Saxby Chambliss: Capital Influence

Saxby Chambliss, Georgia's senior senator, is one of the most visible lawmakers in Washington. Altho

Saxby Chambliss hit the ground running when he was sworn in as a U.S. Senator in January 2003, after serving four terms in the House of Representatives. He quickly earned seats on key committees and, just two years into his term, was chosen by his Republican colleagues to chair the powerful and influential Senate Committee on Agriculture.

Now the senior senator from Georgia, Chambliss is a highly visible and well-respected presence in Washington. He has been a strong ally of President George Bush – although he has recently differed with the president on matters relating to immigration reform, particularly amnesty for workers in the country illegally. Both Chambliss and Sen. Johnny Isakson voted against the Immigration Reform Compromise Act, which passed last spring and must be reconciled, in conference committee, with the House version.

Chambliss, an attorney before he went to Washington, has a reputation as an affable, but straight-talking lawmaker.

In early August he was in Gainesville to participate in a field hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, chaired by Isakson. With the long-running water dispute involving Georgia, Alabama and Florida as backdrop, the two senators, joined by Congressman Nathan Deal, took the Army Corps of Engineers to task for, among other things, a 22 billion-gallon mistake – which the corps attributes to a faulty gauge – that dropped the water level in Lake Lanier by almost two feet during a severe drought.”

If that kind of mistake was made on the battlefield,” Chambliss told the Corps’ South Atlantic division commander, Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh, who was headed to Iraq, “it would’ve cost American lives. That’s how serious I take this situation.”

Prior to the hearing, over breakfast at Gainesville’s Longstreet Cafe, Chambliss talked to Editor Susan Percy about how he sees his role as senator and about some of the issues he and his colleagues are facing. Here are highlights from the interview.

GT: You seemed to jump right into your work as a senator, without much of a “breaking-in” period. Could you talk about the transition from the House to the Senate?

Chambliss: Serving in the house is a very humbling experience. I had eight great years in the House. I was able to work with a lot of great people in our delegation. It was enriching. In the House you focus on smaller parochial issues [of interest] to your district. As a member of the House you go home every weekend. The rules of the House allow you to do your work quickly. The House works three days a week, the Senate works five. In the House you go back to your district every weekend. I had 30 counties in my district. I could go around to every one of them in four or five weekends.

GT: Does your perspective change?

Chambliss: In the Senate, instead of representing 600,000 people, I represent eight and a half million, almost nine million people. The “caseload” dramatically increases. The number of employees goes up in a big way. Instead of representing 30 counties, I’m representing 159. My goal is to get to my home once a month, but I come back to the state every weekend. It’s practically impossible to see everybody as I did [when I was] in the House.

GT: As a senator, you have some additional duties.

Chambliss: We also approve treaties, confirm judicial appointments, confirm presidential appointments, approve military promotions. All this adds responsibility. In my old congressional district we had the military and we had agriculture. Those are still a major economic force in the state. But all of a sudden there’s every other part of the state – there are issues on the coast, like water. In the southwest, in addition to agriculture, there are issues of poverty and health care. Atlanta has every issue you could name. North Georgia is a lot different from South Georgia. Defense is such a huge issue in Georgia. There are 13 military installations. I follow in the footsteps of Richard Russell and Sam Nunn. I serve on the Senate Armed Services committee.

GT: Do you enjoy what you do?

Chambliss: I love the work. I have the opportunity to visit military installations in the state as well as outside. The men and women in uniform are my heroes. I’ve been to Iraq four times. That’s the most complex issue on the table today … to be able to help formulate foreign policy … to work with the White House. That’s far and away the most important work we do. It affects our children and grandchildren. I’m so lucky to be able to do this. Following Senator Russell, Sam Nunn – it’s humbling. On the way to my office in the Russell Senate Office Building I pass by his [Russell’s] statue on a regular basis … . I’m very proud to be an American, and particularly proud to be a Georgian.

GT: We’ve just come through a particularly acrimonious primary season here in Georgia. Does that ultimately affect elected officials’ ability to work together – at the state level or in Washington?

Chambliss: Every time I think things have gotten so out of hand from a negative campaign standpoint it seems like the next campaign is worse. In Georgia, this was the most negative campaign I’ve ever seen. Many people complain about negative ads, but they have an impact and they work if they’re done right. I much prefer to run a positive campaign … but sometimes you have to make a statement … . Part of that [bad feeling] does bleed over a bit into partisan politics. It’s gotten worse in my 12 years in office.

GT: What kind of working relationship do you have with Johnny Isakson?

Chambliss: Senator Isakson and I have been close friends since college. We both went to the University of Georgia; our wives were sorority sisters. We’ve worked together in the political system, but most of all he’s been my friend. Often with two senators, even from the same state, they don’t get along. But with Johnny and me, there’s none of that. That relationship is very special to me, and it’s a big benefit to Georgia.

GT: What do you hope to get from the water hearing today?

Chambliss: The Corps built Lake Lanier and they have jurisdiction, they determine the flow and what goes out. In the middle of the summer the level of the lake is two feet lower than what it should be. Obviously that creates a lot of problems. Johnny, Nathan and I got the Corps to come and explain to people what happened and to tell us what the Corps is going to do about it.

GT: Would you talk about your stand on immigration reform and where you differ with President Bush?

Chambliss: First of all, with regard to the immigration crisis, if we don’t keep the borders into our country secure, we’ve done nothing. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to make sure we provide for border security. We need more agents, more facilities to do the job. We need more technology, more cameras on the border. We need facilities to detain people we catch.

GT: How should we deal with workers who are here illegally?

Chambliss: You’ve got to have a temporary worker program – our economy depends on that. These people are not taking jobs that Americans want. We’ve got to figure out what to do. To “round them up and send them back” is not possible – and it would weaken the economy.

GT: But you’re opposed to any plan that would grant citizenship to people here illegally?

Chambliss: We do not need to create a class of temporary workers with a path to citizenship. There’s no more prized possession around the world than American citizenship. We don’t need to grant citizenship to people who are in the country illegally. That’s fundamentally wrong.

GT: Is there historical precedent for amnesty?

Chambliss: The Immigration and Reform Bill of 1986 had a provision … to give amnesty to the 1- to 1.5-million people illegally in the country – it turned out to be more like 3.5 million. The idea was to solve this problem. It didn’t. Since 1986 we have had a dramatic increase. We need to secure the borders … if we had sealed the borders in ’86 we wouldn’t have this problem. This is not a new issue with me. I’ve been working on it since I came Congress.

GT: Is it likely that a conference committee can reconcile the Senate and House bills?

Chambliss: We’re waiting to get together with the conference committee. I will be a conferee.

GT: You’ve received some criticism for your position on immigration.

Chambliss: The Atlanta paper criticized me for one position when it came to agriculture, for “protecting the farmer and protecting big business” on one hand, then using rhetoric that indicated I didn’t want to see immigration reform.

GT: What prompted that?

Chambliss: I was critical of INS – now ICE – in the late ’90s. We were right in the middle of the Vidalia onion harvest. INS agents in fatigues and black T-shirts – some carrying .357s strapped to their hips – came in about 10 or 12 pickup trucks. They descended on the field where Mexican workers were picking the onions. There were 100 workers in the field. They arrested about 15 of them, and scattered the [rest of the] folks in the area for about a week – while the onions were still in the field. My point was that we need to enforce the law, but the way to do it is not to send in a bunch of cowboys. You had 200-pound guys chasing 115-pound Mexicans. It did no good. There are better ways to enforce laws.

GT: How?

Chambliss: If you go to groups [of farmers and employers] in the state, and say, “We’re going to be enforcing the law … ” that’s better than going in with guns blazing and being bullies.

GT: Are the authorities still making raids like that?

Chambliss: I believe that’s the last time that’s happened [on that scale]. We’ve had other situations handled much more effectively. I give ICE credit.

GT: Georgia and other states – even local governments around the country – are starting to find their own ways of dealing with immigration issues.

Chambliss: This is not a state issue. It’s a federal issue. States all over the country are passing laws. The fact that states are having to do this – that’s a strong indication that the federal government has failed to do its job.

GT: You’ve been critical of the existing H2A or temporary worker program for being too cumbersome, with too much paperwork. The bill that finally passes – will it address this?

Chambliss: It will simplify the paperwork. There are competing bills out there; but one thing we all agree on: We need to allow farmers and other employers the capability of determining if workers are legal.

GT: What about a deterrent for employers who knowingly hire illegal workers?

Chambliss: We’ll put the right sanctions in place on employers who continue to violate the law. This will dry up the jobs and the folks who don’t have jobs are not going to come here.

GT: The farmers you talk to, the ones who rely on foreign workers, are they convinced of the need to do something about illegal immigration?

Chambliss: Yes. Our farmers would like to have 100 percent legal workers if they had the ability to hire them and confirm their status. But they are strong proponents of making it [the process] less cumbersome and less expensive.<

p>GT: Your agriculture committee has been holding hearings around the country. What are you hearing from farmers?

Chambliss: We’re going to write a farm bill next year, and we’re going around to talk to farmers and ranchers. We’ve been in Georgia, Missouri, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Nebraska, Montana – in September we will be going to Texas. What we’ve been hearing from farmers is that the 2002 farm bill is working … but some things need to be changed. Our wheat growers have some problems in way the wheat title was written.

GT: Anything of particular interest to Georgia likely to be in the new bill?

Chambliss: The issue of alternative fuels brings great opportunities for American agriculture. We’re going to explore an alternative energy title in the next farm bill.

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