WASHINGTON – Rep. Mark Souder, R-3rd, has been northeast Indiana’s representative in Congress since before Starbucks opened its first overseas shop, before most people had an e-mail address and before belts and shoes had to be removed at airport checkpoints.
Souder has aged from his mid-40s to his late 50s during the 14 years he has been in office. His three children have moved through elementary school science projects to high school band to college degrees. Souder’s eldest, a teenager when he took office in 1995, is a mother.
Each year since he was sworn in to the House in 1995, Souder has sat down with The Journal Gazette to review the year. This is an edited and condensed version of 2008’s two-hour conversation.
Journal Gazette: I always start out asking what you consider your two or three top achievements of the past year. Tell me about 2008.
Souder: The No. 1 accomplishment was not having in-patient care closed (at the Veterans Hospital on Lake Avenue). Now we’re just going to argue how it’s going to be done. We’ve won the VA hospital debate, particularly with the new Veterans Administration coming in. They aren’t going to close it.
Is it tough to chalk up victories when you’re a Republican in a Democratically controlled House?
In the minority, your ability to do legislative achievements that are dramatic are less than when you’re in the majority. Much of what you do is you fight for your principles and nuances inside bills.
There aren’t big, huge “oh, wow!” victories. My process has been to work more on amendments in major legislation and to work the bureaucracy, because the bureaucracy is where most decisions are made.
How did that play out in your committees? The Education Committee, for instance, wrote a bill dealing with the laws and policies affecting colleges and universities.
One of my amendments was the cohort issue – basically, what percentage of students fall behind in a loan in a given year. We got it moved to a three-year average. (Otherwise) it penalizes schools, bluntly said, that had a higher percent of low-income minority students, because a higher percent of them fall behind in their loans.
A lot of those kind of professional and trade schools, many of them would have lost the student loan ability or had to reduce the number of minority students.
Also, for all the talk that they were going to repeal the Souder provision, the lose-your-loan-for-one-year is in the higher ed act. (Souder was the author of legislation that limits or bans college students from education loans if they are convicted of drug offenses. There have been repeated attempts to repeal it, including this year.)
We have a clear warning to students that, don’t get convicted of drugs, or your loans are in danger. It proves you can get things through even with Democrat majority when you’re not under the hot lights.
I worked on an obscure provision that deals with parks, to try to get them integrated in the schools system. “No Child Left Inside” was more exercise and how to utilize our federal, state and local parks as part of that. I worked with (several Democrats) to get that amendment through. It’s the first time in legislation that we had the national parks and the Education Department have to work together.
You’ve been an advocate in the past about security along the U.S.-Mexico border. What happened this year?
I certainly moved and advanced the progress not only on the real fence but trying to define what they’re doing on Project 28, which is a section of fence in Arizona which is partly physical, partly electronic tracking.
One of the most important things there was to get the Department of Defense to share their technology with Homeland Security. We are dramatically increasing that.
You were front-and-center on the legislative fight to force the District of Columbia to repeal its ban on handguns.
I didn’t get that legislatively, but I led the fight for it and went to the Supreme Court (which ruled in June that the city’s 32-year-old ban on handgun possession was unconstitutional). That wasn’t a direct legislative victory, but it was an indirect victory.
What were Congress’ biggest legislative lapses this year?
The biggest single lapse was (that) we have no energy policy. Because we have no energy policy, now that gas is cheap again, the investment isn’t occurring, and all the alternative energy is struggling. If and when the economy comes back, we’re going to be right back where we were, only worse.
We made a little progress, but we didn’t make the sweeping progress that needs to be done. Certainly the least progress we made was in moving toward clean coal and understanding that nuclear has to be part of this strategy. You can’t do electric cars or anything that requires power if we don’t have adequate power. Solar and wind are supplement but not the primary.
The second biggest failure was health care. We’ve been doing so much piecemeal stuff on health care that we haven’t tackled the bigger questions.
We haven’t figured out what’s the most reasonable cost-equitable way to deliver health care to the average person in the United States. Not only that, we have changes occurring in the payback system that could restrict care to large populations because physicians and hospitals will drop out of certain markets.
What might have been different if Republicans had been in the majority?
In health care? Minimal. I’m not saying there is unity in either party within the party, let alone between the parties, on these issues. They’re hard. But they can make more progress.
In the past two years – the duration of the last Congress – you introduced nine bills. One of them – naming a post office – became law. Some people might think that’s a paltry list of accomplishments. How should members of Congress be evaluated?
Any process has to count amendments rather than full bills. You make a decision: Am I going to pick three things at the beginning of this two-year cycle so I can have three things to put in (campaign) commercials? I choose not to go that route. I believe you need to be opportunistic, work your committees.
Being an effective member of Congress depends on what relationship you build, your credibility for knowing your stuff, what kind of questions you ask, how you treat people in public and private. Bills are one sign of effectiveness. Amendments are another sign. Whether you make a key point to one of your leaders or a leader on the other side.
Unfortunately, many of the things that make an effective member of Congress are done in private and therefore very difficult for the public to evaluate. But, ultimately, it’s a legislative business. If you’re not directly writing a bill, inputting into a bill or doing amendments, you shouldn’t be a legislator. You should be a commentator.
You’re a history buff. Do you see President-elect Barack Obama as a force of history?
The most dramatic, immediately evident thing is he’s our first African-American president, which was an incredible break with our past. A whole group of Americans have more confidence that, in fact, anybody can make it in America.
It tells the world and the United States that we’re really not racist anymore. Now, in fact, there are racists in America, and we still have racism in America. But it shows it’s not the dominant variable.
It really sends a different perception to the world. But you know what? Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell were already making a lot of that breakthrough.
If he follows merely becoming a spokesman for traditional liberal interests, he won’t be a defining figure. When he says he’s going to be more bipartisan – will he? He’s done some interesting things with McCain and keeping Gates (Robert Gates, the Bush administration defense secretary.) The guy doesn’t, so far, fit a rigid model.
But the times we’re in may be overwhelming – would be overwhelming to whoever’s in the position. If the economy falls apart and we go into a deep depression and he gets paralyzed in trying to address it, it won’t matter that he’s a good speaker. But he has the potential to go down as a charismatic president (like Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy) because he has the personal talent.
You have taken a different approach to dealing with the mortgage meltdown and the financial and auto industry bailouts than some fellow conservatives, particularly Rep. Mike Pence. Are your districts that different? Are your ideologies that different?
I grew up in a business family. I actually ran a business. We still have investments in business in Grabill. I have an undergraduate and graduate degree in business. Very few members of Congress who have that background in business voted against the bailout.
The people who were mostly voting against it were attorneys or people who hadn’t run a business.
Those with a business background realized you cannot run a country without a financial system.
How hard was that vote on the financial sector bailout?
I voted for it the first time. I voted for it the second time. I didn’t flinch. The only part that was courageous is that my base, at a very critical time, could have abandoned me, and I could have lost my seat. That vote was no more difficult than any other vote except that it came right before an election. I had to calculate in, do I feel this vote is important enough to stand up against what appears to be the majority of the district and possibly cost me my seat?
How about the auto bailout vote?
I’m uncomfortable because it’s ugly to get involved in the actual management of companies. But (if the companies and unions make sacrifices), then my job is to defend my region.
I’m getting sick and tired of people from other regions of the country coming with their hands out to the federal government when they’re in need and then when the Midwest has something, they say, “No, not you guys.”
In Katrina, we rebuilt highways without asking them to do toll roads like we did in Indiana. When we spend billions fighting forest fires in national forests, and Malibu Canyon gets rebuilt three or four times. When hurricanes hit the barrier islands and we rebuild them multiple times, when the same tornadoes sweep through western Kansas and we rebuild the towns, we don’t say, “tough luck.”
I had somebody say those are all natural disasters God made. My response is: Yes, but God didn’t expect you to build where the water’s higher than you’re standing. God had barrier islands to protect the mainland, not to build hotels on. Nothing says you have to live in the middle of the desert and have to have other taxpayers pay the water rights to take water from other lakes and drain them to build cement alleyways to get you water.
And a stimulus package?
We’re in desperate times. If there’s a reasonable stimulus package that kick-starts jobs fast, then I’m willing to break again with my basic core philosophy that says this stuff should not be done by the federal government. I’m willing to part with that if the country’s going to pieces.
But if this is going to be $1.2 trillion for every pet project. … At some point, it does become ideological. The ideological question is how much do we want government involved in the private sector? Do we have an exit strategy to get them out of the private sector?
In my case, I’ve had a pretty consistent view from the mid-1960s of being skeptical of government but seeing uses to government, of seeing some issues that you have to address when things got out of balance, whether it be environmental issues or civil rights issues.
Your opponent and the Democratic Party spent $1.5 million to try to unseat you last month, and you ended up spending more time raising money than you like to. Did the experience dull your interest in running again in 2010?
This one was especially hard. It’s one thing when you’re running against Tom Hayhurst or Paul Helmke or Jill Long, for that matter, who I believe were qualified for the job. It’s another thing when you realize you’re potentially in a fight against somebody who’s not even qualified, who people don’t know, who’s come into the district from outside, who has little experience, who’s being funded and controlled by Washington parties who didn’t even know my name is Mark, not Mike.
(When constituents support someone like that), you realize it isn’t that they think the other person’s better than you. They don’t want you.
The danger is you can overpersonalize it. Maybe it’s the tide or it’s a Democratic year. But it’s hard when your name’s up there, particularly if you value your reputation. Quite frankly, you shouldn’t get into politics if you value your reputation because the second they know you value your reputation, someone will try to wreck it.
On the other hand, if you personalize it too much, you go too far the other direction: I won, therefore everyone thinks I’m great. That’s not true, either.
The counterbalance to feeling like I was socked in the gut was that winning by 15 (percentage points) was a lot different than if it had been two. It meant that what we had done mattered. That even in a strong Democratic year, there were people who were frustrated, but they had some recognition that they wanted to continue the approach I had been doing. They may not agree with it totally, but the general approach.
This is what’s really sobering: I had more people give me money this time, more people go door to door, because they realized I was in trouble. Now that they have invested in you, spent time trying to help you, you have an obligation to try to continue what you were doing.
The very thing that says I should just quit also propels you along. Those people wouldn’t have given you all that help if they thought you’d just turn around and quit.
You appeared on the big screen this year. What was that experience like?
The biggest single moment was (that) the movie “Expelled” came out on intelligent design. (The documentary about intelligent design – also called creationism – hosted by Ben Stein describes how some educational professionals have been blacklisted from universities and journals because they disagree with the theory of evolution.)
How did your role come about?
Ben Stein’s producer contacted our office about being in a movie off of the subcommittee report we had done on a researcher we believed had been persecuted and pushed around at the Smithsonian Institution because of his views on intelligent design.
He lost his office. He lost his keys. He lost his sponsorship. We were able, over a period of years, to get the e-mails behind this. This was a three-year fight.
Was it the highlight of your year?
I personally believe that there is no issue more important to our society than intelligent design. I believe that if there wasn’t a purpose in designing you – regardless of who you view the designer as being – then, from my perspective, you can’t be fallen from that design. If you can’t be fallen from that design, there’s no point to evangelism.
As an evangelical Christian, I believe the premise of a fall being at the core of reforming lives. I believe the concept of grace and forgiveness comes from having fallen from something.
Now, how that occurred – whether you believe in the young earth theory, gradual evolution, or whatever – is disputed. Those become religious. But whether there was a fundamental designer who developed a complex DNA molecular structure is critical. Since I view that as the most important thing in the world, yes, being in a movie that advanced that cause was the personal highlight of the year.
Why didn’t you call more attention to being in a movie?
I thought this might be the hottest issue in my (re-election) race and that I would be so attacked, and it would bring out the social conservative base in ways we’d never seen.
From the time 2008 started, we could tell this was going to be a difficult political year. We went through a huge immigration debate. Then you moved to the $4 gas debate. Then the economy’s collapsing.
Do you feel like a star?
Being in a movie theater when you’re on the screen is just odd. The thing about being in a movie is you realize you did something that will be there long past your time on Earth.
It’s why I don’t go on Colbert (Stephen Colbert’s mock interview show, “The Colbert Report”), because there’s a danger that would be on video for the rest of my life. (Laughs.)
When you first came to Congress, your youngest child was in first grade. Now he’s in college. I’m sure you missed more of his growing-up moments than you would have liked. Has it been worth it?
Yes. Any job has disadvantages. I’m thankful for this job.
It’s tough to have a normal life of friends outside your job, church activities, knowing the names of your neighbors. But underneath that question is: Are you a workaholic? What would you be like in any other job?
Guess what? I worked as many or more hours as a retailer, and there, I had to work basically every Saturday. So in this job, I’ve had more Saturdays with my family. In this job, there’s some things they can do with me. They can go on some trips – and then be part of the commercials attacking me! I couldn’t resist that (laughing).
If I missed any soccer games, they were few and far between, because they were on the weekend, and I tried to adjust my schedule. Not many band concerts missed unless they were in the middle of the week. We always took at least two family vacations a year. The number of times we had dinner at the table together – quite frankly, I’d match those up with about anybody else in any other job.