Revises opinions on Iraq war, GOP in the minority
WASHINGTON – Twelve years into his congressional career, Rep. Mark Souder, R-3rd, was the chairman of a subcommittee and claimed a close friendship with the speaker of the House. He was sometimes involved in developing the final contours of legislation presented to the House.
In the 13th year, he will lose all of that as Republicans face the realities of political life as the minority party.
At the end of each year since he entered Congress in 1995, Souder has talked with The Journal Gazette’s Washington editor, Sylvia Smith, to recap the legislative and political ups and downs of Washington. This is an edited transcript of this year’s conversation.
Journal Gazette: Iraq came to dominate the national consciousness. You voted for the war and said at the time that the rationale was protecting U.S. interests because of the likelihood of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction and probably harboring terrorists – not setting up a democratic government. What is the evolution of your thinking this year?
Souder: My evolution this year was: In my opinion, it’s been a civil war. But the question of a civil war is: Is there a functioning central government that can win a civil war? … What’s not clear to me is if this government can ever be stable and that the civil war has gone from skirmishing and marginal fighting at the terrorist level and some Shiite militias to the dominant pattern. There’s no number of troops we can put on the ground to basically battle inside of a large-scale civil war without a functioning central government.
If we see that it’s developed that way, do we stay to 2008 or do we get out in 2007? At what point do you say we’ve gone across the line where there’s not a hope of stability or at least that it appears to be small?
What’s the answer to your own question?
I think it’s intriguing that the president is looking at trying to put more troops on the ground like Sen. McCain has suggested all the way along. But my impression – and I haven’t been there since spring – is that we’ve passed that point. Even doubling the number of troops on the ground won’t do it. Instead of just having potentially a few thousand people that you’re trying to stabilize who are picking at random where to hit, or even 20,000, basically at this point the whole country’s engaged. Which means an increase in troop power isn’t going to stabilize it.
What’s been the most dramatic influence on your thinking about the war?
I’ve talked to a number of soldiers who’ve come back. I’ve seen a change in the attitude of the soldiers. They’re no longer saying the media isn’t reporting (the good news). They’re saying on the ground it’s different.
(Souder said he’s asked northeast Indiana soldiers whether they would volunteer to embed with a few other U.S. troops into an Iraqi force going to battle. They reply:) “No way.” They don’t think they’ll fight. (One said) there could be people inside the group that’ll kill you. This is not the commanders talking; these are actual soldiers talking. Those are not good signs.
Then (they say Iraqi soldiers are) crooked. What do you mean, they’re crooked? I assumed I would hear they’re taking supplies and selling them off. (But U.S. soldiers say) they either give information to Sunnis or give information to Shias about where we’re going and who we’re trying to raid. That’s actually a worse crookedness.
Those things suggest to me that if your troops are losing confidence and it’s consistent, if the police and military aren’t actually in Iraq taking control of the ground and the resistance is expanding, there’s no hope.
(Souder said he’s read a number of books, including Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial,” that contradicted information from the Bush administration, all of which also influenced his revised view. He said the soldiers’ feedback plus what he’s read helped reshape his thinking.)
Are you saying it’s time to withdraw from Iraq?
It’s the beginning of the end. The question now is how fast.
That is the question. What’s your opinion?
What is it going to look like if we all of a sudden immediately pulled out, pulled out in six months, 12 months or 18 months? Now we’re back to what’s in the interest of the United States and our world security picture, not trying to establish a government in Iraq. … I don’t have any confidence they have a plan. So maybe our troops have to stay there till ’08 till we get a plan of what’s a withdrawal look like. So I don’t know the answer to your question, but I know what variables I’m looking for.
If they can make a compelling case that more troops on the ground would give us a chance, I’m willing to listen. But I’m highly skeptical.
Would you say your disillusionment with the war has tracked the public’s?
I was willing to give more of a benefit of the doubt longer and held out hope they could stabilize the government longer than most of the general public. I’m probably still more willing to look at strategic variables. I think the general public has moved very rapidly to the faster the better. But I think the gap has closed.
In my opinion the American people have already closed the book on “are we willing to wait until they have established a free and democratic government that’s safe and secure in Iraq?” The answer is no – unless they can do it awful fast.
What was Congress’ biggest legislative accomplishment this year?
We did get a large number of the tax cuts extended, which was very important for economic growth. We had a whole series of health bills, including health savings accounts that were not only extended but expanded. Thirdly, in the veterans area, the best way to describe this: I had an interesting letter. This lady sent me (a note) and said her husband believes with the Democrats in control, they’ll do more for veterans. She said Republicans did more for veterans and what do I think will happen?
(Laughing) You’re an impartial commentator?
We were. What I said was the fact that veterans benefits have soared in the last few years, and we did another increase in this last stretch. But it’s because we have an aging of the veterans population, we’re at war and no matter who is in control they’re going to increase benefits. Since the Democrats are now in control, they’re going to do more even than we did. So the answer is both parties are doing more for veterans.
In the social issue area, we passed a number of things in the House, but not as much became law. We had some successes in pro-life initiatives and family initiatives.
We made a fair amount of progress on alternative energy, and I think you’ll see that increase.
What were Congress’ biggest legislative lapses?
I’ve been frustrated on the reform efforts as they related to earmarks. I felt we have been very slow in responding to the reform movement in the United States. Every reform we did we were dragged kicking and screaming, it seems like, as a party.
I don’t think we reacted fast enough on Foley. I don’t think you can just make presumptions about somebody because they were gay, but there were warning signs that they should have been more careful of. They didn’t act fast enough. That’s just part of this whole attitude of reform and enforcing rules. They didn’t react fast enough on Ney. They didn’t react fast enough on Cunningham or in reforming the system. (Rep. Mark Foley resigned after his inappropriate e-mails to teenage congressional pages came to light; Reps. Bob Ney and Randy Cunningham were sentenced to prison for accepting bribes.)
I don’t think we impressed anybody with how we handled Iraq. I think we’ve improved some of the problems that we had with stovepiping of intelligence. But some of the things that we didn’t tackle – by the way, the Democrats already showed they aren’t going to tackle either – we didn’t streamline the (congressional) committee structure, which is where it starts.
I also think we let the deficit get too big. I’m not saying I don’t understand why and the tradeoffs. But it got too big too fast in the spending.
What was your biggest accomplishment this year?
The biggest single thing was that we got the ONDCP, the drug czar’s office, finally authorized for five years. (ONDCP is the Office of National Drug Control Policy.)
(Souder noted that the House passed the bill previously, but the Senate did not act until this year.) What really brought us together first off was the continued refusal of the drug czar’s office to recognize that meth was a problem. So Sen. Grassley finally realized the only way to force the (administration’s) hand was the two of us trying to work out – that bill has five and a half pages of meth strategy in it. I don’t believe you should write executive branch guidelines too rigidly, but since they aren’t doing it, we did. I spent a fair amount of time on various homeland security issues, on the vocational ed act. We had a number of things inside that. I view those as good, solid direct accomplishments. The biggest breakthrough, which hopefully will be finished next year, was getting the Veterans Hospital situation turned around from being a “close down” to a most likely a “keep the inpatient care in Fort Wayne.”
I thought we could make a little more progress in the national parks. (Souder is pushing a bill to increase funding for the national parks.) 2016 is the 100th birthday of the national parks. To be prepared and have them in great shape … you have to plan ahead. We’re looking, without major changes in funding and systems in the National Parks Service, at losing perhaps as many as maybe 50 percent of the rangers, of having major curtailings and shutdowns because of the cost of operating today.
I was also hoping we’d make more progress in alternative energy. I lost twice (on a bill to give lawsuit exemption to groups that set rules for amateur sports). I was frustrated that we didn’t do better on the military score card (a bill that would require the Pentagon to rate the pet projects of lawmakers included in the defense budget). In a number of our key pro-life things we were defeated – the unborn pain awareness, the Plan B. We got setbacks on intelligent design. A lot of the social issues it was a year we tried to make progress, we had the debates, but we lost.
The events of one day – Election Day – will radically change your job status next year and perhaps your approach to your job. How will your constituents notice that you are no longer a member of the House majority and that you do not chair a subcommittee or have ready access to the House speaker?
Part of the irony with this is in spite of – this is, by the way, perhaps the only compliment I’m going to directly pay to The Journal Gazette for a while – the efforts of you and The Journal Gazette to keep people informed on a day-to-day basis as much as possible of what we actually do in Congress, most people don’t pay attention.
I think it’ll have some substantive impact, but your question was: What will people notice? Nothing.
What about the substantive effect?
I’m not going to be in the room (where decisions are made) at the end of the day on certain bills. Quite frankly, I’m not sure with Nancy Pelosi being the speaker and the Democrats writing (legislation) I’d want to be in the room on those bills because they’ll be, in many cases, bills I wouldn’t agree with.
Ironically, in some things where I am a little more moderate, I’m going to now be able to get some of the things that I personally introduced that I couldn’t convince the Republicans to do, done.
The national parks. In Head Start I wanted the parents to be on the council. Chairman Boehner (Rep. John Boehner, chairman of the Education Committee under the GOP House), opposed me. My support was mostly from the Democratic side. Now I have a pretty good chance of winning that point. The irony is some of my personal legislation I may be able to get done more under the Democrats, but on the big issues of the day, I don’t think there will be more tax cuts, I don’t think we’re going to get deficit reduction, I worry about certain abilities to track terrorists. On those bigger-picture things, where I stand ideologically is where the biggest differences will be.
As you and others have mentioned, members of the minority party can criticize and object without actually having to write legislation that will pass. How will you use that freedom?
I haven’t really decided. Speaker Pelosi and the Democratic chairmen coming in – how much will they show their true liberal colors, and how much will they be cautious in these two years? If they stay more cautions, then I’ll be more pragmatic. If they go farther left, then we’ll have more of a battle.
I think some Republicans are going to want to battle no matter what. But I think the bulk of us are watching carefully. If they show some olive branch, the majority of the Republican Party wants to try to work with them.
In what occasion this year did your faith help you the most?
Probably with about three weeks to go in the election (which he won against Democrat Tom Hayhurst). Because the election had drawn close, I didn’t have enough money, and I felt the attacks were very unfair. It was the first time I looked at it and said two things. One is, if I lose, am I happy with what I’ve done? And secondly, am I comfortable that if I do my best, this is in God’s hands?
How did that questioning work out?
It calms you down, enables you to cope. And then we went out and raised a lot of money and fought back.
The key thing with being a Christian is it isn’t like it takes away all problems. It’s just that you get a peace about the problems. Sometimes you get pictures of these Christians who wander around with a smile on their face saying, “Hit me again.” No, I didn’t want to be hit again. It’s just that you have peace and that you’re doing your best and that whatever’s going to happen will happen.