There's something refreshing about change in the White House, according to Tom Latham, who held a town forum Tuesday morning at Luther College's Farwell Hall.

The eight-term Republican Congressman from Ames said there's vitality to the history-making Barack Obama administration. And due to the dire economic environment, Latham said it's time for everyone to work together.

Latham commended the president for doing a "very good job" with the military priorities he's set, including a more focused approach in Afghanistan.

He also said he supported the "very successful" handling of the Somali pirates, killed earlier this week by Navy Seal snipers. The pirates had been holding the captain of a U.S. ship for ransom.

But Latham said he's concerned about the government spending 80 percent more this year than last year.

Veterans' clinic

Latham provided an update on the community based outpatient clinic (CBOC) for veterans, which should be opening in Decorah by the end of 2010.

In two weeks, he said the Veterans' Administration would be sending out a request for bids for space the VA could lease for the clinic.

Winneshiek Medical Center Public Relations Coordinator Mary Marx said the hospital would like to be involved in conversations about the clinic.

She noted a CBOC provides primary care, but if a veteran needs surgery, they would still have to travel to the VA clinic in Iowa City.

"We have those (surgical) facilities here. We'd like to figure out something that serves everyone," Marx said.

Typically, when a new CBOC is established, Latham said the VA leases new or existing space, or space in a clinic or hospital.

"They would be using local lab services, but will still be referring people to Iowa City," he said.

"We want to preserve the VA system that has certain expertise not common outside the system, and utilize local resources. A lot of folks like to use their hometown doctor and facility. My goal is to have that option," he said.

"We'd like to make sure all options are explored," Marx said.

Latham said the VA ultimately makes the decision where the CBOC is located.

Latham added the VA's decision to locate a CBOC in Decorah was a result of the "really good, active group of veterans" who pushed for it. The Winneshiek Veterans Affairs Commission led a postcard writing campaign to federal officials calling for the need for a local clinic. Currently, veterans must travel in a van with other veterans to Iowa City for care, which makes for a 12 to 13-hour day by the time all have had their appointments.

Winneshiek Veterans Affairs Director Deb Monson thanked Latham and his staff for their help.

Immigration reform

Pastor Mike Blevins and Luther Campus Minister David Vasquez, both of Decorah, urged Latham to be a leader in immigration reform in the wake of the May 12 immigration raid in Postville.

"Since Postville is in your district, we hope you take advantage of the opportunity to tell our stories. I think a lot of weight will be given to your views," Blevins said.

As the public sees the human face of such raids, and the consequences to the local economy and community, Blevins said people are more open to discuss and support reform.

Blevins also referred to a Congressional Budget Office report that said immigration reform would stimulate the economy, and help business relationships.

"Some non-partisan voices are saying we need this," Blevins said.

"Postville is the poster child for immigration reform. The way (the raid) was carried out was horrible," Latham said.

The Congressman said employers seeking to fill openings need to be able to hire immigrant workers legally.

"The way to finally address the problem is to not have this illegal activity going on," he said, adding the management at Agriprocessors needs to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Because of Latham's familiarity with the situation, Vasquez said Latham should help educate his fellow politicians.

"A lot of your colleagues don't share the understanding you have and focus on misunderstandings and assumptions," he said.

These inaccuracies include the belief there's an easy legal way to come to the U.S. to work, and that the immigrant workers wanted to avoid paying taxes.

"Postville has gone broke without their taxes (since the raid)," Vasquez said.


Latham, who voted against the $787 billion stimulus package, said it devotes only about 4 percent of those funds for road and bridges and 70 percent for new government programs.

"Some say those are temporary programs, but nothing is more permanent than temporary government programs," he said.

According to Latham, 275,00 government employees will be hired to spend the stimulus money.

"And they don't go away. --- we've taken a big jump straight up in spending and that becomes the new baseline," he said.

Latham was questioned on the more than $500 billion spent on the military.

Latham responded the Department of Defense has the most wasteful spending and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld tried, but was unable to, reform it. He noted the Department of Defense is a separate entity from the VA.

"The Pentagon is the waste center of Washington," Latham commented.

He said defense funding is established politically throughout the country and that it's "extraordinarily difficult" to reduce it.

"Constitutionally, its purpose is to defend the safety of American people. There's no question it's gotten out of hand," he said.

"Politically, to get the votes (to reduce defense spending) is almost impossible," he said.

However, he said the president has proposed reductions in some of department's programs, which he said were "very wise."

War on drugs

When questioned about the escalating violence in Mexico due to the illegal drug trade to the U.S., Latham said he hasn't heard a serous discussion about the legalization of drugs to deal with the situation.

"That certainly could come up this year. The big concern today is securing the U.S. from overflow violence from Mexico along border communities. As far as the safety and security of Americans, it has not been a major issue," he said.

If the violence associated with the drug trade continues, there could be some discussion of legalizing marijuana, but Latham said it would be difficult to gain support for such a measure, since the drug is a "precursor to methamphetamine, heroin and other very addictive forms of illegal drugs."

When asked about a group of former law enforcement agents who support legalization, Latham said "they're probably a bunch of old potheads."

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) is made up of current and former members of law enforcement who believe the existing drug policies have failed in their intended goals. LEAP's mission is to reduce the multitude of unintended harmful consequences resulting from fighting the war on drugs and to lessen the incidence of death, disease, crime and addiction by ultimately ending drug prohibition.