Senator Levin has had enough

By Evan Thomas

By Carl Levin, Contributing Writer

Carl Levin is the longest-serving U.S. Senator in Michigan’s history. Born in Detroit, Levin is a Harvard alum, steadfast Democrat and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services. Earlier this year, he announced that he will not seek re-election in 2015, effectively ending his now 36 years in office. But sentimentality, he says, hasn’t infected him just yet. Instead he seems entirely driven by the tasks at hand, and there are many. However, earlier this year he announced that he wouldn’t be seeking a seventh term in the Senate.

The Chronicle had the chance to talk with Levin about his tenure as a U.S. Senator, senate investigations he has led and his plans for the future.

THE CHRONICLE: What made you want to enter politics in the first place?

CARL LEVIN: My father was interested in politics. My older brother, Sandy is now a Congressman. Every night at the dinner table I heard about President Roosevelt and his deal and how important it was that average people be given a hand, that the little guy be given support so he has an opportunity. So it was dinner table conversation as a kid.

Earlier this year you announced that you wouldn’t be seeking a seventh term in the Senate. After all the time you have spent in Washington, what do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

I can’t look back to figure out how to answer that kind of question. I’m just too busy with the work ahead of me, so I have not gone back to look at 36 years of work. [I] won’t do that until I’m done.

Do you have any plans for life after the Senate?

Nope [and for the] same reason. I’m focused on what I want to do in the next six months. I’m chairman of the Armed Services Committee. We have got men and women in Afghanistan and we have got some people going into Iraq. We have got lots of problems around the world that I’m involved with one way or another. I’m chairman of the permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. We’re looking at years and years of tax avoidance schemes that some of the biggest, most profitable companies in this country have used to avoid paying taxes. We’re looking at how some of our most profitable companies are even willing to move their headquarters out of the United States to avoid paying taxes. We’re looking at Wall Street speculation, commodities speculation. So I’m very very busy with what’s ahead of me. I’m not trying to figure out what I’ll do when I’m done.

You introduced the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act and questioned Tim Cook about Apple’s habit of shifting their profits into shell companies located in countries like Ireland and Lichtenstein. How big of a problem do you think this is, and do you think the act would provide the kind of oversight necessary to rein in these kind of tax avoiding strategies?

It is a huge problem. There are hundreds of billions of dollars a year that are lost to our treasury by shifting intellectual property to yourself overseas, which a lot of companies do by changing the addresses of their headquarters to avoid paying taxes. The subcommittee estimated at one point that it was 100 billion dollars a year. I think that was very conservative. In the meantime, we are cutting important programs for education, and young people are paying high interest rates for education. We’re gonna run out of money in a month or two, transportation projects are just going to be stopped right in the middle unless we find additional revenues or ways of keeping them going until the end of the fiscal year. So we have some real needs for revenue in this country and at the same time we’ve got major companies that are very profitable, who are finding ways to avoid paying the taxes that they ought to be paying. So it’s a big issue, and it’s not just a theoretical issue. It affects whether or not we’ll be able to do what we need to do for everything from education to roads to healthcare.

Through various committees you’ve led investigations, as you said, into the 2008 financial crisis, abusive credit card practices, money laundering, to name a few. What’s your strategy for questioning someone who might be doing their very best to squirm out of giving an honest answer?

Well there’s three things you have to do. Number one, you have to really study the issues, know an awful lot about it, so you can tell when someone is not answering or not answering truthfully. But in order to do that you’ve got to really put in the time to get into the details of issues, so you know a lot about issues that be very technical, like international tax issues. That’s the first thing you have to do, spend a lot of time comparing and studying, understanding the issues. Secondly, you’ve got to listen, and a lot of people don’t listen. That’s true in the Senate and that’s true in the world generally. People don’t listen enough, and carefully. So the second thing you have to do is listen. The third thing you have to do is, if the witness isn’t being responsive or is being invasive, you’ve got to keep asking the question. You have to find new ways to keep asking the question, but you’ve just got to keep asking. You’ve got to be tenacious and not except BS for an answer.

Where do you think America stands today in insuring that all Americans have access to the right to vote, specifically in regards to the passing of Voter ID laws in many states?

These Voter ID laws are just excuses to dampen voter turnout, and I have never seen a Democrat yet want to find a way to reduce turnout. There are Republicans now who, I don’t want to label every Republican, but too many Republicans who control state legislatures that do everything they possibly can to figure out a way to reduce turnout or to scare people from voting, or find other ways to reduce the number of people who vote. Because the higher the turnout, usually, the more Democrats there are. To determine the validity of that you can just look at turnout in a Presidential year, where Democrats do better when the turnout is bigger. Compare that to the results in the off-year elections, where turnouts are down and Democrats don’t do as well. I’m going to have to leave you there, I’ve got run along to another call right now.