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VOL. 123 | NO. 204 | Friday, October 17, 2008

Tennessee’s Tanner Prepares For 20th Year in Congress

By Bill Dries

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JOHN TANNER
Position: Congressman, U.S. House of Representatives, 8th Congressional District
Basics: Tanner will mark 20 years in Congress when he returns in January.
“We have to really consider where we are as a nation and try to turn the ship of state away from this reliance on deficit spending, particularly deficit spending financed by foreign investors.”
– John Tanner

John Tanner will mark 20 years in Congress when he returns to Washington in January. The Union City, Tenn., Democratic U.S. representative is running unopposed on the Nov. 4 election ballot.

Shortly after all of the votes are counted and the 8th Congressional District victory is certified, Tanner will travel to Valencia, Spain. The occasion is a North Atlantic Treaty Organization Parliamentary Assembly.

International influence

Tanner’s foreign policy experience becomes apparent starting with his lapel pin, which isn’t the normal congressional seal but two flags – an American flag and the NATO flag.

Tanner heads the U.S. delegation to NATO’s parliamentary assemblies. He was heavily involved in NATO’s reaction to this summer’s Russian incursion into Georgia.

He also has been closely watching events in Afghanistan where the European-American alliance has troops.

Tanner said the NATO session in Valencia is likely to be dominated by the role of the 26-nation alliance in Afghanistan as well as the recent Russian incursion into Georgia.

The organization, founded in the Cold War following World War II, has more influence than the United Nations, Tanner contends.

“The United Nations is a good place to go and talk about it,” he said. “But the United Nations is incompetent and incapable of going to a chaotic situation … and bringing order with a military capability.”

NATO now is weighing expanding its membership to include the Balkan region once dominated by the old Soviet Union.

“What we are finding with the Russians is an increasing belligerence,” Tanner said before urging NATO to go slow on extending membership to Georgia and the Ukraine.

“I think we need to give it a little time. Let it cook in the oven. Let Russia get used to the idea that the Balkan states are part of NATO.”

Dealing with crisis

Tanner, who served in the Tennessee Legislature for 12 years, succeeded long-time Rep. Ed Jones in 1989 when Jones opted not to seek re-election. Jones had focused for much of his career in Congress on agricultural issues. Tanner’s specialties have been the federal debt and foreign policy.

The two issues have converged, in Tanner’s view, with the economic crisis.

“We are now, in my judgment, creating a financial vulnerability that is a national security matter. … By our continued reliance and dependence on foreign investors to finance the operations of the United States government we, in my view, will someday give them leverage that we don’t want them to have over our policymakers,” Tanner said.

The interest on that debt is what is now generating most federal government spending.

“We’re transferring our tax base, whatever that may be, to interest, for which we get nothing in terms of infrastructure and health and education, which are the only things that will keep our country competitive in an increasingly globalized world,” Tanner told The Daily News this week during a visit to Memphis.

Tanner’s district reaches into Shelby County and takes in 18 other West Tennessee counties as well.

He was in the city the same day that President Bush announced a $250 billion plan in which the federal government bought an equity position in nine major U.S. banks.

“It’s quite an extraordinary step,” he said. “The bad part is that even if this operation on the patient works, the patient is still sick. We have a deficit problem everywhere one looks. … We have to really consider where we are as a nation and try to turn the ship of state away from this reliance on deficit spending, particularly deficit spending financed by foreign investors.”

That, he warned, will mean a “restructuring” of the federal government, its priorities and how it pays for them.

It’s not a new message for Tanner, who is a co-founder of the Blue Dog Coalition – a caucus of conservative House Democrats. The federal debt and deficit spending have been the Blue Dogs’ core issue since the caucus was founded in 1994, a pivotal period in the balance of power in Congress and for Tanner.

When Al Gore gave up his U.S. Senate seat to become vice president in 1992, then-Gov. Ned McWherter made no secret of his desire to appoint Tanner to the open Senate seat. But Tanner took himself out of the running, preferring to remain in the House and keep a seat on the House Armed Services Committee.

Two years later, Republicans became the majority in the House and Senate. Tanner switched from Armed Services to the House Ways and Means Committee in 1997.

Tanner was among those in Congress who voted for both versions of the bailout bill channeling hundreds of billions of dollars into the financial and banking industry. He authored the “recoupment clause” in both versions setting terms of the payback for the government’s purchase of mortgage-backed securities.

“It basically said that at the end of the day, after the buying of these securities, there will be an accounting,” Tanner said. “And to the extent there is a shortfall of the Treasury, there will be a fee placed on the industry eligible for the program over time to recoup that to the Treasury. We can get away from the idea that this is a bailout of some bad actors.”

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