Earlier this month, the editors of Human Events spoke with Rep. Mike Pence (R.-Ind.), the Human Events Man of the Year for 2005. The conversation focused primarily on the need to curb big government by reforming entitlement programs, and the congressman’s three trips to Iraq.
Tell us some of the good developments for conservatives that you saw in Washington this year?
I believe that beginning with the budget adopted this spring we’ve seen a resurgence of conservative impulse on Capitol Hill, particularly in the House.
Although it didn’t get nearly as much coverage as Operation Offset [the House Study Committee plan to pay post-Katrina rebuilding expenses with budget cuts elsewhere], House conservatives secured a change in House rules that allows members for the first time to request a vote to enforce the budget on the House floor. It’s called point-of-order protection. We got it because about 25 members of the Republican Study Committee dug in and held up adoption of the budget resolution until our leadership accepted some version of budget-process reform.
We had been asking for a wide variety of process-reform measures. But in the end we settled on point-of-order protection. Now, for the first time since the Budget Act was adopted in the early 1970s, members will have the opportunity to vote to defend the budget on the House floor.
What this means is that when an appropriations bill is about to be brought up for a final vote, if it exceeds the budget number agreed to earlier in the year in the annual budget resolution, a member can raise a point of order and force the House to vote on whether it wants to bust the budget. That will make members go on record for either busting the budget or not busting the budget.
In my office, I have David Hackett Fischer’s book about Washington crossing the Delaware. Fifteen minutes before we were going to vote on the budget-protection rule, they brought me a copy of the draft rule with the date and time on it. I taped it to the picture of Washington crossing the Delaware on the cover of the book. To the extent we’re able to keep our eyes fixed on restoring limited government, restoring fiscal discipline, and renewing the Contract with America in the Republican majority, that will be seen as the moment we crossed the Delaware.
What’s striking to me about the battle that Washington fought in Trenton on Christmas Day is that it wasn’t very significant militarily, but it was enormously significant morally. For House conservatives, while Operation Offset has received an enormous amount of attention—and we’ve achieved some progress with the passage of the Deficit Reduction Act—I’ll always believe the conservative resurgence in the fight for limited government began in March when 25 House conservatives dug in and demanded budget reform.
A lot has been written about how a Republican government, under President Bush, has massively increased government. Do you believe that with this procedural change, and with the success you have had so far with your Operation Offset proposals to pay for hurricane relief with spending cuts, that the party is turning the corner on its big spending ways?
If repentance can be defined as stopping and turning around in the opposite direction, we are in the process of stopping. We have not yet turned around, and we have not yet begun to walk in the opposite direction, but it’s a start.
By embracing the principle that the budget ought to be enforceable, by embracing the principle that in the wake of a natural disaster we ought to reorder our priorities, by embracing the notion we ought to reconcile spending between the House and the Senate even with regard to entitlements, we’ve stopped doing what we were doing before, which resulted in an $8 trillion national debt. But in terms of turning around and beginning to seriously take on entitlement spending and seriously restrain the growth of government, we’ve not yet begun to do that.
I think, however, if we can just stay on track, this could be the preamble to doing just what the American people hire Republican majorities to do.
The Government Accountability Office says the Medicare drug entitlement added $8 trillion in unfunded liabilities to the federal ledger over the next 75 years. When you add in the rest of Medicare, Social Security and other entitlements, they calculate we now face about $45 trillion in long-term unfunded liabilities. Do you see the will in the Republican Party here in Washington to grapple with the massive fiscal crisis looming because of these entitlements?
No, but I see it in the teeming millions of rank-and-file Republican voters. I also see it in common-sense, non-partisan voters.
What should be done to deal with that?
I believe in my heart that this generation of Americans is going to produce leadership that will sit in the Oval Office and look the American people in the eye as adults, and say the party is over. We simply cannot continue to write hot checks on the backs of our children and grandchildren. We need to lay the problem out with moral and fiscal authority, to explain the truth of the matter, and treat the American people as the thoughtful and courageous people they are.
When a President does that, what is he going to say to them? Is he saying we need to privatize Social Security? What exactly is the program?
He says what Abraham Lincoln said. We’re going to need to go back to some basic American ideals. The government should never do for a man what he can and should do for himself. We have to go back to the notion that this country is big enough and wealthy enough that nobody has to cut their medicine in half or choose between rent and the medicines they need. But if you can afford your own prescription medicines, we are going to need you to do it. If you can look out for yourself and your family in your retirement, we’re going to need you to do it.
Otherwise, we are going to have to choose between applying a crushing weight of taxes on our people or severely restricting our ability to defend this nation. And those are unacceptable choices in the 21st Century.
What about the idea of reforming Medicaid by converting it into block grants to states, similar to the welfare reform of the 1990s.
A fabulous idea.
Have any of your colleagues discussed that?
It’s been discussed informally. But I don’t believe it’s been discussed seriously. One of the really powerful ideas for which there is consensus on the left and the right is the utilization of vouchers in Medicaid. I’ve got a couple of books from friends over at the Urban Institute on my desk that I’m going to be reading over the holidays because I attended a conference at Pepperdine University sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the Urban Institute and was stunned to learn there was agreement on the idea of providing vouchers in Medicaid to allow people to go out and purchase insurance or medical services. That could provide enormous cost savings and empower people at the same time.
I am a strong believer in vouchers in education. But it’s astounding to me that this idea, which has such potential not only to empower individuals, but also to bring discipline to the marketplace, hasn’t been taken up. These are the kinds of ideas I believe this generation of Americans will come to terms with.
It is important that we do so because I believe we will have challenges in the next century that will make the War on Terror look like the Barbary pirates. We have to make hard choices now to ensure our ability to provide for the common defense, and I don’t know whether those challenges are going to come from the East or from the West, but they are coming. Mark Helprin is one of my favorite authors. Every year, I reread his essay, “Statesmanship and Its Betrayal,” which appeared in Hillsdale College’s Imprimis newsletter in 1998. I corresponded with Mark one time—I’ve read every one of his books, but I’ve never met him—about the truth of history that peace gives way to war and war gives way to peace. Nations that survive and prosper understand that and prepare for that and that is why we have to come to terms with these issues.
Fifty-five percent of our federal budget today is going to entitlement spending and those obligations we see on the horizon are not going to crowd out roads and bridges so much as our ability to defend our nation and our families.
Given the enormousness of the new policies that would have to be put in place to deal with this coming fiscal crisis, wouldn’t a Republican President need to expressly campaign on doing these things and win a mandate for it?
Do you think it’s politically viable for a Republican to do that in 2008?
Do you see any candidate out there that might do it?
Not yet. But Ronald Reagan campaigned on these things for 25 years and he won only 49 states. Three times, I might add.
Do you envision yourself or conservatives supporting an immigration reform that includes a guest-worker program that allows illegal aliens currently in the country to stay here and become legalized workers?
Not at the same time. I have always believed that and I’m neither fish nor foul on this. I’m neither [Rep.] Tom Tancredo [the Colorado Republican who chairs the House Immigration Reform Caucus] nor [Rep.] Jeff Flake [the Arizona Republican who is a leading advocate of a guest-worker program]. I’m the grandson of an immigrant, whom I grew up with, who had an Irish accent. I still believe in what the Statue of Liberty says. I think that it is a disgrace the way this nation in the last 30 years has ignored border security to enrich ourselves economically. Our federal government has ignored the immigration law as much as the people wading across the Rio Grande.
The first thing we have to do is close the border. We can do that. We have the technology and the resources to do it. I am someone who believes that a nation that cannot defend its borders is not a nation, and if we secure our border first, then the American people who believe in what it says on the Statue of Liberty would be prepared to consider a broad range of proposals unrelated to citizenship in regards to the eight to 10 million people who are here. But I’m not willing to consider that until we’ve closed the border, because one of the unbroken truths of amnesty in American history has been if the back door is ajar and you announce amnesty, then you are going to greatly worsen your problem with illegal immigration as people sprint for the continental United States.
So, you’re not ready to support an immigration reform bill that simultaneously secures the border and allows illegal aliens here to be given some sort of legal status to remain and work?
I’m not prepared, and I think the majority of House conservatives and the majority of Americans are much more comfortable uncoupling those things. Close the door first.
Do you think the President is prepared to do what you’re talking about, secure the border first?
Number one, I admire the President’s heart on this issue. I really do believe that his heart is in the right place.
But so far he hasn’t been very good on border security.
Well, no. I’m not talking about the policy. I’m talking about the person. I think his heart is in the right place. But I don’t think that he has yet fully understood the deep commitment the American people have to the rule of law. You don’t break the law and be rewarded for that. Frankly, there is also a deep anxiety many Americans have about the impact on our economic life and on our national security that attends having an essentially open border to the South. I’m hoping that as Congress moves forward on this, the President will begin to see the need to uncouple these issues.
You’ve been to Iraq three times?
Yes. I was just there on Labor Day.
How does your experience there compare to what you read on the front pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times?
That’s a great question. Let me just comment on what I saw. They must be writing about some other Iraq. I went over there with Speaker Hastert (R.-Ill.) right on the cusp of the end of major combat operations. I visited again about a year and a half ago and saw the high morale of American military personnel. I also saw unbounded gratitude from regular Iraqis and steady progress toward stability and democracy.
You had the opportunity to speak to some Iraqis while you were there?
I did. We had a town hall meeting in Basra a year and half ago with about 50 regular Iraqis. Most men and women at the meeting wore traditional garb. We were the first congressional delegation to get down to Basra and it felt like I was at a town hall meeting in Centerville, Ind. The people spoke pretty good English, were pretty opinionated, more than willing to tell you what you’re doing wrong: “You’re building this hospital in the wrong place. You’re not doing that right.” But when you got to the question of “Did we do the right thing,” whether you were talking to a soldier or a regular Iraqi, you had to choke back tears.
I’ll never forget this Muslim imam that walked into this small room in Basra. He came with the Catholic bishop of Basra, which was kind of an epiphany for my stereotypes about the Middle East. Anyway, the imam and the Catholic bishop embraced and spoke of each other’s families. I was listening through the interpreter, and the imam sat there looking like Charleton Heston in the Ten Commandments—very severe, traditional garb, and he did not speak as the others were speaking.
Eventually, I leaned forward on the table and I said, “What did you think about us removing Saddam Hussein?” Several began to answer. But at this point the imam raised his hand and started speaking in a drumbeat fashion, waving a finger at me. The interpreter waited until he was done and he stared at me with penetrating eyes that were really on fire. The interpreter said: “Saddam Hussein was a nightmare and the day the American soldiers removed him was like a curtain had been pulled back and the daylight came into our country for the first time in 25 years.”
Everyone on that side of the table was nodding. That’s what I heard from the regular Iraqis.
When I went over this Labor Day weekend, the bipartisan delegation I led wanted to get out of Baghdad and see troops. So we went out to Balad and to Ramadi and we got out to the Iranian border. We flew around in two Cobra helicopters that make Blackhawks look like lightweight equipment. They had huge guns sticking out, very scary looking equipment, flying at treetop level.
Flying over Baghdad, Ramadi and Balad, I lost count of the number of times men and women and boys and girls would jump to their feet to wave at the American helicopters flying by.
If that didn’t break your heart, then you would see this guy in the 110-degree heat with a big helmet, manning a 50-caliber machine gun, take his gloved hand off the gun and wave like he’s in a 4th of July parade. I have got pictures of it.
I have pictures of a woman running in her front yard waving. That’s when I said, you know, it’s not about the briefings you get, it’s not about the Iraqis they bring into meet with you, but flying over the city doesn’t lie. I said I felt like I was with the National Guard flying over Shelbyville, Ind., with a schoolyard full of kids waving at the good guys flying over.
Do you think Iraqi troops are going to able to hold their own?
I understand Howard Dean concluded we can’t win the war, which I’m more than happy to frequently repeat is his position. I tend to think that the lone superpower on earth can win. More to the point, I believe we are winning. In the last 18 months we’ve stood up over 120,000 Iraqis in uniform. By this time next year, it will be closer to 250,000. When I was with him at his speech in Annapolis earlier this month, the President explained that the tactical deployments are changing. He talked about a recent operation where Iraqis are on the border with Syria and how they are actually on point.
Our forces were doing two things at every base we visited: They’re out doing security rounds and they’re training Iraqis. They’re walking and chewing gum. These things are working. On Labor Day, when we were out along the Iranian border, the Tennessee National Guard guys posted there had a picnic, with bluegrass music. Let me tell you something, when you walk around on a base in Iraq on Labor Day and hear bluegrass, and they’re throwing horseshoes, and playing volleyball and half the guys on the volleyball court are Iraqis and they’re high-fiving and then you’re told the Tennessee Volunteers are leaving in October or November and the Iraqis are going to get this base, you know we’re getting somewhere.
The weekend we were there, the Iraqis took over their first base south of Baghdad.
In recent speeches, President Bush outlined the plan we have been working on over the last three years. When you go there and sit down with military commanders on every level, they’ve got a plan. I get pretty passionate about this. I don’t know how it is when the big boys go over there, but us backbenchers fly commercial into Kuwait. Then we go into Iraq on a C-130 sitting on netting surrounded by a hundred Marines. There’s no movie on that flight. It’s three hours bouncing up to Baghdad.
On several occasions when it was meal time on our visits, they would say the mess hall is just down the hallway. Nobody escorted us. There was no brass around. You just go talk to whomever you want. In 48 hours in Iraq over Labor Day weekend—I would say 42 of them awake and among troops—I didn’t meet anybody who didn’t believe in the mission. On airplanes and in mess halls you talk to the regular guys about their families and this and that, and you say, “Are we doing the right thing here?” Every single time, every man and woman who I posed that question to in Iraq would look at me as though I had suddenly started to drool senselessly. They would say, “You mean here? Fighting this war?” I’d say, “Yeah. Are we doing the right thing?” And they’d say different versions of, “Congressman, we’ve got to be here.”
Dave Newland, who serves with the Third ID in Baghdad, where they have one of the toughest patrols, is from Evansville, Ind. I said to him: “Dave, are we doing the right thing?” He said: “We look this enemy in the eye every day. These guys kill Americans because they like it. We’ve got to stop these guys right here.”
I didn’t meet a soldier who was wringing his hands. Every single one of them believes in the mission, believes in the nobility of the cause and believes in the absolute imperative of defeating the enemy there.