Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker’s name comes up a lot, sometimes in surprising contexts.
For instance, during the recent Insure Tennessee debate, when some of the senator’s own words were used to attack Gov. Bill Haslam’s health plan.
Long before Insure Tennessee, Corker had accused states of using “gimmicks” to fund Medicaid. That blunt talk came back to bite him, as critics pointed out that Insure Tennessee rested on one of those very techniques.
A tough spot, politically. But Corker shrugs it off.
“I don’t know. I think everybody tries to make the best arguments they can to further their points of view."
Though he's taken on an elevated role in foreign affairs, Corker made his reputation in the Senate by specializing in banking and the federal budget. Quick with the quote and a tenacious student of policy, he has been one of the most outspoken members of Congress on some of the most pressing domestic issues the country has faced.
It may have caused trouble for Haslam, a long-time friend. But Corker doesn't seem to regret having staked a position on an issue as complex as Medicaid.
“I certainly appreciate the governor’s efforts. … Do I assume governors around this nation are going to take advantage of every opportunity they have to leverage resources for their own citizens? I do. But at the end of the day, it’s probably not an issue that’s going to be dealt with any time soon.”
Corker is somewhat more optimistic that Congress will tackle highway funding, another topic where he's staked ground.
Last year, he proposed a nearly 40 percent increase to the federal gas tax, which hasn’t gone up since 1993. The idea hasn’t gone anywhere, but Corker says it has at least sparked a discussion.
“Certainly the gasoline tax would create permanent solution. … That is one solution, but there are some others that are beginning to percolate and what I think I’ve done is push this conversation to a place where we’re now beginning to talk about permanent solutions.”
Corker believes Congress is prepared to loosen regulations on small banks. Many say they’re struggling under the financial reforms passed in 2010 – rules known as “Dodd-Frank” after the senators who sponsored them.
These were meant for Wall Street firms that have grown too big to fail. But Corker says the costs of complying with Dodd-Frank have wound up being a drag on small-town lenders.
“These are typically people that you’d see at the Rotary Club or the Lions Club or Kiwanis Club or the Chamber of Commerce in local communities. They’re the people that, you know, are part of making our communities thrive, and yet, they’re just being absolutely – there’s an avalanche of regulations that they’re having to deal with.”
Q: Does that mean exempting them from Dodd-Frank or rolling back Dodd Frank for the Wall Street banks as well?
“No, no, no. It means in many cases exempting them from regulations that have nothing to do with necessarily good lending by community banks. I mean, they really are being held to standards that banks of their size should not be held to.”
Banking and the federal budget seem far removed from the issues of war and peace that Corker deals with as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
But there’s one place where the two roles intersect – Fort Campbell. Corker says he’s attuned to the possibility of cuts at the military base, and he understands the importance of the personnel who are trained there.
“I’ve seen them in action in the Middle East. I’ve watched what our Special Ops people do. Fort Campbell has a very, very special place. ... Our main thrust is to ensure that the cuts that take place are not arbitrary. They’re not just across-the-board kinds of things. But that people understand, again, the unique role that Fort Campbell is playing right now in our nation’s security.”
Even as he takes over the Foreign Relations Committee, Corker says his office will continue to monitor discussions around Fort Campbell.