As the United States Congress canceled voting and recessed for the national day of mourning, honoring the late-former President George H.W. Bush, Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, used his time away from Washington, D.C. ,Wednesday to speak with and take questions from eighth-grade civics students at Berg Middle School in Newton.
As President 41’s funeral service live-streamed on a laptop resting on a counter on the side of the room, Loebsack told the students the death of a U.S. dignitary — particularly a past president — is a rare time when politicians on both sides will, briefly, come together.
“Not a lot of good things come out of somebody’s passing in this world, but one of the good things this week is many in Washington are putting down what I call the ‘political arms,’” Loebsack said. “The president hasn’t been tweeting terrible things about President Bush himself. ...
“My understanding is these former presidents and President (Trump) are physically, literally sitting with each other and that’s a really good thing,” the congressman continued. “People on both sides of the aisle are being civil with each other, at least for a few days.”
Berg Middle School instructor Tyler Stewart began the elective civics course in 2017 to fill what he saw as an important need in students’ curriculum. The class goes in-depth on current events and brings in news-makers like Loebsack for the students meet and question.
This is Loebsack’s third time visiting BMS students, and Stewart said the class has held a discussion with U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and extended invites to Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.
The most impactful guest for his civics students, Stewart said, was with Parkland Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor Carly Novell, who visited the class via Skype earlier this year.
“The more the merrier,” Stewart said. “We talk current events and politics — any moment we can make more real it makes it more interesting to our students.”
Loebsack began with opening remarks and a short bio, explaining to students the expanse of Iowa’s second congressional district and how growing up in poverty in Sioux City (at times his mother relied on government food assistance) shaped his worldview and policy decisions.
The students’ questions ranged from gun control policy to Loebsack’s overall views of the Trump presidency. BMS eighth-grader Tade Vanderlaan began the Q&A with a question about bipartisanship, asking the Democratic congressman on which issues do he and Republicans actually agree in today’s political climate.
Loebsack started his answer with an anecdote from the congressional cloakrooms on Capitol Hill following last month’s midterm election.
Although the fabled spaces where backroom deals are struck “don’t have the best reputation,” Loebsack joked, it’s a disarming space for the Democrat from Iowa City to speak with colleagues from across the aisle.
“I went over to the cloakroom on the Republican side. I was very aware of the fact I might not be welcome because Democrats are going to take over the majority now — we’re going to be in charge. But I went over there specifically to find people I’d been working on issues with prior to the election.”
Loebsack, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he met with Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., who is one of Loebsack’s co-members of the U.S. House Biofuels Caucus. The two agreed to draft a letter to the Trump White House about expediting the president’s promise to make the 15 percent Ethanol-blended fuel, E15, available year-round nationwide, which would open new corn markets for U.S. farmers.
Loebsack said, before the Nov. 6 vote, he ensured Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, was still committed to supporting the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act, a bill that would, among other things, require the FCC to establish a task force to ensure farmers have access to GPS tracking systems for planting and harvest, as well as high-speed broadband internet.
“We literally put our arms around each other and said we’re going to work together no matter how the election turns out,” Loebsack said.
Another student asked what Loebsack thought about the president threatening a government shutdown if Congress does not provide funding for a border wall with Mexico. In this debate, the seven-term Democrat did not dilute his opinion for the middle-schoolers.
“I think it’s foolish. I don’t think we should ever be shutting down the government,” Loebsack said. “I don’t think we need to be shutting down the government for a border wall. I know it’s a controversial issue, and there may be people in this room who think we need a border wall.”
Although Loebsack told the civics students the national day of mourning prompted the Congress to pass a two-week stopgap spending bill to temporarily halt a shutdown, he said he believes it will be averted. Loebsack said he wants the border secured using aerial drone technologies and surveillance as opposed to a wall.
Loebsack told one student questioner his most difficult time in office began in 2014 and continued after the 2016 elections, when he was the lone Democrat from Iowa serving in Congress.
“That was a tough time because I thought, ‘Wow, do I want to keep doing this. This is going to be a little bit difficult,’” Loebsack said.
A follow-up question from Stewart about Loebsack’s political future did bring the Congressman to say he has thought about and would not rule out a run for higher office, such as U.S. Senate, in the future.
In an interview after the 45-minute Q&A, Loebsack said he keeps coming back to participate in the BMS civics lesson because it allows him the chance to interact with younger students, an opportunity that doesn’t often present itself for the congressman.
“I want to know what’s on their minds. That’s what the questions are for,” Loebsack said. “The questions give me some insight into what they’ve been thinking about and what they’ve been doing inside the classroom.”
The students also appreciate knowing what’s on Loebsack’s mind. After the ending bell, Vanderlaan said he thought the congressman “did pretty good.”
“I liked that he answered a lot of our questions truthfully. I know that he couldn’t answer all of them, but he put his thoughts in,” Vanderlaan said.
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