Political horizon. Iowa democrats surveying the political landscape for potential gubernatorial candidates, spotting first district Congressman Bruce Braley. A conversation with Congressman Braley on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: We're just a couple of months now past November's general election but insiders are already aligning the political stars for the next campaign. And that's the case with first district Congressman Bruce Braley. He is just beginning a fourth term representing a newly configured district including Cedar Rapids, Waterloo and Dubuque, Grinnell as well as Marshalltown and Decorah, winning re-election by the largest percentage among Iowa's congressional delegation. Well that, and Congressman Braley's scheduling statewide exposure events outside his district, have some speculating about his future plans. We've invited him back to the Iowa Press table. Welcome back.
Braley: Thanks for having me on the show.
Borg: It's been a big week in Washington, inaugural and all the ceremonial things. But Congress is back to work.
Braley: It is and it was an exciting week no matter what party you belong to. An inauguration of a President is an impressive part of our nation's history and it was an exciting time for everyone in Washington.
Borg: Well, Congressman, two people who write regularly about you are across the table. James Lynch, Political Writer for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Henderson: Congressman, let's address the speculation head on. Are you running for governor?
Braley: I can tell you with absolute certainty that the average Iowa voter is not thinking anything about the 2014 elections. They're thinking about whether or not the people they have elected to serve them now are doing their jobs. That is what I'm spending my time focusing on.
Henderson: You are one of the people that advised Brad Anderson, who has announced that he is running for secretary of state, to make that announcement now, to lay the groundwork for a campaign. How long will you wait before making a decision about 2014?
Braley: Well, as long as it takes for me to understand what the lay of the land is. We know right now that Congress has a lot on its plate. We took an important vote yesterday. We took an important vote on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. We have four major fiscal deadlines looming in the first part of the year. And that is what people who elected me to my fourth term in Congress want me to focus on. That's what I will be focusing on.
Lynch: A couple of weeks ago Senator Grassley was a guest on this show and he indicated to us that he expects Senator Harkin to run for re-election in 2016. Has Senator Harkin confided his plans in you? And do they have any bearing on your 2014 plans?
Braley: Well, Senator Harkin is a good friend of mine but he has not told me anything about what his plans are for 2014. He certainly is doing everything that it appears he would have to do to run for re-election. But I'm just like every other Iowa voter waiting to see what happens.
Henderson: How frustrating is it to be a member of Congress and be in the minority? I remember when Fred Grandy ran for governor in 1994 he relished the idea of being an executive who could actually do things.
Braley: Well, I can tell you one of the most frequent questions I get, Kay, is are you still enjoying your job and are you having fun? And I always answer yes to both of those questions because you shouldn't be doing this job unless you can answer both of those questions yes. I'm very proud of the fact that even though I served in the minority last term I was able to reach across the aisle, work with republicans and pass legislation that actually got signed into law by the President. That is not a very common thing for people serving in the minority and yet I think it is a reflection of the work that I put in to develop strong relations with people on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers so that I can try to get things done for the people that I represent.
Lynch: Your staff frequently sends out news releases saying that despite the situation of a do-nothing Congress you're getting things accomplished as you were talking about. But how long can you be satisfied with that? How long will the job be fun if you're in the minority, your seniority, you don't have enough seniority that you're going to be a leader within your party? How long will it be fun before that bloom is off the rose, so to speak?
Braley: Well, most people who look at your work in Congress tend to focus on the legislation that you deal with in Washington, D.C. and they ignore the incredibly important responsibilities I have to the people here in my district. A lot of Iowans took great pride in seeing Taylor Morris in the inaugural celebration and riding in a float in the inaugural parade. I spent a lot of time in the last year working with people like Taylor Morris, people who have served their country who come home with great needs who need someone to be an advocate for them. And those are the types of things that give me great satisfaction and fulfillment because helping people is my most important job responsibility. But I'm also one of those people who has always said there are far more important things in life than losing an election and if something gets to the point where I feel like this job is not where I need to be then I'll sit down and look at what other options are available.
Borg: I'd be remiss if I didn't ask this question and I know that you're not really trying to look into the future as far as running for something else. But last week as I was signing off this program and telling people, our viewers, that you were going to be our guest this week, Governor Branstad was sitting in that seat. He was our guest last week. And he said, as he heard you were going to be the guest he said, well ask him the next time that you have him, ask him what was the last time that a congressman was elected governor of Iowa. Does something like that go into your psyche when you are considering whether or not you might run for governor, whether or not being a congressman is a good jumping off place?
Braley: Well, it's kind of interesting that he would ask you to ask me that question, Dean. But I can tell you that I had breakfast the day after the inauguration with my good friend Governor Jay Inslee of the state of Washington who served in Congress with me, ran for governor and was elected. I also know that Mike Pence, a republican congressman from Indiana, just got sworn in as Governor of Indiana and my friend Mary Fallin, who came in with my class in 2006, is now the Governor of Oklahoma. So are people in Iowa so different from the people in those three states that they would never consider someone who had served in Congress as a governor? I don't think so. I think for every elected position people evaluate you based on what you have done with your life, what you can do for them to make their lives better and then they decide among candidates who they want to vote for.
Borg: I want to move from the future now into the here and now and something that you did just this week. You issued a statement asking that the video on the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya be released for general viewing by the American public. That is now classified. Are you thinking that that video, which you apparently have seen, will exonerate the State Department in its handling of security?
Braley: Dean, it has nothing to do with exonerating the State Department. It has to do with getting the American people the real-time video evidence of what happened at that compound. I was privileged to have an opportunity, along with members of the House and Senate, to attend a classified briefing where surveillance video from the compound itself and drone video was shown to us in a logical, sequential fashion so that we could understand how these events unfolded. And we had top level people from the State Department, the Defense Department and the CIA there to explain what we were seeing and how it impacted decisions that were being made. I think because of my background that if there is an ability to declassify that without threatening our national security that it would be helpful to eliminate many of the misconceptions including misconceptions I heard at the hearing yesterday by people who weren't in that room and didn't see what I saw.
Henderson: The Obama administration has advanced a series of gun related proposals. Do you support the wide range of them? Do you support the assault weapons ban and specifically the limit of ten bullets per gun clip?
Braley: Kay, when the President put out his proposal I took extreme interest in what he was recommending in terms of congressional action that needed to be taken and things he could do from an executive standpoint without congressional action because shortly after the tragedy at Newtown I had posted on my Facebook page a long statement of what I think we needed to do to examine the culture of violence in America and to put everything on the table and have an honest and rational conversation about these issues. So I have friends who represented the area where Columbine occurred, where Aurora occurred, where Newtown occurred. Gabby Giffords is a good friend of mine and I have those events in my memory. And I think that reasonable Americans who have very different viewpoints on the scope of the 2nd Amendment and its protections can and must sit down at the table and have a meaningful conversation about how we do background checks, how we provide funding for mental illness and identification of people who are at risk to harm other individuals, whether we should have high capacity magazines and what their purpose and function is in a sporting culture and those types of things. And I can tell you when I posted that on Facebook there was a large range of opinions that were immediately shared and people were debating these things. That is a positive thing. But ignoring these issues and saying we shouldn't talk about them is not the answer and I look forward, along with my colleagues, to having that conversation.
Henderson: So you are open to any proposal and not endorsing one currently?
Braley: No, I will be probably co-sponsoring legislation to ban high capacity magazines. I will be sponsoring legislation to tighten background checks to make sure people who have significant mental illness and should not be handling firearms aren't getting possession of them. And one of the biggest challenges that I hear talking to health care professionals and law enforcement professionals is the same things we heard after 9/11 and that is the inability of all these agencies to communicate effectively with each other while respecting patient privacy and criminal law protections. That has to be part of the conversation as well.
Lynch: One of the things the President talked about in his inaugural address this week was equality for gays and lesbians. And I wonder is there anything that Congress should do to make that happen? The Supreme Court is looking at same-sex marriage cases. But is there a role for Congress in equality for gays and lesbians?
Braley: There already has been a significant role, James, because we passed legislation to address the issue of don't ask, don't tell and that is no longer a part of people who want to serve their country in the military. We passed hate crimes legislation to protect people in the LGBT community. We took steps to make sure there are protections in the workplace. But there's still a long way to go because there are still practical considerations for gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgendered couples who may have children, who may have custody issues, who may have end of life care issues in terms of access to each other in the hospital and those are practical considerations, some of which have to be addressed at the state level but some of which may need some federal legislation in terms of estate tax implications, tax benefits and protections like that.
Borg: Do you think -- the President's inaugural address has been evaluated as pretty aggressive -- do you think he's ahead of his party?
Braley: Well, I don't know what motivated the President to say what he said in the manner he said it during his inaugural address, Dean. But I think if you look back to his first inaugural, he made an incredible effort to be post-partisan and to send a clear signal he was willing to work with people in both chambers, on both sides of the aisle to bring people together. And within weeks after he delivered that address the minority leader in the Senate said the number one priority for republicans in the Senate was to make the President a one-term president. And if you look at how things played out during his first term there wasn't a lot of effort to try to find bipartisan solutions to difficult problems. So I think what probably happened is he wanted to send a strong message of where his priorities were heading into his second term and that is what he covered in his speech.
Henderson: The President also mentioned immigration reform and specifically the so-called dreamers, children who were brought here who are now adults and giving them privileges. What shape do you think immigration reform will take in Congress? And what will you hope to vote for?
Braley: Well, I'm more optimistic than I have been in some time that Congress, republicans and democrats, will come together finally and pass comprehensive immigration reform. And I'll tell you why, Kay. The American Farm Bureau recently had a meeting and talked about their top legislative priorities for the coming Congress. It wasn't the farm bill. It was immigration reform. And when I talk to dairy farmers in northeast Iowa they are struggling to find people willing to work the demanding jobs and the hours that that involves. Seed corn companies in Iowa who used to depend on people like me to detassled corn as a teenager are having difficulty finding young people who are willing to do that type of demanding work. So I'm hopeful that we can get beyond the partisan rhetoric of immigration reform and get down to practical solutions which I think the American people and most Iowans want to see happen.
Henderson: So does the fashion of this compromise appear to be giving the illegal immigrants who are currently here a pathway to citizenship, perhaps paying a fine, any back taxes?
Braley: That's one of the biggest hang-ups we've had is this one word, amnesty. Well, amnesty was a word on a lot of people's minds at the end of the Vietnam War and it was, we're going to allow you to avoid criminal prosecution without much in the way of accountability. That is not what we're talking about with immigration reform because here in Iowa people are arrested, they are charged with crimes, they are allowed to plead guilty, pay a steep fine, go on probation and if they meet certain conditions their record can be expunged under something called a deferred judgment. Democrats, independents and republicans get that every week in this state. So if we start looking at our solutions to immigration reform more like they, say you have to admit you broke the law, you have to be held accountable for that in the forms of a stiff fine and probationary, if you do anything wrong you're out. But we have to be looking for creative solutions that bring people together to solve this issue whether than driving them apart.
Borg: Just something that happened this week, you call it a creative solution, the Iowa DOT reversed itself and is now going to give drivers licenses to those under the dream order of the President of the United States. Are you happy about that? Do you think it was the right thing to do? Was it an improper interpretation?
Braley: I think it was the right thing to do, Dean, because from a law enforcement standpoint I think law enforcement officials want to have an ability to monitor people who are driving on the highways of this state and licensing them and keeping track of them is a better way of doing that than having people out on the road unlicensed, jeopardizing other people with no accountability.
Lynch: One of the other issues that the President raised in his inaugural address was climate change, meeting the challenge of climate change. And we're already seeing utilities move away from coal fired plants to gas fired plants such as in Marshalltown where a new plant is going up. But how do we break that dependence on fossil fuels, including coal, without a carbon tax or some other mechanism that is going to raise the cost of heat and light for Iowans who depend so heavily on coal?
Braley: Well, one of the good things about the year end deal that we voted on is that it provided some strong incentives in a host of different areas trying to address the issue of climate change, how we become more energy efficient, how we diversify our energy portfolio including a one year extension of the wind energy production tax credit, a lot of energy efficiency tax credits. But if you look to the west of Iowa you'll see this playing out in the state of North Dakota right now with the Bakken Shale development. People forget that North Dakota, while in addition to having this huge new oil resource, also has the number one wind energy potential of any state in the country. And they are not even in the top ten in wind energy production because we don't have a grid that is capable of taking that energy and getting it to places that need it.
Borg: So what will you do as a congressman to mitigate that?
Braley: Well, we have to realize that there is a war on renewables going on right now in Washington, Dean. It is being funded by the oil and gas industry that wants to stifle the development of alternative sources of energy production. And we have to be realistic about all the incentives the government has given to them in the past at a time when we're calling for a reduction in these incentives and make sure that there is a level playing field that allows diverse energy to be brought to the American consumer.
Borg: One of the, maybe the effects of climate change is the drought that we currently are hoping doesn't continue into the coming year. But in your district right now communities are making contingency plans for water conservation next summer. And people are looking at the Mississippi River wondering, are we going to be able to support barge traffic there? What is your role as a congressperson in all of those events?
Braley: Well, one is to be honest with my constituents about the factors that are contributing to these problems and the solutions that have to be brought to bear. I was talking to a friend of mine who represents St. Louis yesterday and they are at the epicenter of this debate because flood management on the Missouri River, which had drastic repercussions in Iowa two summers ago, influences the water level on the Mississippi River which is a huge navigable source.
Borg: So what are you doing personally to intervene?
Braley: Well, I work with my colleagues who are part of an upper Mississippi waterway caucus and we're hoping to do a conference sometime this year. I'm proposing that we do it at the Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque to bring people together to talk about water management issues and to try to bring in some of the long-term forecasting that would have implications for those water levels and what are the solutions that we have available to us.
Henderson: Let's say there is drought and Congress contemplates forwarding disaster relief to this region. Can Congress do that given the hullabaloo about Hurricane Sandy relief? Have you reached an impasse in terms of the ability of the House to pass that kind of legislation?
Braley: Well, I'm very concerned about that because in my first three terms I'm confident, Kay, I dealt with more disaster assistance than any other member of Congress and the second month of my first term we had an ice storm that had 500,000 Iowans without power. In 2008 I had the worst tornado in the United States followed ten days later by the worst flooding in our state's history. I was standing on the dam at Lake Delhi two years later when it collapsed under massive flooding. And then I had more flooding a year later in Dubuque. And this is something that they don't cover during orientation in your first year in Congress. You learn it on the fly and I have a great staff that now knows a lot about these issues. But we have never made disaster assistance dependent upon spending cuts and using that as leverage to hold things hostage to get assistance to people in need. I have always said that people that are at risk because of natural disasters should get no more and no less than what they deserve under the law.
Henderson: So do you think the template moving forward is that it's going to be a bipartisan coalition that gets that kind of legislation through the House? Because that's what happened with Hurricane Sandy relief.
Braley: It has to be. And we all saw what happened is when the republican leadership in the House refused to bring the bill to the floor, pulled it the night after they had announced it was coming to the floor and we were all prepared to vote on January 2nd it cause a firestorm of controversy within their own party. I watched those members from the northeast, republican members in the House, go to the floor and speak passionately about how wrong this was. And it's one of those things, unless it has happened to you and you have experienced it, it's easy to dismiss how desperate people are for this assistance.
Borg: Go ahead, Kay.
Henderson: A lot of people are looking at Congress and they see inaction on the farm bill. The Senate has already started talking about moving a farm bill on that side of the Capitol. What is going to happen in the House? Is there going to be the same result, nothing?
Braley: Who knows. I mean, I talked to Collin Peterson who is the ranking member for the democrats on the ag committee and he has sent a very passionate letter to the republican leadership saying, we did our job, we gave you a farm bill in the last Congress, are you going to commit to us in writing that if we do that again you'll bring it to the floor for the vote? Because if not, why should we waste our time. And what a lot of people don't realize is that farm bill had incredible incentives for beginning farmers and young farmers and sustainable forms of agriculture that a lot of people who are having difficulty getting into production agriculture given the high cost of rental for the ground that we see here in Iowa right now, a lot of those innovative programs didn't get passed into law. We have a nine month extension of the previous farm bill that a lot of people involved in farming are very unhappy with.
Borg: Congressman, I know you don't like to look into the future, but I predict that something that happened on Friday of this week is going to have the phones ringing in your office. The Department of Education says that from now on applying current federal law that schools must include on their athletic teams disabled children or provide alternative programs for them. In the current school budgets that is really going to stretch already hurting schools. What is your staff going to say? What are you going to say?
Braley: Well, this isn't something abstract to me, Dean, because my children participated in band activities and athletic activities with disabled students in their classes, including students who had cerebral palsy and were in wheelchairs. And so if you are a school district there is absolutely no doubt that this creates challenges for you. My aunt used to carry a profoundly disabled student in her class in her arms to the lunch room in a school district without elevators. So these are issues that are challenges for school districts, they are financial challenges but I am convinced that well-meaning people who care about accessibility and giving every student a chance to participate can find solutions. But I don't in any way underestimate the level of concerns this creates from a funding standpoint, especially for small school districts like the one I attended.
Borg: Thank you and we're out of time. Thanks for being our guest today.
Braley: Thank you.
Borg: And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press, usual times, 7:30 Friday night and again at noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.