One year into his congressional career, U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder says Democrats and Republicans are on “two completely different planets” and talk past each other every day.
The Republican from Overland Park gives President Barack Obama, a Democrat, a grade of “D” for his term in office and says the president has fanned the flames of dissension in the nation’s capital.
“It’s the first time in my lifetime I remember a president giving speeches where he really pitted groups against each other,” Yoder said.
Nonetheless, he predicts a narrow re-election win for Obama next year.
Back home in Kansas’ 3rd District, Yoder has held 100 town hall meetings and appears to be headed to re-election as no Republican or Democrat has yet announced plans to challenge him.
Yoder, 35, sits on the House Appropriations Committee. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been in Congress for nearly a year now. What has surprised you most about it?
I just continue to be surprised at how partisan the individuals are, on the House floor in particular.
If you spend any time watching C-SPAN, it appears you have two sets of parties from two completely different planets talking past each other, trying to score points.
How discouraging is all this?
I try not to get discouraged. I’m someone who’s very optimistic. I try to figure out what I can do to be a positive force to nudge things back in the other direction. I try to make sure that my floor speeches are policy focused.
How hard was it to figure out how the place operates?
Well, it’s very steeped in seniority. I came from the Kansas Legislature, where as a relatively young state representative, I chaired the House Appropriations Committee. Certainly there were people who had been on the committee longer, but I was tapped for that position.
But in Congress, it’s very much a wait-your-turn power structure. So if you’re new, it’s very difficult to get your opportunity to be at the table where the deal’s cut.
Do you miss that part of it?
I miss the ability to spend time where you actually know that you’re making a difference. To go from chairman of the House Appropriations Committee in the Kansas Legislature to one of 50 on the Appropriations Committee and one of 435 in the whole House, it is more difficult to directly impact policy here.
You occasionally preside over the House floor. What have you messed up?
I’ve actually presided over the House floor a lot, maybe more than any other freshman. It’s something I feel very comfortable doing. It feels very natural to me. I feel I can contribute to a smoothly run House chamber.
On occasion you’ll say the wrong state when you call on somebody. There was an incident when I closed a vote, and someone apparently was trying to vote after the vote had been closed. And it happened to be someone on the Democratic side. From my vantage point, they weren’t there in the well, and we closed it. And we had to do a revote.
So that was a little bit of an egg-on-your face moment.
Was there a moment when you first arrived when you knew you weren’t in Kansas any more?
Certainly going down to the House floor and seeing some of the titans we’ve watched on television, and there in the flesh are some of these people we’ve seen on the news programs all our lives. It’s just a moment where you say, ‘Wow, this is the big leagues. These are the heavy hitters all across the country.’
Certainly in the Capitol you do get moments were you sort of take a deep breath and think of all the historic figures who have been in that building, like Abraham Lincoln, who have stood right in those same rooms to make the landmark decisions. It puts an exclamation point on the importance of the work we’re doing.
Is there any place in the Capitol that just knocks you out because of its historic significance?
I love the Capitol rotunda. It’s just so big and so grand, and I love being in the Capitol at night when it’s empty, and you can go stand in the Capitol rotunda and bask in the silence of history. You can sort of imagine all of the things that have happened inside that Rotunda from presidents lying in state to other important events.
How disappointed were you that the congressional super committee failed to pass a sweeping deficit-reduction bill this fall?
I was disappointed, but like many Americans, I wasn’t surprised. I was rooting for them, though.
I understand how difficult that was going to be for them, given how that was set up.
A lot of Kansans I talk to have a sense of hopelessness that our institutions may be unworkable. That’s what really bothers me the most. It’s this sense that many Americans have that even if you have the right ideas, the process will destroy them.
That super committee was one of those are-we-up-to-the-moment times, and it didn’t happen. But we’ve been through much worse. We’ve been through world wars and great depressions. Our nation has shown its resiliency.
Democrats say that Republicans are to blame because they won’t move off their stance to tax the rich. Do they have a point?
I think that the fact that Democrats make that point makes me wonder why they continue to put those types of things in legislation. I think it’s frustrating for me when one side says, ‘Look, we’re not going to accept a certain provision in legislation, no matter what, and the other side continues to put them in there.’
We know 95 percent of Republicans signed the no-tax pledge. They’ve made it very clear. I don’t know what we benefit ourselves from continuing to go down that road.
What I’ve said is: Let’s figure out where the parties agree, and let’s start there.
Instead we tend to find out what the hot button issue of the other side is, and try to pressure that side to cave under their own political pressure.
No one has announced plans to run against you next year. So when are you popping the champagne corks?
When you’re in elected office, you always have to operate under the assumption that you’re in a dog fight for re-election. It’s when you don’t prepare for a tough battle, when you’re caught flat-footed that you’re vulnerable.
Rate President Obama’s performance in office. What grade would you give him?
I would say a “D.”
This president has completely failed in an effort to make Washington function better. I’ve had the chance to interact with the president on a couple different occasions, and was really struck by his inability to bring rooms together. He was very adept at dividing and debating the people in the room, and not very good at bringing people together.
This sense that our country feels more divided than it has in the past, this sense that we’re focused on the haves and have-nots, and all of this division is I believe a result of the president’s speeches, his approaches, his tone, his tenor. It has taken what is normally a toxic and divided environment in Washington and thrown kerosene on it.
It’s the first time in my lifetime I remember a president giving speeches where he really pitted groups against each other. And it’s unfortunate.
Many of the policies haven’t worked that this president has pursued on the economy and the budget. Any of the problems that we were facing when he was elected that he pledged to fix, you name them, they’ve gotten worse.
To me, it’s disappointing that the president would spend a lot of his time, instead of taking accountability for these challenges, blaming them on President Bush.
Who are you backing for president?
I haven’t picked anybody. Our candidates are battered and bruised, and these debates have been relentless.
Will the Democrats retake the House next year?
I don’t think so. What you see is a general anger at most elected officials…Both political parties are getting blamed right now. I think the House will stay about the way it is.
If I had to predict, I would project that the president would narrowly win re-election, the House would stay the way it is and the Senate would go Republican.