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U.S. Rep. Tom Latham on Immigration and Agriculture

posted on May 24, 2013

Borg:  Republican Tom Latham knows his way as the U.S. House of Representatives. He is in his 19th year representing various sections of Iowa and currently at central and southwestern counties comprising the new the newly drawn third district. He's the senior member ofIowa's delegation in the House of Representatives now serving on the powerful Appropriations Committee and its subcommittees on agriculture and homeland security. Congressman Latham, welcome back to "Iowa Press."

Latham:  Great to be here.  Thank you Dean.

Borg:  Nice to have you back.  Across the table Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathy Obradovich and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson:  Congressman, let's get this out of the way, why didn't you run for the U.S. Senate?

Latham:  First of all, I would like to say this Memorial Day weekend, and I hope everyone takes time to remember those who have sacrificed so much for this country. It is a day of remembrance and by law at 3:00 on Monday afternoon everyone should take a moment just to stop and remember those people that have sacrificed all for our country. Now the question was why didn't I run for the U.S. Senate?  I was just elected in this new third congressional district. I thought I made a commitment to them to represent them in the House of Representatives. I'm in a great position. Dean mentioned about being on appropriations.  I chair the transportation a -- subcommittee on appropriations which Polk County hasn't had someone in that position since Neil Smith was in Congress. Also I think I'm much better able to serve the state of Iowa where I am in the position that I have there rather than to take a year and a half, two years running for the Senate. I really want to focus on what's important, I think, for the citizens here.

Henderson:  What do you make of the weak field or the analysis that the folks who may run don't have the kind of wherewithal that you might have had to launch a campaign?

Latham:  Well, I disagree with that idea because we have people running and there's quite a large group. Every one of them that I've heard is very credible, and I think an organized campaign to be successful. I think the climate; obviously, this next year is going to be very favorable. I think we'll have a great opportunity to win that seat.

Obradovich:  Are the people begging you to run?

Latham:  I continue to hear from folks, yes. I don't see any reason that I'm going to change my mind.

Obradovich:  Kay and I and you were all at the Polk County Republican dinner this week and you spoke and talked about run for re-election and so that is a solid plan for you at this point?

 Latham:  Yes, it is.

Obradovich:  I also heard you asking people for help at this stage and it seems kind of early for that. Are you anticipating any trouble on the horizon or is this anything different for you?

Latham:  My statement basically was to say thank you for all of the help that they had given our campaign in the last cycle and looking forward to going to the next cycle again. I want to be able to obviously be as successful with our campaign and to help with as many conservative folks as possible out there to be able to be successful and win elections, too.  So and it will take a big, broad effort for a lot of different folks involved.

Borg:  What sort of a factor do you think some of the scandal, but particularly the IRS scandal in which the Obama Administration right now which conservative groups were targeted for extra scrutiny for tax-exempt status sort of a factor, is that going to play in the off year elections?

 Latham:  I think it reinforces people's distrust of what they’re seeing coming out of Washington. I don't think it's confined just to the IRS as outrageous as what they were doing, but it really shows that this federal government has gotten so large and unaccountable that we still haven’t found out who decided to do this at the IRS, and whether it would be that, whether it would be Justice Department with the news media, Benghazi. Who is responsible?  No one takes responsibility and I think it is going to have an effect in that people are saying we've got to have accountability inWashingtonand the administration. We need to have people that are watching to see what's going on because this government has gotten so big and so intrusive and so depersonalized that people are very, very concerned.

 Borg:  Are you saying, in a way, that while you can't say definitively whether or not that IRS scandal goes all of the way to" the buck stops here" at the White House that a tone is being set that  purveys throughout the government?

Latham: Well, I think so.  When you look at all the new regulations coming down, people wondering if they get an auditor from the IRS why are they auditing me. If you get new regulation in your industry and if you're in agriculture and if you are a small business person, why are they doing this? And there is a real concern out there today, and I hear it every day. It's all of this uncertainty coming out of Washington, the size and scope of the federal government and they wonder you know these people don't understand what real people have to deal with every day in their lives and how to be successful and I think it is a big issue.

Henderson:  There was a huge kerfuffle earlier this year about the sequestration budget cuts that were implemented. Air traffic control was one of the issues, but in the end, what has been, in your judgment, the impact of those cuts?

 Latham:  Well, it is not the way to reduce spending. I'm very much obviously for reducing spending inWashington, but the sequestration is a way of cutting that is indiscriminate. It cuts things that are very necessary, whether you talk about meat inspections and whether you talk about air traffic controllers and whether you talk about medical research it cuts any of those things cuts everything along with those things that are not necessarily, the Government Accountability Office came up with about $300 billion spent on programs that are redundant. You know, why not eliminate those and put the focus where we should on very important, necessary actions by the government.

Obradovich:  And yet, while the sequestration has been in effect the federal deficit has actually gone down a little bit. I mean, isn't it fair to say that the sequestration actually worked for part of its intended purpose?

 Latham:  And I am for reducing spending, and you know, whether that amount is the right amount is just the way it's done. We have to be able to prioritize and what this does is again cut the good things that are necessary along with things that aren’t necessary.

Obradovich:  Congress hasn't been able to make decisions on the budget and unless it forces itself into a crisis. So are you confident that this isn’t going to be the way things are done from now on?

 Latham:  Well, I think it's very unfortunate in the last three years the Senate has not passed a budget. The House of Representatives now for the third year has and finally with the no budget, no pay forced the Senate this year to pass a budget, but because of that we have not been able to do actual appropriation bills. We end up in what they call a continuing resolution which just funds the government as it was the year before and that way you can’t prioritize and you can't reduce spending. My bill that I chair on transportation and HUD last year, we went through the whole process, subcommittee, three days of open debate and amendments on the Florida house and we passed it with the bipartisan majority of any of the appropriation bills and yet because the Senate hasn't done anything all of that work was done, and we had the largest percentage reduction in spending in that bill.

Borg:  Speaking of cutting and the continuing resolution and the farm bill was extended past its expiration but it is coming up again and you're dealing with it. Is a major stumbling block the food stamp or snap program and the food assistance programs to the needy; how is that going to be resolved in your -- with your foresight.

Latham:  Well, it certainly is one of the issues that will be dealt with. The House will be on the floor in June and the Ag Committee has passed a bill. We are going to have an open debate with amendments when we get to the floor of the House, and the Senate is actually working on it now. I think that issue is one that can be resolved and when looking at a huge expansion of eligibility that was put in with the stimulus bill and that has caused us 25 million up to 49 million people on food stamps today.

Borg:  Too many?

Latham:  Well people - if you have one dollar of benefit as far LIHEAP which is a heating assistance program, you’re automatically eligible for food stamps. There should be and there's no financial requirement needed to be eligible. So the eligibility has been expanded way beyond the normal scope. We have got to look at that, but I think that is going to be resolved. When you get to the farm bill, there are some issues as far as crop insurance and as far as conservation and the linkage there, and when it gets down to the very end, Dean, it's going to be dairy that is going to be the biggest problem because it’s just almost -- it's almost impossible to resolve that issue with the different types of dairy producers out there.

Borg:  There is an amendment, too, that Senator Grassley has added on the Senate side which would restrict the EPA, the Environmental Protection Administration Agency, in the information it releases concerning farms. You're familiar with that amendment. Is that going to go anywhere?

Latham:  I think it will because the EPA --

Borg:  You support it?

Latham:  Absolutely. The EPA and this goes back to what we talked about with the government being not really under control. They released personal information they had gathered from farmers to a bunch of environmental groups and it should never have happened and what the senator is talking about is to making sure and that it is encode that says they cannot do that. But this is a concern that people have that there's no accountability inWashingtonand that’s just one example that we’re talking about.

Henderson:  The Senate has begun serious consideration of an immigration reform plan. One of your colleagues in the House, Republican Steve King, has called it amnesty. What do you call it?

Latham:  I call it a good start. I'm very pleased that the Senate has finally had a debate in an open forum. They marked up their bill over there, five days in committee and they're going bring it to the floor and the House is going to do the same thing. We're not going to automatically pick up whatever the Senate does, and I have real concerns about the Senate's product here because they're talking about giving status to folks long before there's any other enforcement of immigration laws and that is a real concern and a lot of other concerns also.

Henderson:  What timeline do you favor?

Latham:  Well, I think you have to show that you can enforce the law and that you can secure the border that you have a verification system actually operating and functioning for employers to know that the employee is actually legal status before you give status to individuals. We've got to address the problem. It is a broken system that’s caused a lot of heartache to a lot of family, but we've got to do it right.

Henderson:  Is it important for your party to do this?

Latham:  Oh, I think it's important for the country to actually have a system that actually works to really understand that we need immigrants in this country, whether it be for high tech, whether it be for farm labor but have a system that works. I think its best thing for obviously the country to get this done and we’ve got to do it right.

Obradovich:  Another situation that the country is watching very closely right now is the federal response to the disasters. The tornado disasters in Oklahoma.  It's been already a bad year for disasters as Sandy Hook  issue is still not resolved, the hurricanes, hurricane season is coming and every time there is a disaster Congress has to fight about where that money is coming from. Are we going to offset it?  Where is that money coming from? How can that be resolved so that there is not -- that we don’t have to have that fight every time there's a disaster?

Latham:  It is the - the Sandy Hook incident obviously is different.  The hurricane - Hurricane Sandy -

Obradovich:  Hurricane Sandy.  

Latham:  Right.  Who appropriated $60 billion up there? I mean so that is taken care of?  As far as disasters like inOklahoma, we have $11. 6 billion sitting in Fema's account right now and we just marked up the Homeland Security Appropriation Bill.  There is another 6.2, I believe, billion dollars going into that fund so there's no shortage of money available right now and they'll have plenty of money to take care of that disaster and also, I think, the future disasters this year.

Obradovich:  But they are offsetting cuts in the budget right now, aren't there?

Latham:  No, this is annual appropriations -- well, the part of the balance in Fema's account came from Hurricane Sandy, but also, when you look -- the frustration I had with the funding and there were two different sections; what are the real needs that Hurricane Sandy had that were identified that we needed to fix and then there was another$30 billion of just -- 17 billion which was community development block grants with no direction as to how that money was going to be spent.

Obradovich: But do you agree that Congress has still responded to this kind of piecemeal without kind of an overall strategy for dealing with disaster relief and how do you deal with that?

Latham:  We have made great strides in trying to fund Fema to the point where they are able to respond for most disasters, when you have something as catastrophic as Hurricane Sandy was, that did take additional funding for that and - but that was not offset.

Henderson:  You have in the past few minutes used the word frustration to describe what’s happening in Congress and expressed some deep reservations about what's happening in Washington D.C.  Polls show that voters think Washington is dysfunctional. Why ever would you want to seek re-election to the house in your19th year? Why would you want to go back?

Latham:  I want to make a difference and try to help straighten out this mess.

Henderson:  What would you do differently in years 21 and 22 that you haven’t done in 19?

Latham:  What we need to do and in the House of Representatives we have done this, the Senate has not gotten to that point yet, but is to have what they call regular order.  That you take legislation and you put it through committee and with the subcommittee and full committee, bring it to the floor of the House, you have an open and fair debate. What the frustration I think a lot of people see is when people bring 2200/2300 pages bill to the floor one night to vote on the next day that nobody knows on the healthcare bill, cap and trade and those type of bills, we need to get back to regular order and there's got to be accountability and there has got to be oversight. One thing that Congress needs to do and we're trying to focus on in the House is to do oversight of these agencies. When you talk, Dean, about what happened with the EPA, when you look at what happened at with the IRS and a lot of other agencies, lack of oversight is the biggest problem. We have got - sunshine is still the best disinfectant and oversight brings that.

Obradovich:  Iowans just saw a situation where the legislature wrapped up and yeah, they went overtime, but a severely divided Iowa legislature and had big accomplishments that nobody thought they could do.  How come Congress can't do that?

Latham:  I am hopeful that things are getting better in that we pass the no-budget, no-pay bill last year that forced the Senate after four years finally to pass a budget over there. Now they're vastly different budgets in the Senate and the House, but what I want to see happen is to reconcile those so that we can do appropriation bills that get done at the end of the year and we avoid these continuing resolutions.

Borg:  So, there is hope?

Latham.  Well, there is hope and that's why I'm obviously frustrated and this is also a driving force for me to finally get this thing straightened out and make it function.

Henderson:  As the Dean of the Iowa Congressional Delegation, what is your role in ensuring the health of the Iowa GOP and what would you like to see changed?

Latham:  Certainly to be a spokesperson for the party to be someone who tries to bring people together so that we can have a unified voice, and to also have an organization in place that can be successful.

Henderson:  Is that existing today?

Latham:  We have -- there's real divisions, certainly, but I don’t think that's any different than the other part also that it is a party made up of a lot of different groups, but, you know, we're coming together.  I think if we can focus on actually making government work for the way that people expect it to, for them to do a function but not overdo it.  I think that is where we can focus because people are looking at it and it gets down to - it is the economy, it is jobs, it is the future for our kids' grandchildren.  That is what it is all about.

Borg:  Congressman, you listed three things there and for us it is time and we are out of it.  Thank you so much for being with us.

Latham:  Great to be with you.  Thank you.  

Borg:  In just a moment, continuing "Iowa Press" with the reporter's roundtable.  Continuing "Iowa Press" Statehouse Bureau Chief Mike Wiser joins us now. Mike, compromise allowed the Iowa Legislature to adjourn this past week. Was it too compromise in terms of even-steven?  Everyone came out equally and feeling good about it as they publicly say or are there winners and losers?

Wiser:  I think there was --everybody does have something to say.  To be able to go back home to their constituents and say we were able to get this done or we were able to stop this from happening. As far as everybody coming out, and even that's tough to say, if some of the people that look good, governor, he has some of his top priorities done and education reform and property tax, and then we do have expanded health care and Medicaid which everybody has something to point to.

Obradovich:  When you look at those bills, each one of them really does have a lot of the Democrats in the input and a lot of the Republicans' input and in some cases as republicans and the governor who didn’t agree on everything. Some of these bills sort of look like they threw everything at the wall, the property tax bill,  you had a sample of everybody’s idea in that bill, but ultimately people can say we really got -- we fought for this and we got this part of it and we didn't like this and we had to accept it and a lot of those big bills are like that.

Borg:  But they were miles, Kay, apart. At the beginning of the session.

Obradovich:  Right.

Borg:  I didn't see too much moving together during the session.

Henderson:  The real marathon happened in the last weekend when a couple of legislators sat down and came up with the compromise on healthcare expansion, but it turns out that Governor Terry Branstad is going to sort of eat his words and accept all of the federal money available for what heretofore had been called Medicaid expansion and what shall forever now be called the Iowa Healthy and Well Plan which is something totally sort of the same, but it has some components of his effort to encourage healthy living among that population of people and to require payment of premium if you don't live up to doctors' orders.

Borg:  But he was so adamant that you couldn’t depend on federal money. We are taking it now but are we dependent in this final compromise on that federal money if it should go away, and the state picks up the tab?

 Wiser:  We are absolutely dependent on that money right now the way the plan is structured and if this goes away, I think there are safeties in it where the state would have to -- if it wants to keep the same benefits that we have going on, it is dependent on the federal money.

Henderson:  But what Branstad made clear when he applies for the waiver, this is obviously going to require a waiver from federal officials; he is going to ask federal officials to offer that assurance that, hey, if the federal money goes away we want you to tell us you don't have to maintain this program on our own.

Obradovich:  The thing is Branstad's plan, this Healthy Iowa Plan that he came up with, would have had an increase in federal dollars also.  So, he didn't really have a pure story to tell where if you take this plan we are going to be dependent on the federal government but if you take my plan we won't because both plans involved a lot of federal money and either way Iowa is going to be on the hook for either having to cut services to low-income people or find other ways to fund those services if federal money dries up.

Henderson:  And I think he was willing to do this because he got - he had three things he wanted him to do and they did what he wanted.

Borg:  Major compromise on education reform, property tax relief.

Henderson:  Property tax relief to the tune, he says, of $400 million over the next four years.

Borg:  And Medicaid was a necessity.

Henderson:  Exactly.  So he gave a little, Democrats gave a little and everybody walked out saying we’re not Washington D.C.

Borg:  Mike Wiser, if he does indeed run for reelection he was very adamant on all these things and he was sticking to his guns with the line drawn, I won't cross this line, as he runs of this election which is not announced yet but maybe -

Wiser:  Probably a strong possibility. Sure.

Borg:  A tailwind or a headwind in these compromises for him?

Wiser:  Going into it, is he a winner or a loser, I think is the question in terms of how this plays out. This plays out well for him to be able to say we got this done. There are some things left on the table though that if he does run for reelection he is going to have to answer to; for one of the biggest issues is this $250 million --  $250 million backlog and road repairs.  Legislation did not do anything on that whether it was fuel tax increase or some other --.  That didn't happen and that is going to come back and possibly be one of the top issues.

Obradovich:  It's possible that next session we will see a return to the partisan gridlock and we have seen up until this year and that characterized going into the last election. I suspect Republicans will come out with a tax cut plan, a really big plan, probably one that democrats will argue is not sustainable and there may not be that kind of willingness to whittle it down and actually come to an agreement. It might be better to go into an election.

Borg:  But didn't legislators, Kay let me interrupt you just for a second here on Branstad, didn't legislators sort of hand him a hot potato in this abortion provision in the health care reform and Medicaid?

Obradovich:  At the end of the session, the bill that cleared would preserve the Medicaid-funded abortions for rape, incest, to save the life of the mother or fetal deformity however, it says that the governor has to approve those. The question now is will Branstad will leave that provision in the bill and if he does want to have what some would argue would be veto power over it.

Borg:  Another question. You indicated, Mike, that there’s left work to do next session, but also in the summer interim session, isn't there, Kay?

Henderson:  Yes. The Senate Ethics Committee will be returning to the capitol because they have an ethics investigation ongoing for Senator Kent Sorenson regarding some of the activities that happened during the presidential campaign and then in the past week a Senate Republican Aid was fired.  Her supervisor’s safer cause. She is alleging that she worked in a hostile work environment and she was sexually harassed.

Obradovich:  So, this comes after a year where the Senate Republicans had - they kind of turned the leadership over.  They kind of had started to maybe kind or rebuild their caucus.  They functioned fairly well as a cohesive caucus last session.  So, I think one of their challenges will be whether these - this sort of scrutiny without having those kind of fissures pop up again.

Borg:  Kathy, also, we just heard this later in this week that Senator Harkin has decided that his papers are not going Iowa State as he previously said and they’re going Drake University, instead. That had political significance over the past several months. Is the political significance of this gone and is it a dead issue?

Obradovich:  The fact that Harkin is actually retiring now lets a lot of the air out of the political argument.  The fact that he announced it while he was still in office and had not announced plans to retire helped poison the water at Iowa State, and it continued to be a political issue right through to the very end when he walked away. I think that Drake will not see that kind of political issue. I think the question for them can be how can they accommodate of these papers and make best use of them.

 Henderson:  The next question for us is what will happen with Senator Chuck Grassley. Will he run again?  That's what we'll be occupied with in terms of our United StatesSenators.

 Borg:  Absolutely.  Well, thank you very much for your insights today and we’ll have you back again soon to follow up and see how some of the predictions that you ‘re making are coming true. Thanks for being with us. Next week on Iowa Press Senator Mike Gronstal and House Majority Leader Craig Paulson. You'll see it at the usual times at 7:30 Friday night and a second chance to see the show Sunday at noon. I'm Dean Borg, and thanks for joining us today.


Tags: agriculture government immigration legislation news politics Republicans Tom Latham