Borg: For a few more weeks Tom Latham is dean of Iowa's delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives, after 10 terms, 20 years and at age 66 Congressman Latham is retiring. He's currently representing the third congressional district stretching from Des Moines through southwest Iowa to Council Bluffs. But redistricting changes during that 20 year tenure have moved him from first representing a northwest Iowa area from Sioux City to Mason City and later a chunk of northeast Iowa too. In Congress, among others, Mr. Latham serves on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and appropriation subcommittees for agriculture and Homeland Security as well as chairing the subcommittee for transportation, housing and urban development. Congressman Latham, I mentioned all of that to just illustrate the erosion, as I put it earlier, of seniority that Iowa is losing with you leaving Congress.

Latham: Well, it has been a huge honor for me to serve and represent the people. Yes, over time you develop seniority and have the opportunity to do a few more things. I think it's also an opportunity for me to do something else in my personal life and we'll have a great replacement with David Young and he'll carry on the tradition.

Borg: We're going to explore a lot more of what you have just said. And across the table, those questions will be coming from Gazette Political Reporter James Lynch and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Congressman, republicans have a huge majority in the U.S. House in the next Congress. They have taken over the Senate. Is there part of you that thinks, gosh, I'm leaving at the wrong time?

Latham: Well, no. I think we do have a great opportunity to advance some very important things in the years coming. But for one member, for myself it was time to do something else. The opportunity we've got to take very seriously though and I'm going to be encouraging my colleagues to try and help them to understand how important it is we do some big things. We've got to address our long-term debt, we've got to look at the entitlements that are not sustainable as they are. And so I'm hopeful that there will be serious legislation. We have a great opportunity but also great hazards too if in fact we're not successful.

Lynch: As a result of the election we had a not all together unexpected sea change in the Iowa delegation. And I'm wondering what the impact of the loss of that seniority that you spoke of earlier will be for Iowa, the loss of your seniority and Senator Harkin? What does Iowa lose?

Latham: Well, we lose a number of years of service certainly and positions. However, I think if in fact we have an open process going forward that the new members will be able to participate, to represent their districts and you can accomplish a lot in Congress if in fact you keep your nose to the grindstone, if you actually look for opportunities, if you're able to work with colleagues to be able to advance your agenda and for your district and for your state. So while we're going to be losing some "clout" I think there's a great opportunity for our representatives here to get things done.

Lynch: Does seniority become less important now that there aren't earmarks?

Latham: No because seniority you still control the agenda. I chaired the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development. There are certain programs in that that need to be, funding needs to be increased when you talk about air safety or traffic control, when you talk about the infrastructure issues, things like that. But we've got to have -- the main thing is to have people in there who actually want to work and get something done and accomplish things.

Lynch: With most of the delegation being republicans and republicans being in the majority does that help offset loss of seniority?

Latham: I think it does, it really does. We'll have three republican representatives from Iowa so certainly with the larger majority that Kay talked about we'll be able to have more influence I think than possibly even before.

Henderson: Peel back the veil for us. Let's say you sat down with one of the three new members of Iowa's congressional delegation. What sort of advice do you have for them about how to navigate Washington, D.C. and actually get things done?

Latham: I think it's very important to listen. I said on my final speech on the floor of the House, I said in essence that I have never learned anything new when I'm talking. The only way you learn is to listen. You've got to listen to your constituents. You've got to listen to your colleagues in Congress. The thing that is really enlightening is when you do actually listen and you find out all the issues that, from all over the country, regional issues, things like that that you have to take into account. And then act on those and do it in a positive way. And the relationships you build over time are really what allow you to be successful in Congress.

Henderson: In that retirement speech you had some friends who paid tribute to you beforehand including Congressman King and Congressman Loebsack, all of whom describe your sort of behind-the-scenes way of dealing with issues rather than running out to talk in front of the cameras at news conferences. What made you make that decision that that was the way you were going to operate as opposed to being out there leading the rhetorical charge in front of the media?

Latham: I think by listening to your constituents, I think you actually understand that you are sent there to represent them, to try and accomplish things for them rather than to be yelling and screaming and doing all of those things and if you are involved, if you work with your colleagues, if you work on the relationships you can in fact be successful and get things done. And that is what's key to it today. And that is the frustration the public has that nothing seems to get done.

Borg: I have been busily scribbling here as you have been talking because you have been giving insight into your style of working and really some advice to those who are in Congress right now. Some of the things I wrote down which really kind of illustrate I think your advice on work ethic because you said nose to the grindstone, keep your nose to the grindstone. You said those who want to work. Are there those among your colleagues that you feel are otherwise?

Latham: Certainly on both sides of the aisle. When you look at Washington it's a political town, that's the makeup of it, you’re going to have folks on both sides that want to be very, very vocal who really don't, are not concerned about governing, who are more concerned about making political points. And that is some of the frustration I certainly have. We can actually accomplish things that are very positive for the American people, for Iowa if in fact we would do away with all the rhetoric and actually go to work, sit down together, listen to each other and you don’t' have to give up your principles. I have never given up my principles, smaller government, less taxes, to actually have a federal government that works. And you don't have to give up those principles to be successful and actually get things done.

Borg: Do you think that there are fewer statesmen, not to be gender specific here, but statesmen in Congress now than you would like?

Latham: I think it becomes harder all the time for people to actually do the hard work that it takes to accomplish things. And the reason for that is you've got -- I think social media today has changed things dramatically, that people can say anything out there and it spreads immediately. You've got the 24/7 news cycles that they have to have breaking news every fifteen minutes and that is usually some controversy that somebody has said something about somebody else. Nothing is constructive. And it has changed a great deal in the, just the 20 years that I have been there. The communications, the e-mails, the constituent contacts you have from about five or six thousand a year when I first was elected, it's 35,000 a year right now.

Borg: Now obviously that's not your style, as Kay has already intimated. Is that part of the reason that this was the time to leave for Tom Latham?

Latham: Certainly. We looked at the frustration with the opportunities to actually get things done, it's becoming more difficult all the time. But basically that is part of it, it was primarily just a personal decision. My wife, we've been married 39 years, I've been either on the road with our business or gone in Congress. It's time for me to devote time to the family.

Henderson: I'm wondering if you still feel as if you did -- when we had a conversation in November about what your biggest accomplishment was during your 20 years you mentioned the USDA facilities up in Ames -- do you still consider them to be accomplishment number one?

Latham: Well, that is obviously the largest public works project the USDA has ever attempted and accomplished. That was huge. But I really think long-term what we have been able to do to help constituents whether it's some problems they have had, I've had great staff that has been very much involved when people have visa problems, they call in the middle of the night and somebody is stuck some place and you're able to help them, that I get the greatest satisfaction out of that also. And certainly I think the work we have done with the National Guard, making the members of the National Guard eligible for Tricare, the health insurance when they're not deployed, was a huge thing for me. It really brings those families, gives them an opportunity to have some security and makes that much easier to do the great service they do for our country.

Henderson: What is your biggest regret?

Latham: My biggest regret is that we never got a big deal to address long-term solvency of Social Security, of Medicare, to the national debt of $18 trillion. We have unfunded liability so probably well over $100 trillion out there that no one is talking about. But to have a big deal that has to be done on a bipartisan basis to be able to get a big deal done. And that is probably my biggest regret.

Henderson: People refer to it as the grand bargain I believe. It fell apart. Do you think there's prospects in the remaining two years of Barack Obama's time in office and John Boehner's time as House Speaker?

Latham: Certainly there's always hope. But it's going to be very difficult. One big problem is you're starting into a presidential election cycle right now. You're going to have people on both sides of the aisle that will use it as a political weapon if in fact you try to have a grand bargain, a big deal that would give us solvency in the long-term. And that is the unfortunate part of it. It's going to be very difficult. Anything is possible. And I think if the President would lead I think it would make it very possible. But he has always been very hesitant and the grand bargain they almost had a few years back that he walked away from. We were right there and it didn't happen.

Lynch: Congressman, you have talked about serving in Congress as the honor of your life. The latest polls show that congressional approval is somewhere in the single digits. What is the honor in serving in Congress, I mean, if you're held in such low regard by the public, the people who send you there?

Latham: The honor is to go to Washington to represent your constituents. And if you stay in touch at home people expect you to represent them in an honorable way. The House of Representatives is a unique body, it's a wonderful place, it's a cross-section of America. You are able to do a lot of things. But it's unfortunate, I think when people look at Congress the dysfunction of the budget process, the arguing from both ends of the spectrum, that is what turns them off. If people actually saw the day-to-day operations of most of the members of Congress and the kind of work that they do I think there would be a lot more respect. But what gets the attention are the noise makers.

Lynch: Given that you have been elected and re-elected 10 times do you think those low polling numbers are a reflection of what people think of other congressmen, not necessarily their congressman?

Latham: I hope so. That has always been the case, that while Congress itself has been held in low esteem that people often times will like their, it's not their representative's fault. So their numbers are always considerably higher than what Congress in general is, yes.

Henderson: For the benefit of viewers who may not know this, you and John Boehner, the House Speaker, are best buddies from your time getting elected together in the wave election of '94. What was your advice to him about the next two years as he's trying to corral an even larger group of republicans who may have an even larger amount of opinions on which way the boat should be steered?

Latham: It's to think big. I mean, you've got the opportunity of a lifetime to actually try to accomplish the big things that we need. You're going to have the political battles and all those things. And the Speaker very well knows that this is an opportunity in limited time and I don't know how long he's going to stay there but he knows that if history is going to treat him well and treat the Congress well that something needs to be done and something very significant.

Henderson: You've been talking about this big thing.

Latham: It's the biggest disappointment I have.

Henderson: Those of us who look from outside looking in have seen gridlock for six or seven years. Where is the prospect for movement in that environment?

Latham: Well I think if the President would call a meeting with the leadership in the House and the Senate with the new majorities and say we're going to do this thing together, but it has to be done on a bipartisan basis, that's the only way you're going to be successful. When you look back at the stimulus, when you look back at the health care bills that were all passed on a partisan basis, just no republican votes, all democrat, one of the biggest reasons they were not successful is because of that. But to have anything that's going to actually work long-term, that's not going to be used as a political club in the future has to be bipartisan. And if the President will lead I think that there is a huge appetite on both sides in the Senate and the House to actually get that big deal done.

Lynch: You have been calling for presidential leadership and that is one of the challenges that Congress faces right now is President Obama has adopted this pen and phone strategy where he's going to do things on his own. How should Congress respond to that to restore the balance of power between the Executive and Legislatives branches of government?

Latham: Well, the way you do it is through the appropriations process. The power of Congress is with the purse and certainly with the House of Representatives. And you have to put limitations on the bureaucracy, put limitations on what can and cannot be done, no funds will be expended to do certain activities, whatever it is. And the President has wanted to go off on his own and the Omnibus Bill, Cromnibus they called it, that was passed basically because at this point we don't have the Senate, it basically was kicked over as far as the immigration issue over to February when we do have control in the Senate. Everything else is funded for the rest of the year. But that's when you actually can do something. Right now we had no power. And so that's going forward. But you do it through the appropriations process and limiting -- I also will tell you that I don't care in the agencies across government today the biggest threat I think is the bureaucracy. They're out of control. Even the -- it doesn't matter who is in charge, who is in the White House, the political people in charge of those agencies have little or no control over them. And the only way you restrict that is with the funding restrictions.

Borg: We speak about threats of another kind and this is not a critique on your legacy. But is the nation as secure economically and in defense, in foreign affairs as when you took your office 20 years ago?

Latham: I think no, we obviously have the national debt up to over $18 trillion, today it's not sustainable and I mentioned earlier about the unfunded liabilities we have facing us. The threat today after 9/11, which changed the world, certainly changed me dramatically, 9/11 and the threats we're seeing today, the idea of the lone wolf type person who is going to kill people randomly and that is the biggest threat we have today I think and what is causing it. But, Dean, I'm always going to be an optimist for the future. I believe in this country. I believe in our system. I believe that we have the, while it's very difficult to manipulate sometimes, we have the best form of government anywhere in the world. The founding fathers set it up to be difficult, to be hard to get things done. But I will always be an optimist for this country.

Henderson: As an appropriator, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, from whom did you get more pressure? Lobbyists from outside who wanted you to spend money on some project or from members themselves who in the back hallway pigeon-holed you to send some money to their district?

Latham: Constituents. For 20 years I have spent every afternoon meeting with people, and I only met in my office with people from Iowa. They would sometimes bring their Washington lobbyists with them or whatever. And for 15 minutes for meetings going on three to four hours every afternoon, everybody wanted more. It is -- in so many ways we have the kind of government that people ask for when you talk about the national debt, when you talk about the expansion of the role of government. People are in there every day and I would say, be careful what you're asking for because you could be the next business or function out there that will be controlled or regulated by the government. If you want more government involvement be careful what you ask for. But no, it's people asking for more all the time. But you understand they think it's a free gravy train.

Lynch: You have alluded to the fact that we're on the threshold of another presidential campaign cycle and so I wanted to ask if you were leaving Congress at this time to run Jeb Bush's campaign?

Latham: No.

Lynch: More seriously, talk about the field of potential GOP candidates out there. Is there anybody you like?

Latham: I'm not going to name any names. But what I think we need is someone that can manage and actually be constructive, someone who will actually try to work on both sides of the aisle to get things done for the country. The biggest problem that this President has had I think is the fact that they can't manage anything, when you look at the VA hospitals, when you look at the rollout of the President's health care plan and how they just cannot function, they're just not capable, there's no one that has any management experience in the White House and they have no process to make decisions there.

Lynch: It sounds like you favor a governor?

Latham: Well, I think someone who has proven management experience, someone who is open to listening to both sides because the problems in this country are so great it's easy to be out there politically posturing all the time. But to actually get the hard work done and to be successful I think that's what it's going to take is someone with a good background that has accomplished things in the past, yes.

Lynch: How many people will be competing in the Iowa caucuses on the republican side?

Latham: I don't know the number. I would say certainly double figures.

Henderson: Before you were elected to Congress you were on the State Central Committee, the board that governs what the Iowa GOP does. The current crop of State Central Committee members are going to be faced with a decision about the so-called Ames Straw Poll. Do you think that thing should continue?

Latham: Some type of process I think is good, whether it be more limited than what it has been or maybe somewhat of a different form, it has certainly been very advantageous for the state party because we raise a lot of money, it creates a lot of interest. There's people arguing on both sides. I don't think it's absolutely critical. I think a lot of people on the outside think we're like double-dipping and maybe we should focus on maintaining the caucuses here rather than the straw poll. And I guess I would go along with that idea. I think the caucuses are extremely important for Iowa. And to have anything that would put that in jeopardy -- I will tell you we would never get initiatives for Iowa, if you like ethanol or not, whatever, but that would never happen if it wasn't for the Iowa caucuses.

Borg: Let's take the last couple of minutes here that we have to talk about Tom Latham's future decisions. Have they been made? And what does that include?

Latham: I have decided to do whatever my wife tells me. No, we have not, Dean, made any decision yet. I have not -- we're looking at a lot of different options. I certainly want to stay involved in one way or another in the process. I have a lot of dear friends certainly here at home but also in Washington that I want to stay in contact with and still have interaction. For a year you can't talk about any issues with your former colleagues. But we have not made a decision. But we've got five grandchildren here and three --

Borg: Does that mean maintaining a residence, you're in Des Moines right now, does that mean a Des Moines residence?

Latham: Oh absolutely. We're not moving anywhere. We're going to stay here.

Borg: Not back to Alexander where you started out south of Mason City?

Latham: No. We've sold our house up there and we're very happy. My two daughters, three grandchildren are right in the Des Moines area here, Clive where we live. But they actually live in Polk City.

Borg: But you mentioned maintaining contacts in Washington, D.C. Does that mean a residence also in D.C.?

Latham: We still have the place that we've had for 17 years out there. We haven't made a decision yet whether to keep that or to sell that.

Borg: When do you think you might know?

Latham: I would -- in the next few months. I'm going to take some time. Kathy and I are going to spend some time in January maybe where it's a little warmer and actually talk about it and really try to figure it out.

Borg: Well I was trying when I asked when the decision will be made to program when we'll want you back to announce it on Iowa Press. Thanks for being with us today.

Latham: Whenever you'd like. Merry Christmas to everybody and thank you for the great job that you do here on Iowa Press. It's a great service.

Borg: Thank you, Congressman. Next week Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders will be at the Iowa Press table. He's a political independent now considering a run for the presidency. Same times next week, 7:30 Friday night and noon on Sunday. And, as Congressman Latham has said, as you gather with your families now during the holiday season best wishes from all of us for a very pleasant time. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today. 

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