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Idaho’s Sen. Jim Risch says nobody’s talking about our most worrisome problem

Statesman staff

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and other senators rush to the floor for a vote in 2013.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and other senators rush to the floor for a vote in 2013. AP

U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, spoke Feb. 18 to the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce about the nation’s fiscal problems, military spending, Social Security, the FBI’s legal fight for information on an iPhone, Bernie Sanders, and vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court and Idaho’s federal judiciary. His remarks are condensed from a transcript by Caroline Merritt, the chamber’s public-relations director.

I’ve got an incredibly interesting portfolio in the committees that I’m on. I’m actually No. 2 on two of those, on the Foreign Relations Committee and on the Intelligence Committee. They take up a lot of my time. I’m No. 3 on Energy and Natural Resources, and that takes up a lot of time, because those are the issues that are so important to Idaho.

Two things everybody says: What makes you not sleep at night? What are the things foremost on your mind?

The overreaching issue is the financial condition of this country. You all have heard my speech so many times, some of your lips move as I’m talking. And I don’t have anything new to report. All I have is bad news on that front. It’s not getting better. It’s getting worse. And the even worse news is that nobody’s talking about it. Nothing’s getting done.

This country spends $3.8 trillion a year, $11 billion a day, $7 million a minute. The federal government doesn’t have $11 billion a day. It’s about a billion and a quarter short, every single day. There is one thing that Republican and Democrat economists agree, that liberal and conservative economists agree: This can’t go on. And yet it does.

When I got there, the national debt was about $10 trillion. Today we are at about $19 trillion.

About 60 percent of the budget is on autopilot. It’s entitlements. I’ve never voted on those. I’ve never voted on Social Security. I’ve never voted on Medicare. I’ve never voted on Medicaid. I’ve never voted on veterans’ benefits.

The other 40 percent is the stuff we do deal with all the time, and that’s defense, agriculture, education and all the other things that are important to our daily lives.

There is not the concerted effort that needs to be done to get this problem aligned. And you are not even hearing much of it in the presidential races this year.

I am supporting a person for president [Marco Rubio] who has a different view than I do. But he’s three decades younger than I am, and he tells you, “Our best years are ahead of us, we’re Americans and we can do this.” And bless him, I love hearing that. We Republicans are really good at doom and gloom, as you’ve just seen.

The other thing that’s on my mind is national security. The 16 admitted intelligence agencies that we have do an absolutely incredible job of protecting this country.

9/11 is not a one-off event. There are people who are picked up every day, thousands of people around the world, that want to do that again to us, or who want to do it even worse. Most people don’t realize that in 2015, there were 72 arrests here in the United States of people who wanted to do us harm, who not only were planning it, but actually had taken at least some step towards doing a terrorist act.

Q: I know Democrats like to spend more money on social, Republicans like to spend more money on military. What I don’t know is, which side is going to cut something in order to pull it back in order?

A: The expenditure on military, certainly, we Republicans are married to that. And the expenditures on social programs, the Democrats are married to that, although the Republicans have some strong feelings about some of those programs staying in place and being secure and being there for our kids and our grandkids.

But the military expenditures are a de minimis compared to that 60 percent side I was talking about. Both Republicans and Democrats agree that we can fuss all we want on that 40 percent side, but there has got to be reform on that 60 percent side. You need to start there.

There actually are some pretty positive things that could be done. The solutions are incredibly political, particularly if one side or the other takes advantage of that, but the difficulties of putting these things on the right side are not that bad.

There are a number of plans out there that take Social Security on, just as it is, for everyone who’s on it, for everyone who’s about to go on it, so that everybody who has participated and contributed to it, all the way back to 30-year-olds, are going to be taken care of just as they were promised.

However, at 30 years old, we have to redo that program. You can call it Social Security 2, you can call it whatever you want, but it cannot go on the way it is. The benefits can’t be the same, the contributions can’t be the same.

A president has got to stand up and lead on this. The last time something big was done was when Reagan did it, and he did it with the speaker of the House. The two of them stood up and said, “Look, this is what has to be done for America,” and they put Social Security on a footing that, even today, has us in so much better shape than it was back then.

Q: Talk to us a little bit about this FBI, Apple iPhone story.

A: It used to be when they got a search warrant, they said well, it’s located at such and such address, they go get a battering ram, they knock down the door cause the judge said they could, and they go get the evidence. Well now, because of technology, the door’s gotten stronger and stronger.

Under the Fourth Amendment, we should be safe from unreasonable searches and seizures. But it is not an unreasonable search and seizure when the government, law enforcement, convinces a judge, an independent member of the third branch of government, there’s probable cause to believe there’s evidence here. The court has always ruled that you can go get that evidence.

I’m glad this case has come along. This case is going to give us some standards that we badly need.

Q: You serve with Senator Sanders. Can you share —

A: I’d love to! Vicki and I had dinner with Bernie and his wife. We had the best time. We didn’t talk politics, we didn’t talk issues. We talked about our family, about the things we like to do and what have you.

Bernie is a fun guy to be around, but he’s a socialist. He makes no bones about it. He is very sincere. He really believes that there’s a lot of angst in America caused by people not having security over their financial situation. He really believes that if the government can take charge of their financial situation, individuals’ financial situation, which means taking charge of the economy, we can take care of everyone. And he points to Denmark as an example of that.

Bernie’s a nice guy. But make no mistake about it, he thinks differently.

Risch on Bernie Sanders

Q: Would you talk to us about the Supreme Court vacancy?

A: Antonin Scalia was a friend. We were always kidding each other, because he was reputedly the most conservative member of the Supreme Court, I’m reputedly the most conservative member of the Senate.

The Constitution is black and white, but there really aren’t a lot of details. It says the president shall appoint, subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. It also says he can’t appoint without the consent of the Senate, except when we’re in recess. Did you know we’re in recess right now? Don’t tell the White House.

We’re going to get beat up over the thing, I think. And I can’t fathom that he’s going to appoint a person that will put this thing back in balance again, 4-4-1. So if he knocks it out of balance, I know what I’m going to do.

I’ve got to do what my conscience tells me and what I think the people of Idaho want me to do, and that is to withhold my consent.

Risch on a nonconservative Supreme Court nominee by President Obama

I will be surprised if we see anybody standing up in a black robe taking an oath to the Supreme Court between now and Jan. 20, 2017.

Q: Can you give us a status update on Judge Lodge’s seat? [U.S. District Court Judge Edward Lodge took senior status in July, creating a vacancy, though Lodge still hears cases voluntarily.]

A: The two senators from the state in which the president is appointing get what’s called the blue slip. And unless you return the blue slip, the person who the president appointed doesn’t even get a hearing in front of the Judiciary Committee. In short, either senator has a veto. So three people need to agree on the judge: myself, Senator [Mike] Crapo and President Obama.

Two out of three of us have had no problem agreeing whatsoever. You know, I’ve been really critical of a lot of things that Obama does, but let me say this. We met with the White House shortly after that vacancy was announced, and the White House has treated us with nothing but absolute respect and good will and good faith as far as trying to pick the person who will fill that seat. It is difficult, because we have a different view, and so there have been many, many conversations back and forth. We are very, very close to being able to identify someone who is going to go the distance, we believe.

Risch says he returns to Idaho every weekend and anytime the Senate is in recess.

This story is part of the March 16-April 19, 2016, edition of the Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider magazine.