BOISE – U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson aimed to help rescue the U.S. financial system from catastrophe when he voted in 2008 for the Bush administration’s $700 billion plan to buy toxic mortgage securities.
Two years later, the six-term Republican lawmaker and former Blackfoot dentist is still hounded by members of the tea party movement and some fiscal hawks for supporting the measure that helped save companies such as American International Group Inc.
Simpson’s rivals in the May 25 2nd Congressional District primary – Chick Heileson, of Iona, and state Rep. Russ Mathews, of Idaho Falls – trace part of their motivation to challenge him to his Troubled Asset Relief Program support.
“What broke the camel’s back was when Rep. Simpson voted for the first TARP bill,” Mathews said. “He voted without the values of Idaho.”
Actually, Simpson wasn’t alone among Idaho’s GOP lawmakers; then-U.S. Sen. Larry Craig also backed it. Sen. Mike Crapo and then-Rep. Bill Sali opposed it.
Heileson, a member of the anti-communist John Birch Society, tells prospective voters when Simpson says he supports the U.S. Constitution, “I think he’s reading the Constitution of the Soviets.”
Simpson is a formidable foe, with a seat on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee – and buzz about a future in House leadership, should the GOP win back the chamber. He won 85 percent support in the 2008 GOP primary, and 71 percent in that November’s general election in his southern and eastern Idaho district that includes much of Boise.
But Mathews and Heileson are taking their shots during a year when tea party adherents are espousing their strict interpretation of the Constitution’s limits on federal power, a balanced budget and a ban on the earmarks that Simpson brings home to Idaho by the millions of dollars.
Heileson blasts Simpson for supporting the USA Patriot Act following Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; funding the cash for clunkers car-dealer rescue program; even his backing of the U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees private contractors who run the Idaho National Laboratory nuclear research facility.
The Idaho Falls region’s unemployment rate is 6.7 percent, below the 9.1 percent statewide average, largely due to the site’s employment stability.
Still, Heileson would work toward disbanding the Department of Energy. The Constitution, he said, says nothing about such an agency. Social Security and the Department of Education would get similar scrutiny if he’s elected.
Heileson has raised about $51,000 total, shy of Simpson’s nearly $122,000 in the last quarter alone. Simpson has $253,000 in cash on hand. But Heileson says he’s put up 5,000 campaign signs in the district.
Mathews has been less successful luring campaign cash, with just $6,858. The three-term state House member must give up his seat to take on Simpson.
He shares many of Heileson’s criticisms: TARP, the national debt racked up by Congress during Simpson’s six-term tenure, earmarks.
Still, Mathews insists he and Heileson are far from carbon copies.
“Chick Heileson is a John Birch conservative,” Mathews said. “He even called himself an extremist. I’m a mainstream conservative, who has a record.”
In an interview from Washington, D.C., Simpson recalls white-knuckle, late-September 2008 meetings in Washington, D.C., with then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Absent swift congressional action to unfreeze credit, they said, a calamity eclipsing the Great Depression could result.
“Their lips were trembling,” Simpson said. “Nobody was happy with having to bail out the economic system of the country. But I think most people would agree, something needed to be done.”