Sunday, February 15, 2009
Locals hail him as the Central Coast’s environmental watchdog on Capitol Hill. He devotes his time to civil rights legislation, an end to homelessness and hunger, and fair employment for all Americans. Clearly, he’s also a savvy politician; as Chairman of the House Budget Committee, he occupies one of the most powerful positions in our nation’s government. Five years ago, the average Joe would not have recognized his name; now his quotes make headlines and his image is broadcast into living rooms nationwide, as he attacks the presidential budget, lobbies to keep Fort Ord open, or argues for declaring Monterey Bay a National Marine Sanctuary. At 51, Democratic Congressman Leon Panetta, U.S. Representative for the 16th District, attorney, father of three, and Carmel Valley resident, is a force to be reckoned with in Washington.
On a recent Saturday the seemingly tireless Congressman, who flies home almost every weekend, met with the editors of Coast Weekly for an exclusive interview at his Alvarado Street office. ON the wall hangs a photograph showing Panetta riding a carousel, leaning back and hanging on with a giddy expression. It’s a telling portrait – the man is not one to sit still or stand on the sidelines.
Coast Weekly: Obviously Monterey County residents are concerned over the possibility that Fort Ord will be closed, and the immediate negative economic impact that would have on this community. Yet almost everyone agrees that some tough national decisions need to be made to help salvage our economy. It sounds like some unpopular decisions are going to be made. Would the closing of Fort Ord reflect poorly on the performance of Leon Panetta?
Congressman Panetta: First of all, as Chairman of the Budget Committee, my first responsibility is to try to insure that we restore some fiscal integrity to this country. Year after year the economy keeps growing and we don’t fall into a recession. A lot of that is just that we borrow so much that we generate some growth in the economy. The problem with the deficit is it’s one of these things that eats away gradually – it’s not something that kills you all at once. It’s in that context really where we deal with the whole defense issue and as it relates to Fort Ord.
For the first time in a long time defense is on the table in a bipartisan way because of the changing world situation, and because of initiatives between Gorbachev and this country. So there is the opportunity to achieve some savings in the defense area. As always, those savings have to be real and they have to make sense. Concerning Fort Ord, everyone admits it has a significant economic impact on the community. But I can’t begin to fight for Fort Ord just on its economic impact, because every cutback in the defense area is likely to have an economic impact on the community or the defense plan that’s affected by this cutback. I have to evaluate Fort Ord on the same basis that I evaluate all defense savings: does it make good defense sense, and does it make good budget sense.
I think the community understands what the pressures are. My community is a pretty aware community. And besides, this is a wonderful area. I was born here, I was raised here I don’t want to live anyplace else, because this is a remarkable area in terms of the quality of life we enjoy here. So that means we have tremendous opportunities, under any scenario. If Fort Ord and the 7th Light Infantry Division remain, then that’s fine. But if the 7th Light Infantry Division moves, we have tremendous opportunities in this area. And I think that’s the way you have to view these issues, and I think the people in this area do that.
(Two weeks ago) I met with all the mayors and all the supervisors, and they share that consensus. Our first priority is to maintain the 7th at Fort Ord because, frankly, it doesn’t seem to make good sense either from a defense or budget point of view to move it. If you’re going to maintain the 7th, why are you simply picking it up out of Fort Ord and dropping it in Fort Lewis? I just don’t see the justification for that.
CW: Eighty percent of the bases the Pentagon proposes to close are in districts represented by Democrats. Is the Administration trying to target the Democrats by putting them in the compromising position of lobbying to keep their home bases open, while advocating deeper defense cuts? Are the Republicans playing political hardball with the base closures?
Panetta: Well, obviously you hope that’s not the case. But when you look at the numbers and at what’s been targeted, and you look at the fact that 99 percent of these closures area in Democratic districts, it raises serious questions about whether it was an objective list. I think there is a lot of concern in Congress that they were chosen more on a political basis than on a substantive basis. That’s why there’s growing talk about developing a bipartisan commission, or a group that’s nonpartisan, to evaluate all bases so that we don’t have this credibility problem. I think the commission idea makes sense, because if you can have a group that isn’t tied to the Pentagon, then I think you can have a fair approach to this issue.
CW: If Fort Ord does close, what do you propose we replace it with?
Panetta: I have no alternatives right now. My first effort is directed at the 7th Light Infantry at Fort Ord, and frankly that’s going to consume probably the next six to 12 months deciding what happens there because Congress really makes the final decision on this issue. But I think there’s one thing I can tell you, from my point of view: that area is not just going to be handed over to developers. We’re going to protect the dunes, protect the area there, and it’s going to be used in a way that I think fits into the quality of life that we enjoy in this area.
CW: These days the White House seems quite elusive for the Democrats. What’s wrong with the Democratic Party? Have they lost touch with their fundamentals, or are they just wimpy? What do you think the party needs to do to regain its stature?
Panetta: I think the basic problem is that Democrats came to power in the presidency because they were willing to be bold. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was bold; he didn’t just simply repeat the politics of Woodrow Wilson, he didn’t repeat the politics of other Democratic presidents. He basically developed initiatives of his own to respond to the needs of the country and to redirect the country at that time. And John Kennedy may or may not have been so bold in actual actions as bold in new ideas.
I think, to some extent, where Democrats have failed is that we continue to go back to the new Deal and to that period of time, instead of trying to bring the country together with new ideas for the future. Democrats are really interested in serving people, and the programs related to education and health care and housing pretty clearly are a fundamental base for us. But what we haven’t done is convince the American people that we have the discipline and sense of control to bring these things together and make them happen. We have gotten trapped in this vacuum between a time when our ideas truly did influence the direction of the country, and today’s changing America in a changing world where, frankly, we haven’t been able to respond to those changes.
In that situation, we basically all have our different ideas, we chop each other up, and presidential candidates usually reflect that process. When we finally end up with a candidate, people have sense that he really has no precise direction as to where this country should be going. He’s either reaching back for old ideas or he doesn’t have any new ideas about what the future should be.
CW: Congressman, there are many economic indicators that are creating a great stir among economists. We’re the world’s largest debtor nation. We allocate 15 percent of our national budget to pay interest on our debt. Japanese and West German bonds are becoming more attractive than US bonds. Yet most peoples’ eyes glaze over when the subject of economics comes up. What real solutions are feasible so we can strengthen our economic position and what kind of domestic hardship would they entail? And how can political leaders such as yourself discuss these complex economic issues without the rest of us all falling asleep?
Panetta: (after a laugh) That is a problem. I think most people understand taxes; most people understand the loss of jobs. But most people don’t know the relationship of all those issues to the deficit, and frankly, we haven’t done a very effective job in trying to convey the relationship.
Part of it is because, I think politically, there has been an effort to basically hide from the issue, and hide the kind of tough choices that are going to face everybody. Part of it is kind of coming out of the Reagan years, very frankly. I think to confront these issues correctly, but to pretend that if you implement supply-side economics, and if you did some other things the President suggested, then somehow all these problems would pass from sight. It was, and probably to some extent still is, the “Feel Good” generation, the now-nowism that (Budget Director Richard) Darman talks about.
The problem is that right now we are in deep debt. People understand this, they understand what debt means because we all, to some extent whether on credit cards or whatever, understand the implications of debt. I don’t want to oversimplify it, but the fact is that when we have a $3.1 trillion national debt, when we run annual deficits of about $140 billion, we’ve got to do a lot of borrowing. And we are doing tremendous borrowing. We have to borrow from the private sector to the tune of almost two-thirds of private savings. We’re a country now that has the lowest savings rate in the last 40 years, and in terms of the industrialized nations, we are also at the bottom of the list for our ability to save.
I think there’s a certain ethics that’s changed in this country. My father and mother were Italian immigrants, and basically understood that if you make use of the opportunities in this country, you have an obligation to put money aside so your children can have a better life. That’s kind of the American dream. And somehow we’ve lost sight of that era’s ethic. We borrow from the trust fund. We take that surplus, we buy securities, and that helps us pay the deficit off. Thirdly we’re borrowing from foreigners, $600 billion worth. We ought to encourage equal investment in this country, but when you have over half of your federal budget dependent on money from abroad, they obviously being to control our future, and these last two weeks have been frightening. When they don’t show up at the auctions for our securities because they’re more attracted by Japanese and German securities, we are in deep trouble. Deep trouble. Because we can’t then pay our bills.
I think that message to Americans needs to be presented in straight terms. Presidents, and those of us in leadership of Congress, have to say that this is a major crisis and it has to be confronted. But in confronting the problem there are unattractive solutions. It does involve controlling defense spending, it does involve controlling some increases in domestic spending. The third thing is taxes. Revenues. I mean, nobody likes to say to the American people we’re going to have to raise your taxes. We’re in a political logjam on these issues. The problem is not just the President – it’s also the Congress.
I would have no problems with a President who got up and said to the American people, this is a tough challenge. It’s going to kill us for the future; everybody’s got to sacrifice. The next few years we’ve got to dedicate to basically getting our fiscal house in order, and then we can begin to reinvest in this country the way we have to in education, in research and development, in our infrastructure, in our housing and health care.
I think the American people would support that. Sure, it may be tough. Sure, the president may even experience some political reactions from it in terms of popularity. But you don’t go into the presidency to keep your popularity polls high, just by telling the people what they like to hear. You go into the presidency to exercise leadership. This President never had a better time to exercise real leadership. He’s enjoying close to 80 percent popularity. The world is changing. We’ve got a real chance to redirect ourselves for a new century. We really do. The opportunities are there.
CW: Last September we reported that 28 percent of Monterey County residents are functionally illiterate. What can you do with your position in Congress to improve the quality of education for Monterey County and nationwide? How can we have a functioning democracy if approximately one out of three people can’t read?
Panetta: The effectiveness of our democracy really does depend on an educated public that is aware of the issues and takes part in the process. That does mean, again, a commitment of resources. The President talks a very good line when it comes to education, but when you look at the bottom line, it falls far short of where we need to be. If you look at the budget, he’s talking about a less than two percent growth (in education funding), and that actually represents a cut if you look at where inflation is. The commitment is still far short of the need.
CW: We also recently reported on the pros and cons of legalizing certain drugs. Surprisingly, many well-respected people, from former Secretary of State George Shultz to conservative economist Milton Friedman said we should legalize certain drugs like marijuana, collect the sales taxes, and use this money to improve our economic position as well as to fund continuing drug education and intervention programs. Do you agree that it’s time to legalize certain drugs?
Panetta: You’ve got a situation now where people who are seeking care for addiction don’t have access to health care on demand, and that is a real gap in terms of our ability to confront the drug problem overall. Obviously it’s made up of a number of different aspects, but if you focus just on the health care issue, we do not have adequate support right now for the care people need when they are addicted to drugs. I think the whole health care issue is probably one of the crisis issues of the 90’s, because what we have now is a very haphazard system.
I would be concerned about legalizing drugs in the absence of having adequate care on demand. Now, if we were beginning to develop the kind of local health care clinics and treatment centers that I think are essential, then I think you could legitimately begin to consider legalizing in some areas.
CW: How do you think the war on drugs ought to be fought? The Bush administration has reportedly spent more on invading Panama, ousting Noriega, and now rebuilding Panama’s economy than has been spent to date on the entire drug war. What’s the logic behind that, and what’s the solution?
Panetta: The danger on these kinds of issues is that they are basically exploiting for their short-term public relations value. It seems like every two years we fight another war on drugs. Part of the problem is just the politics of playing these issues: the danger is that you handle very sensitive issues through press releases, and you wind up not committing the bottom line resources that are essential to make it work. So whether it’s Noriega or going to Colombia to meet with the presidents there, these are high profile public image set-ups to present some symbolism to the American people. But when you brush all that aside, I think you’ll find that when it comes to adequate funding – for education, for law enforcement, for health care – we still fall short.
CW: You seem to defy typical notions of what politicians are made of. Not only are you a strong supporter of public campaign financing, but you continue to return to the Treasury savings from office and payroll expenses, as well as pay raises and speaking fees. This is your chance to tell us, what does Leon Panetta stand for?
Panetta: What do I stand for? (He laughs, then pauses.) I think the purpose of these jobs is to serve the public good. What does that mean? It means serving people in terms of their problems. But I think that as people who are representatives in a democratic process, it isn’t just enough to basically respond to their concerns. You also have to set an example. If I, as budget chairman, have to say to people “you may have to pay a little more in taxes, you may have to lose some benefits,” then I’ve got to be able to show that I’m willing to set an example on that basis.
I think people for the last 10 to 20 years, maybe since John Kennedy, have become increasingly turned off by government. They see the corruption. They see the scandals. They see the doubletalk. People are not dumb. You’ve got to set an example , and if you don’t do that, then it becomes very difficult to convince people that you really are interested in the public good.
CW: What are your personal aspirations? Twenty years ago you were a lowly political aide, and today you’re on the fast track of political leadership. Do you want to be Mr. President, and would you make a good one?
Panetta: You know, ever since I was a legislative assistant I think I’ve learned one lesson: once you make a decision that you want to run for Senator or President, something snaps. Something snaps. I can see it happening in other people. You don’t make the same decisions on issues anymore. The ambition for the office beings to take over, or the political campaign types who run your campaign take over, and pretty soon you basically lose a sense of direction because you’re reading the polls, and you hedge, you cut corners. It’s tough enough in this job to make the right decisions. So I’m a believer that you do this job on a day-to-day basis, and you don’t set those kinds of goals. You don’t say that you want to run for President or Senator because the danger is that you become less of an effective leader. I’ve seen it happen. The opportunities may come for me. But on the other hand the opportunites may go pretty quickly too in this business. You make one tough decision that doesn’t please people and you don’t get re-elected.
CW: Don’t you have those moments though, when you’re skipping down Carmel beach, saying “Maybe I’ll be President…”
Panetta: (after a long laugh) You really got me there (more laughs). I really haven’t. You always hear people – you’re never sure whether they’re just being nice or whether they really believe it – who say, gee, you’d make a good president, or you’d make a good senator. You hear that all the time, and that’s nice. Obviously It’s something that I’m honored by when people say that. But I have never, for a moment, begun to think seriously of ever pursuing that, because, first of all, running statewide in this state is crazy. We’re at the point now where a senate candidate has to raise anywhere from 14 to 15 million dollars in order to run an effective campaign in this state. I don’t want to spend 80 to 90 percent of my time asking people for money.
I relish the challenge of each day’s work in this job. I really do. It is tough and right now I’m getting a hell of a lot of challenges. But I’m consumed enough as it is now. If you’re serious about doing the presidential trip, if you’re serious about doing the statewide trip, you’ve got to spend a lot of time developing your campaign strategies and raising money. I think, unfortunately, that’s what happened to Alan Cranston. A good senator who, in the process of constantly raising money, made a mistake.
CW: Finally, now that you’re chairman of one of the most important and powerful committees in Congress, the Budget Committee, your focus naturally has had to shift more toward national issues. Do you ever lose sleep at night wondering if you’re losing touch with our local issues?
Panetta: The greatest professional hazard in these jobs is isolation from the people you represent. I’ve seen members who go to Washington and then hate going back to their districts. Washington can be almost hypnotizing, in terms of the fact that you’re dealing with the issues there and peopole know you’re a congressman. So when I got elected, I made a decision – Sylvia (my wife) and I made the decision together – that it was important first of all that we have a continuing presence within the community.
But secondly, this is my home. I mean, this place is what really keeps me alive in terms of being able to look clearly at this country and the world and the issues I deal with. The ability to come back here and drive by the ocean and experience Carmel Valley and my home, and to be able to just go through my district, is really very important to me – no only from apolitical point of view, but it’s also the emotional side, the psychological side. Because you do change your perspective; you fly 3000 miles and suddenly you’re looking at issues a lot more clearly.
That’s why as long as I’ve been in Washington I’ve been travelling back and forth from this district almost every weekend that we’re in session. Sometimes it’s a horrendous schedule – I mean, today I started at 7:30 in the morning, and I won’t end until tonight. But just driving – I drove around, looking at the ocean, just enjoying this area – it’s great. And that’s the way you stay in touch.
Sure, I’m the budget chairman. The press plays up the job, you’ve got some power and all this stuff, but the most important thing at the end is to be able to come home and put your feet on the ground and realize who you are. And I always know who I am when I come back to Monterey.