Monday, September 10, 2012

SPENCER — Democratic congressional candidate Christie Vilsack Saturday said U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, should refrain from taking a pay raise until the national budget is balanced. What’s more, she challenged King to return increases to his congressional compensation over the past decade.

“He has taken five pay raises during some of the worst economic times in this country,” Vilsack said. “I have said I would not take a pay raise in Congress until the budget is balanced.”

Since Jan. 1, 2009, the compensation for most U.S. representatives and senators has been $174,000, according to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. In 2003, when King was sworn in as a representative for the current 5th District, members of Congress earned $154,700.

Vilsack raised the issue during a spirited debate in Spencer at the Clay County Fairgrounds. Held in the early evening in a convention center where the Iowa State-Iowa football game had just been broadcast, the 4th District debate showcased an often animated and boisterous crowd of about 600 people. King and Vilsack, of Ames, are running to represent a sweep of 39 counties in western and central Iowa, newly drawn post-census political territory.

King countered Vilsack’s charge on congressional salaries by saying he had received only “cost-of-living” increases, not actual pay hikes.

“No member of Congress has received a pay raise since I’ve been there,” King said. “There are adjustments because of cost-of-living formulas, just like Social Security, just like the private sector. The private sector has grown 3.45 percent a year. Social Security has grown 2.45 percent a year. Members of Congress pay has gone up 1.32 percent per year.”

King said his pay has been frozen since 2009.

“I think you should give it back,” Vilsack said.

Some of King’s strongest comments in the debate came on the proposed farm bill, which is languishing in Congress. King said a responsible farm bill should include cuts to the food stamp program and improved monitoring of it.

“We had a fella that bailed himself out of jail with his EBT card, his electronic benefits transfer card,” King said. “We have tattoo parlors advertising in neon lights saying they’ll tattoo you, and you can pay for it with your food stamp card. We have to do something about this.”

Vilsack said 93 percent of the people who receive food stamps are senior citizens, children and working poor.

Vilsack had a strong contingent of supporters, but conservative northwest Iowa is King’s base, and the responses to answers showed King with a clear advantage in attendance. That said, Vilsack sought to use the debate to cast the race as one between two different styles of public service as much as substance.

“We have to have the temperament to be able to get to the room and compromise so we can move forward, and I don’t think Congressman King is capable of that,” Vilsack said.

She charged that King uses his position in Congress to seek national attention on outlets like FOX News where he talks about hot-button social issues, fleeting daily ideological scuffles, and not economic development in Iowa. Specifically, Vilsack wondered about King’s ability to forge coalitions with a record of provocative statements.

“How can we expect in Iowa, when we have a disaster on the Missouri River, how can we except anyone else in this country to come to our aid, when the congressman from Iowa has said that his proudest vote is that he denied access to relief for the people who were affected by Katrina,” Vilsack said.

She referenced a 2009 King comment.

“Some of the big votes that I’ve thought about, some of the jury’s still out,” King told The Hill, a Washington, D.C., political newspaper. “And at this point, maybe I’d answer that question another way, probably the singular vote that stands out that went against the grain, and it turns out to be the best vote that I cast, was my ‘no; vote to the $51.5 billion to (Hurricane) Katrina. That probably was my best vote. But as far as doing something different again, I don’t know.”

King said many Iowans can provide testimony that his office is intensely engaged in constituent services, that staff members have both a “long leash” and “green light” to help people regardless of party.

“There are a lot of people in this room that have sat down in a room with me and talked business,” King said. “We’ve done a lot of good things over the last years.”

Vilsack repeatedly mentioned King in her answers to panelists’ questions. King referred to Vilsack by name only a few times.

On Social Security, King said Congress should consider raising the eligibility age to 67.

What’s more, means testing Social Security benefits based on one’s wealth is “a discussion this nation should have,” King said.

King said he doesn’t want to see cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security lowered.

Vilsack said the best thing Congress can do for Social Security is to create jobs so more people are supporting the existing system. She has opposed raising the retirement age.

King and Vilsack differed in their opinions on President Barack Obama’s recent issuance of an executive order providing work opportunities and protection from deportation for younger undocumented residents.

Vilsack called the move a good first step.

“If you’re willing to fight and die for your country, then you should have an opportunity to live in this country,” Vilsack said.

The nation needs comprehensive immigration reform, but King is clearly interested in using the issue for political ends, Vilsack said.

“There are people in this state every day who say that to me they’re embarrassed when you go on national TV,” Vilsack said. “It is not right to refer to other human beings as if they’re animals and to talk about them in terms of cattle prods, and talk about them as stray cats and dogs. That’s not acceptable. That’s not how we act in Iowa.”

At a May event in Pocahontas King talked of immigrants as being like dogs in a litter.

“You want a good bird dog? You want one that’s going to be aggressive? Pick the one that’s the friskiest, the one that’s engaged the most and not the one that’s over there sleeping in the corner,” King said in Pocahontas.

“We’ve seen really how adept the people on the left are, haven’t we,” King said in the Saturday debate. “They can take a direct compliment and turn it into an insult and be offended. There are a lot of people across this country who get on their Internet each morning and they look around and they think, ‘What can I be offended by?”

King said the left is peopled by “professional hyper-ventillators.”

“We need to pull ourselves together, not divide ourselves,” King said.

King, who started a construction company in the early 1970s, said he just doesn’t buy the liberal line that undocumented workers are needed for the economy.

“It’s hard to convince me that there’s work Americans won’t do,” King said.