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Risch pessimistic about odds for progress in Congress

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch talks Friday in Coeur d’Alene about the U.S. Senate. (Jesse Tinsley)
Idaho Sen. Jim Risch talks Friday in Coeur d’Alene about the U.S. Senate. (Jesse Tinsley)

Idaho’s junior U.S. senator sees little hope for breakthrough on some of the thorniest issues confronting Congress and the president this year.

“In the short term I’m very, very pessimistic,” Republican Sen. Jim Risch said during a visit Friday to Coeur d’Alene.

Gun control? Not much will get done, Risch says.

Immigration reform? Little progress can be made, he said, until Democrats agree to set aside for now the question of what to do about the millions of people in the U.S. illegally.

Risch, a former Idaho governor and state senator, also is dubious the two parties will find common ground to address what he calls the “biggest predictable financial wreck of all time.”

The national debt has soared to $16.5 trillion, up from $10 trillion when Risch first went to Washington four years ago.

“Our GDP is now equal to our national debt. No country has ever survived that,” he said. “We are in serious trouble.”

A champion of the limited role of federal government, Risch spoke about the budget crisis, partisan politics and his conservative credentials in an interview with The Spokesman-Review:

Q.How painful will the sequester cuts be in Idaho, and will they slow the economic recovery?

A.The sequester rollback is not a cut from previous years. It’s a cut in growth. So the question I’ve got is what’s going to happen when the real cuts come? Because in the overall scheme of things, this is a very modest movement in that regard. How much effect is it going to have on the economy? I would suspect not much. The economy is not the government. The economy is us, the American people, doing what we do, and that is producing and trying to make a living.

Q.The sequester cuts are indiscriminate and across-the-board. Instead of that approach, specifically where would you concentrate budget cuts?

A.First of all, let’s set Medicare and Social Security aside. Those are benefits people have earned. If you want to save money, turn Medicaid over to the states. The federal government got into trouble when it undertook the Medicaid program. You talk to any governor in America and they tell us block grant that money, we’ll make it work.

Q.You have said compromise in Washington is what got the U.S. so deep in debt. Can compromise get us out of the ditch?

A.Can it? Yes. Will it? Probably not. Look, we are headed for a disaster and a collapse unless things are done differently. What you want to look for is a soft landing, how can we ease our way out of this? The Republicans have been compromising since World War II, and compromised up to a $3.8 trillion budget, 37 percent of which is borrowed every year. They tell me if we compromised and spent a little bit less every year, rolling back 1 percent a year, within six or seven years you’d be back to a balanced budget. So yes, compromise can get us out of it. Here’s why that’s not going to happen: When you talk about compromising to spend less in D.C., they look at you like you’ve got three heads. Their answer is we don’t do that here. They’ve never spent less than they spent the year before.

Q.A Gallup poll recently found that eight out of 10 Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing. Are such low marks deserved?

A.Very much so. In fact, they probably should be lower. No. 1, it’s the result of the polarization of the country, which is reflected in the polarization of the representatives people send to Congress. On the one side you have people who believe in a limited and much leaner federal government, and on the other side you have people who want to expand government to do more help for Americans. It’s not surprising that people are at odds. The second thing that nobody ever talks about is the fact that Congress and this government was not designed to do what they’re being asked to do. The federal government was designed to defend the country, to deliver the mail and to regulate navigation on interstate waters, and some other minor things. It was not designed to preside over a $3.8 trillion social safety net that really deals with all aspects of American life. So it’s not surprising it would not be successful.

Q.You were one of eight Republican senators to vote against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. Why did you oppose it?

A.I think violence against women is despicable. I was one of the few people who had actually done something about that. I was a prosecutor, I used to put people in prison for that. I’m not soft on the issue. I don’t think I would have a quarrel with any state legislature that enacted rules that were incredibly punitive against people who commit those acts. In light of Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution and the 10th Amendment, I could not justify the federal government getting into this in any shape or form. If you can justify the federal government wading into that issue, there’s no sense having states.

Q.By that same rationale, would you say federal civil rights legislation is unnecessary?

A.No, that’s a different ballgame. The Civil War was fought over the refusal of many states to grant certain individuals the constitutional rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That was absolutely legitimate, that is a role of the federal government, and it’s an appropriate role of the federal government. But anyone who argues to me the federal government is the paternalistic master of the states to oversee the powers that the states reserve to themselves, I would say to them they’re dead wrong and they’re not going to get any help from me in that regard.

Q.The National Journal recently ranked you the most conservative senator in the nation. Do you think you are?

A.Nobody in Idaho thought they were sending me back there to be on the liberal side of the vote.