Thursday, May 02, 2013

A Chat With Bruce Braley

Bruce Braley and I met for lunch and a discussion of the lay of the land yesterday.  Here's a few highlights.

Deeth: With this our first open seat race in 40 years, and the whole post-Citizens United dynamic, how do you keep your message going in a race like this once the outsiders start to pile on?

Braley: Well, I have done this enough to understand that you have to give voters a reason to show up and vote FOR you. You can't just depend on voter suppression to get them not to show up and vote for your opponent. And to me that means you've got to find a way to inspire voters into believing that you share their values, you understand the problems and concerns they deal with on a daily basis, you're going to be an effective listener, and you're going to take what you've learned and be a strong champion for the people of this state. That's going to be my strategy as I travel around the state talking about what I've done as concrete examples of bringing people together to solve tough problems, even when I was serving in the minority in the last Congress.

Deeth: Here's one I called wrong. I was expecting, especially after your role in the Energy and Commerce chair transition, that you were going to be sticking around the House for quite a while. Other than the obvious 1 out of 100 being more than 1 out of 435, what are you you hoping you can accomplish in the Senate that you weren't able to in the House?

Braley: Let's use the Energy and Commerce Committee as an example. In my opinion it's the best committee in the House of Representatives because it's all the policy issues that are so important to people. But it's an exclusive committee, which means that right now I serve on only one committee in the House. One of the best things about serving in the Senate is I'll be able to serve on as many as three or four, five committees and multiple subcommittees. And you also have the ability to have a much broader influence on foreign policy because the Senate has to ratify treaties. The average voter doesn't appreciate the significance of federal judicial confirmations in their lives. The federal judges, the district court, the appellate level and the Supreme Court have an enormous impact on the lives of Americans and Iowans. All of those things are reasons why having a chance to serve in the senate and having a chance to represent this great state is so compelling.

Deeth: And the Senate control is so important to the President potentially getting another couple of Supreme Court appointments in the next term.

Braley: That's right, because we've got this incredible backlog due to obstructionism by the Senate Republicans that's keeping these nominees from getting an up or down vote. And so we have vacancies, and that denies people justice.

Bruce wanted to make sure both the beret and Nile Kinnick were in the shot.

Deeth: Do you feel like the Senate is more or less dysfunctional than other parts of the system? What can you do for, say, filibuster reform?

Braley: I think the dysfunction is twofold. One is the interpersonal relations of the people serving in a body. The other is the parliamentary obstacles to getting things done. I've never served in the Senate but my sense is that people in the Senate may have closer relationships with their peers on the other side than people in the House do as a general rule. Now I pride myself on reaching out and developing strong relationships on both sides of the aisle in the House. But there's a lot of personal dysfunction. The parliamentary challenges are the inability to get things done due to the current filibuster and how it's being used-

Deeth: Like we saw on gun control.

Braley: That's right, and abused. So I would be very excited about working with some of my younger colleagues in the Senate who've recently come over from the House and have experienced how these obstacles are preventing even the most basic work from getting done, and trying to address those problems and continue Senator Harkin's work to try to make that happen.

Deeth: Locally we're having a courthouse/jail vote, and larger justice system issues such as minority incarceration rates, the overall incarceration rate, the drug war - those have come up locally as key issues in our debate. What can the federal government do to address some of these concerns?

Braley: The reason why many of those things that you just described have happened is because of what I believe is a misguided policy where legislators intervene and impose mandatory minimum sentences for offenses that in the past had smaller sentences. And the judge who was sentencing that individual had the authority to hear the facts and make an appropriate sentence determination to fit that particular defendant. By the legislature removing that we have filled up our prisons. We have a lot of people who are in need of serious mental health treatment who are occupying our jails and prisons. This is an issue I've been very focused on in the broader context of reducing gun violence. Most people would be shocked to know that the Los Angeles jail is the largest mental health institution in America today.

Deeth: Lonny Pulkrabek tells me that all the time.

Braley: We have a revolving door of people moving in and out of incarceration and mental health care centers and aren't getting the treatment they need to have better lives and to reduce the rime in society.

Deeth: I've had a lot of trouble wrapping my head around immigration reform because even though the demographics are shoring how critical it is politically for Republicans and also for the whole country, there's that dynamic of the GOP primary being a run to the right. I read a survey yesterday showing a third of Republicans won't accept any reform that lets the undocumented stay legally. By extension doesn't that mean mass deportation? How do we resolve that?

Braley: One word has kept us from having meaningful immigration reform, and that word is amnesty. That is always thrown out as an excuse for not moving forward. Where I grew up "amnesty" was where you broke the law and there were no consequences. The reform that I have supported and that many others in both the House and the Senate, Republicans and Democrats support, is something where there is accountability. If you break the law you are required to pay a fine, accept the consequences, be placed on probation, and if you satisfy the terms of your probation you get an opportunity for a pathway to citizenship. So when people talk about deportation I remind them we had the largest immigration rate in Iowa, in the United States, in my district in Postville. And I asked ICE to document the cost of that raid and the cost of the deportation that they used from some of the people that were convicted. And it was astronomical how much we spent to deport nine people to Guatemala. So when you take that and expand it out to the number of undocumented workers in this country? The same people who complain about this would never agree to pay the price tag of the actual cost of deportation. So that says to me that reasonable people should be able to get their handle on how we bring people out of the shadows, get them paying taxes at the state and federal level, paying into Medicare and Social Security, to stabilize those programs. To me there's a lot of huge upside benefits. And as we found out after the horrible tragedy in Boston, a lot of people who are in the shadows are also harder to track from a standpoint of making sure we're keeping people out of this country who shouldn't be here.

Deeth: One more? Election law reform. The President, Election Night: "We need to fix this." What do we do to fix this?

Braley: I'm very very concerned that given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, given the current makeup of Congress, it's hoing to be very challenging. I voted for the DISCLOSE Act after Citizens United came down, because the Supreme Court basically invited Congress to impose transparency and accountability requirements. And we did that, we got it passed in the House. It went to the Senate, and they came one vote short of being able to cut off debate and bring it to the floor where it would have passed. So given this current dynamic it's going to be very hard.

I think one of the biggest challenges we face is reapportionment. If other states had the same non-partisan reapportionment we do in Iowa, you would see a much different congress and much different state legislatures. So to me this is almost to the point where we were back when we had the one person one vote debate in terms of making sure that a person's vote matters. And I think we should be having a national conversation about that.

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