Congressman Jim Kolbe

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Congressman Jim Kolbe retired from office last year after serving as southern Arizona’s congressman for 22 years. Jose Cardenas talks with Kolbe about his years in Congress, the issues facing our country today, and other topics in this special edition of HORIZONTE.

Jose Cardenas:
Good evening. I'm Jose Cardenas. Welcome to a special edition of Horizonte. Tonight a conversation with Retired Arizona congressman Jim Kolbe. Hear what he has to say about The Iraq war, issues facing our Country today, the Republican Party's future, and other Topics. All straight ahead on Horizonte.

Jose Cardenas:
U.S. Congressman Jim Kolbe Recently retired from office. Served as southern Arizona's Congressman for 22 years. He have had an opportunity 20 Sit down with the congressman. We talked about a range of Topics to what he believes are the topics facing our country today. Congressman, you served 22 years in the congress of the United States. What changed the most from the Day you began your career until the day you retired?

Jim Kolbe:
As I look back and think About the 22 years that I served In congress, I would have to say Among the things I think has Changed has been kind of an Attitude. There is less social interaction between members today than there was then. The pace is so much more Intense. There's so many more big issues that get dealt with. You are overwhelmed with the Number of committee meetings, of The size of the congressional Districts has grown in terms of Population so there's more Groups, more people that are Demanding your time, that are Demanding some of your Attention. So I think it's just the sheer Pace of things that has changed. And I think the result of that Is it's lessened the kind of Social interaction that make for Good legislative politics. Because ultimately, legislation is about compromise, about People working together and Finding ways to compromise. And if you don't have a kind of a personal relationship with somebody, it's hard to do that.

Jose Cardenas:
Congressman, what would you Say were the top issues that you Dealt with, first at the National level while you were in Congress?

Jin Kolbe:
Well, there were three kind Of signature issues that I Worked on in congress that Outside of the area of my Expertise that I was required to Have, by virtue of being a Member of the appropriations Committee. I was chairman of two Subcommittees so you have to get Real knowledgable about the Treasury, post office, Appropriations and later for the Last six years, the foreign Operations appropriations bill. But three issues that I worked on for a long time, trade. I am a strong advocate of free and open trade in the United States. And I strongly advocated for that and still passionately involved with that at the German Marshall fund. I worked on social security and Retirement. And entitlement reform. I believe that that is the issue that is the albatross around our Neck in this country. If we don't fix entitlements it's going to crush us fiscally. And we are not going to be able to be competitive in the world. We will not be a strong country competitively. We cannot spend the money we need on education, on Infrastructure, whether we are talking about highways or Telecommunications Infrastructure. We simply will not be able to be Competitive if all of our money is being poured into Entitlements. Retirement, health care for elderly, health care for Indigent people. These are important issues, important things we need to Provide for people. We have to find a way to do it in a fiscally responsible way. And the third is immigration. This probably won't be an issue for many, many years like some of the others might be but I Believe it's an important one. And I believe it's something we need to solve and I think we can solve it.

Jose Cardenas:
At the state level, what would you say were the issues you dealt with in congress that Most impacted Arizona?

Jim Kolbe:
Well, certainly issues dealing with trade did. I was very proud to play a major Part in the northern American Free trade agreement and that Opened up an economic Relationship between the United States and Mexico, between Arizona and Mexico that we had never experienced before. And the increased the amount of Trade, the a people coming across the border has been Enormous since that time. So that is certainly one of those. I am very proud of the fact that I helped to create two national Conservation areas, actually three national conservation areas, the San Pedro and most recently the la cienegas areas, protecting environmentally important pieces of land and linking them to national forests and other public lands. And I think this is, has been very, a very important. I also expanded Saguaro National Monument and rename would it from national monument to National Park. So it's now a National Park. Very proud of that as well. Played a big role in helping to Keep both Davis Mountain as active and growing military posts in our district and that, of course, contributes enormously to the economy and I believe to the national security of the country.

Jose Cardenas:
Congressman, among the more controversial subjects during your tenure in congress was the entire issue of gay marriage. You were criticized for supporting a bill that would have allowed states to refuse recognition of gay marriages that were recognized in other states. What do you say about that?

Jim Kolbe:
I did. That was in 1996. And I am not sure today I would cast that same vote. But my thinking then and I think it still has validity today states should be able to make that decision. In other words, I do think a Marriage law has never been national. We don't have a national marriage law. Each state has a marriage law. And so I think it's proper for states to make that decision. The problem with that argument, and I am arguing against myself. At this point, the problem with that is that when you get the Federal things like social Security benefits, inheritance which is often at the federal Level tax issues like that, then, you do have a federal impact on that. So I am not sure where you deal with this thing. But I still believe it should be left to the states and I think it's appropriate that states right ones that are adopting either amendments banning marriage, although I don't favor that, or the state of Arizona where we have turned that down. The bottom line is, I don't care whether you call it marriage or what you call it but I think that gay couples should have the right to have a protection in a legal arrangement in a relationship that other couples Are able to have.

Jose Cardenas:
While in congress, you supported hated crime legislation focused on gays. Did that cost you within your own party?

Jim Kolbe:
There were many in the party that thought it was the wrong thing to do. And I just happened to believe that I can make an argument against any of the hate crime legislation, in other words, you have a law against assault and battery. Why do you need to enhance that if it's the motive happens to be racial? Or in this case, gender or gender orientation, sexual orientation. But as long as we have those hate crime laws, to cover such things as race and religion, Then, I think it's appropriate for sexual orientation to be included in that.

Jose Cardenas:
I want to go back to some of those issues that you defined or described as among the top issues that you dealt with while in congress and get into them in a little more depth. First the subject of immigration. Would you say that that is the defining issue for the Republican Party?

Jim Kolbe:
I am not sure I would say Immigration is the defining Issue. It is one of the defining Issues. And it is one which has in an Uncharacteristic way has divided the Republican Party. It shouldn't be decided in the Republican Party. We are a nation of immigrants, of republicans have always Supported having immigrants. We understand what the economic power of immigrants. What they contribute to this country. But what's at work here is a social problem, there's a social Cultural issue that's at work here. Combined with a conserve about national security. It's a false concern but the Belief that some of these Immigrants may be people coming across the border is terrorists coming across the border there's no evidence that is actually occurring. They are coming for the most Part. There are drug dealers. No question about that. People that do illegal things But the vast majority are coming because they want jobs. They want to make a better life for them selves and their families. That's what brought our Forefathers to this country whether they came from engine Gland or Vietnam or whether they came from Mexico decades ago. It's the same motivation that brought people here. I think republicans should be supportive of that. There's also a concern which I appreciate and understand, a cultural concern that immigrants today are not assimilating in the same way they did in the past. I think it's an issue that bears watching and bears, we should be concerned about but I think the evidence still points to the fact that I am grants are still assimilating the same way they did before, that is, second generation kids go to school, they become assimilated and they become a part of the general community. But clearly with the large number of immigrants that we have today this is a matter of some concern for a lot of people.

Jose Cardenas:
How would you judge President Bush's performance on this subject of immigration?

Jim Kolbe:
I would give him maybe a b minus, c plus. I give him above average because He's had the guts and the courage to propose something that he knows wasn't possible. But that wasn't, that wasn't easy or wasn't popular is the word I was trying to think of. It wasn't popular to talk about immigration, about having, about Having people who are in this country, find a way for them to Legalize status without having guest worker programs and yet he was willing to talk about this and he said we needed to do it in a comprehensive fashion. I wish I could give him higher marks but I don't think he's followed through on it in the way that I would have liked. I would have liked to see him Introduce a specific bill, a piece of legislation. Instead he's done the same thing he did with social security reform. He introduces some principles, and then says congress, it's up to you to write the bill. Congress isn't going to write the bill. We need to have a piece of Legislation proposed by the administration that can become the focal point of the debate and discussion and amendment that we can pass something into law. And I think he needs to go further than he's gone on this Issue.

Jose Cardenas:
If a fence is not the Solution, what is?

Jim Kolbe:
The solution is a comprehensive one. We have got to deal with all the aspects of it. We have to deal with, first, with security. You do need to have more security. The public wants that and the public has a right to know that we are doing everything we can to secure the border. But the public also needs to understand that as much security as we put in the number of agents, the number of uav's, unmanned aerial vehicle, the amount of technology we put, That isn't still going to put the problem as long as people want to come to the job. The second point you have to have second piece of, some kind of guest worker program. Some way for people who want to come and work in the United States to get a visa in order to work here in this country. And there's a lot of different ways in which you can go about that. You can control the flow or you have unlimited flows or whatever you want but you have to have some valve that allows those people to come on a regular and fairly large number of people so That you reduce the incentive for people to come illegally. Third, you have to have employer security. Once you have got, allowed people to come into this country legally, temporary workers, the employers need to know who they are hiring is somebody that's here legally. And the technology exists today Which didn't exist in the last time we did this, that 1986 or even 1996, technology exists today to do that so we can actually have a card that everybody carries that has embedded biometric information, a fingerprint but more likely a retina scan which is a lot more easy to identify. So everybody will have a card and that card, and that picture of that eye match up, you note person is here on a legal basis. And then the fourth thing we have to, this is the tough one. We have to deal with the 10, 12 million people that are in this country now on an illegal basis. And if you were concerned about security, let's find a way to incentivize them to come out of the woodwork to identify them and be here on a legal basis.

Jose Cardenas:
Congressman Kolbe, another area where congress has been accused of inaction is the whole subject of social security. Many observers think this is just a train wreck waiting to happen. What is it that is keeping congress from dealing, meaningfully, with this issue?

Jim Kolbe:
It is a train wreck waiting to happen and you can look down the road and see exactly when this train wreck comes. But it's a slow train wreck. It comes slowly, and that's, and It's always sometime a little bit down the road there. So it's a temptation of a member of congress to say, you know, let the next congress deal with that or maybe I will deal with that in my next term in office but I just don't want to politically, this isn't the right year to do it. But it's never the right year. Fact of the matter is politically, about the only time you can deal with this issue is in the very first part of a President's second term when they are not running for Reelection, they have the Incentive to really push this Thing. And if you wait too long until you get into the, into the next Presidential campaign, then it's Not going to be dealt with. So this is kind of the closing year of a window that we have to deal with this thing. President Bush isn't running for reelection. Nobody in the white house is running for election. You have an opportunity to really deal with social security. It's a very tough issue. But the demographics of an aging population make it clear we have to find a way to make sure we have security for senior citizens and also for young people to be able to have some retirement and not to have a crushing tax that will have a tremendously negative impact on the whole economy.

Jose Cardenas:
One of the big issues, of course, that dominated your last few years in congress was the war in Iraq. Knowing what you know today, would you have voted to support it?

Jim Kolbe:
Probably not. But you -- it's kind of a hypothetical question that doesn't have any relationship to reality. We operate on what is the best intelligence information we have at the time. And the information we had at the time was that there were weapons of mass destruction. It wasn't hocus pocus Intel Generals, it wasn't ginned up, or fake or lies from the intelligence community. It was what we thought. It was the best information we had. I am absolutely convinced that we thought we had the best information. We may have overestimated the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But I would point out that we underestimated the nuclear capabilities ever both North Korea and of Iran. So intelligence is not a perfect science. You use the information you have and you make estimates of that. We had information, and that is the information we used in order to adopt that resolution. We also thought, of course, that Saddam Hussein and I think this is a true then and true today, was a bad egg. He was a very bad person. He was dangerous to stability in the Middle East and he needed to be removed. But unfortunately, in the process of doing that, we didn't take steps we needed to, to ensure there was going to be a Government in place that could be a government of true national unity, a truly national Iraqi Government. And that's what we are lacking today in Iraq, and that's why it's close to descending for a Civil war.

Jose Cardenas:
Many political observers think that the dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war in Iraq was a major reason why the democrats succeeded in gaining control of congress. What's your assessment?

Jim Kolbe:
It was clearly was the major Impactor. I don't think there's any doubt about it. There were, people were angry, Upset with President Bush. I think since he believed to be deception, whether that was true or not. I don't think it was. And they wanted to send a message. They didn't like the war. They wanted us out of Iraq. What worries me about all that is Americans seem to have little stomach for staying at things for a long period of time? We have lost more than 3,000 men and women in Iraq. Every one of them a precious soul of a son of somebody here in the United States, a mother, a wife or a husband of somebody. A brother, a sister. Those are precious souls. But I would point out that we lost 3,000 people, more than 3,000 people on one day in landing in Normandy. We lost three times that number in one month in Ion Jima. War can be very difficult. But we have to have the willingness to follow this through. There's no doubt in my mind that we are engaged in a war against Terrorism. And part of that war is being fought in the Middle East, and In Iraq. It is the front line along with Afghanistan. It is the front line of this War. And I think in the end we have to find some way that we can prevail. We cannot allow the elements of the insurgency, of terrorism to control Iraq or Afghanistan because the consequences of that for the Middle East and for the whole world will be devastating.

Jose Cardenas:
Congressman Kolbe, you have been involved in Republican Party politics to one degree or another ever since you were a youngster really. And the party has shifted in many directions over that period of time. What would you say is correction of the party today?

Jim Kolbe:
Well, I think it comes and it goes. Clearly, in the last six years, with President Bush, I have been dismayed at the direction of the party. What Karl rove has done in terms of trying to identify a particular segment of the Republican Party to identify the party with that and the President with that. It was a novel strategy. It worked. It worked in 2000. It worked in 2004. To a lesser degree in 2004. What he tried to do was the traditional thing is to take the two intersecting spheres and you try move the parties you intersect more of the other sphere and gain that. That's not what Karl Rove did. He went to the other side of where that intersection was and said, let's expand the sphere this way, bring into the party people who have traditionally not voted, in this case, Evangelicals and those on the Christian right. I think it's given a direction to our party that has veered us off from the mainstream issues of fiscal responsibility, of national security, and of Commitment to individual liberties and freedoms. And the concept of less and a smaller government. But those change with time. You look at candidates running for election for president in the year 2008, and you don't see those kinds of candidates running there. So I think you are going to see a movement back towards the middle of the Republican Party.

Jose Cardenas: Do you have similar concerns about the Arizona Republican Party?

Jim Kolbe:
Yes, I do have some of the same concerns about the direction of the state Republican Party. But this is a state, as I suggested in remarks that I made, this is a state that is going through a change that's very similar to California. I call it the californiaization of Arizona. We are going to become a majority-minority state, that is, a minority-majority state, That is, that's Hispanics, Native Americans, will in the next decade or two decades at the most, be a majority of the people in Arizona. We have the fifth largest city and another city over a million here. Now a tiny rural population so we are becoming a major urban state. We have urban problems. We have transportation, water, growth, environment and above all, education that people are concerned about. So people are not as they once were the kind of libertarians when I was growing up with People that we still have a libertarian streak among us, but they don't have the gun rack in the back of the pickup truck. Instead it's a soccer mom taking the kids to soccer practice in the afternoon and wondering why she can't get home in time for dinner because of the traffic there. And these right kinds of problems that I think people in Arizona are concerned about and political parties had better be able to deal with it. The long-term success of a party in the state of Arizona will depend on who is able to deal with that. We have seen what was a Republican Party in California Become a very distinct minority party today with long-term strength in the democrats there. The same thing could easily happen in this state if the Republicans are not out in front on those issues.

Jose Cardenas:
Congressman, I now would like To ask you your prediction on Some of those major issues we Talked about earlier. First, what is your prediction? What are we going to see on the Subject of immigration reform?

Jim Kolbe:
I think there's a chance we could do immigration reform this year in congress. Because you have a democratic majority in the house that is willing to push a bill through and see a bill pass. Last year, of course, the republican leadership was not going to do anything that wasn't security oriented, border oriented, border enforcement oriented so you have a better chance but I am a little bit distressed that I don't see this on any priority list that the democrats have of dealing with this problem. But you now have a president, you have a house leadership and a senate leadership that are all willing to deal with it and I hope that they do that. I think there's a better chance.

Jose Cardenas:
What can we expect to see from this congress with respect to social security reform?

Jim Kolbe:
You are not going to see social security reform certainly in this congress. I hope the conversation begins and people begin to realize the seriousness and how what was once a distant thing is becoming a much closer and nearer crisis problem that will have to be dealt with. The longer we wait the more difficult it is to deal with it, the more expensive it is to deal with it. I hope the next president has the courage in his or her first term to really offer solutions to do social security problem that we face, the entitlement problem. Because social security is the easy one. Medicare is the really tough one. That's the really big one. That's one that's going to kill us. So let's deal with the first one, social security, which is much easier to figure out a fix for and then let's turn our attention to medicare for the whole health care issue.

Jose Cardenas:
Congressman Kolbe, I suspect we kind of know from your earlier comments the answer to this question, but tell us what you would describe as your proudest legislative achievement and why.

Jim Kolbe:
Well, I think the proudest legislative achievement was the North American free trade agreement. I opened up an avenue of economic and political, cultural cooperation between the United States and Mexico that has been unprecedented in the kinds of results that it's yielded here In Arizona and in Mexico. The political changes in Mexico are very obvious. They are a little more subtle here in Arizona. But it's had a huge economic impact in the state. So I am very proud of that achievement.

Jose Cardenas:
Congressman, last question. Your final thoughts on your experiences in congress and what the future holds for Jim Kolbe.

Jim Kolbe:
It's been a great 22 years. I wouldn't have traded it for anything. I hope I have given good Service, not only to the people of the eighth, fifth and then Eighth congressional district But to the people of Arizona and to the country, to the United States. So it's been a great privilege and I mean that very sincerely, a great privilege for me to represent this district in congress and to have the opportunity to serve the people and serve the nation in this way. As for what the future holds, I think it holds great things. I am looking forward to doing a lot of work on a lot of the same issues that I have been working on before, the trade issues and the security issues, aid and Development. I will really looking forward to trying to see a way in which we can make our foreign assistance, I have been chairman on the subcommittee responsible for that appropriation every year for the last six years. I am looking forward to finding ways in which we can make that a lot more effective, use the taxpayers' dollars a lot more wisely. I think there's some things that we can do and I think I can play a role from outside in making that happen both through the administration and through legislation.

Jose Cardenas:
Congressman, thank you so much for joining us on our show today. It was a pleasure.

Jim Kolbe:
Thank you.

Jose Cardenas:
To see a full transcript of the congressman's interview, go to our website, www.azpbs.org. Thanks for watching this special edition of Horizonte. I'm Jose Cardenas. For all of us at Horizonte, good Night.

Jim Kolbe: U.S. Congressman;

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