U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Moultrie, who will end his 20 year congressional career on Jan. 3 when the 114th Congress convenes. In an interview last week with The Albany Herald Editorial Board, Chambliss cited a desire to spend more time with family and frustration over a failure to address the national debt by Congress and the White House as reasons why he has decided to not seek a third Senate term. (Staff photo: Brad McEwen)
U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss discusses issues and leaving the Senate
U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., will leave the U.S. Senate when the 114th Congress opens on Jan. 3. In a wide-ranging interview with The Albany Herald Editorial Board, he talks about his reasons for leaving Congress after 20 years and some of the issues that will be coming up in his final months in the Senate. The interview was conducted March 17, 2014 at The Herald.
ALBANY — U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss doesn’t show any appearances of second-guessing his decision to bring his long career as an elected official — 20 years in Congress with the last dozen of those served in the Senate — to close when his term expires in early January.
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“Twenty years is long enough for me,” Chambliss, 70, said Monday during an interview with The Albany Herald Editorial Board. “I’ve seen some of my colleagues stay in D.C. too long.
When a longtime elected official leaves public office, family is often cited as a reason. Chambliss is no different. He says he’s looking forward to a schedule that will allow him to enjoy some of the things with family that he has been forced to miss because of his work on Capitol Hill.
His grandson, a high school freshman last year, “had 16 baseball games, and I saw none of them,” Chambliss said. “Those are the kinds of things you can’t get back.”
Chambliss and his wife, Julianne, have been married since 1966. They have two children and six grandchildren, evenly split between their hometown of Moultrie and St. Simons. Chambliss says he’s relishing the chance to spend more time with them in the post-Senate phase of his life, one in which he says he is still looking at his options.
After practicing law in Moultrie for 23 years, Chambliss defeated Democratic U.S. Rep. Roy Rowland in the 1994 Republican wave. He represented Georgia’s 8th Congressional District in the U.S. House for eight years before defeating Democratic Sen. Max Cleland in 2002. He successfully defended the Senate seat against Democratic challenger Jim Marshall in 2008.
“I’ve had a great opportunity (in public office),” he said. “People have been very kind to me.” And he’ll be leaving Washington at a good time from a physical standpoint. “My energy level’s good,” he said. “My health is good.”
He’s leaving Congress at a time, though, when the nation’s fiscal health isn’t that good. Chambliss said the last “three or four years” have been particularly frustrating in that respect.
He was a member of the 2011 Gang of Six, a bipartisan group of senators who tried to come up with a workable solution that addressed both spending cuts and revenue increases. None of the six was included on the congressional “Super Committee” that tried and failed to come up with a fix, resulting in last year’s across-the-board sequestration cuts — the unthinkable poison pill that lawmakers thought would force them to come up with a deal.
“That has been very frustrating,” he said. “I’ve always been a solutions guy. When you’re practicing law, you’re trying to resolve disputes. I had success doing that. As a policymaker, I always looked to work with my friends, as well as the folks across the aisle, to try to find a solution to problems, whether it’s agriculture, defense, intel or whatever. And this budget issue has been frustrating.
“There’s still hope that some of that will be done. It’s not rocket science. The foundation that we laid is ultimately going to be what’s built upon the solve the problem, because you’ve got to reduce spending, you’ve got to reform entitlements and you’ve got to reform the tax code, which will improve the economy and generate more revenue.”
Later in the interview, Chambliss allowed that his frustration over Congress and the White House’s inability to come to grips with the federal government’s lack of fiscal responsibility was one of the reasons he decided to step down at the end of his second term.
“That was a big part — the frustration — that led to my decision not to run,” he said. “Two things I knew when I made my decision. Number one, it wasn’t a six-year decision. It was an eight-year decision. I was going to have to run for two years campaigning and raise $15 million during that two-year period (He spent $13.5 million on his 2008 campaign) and then I’d have to serve another six years.
“Secondly, I knew if the president did not act by the end of last year and provide the right kind of leadership toward solving this debt issue, it’s going to be 2017 before we have the next opportunity to do so. … He’s not being very effective right now and that’s not going to improve. Those things being obvious to me … they factored into my decision.”
He has, however, gotten points for trying.
“It’s been kind of interesting. I’ve gotten recognized by about every fiscally responsible group in the country, Senator (Mark) Warner (a Virginia Democrat) and I for the work we did. And it’s humbling. It obviously makes you feel good that people did recognize it, but what’s so frustrating about it is we couldn’t move it along.”
As he finishes out his term, Chambliss said, “There’s nothing hanging over me where I’d say, ‘If I don’t do this I won’t survive. I guess the one issue, if I had to pick one, that I want to see accomplished before I leave is the legislative solution to the cyber security. Senator (Dianne) Feinstein and I are pretty close to a bipartisan bill that will be the foundation for what we do in the Senate.” Feinstein, a California Democrat, chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and Chambliss is vice chairman.
And there’s a great deal to do in the final months of his time in the Senate, he said.
“I do think we’re going through some very difficult times within our military from a budgetary standpoint. As we go through this year with the defense authorization bill, I’ll play a key role in trying to determine what our priorities will be for the long term.”
Chambliss, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he doesn’t think the answer is reducing the size of the force structure.
“We know that at some point in time there’s going to be another military conflict,” he said. “If you could tell me who it’s going to be — our adversary — and where it’s going to be, we could design a military to prepare for that. But that’s never been the case in the history of our country.”
Chambliss said every conflict has required ground troops and America can’t afford to downsize the Army and Marine Corps force structures to a “bare bones” point. “Thank goodness,” he said, “there’s a pretty general recognition of that across the policymakers in the House and the Senate, even though the White House and the Pentagon have made some proposals otherwise. … There are a lot of decisions that I’ll be involved in that will ensure America remains the strongest military power in the world.”
There have been some brights spots of late, too, particularly the passage of a five-year farm bill. Chambliss, the ranking member and former chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry, says it’s one that he’s happy with, one that provides a safety net — though not a guarantee of a profit — for farmers so that young adults will see farming as a more viable career option.
In the area of intelligence, Chambliss said he thinks he’s been able to bring some “common sense to some very complex issues.”
“The intel world changes every day,” he said. “Lots of bad guys want to do harm to America. I think we’ve addressed some of these more draconian issues in very much a commonsense way.”
OPPOSING NOT ENOUGH
Asked about the impact of national media and the commentators that spin the reporting, Chambliss said there is some truth to what is said, but much of what filters down to those back home is fabricated.
“One of the reasons I don’t read blogs is that you’ve got a journalist, or supposed journalist, who’s unaccountable to anyone,” he said. “They can say what they want to. And I listen to the talk show guys or I read a blog and I see these things and I’m thinking, ‘There’s absolutely no truth to that.’
“And some of them who say these things about me make ‘em up. I’m astounded by some of the things I particularly hear on radio from some of these supposed talk show guys who are so savvy. Some of it’s about me and some of it’s about other folks I know that I know what they’re saying’s just not true.”
Chambliss said a lawmaker can’t allow himself or herself be influenced by what’s being misreported and misstated.
“As a policymaker, you can’t react to that, you can’t be driven by those things,” he said. “You have to step back and just always make sure what you’re doing is in the best interest of the country and in the best interest of the people that sent you to D.C. or Atlanta for that matter, too.”
Not all of the characterizations are wrong, however.
“Some of what we’re accused of, though, is accurate,” he said, “and sometimes we have been correctly characterized, I think, as — at least some people in the Republican Party — as voting against everything.”
House Speaker John Boehner has a bigger problem than Senate does with members who “just vote no, I don’t care what it is.”
Simply taking the opposing position isn’t enough, Chambliss said.
“What we’ve got to do on Obamacare, for example, we’ve got to have an answer for the American people as to what we would do if you put Republicans in control of the Senate,” he said, “if you get a Republican president in the White House, what would we do to fix it? Not just repeal it. That’s not sufficient.”
Leading into the fall general election, Chambliss said he expects to see GOP officials offer “concrete proposals” to at least some of the problems. If Republicans are to be placed in charge, he said, voters first need to know “the direction we would go.”
Asked whether there would be a time when members of the Tea Party would get so frustrated with Republicans that they broke off into a third party, Chambliss said he didn’t think it would happen.
“If their leadership tried, I think they’d meet huge resistance and they wouldn’t have the impact that they’re having now,” Chambliss said.
He also said he thinks the Tea Party brings some important things to the table inside the GOP. “Tea Party folks are strong fiscal conservatives and they lend a good, strong voice on any number of issues,” the senator said.
THE NEXT PHASE
The big question in Georgia this year is who will become Georgia’s new senator on Jan. 3 when the 114th Congress convenes.
On the Republican side are six candidates — half are current U.S. representatives — are vying for the position. The candidates are U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, former Dollar General CEO David Perdue, and Derrek Grayson, a minister. Michelle Nunn, daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, is the Democratic candidate.
Asked whether he had a favorite in the field of candidates seeking to succeed him, Chambliss said of the Republican contenders: “They’re all my friends and I want my friends to succeed.”
Chambliss noted Georgia is a “red state” and that it would be difficult to move that Senate seat across the aisle. The only way to keep Majority Leader Harry Reid from controlling the Senate agenda is for the GOP to regain the majority, and the Republicans need to hold the Georgia Senate seat to have a chance of that happening.
“I do think we need some strong conservative voices in Washington,” Chambliss said.
The country also needs leadership that can work across the political aisle, he said, noting that President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill were able to have meetings of the mind and to cooperate for the greater good. “Republicans don’t have all the good ideas,” he said. “Democrats have some good ideas, too.”
But whoever does win the seat won’t have the same working relationship with Georgia’s other senator, Johnny Isakson, R-Marietta, that Chambliss has had. That’s because long before they were colleagues in the Senate, they were friends in college. Chambliss said they became friends while attending the University of Georgia and have remained so since, noting he was with Isakson when Isakson ran for governor and the Senate.
“He’s just such a good guy, a good friend,” Chambliss said.
As to what Chambliss plans to do once he leaves the Senate, he only will say that he’s weighing his options and opportunities.
Asked whether he might make a run at the governor’s office sometime down the road, Chambliss indicated he had no plans to. “Running for political office is not in my future,” he said.
And unlike a great many former congressmen, he’s not likely to show up at former colleagues’ office doors to pitch certain legislation. “I’m not a lobbyist,” Chambliss said. “That’s not in me.”
Still, he said, he’ll be involved in politics in some way. It’s been too big a part of his life for him to abandon it entirely.
Meanwhile, there’s work to be done in his current job — U.S. senator. Coasting to the end isn’t an option and he indicated he will approach his last months as they dwindle the same way he has approached the last 19 years. “I’ve always done what I thought was right,” he said, “regardless of the political consequences.”