The Opinion Shop

Rep. Holding on Trump, the Iran deal and a lack of camaraderie in DC

Congressman George Holding (R-NC), left, talks to Rep. Paul Cook during a Foreign Affairs Joint Subcommittee hearing on breaking the Iran, North Korea and Syria nexus in April 2013
Congressman George Holding (R-NC), left, talks to Rep. Paul Cook during a Foreign Affairs Joint Subcommittee hearing on breaking the Iran, North Korea and Syria nexus in April 2013 MCT

U.S. Rep. George Holding, a Raleigh Republican, met with the editorial board and newsroom editors and reporters this week. He commutes to Washington and has three daughters – 15, 14, and 13 – and a 4-year-old son, a “Tazmanian devil” he’s hoping can spend some time with him in Washington soon and “help solve some of the problems we’ve got.” Here are my notes of the meeting. They are NOT verbatim.

GEORGE HOLDING: The system has broken down. The system of checks and balances. It’s all checks and no balances. I think about how the Founding Fathers put in place a very complicated system, bicameral, equal power, three branches to check each other. On paper you think this can’t work, but they made it work. And they came up with it even though a lot of them hated each other. What they never realized, never thought would happen is that we would lose the secret sauce of camaraderie, of interpersonal relationships. It’s not written in this system. They assumed it would always be there. They thought this will always work because we made it work. Jefferson hated Hamilton, but they figured it out.

I’ve been talking with folks who have been in Congress much longer than I’ve been. They describe how they how it used to be. There was enough camaraderie they could see through the political vitriol. Now, there’s very little camaraderie. I’m not talking about across party lines. There’s very little within your own confines. Very few families live up there. Somewhere between 75 and 100 members sleep in their offices. It’s expensive. DC rents are expensive. I thought Mark Sanford was outlier. Apparently not. And it’s not just back bench members. Paul Ryan sleeps in his office. The majority leader sleeps in his office. Lots of people are looking to arrive moments before the first vote Monday night or Tuesday. Thursday and Friday is hovering around and all anyone can talk about is when this vote going to be over with. And the time you are in DC, you have a lot of competing factors for your time. That leads to the brokenness of it.

The dissolution of media and news contributes to it. Everybody wants their news or their answer in something that resembles a comment on a blog. Really short, black and white. And if it’s a bit snarky you get extra points for it. Now everyone wants to boil every issue down. Everybody hates politicians. And there’s no trust of politicians.

When I worked for Helms, everyone had to answer the phone, especially on Saturdays. There were a few members who kept office open on Saturdays. Everyone had to take a Saturday shift. Calls were from liberals mad about something Helms had done or said. Today, I don’t think I get any calls from liberals. The calls are going to be from someone who says you’re not conservative enough or your’e a traitor because you took this vote. I have one of the most conservative voting records in Congress, but there’s no trust there. Where Helms could make a deal, he was famous for making deals at the end of the day, and there was a trust factor there from supporters. Jesse did this and this, so we’ll trust him on that. There’s no trust of elected officials today. Which is bad. It drives the political dialogue. I would describe it not as a dialogue but as a howl.

Q: How do you feel about Donald Trump and his poll numbers?

HOLDING: It’s channeling anger. There’s distrust, and there’s anger. And this is across the political spectrum from the most liberal to most conservative to libertarians. There’s anger and a demand for immediate gratification. They want to boil it down to some succinct point, and they want something to happen. You get someone like Trump who channels that anger and says I’m going to do this. Bang. That’s the answer they want to hear. This feeds into whether it’s going to the point of government shutdown or deposing the speaker, the anger and the howl out there, They want something to happen. They want someone to fall. They want someone to be crucified, to be vilified. They don’t want it complicated. I think Boehner is a very good example of this. Everybody is going to have problems with their leaderships. The leaders have a conference of 246 members. All of them can’t be happy. And the speaker is speaker of the whole House. He has 435 members. Everybody’s going to have problems at some point or another. The most recent effort to take out the speaker was not embraced at all by most conservatives. If you’re on the inside, you understand we don’t have the numbers to elect an ultra conservative speaker. You may think and the popular consensus is that conservatives vastly outnumber everybody in the House and run the place, but if you look at your colleagues, there’s all different barometers of conservatives. Take Heritage. Only 86 members have Heritage scores of 80 or above.

If you depose the speaker and you have a jump ball for a new speaker, I think what you’ll find is about 100 Republicans and about 100 Democrats team up together and elect a compromise speaker who will be much much more liberal than Boehner and current leadership. They’ll come together around the sequester or getting rid of the sequester. All Democrats want to get rid of the sequester. It will be around the Ex-Im bank. You’ve got at least 100 Republicans members who are for the Ex-Im bank. You saw this attempt on the speaker kind of fall flat. I haven’t said I’d be for getting rid of the speaker because I want to plan for who the next speaker is.

I’m opposed to the Ex-Im bank. I’m glad it’s expired. It’s something the government doesn’t need to be involved in. The private sector can do this. The govenrment got out of the business of making loans. It’s a profitable endeavor, which is all the more reason the private sector could take it.

Government funding expires at end of September. We will do a short-term continuing resolution through end of year. The debt ceiling will come up. We need to work some kind of deal that gets us to 218 votes. Discretionary spending is getting pretty well cut since the sequester came in. It’s the mandatory spending we haven’t been able to cut.

The big areas that you can get to through Social Security reform and medicare reform. And that’s probably going to be increasing retirement ages and means testing. Those are the two main dials you’ve got there to adjust mandatory spending.

Q: Should we raise the retirement age to 67?

HOLDING: Sure. If we do it now, it won’t affect anyone over 50, somewhere between 50 and 55. If you’re over that age, everything will stay the same. I’m 47. People like me, retirement age will go up. Ways and Means is over Social Security. We had a number of hearings on Social Security disability and Social Security, how they interwork together side by side. There’s a lot of reforms that could be placed in there that guarantee Social Security and Social Security disability for generations to come, but you’ve got to reform it. And Social Security disability goes broke next year. We’re looking at a 20 percent cut across board next year unless there’s some reform. That’s a big deal. People going on disability has increased precipitously over last 6 to 8 years. You can’t all of the sudden cut that 20 percent across the board.

Q: Whats your take on the Iran deal?

HOLDING: It’s a bad, bad, bad deal. I think it ignores reality. Reality No. 1 is iran is the largest state sponsor of terrorism around the world. Period. No controversy about that. And you’re going to unleash 10s upon 10s of billions of dollars to the Iranians with no restraints on how they spend it. Susan Rice understood terror organizations would benefit from this, but that was just part of it. That’s wrong. It presumes that you take the Iranians at their word. That the presumption is they won’t cheat. On top of that, look at allies in Middle East. Their whole world has been turned upside down. I’m not just talking about Israelis. The Jordanians, the Kuwaitis, the Egyptians. this just runs counter to everything that the United States has stood for, a pillar of stability for our allies.

Alternatives are to keep sanctions in place. Sanctions are working. We were in the process of breaking the back of the regime that controls Iran. I’ve never been to Iran but I’be talked to people who’ve been there and grew up there. Iran is a very unique country. Iran is Persia, and the population there, the youth of the population there is huge under 30. These people have no become radicalized like other youthful populations in the Middle East. If you go to Iran, go on the street and talk to young people, they like Americans, they like the West. It’s the regime that keeps a lid on that. When you see protests with “death to America, death to Israel,” that’s the regime that’s pushing that out. The great missed opportunity was the green revolution in Iran. We didn’t embrace that at all or help that at all. In 09? I think the alternative was to keep sanctions in place. That really was breaking their back. We have a worldwide consensus on sanctions. By lifting the sanctions, there’s no possibility for a snapback. It’s two pronged. Once they get the money, they get all the money back. If they break the agreement and try to snap back, you can’t get money back. They’re going to have commercial relationships fully established. We won’t be able to pull those folks back.

Q: If we keep the sanctions, are you then forcing them to keep developing the bomb? Where’s the compromise?

HOLDING: The last factor of it is, I don’t believe the Iranians ever fear a military strike by the United States, and that’s what you’ve got to have. You’ve got to have the fear there of a military strike by the United States.

Q: What about the Israelis?

HOLDING: Certainly they may fear the Israelis, but if the United States is not on the same page with Israelis, it puts Israel in a bind.. The Israelis have a lot of capabilities, but the real capabilities are there in conjunction with the United States. That’s the big force multiplier that makes their capabilities overwhelming. With the Saudis and Jordanians, when they started their bombing campaign in Yemen, they started without any US assistance. They could only do one run in Yemen and have to come back. They can’t refuel in air without us. They did not have the latest guidance technology. A jet can get off the ground in Seymour Johnson and locate a window in Raleigh and put a missile through it within 30 minutes of taking off.

Q: Is the bigger threat ISIS or al-Qaida?

HOLDING: ISIS. There’s a lot of debate on whether there’s much difference, but ISIS has captured the imagination of that radical element, and it’s growing exponentially. They absolutely have no fear whatsoever. Look at what they’re doing. Mass beheadings, setting people on fire, bulldozing not only towns and villages but sacred areas, temples, mosques. It is catching fire around the world. Not only in the Middle East. It’s in Africa now. It’s in Europe. It’s here. You remember the Boyd case eight years ago. There’s a radicalized element here in Wake County and Johnston County that’s replicating itself all over United States. Members will you tell now it’s hotter than ever.

When they line up people on the beach and behead them and turn the beach red with blood, it’s celebrated. and it spreads. Someone who wants to get radicalized in Wake County can quickly find inspiration, guidance and companionship far reaching.

Iran is the most educated state in the Middle East, and it has vast resources. Their oil reserves are amazing, and they have natural gas in the same places.

It’s this next generation of really smart young people who will run the world. We need to allow them to grow rather than keep the boot on their necks.

We can’t change them. They have to change from the inside. That’s why sanctions were important, to break the backs of regime there. They’re the ones who have to placate their masses. In Iran, the radicalization isn’t taking hold of the younger population. So that doesn’t placate them. They’re well-educated. They understand their country is wealthy. They want a piece of the world’s prosperity.

Q: What do you think of legislation to create a presidential commission to study college athletics in the wake of the UNC scandal?

HOLDING: I went to Wake Forest. I’m not aware of that. Congress is broken. We have a lot on our plate. If we can’t fix the things solidly within our jurisdiction, I have a hard time believing we’re going to fix college sports.

If a Congress that can’t fix the thing we have on our plate that are broken, I’m not sure we can come up with a solution for what’s wrong with college sports. I’m not sure what the bandwidth is.

Q: What’s your position on the new EPA rules?

HOLDING: There’s not a lot of consensus there. You’ve got more consensus on the Republican side of the aisle that the EPA and the overregulation is more of a problem than a benefit. I’ve listened, the Energy and Commerce Committee, I’ve listened to the debates on the floor, and the folks who are arguing for more regulation of power plants don’t seem to be carrying the day in those debates, and the president is frustrated with that and he’s going to try to do it by executive action.

Q: You’ve made it sound like the House isn’t a very pleasant place to work. Are you going to run again?

HOLDING: I am going to run for re-election. The members I’ve gotten to know have been there a lot longer than I have. They said after serving three or four terms, you take a real hard look at whether you’re making a difference and if not do something else. I think that’s right. People have the impression that members of Congress go and stay for a lifetime. That there’s no turnover. When we were working on the trade authority vote, it was pointed out only about 15 percent of the Republican House were there for the last vote, which was 2002. So there is a lot of turnover.

I’m in favor of term limits. But we must apply them across the board. I would never say I’m only going to run for this many terms. If you say you are, you’re a ghost. If you had any capital, you lose it right then. I’m 47. I’ll be finished with this in plenty of time to restart my career .

Q: What’s your biggest surprise been?

HOLDING: It’s the lack of camaraderie. The place is pretty devoid of it. That is the element when the Founding Fathers were putting our system of government together they never anticipated.

With the media cycle, I don’t see how you change that. It is what it is. I don’t know whether we’re evolving or devolving. Things change. But it just is what it is. If you forced them to have a five-day work schedule, starting from Monday morning until Friday night, that would help things. It would force people to spend more time working together. We wouldn’t have things so jammed together for the little bit of time you’re there. I have either a Monday or Friday office day in Washington either to read or take all your meetings on that day.