Noem: Washington really is brokenIt’s “so different than how we do things in Pierre,” Rep. Kristi Noem told a group of high school seniors Monday.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
CHAMBERLAIN — The toughest thing to adjust to in Washington, D.C., is how little actually gets accomplished, Rep. Kristi Noem told a group of high school seniors Monday.
“My biggest challenge was figuring out how I was going to get anything done,” Noem, R-S.D., said during a one-hour presentation at Chamberlain High School. She made a brief speech and then fielded questions from the students and some staff members. Later Monday, she made stops in Lower Brule and Oacoma.
Noem said in general, Congress appears to be ruled by “chaos” and its members pay little mind to debate, discussion or the views of people they don’t agree with. During debates and speeches, members and staffers walk around and pay no attention to what is being said.
“I think we’re undisciplined,” Noem said. “I feel there’s a lack of respect for the process and what’s going on on the House floor.”
Accepting that was an adjustment. It’s “so different than how we do things in Pierre,” she said. Noem served two terms in the South Dakota House of Representatives before she was elected to Congress in 2010.
Noem is running for a second term. She is slowly learning the ways of Washington, she said, and would like to see many of them changed and the entire process made more open and streamlined.
In the South Dakota Legislature, every bill gets a hearing, Noem said. She said legislators know that and are prepared to make the case for their proposed law when they introduce it.
That’s not the case in Congress. Noem said she knows of some bills that members want to see enacted into law, and have drafted but never see the light of day.
“It may never get a hearing,” she said. “Which is kind of crazy.”
A committee chairman has to like the bill in order for it to be placed under consideration, she said, or a member needs dozens of co-sponsors to bring the bill to a committee hearing or to the floor of the Senate or the House.
Even then, if a bill passes in one chamber, it may not even get a hearing in the other, Noem said. Her bill on farm dust, which would restrict the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate it, is an example. It passed the House, but will apparently die there, she said.
“The Senate hasn’t even looked at it, and they’ve told us they’re not going to look at it,” Noem said. “The president was pretty firm that he didn’t like my bill and threatened a veto. So I don’t think the Senate will be bringing that up.”
She said she often hears the phrase “Washington is broken.”
“This is one of the major reasons it is broken,” Noem said of the sluggish congressional process. “If we wanted to fix this country, we would want it to function as the South Dakota Legislature does.”
She said while the politicians often ignore each other, the will of the people and the power of the media can get things moving.
“If you can get a bill passed, and get it through both bodies, you have to have a lot of support from the American people,” Noem said.
The media plays a huge role in national politics, she said. If an issue receives a great deal of media attention, that gets the public interested. When that happens, the politicians will move on it, Noem told the students.
“If there’s one thing that I could fix, that would be it,” she said. “If everybody knew their bill was going to get a hearing, things would change a lot in Washington.”
In some ways, it might even cause some bills to never be introduced, she said. Noem said she knows members who introduce bills knowing they have no chance of passage, just to satisfy constituents.
That’s something she hasn’t done and will not, she said.
Noem said she has also learned how difficult it is to make things change.
No one in Washington seems to change their mind on major votes, she said. Their minds are made up and, unlike what she witnessed in Pierre, no member seems willing to budge.
She said Congress also doesn’t have as much control of the federal purse strings as she thought.
“About two-thirds of our government spending is on auto-pilot,” Noem said.
The country racks up $4 billion in debt daily; that’s equal to the cost of South Dakota state government for a year, she said.
Noem said one hope for change is more turnover in Congress. She was part of one of the largest freshman classes in House history, with 97 new members, 87 of them Republicans. Noem was elected a freshman leader and said she presents their views to Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other GOP House leaders during regular meetings.
Recently, the House freshmen got together for burgers and discussed how to “refocus” on goals, Noem said. She thinks people must also consider how their actions will make for a “stronger, greater, freer country.”
Noem said her workweek is fairly well set. She shares a two-bedroom apartment with Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo. Housing in and around Washington is extremely expensive, Noem said.
The farm girl from rural Castlewood remains an early riser, and usually holds meetings by 7 a.m. or 7:30 a.m. She then goes to the House floor if there is a vote and also is at the House at night, since evening votes are not unheard of, she said.
Members can vote for, against or present.
“I have never voted ‘present’ yet,” Noem said. “I always seem to have an opinion.”
She serves on the Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Education and the Workforce committees and all three are important to South Dakota, Noem said.
She makes sure to dedicate time to her three children and family, she said.
“I bring my kids out quite a bit,” Noem said.
Her daughters Kassidy and Kennedy and son Booker each get to spend a week at a time in Washington, once in the fall and once in the spring. Booker has learned his way around the Capitol already, Noem said.
“Booker pretty much knows where everything is at. He has explored a lot,” she said. “He found Abraham Lincoln’s bathtub in a basement. So it’s kind of neat stuff like that.”
One time she returned to her office and couldn’t find her son. He was out giving someone a tour, Noem said to the delight of the Chamberlain High School seniors.
She said she continues to return to South Dakota every weekend for meetings across the state and a chance to spend time with her family.
“For me, personally, I wouldn’t be happy living there,” Noem said. “After four or five days, I’m ready to come home.”
Because so many members of Congress want to spend more time with their families, schedules that endured for years have changed, she said. Congress used to be in session three days a week. Now it meets four or five days a week and, about once a month, the members get the week off to come home.
She is taking two days off next week to prepare for Kassidy’s high school graduation.
“To me, coming home every weekend is my big pep talk,” Noem said.
She talks with people in the grocery store, at the gas station and in church. People “struggling” with regulations talk with her and keep her grounded, she said.
Noem said she remains focused on government spending and waste.
“I am very concerned about our budget situation,” she said. “We have to start tightening our belt and living within our means a little bit better.
She said if not, tax rates could skyrocket in a few years. Under one theory she has heard, if the growth of government spending is not checked, tax rates could rise to 25 percent for people of low incomes, 63 percent for people in the middle and the highest tax rate would be 88 percent
“If we don’t change anything, by the time you guys grow up, you could be in that situation,” Noem said. “It would definitely have an impact on your ability to own a small business and support your family. And it would also be pretty frustrating.”
She was asked about the future of Social Security and said tough decisions are needed.
“We need to have some reforms to a lot of the programs we have,” Noem said.
She said she is willing to discuss options for Medicare to ensure it will continue to exist.
Noem said under a plan she has supported, no one 55 or older would see a change in their Medicare coverage.
But she said a program to make involvement in the federal program voluntary, with the option of picking your own policy, with a government subsidy, is worth considering.
“It is a change,” Noem said. “It’s not going to impact anybody who is depending on that program today.”
Noem said she is also worried about the treasury bills that are being bought up by Chinese investors.
“We’re becoming more and more in debt to China,” she said. “To me, my belief is, whoever controls your debt has a lot of control over you.”
Noem said she wants to see the economy get stronger and for employment to increase. That would solve more than one problem, she said.
“The best way to lower the poverty rate is to get everybody a job,” Noem said.
Although she differs greatly with President Obama, she was impressed with him when they met at a White House reception for freshmen lawmakers. Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, all welcomed the newcomers.
“That just kind of seemed surreal to me, that I was actually coming to the White House,” she said. “I think he’s a nice and friendly man. I don’t agree with his policies. I would run the country differently.”
She had a different introduction to the man who preceded Obama in the White House, Noem said.
“President Bush made fun of me when I met him,” she said.
Noem said she was “very pregnant” and Bush used the term “obviously” when referring to her condition. She said she told the president no woman wanted to be told how large she looked, so he told her it was because she was “just glowing” that he noticed her pregnancy.
“He was a very friendly guy, too,” Noem said.
She said while she hopes Obama isn’t elected to a second term, she feels voters don’t want a campaign that is based on personal attacks.
“I think that’s what people got sick of in the Republican primaries,” Noem said. “I’m hoping the discussion can stay there. It should be a tough election, regardless.”