Senate candidates say Washington leadership is the real problem

VERMILLION, S.D. – Four men trying to get elected to the U.S. Senate spent an hour-long debate Thursday night running against the federal government. While they differed wildly on some issues, they all seemed to agree that the government in Washington, D.C., is dysfunctional.

The Senate candidates-Republican Mike Rounds, Democrat Rick Weiland and independents Gordon Howie and Larry Pressler-met for a debate telecast on South Dakota Public Broadcasting. The debate was sponsored by South Dakota Newspaper Association, AARP South Dakota and SDPB. They are seeking the seat held by retiring Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat.

Asked how he would respond if Congress moves toward another government shutdown, Pressler, a former Republican three-term senator said, “The problem is that the Senate doesn’t really vote on anything anymore.”

Pressler noted that there could be as many as four independents elected to the Senate this year making them a “central force” in that chamber.

Weiland said he had asked each of his opponents to sign a pledge saying they wouldn’t support a government shutdown, but didn’t get responses from any of them. He said the dysfunction in Washington gave farmers and ranchers in South Dakota nowhere to turn to for help after the big ice storm.

Howie said a shutdown may be the only way to get Congress to act responsibly. He said the government needs to put a lid on debt and cap spending.

Rounds pointed to 10 years in the Legislature and eight years as governor without a state government shutdown. “We got our work done on time. We all recognized that we needed to get the job done,” Rounds said.

Asked how his leadership skills would help the Lewis and Clark Water Project get the funding it needs, Howie pointed to his challenge to the candidates to sit down with him for a civil conversation about meaningful issues. He said Weiland was the only one to take his offer.

“We realized that we have some things on which we agree,” Howie said, saying that willingness to talk to people from across the aisle is what’s needed to move the Lewis and Clark project forward.

Rounds said federal money, like the highway trust fund, would be put to better use if more decisions about how to use that money could be made at the local level.

Pressler noted that he was an original sponsor of the pipeline legislation as well as a personal friend of both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Weiland said: “Big money is calling the shots in Washington, D.C.” He said it was odd that some candidates could criticize the government yet want to be elected to the Senate.

Candidates characterized the EB-5 program, which allows foreign investors to support economic development in rural areas in exchange for green cards, as either an economic development success story or a corruption scandal.

Rounds, who has been under fire for his administration’s oversight of the program, noted that EB-5 brought $600 million in economic development investments and more than 5,000 jobs to South Dakota.

He would take to the Senate the knowledge that “any federal program has an opportunity to be improved,” Rounds said. “You learn from your experiences as a governor.”

Pressler said the issue was not the way the EB-5 program works. “The issue is about the corruption that apparently occurred in South Dakota,” Pressler said.

Weiland characterized the program as handing out green cards to foreign millionaires and billionaires.

South Dakotans didn’t appreciate the perception that “because you’ve got the money you can cut to the front of the line,” Weiland said. “I think you should come in the regular way.”

Howie said it’s tough to tell if the program is good or not because of all the bad news it has generated.

“Gov. Rounds, you brought this on yourself,” Howie said, asking the former governor to take a pledge to testify about the EB-5 program under oath. “The whole thing smells and it’s time to come clean with South Dakotans.”

The candidates differed in their approaches to immigration reform, with Rounds saying that the nation’s safety and security had to come first.

“Nothing will happen with immigration reform until we secure our borders,” Rounds said.

Pressler said he has a three-point plan for immigration reform that includes bringing troops back from obsolete bases in Europe to guard the borders, adopting a five-year path to citizenship and implementing a guest worker program.

Weiland said bipartisan immigration reform that allows more money for securing the borders and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants has already passed the Senate and is being held hostage by the leaders of the House.

“If it came to the floor, it would pass,” Weiland said.

Howie, a former state legislator, said he has been disappointed that no one has heeded his call to do something about South Dakota’s illegal immigrant problem.

“These folks are coming, taking South Dakota jobs,” Howie said. He said both the Rounds and Daugaard administrations have ignored the problem. “Do we really believe they would behave any differently if we send one of them to Washington?”