State Politics

Mike Simpson on Kavanaugh, Idaho’s migrant workers & key funding for public open space

File: Mike Simpson’s influence has resulted in funding hikes for the Idaho National Laboratory, one of Idaho’s largest employers. He also played the primary role in preserving and protecting 276,000 acres of federal lands in central Idaho through the establishment of three new wilderness areas.
File: Mike Simpson’s influence has resulted in funding hikes for the Idaho National Laboratory, one of Idaho’s largest employers. He also played the primary role in preserving and protecting 276,000 acres of federal lands in central Idaho through the establishment of three new wilderness areas.

U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson said his Senate peers are doing the right thing by holding an additional hearing into decades-old sexual assault claims against President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. But he accused Democrats of maneuvering the issue for political gain while speaking Wednesday with the Idaho Statesman’s Editorial Board.

Simpson, R-Idaho, is running for re-election this fall against Democrat Aaron Swisher. During Wednesday’s visit, the congressman also spoke about retaining migrant agricultural workers, refugees and his effort to renew the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

His remarks here have been edited for length and clarity.

Read our Q&A with candidate Swisher here.

Q: How do you think the allegations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh will impact the elections?

How the (Senate Judiciary Committee) handles it will have an impact. You can look at it two ways. It will fire up the left if they don’t treat this professor (Christine Blasey Ford) that’s made these allegations with respect, listen to her, let her have her chance to make her case. It will fire up the right if it’s seen as just trying to take down Trump’s nominee no matter what because it’s Trump’s nominee.

How it will impact the election, I really don’t know. I think the Senate is doing the right thing. The only thing I know about Kavanaugh is I’ve looked at his record as a judge on the 12th Circuit. ... I think he’s been a good and fair judge, and all of his colleagues and people who have worked with him have said that.

Whether this happened, I don’t know. But you have to take it seriously. You have to take any of these types of charges seriously, and I think the Senate committee is doing the right thing in delaying the vote ... and holding this hearing, and giving her an opportunity to come in and tell the committee.

The thing that is frustrating to me, is that you realize that when Kennedy decided to retire, even before Trump made any nomination or anything else, there was about half the Senate Democrats, even more than that, that said they would never vote for any nominee that Trump nominated. That kind of took them out of the debate. This letter comes in July, and the Senate Democrats did nothing with it, (Sen. Dianne Feinstein) sat on it, never talked to him about it when he was in her office for hours talking with her. ... Why wouldn’t you bring that up? And if you really wanted an FBI investigation, why would you wait until the last second to bring it up?

(On Feinstein saying she couldn’t act because Ford wanted confidentiality:) Now they’re saying, well, she wanted to remain anonymous. Did you really think you could submit a letter like this, and that it’s going to be taken seriously under the name “anonymous”?

Q: Is that really that unbelievable? How much of how this has played out is politics, and how much is someone coming forward in a complicated way about something bad that happened a long time ago?

From (Ford’s) perspective, I think (the latter is) probably the case. I think she has a story that she wants to tell, even if I think it was a little naive to believe that you’re going to put a letter out accusing a Supreme Court nominee of this that wasn’t going to become public. Especially, how would you act on it if it wasn’t public?

It might have been naive on her part. I’m not saying it was wrong. I think what was wrong is for the Senate Democrats to sit on it until right before the vote. And I think that was on purpose. Because their tactic from the start of this hearing was delay, delay, delay, delay. That’s what they want.

Unfortunately in something like this, it’s going to come down to who you believe. Thirty-six years ago? In high school? ... Doesn’t mean it couldn’t be true. How do you address this challenge going forward?

Q: Talk about working to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The bill passed the House Natural Resources Committee Sept. 13.

I thought my biggest obstacle would be (Utah Rep. and committee chairman Rob Bishop), who’s not really a fan of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. ... I said, Rob, what’ve we got to do to get this done? And he had one ask. And that was there’s a program that was paid for on the state side, I can’t even remember what it was but it was a few million a year, not much, that he thought should be paid on the federal side. I said done deal. He went back, and the next day his staff called and said, Rob would like to be the lead on this. I said, go for it. I’ll sign on, and you and (Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva) can be the leads.

They came together and they fought off some crazy amendments that were offered in committee, and they got it out of committee. ... I would like to see it voted on in the House next week.

What a lot of people don’t understand: The federal side does conservation easements with landowners, farmers, ranchers, that kind of stuff. It actually keeps them on their ranch, it keeps them on their farm without future subdividing it and so you end up with subdivisions all along these pristine areas and stuff.

The state side, most people don’t know about. If you look at Boise, the number of parks, Greenbelt, other things that were helped with grants from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, all across Idaho. ... It’s amazing. It’s almost every park in Idaho Falls and all that kind of stuff. When I was on the (Blackfoot) City Council, our swimming pool was Land and Water Conservation Fund. Jensen’s Grove, the little lake you drive by out there and stuff, all that beach was done with Land and Water Conservation Fund.

It’s important. In rural communities across Idaho, they don’t have the population or the tax base to do a lot of these things in their parks and stuff, and with this that really helps them.

Q: On immigration and labor shortages: Idaho agriculture has relied on a migrant labor workforce. What’s the solution there?

For Congress to do its job. So far, we have not been able to find that sweet spot, where we can get a bill passed.

Q: Do you think it’s going to get to the point where it really does start to hurt our agricultural economy?

It’s starting to hurt now. They’re having a difficult time finding these people to fill these positions. And oftentimes, if they’ve been employed at a dairy for a long time, they’ll leave there and go to a construction job where they’re going to get paid more.

Part of the answer is solving the immigration debate. We have a couple of bills on the floor. I voted for one, voted against the other, now they’re trying to come back with an ag worker program. I don’t really care for it. It has a provision in it where you have to have a touchback ... where you have to leave the country for 45 days every six years or something like that, and I keep asking them, why? Does that really make sense? What is that supposed to accomplish? Nobody can answer.

The other thing I said is why do they have to leave the country? Why if you’re working at a dairy in Pocatello, why can’t you come to the Mexican consulate in Boise and check in? It’s like they’re trying to make it more difficult than it really needs to be.

(Also,) that might take care of the ag worker, but it does nothing for their family. You think the ag worker’s going to check into this and say, “yes, I came illegally, I’ve been here for 20 years working and everything,” and expose his family to being here illegally? We have to solve this problem, and we need a comprehensive bill to do it.

What I’ve said is, listen, give them green cards and let them work. If they need to go home to Mexico or to Honduras or wherever they’re from, to their grandmother’s funeral, go home to it, come back and work. You essentially legalize them, but you don’t give them citizenship. If they want to become citizens, they go through the regular process. They don’t have to leave the country, but they don’t get to jump in front of the line of those doing it legally.

Ninety percent of these people, citizenship is not the issue. They just want to work. They want to improve their lives. They want to do the same thing you and I would do if we were working for pittance in Mexico and couldn’t provide for (our families). We would want to improve our lives.

Q: What’s your take on the Trump administration’s plan to lower U.S. refugee caps once again?

You know, Idaho has had a really good experience with refugees, I think, both in Twin Falls and here in Boise. They do a fantastic job with the refugees that come in.

I don’t think that lowering the caps is the right thing to do. These are people that are under some threat in their own country, whether it’s religious threat or political threat or whatever, but they’re under some threat, and I don’t have any problem with this country taking them in. That’s what we do. That’s what America does. We help other people.

Some people look around and see the country that they’d known changing. It’s been changing for 200 years. We see more people of brown skin or black skin in communities and it’s different. It’s “not the same as when I grew up.” And there’s almost kind of a natural reaction to, let’s go back to the ‘50s or whatever. The world changes. America will change. That’s what we do.

Nate Poppino is the Statesman’s politics and watchdog editor. Contact him at 377-6481 or on Twitter: @npoppino