Rep. Noem gears up for 2012, demures on 2014Rep. Kristi Noem says her time in grocery stores, church and at ballgames is as crucial as her time spent in the halls of Congress.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
Rep. Kristi Noem says her time in grocery stores, church and at ballgames is as crucial as her time spent in the halls of Congress.
Noem is campaigning for a second term in the U.S. House. The Republican from Castlewood stopped at The Daily Republic on Tuesday morning along with three staffers for a chat with the editorial board about her first 17 months in Congress and her thoughts on the 2012 campaign.
“I think it’s important that people know I come home and go grocery shopping Saturday morning,” she said.
“I think it’s important I don’t lose that touch.”
Noem said after spending the weekend at home, she can return to Washington and tell people what South Dakotans are talking about. For instance, flooding in the northeast corner of the state is still a concern for a lot of people, she said.
Noem said her willingness to invest time at home and to listen to her constituents helped her win in 2010. She will continue to operate that way, she said, both as a congresswoman and a candidate.
She returns to South Dakota almost every weekend and admits the travel is tough.
“It started out wearing on me very heavily,” Noem said.
But now she has found it to be a useful transition period. On her way home, she can read and write memos and sign letters. Then, when she arrives home, she can be with her family.
On her way back to Washington, she can prepare for the week ahead.
“It’s something I’ve learned to appreciate,” Noem said.
The cost for the travel comes from her office account, but Noem said she has reduced other expenses, including not investing in every new piece of office equipment, and was able to return $108,000 of her office budget back to the government.
When asked to list her accomplishments, she pointed to several bills she introduced and stands she has taken.
Noem said she was part of the effort to cut discretionary funding for the second year in a row, the first time that has happened since World War II. Before, government seemed committed to determining how much could be spent, she said.
“That conversation changed when we arrived in Washington,” said Noem, who was part of one of the largest freshman classes in congressional history.
She cited her work in concert with other Republicans who sought to identify priorities and cut spending by $2.2 trillion.
“That’s something we’ve actually accomplished,” Noem said.
She pushed for more funding to battle the mountain pine beetle, which is ravaging forests in the Black Hills. An additional $2 million has been obtained thanks to a united effort by the South Dakota congressional delegation, Noem said.
Noem pointed to her bill to reduce the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate so-called “farm dust” as a victory. A bill she co-sponsored passed the House but died in the Senate.
She has also worked to draw attention to impact aid for school districts that have large sections of property owned by the federal government, and has battled against proposed rules to limit what work teens can do on farm and ranches.
“Those are all results,” Noem said.
Goals, pending issues
There are many more goals she has set.
“I would love to have seen the balanced budget amendment pass,” Noem said. “To me, that’s a no-brainer. That would have probably put us on a better track
“I would have loved to have had a discussion on the Senate budget,” she said. “That’s a dereliction of duty on their part. Those conversations refine policy. That’s why they need to be had.”
Noem said after the massive flooding along the Missouri River in 2011, she has been fighting for changes. Legislation she supports would force the corps to have a better plan the next time water gets high and study ground saturation and snowpack levels, which she was amazed wasn’t done last year.
“I think the corps got scolded,” she said.
Several members of Congress from Missouri River state meet every couple of weeks, and she plans to keep up the pressure on the corps.
“It just takes somebody being noisy, and I guess that’s me,” she said.
Noem said she has kept a close eye on the new farm bill, which will reduce land in the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. She has seen a proposal to drop it from 32 million acres down to 25 million acres.
Noem said highly erodible land must be protected.
“I do see CRP remaining to be vital,” she said. “I think it’s been diluted over the years.”
Another issue will be crop insurance and people who buy it farming erodible land.
Noem said she is mulling a shallow risk program only covering minimal losses to avoid speculators buying insurance for land that may not be farmable.
“I think we have to recognize the value of native land,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of it left, especially in eastern South Dakota.”
Noem landed a seat on the House Agriculture Committee in 2011 and said she has become a voice for South Dakota there, while also working with some committee members who have a limited understanding of agriculture.
“That has surprised me,” she said. “I had assumed if someone wanted to serve on the Ag Committee, they would know and want to learn.”
South Dakota Democrats issued a press release assailing her for missing committee meetings and not speaking during most of them, which Noem said was unfair and inaccurate.
“A lot of the information they are claiming is wrong,” she said.
Noem said she was often at the meetings she was accused of missing.
As far as being quiet during Agriculture Committee meetings, she is the lowest-ranking member on it and often has to sit through four- or five-hour hearings before she gets a turn to speak, she said. Sometimes the meetings end before she gets a chance to comment or ask a question.
Noem admits Congress is often plagued by partisan battles, and admits she is often opposed to the Democratic agenda and ideas.
“I am critical of the Democratic side when they deserve it,” she said. “Finding agreement is tough. Even when I look within our Republican conference, people are so diverse.”
There are 30 to 40 Republicans who are “very, very conservative,” she said, and others from traditionally Democratic districts who are more moderate.
“I think I’m to the right side of the center,” Noem said.
Noem feels there is “another spirited campaign ahead of us” and said while she has more than $1 million set aside, she will continue to collect more contributions.
“I’m going to raise what I need to win,” she said.
Noem said she will not allow “blatant lies” to be told about her record and will use the money to speak directly to voters to “get the truth out when I believe it’s not being told. I think South Dakotans deserve to hear the truth.”
Noem said while she watched the Democratic congressional primary between Matt Varilek, who won, and Minnehaha County Commissioner Jeff Barth, who lost, she did not care who she would run against.
Barth’s innovative and humorous campaign video was the talk of the race in its closing days, and some observers said he was the weaker candidate because of his offbeat approach. Noem said there may be something to that.
“I think South Dakotans are salt of the earth people,” she said. “We like someone who is interesting and quirky, but we also want them to walk around and tell you what their solutions are.”
She said she and Varilek are “very different people” and she will emphasize that during the campaign.
“I do have the experience of the last two years and I have owned and operated several businesses,” Noem said, including a restaurant, a hunting lodge, an insurance company and a family farming operation. She and her husband Bryon now just own the insurance firm, but they have known what it is like to pay bills and make tough choices in their businesses, she said.
“There’s a different life experience that comes with having to make that decision and know how federal policies impact people,” Noem said. “I know how they feel. I’m a wife and a mom who has kids in public school. That’s why people appreciate my perspective.”
She said while Varilek has repeatedly attacked her for supporting Republican proposals to alter Medicare, she has not heard of a plan he supports for fixing it.
“You can criticize our plan for saving Medicare, but where’s your plan?” Noem said. “The fact is, it’s going broke in nine years.”
She said 47 million Americans will be impacted if the program’s financial future is not shored up.
Varilek, offered a chance to respond, took another chance to attack Noem on committee attendance as well as Medicare.
“This race is about who will take the side of middle-class South Dakotans, and who will show up to work each day as an aggressive and focused advocate for their interests,” he said in an email to The Daily Republic.
“It’s a unique race in the sense that most incumbents haven’t voted to end Medicare or bragged about their leadership role in a dysfunctional Congress,” Varilek said. “Most incumbents are not faced with basic questions about whether they are showing up to do their job, and whether they say anything when they do show up.”
With this year’s general election campaign barely begun, the 2014 campaign season in South Dakota has already raised interest, with a race for the House, a race for a Senate seat now held by Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson and a race for the governor’s office.
There has been widespread speculation that former Gov. Mike Rounds may seek the Senate seat, and there has been accompanying speculation about Noem’s role, as well as those of Sen. Johnson and his son, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, and the woman Noem defeated, former congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.
Noem said she has heard about all the stories, columns and blog posts on 2014, but isn’t paying attention to that.
“No, I’m not at all. I’m looking at this year. Hopefully, South Dakotans will trust me enough to spend two more years in the House. My priorities are faith and my family. For me to speculate out that far would be putting the cart before the horse.”