(Note: Congressman Roy Blunt, running for Minority Whip, held a conference call with bloggers: Mary Katharine Ham of Townhall.com, Quin Hillyer of the American Spectator, Ragnar Danneskjold of the Jawa Report, Jon Henke of QandO, Kim Priestap and Lorie Byrd of Wizbang, and Howard Mortman of Extreme Mortman and Robert Bluey of Human Events.)
Congressman Blunt: First of all, I’d refer you to the speech I gave last week at The Heritage Foundation. I’d hope to give that speech while we were in a reduced, but still the majority because either way we had lessons we needed to learn, and I think that speech is about the lessons we need to learn – how we need to get back to taking advantage of this opportunity to be more of who we’ve always been, who we are, what brought us into politics. I don’t think our ideas lost on Tuesday, we did. The election demonstrated in many ways the American people believed we strayed too far from our values, and it’s time for Republicans to start acting like Republicans again. We can’t be the defenders of business as usual. We have to always be trying to define a smaller government that does whatever only the federal government can do better and as well as it can possibly be done. When we pursue a values agenda, it needs to be not about politics, but about those things that we really need to be sure we’re doing for the future of the country and defending those values. Too often I think, particularly in that case, we allow the media to characterize our votes on values issues as things we’re just doing for politics rather than because they were the right thing to do. Of course, a lot of the main stream media would want to see it that way, but we can’t continue to let anybody believe we’re for what we’re for because it’s on some kind of list of what we’re supposed to be for, but we’re for it because it’s what’s best for the country. I’m not going to defend a lot of mistakes we made in the past; I think we ought to see what happened Tuesday as a time to learn lessons, to regroup, to be better. The significant silver linings here is, just like 1964, 1976, 1992, all appeared at the moment to be devastating losses, they, in every case, gave conservatives a chance to reinvigorate the message that we have for the country, and the country came back dramatically stronger, and the conservative movement dramatically stronger because of that. We have to ideas and we have to have people that are willing to move forward on those ideas. We say we want to cut spending; we will cut spending. We say we want to reform the welfare state by empowering people to make their own decisions, and we will continue to reform the welfare state. We say we want to defend traditional American values, and we will do that. We say we want to confront and defeat totalitarians who threaten on our freedom, and we will do that as well. Last Tuesday was really a significant call to arms for the future of our country. I think we have to communicate to the American people what direction these Congressional Democrats will be taking our country, and a lot of what Congressional leaders need to be focused on in the coming weeks and the coming months and the coming two years as we return, I believe, to the majority in 24 months, is defining the Democrats for who they are. Looking for those amendments, looking for those votes for putting the alternatives out there, that the Democrats who for years have run at home as Republicans, either have to stay with us and see Nancy Pelosi lose, or they have to vote for Nancy Pelosi’s agenda and identify themselves at home for as to what they’re really for. Of course, for that to work, we have to, as much as we can, have the kinds of things offered on the floor that our members can be for so that Democrats don’t have the luxury to be out there letting their members to continue to have one message at home and in every crucial test, have another message in Washington. Our sites are really to move the country forward, and your sites, your sites that you work on every day, are the most active window right now for our conservative movement, and they going to play a continued, intricate role, a bigger role all the time in our future success. I’m glad to see the relationship between me, between the whip’s office, and between all of you improved pretty dramatically over the past few months, and I look forward to seeing that continue to improve in the years ahead. The source of information that you provide is not provided anywhere else, and I’m grateful to you for that.
Question: You voted for the Medicare drug bill, the No Child Left Behind Act, The Farm Bill and The Highway Bill. Meanwhile, your opponent, Congressman Shadegg voted no on all those bills. You also voted against Congressman Blake’s earmark amendment whereas Congressman Shading voted in favor of that. I’m just wondering how can any conservative support you with that record that you’ve compiled on the legislation I just mentioned?
Congressman Blunt: Well of course, a lot conservatives wound up for those issues. The one of those that I take the most exception with my own vote on, and have for several years now is No Child Left Behind. Now my view is that any time you can solve the problem closer to where the problem is, you’re going to have a better solution. Particularly with elementary and secondary education, the focus ought to be on moms and dads and local school districts if kids are in public school, not on Washington D.C. or even in state capitols. You need to be always looking as to how you have those decisions closer to home. On the overall scoring of voting records day in and day out, I’m consistently one of the more conservative members of the House and have been all ten years that I’ve been here. I think you have to look at the overall record. A lot of things we did, the Medicare Bill, it might have been done better if I’d have been doing them by myself, from a more competitive, trying to change the structure system. There are some good things there that really do reform Medicare for the first time with private sector competition and thing that I suggest conservatives should be looking at as we look at bigger reforms in Medicare in the future.
Question: Just as a follow-up, President Bush said last week he want to re-authorize No Child Left Behind. Are you saying to today that you’d oppose a re-authorization?
Congressman Blunt: Oh, I wouldn’t look at what the President is actually trying to do with No Child Left Behind, but I’ve said many times before today, in the election 2 years ago and I think in the election 4 years ago, that the one vote that I’ve cast here that I’d had the most second thoughts and would cast differently was No Child Left Behind. So the President’s going to have to really be much more willing to figure out how to do want he wants to do at the Federal level that involves moms and dads instead of bureaucrats if I’m doing to be for any proposal they have in the future.
Question: I think most people believe you’re very effective at the day-to-day functions for which you’re running. I think the main problem people have is the appearance of the old guard staying in control, the ideological concern. They want a complete change of direction. Why would you be better in that roll from that perspective?
Congressman Blunt: Well John, I thank you for the positive part of that question for sure. I think that when you look at what we’ve done in the majority, the one leadership function that’s virtually never been in question the past four years is the job the whip did of both trying to find ways that our members could do for things that met our standards. We’ve done that and we’ve done that effectively. I do think there’s a difference in the majority whip’s role and the minority whip’s role, but I don’t know that the skill set is all that different. I don’t know that the background to prepare you for the role as a Republican whip is that different than the good preparation that I think that I’ve had and the good results we’ve shown in the majority whip’s office. In so many cases, what we’ll need to do is define the democrats in the next two years. Now, a lot of people can stand up on the floor, including me as whip or not, and try to verbally try to draw those contrasts or try to be the bomb thrower or whatever you need to have. You certainly don’t need to be elected into leadership to do that or to get attention for doing that, as a matter of fact. But, only the whip at the end of the day has the responsibility to know our members, to know what they can do, to hold them together, so that the Democrats have to function like Democrats. That’s how we’ll beat these Democrats. From the whip’s perspective, we’re not going to beat them by how many verbal onslaughts you throw every day not nearly as effectively as we are by making the Democrats be Democrats. You know, the Ched Edwards Democrats that have run as a conservative-Democrat in their home district forever need to be faced day after day with amendments that are troublesome, with motions to recommit that are troublesome, with alternatives that are troublesome that are either going to let them be part of defeating the speaker’s agenda, Nancy Pelosi’s agenda, or defining who they are as real Democrats in Washington. That’s how we beat the Ched Edwards: A budget fight that really does make Mr. Spratt, for the first time ever, a stand up and say where he is on taxes, where he is on budgets. Vote after vote creates problems for somebody like Heath Schuler, who just defeated Charles Taylor by being more conservative and more Republican than Charles Taylor. We can’t allow him to be that here unless he actually wants to become a Republican, and I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think you have to look at the job that needs to be done and realize that our best opportunity to take back the majority is in the first re-election of all these Democrats who ran effectively as Republicans and the many Democrats who’ve been for some time, who since they’ve never been in the majority, have always been able to avoid taking the tough vote, we need to make that life difficult for them by the Republican whip doing the job that only the whip can do on the floor every day.
Question: How would you get around the appearance of non-change that your leadership would mean over time?
Congressman Blunt: Well, you know, I’ve been a university president, I’ve been the first Republican elected to a Statewide office—the Secretary of State’s office—in our state in 52 years when I ran on that job some time ago. And I’ve had the opportunity to be a manager—to try to make things work—and I do know you want somebody at the table that brings a perspective of the good things we have done in the past, plus an understanding of the mistakes we have made. The Speaker is gone, the conference chairman is gone, and of the six elected officials, four of them are going to be new. In any case, having to defend that you want absolutely everyone on the table to be new, instead of four out of six people to be new, is a short sided way to take the majority back.
Question: You said mistakes have been made and I wholeheartedly agree with you. I don’t think that we have a problem on our end with Republicans that are saying the wrong things. All of the Republicans that we’ve sent to Washington say the right things. They have always been on the position we need reform, they have always been on the position we need to cut spending; they are consistently that way. If they were not, they would not be a Republican candidate. We understand that words are easy to come by. Looking at six years of leadership, what reassurance do we have there’s going to be a change if we put the top two guys back in there?
Congressman Blunt: Well, I think you have to really evaluate what’s the best team you put in place that creates problems for the Democrats and opportunities for us, including opportunities to touch those markers again that are truly what we’re really all about. The federal government, as I said in my speech at The Heritage Foundation the other day, does what it does well and doesn’t do what it’s not its job to do. We need to ask those questions more often. Anytime you become more in control of something, you tend to forget about challenging the status quo every day. I think that what’s our majority, to some extent, forgot about, challenging the status quo. They became too content on nipping around the edges of the status quo. Immigration’s a good issue, where as a leader, not only did I step out as that time I was leader and whip for a few weeks or a few months and insisted it was time to bring an immigration bill to the floor even though The White House wasn’t for, at that time, was for what we wanted to do. We were for what we wanted to do, and the country was for what we wanted to do, we made the case. We’ve got to get better about, in these next two years particularly, establishing a real demand in the country that only Republicans can do. We did that exactly right in welfare reform, setting up and understanding a problem, a real desire to solve a problem, coming up with a unified solution. In the Deficit Reduction Act that we passed last year, we cut the growth in 13 different federal programs by $40 billion, a significant thing to do, but we really didn’t get much out of it. It was incredibly hard to do because instead of looking at overall significant reform, we just kind of nipped around the edges of the growth programs and didn’t set the ground work like we need to be doing in the next weeks and the next months. There’s a significant change in leadership, of the combination of leaders no matter what happens. Leadership in a body where everybody gets there the same way is sort of the combination of forces coming together. As I said, the speakers decided to leave; our majority leader Mr. DeLay left a year ago, Mr. Bader’s been there only a few months. I’ve become the number two Republican instead of the number three Republican. The important obligation to figure out every day is how to put the Democrats on the spot and define the difference in us and them, and I think we’re ready to do that. Again, ’64, ’76 and ’92 all created momentary disappointments that turned out to be silver linings for the conservative movement. I’m ready to be part of that future, and I think given the opportunity over the next few months, as you and I work together and talk together, you’ll see that we’re getting that done in the whip’s office and in our conference.
Question: You mentioned your speech at Heritage last week. I wasn’t there, but Bob Novak wrote a column, and he noted that at the speech you delivered a defense of earmarking. Of course, it’s also been brought up that you did not support Jeff Flake’s moves on those accounts this past year. Even Democrat Bill Natcher back in ’93 and ’94, old bald Democrat, was determined to completely eliminate earmarking. Why do you think earmarks are something that should still be defended and heavily used?
Congressman Blunt: Well, that’s not what I said in that speech at all, and I read the one sentence out of the speech and Bob Novak’s column. I’d encourage you to look at the speech and read the next sentence which suggests that reforming the programs is what we need to focus on rather than thinking that the panacea is just deciding on who gets to spend the money. Reform ought to be our mantra. I’m very open on whatever earmark reform is out there that ought to be talked about; I’m more than willing to talk about it. We did some legislation that I sponsored this year that the President signed in on; transparency on how the administration spends its money. I think ultimate transparency is the best solution to the problem of whoever spends this money, whether it’s the administration or the Congress. I think we ought to minimize earmarking. But, you know, if some member comes to me and says, look, we’ve voted to authorize the building of this border fence, and the administration is just refusing to do it. We can’t get it in any budget, and we can’t get it done any other way. Would you be in favor in pursuing the specific direction that this part of the fence in this highly vulnerable part of the border, go ahead and be built? I don’t think we’d want to deny ourselves, out of hand, the ability to do that. I do think reforming the system, making the system more open, being sure that we’re not abusing the system, is important. You know, something that hadn’t been mentioned on this call is in the very hard work every year of the budget. The whip, more than anybody else except the budget chairman’s responsible for passing, I’ve always voted for whatever was the most conservative budget alternative out there. Sometimes there were 70 of us, sometimes there were 80 of us, I think once we got as high as 102, but I’ve always been there with the most fiscally conservative folks in the Congress willing to go home and say, “I’m willing to spend as little money as anybody’s willing to propose at the Federal level, but I want to be sure that what the Federal government does, it does well.”
Question: There’s two things happening right now, one being the appointment of Gates as Secretary of Defense, and the second being the Baker Commission which is going to release its report fairly eminently and is already appearing to leak possible conclusions, including a basic direction of trying to engage with Syria and Iran to solve the problems in Iraq. What’s your perspective on that kind of an approach, and how would you push the direction you’d want to see forward, given that we’re in the minority?
Congressman Blunt: Well, I’d like to see the Baker Commission Report before I start trying to speculate on how they arrive and whatever conclusions they might arrive at, but I do believe that we have to constantly be reevaluating both our strategy, our tactics, and our goals in the war on these Islamic totalitarians. If it’s in Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever it is, are the goals we’ve set still achievable? Are they realistic? Do they meet the new circumstances, and whatever those new circumstances are, and constantly have those under evaluation to know if we’re achieving what want to achieve or if there’s reason to believe what we’d hope to achieve may have to be adjusted some. I think that’s what the Baker-Hamilton Commission may very well come back, with ideas about how we do that. I’m not sure you can have successful engagement with Syria or Iran, either one, under the current circumstances. I’d have to wait until they made that proposal, if they did, and see how they, after months of study, came to that conclusion. That would not be my initial belief as the way to solve this problem. I think, eventually, the Iraqis have to be willing to accept responsibility for their own future. There’s only so much we can do about that, and we need to constantly be evaluating their commitment to their future as well as our commitment to the war on Islamic totalitarianism.
Question: Going back to that point you just made about the war on terror in Iraq and to your earlier point about defining the Democrats inside the beltway versus the views of the constituents, what are some defining issues on votes in the next two years, on security and on terrorism, that would paint the anti-Pelosi Democrats in that kind of light?
Congressman Blunt: On security and on terrorism, looking at the way we deal with terrorists when they’re captured, when we have information that was achieved from those terrorists, how we bring them to trial, a vote that the House led on last fall. But also, what do we do about finding out what the terrorists are planning, what they’re talking about, what they’re finding out. We haven’t seen any real alternatives from the Democrats that make sense in that area. Now, southwest Missouri, where I’m from, is a pretty conservative area; we’re very, very unlikely to see the Federal government needlessly intrude into our lives. I didn’t run into a handful of people in the last year who thought, for instance, that if we knew that somebody in the United States was talking to a known terrorist in another country, that we shouldn’t make every effort at that moment to try to find out what they were talking about. Certainly the Democrats have not supported, except the ones in competitive races, the legislation that would allow us to do that. We need to have more of those kinds of votes: on national security issues, on tax issues, on things that really work to provide all kinds of opportunity for Americans as well as secure freedom for Americans. You know that first budget, the budget that comes up next year, 2010, where our tax cuts are temporarily extended through 2010, that’s within the budget window. We need to be absolutely sure by the time that budget debate’s over, that everybody in Ched Edwards’ district knows how he feels about the death tax after 2010, that everybody in Heath Schuler’s district knows how he feels about what should be the highest rate for small business folks after 2010, that everybody that has gone home and said one thing is put in a position by our whip team day after day, to really truly identify what they’re for, and if they can’t be with the Democratic leadership, then the Democrats fail, and that’s okay with us too. There are two alternatives there, either of which are helpful to us re-securing the majority for the future and letting our ideas prevail in the future.
Question: Just off of your comments about security, I just read today in the media that John Conyers is going to be working very hard to basically dismantle a lot of The Patriot Act, our ability to listen to terrorists and so forth, because a lot of his constituency is in Dearborn. That’s a great concern to them, so he said he was going to do the best he could to actually deliver on what their concerns are. How are you going to prevent that from happening because we need those capabilities to protect us.
Congressman Blunt:Well, there are two things we need to do to prevent that from happening. One is, again, work with the Republican members to know how far they can go and how far they can’t go in the districts they represent so that the Democrats are forced to make a choice. The second thing is to work with those Democrats that are either truly in the middle or just happen to be caught in the middle and to do what we can to secure their votes so that these things continue. Not only is the right thing for the country for these kinds of government actions that have truly defended the country in a significant way since 9/11 be allowed to continue, they ought to be under constant review; we ought to try to make them work better all the time, not to accept the status quo, but to try to improve what needs to be done to defend the country. At the same time, we need to be sure we’re putting maximum pressure on Democrats who have suggested they’re for these kinds of actions to defend the country; to be sure they vote that way. That’s going to take a lot strategic thought as well as a good stuff. I have the good fortune of having a good staff that really has the confidence in the members as I believe Mr. Cantor and I do and to move forward that way.
Question: Other than No Child Left Behind, looking back over the last six years, can you identify anything else that the Republican leadership should have done differently than they did?
Congressman Blunt: You know, I’m sure I could; that is a big question. I think that probably the most significant thing where the Republican leadership in the House distanced themselves from the both the President and the Senate was immigration. Not just the immigration bill we had last year, but the immigration strategy we had this year. I think we did find, what we did with that, was prove the effectiveness the House has in helping drive the agenda. One of the reasons that list might not be overwhelmingly long is that the House, to a great extent, has driven a lot of the agenda in the right direction, a direction that has produced a strong economy, a direction that’s helped defend the country. We need to be looking now how we could’ve done that even better, how we can refine that strategy even more, how can the House, that I think has much more capacity has to set the tone that the Senate does, be out there agreeing when the White House when it’s appropriate and fighting with the White House when it’s not to move the country in the right direction. Again, one of our most successful challenges was totally changing the debate in the country from the idea of some comprehensive solution to an understanding that the House position of securing the border and enforcing the law first was the right position and has to be done, and done effectively, before you can move on to the other areas of this so-called comprehensive solution.
Congressman Blunt: Thank you for your time today. Thank you for what you do, even when we disagree, which, in truth, is not really all that often in terms of what we all think is best for the country. The purpose you serve is tremendously important today and particularly important over the next twenty-four months as we work hard so that twenty-four months from now conservative ideas and conservative values have once again reached the point that they’re dominating not just the discussion of the country every day but also the work of the Congress every day, and that only happens if we get back the majority, so thank you all.