Southwest's congressman has been in Washington since before Reagan; here's how the world looks to him under Bush II
Martin Sabo was first elected to office the same year John F. Kennedy won the presidency; the Democrat has been Minneapolis' Congressman since 1978, and this fall, is running for his 14th term.
A senior member of the House Appropriations Committee and ranking member on the Homeland Security subcommittee, Sabo is known as a skilled inside player who brings home the federal bacon (think LRT and downtown's biggest parking ramps). Sabo stopped by the Journal's offices in early September for a freewheeling, 40-minute conversation whose topics ranged from traffic congestion to the war in Iraq -- and one issue where he agrees with President Bush more than he does Democratic
challenger John Kerry. Excerpts are below.
Before the Nov. 2 general election, we'll also profile Sabo's 2004 opponents, Republican Daniel Mathis and Green Party nominee Jay Pond.
Q: Domestically, the big issue of the next two or more years will be closing the federal budget deficit. What can a Democrat do if you are still in the minority?
A: We will have tough choices to make. We are gong to have the pressures of lots of things we want to do and the pressure of trying to reduce the deficit at the same time.
Q: Tax increases?
A: I think there will be some modification of the tax cuts for high-income people. Beyond that, it will be tough to get support. Our experience in 1993 -- those were tax increases geared primarily to the more affluent, and we did it by one vote and a tie vote in the Senate. The difficulty of doing anything will still be there.
Q: Lower spending?
A: We'll see slower increases in federal spending on education. Anything else nondefense, nonentitlements will be level. Money for housing, that will be tough.
Q: Do you think John Kerry is going to win?
A: I don't know. I go up and down on the question, for no good reason. … I feel pretty good about it.
Q: What are you working on that would be of most interest to voters?
A: Right now, for the end of this session, what we are trying to do is get out of it. We have to finish our appropriation bills. We have 12 left to do. … We are late into the process. [Bills must be approved by Oct. 1.] We have to deal with raising the debt ceiling at some point. That is what has to get done.
Everything else, my judgment is, we will have a whole series of other votes, but they will be on things that the majority thinks is politically helpful to them, unrelated to whether they can pass. Probably a gay marriage vote. Someone told me we will have several votes on tort reform.
Q: You have been in the House for 26 years. You have seen contentious presidencies. Are things more divided or not?
A: I think it is more divided, more intense. … Congress is more polarized. It reflects things that have happened in Congress, but it also reflects society is more polarized.
When I was first elected to Congress, practically everyone brought their families to D.C. … Today, new members hardly any of them bring their families to D.C. for a variety of reasons: housing costs, second-career spouse, the perceived politics of not doing it.
It means we have shorter weeks. People rush in off planes at the last minute before the first vote, and rush for the plane after the last vote. Everything gets jammed into a short period of time. There is not much social activity. People don't get to know each other. If you don't know each other, there is more edge to disagreements, than if people who know each other are disagreeing.
It is also reflecting society. There is an edge to things that is kind of scary. … I think it crosses all ideological lines.
I am convinced that, increasingly, people in their community [are] dealing with people who are like themselves, think like themselves. And it makes them angry because everybody they know thinks the same thing, and that has to be the way everybody thinks. And that doesn't happen, [so] it has to be some cynical plot out there that keeps that from happening.
It has been going on for a period of time. I remember back in 1992, I think I was in a district convention in your neck of the woods.
I started off some comments at the convention by saying, "If you could afford to live in the neighborhood, [the first] George Bush would make a nice neighbor. But" -- I was about to get into my dissertation, and there was a chorus of boos. The thought that you could say that somebody on the other side was a pretty nice human being made people mad.
Boy oh boy, I don't know what would happen if you got in front of some Democratic group today and said, "This Bush isn't …"
Somehow, if you disagree, you have to be enemies and they have to be evil? The Right was vilifying Clinton. People are vilifying Bush. I don't know.
Q: Do you feel some of that anger?
A: On substance. I think they [Republican leaders] have just screwed up fiscal policy in this country. I think they have screwed up the war on terrorism. … I think Iraq was driven fundamentally out of ideology. All of this stuff that [we] are there because of Halliburton and oil, I don't agree with. Halliburton may benefit by it, but I don't think that is what drove the policy.
Q: Why did Bush's advisors get us into Iraq?
A: I think fundamentally more what they are saying now, than what the whole rationale for the conflict was.
Q: Not for weapons of mass destruction, but to drive Saddam Hussein out of power?
A: They thought of him as evil. … In foreign policy, you have two things in operation, national self-interest in our country and also the emphasis on human rights. My sense was that this administration took both to their extreme at the same time. It took the national self-interest argument to a preemptive war, which is pushing the self-interest to the extreme. And they took the human rights argument -- which is traditionally made more by the Left than the Right -- took that to the extreme of saying, "here is a guy who is terrible and we will go in militarily to remove him."
Q: Could John Kerry cut a better deal?
A: I don't know. I think there is a potential for it, maybe some increased international cooperation, which helps. But we are in a real dilemma on how to get out. You clearly can't just leave. So whether we get significantly increased international help, I don't think it is likely with this president; it may be with a push from somebody else. Where we are at this stage makes it much more difficult to get than it would have been earlier.
Q: How should the war on terror be fought from here forward?
A: I separate Iraq from the war on terror. That was a separate issue from the beginning. It was not related to it. Saddam was a troublesome person in the world, but not nearly as troublesome as some of the problems in Iran or North Korea or the potential conflict between Pakistan and India, or the ongoing just settlement of the Middle East -- Iraq rated behind all of that. Iraq, if anything, detracted from the fundamental war on terrorism, which I think is real.
Q: What about internal security? Obviously a lot of people are concerned about the erosion of civil rights. Where do you draw the line? Have we crossed the line on internal surveillance or not?
A: No. I am someone who is very concerned over the 911 Report that says we have a National Intelligence Director that is in control of both foreign and domestic intelligence. I think we should think about it for a while before rushing in. …. It potentially dwarfs some of the things in the Patriot Act that are troublesome. This has the potential to be much more significant.
Q: Because the 911 Report's recommendation to merge domestic and foreign intelligence allows the government to spy on its own citizens and use that same apparatus?
A: Yes. Laws might not change. … [but] clearly, you are doing things in the intelligence internationally that you would not want done internally. Some person in charge needs to keep those things separate.
Q: So you are a little more in sympathy with the Bush "go slow" position than the Kerry position, which is to adopt those recommendations?
A: I would say we should think carefully before we move ahead. I think the proposal [the 9/11 Commission has] on counter-terrorism … in my own judgment, that is something that is quite important. It expands the sharing of information, both domestic and internationally. In my own judgment, I wish we would have done that two years ago, rather than create the Department of Homeland Security, which I think is still loaded with chaos.
Q: Talk about the state of the DFL party in Minnesota. It seems to be getting weaker rather than stronger. The Republican Party is saying
Minnesota is in play for the presidential race.
A: It is in play; I don't think it is a Republican state. I still think Kerry will carry it. Just looking back in history, there is always a perception that we have always been overwhelmingly Democratic, which is not true. In 1972, it was the first time in the history of the state we had a Democratic governor and Democrats controlled both houses of the Legislature.
Most of the days when [U.S. Sen. Hubert H.] Humphrey was at his heyday, we did not control the Legislature.