Political surprise. Congressman Tom Latham says this term is his last. A conversation with Congressman Latham followed by political reporter analysis on the effect for 2014 on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: Iowa's congressional delegation is book-ending the year 2013 with political surprises. In late January, democratic Senator Tom Harkin said he is retiring. And now, as we're concluding the year, republican Representative Tom Latham says third congressional district voters will be choosing his replacement next November and that is after 20 years representing districts first in north central and northeast Iowa and most recently now in the central and southwestern counties. And with those retirements, Senator Harkin and now Representative Latham, Iowa is losing considerable congressional seniority. Congressman Latham, welcome back to Iowa Press.
Latham: It's great to be with you, Dean, thank you.
Borg: And it is a surprise. I can remember covering Congressman Jim Leach after he was defeated in the district in eastern Iowa. His first statement in his concession was, I feel like a tremendous burden has been lifted from my shoulders. Are you feeling that way now?
Latham: Well, I wouldn't say a burden but it has been the honor of my life to represent a total now of 56 counties in Iowa, in the U.S. House of Representatives. Certainly there is a relief as far as going through a campaign process again. But I expect to stay totally involved, every ounce of energy I have this next year to represent the folks here. But, no, it's different, it is. It's a different feeling.
Borg: I bet it is. And more questions now from Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Henderson: The big question is why?
Latham: Well, in my statement we have talked about this every cycle, my family sits down, we talked over Thanksgiving. Finally last weekend my wife and I decided that there's no perfect time, there's no right time but for us this is the time. We will have been married 39 years, half of that time I was on the road with the family business, the other half I spent in Congress gone and it's just the right time for us. It's a personal decision, something that we look forward to -- I've got five grandchildren, a great family, I just look forward to a change.
Henderson: The political element to your decision, I'm curious about that. You voted for the budget deal which ended the government shutdown and you voted for the budget deal that is avoiding another government shutdown next year. Some of your fellow republicans were critical of that. Some of them called morally bankrupt for those who voted for those deals. Did that play a role in your decision?
Latham: No, no, this is purely a personal decision. My votes are my votes and I have always thought in this job that if you do the right thing for the right reasons you don't worry about it. And I was politically in probably the strongest position I've ever been in my career. No, this is purely a personal decision.
Obradovich: Is it an emotional decision? It seems like you maybe are a little bright-eyed right now.
Latham: Well, no it is. I love the job. I still get a chill every time I walk across the street in Washington and see Miss Liberty on top of the dome. For a kid from Alexander, Iowa, 168 people, to have that honor it's really something. And so it is an emotional thing. It's a job I love but it's the right time.
Obradovich: But explain why it's the right time. You have had, you say you're healthy, right, so you could potentially be in a position to represent Iowa for a lot more years. Is it a family thing?
Latham: No, it's just the timing is right and I can't really go beyond that other than, again, we have this discussion every two years in our family and we just looked at each other and said, there's other things, we are in great shape. We can do other things and to have the opportunity to spend more time with the family -- I'm not just going to go away, I'm going to be involved. I don’t' know what yet. I have no plans. But I just look forward to another step in our lives.
Henderson: But what changed? In February you announced you weren’t going to seek the Senate seat that is open because of Tom Harkin's retirement and you said you would run for re-election. What changed between February and December?
Latham: We do, we go through this discussion every two years, every cycle with the family and I think we just finally, after visiting at Thanksgiving and sitting down last weekend, decided that this is it and I'm very happy and comfortable with the decision.
Obradovich: Senator Harkin gave a lot of notice, maybe more than normal, but you're maybe cutting it a little bit closer. Are you leaving your party enough time to field a strong candidate?
Latham: No, when I first ran Fred Grandy announced in December that he was not, he was going to seek the nomination for Governor and so the time, there's plenty of time. The filing is in March, primary next June so we have a lot of time for any candidate.
Obradovich: Are you confident that your party is going to be able to keep a seat? It is, at least on paper, the most competitive in the state.
Latham: Well, I have seen numbers where generically republicans 7 points better than democrat in this district. I think the political environment, I think most of the political pundits are saying that it's probably going to be a very good year for republicans so I feel very confident and we've got a lot of very good candidates that are talking about running.
Borg: When you speak about the very good year for republicans possibly and so on, I'm mindful that your very good friend John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives, last week really sat down some markers against a very conservative wing of your party and was very harsh in his rhetoric there. And then the following Monday we hear from Tom Latham saying, I'm out. Is that just a coincidence?
Latham: Yes, it is because that, any conversation with that going on had nothing to do with our decision. This is purely a personal decision.
Henderson: What type of candidate, in your view, would be most successful in the district?
Latham: I will just tell you, as far as serving, the number one thing you do is listen. I spent 90% of my time listening to constituents, hearing them out. You have got to be able to then have the ability to translate that into what you can actually do for them in Washington or whether you need to do it or you want to do it or whether you should do it. And that is always a dilemma to sort through all of that. So I think anyone that really has a real concern, that wants to listen, who will actually try to bring Iowa values and thoughts to Washington rather than having Washington come in here is someone that I could be very comfortable with.
Henderson: Senator Harkin has made it clear that he is backing Bruce Braley's bid for the U.S. Senate and is playing an active role helping him campaign. Do you intend to help someone campaign?
Latham: I have never endorsed in a primary. I don't expect to this time. From what I'm seeing there are a lot of very good people who are considering stepping up for the seat but --
Borg: Have some of them talked with you?
Latham: Sure. We've had some conversations.
Henderson: Has your phone been ringing off the hook?
Latham: Yes. Continuously.
Henderson: How many?
Latham: Several. I won't go into details.
Obradovich: Well, you have a year left. What do you still want to accomplish?
Latham: Well, I think obviously the first thing I think is to get the farm bill done so that we can have some certainty in agriculture. The budget deal that was enacted and the Senate just passed this last week and finally we'll have some certainty as to appropriations. I chair a subcommittee, transportation, housing, urban development on appropriations. We will actually have numbers agreed to between the House and the Senate so that we can write bills for this fiscal year and for next fiscal year. So that is going to be a huge part of what my time will be consumed with. But it finally gives us an opportunity to actually function in Congress. We have been going on with continuing resolutions which just extend funding from year to year to year for the last four years and the bureaucracy has become extraordinarily arrogant because there's no way to reign them in if you're not doing appropriations and put limitations on their activities. And so that is what I'm going to be really focusing on certainly is to try and get the appropriations, the process going to have Congress actually function again.
Obradovich: Well, how confident are you that Congress is actually going to be able to function here in this next year? It has been pretty hit or miss.
Latham: Right. Well, the huge thing that happened was that we finally have a number that both agreed on by the Senate and the House on the budget so that we can then write the appropriations numbers and with that previously agreed to number actually enact them into law rather than have these continuing resolutions going on. So, no, I'm very excited about the fact. The problem is it's just for this next year and then it doesn't, it goes back to the dysfunctionality.
Borg: And for appropriations, is it a lot less fun when you don’t have the money to appropriate and that you're doing more cutting than you are appropriating?
Latham: Well, I think the idea of reducing spending in Washington is something that I am very much in tune with and people I'm not sure are aware that we actually have reduced spending in Washington the last two years. Having said that, obviously it makes it more difficult. We no longer have what they call earmarks to entice people to vote for appropriation bills like used to be the case. And so it's more difficult when you have lower funding levels and people aren't as apt to support something. And you have people on both sides of it, the very liberals who are not spending enough, the more conservative people who it doesn't matter what you spend it's too much. But we finally have an agreed upon number so that we can actually operate this year.
Borg: Has this session though been a lot less fun for you than many of the others even though you have the majority?
Latham: It has been extremely frustrating the last four years, especially being an appropriator, that the system has not worked and that we have not been able to come to budget agreements between the House and the Senate. Case in point, this past year the Senate over ten years had $1 trillion more spending than what the House budget did. There's no way you could reconcile that. But what we finally have now is an agreed upon number that we can actually function. So yes, it has been extremely frustrating. And the result of that, Dean, is the fact that there is no accountability in the bureaucracy. We have almost gotten to the point where we have four branches of government, executive, legislative, judicial and now the bureaucratic branch and the most arrogant part is the bureaucratic branch because there's no accountability anymore.
Obradovich: Hasn't Congress facilitated that though by not making their laws specific enough?
Latham: No. It's not the authorizing language, it's the fact that they have gone way beyond the intent. With any piece of legislation there is a line in there that is the most dangerous part that says, secretary shall determine. You can have the record go with it which determines the intent of Congress but that is not part of the law so they can ignore it. And they have gone way beyond what the intent was of a lot of different -- the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, EPA, a lot of different areas today. And so by not having a functioning appropriations process, budget process they have been able to just do whatever they want to and are not held accountable.
Henderson: Senator Grassley was on this program recently and announced he was going to run for re-election, mainly because he wanted to preserve Iowa's seniority in the Senate with Harkin's retirement. Harkin has been in Congress in the House since '75, you have been in since '95. With the loss of that seniority will Iowa's clout in Congress be severely diminished?
Latham: I don't know severely diminished --
Henderson: We won't have an Iowan on the appropriations committee.
Latham: Right. Well, we may. This seat I think was one that Jim Ross Lightfoot had and then when he left I took that appropriations seat.
Henderson: So who are you telling John Boehner should be in that seat when you leave?
Latham: I'm not, whoever our republican elected official is should have that seat.
Henderson: You don't have Boehner's ear on this?
Obradovich: But what about Steve King? You could put a bug in someone's ear to --
Henderson: Is it important for there to be an Iowan on that committee?
Latham: Oh absolutely, I believe and of course I'm biased because I'm an appropriator. But it's the one committee where you are actually forced to work across the aisle because you actually, the intent of the committee is actually to pass bills every year to fund the government. And so we actually do have a working relationship. My ranking member, Ed Pastor from Arizona and I are great friends and we work together. We're cutting spending but trying to do it in a smart way.
Henderson: You said a few moments ago that you don't really have plans for the next chapter of your life. Would you consider being a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.?
Latham: I have no idea and we haven't even -- we haven't talked about what the next step is. There's a lot of opportunities I think whether it be working in some charities or doing whatever, we just haven't even discussed it.
Henderson: Where do you want to live?
Latham: Here. I've got --
Henderson: If you're a lobbyist you'd probably have to live there.
Latham: I've got five grandchildren in Iowa and I'll be very close to them.
Obradovich: What do you consider your legacy as you think about the last 20 years?
Latham: I would hope -- that's really hard.
Obradovich: Sometimes it's not for you to say but what would you like your legacy to be?
Latham: You know, I have always maybe been too brutally honest sometimes with folks. The fact that we do listen to constituents, that I have tried to actually have a system that functions to work, to well represent the folks here. I don't want anything out of this. In the end this is just what I think is an honor and a privilege of service and I'm just ready to move on to something else.
Borg: Have you looked far enough ahead into this next campaign though that you're going to be out speaking even around the country if not here in Iowa raising funds for other candidates?
Latham: I will help, after the primary I will help whoever our nominee is and help the team to make sure that I think it's extremely important that we keep the majority certainly in the House of Representatives, hopefully we'll get it in the Senate this time. But I will want to be a part of anything I can help for the, for a better government, to get a handle finally on our national debt and to really change the course of government.
Henderson: Aside from the decision not to seek re-election, what is the toughest decision you made during your political career? You entered Congress in '95, you had to move for reapportionment in 2002, you had to move again. What was the toughest decision and what was the toughest race you faced? Who was your toughest competitor?
Latham: I think the first time is always the hardest because you don't know what to expect. We won with a quite sizeable margin. Certainly the primary was very difficult to work through all that. We were very successful in that original primary. But no, with reapportionment, certainly in 2002 and last year moving into a district with 83% new constituents and running against a sitting incumbent was a challenge obviously. But it is something I love too, to get out and actually talk to people, listen to them, to really try to get people motivated to support not only you but your ideas and what you believe in. So that's -- it's really a lot of work but it's an awful lot of fun and it is extraordinarily rewarding for folks.
Obradovich: If you had it to do all over again are there decisions that you would make differently?
Latham: I don't think so. I mean, there's probably some votes here or there that I would change at this time but no. What we have done I think -- it's a job where you've got to devote 100% of your time to it. There are huge demands on you personally and if you want to do it well you have to be available to listen to folks, to be there. But no, I have no regrets at all. I'm proud of the service and I'm looking forward to doing something else.
Borg: Are you finding it more physically taxing, however? I was listening to your answer to Kathie's question and I was wondering, has the job changed in the time that you have been in your tenure in Congress?
Latham: Oh absolutely.
Borg: And more demanding, more physically, more frustrating?
Latham: More frustrating certainly with the dysfunctionality of Washington and what you're seeing, the part of it. The thing that has really changed, there's a couple of things. When I first got elected in '94 you didn't have the 24/7 news cycles, every 15 minutes on cable breaking news, some new controversy that people try to generate news all the time. The advent of the Internet. 20 years ago we didn't have functioning Internet in Washington. You didn't have -- we have gone from 6,000 to 7,000 contacts to probably 35,000 to 40,000 contacts a year and you have to respond to all that. And I think there's -- I'm no psychologist or anything -- but I think there's a difference in people. People today, and some people in Washington, are more concerned about themselves maybe than about the better good of the country and that is what really is difficult for me to see, that they seem to be more consumed about their advancement rather than trying to actually function and to do things again for the betterment of the country.
Borg: I'm curious, Kay asked a moment ago, are you going to change residences and you said no, I'm going to stay right here. Does right here mean, because you have just moved recently into the third district, in Clive? Are you thinking you might move some place else in Iowa?
Latham: No. No, we're very, very happy where we are here.
Borg: Thank you very much for spending time with us today and we hope to have you back again, maybe a couple of times, during this final year.
Latham: I just wish everyone, all of you and everyone watching a very Merry Christmas and hopefully a happy and prosperous New Year. So thank you, Dean.
Borg: Thank you, Congressman. And Jennifer Jacobs is going to be joining us in just a few minutes. Jennifer is a Political Writer for the Des Moines Register and we'll have some commentary and insight and analysis.
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Borg: Des Moines Register Political Writer Jennifer Jacobs is joining us now. Jennifer, you listened to Congressman Latham. What is your impression of the conversation?
Jacobs: Well he confirmed that his reasons for stepping down are personal, not political. And he also probably had some disappointing news for the people who would like to replace him. He confirmed that he is not going to endorse, he is going to continue that tradition that he has followed for 20 years of not endorsing. But probably the most interesting and touching thing was how emotional he got as you guys were interviewing him about the thought of leaving Congress.
Obradovich: He is normally a pretty stoic individual and he gives a very easy going impression where things maybe roll off his back. And so I was actually pretty surprised to see maybe a little moisture in his eyes as he was talking about how this was the honor of his life and also about looking up at Lady Liberty on the Capitol. It choked him up a little bit.
Henderson: And if I could choose a word it would not be regret that I saw in that emotion but it was relief. He doesn't have to go out and raise a bunch of money, he can now chart the next chapter in his life and so I think what we saw was emotional relief on the part of Congressman Latham.
Borg: And that is why I asked that first question. You said personal, not political and you found significance in that. Why, Jennifer?
Jacobs: Well, there was some suspicion that perhaps this criticism from the far right, from the Tea Party, was maybe putting pressure on him. They didn't like some of his recent votes. But he said, you know, that had absolutely nothing to do with it, this was a decision that my wife and I made.
Obradovich: He did indicate though that he was frustrated, especially as an appropriator, the last four years the fact that there hasn't been any budgets and I think the gridlock and inaction in Congress -- and this isn't the first time he has said that, that he has been extremely frustrated. And in the next year talking about a budget deal that they could actually put a budget together. The other thing about the political timing of it, I think he would have left even if he thought it was going to be a bad year for republicans. I really do think that this was probably not an opportunistic decision. But I do think that he is looking at the landscape right now and thinking it's going to be a good year for republicans and he won't be, perhaps, leaving his party in jeopardy.
Henderson: One final thought on that conversation was he left the door open to being a lobbyist, he left the door open to heading some sort of charitable organization so he really doesn't have plans yet for what happens when he is no longer in Congress.
Borg: And that is sort of what surprised me too. I'm leaving but I don't have any plans right now. I suppose he's got a year to make those plans.
Obradovich: Well, he's 65 years old. He doesn't necessarily have to do anything. He could retire. I would expect though that he will still be involved in politics in some way. He indicated how much he loved getting around and talking to people, that perhaps campaigning wasn't such a huge chore except perhaps for the intensity of it.
Borg: Well, the big question is, what is the effect now on the political landscape?
Jacobs: Well, it certainly opens up the door for higher office for a crowd of Iowans who have been waiting for this for decades, literally for decades and it has exposed a lot of raw ambition. We've got 12 republicans who are openly admitting that they're interested, 7 democrats and then we had another 10 people who other people put names forward for saying, we'd like them to run, who have now said no. But there are even more people waiting in the wings. So that is like, you know, 30 people whose names are being thrown around for this position so that's a lot of people who are very much interested.
Obradovich: Well, Senator Harkin retiring and two open seats in the House, Iowa has not had this kind of opportunity for political renewal for 40 years. So you look at the fact that we've had two Senators who have stayed in Congress for decades, or had a seat in the Senate for decades and a lot of longevity with Congressman Latham with 20 years. So this is not going to just be a top of the ballot renewal but also throughout I think we're going to see statehouse seats, etc. turn over. 2014 is going to be a huge election year.
Borg: And one we haven't seen for a long time, that many seats open.
Henderson: Since the 70s, since the mid 70s we haven't seen this much political turnover. I think one of the effects will be that the upcoming Iowa legislature will be a ho-hum affair because you have people in the legislature who are aspiring to higher office, you have statewide elected officials who don't want to rock the boat or make any mistakes before their name is on the ballot in November. And so I think it will be a ho-hum do nothing legislature.
Jacobs: But I do think it will probably be noted for that this will be the least experience Iowa delegation that we have sent in a long time with we're going to have two new freshman congressmen, we're going to have a new senator so that's quite a bit of experience going out the door.
Obradovich: And potentially more than two depending on what happens with the incumbents.
Borg: Thanks for your insights. We've got to leave it there. Next week on Iowa Press, a conversation with former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer. We'll be asking him about his visits to Iowa and whether those visits mean that he'll be seeking the democratic presidential nomination. Same Iowa Press times, 7:30 Friday night, noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg. Thank you for joining us today. And from all of us here at Iowa Public Television, warm wishes for a very Merry Christmas.