A conversation with Sen. Jim Risch

By Cameron Rasmusson
Reader Staff

It’s been a tumultuous year and a half since U.S. Sen. Jim Risch (R) sat down with the Reader shortly before the inauguration of President Donald Trump. He dropped by the office during a Sandpoint visit Tuesday to share his thoughts on the state of Washington, D.C., and the biggest issues affecting Idahoans. 

Jim and Vicki Risch pose for a photo at the Reader office. Photo by Ben Olson.

Sandpoint Reader: Tell us a little about your visit today. What brings you to North Idaho? 

Jim Risch: What I try to do (when I’m back in Idaho), is get out and visit with local officials. … That’s why I spent some time with the (Bonner County) commissioners today. … They told me the issues they were interested in talking about, then they opened it up to questions. 

SR: And what were some of the issues that came up? 

JR: They led off with one I hear all over the state, and that’s fire funding. We’ve fought this battle for 10 years, and I told them finally I had good news for them. We passed a bill that changes the way the cost of fighting fires is paid for. We convinced our friends on the East Coast that fighting fires is a catastrophe just like a hurricane or tornado, and that’s where this money should come from. The reason for that is the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and, for that matter, some of the other agencies that have public lands, the percent of their budget that is spent on fighting fires has just been increasing and increasing. As a result, they don’t get the job done that they’re supposed to be getting done because they’re using their money to fight fires. So now for big fires — the ones that are very expensive — the funding is going to go through Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

SR: My understanding is the Forest Service really has to pick its wildfire battles because of that resource problem. 

JR: Most Idahoans don’t realize that the National Interagency Fire Control Center is in Boise, and for good reason. If you look at fire starts around America, it kind of starts in Boise and goes out. There’s more in our area than anywhere else. They have an administration that … brings in BLM, Forest Service, Bureau of Reclamation, tribal (government) — everybody. They allocate resources all over the United States. … Some people criticize the let-it-burn policy they have, and that is a pretty narrow policy except when they run out of assets. Then what do you do? You call the fire department, but they’re out on another call. … Their top priority is protecting human lives, their second is protecting property, the third is timber and government assets, but they have to make some very difficult decisions. 

SR: I’ve also heard about how much value many people are putting on cooperative programs between state and federal agencies like the Good Neighbor Authority. 

JR: That continues to grow. … When I was governor we passed a roadless rule here in Idaho, and that provided for removal of fuel and harvesting in areas that were surrounding very rural communities. … And of course you have the Good Neighbor Authority, and now you have fire funding moving over to FEMA, so the Forest Service will now be much better at identifying and actually working at removing fuel instead of fighting fire. 

SR: As far as local issues go, did you talk with the commissioners about the Scotchman Peaks vote? 

JR: We did talk about that. … The way this happened is the people of Bonner County, through their elected officials and various citizens groups came to me and said for the past 10 years they’d been working on a wilderness plan. I was impressed with the fact that it was a collaborative effort, because you don’t get anything done in environmental and forest land use anymore without a collaborative approach. After reviewing it, I thought that they’d done a good job and agreed on the condition that they put forward a referendum to see if people recommended it. Most people felt pretty good about it, and most people thought it was going to pass. There were people who were against it … so I committed and said, “Look, this is America. This is democracy. If it passes, I’m going to promote the bill, and if it doesn’t, that’s where I am.” … I committed to it ahead of time and have no intention of changing up my commitment. 

SR: Let’s shift to more of a federal view. We’re certainly living in some extraordinary times right now.

JR: To understand Washington, D.C., right now, you need to understand Donald Trump, because everything is viewed through the prism of Donald Trump, whether you’re for him or against him. There is no discussion of an issue that doesn’t involve Donald Trump. Either he caused the problem, or he’s trying to resolve the problem, or what have you. I’ve been in this business all my adult life, and I’ve never seen a human being that could capture the attention of people, for better or for worse, as much as Donald Trump does. 

I’m on the Foreign Relations Committee, so I meet with people from all over the world, and the first thing I hear out of their mouths is Donald Trump. Our European friends are particularly concerned. They’re wringing their hands about this, that or the other thing. And I tell them … “If you don’t like what’s happening, it’s going to end.” On Jan. 20, 2021, or Jan. 20, 2026, it’s going to change. 

… Donald Trump, whether you agree or disagree with him, everyone agrees he is different. And he is handling the presidency differently. … I’ve known every president more or less since Ronald Reagan. Most of them have been pretty stiff, but this is a guy you can sit and have a conversation with just like this. … He is very approachable. People say you can’t disagree with him, but I’ve disagreed with him several times. I’ve just never gone into a meeting punching at him, because that will not end well. 

But he’s different. You can tease him, he’ll tease you back. I remember (with) George H.W. Bush …  the first thing (staffers) say is, “Don’t touch the president!” And you don’t get that with him. … It’s entirely different than what we’ve experienced before. 

SR: We think of the presidency in such institutional terms, it’s easy to forget how much personality shapes an administration. 

JR: No question about it. His personal persona is very different than the public persona. Generally what you see is someone’s punching him in the nose and he’s punching back. But when you have a casual conversation with him, it doesn’t go that way. As result of that, you have a human being, and just like every other human being, he has some real strengths and some real weaknesses. All my life I’ve been in politics, the media — particularly the national media — tells us, “We hate you politicians! You never tell us what’s on your mind!” Well, they’ve got a guy like that now, and they don’t like that any better. 

SR: The recent tariffs have been controversial among Republicans and Democrats alike. What are your thoughts there? 

JR: I’ve probably talked to him about tariffs as much as anything, and so has everyone else. As you know, we Republicans are free traders. 

… He’s absolutely right about how the U.S. always winds up on the short end of the stick in trade agreements. Having said that, we’re also the 800-pound gorilla. We are 25 percent of the world’s economy, so when you’re doing deals with people, you usually wind up giving a little more than you’re getting. And that drives him crazy. You try talking with him about NAFTA, he just doesn’t like it. … But the president is heavily engaged. All of us talk with (Robert Lighthizer,) who is the negotiator, and the secretary of commerce and the president, who is hands on on this issue. He wants it resolved, we want it resolved. … He says be patient with me. We say we have been, and we are. And he gets that. So I think we’ll get there. I really do. And when it comes to financial stuff, this guy has been very successful. I’ve lived a long time … and I’ve never seen a time like this. Anyone who isn’t working right now doesn’t want to work. 

SR: I suppose the challenge now is getting wages to increase along with the cost of living. That’s certainly something we see in Sandpoint. 

JR: I don’t know what it’s like here. I’m more tuned into Boise … but when’s the last time you heard the words minimum wage? No one is going to work for minimum wage. 

… My anecdotal story is that we have a bunch of fast-food places: First Subway is hiring, then Taco Time is hiring. I went through four or five of those and got to McDonald’s, where the grandkids wanted something, and the woman says, “I’m sorry, but we can’t serve you for about 10 minutes. We’re backed up.” There weren’t that many customers, and this was a flagship store. Admittedly that’s anecdotal, but that’s what’s happening now. 

SR: Most of the attention is on the southern states, but immigration is another issue that affects Idaho in unexpected ways. 

JR: Immigration affects everybody. We are a country of immigrants, probably always will be. The problem is we are so polarized on the issue we’ve been unable to resolve it. It’s one that should be resolved. I thought we were heading in the right direction a few months back. I thought we had a fair trade: One side wants a DACA resolution really badly, we want border security really badly. And we are the only country in the world that doesn’t have border security. Other countries do it other ways. … We had three hikers step foot in Iran accidentally, they wound up with eight years in prison. That’s border security, but they’re willing to throw people in prison for violating their sovereignty. 

Once we get border security, we can talk about every other issue there is. But one thing we were concerned about is Idaho companies use a lot of foreign labor. They wanted to get an E-Verify program, which is a great program. People won’t be able to come here and get a job if they don’t have the proper documentation to get a job. The problem is that you can’t have an E-Verify program without a workable guest worker program. Down in southern Idaho in the dairies, a large number of people didn’t have documentation there. If you did E-Verify there, these companies would be out of business. And it isn’t just there —it’s numerous businesses. 

SR: Are there any issues important to Idahoans that have fallen through the cracks? That can happen with Trump constantly dominating the news cycle. 

JR: Amen to that! … But there have been a tremendous number of things. The Republican Party is remaking the federal judiciary right now. The most important thing a president does next to making war is the appointment of Supreme Court justices. He has one — a great guy, Kavanaugh — that’s coming up, and we’re going to get him confirmed. Who knows whether he’ll get another one or two on his watch. He did it the right way. The guys he picked were fabulous people. More importantly, the work gets done below that in the circuit courts and district courts. We have confirmed now 24 circuit judges on his watch. No president in the history of the United States has come close to that. By the end of the year, we’ll have even more then that. … If you look at the single greatest impact Donald Trump will have on America, whether he serves a second term or not, it’s going to be the federal judiciary. It’s going to last for generations. They really focus on taking people that are in their late 30s, 40s and early 50s that are going to be there for two generations. 

The veterans issues, we’ve done tremendous things there. But the biggest thing we’ve done is tax reform. That’s the holy grail for Republicans: lowering taxes and freeing capital. Capital is what distinguishes us from other countries. If capital is free and capitalists who have money can invest it, … great things happen. And that’s why we are where we are today.  

  

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