Democratic remnant. Congressman David Loebsack, Iowa's only democrat remaining among Iowa's congressional delegation. We're questioning Congressman Loebsack on this edition of Iowa Press.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, May 13 edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: Iowa's second congressional district includes most of southeast Iowa and a tier of counties along Iowa's southern border. Redistricting has changed the boundaries from 10 years ago. That is when democrat Dave Loebsack wrestled the congressional seat from republican Jim Leach. Because of redistricting boundary changes, Loebsack moved from Mount Vernon to nearby Iowa City, that's where he lives now, perhaps fortuitously because he's now the only democrat surviving Iowa's 2014 congressional elections. And he's now seeking a sixth term. Welcome back to Iowa Press.

Loebsack: Thanks for having me. I always appreciate it, Dean.

Borg: And you know the people across the table I think very well, Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich and Radio Iowa's News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Congressman, 2006 was a wave election, helped you cruise to victory over Jim Leach that year. 2016 may be shaping up to be a wave. Is it a Trump wave? Or is it a Clinton wave?

Loebsack: I gave up on predicting, as I think a lot of us did, a number of months ago. I remember last summer when Donald Trump insulted John McCain and I remember saying to my wife Terry at the time, he's not even going to make it to the first republican debate. Well now here we are and he's going to be the republican nominee, unless something really strange happens between now and July. So I think that there's a lot of uncertainty out there. I don't think that we really have any idea what's going to happen. I am pretty certain that Iowa is going to be very competitive. We're one of the states, one of the few states where I think most of the ratings folks are saying that this is a toss-up state between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. So I expect there's going to be a lot of money coming in here.

Obradovich: Are you worried that democrats are underestimating Donald Trump? You look at national polls and he's not very well liked, even within his own party, but Hillary Clinton also has high negatives. So is there a danger that democrats are not going to take Donald Trump seriously?

Loebsack: Oh I think there's always a danger. I've never been one to underestimate anybody I've run against, I don't intend to do it this time either. I think we have to be very, very careful because Donald Trump has demonstrated a tremendous appeal to a lot of folks and some of those are often traditionally democrats as well. So no, I don't take anything for granted, I don't think the Clinton campaign is going to either.

Henderson: The big race in Iowa, no offense, is Chuck Grassley's re-election.

Borg: Probably not the biggest to you.

Loebsack: I would prefer mine not be that big. Thank you, Kay.

Henderson: Do you think Senator Grassley is vulnerable given what has happened with the Supreme Court? Or is his widespread popularity just something that is impenetrable?

Loebsack: Look, Chuck Grassley, as you know, was first elected to the Congress in 1974. And before that he was in the state legislature. So he has been in elective office for almost all of his adult life. And then in 1980 he got elected to the Senate and he hasn't had a serious re-election challenge since then. This time I think that there are forces out there that make this different and I do believe his unwillingness, the republicans in the Senate's unwillingness to move forward and at least have hearings on the Supreme Court Justice nominated by the President, I think it was a mistake on their part and they're not following the Constitution. That's my argument. So yeah, I think that we have a real chance to have a race there.

Henderson: Tom Tauke, Greg Ganske, Jim Lightfoot, all republican Congressmen who decided to leave the House and challenge the re-election bids of Senator Tom Harkin. Why didn't you  Loebsack: Well I have a big enough job in the southeast part of Iowa and this is something that I'm enjoying, for the most part, obviously it's tough sometimes depending on the season and all the rest. But I enjoy serving folks in the 24 counties, as Dean mentioned, it's a new district, it's a big district, it's a fourth of Iowa. And that is challenge enough. So I decided that I'd stay there and do what I can and continue to do the job that I've done in southeast Iowa.

Obradovich: You chose to endorse in the first district congressional primary and also the third district. Why weigh in there when party leaders often decide to stay neutral in a primary?

Loebsack: Well I'm the only democrat left in Iowa and there are folks who want me to get involved in races and sometimes I do and sometimes I don't.

Obradovich: Why this time?

Loebsack: Well certainly in the case of the first district I've known Monica Vernon for a long time. We got to know each other very well during the floods of 2008 when she was very involved there in that obviously, she has been on the city council for a number of years.

Obradovich: Did you endorse her in the primary two years ago?

Loebsack: No I did not. I stayed out at that time. But I felt it was important when Ravi Patel dropped out. I thought it made sense for me to get involved and endorse Monica Vernon. Pat Murphy had not been in at that point, I had not heard from him, so I thought Monica was the logical choice. I think she is the best one to run against Rod Blum and to take that seat back. That seat is actually more democratic than mine and I'm a little lonely in the Iowa delegation although I work well with folks on both sides of the aisle as you folks I think know. But I'd like to have Monica in there and that is why I endorsed her.

Obradovich: And why did you pick Jim Mowrer in the third district?

Loebsack: I think he was the strongest at the time. Sherzan was not in at that time. I still think he's the strongest to take that seat. So I decided that was the right thing to do.

Borg: I'm unclear, who are you endorsing then to run against Senator Grassley among the democrats?

Loebsack: Oh I have not weighed in on that one. I decided it wasn't a good idea for me to weigh in on that one. There were three folks looking at that at one point and I was giving some thought to weighing in and then Patty Judge came in. I think that we've got good choices there. So I just decided it wasn't the right thing for me to do.

Borg: Will you?

Loebsack: No, I don't intend to endorse in that primary. I think we've got some really good folks running there and I think we're going to get somebody strong out of there. I don't know who it's going to be but I think we have a real shot there. So I just decided to stay out of that for now.

Obradovich: You mentioned being the lone ranger, the last democrat standing in the congressional delegation, what now two years into that situation does the party leadership role mean to you? What do you think your responsibilities are? And what have you been doing?

Loebsack: Well, at the outset I think I said after I was re-elected that my district comes first, that's what I have to do, I'm a Congressman from the second district of Iowa, so I have to focus on that. And then the little bit of time that I have leftover I have been doing what I can to bolster folks mainly in those two congressional districts but around the state as well. But I'm looking at State House and State Senate seats, I've been somewhat active helping some of those folks . I'm going to do what I can to attend fundraisers so that they can have folks come in and try to raise money. Chris Brase is one of our incumbent Senators over in Muscatine and Scott counties, a really great State Senator and he's going to be in a tough race so I'm doing some things for him. That's what I think I can do. Clearly when it comes to the caucus system we've got a committee together, I'm only ex-officio on that, but there is a committee to look at the caucuses from the Democratic Party perspective and I'm going to continue to do what I can to make sure that whatever comes out of those committee recommendations that Iowa stays number one in the nation. So I continue to do those kinds of things as well.

Henderson: So how do you think the caucus system should be changed?

Loebsack: I'm not sure it should be changed at all. That's up to the committee to make that decision too.

Henderson: What is your recommendation?

Loebsack: I don't have any at this point. Dave Nagle is heading up that committee, as you know, and I was with him at an event in Clinton County just the other night and we talked about this. It's a big job looking at what happened over not only this past caucus but caucuses prior to that too. If things need to be tweaked then I think that's probably the right thing to do. But I don't know at this point whether that's the case because I think they're just now beginning to hear from folks more officially about sort of what happened at the caucuses.

Borg: Are there some things that trouble you about that, though, about the most recent caucus?

Loebsack: Not particularly. I know there are a lot of new folks who had concerns because they had not been involved in caucuses before. But my caucus in Iowa City, things ran very well. I think there are issues potentially in terms of making sure that we have some -- it's hard to know, for example, how many people are going to show up at a caucus. So I know that we had some issues in terms of the venue that was chosen. But I don't know that that could have been dealt with ahead of time because there are limited venues out there and when you get 500 people instead of 200 coming to a caucus it's very difficult. I think just making sure that we continue to educate people beforehand, making sure that those who are going to be running the caucuses are properly trained so that they have some ideas to what might happen on caucus night. But it's impossible to think of all the contingencies. I think we've had some problems, there's no doubt, but given the number of precincts that we had I think there were very few problems. But the problems that were there we have to address them, there's no question about that.

Obradovich: Dealing with the nuts and bolts, the mechanics of the caucuses, some of the people who have been on that or been appointed to that committee, including Dave Nagle, have said they have a larger goal of trying to help heal some of the divisions that came up, mostly because of the hard fought caucus campaign between Clinton and Sanders. Do you see any roe for this committee in doing that? And is there something that you think really needs to be done before the November election to heal party divisions?

Loebsack: Yeah I think that, look, the committee, I think it's important that they do hear from all the folks who have concerns, complaints, legitimate concerns about how things went at a particular caucus. I think that will probably go some distance in healing whatever wounds or divisions there might be out there. I think that's the way to go and be totally open about it, completely open about it, hear from anyone who has a particular concern. Going forward, once we know who our nominee is going to be, and I believe it will be Hillary Clinton, I think it's going to be important for folks to reach out and to talk to one another. There's no question about that. In my county, for example, it was about a 60/40 split for Bernie Sanders. I'm a Hillary Clinton supporter. I'm more than open to talking to folks. I do that on a regular basis  about their concerns and how we can move forward and how we can keep the party together and ultimately how we can beat Donald Trump.

Henderson: In Los Angeles in 2000 when there was a democratic national convention you were Bill Bradley all the way.

Loebsack: I was. I was.

Henderson: Is it a good idea for Bernie Sanders in 2016 in Philadelphia to be Bernie Sanders all the way?

Loebsack: Oh I think it's perfectly fine. I think it's a great idea in some ways for Bernie to continue to contest this. I think we have to be a little bit careful about sort of the tone of the campaign and what have you because I do believe ultimately that Hillary Clinton is going to be the nominee and I'm happy that she is beginning to turn her fire towards Donald Trump. But she's going to continue to contest these upcoming, I think we've got nine or ten of these contests left. But clearly Bernie I think has done a great job articulating a message, especially about economic inequality, and I think it's wonderful that he continues to do that. I encourage him to do that.

Henderson: You're a super delegate at the convention. Has Senator Sanders called you to reconsider?

Loebsack: No.

Henderson: Do you expect him to?

Loebsack: Not at this stage. Labor Day of last year I endorsed Hillary Clinton, as you know, so I don't expect him to.

Obradovich: What do you make of the argument that super delegates are an undemocratic way for the Democratic Party to, that they have too big of a role in choosing the nominee?

Loebsack: I think that makes some sense. I'm completely open to considering changes to the process. The fact that I'm a super delegate I guess it has to do with the fact that I've won five elections to Congress up to this point. But I'm completely open to changing the system.

Obradovich:  How would you change it?

Loebsack: Well that remains to be seen. I'm not offering any particular suggestions as to how we change it but I'm open to changes if they make sense.

Obradovich: But you're not talking about changes for this cycle, you're talking about for the future.

Loebsack: No, that's what I was going to say, we don't change the rules in the middle of the process. I think that's the wrong thing to do, it's not the fair thing to do. So folks obviously when Bernie and Martin O'Malley and the others got in and Hillary Clinton got in they knew about the super delegates, they knew what the system was. But no, we're not going to change, we shouldn't change things in the middle of the process. That doesn't make sense to me.

Henderson: In 2014 election cycle one of your former colleagues, Bruce Braley, started making noise that he might come back to Iowa and challenge Terry Branstad's bid for another term. He eventually chose to run for the U.S. Senate after Senator Harkin announced his retirement. Might you consider running in 2018 for Governor?

Loebsack: That's pretty far off, as you might imagine. I've got a race myself this time around. So I'm not really thinking about that. I think it's important though that this election, that democrats do well in the state of Iowa, that we retain the State Senate, that we eat into the margin that the republicans have in the Iowa House and I think it is important that people be thinking at least about, no matter who it is, be thinking about 2018. And that's why I think participation in this election on the part of the Democratic Party and democrats around the state if very important.

Obradovich: I didn't hear a no there. I didn't hear you say no.

Loebsack: I'm not considering it, that's for sure. I'm just running for re-election. That's my job.

Henderson: One of the things we say about the republicans, as you know we have a Lieutenant Governor in Kim Reynolds, a State Ag Secretary in Bill Northey, big state Mayor in Ron Corbett in Cedar Rapids, who are potential candidates on the republican side. Crickets chirp on the democratic side when we think about what the bench is like. Why do you have such a thin bench? And what do you need to do to sort of bolster that.

Loebsack: Yeah I'm not sure we do. It's just that I think there aren't folks making noise about it. I'm sure there are folks out there who are thinking about doing this but they're not making the noise that Ron Corbett and these other folks are making. So I have every confidence that when the time comes we're going to have a good, solid democratic nominee and candidate to make sure that we do what we can to get the democratic seat.

Obradovich: Let's talk about democrats in Washington for a minute. President Obama dropped the mic at the end of the White House Correspondent Dinner. Is that effectively the end of Barack Obama's presidency? Or do you think Congress is actually going to do something between now and the end of the year?

Loebsack: Well he's technically not a lame duck until after the election so I think he's going to continue to push hard on a Supreme Court nomination and any number of other issues. This is a real problem in American politics and that is during an election year it's almost as if folks give up and try not to pass significant legislation. I think that's a mistake. I think it's telling that republicans have not been able to come up with a budget up to this point. We're getting to a point where we're pretty far past the deadline on that in April. But that has to do with the divisions within the Republican Party, the Tea Party republicans not allowing Paul Ryan to come up with a budget in particular.

Obradovich: Can you name one thing that you think will be accomplished, anything significant, between now and the end of the year?

Loebsack: I can't think of anything significant because, as folks have said using it as an excuse, it's an election year. And then the number of days that we're actually in session set by Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy is very, very few. What I have been doing in the Energy and Commerce Committee is partnering with republicans to get legislation through, in particular having to do with broadband in rural areas. I most recently partnered with Greg Walden, his job beyond being the chair of the subcommittee on which I serve, his job is to get rid of every democrat like me in the U.S. House of Representatives. He's head of the National Republican Campaign Committee. He and I worked together, we worked out a compromise to relieve the small Internet service providers in rural America of regulatory burdens placed on them by the Federal Communication Commission. I didn't like his bill, we talked, we worked it out, we got a compromise and it passed 411 in the U.S. House. I've also worked with republicans across the aisle so that we can get skilled nursing facilities more resources so they can provide broadband not only for the folks who are living there, but also for the administration because they have to comply with regulations and what have you. So I've been doing my job working with republicans across the aisle and getting things done and that's what we're going to be able to do this year, those of us who care about these things.

Henderson: One of Barack Obama's potential legacies will be the Transpacific Partnership. What's going to happen?

Loebsack: Well, again, it's not only some folks on the democratic side who are opposed to that but there are Tea Party folks who are opposed to it, there are folks in the U.S. House of Representatives who just don't want anything that the President has negotiated. So Paul Ryan has his problems in the U.S. House, Mitch McConnell has his problems in the U.S. Senate. I'm not at all optimistic that it's even going to come up for a vote this year but it really is going to be up to the republican side to convince enough of their folks to get it to the floor and actually get the votes.

Borg: Before we move on, Kay, you mentioned Paul Ryan a couple of times. Give me a grade, A, B, C, D, F, as to how he is doing as the new leader in the House as compared to John Boehner.

Loebsack: Well he is the Speaker of the House but he's primarily concerned about the 246 other republicans that he has in his caucus. I think last year when he did take over for John Boehner, I think John Boehner had set the stage so that we could get some significant things done. We got a five-year transportation bill, we got tax extenders through. We, for example, and I pushed hard on this, we got the production tax credit for wind through for another five years and we got the investment tax credit for solar for five more years. But the table had been set already and Paul Ryan sat down and I think to his credit, and to Nancy Pelosi's credit, with her and worked this out so we could get some things done. Now this year, as I said on the budget, he has had difficulty because he's up against the same folks John Boehner was up against. So this year obviously things aren't going so smoothly for him.

Obradovich: You mentioned the election as being the excuse for not doing anything. Do you anticipate possibly any movement in a lame duck session in December after the election?

Loebsack: I don't know. That's a good question. Again, I think we've got a situation where there are a lot of us who are not in leadership positions who are willing to work with one another and in the case of my broadband bill having to do with small Internet service providers, I worked with one of the republican leaders on that to get something done. But it's hard to tell on a lame duck what's going to happen. I think part of what will determine this will be how the presidential election turns out. 

Henderson: Do you agree with the administration's decision in regards to the XL Pipeline? And do you have reservations about the Bakken Pipeline, which is set to be constructed across the state of Iowa?

Loebsack: Well I have reservations about that pipeline of course, but that's a decision, if you talk to any of us in the Iowa federal delegation we all of course had the same response and that was the Iowa Utilities Board that was making that decision. That's a state decision, it's not a federal decision. I did vote for the Keystone Pipeline. I voted for it primarily based on the jobs that I thought it was going to create. The President delayed his decision for six years, as you know. And when he finally decided against it I was torn back and forth, I understood the arguments on both sides of this thing, primarily jobs versus the environment. And when he made that decision I wasn't as disappointed as I could have been because I understood the arguments that he was making.

Obradovich: Speaking of environmental arguments, the Environmental Protection Administration has got the waters of the U.S. rule that is causing worry, a lot of worry, in rural Iowa. And meanwhile at the Statehouse there's arguments over water quality that haven't been resolved. Do you think that the EPA is going to come into Iowa and start regulating water quality if there's no action in Des Moines?

Loebsack: Well actually right now where that is, it's in the courts right now.  The EPA can't do anything at this point because the courts are going to make this decision ultimately. A number of states sued the administration so now that's where it is. I think it's really significant that Governor Branstad offered a plan, I don't agree with the plan, I don't believe that we should take money from school infrastructure to put it into water quality projects and dealing with water quality problems, but I think it's significant that he offered a plan because it was an acknowledgment that we have a water quality problem and a significant one here in Iowa. And I think everyone who is involved in this, the stakeholders who are involved, they all understand that we have a water quality problem here in Iowa. The question is how we're going to deal with it. And it's going to take folks at the federal level, it's going to take all the stakeholders at the state level. It's easy to say but I believe we've got to have a water shed approach to this and we've got to deal with flood mitigation at the same time. So we've got to have farmers up and down the rivers, we have to have the different political jurisdictions, we have to have the Army Corps of Engineers, we have to have all kinds of folks involved. This has got to be a big project.

Obradovich: Who should be the lead on this though? People have long argued that these decisions are better made at the state level as opposed to whatever approach the federal government might take that might be one size fits all.

Loebsack: Well there are going to be federal rules no matter what, whether it is the particular rule that is in the courts or not. We have to have rules. There's no question. And I think folks understand that. Whether those rules are going to determine then how folks act or don't act at the state level is another question. But we do have to have rules to enforce the Clean Water Act. But I think at the state level is where we're going to have to have the leadership and it's going to be the Governor, it's going to be folks in the legislature, it's going to be the DNR, it's going to be the Secretary of Agriculture, it's going to be jurisdictions up and down the river. A water shed approach is the way to go.

Henderson: Farmers are concerned about a state-by-state policy in regards to GMO labeling. Can you assure them that won't happen?

Loebsack: Well, no. I don't believe we ought to have a state-by-state approach either. We're going to have to have some kind of resolution to this issue because people want to know what is in their foods. Vermont's law, which is the one that is of most concern to folks, is going to go into effect in July. So I don't see anything reversing that any time soon. But we've got to have a national policy, whatever that may be, the Senate was getting close but failed recently. But I think we've got to have a national policy.

Obradovich: You represent Iowa City. There was a recent report that made national news about a reported hate crime in Iowa City. Is that something that you as the Congressman are going to get involved in at all? And if so, what can be done? What should be done?

Loebsack: Well I haven't gotten involved yet. I'm very aware of what is happening. I stay in touch with folks at the University. My understanding is that President Herrald has met with the family and they're moving forward on that. I also understand that they have made the decision that they're going to probably have to review their protocols when something happens out in the town what is the proper role of the University versus law enforcement. But as far as a hate crime, we'll have to see what transpires on this. And if there is something at the federal level that I have to be looking into and be cognoscente of that's what I'll do as a Congressman. That's my job.

Obradovich: Did you think the University acted appropriately in this case?

Loebsack: I'm not fully aware of everything that happened. I know that they have acknowledged that they might need to change their protocol in the future.

Henderson: About a minute left. A Navy Seal was killed this week in combat in Iraq with Kurdish forces. Are you afraid of mission creep? And if so, what should the Obama administration do?

Loebsack: I've been afraid of mission creep since the very beginning. I've said from the very outset that it may every well be the case that the existing status of forces agreement that has been in place for all these years covers the President and what he's doing in Iraq. I'm not at all sure that it covers what he's doing in Syria. Congress has advocated its authority, Congress has not had a real conversation, a real debate about the proper role of American forces in the region.

Borg: But whose fault is that?

Loebsack: Congress needs to make a decision. We need to actually sit down, I think the Speaker of the House needs to call Congress into session so that we can actually have a debate about this. I think Mitch McConnell needs to do the same thing on the Senate side. I think that the President needs to have the approval of Congress, the status of forces agreement, or excuse me, we have to have an agreement that would be approved by the Congress in order for him to be doing what he's doing in Syria. I think that's what we have to do.

Borg: Congressman Loebsack, we're out of time. Thanks for spending time with us today.

Loebsack: Thank you so much. Appreciate it. Thanks.

Borg: And we'll be back next time, another week, with another edition of Iowa Press, next Friday night at 7:30 and noon on Sunday. Until that time, I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. I'm a veteran. I am a builder. I'm a volunteer. I am a teacher. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. Iowa Communications Network. ICN's Broadband Matters campaign advocates for access to high speed broadband in all corners of Iowa for education, public safety, health care, government and economic development. Information is available at broadbandmatters.com. Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever. Details at iowacommunityfoundations.org. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. The Arlene McKeever Endowment Fund at the Iowa PBS Foundation, a fund established to support local programming on Iowa PBS.  

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