September 4, 2011
- Bob, you’ve been out of the public spotlight for the past several years. What are you doing now – what keeps Bob Ney going these days?
Ney: I took a job … with Ellen Ratner at Talk Radio News Service, which I didn’t originally want to do frankly, because when she first proposed it I didn’t want back in any of the spotlight. … She said I think you’ll be good at analyzing news. I did that and then she and Howard Monroe approached me about WVLY, I did a talk radio show for about a year, I liked it … but the thought of continuing and being locked five days a week into those hours wasn’t the most enthusiastic venture for me. … Now I do two things: I continue political analysis for Talk Radio News Service, call in to stations across the country … and the second thing I do is I’m executive director of a brand new foundation called Mending Minds that utilizes meditation, particularly Tibetan meditation, not as a religion but as a proven scientific fact that meditation can help people with PTSD – our veterans are returning with terrible stress – and also substance abuse, using meditation in lieu of medication. I also babysit my granddaughter.
- It’s been about five years since your political career came to an end because of the Jack Abramoff scandal. You’re obviously a much different person nowadays. What are your thoughts about who you were then – five to 10 years ago – and who you are now?
Ney: As my grandmother always said, One door closes and another opens. It’s just the door that closes sometimes kicks you in the rear-end quite hard. Things happen within your life. I like to think that some of the energy or attitude was helpful in Washington to take on some people. … I would hope there are some qualities I had at that point in time that still remain today. But obviously you don’t go through something like I did and not have some change. And you can change in several ways. … Before I went to prison I talked to (former associate attorney general) Web Hubbell for five hours. Web told me something I’ll never forget. He said there were … four of us who went in prison, three of us came out with some scars, bumps and bruises, but were in a condition to pick up our lives. One went mentally ill forever. I remember what he said. … You have to be careful. Just because you have these … life-altering changes, it doesn’t mean it’s going to make you a better person, you can lose your way. You have to … decide where you want to be. I think I probably am a calmer person.
- You were in Congress a driven, get-things-done type of guy who I’m guessing the opposition didn’t like too much. Is there anyone like you in the House now?
Ney: I wasn’t unique. … I saw some of the most enlightened … moments, both publicly and privately that a human being could see. And I also saw some of the most disgusting, clueless, weak-kneed moments. … (Republican Congressman) Steve LaTourette of Ohio is a great congressman who gets a lot of crap thrown at him. … He speaks his mind.
Two other people: Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich. I know people are going to be saying you lost your mind in prison, but Ron Paul tells you where he’s at, where he’s going to be, and he remains there. Dennis Kucinich is the same way. … He will come out and say what his belief is and you know where he’s at. There are people you can respect as fighters even if they don’t agree with you.
There’s also back benchers that think they can vote, they don’t have to participate back home, they don’t have to work with local economic development people … this is a multi-phase job.
- Looking back, what stands out for you as your biggest accomplishment during your time in Congress?
Ney: My legacy bill – everybody has to have a legacy bill – was the Help America Vote Act. I remember a point in time when (Former House Majority Leader) Dick Armey came to me and wanted me to vote on this education bill that was absolutely terrible. This congressman who was retiring came to me and said you have to vote for (Armey’s) bill. I said that destroys education as we know it. He said that’s (Armey’s) legacy bill. I said so I vote for his legacy bill and it destroys education. … Help America Vote Act was my legacy bill. It redefined the elections system nationally for the first time in the history of our country. It had federal process changes for elections, but it didn’t control them. … Ironically, it was that bill that caused the controversy with Jack Abramoff and the amendment he wanted affecting the Indian tribes, which never went into the bill. … The HAVA act was my legacy bill.
I think my greatest achievement was working on the economic side of (Congress). Voting for the first balanced budget in generations back in 1998. Trying to restrain some of the growth of the government. … You’ve got to restrain the rules and regulations of an out of control government. You’ve got to restrain the spending habits. Now they’re like unsatisfiable nymphomaniacs in Washington, and they have been for quite a while. But you also have to be active. This is not a sit back and observe position. I think my best achievement was to work with the development people and these development entities trying to bring jobs … to the district.
- In 2005, you managed to get $1.7 million in federal funding to remove the Bellaire Bridge. The money was later pulled back. Should we have gone ahead and used public money to remove the bridge or should the private sector have been held responsible for removing it?
Ney: The bridge – I realize this story evoked a lot of emotion, and it did out of me, and it sparked a battle between me and the media, and the issue of (Roger) Barack the owner, and we had our office in his building – this is how I look at the bridge. Several points: whoever in fact cut that deal for the state of Ohio (to sell the bridge to Barack) should have absolutely been investigated. At the time Jack Cerra was the state representative and I was the state senator, all of a sudden Jack and I read in the newspaper where there had been an emergency measure to buy this bridge and rip it down. Jack and I were upset about that, I was on the controlling board and all appropriations have to come through that. I called Carol Pierce Mix and said why did you not bring that to the controlling board. She said frankly it may not have gotten approved. I said why not, and she said well, because you’re calling me, aren’t you? You and Jack Cerra want this not to happen right now, want to see if you can build a ramp. … I don’t know who did what or when … I really don’t know. But I do know this: whoever cut that deal with ODOT said to those investors on the Interstate Bridge Co. – and I have no idea who they were or are – what they should have said is here’s the money, minus this, the bridge gets ripped down as soon as you sign the paper. That never happened. They said here’s the money. So then there was some transfer of money to the Barack Corp. I clearly interacted with Roger Barack, said please Roger, don’t rip that bridge down, we want to save it. There was an active movement from businesses to save that bridge.
After a certain period of time, (it was clear) there was no ramp to be built. … We were going to try to still do something. And at the end of the day there’s a lawsuit that comes along … against Roger Barack (to tear down the bridge). … We should have got it down. … Instead, it turns into a controversy. It hurt me because people asked why we were involved in it. I said it’s the right thing to do. Roger Barack loses his lawsuit, he wins, so what? The bridge comes down.
- It seems to me that an awful lot of people get elected to Congress, they get to Washington and the next thing they know they’re surrounded by staff members some of whom probably couldn’t find the district on a map. Is it a challenge to keep the focus on your district when you have staff members who are trying to get you to focus on national and international issues?
Ney: It’s a huge challenge. You’ve actually embarked on a discussion here that is so rarely ever talked about. We talk about the stepchildren in Congress. That’s the district, the district is the stepchild. The district should be the father, D.C. should be the stepchild. That’s the way it should be.
In our office, it was mandatory … that the district (workers) had to come to D.C., one or two at a time … and they had to work for a week in Washington. And all the Washington people had to come back here. So all of a sudden somebody here in the Bellaire/St. Clairsville office would go out to D.C. – and they would have had interaction with the D.C. office over the phone, saying why can’t you do this, or why can’t you do that – and all of a sudden that person gets to D.C. and coming through the door is the farm bureau, school kids, reporters, you name it are coming into that office in Washington. The person from Belmont County who worked for us are saying wow, no wonder it’s tough for them to call me back. And then the person from D.C. comes in here and they see all the constituent casework that’s being done. … they live in each others’ shoes. When I became chairman of the House Administration I picked up more staff and when I became chairman of the Housing subcommittee I picked up even more until I eventually had 68 people – 22 in the district to service the 18th, and the rest (in Washington). So I proposed another idea that our staff really hated, we actually had a retreat where all the staff … came together. We worked very hard because there’s always a stepchild attitude and all of a sudden the staff are rubbing each other the wrong way and constituents (suffer). …
Your touching on something people never talk about, personal things in those offices create problems for constituents. … That’s one where (the representative) can lose total touch because they’re out there with the D.C. staff that says We’ve got the Israeli-Palestinian issue, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that, and all of a sudden the district takes a backseat.
- It’s nearing the 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. How well do you think we’ve handled the War on Terror?
Ney: We probably made an error in proclaiming a War on Terror. … I’m not so sure on a psychological basis that you can win a war on terror. Osama bin Laden attacked us with the Taliban from over in Afghanistan. You had Saddam Hussein in Iraq. … The war on terror was very broad-based. Not to disparage good (Ohio) Congressman Ralph Regula, but I remember I objected terribly to the government purchasing the Wayne National Forest. … So the bill came up and I said Ralph, you’ve got $200 million – he was one of the Cardinals, they call themselves the Cardinals … they were the 13 members under the Appropriations chairman, they were very powerful – and I said we’re hurting for money and we don’t need to do that. And Ralph said – it was when Bush was really starting to spend money – this is part of the War on Terror. … That quote was used everywhere.
How have we done on the war itself? Look, this can’t be anymore about winning. If this is about winning we could be there 30 more years. … Afghanistan was very pointed, the Taliban was there and we needed to go in and root it out. Saddam Hussein – if you ask me what I am most sorry for, the escapades with Abramoff and my mistakes and the illegal things I did is not number one. It’s number two. Number one is the fact that we didn’t dig deep enough to see if there were lies. I lied, and no one died. Bush, his people lied, and people died. There were no weapons of mass destruction. If we want to go in and get a lunatic, start with Sudan, as far as I’m concerned the premier of China’s a lunatic, puts people in prison, forces abortions, slave labor, after our jobs. So I can pick you a lot of lunatics. The president of Iran, Ahmedinejad, wow, let’s put him on top of the list. But we got Saddam Hussein. I sat in that room, we were in a classified situation, we were told this, this and this and shown pictures. So I voted to give full force and authority to President Bush. Colin Powell, whom I respect so much … his heart sunk, he went and lied to the United Nations. Intentionally? Absolutely not. He was fed the same garbage we were fed.
That was the War on Terror. And when you get a blanket war on terror, you get the Saddam Husseins of the world, who was no good, and the Iraqi people are better off. But at the end of the day, what are we doing now in Iraq? … These wars … were military and civil … in terms of civil projects. We’ve spent a lot of money (to rebuild infrastructure) in both countries. … And we’re going to have to cough up about $400 billion to continue these (projects). If we saved them, if we did so much for their democracies, let them pay for it. They have oil.
- The decision to invade Iraq was bi-partisan with wide support. A lot of people on both sides of the aisle looked at what they thought were the facts and said we just don’t have a choice. Now, as you look back and say maybe we should have dug deeper, the first part of my question is, would it have been possible for you to get the information to dig deeper, and the second part of my question is, do we have the same situation today? Can Congress be misled on something such as that today?
Ney: As to the second question, yes, they can be misled. It can happen.
The first part of the question … I’m sure you expected me to say my biggest mistake was Abramoff, my biggest mistake in my mind was not fully investigating to the best of my ability. If you had sat in that room, you probably would have voted the same way I did. … I went over the Mid-East and went to an intelligence section we have there, and I saw the things. I started to look around and that was the first time I said wait a minute, something doesn’t feel right. … And then of course we found out there were no weapons of mass destruction.
Can we prevent it in the future? Yes. If we get the people who lied to us, or who had such bad information it’s unbelievable, and we go after them legally … that’s falsifying information to Congress. Maybe it would teach the intelligence agencies to be straight shooters with us.
We have a similar situation going on right now. (Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton, under Barack Obama, is amazingly coming close I think to delisting the terrorist Mujahedin cult group. President Clinton listed them as terrorists twice, Bush listed them twice, Condoleeza Rice on Obama’s way in said I’ll do it for you and she listed them. Hillary Clinton is now on an unholy alliance considering whether to delist them. … They took our embassy, they assassinated Americans, the MEK they’re called. Now, members of Congress are out publicly supporting them saying well, they’re the enemy of our enemy, Iran. They’re the same fascist as the president of Iran, no difference. …
One thug replaces another thug in some of these situations. I told Karl Rove personally to his face when we went to Iraq that you may get the democracy you don’t want. This is cultural, don’t expect it to be like America, don’t expect them to thank us.
The bottom line is you have our brave men and women over there, and nobody wants to cut off the support for them. If the commander in chief bring them back, then you don’t have to worry about it.
- Let’s get back to domestic politics. Do you have any prediction for who is going to get the Republican nomination for president, and who would you like to see get the nomination?
Ney: I believe Mitt Romney will get the Republican nomination. I would have liked to have seen Tim Pawlenty, personally.
- What about the elephant in the room, Sarah Palin?
Ney: Sarah Palin would make the race fascinating. I have friends who say anybody can beat Obama, I don’t believe that by any stretch of the imagination. If she got in I believe Sarah Palin would do just as Newt Gingrich could do – she could elevate the issues, force the issues. … I think Sarah Palin would bring a lot to the table of just stirring things up, getting right to the point of where your philosophy is. I don’t think she’d win, but I don’t think she would do that bad for the party. Let’s get the arguments going. This is a serious election.
- Are you concerned that the Republican Party could possibly have a false sense of confidence in thinking that anyone could beat Barack Obama?
Ney: I think it is a problem. There’s two issues along that line. … One, anybody can beat Obama. Anybody. That’s not true. And two, from the conservative end, under their breath, well, they think it doesn’t matter if we don’t beat him. They think if we don’t beat him he’s going to do such a bad job over the next four years there will be no Democrats standing in the House, no Democrats standing in the Senate, we’ll take the whole ball of wax (in 2016). That theory’s out there … to keep the “bad guy” in for four more years and you’ll really see what happens. That’s not necessarily what reality becomes.
- You call yourself a “Recovering Republican.” What does that mean?
Ney: I’m a registered Republican. When I say recovering Republican, my attitude today – I served a district that was multi-political, a quote Democrat stronghold that had very loyal Republicans and Independents – 53 percent were Independents – who voted any direction they want. The Democrats are not liberal. I always get a kick out of the guy or lady who would come up to me and say, you know, you’re just like me, and I’m a Democrat. I want to keep my gun, I want to protect life and they better quit spending my money. You’re a Democrat like me. These are very conservative Democrats. It’s a fascinating makeup of the district.
Today, I’ve had it with certain elements within both parties. When I say recovering, I don’t drink the kool-aid of the party.
- If you don’t drink the kool-aid, would you describe yourself as a “tea” drinker?
Ney: I think the Tea Party has been very good for this country. I really do. … They raised an issue out there. And they were smart, they didn’t get into abortion, gun control, gay marriage. They got into one element of the financial side of it, so I have to give them a lot of credit.
A congresswoman I don’t even know was on the floor yelling, They’re holding the Congress hostage. First of all, 62 members of the House are “Tea Party” candidates. Only 30 are active in the Tea Party caucus. So this Democrat is standing there saying they’re holding us hostage, wow, she’s really giving them credit for completely running the congress. The Tea Party wouldn’t run my office, but I am very respectful of what they’ve done. … The Tea Party has helped the Republican Party morph back into what it was supposed to be.
… I’m currently unhappy with the Republican leadership. They took a debt ceiling issue, a very serious issue, there’s 535 members of the House and Senate … and they said OK, we’ll pass the debt ceiling bill with cuts … but we’ll create a committee of 12 people who will speak for all 535 people, so to heck with 97 percent of the Americans who send their members to Congress.
Here’s what John Boehner said, and Harry Reid, and Barack Obama. They all three said this: You all aren’t smart enough, you can’t make those tough decisions, we’ll take 12 people as a representative body of the House and Senate and the president and we’ll tell them to make a decision by Dec. 23. If I was Standard & Poors or Moodys, I would be like “OK, that gives me a lot of confidence.” They should of had a vote, ugly as it could have been, let the process work. … They punted this down the road to 12 people. They’re going to make Jack Abramoff and me look like pikers with the defense lobbyists and the campaign dollars. …
On the biggest issue to me of importance to my grandchildren and future generations, and currently to all these unemployed people … you had Harry Reid, John Boehner and Barack Obama and you ended up with something like the 72nd anniversary of the Wizard of Oz: no brains, no heart, no guts. It was Oz. These three tried to do this private secret deal without having votes. They should have been voting all along. The Republican Party had the biggest opportunity ever to really nail this one.
- Our system of government has had its challenges over the past 200 years. First part, why has it remained so strong and second, would you ever entertain another run for public office?
Ney: Our forefathers were so, so brilliant. They created three branches of government. They created a very simple but powerful Constitution. They wanted to make sure we weren’t under a king. … They made checks and balances. It’s really a beautiful system that has remained. We are the greatest democracy. Unfortunately today, I think with electronics, … computers, information flow, it’s a wonderful thing but it also can be distorted very quickly. Members of Congress are engaged in the electronic world now, and they want to know how many hits are coming in on an issue, and I think the system has gotten away from the simplicity that our forefathers designed. …
The second thing, there would be so many decisions to make before getting back into public life. There’s not a week that passes that I don’t get an email or something about getting back in public life. … There would have to be several things. One, I would never run to run. I never did run to run. When I ran the first time I felt that our state rep had a good career but just wasn’t cutting it anymore. I always ran for a reason. I refused to run for Congress for a time, then I looked at it and thought we have a good opportunity, first time in a generation to balance the budget. That singular statement out of Newt Gingrich’s mouth took me from no to yes to run. … I wouldn’t run now … to make history, force them to seat me, they would probably try to not seat me. There would have to be other factors out there. It is not in my plans to run at this point and time, but you never say never.