Senior perspective. The United States' government languishing in political stalemate. We're seeking perspective from two former Iowa congressmen, democrat Neal Smith and republican Jim Leach on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: You know the situation, the federal government's crippling stalemate now limping into a second weekend. Ping-Pong rhetoric reverberating between the political parties, Americans coping with what they're hoping is a temporary suspension of what is defined as non-essential federal services. But as citizens are waiting until the next election to definitively express themselves, there are experienced minds evaluating the challenge and we're seeking that insight from two congressmen representing a combined 66 year tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives. Democrat Neal Smith's 36 years, the longest ever by an Iowan, 18 terms representing central Iowa in the House. That is serving from the Dwight Eisenhower presidency into Bill Clinton's administration. And many of those years were spent alongside 15 term republican Jim Leach representing eastern Iowa areas beginning with the Jimmy Carter presidency through the George W. Bush administration. Gentlemen, welcome back to Iowa Press. You've been here many times and I almost, well not almost, I do feel like I should stand when I'm introducing you. Thanks for making time for us today.
Smith: Glad to do it.
Leach: We would stand in return.
Borg: Thank you, thank you Congressman. Across the table, Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Henderson: Congressman Leach, you were there for the 1995 shutdown. In your opinion, how does this differ and how does it compare to that?
Leach: Well, there are analogies. Frankly there's a philosophical term sometimes a difference in degree becomes one of kind and there are differences in degree. In 1995 we'd come out of a very successful war, one frankly paid for by our allies in the Middle East, the Gulf War under George H.W. Bush. We were in the process of undergoing a great economic surge based on huge increases in productivity largely tied to the technological revolution underway. But the feelings were tense. But the radicalism of 1995 was the republicans wanted a budget that was an inflation adjusted freeze on spending. And in today's terms that doesn't seem too radical. But the House and the Senate, but led by the House in a bill to the President, that the President vetoed for being insufficient, that is not large enough spending. The House republicans assumed that the public would totally agree with them. As it worked out the public agreed with the President and the House and Congress in effect came to capitulate to the presidency, less to a person than to the presidency itself. But this was gotten over and you still had an era where members on the whole were not totally tied to a caucus. And today we have what might be described as party caucus politics and the loyalty seems to be to the caucus rather than to the Congress itself. And it is all a matter of degrees but the feelings I think have never been more intense maybe in the history of the country for less reason, that is in the decade before the Civil War it was more discordant, for good reason. Today it is exceptionally discordant for less good reason but there are true philosophical differences.
Henderson: We will talk about perhaps your prescriptions in a little bit. But Congressman Smith, you were there for shutdowns especially during the Reagan presidency. How, in your view, does this differ from those days?
Smith: Well there's no similarity. In fact, I don't really recall that shutdown being completely shut down. Was it for a few days?
Henderson: On occasion Tip O'Neill and President Reagan had some conflicts over, for example, FCC rules and so there were some major fights during the 80s.
Smith: There were some disagreements but it didn’t, we didn't really consider it, I don't think we shut the government clear down.
Henderson: Are you glad you're not there?
Smith: Oh yes. The people I served with, most of them wouldn't be there today because they wouldn't stay.
Borg: Why is that?
Smith: Oh it's just so different. When I was there we put coalitions together on every bill. We just expected to. I mean, we had southern democrats, northern democrats, republicans and you put a coalition together and you didn't ever think about getting enough in one party to pass a bill. And we had that until well the south changed in the Nixon administration.
Leach: But it was more than just philosophy. I mean, Neal is 100% correct. But people didn't think that dysfunctionality should be a goal or a strategy. And if you take Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan were considered poles apart philosophically but they liked each other, they respected each other, they worked together even though they had different views. And the same was more or less true in the Congress. I mean, you had Tip O'Neill who was truly liberal but one of the most decent people ever and people liked him and respected him on the republican side. You had republican leaders like John Rhodes, Bob Michel and before that, who Neal would have served with, Gerry Ford.
Borg: What you seem to be saying is that there's just a lack of civility and respect among members of Congress.
Leach: I've never known it so intense.
Borg: Right. Kathie?
Obradovich: Are you happy that you're not there now or do you wish --
Leach: Oh gosh, yes. I'm with Neal. I'm honored to sit next to Neal and we're both happy to be free men.
Obradovich: If you were there, what would you be trying to do to resolve this impasse?
Leach: Well, I think one of the steps is exactly what Neal said. I mean, you seek coalitions and you talk to the other side and you talk to people with whom you disagree.
Smith: The Hastert rule is their big problem. We never even dreamed of something like the Hastert rule --
Borg: Dennis Hastert.
Smith: Yes. During his administration the minority of the Republican Party said you can't bring a bill up while we're in the majority unless the republicans alone can pass the bill. That doesn't work.
Obradovich: Well, do you think that process reform is the way to move forward? Or is there something bigger that has to happen in the country?
Smith: Well, you have to have people that will not use the rule. Right now they have a minority in the Republican Party that is using the Hastert rule and they threaten the majority leader, say you can't bring it up unless we have a majority of republicans.
Obradovich: Mr. Leach, which party do you think is being hurt more by this current impasse?
Leach: Well, the big picture is that both are being hurt. It's possible that if you go to approval ratings, and I think that is an awkward measurement, I mean clearly the republicans are at their lowest point ever, clearly the Congress is at the lowest point ever, clearly the President has had his approval rating drop. So dysfunctionality reflects poorly on the whole political process and it raises real questions in how we as a people want to run a government. It also, the least noted part but maybe the most important, it is truly damaging the United States around the world. I mean, we have always assumed that we have the model government in the world and we've stuck our chest out in pride about this. And now when we see a little bit of dysfunction it makes us reconsider and I think as a body of politics the American people are going to have to think this through.
Obradovich: Polls show that the President has indeed dropped but republicans have dropped faster and more, their brand has been affected more. Do you think that is a very short-term thing? Or do you think that there are things that the party is going to have to do to rebuild after this?
Leach: Well, only time will tell. What has happened in legislative politics is that there are a number of "safe" seats and so the majority of members of Congress are voting to protect their position for their party's nomination rather than the national interest.
Borg: Congressman Smith, Kathie's question is, who has suffered more in your estimation?
Smith: The whole country has and I'll tell you why, is because they need to be working on other things. We need tax reform, we need it badly and we have people with 401k's and pension systems that are not, you know, the IPERS even is $96 billion in the red --
Borg: That's the Iowa Public Employees Retirement System.
Smith: Yes, yes and a lot of the retirement systems are and we need tax reform because people have 401k's, they depend on the 401k's or depend on the retirement systems and the country is being hurt.
Borg: But are you afraid that this is the new norm for the Congress for the nation?
Smith: I'm an optimist, I guess. I think maybe they'll learn a lesson out of this. It's so bad now and people are so disgusted with using, as a tool, using things like the debt ceiling and closing the government to try to get your way on some bill that has already passed by majority rule.
Borg: When you said optimism, Congressman Leach had something to say on that. Are you optimistic?
Leach: I'm optimistic in the long run but why I'm a little hesitant to say who suffers the most, anyone can look at a public opinion poll and will say the republicans have suffered the most. On the other hand, public opinion polls do not translate into elections because one is a measure of the public, the other is a measure of how the voters are going to vote and it is premature to make an assessment that one party or the other is damaged more. But it is not premature to say both parties have suffered great damage.
Smith: The election system has got a problem too.
Borg: What's that?
Smith: Well, we have, right now, in the last election more people voted for a democrat for Congress than they did for a republican but the redistricting has changed so that majority rule, we don't have majority rule and in the Senate you don't have majority rule. California has the same population as the 21 smallest states and the 21 smallest states have 42 senators. We've got some problems and the amount of money that is in elections is determining too who gets elected. That's just out of balance.
Henderson: You have mentioned redistricting and the way legislative maps are drawn out. But isn't it also a function of how people have sorted themselves into enclaves where they are only around people who believe philosophically in the same values so that you have red states and blue states, if you will? And isn't it a function of how people live today, how they consume their media that we have reached this point, not necessarily the fact of how legislative districts are drawn?
Leach: The drawing of legislative districts is part of it but it isn't the greatest part of it. The country is divided in many different ways, partly by, as you referenced, people naturally living in some, by choice in some circumstances versus others. But it is true that there is a manipulation of districts and what Neal hinted at, which is incredibly large, is the new increased power of money in politics and the money coming from groups that push both parties to the left, one to the left and one to the right and people are very hesitant of taking on power brokers. And elections, you think of politics as on Election Day, but now politics is everything between elections too. And so legislating is a continuation of politics in another form. And that, legislating has become one where money continues to play a very large role and that money is pushing people to the extremes.
Obradovich: I was going to bring this up later in the program but since you brought it up, when you were serving you refused to take money from political action committees or PACs. And today it seems to me like PACs are practically the benign form of campaign finance compared to all of the money that has come in through Citizens United, the corporate financing, because at least PACs had a reliable reporting system, they were more transparent, they are more transparent. How do you see getting back to that point when, in fact, you wouldn't even go with the PACs?
Leach: Well, I always considered myself a moderate in politics but in one subject I'm terrifically radical and that is I would take both PACs and corporations out of the money game and have partial public financing of elections where small contributions could be matched up to a point. Now, having said that, this is one of the few times that, in my view, the Supreme Court has opted to make America less democratic and move us in what is called in a political science term an oligarchy, that is where power brokers play a bigger role. And I personally think that there ought to be a unity of the middle, the left and the right to come together and say, we want to have governance that relates to the people and people power in the sense of the voter should be the dominant person through whom all elected representatives owe their position to, uninfluenced by big money in politics.
Smith: I never did ask anybody for a contribution, I just wouldn’t do it. You couldn't live today, you couldn't run for Congress that way. They have to spend a day or two a week asking people directly for money. In my first election I was elected on $10,300. That's why my total contributions were.
Borg: And then do you recall during your last campaign what you spent, if you spent $10,000 on the first one?
Smith: It was close to a million dollars, yeah. Now, I didn't ask for it, I had some of it left over but I had people raising money. But you couldn't operate that way today. They have to personally ask people for money.
Borg: Is that why you are glad you're not in the Congress?
Smith: Oh yes, I couldn't, I couldn't run for Congress, I couldn't do that.
Leach: Can I emphasize what Neal just said? Both parties tell all newly elected members you have to spend two days a week on telephones raising money. Well, how many voters think they have elected someone to do that? I mean, you're supposed to be a legislator. Money is a driving force behind virtually everything that involves the world politics today. And if there's any reaction to what is happening in this shutdown it ought to be a demand for reform of that system.
Henderson: Congressman Leach, in 2008 you endorsed Barack Obama for president. Number one, are you still a registered republican?
Leach: I am a registered republican, yes.
Henderson: Okay. Number two, has he lived up to your expectations? Is part of this shutdown the fault of the executive and his relationship with members of Congress?
Leach: Well, I don't want to get involved in the blame game, frankly. I think there is a shared accountability. I do have some sympathy for an executive when the party that isn't that of the executive has as a goal no successes rather than a goal that is philosophically differentiation and respect. And I think that is awkward for any president at any time. And everybody knows Barack Obama was elected with one of the worst circumstances of a president, probably not as bad as FDR in 1932 after the Great Depression. But you had wars -- wars have had a multi-trillion dollar implication for debt. You have an economy that was weak. That's pretty tough to step into the presidency after. And so this president has handled himself, I think, credibly and I think he will go down as a credible president. Now, no American will agree with any president all the time. I frankly believe that Barack Obama should have been elected in this first election based largely on foreign policy. I thought we needed a dramatic shift in where America was heading.
Borg: Go ahead.
Henderson: Congressman Smith, I'm guessing you voted for Barack Obama twice now.
Henderson: Has he acquitted himself well in your estimation? Senator Grassley was on this program a few years, a few weeks ago rather, and said he is more likely, President Obama, to speak with foreign leaders than he is to speak with members of Congress.
Smith: Well, I don't know that that makes a whole lot of difference anyway. You talk about Tip O'Neill and Reagan getting together, they got together and neither one of them knew anything that was in the tax bill. I mean, they talk about them passing a tax bill. It was passed by members of Congress that got together. And that was true of most of the years that I was there that members of Congress got together and the leaders knew who to depend on and help Congress pass bills.
Obradovich: Mr. Leach, before we get too far away from the current policy, I wanted to ask about the debt ceiling. It seems like there is sort of a growing discussion among republicans about whether the debt ceiling really means anything and whether surpassing that deadline would actually lead to default. You have had a long history in banking, chair of the banking committee. What is your feeling about what is the real consequence of exceeding the debt ceiling? And if it's not default then what is it?
Leach: Well, the consequence is phenomenal. It injuries the confidence of Americans and the world in purchasing American obligations.
Borg: How do I feel it? How do I feel it? How does it hurt me? How does it hurt you?
Leach: Well, it hurts -- there are very few issues that hurt every American more than this. And the reason it does, if suddenly on a given period of time the government has been able to issue debt at 2%, 3% and suddenly it jumps to 5% or 6% that is increasing the cost of government with no benefit except to the person who might be getting more for their bond and that is disproportionately today foreign governments.
Borg: So that increases my taxes and I get less --
Leach: It increases your taxes and decreases potentially what government can do for you.
Smith: I think this is hurt -- I think this is hurt worldwide, we depend on China for over -- they have over a trillion dollars of our debt. There's over about $3 trillion of our debt is held in foreign countries. It's bound to cause people that hold this debt to, you know, not just depend, we're not as dependable as we were therefore it's going to hurt our interest rates that we've got on --
Leach: And, by the way, interest rates in government tip over into the private sector. If bonds of government go up 5%, borrowing of the American public will go up too in other places.
Obradovich: Most countries don't have a debt ceiling. Should the United States get rid of ours and just assume that we're always going to pay our obligations no matter what even if we borrow to do it?
Leach: I think this is an arbitrary historical thing that this country has that ought to be looked at very seriously for whether it should exist. And it could be that Congress itself will have to change. It could well be that the court system will be involved. And the court system could get involved for a very simple reason. Under the Constitution we have to honor our debt, that's a constitutional obligation.
Smith: We didn't have a debt limit until 1962.
Leach: That's right. And it could be that the President will be forced to honor a debt, which would be illegal, but his other option might also be illegal and so he will, might be forced at some point in time to be confronted with a lawsuit that goes to the Supreme Court that has to choose between two paths. If he chooses one path he does something illegal, if he chooses another path he does something illegal, in which case the courts could get involved. But I personally think that Congress ought to truly review the issue of whether or not you have a debt limit.
Smith: I think you do away with it, just do away with it.
Smith: The trouble with the court system is it takes about a year or a year and a half to go through that. And I don't think the debt limit is legal --
Borg: Congressman Smith, politically where will the consequences be at the ballot box? What do you expect in the 2014, 2016 election?
Smith: Well, so much happens in one year I don't know. If the ballot box were today I don't think there's any question it would make a difference. The people that they think their congressman was a part of the problem --
Borg: Against all incumbents?
Smith: Some of it rubs off on all incumbents, some people don't distinguish -- they don't even know what district they're in. They just think, I don't like the way things are going.
Obradovich: Mr. Leach, you've traveled the country talking about civility. You did so in your job with the NEH and as well with other groups that have worked in Iowa and elsewhere. Do you feel like it did any good?
Leach: I think it's an issue that has to be raised and talked about. Effects of one person speaking are maybe as large as the noise of a tree falling in a forest, which means it can be very modest. But not to speak to the issues is also an error.
Obradovich: In politics when you talk about civility people get all, they sort of think well here's a mushy moderate who feels like perhaps is not standing up strongly enough for principles. How do you get past that in politics?
Leach: Well, you make it very clear that civility isn't principally about politeness. It's about willingness to listen to the other side, it's about respect for the other person. And it's not about four letter words. You can say things of four letter words that are very respectful. But if you show no respect for the other person you've got a real problem in your own life let alone the life of the country.
Borg: Last question, we only have a few seconds. I'll give it to you Congressman Smith. When will Iowa elect someone of the female gender governor or to the Congress?
Smith: Well, if they have the right candidate it will be the next election but you've got to have the right candidate.
Borg: Thank you, thank you gentlemen for making time for us today.
Leach: Thank you, Dean.
Borg: We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next weekend, it will be the same times, Friday night at 7:30 and then noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.