Former Sen. Larry Pressler, R-S.D., warns that a day of reckoning is near.
“We have to admit where we are financially,” the 70-year-old told a few dozen reporters, Washington professionals, and curious citizens earlier this month. “Unless we do something, a day will come in the next five years when we have a cataclysmic event and the president of the United States comes on television to say, ‘People who aren’t paying taxes have to pay them, the middle class has to pay more, and wealthy people have to pay much more.’ ”
Speaking at “America Works,” a panel discussion on unemployment sponsored by the National Archives and the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, Pressler struck nerves on three mega-issues in Washington: taxes, jobs, and immigration.
“We have all these narratives reported in our life,” he said, gesticulating grandly. “Everybody believes that if we have a tax increase, the economy will slow down. Historically, that’s not true.
“We accept the fact that there’s 8 percent unemployment, when in fact there may be 2 to 3 percent real unemployment—there are jobs available, people just aren’t taking them.
“We accept the fact that we’re going to do something about illegal immigrants, but it’s not in our DNA to deport them,” he said. “Eventually, we’ll have to make them citizens.”
This is not the first time Pressler has dismissed Republican talking points or defied his conservative brethren. In 2008, the self-described “moderate conservative” voted for Barack Obama, citing the Democratic candidate’s stable of financial advisers, which included former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.
Serial apostasy was part of Pressler’s reputation on Capitol Hill. Elected to the House in 1974, he won the first of three Senate terms in 1978, and he eventually became chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Contemporaneous accounts describe him as a canny politician unconcerned with political philosophy.
“For years he was not taken seriously by colleagues,” wrote Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa in the 1996 edition of the Almanac of American Politics. “He seemed a classic example of the 1970s congressman who hustled to please the folks back home, opposing every congressional pay raise and voting for farm price supports and export subsidies galore. For a time in the ’80s he seemed to wobble from conservative to liberal—more in response to opposition back home than to any clear philosophic bent.”
Yet Pressler also had a reputation for moral rectitude, reinforced by his inadvertent involvement in the 1980 Abscam scandal in which six congressmen and one senator were convicted of bribery and conspiracy charges after taking payments from FBI agents posing as Middle Eastern businessmen. Of the lawmakers targeted by the sting operation, only Pressler refused a bribe, declaring, “Wait a minute, what you are suggesting may be illegal.”
Born in Humboldt, S.D., Pressler attended the University of South Dakota and studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. After earning master’s and law degrees from Harvard University, he served two years in the Army, including a stint in Vietnam. Before toppling an incumbent Democrat in the 1974 midterm elections, Pressler spent three years as a State Department legal adviser in both Washington and Geneva.
In 1996, after 22 years in Congress, Pressler faced Democrat Tim Johnson—then South Dakota’s at-large congressman—who tarred the incumbent as a Republican cipher. Pressler lost by a 2-point margin.
After leaving Congress, he practiced law at O’Connor & Hannan—which has since merged with Nossaman LLP—before establishing his own legal and lobbying firm. In 2002, he was an unsuccessful candidate for South Dakota’s congressional seat. In 2009, he was appointed by President Obama to the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. This fall, he will teach a course at Sciences Po, in Paris.
At the National Archives event, Pressler castigated both presidential candidates, saying that neither has campaigned on the issue of fiscal health.
“I’m so upset,” he said. “I want one of them to break out. Everything they’re talking about is on the margins.”
Sitting on the panel with him were former Reps. Bob Clement, D-Tenn., and Mark Kennedy, R-Minn., who agreed with Pressler’s dire economic prognosis, even if none of the three could agree on how to combat unemployment.
The heart of the problem, in Pressler’s view, is America’s sense of entitlement: “From 1950 onward, we really haven’t had a shortage of anything in this country.”
This article appears in the July 18, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.