points for Ambassador Rice when she appeared on television and said, you know, Benghazi is all about this film in California, it's got nothing to do with Al Qaeda, etc, terrorist activity and we know that that was entirely wrong and we know that the CIA recognized it as being terrorist connected. And so the truth never came out and covering up in government, particularly in an administration four years ago that said they were going to be the most transparent in the history of our country, have turned out to be more stonewalling than any other administration. We need to know the truth. The public's business ought to be public.
Lynch: Senator, as the President has been making these nominations he has come under some criticism for the lack of diversity, specifically he hasn't nominated enough women to satisfy some people. Does he have a problem there? Does he need Mitt Romney's binders to find some qualified women to serve in his administration?
Grassley: I think any president ought to find the most qualified people they can for office. And I think in the case of Chuck Hagel there was a woman, former undersecretary, that was very qualified to do that and he could have done that and saved himself a lot of trouble. I don't say that just because she's a woman. But I think it is very important that you try to go as broad as you can. You can't write half of the population off if you're considering who is qualified to serve. But just to do it for diversity I think is wrong. You ought to pick people because they are the most qualified.
Borg: I guess I am concerned about your agenda, another thing on your agenda coming up now in this session of Congress is the farm bill. It should have been the last session, wasn't renewed but you extended what now, what was enforced. So it comes up again during this session and it expires again in September. Will you, in the Senate, do you expect pass a farm bill much like the Senate passed last session but the House rejected?
Grassley: Well, I think now there's two things. One, it's not an election year so I think the House was afraid to bring up the farm bill during an election year, so that helps us. And the other thing is that the chairman of the House agriculture committee said that by the end of February he's going to get started on legislation which moves it much faster than they did before. And I believe that we do not have much of a change of the House agriculture committee that we can pass in a bipartisan way through the United States Senate like we did last June a very good farm bill. I think the major issue is not going to be farm policy, it's going to be how much money to spend on food stamps. We save $4 billion, the House saves $16 billion. Some House republicans said $16 billion wasn't enough. Democrats in the House said it was too much. So that made it very impossible to get even a bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives. That is the main problem, not the farm policy.
Borg: Is that still a problem?
Grassley: Yeah, I think it would be, particularly now as we get into the things that James brought up, the fiscal cliff, March 2nd, the budget debate coming up March 27th and the debt limit increase.
Henderson: What sort of immigration reform would you support?
Grassley: Well, I think it's pretty important, I think it's pretty easy to support a lot of things that are going to be in the immigration bill. Then there's one thing I'll get to that makes it very difficult. I think first of all how to do it, the process is pretty important. I think passing one massive immigration bill is going to be very difficult. I think it needs to be done piece by piece and I think that is the way the House is going to do it. Border security, the fence, more border patrols, that is pretty much done but it still needs some more emphasis. Verification of Social Security number through Social Security, we call that e-verify. Increasing penalties for people that hire people that come here illegally. Have a good guest worker program, some reforms of the H-2B program, things like that. Then you get down to this 900 pound gorilla and that is what do you do about the 12 million people that are here? There's people and Congress says we ought to make them citizens right now. There's other people that would say they ought to go home and come back legally because we do allow almost a million people coming into this country legally. So we're a very inviting nation, more than any other nation in the world. We learn from immigrants and we can even learn a lot from these people that have come here illegally. They are family oriented. They have a good religious background. They've got good work ethics. We can learn a lot from them. But the problem is they violated the law by coming here. Now how you handle that I don't know but if you're going to have a comprehensive piece of legislation you've got to find common ground and I don't know what that common ground is right now.
Lynch: Senator, over the past few years we've learned a lot about you from your use of Twitter, the social media network and you have been posting some cryptic, sometimes abbreviated and misspelled tweets about the President and UNI women's volleyball and the History Channel and your run-ins with deer on Iowa highways. One of the more memorable tweets was this where you said, "Pres Obama while u sightseeing in Paris u said 'time to deliver on healthcare' When you are a 'hammer' u think everything is NAIL I'm no NAIL." Talk about your use of Twitter. What do you get out of that? Do you get conversations with constituents and colleagues as a result of your tweets?
Grassley: It's the latest, and some teenagers tell you it's not the latest, but for me it's the latest of technology that I try to use going back to my introduction of the fax machine, having television news conferences with satellite, the use of my website, all of these things. I think Twitter is just the latest. I have a responsibility to encourage public debate. What is representative government all about? I'm one half of that process of representing government. You, my constituents, the other one half of it. I've got to encourage dialogue and this is one way of encouraging that dialogue.
Borg: I'll dialogue with you right now on Afghanistan. President Karzai is in Washington right now pleading, I guess, as to what the U.S. status of forces should be after withdrawal. Because of the blood and treasure that this country has invested in Afghanistan, what do you think ought to be the remnant left behind?
Grassley: Well, I hope the President's plan is right and I understand that he wants to leave some troops there although this week he said there is a possibility of no troops to be left there. But I think that we're seeing what is going on in Iraq right now, the conflict that is going on, that it was a mistake not to have a status of forces agreement with Iraq, maybe 1,000, maybe 10,000, I don't know what the number is but we need some presence there to make sure that what gains have been made, the blood that has been shed, that it isn't wasted.
Henderson: Senator, let's talk about your presence in the Senate. When you were last on this program you talked about it and we have a little video that shows what you said a year ago.
Iowa Press - January 20, 2012 - Henderson: Will you run again?
Iowa Press - January 20, 2013 - 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 you know 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 Byrd when they were 90 years old or 100 years old it 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.
Borg: Senator, I think Kay wants to pop the question again. Kay?
Henderson: Are you going to run again?
Grassley: Why don't you ask me in two years. But let me assure you I'm raising money and most important thing is to focus on the job we have now. I think that has been the strength of my longevity in the United States Senate is that people don't see me as campaigning for election, they see me as doing my job of representing the people, going to the 99 counties every year, answering all my mail and staying engaged. But the most important thing is to concentrate on the problems that we have with deficit spending in Washington, D.C. right now and get this economy under control to create jobs so our future generations can have the same quality of life that we've all enjoyed.
Lynch: Senator, whether you make that decision to run again or not, one of the questions facing you is regarding the Iowa Republican Party seems to be going through a bit of a rough patch right now, sort of in-fighting, some lack of direction. What role are you going to take in trying to get things back on track and making sure the party is strong enough to help you get re-elected as well as other republicans?
Grassley: Well, first of all, I think these folks are republicans like I'm a republican. I think they are doing a very good job. We've seen republican enrollment go up 37%. We've seen democrat enrollment come down about -- did I say 17%, about 37,000 I believe -- we've seen democrat enrollment come down 68,000. We're about par with them. I'm helping raise money as an example for them as an example. I think we're in a pretty good position having a Governor, the state House of Representatives, half of the congressional delegation. I think that we're going to continue to be strong.
Borg: Well, with that we're going to say we'll have you back, what, another year from now or when because --
Grassley: Kay wants to pop the question.
Borg: Thanks for being with us today. Next week on Iowa Press Governor Terry Branstad. We'll be questioning the Governor just a few days after his annual Condition of the State Address to the Iowa General Assembly. That convenes on Monday. The day after convening, legislators will be hearing the Governor's address and you can too. Iowa Public Television will be at the Capitol next Tuesday morning at 10 bringing you the republican governor's speech. And we'll bring perspective and democratic reaction as well. That is live at 10 Tuesday morning. It will be in IPTV World and online at iptv.org and then rebroadcast Tuesday night at 6:30 on IPTV's main channel. And then the next day we'll bring you Iowa Supreme Court Justice Mark Cady's State of the Judiciary speech live at 10, it will be on IPTV World and rebroadcast at 6:30 on IPTV's main channel. And earlier in the week we'll bring you a pair of Intelligent Talk conversations from the Business Education Summit. Both speeches airing on Monday, that will be January 13th at 7:00 and then the other speech at 8:00 that night. Lots of good listening ahead. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.