Thursday, September 14, 2006

Phone Conversation With Congressman Rob Bishop

I was wrapping up a phone call when I heard the call waiting signal. The caller-ID read, “U S CAPITOL.” “What’s this? Probably somebody selling something,” I thought, assuming that the rest of the ID scrolled off the right side of the screen. “Hello,” I answered sternly. “May I please speak with Mr. Hinrichs?” a pleasant male voice asked. “May I ask who is calling?” I asked sternly. “Rob Bishop,” came the reply.

The pause that followed must have made it obvious to the congressman that I was doing a double-take. I quickly shifted to my courteous tone and lamely said, “Excuse me, I’m not used to receiving calls from a congressman.” Thus began a phone conversation that lasted about six minutes. “He’s working late,” I thought, as I checked the clock and noticed that it was nearly 10:00 PM in Washington, D.C.

I posted here about attending a town meeting last month hosted by Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah’s 1st Congressional District. I had some questions I wanted to ask, but decided against doing so at the meeting. Instead I opted for sending a letter. I have been told by several sources that congressional staffs pay more attention to snail mail than to email, but Congressman Bishop gave me to understand that this is no long necessarily true. It seems to depend on the particular representative, but regular mail has begun to diminish in importance in Congress because paper mail now has to go through irradiation and anti-terror checking before it makes it to the representative’s office.

My letter focused on fiscal restraint, which I find to be sorely lacking in our federal government. I particularly focused my ire on congressional Republicans, since they have been in control of Congress and yet promote themselves as the party of small government. I wrote:
“I understand the need for proper defense spending in a time of war, but during your two terms in office, our Republican controlled Congress has managed to increase domestic spending at a rate of about 8% annually. We haven’t consistently seen this rate of spending increase since the socialistic program push of the 1960s. When it comes to spending, it seems as if our Republican-led Congress is like a group of alcoholics that know they have a problem, but seem completely incapable of doing anything about it.”
In the letter, I then asked Congressman Bishop what he is doing about this problem and I asked him about his support of three specific measures: bills that would create searchable online databases of all federal government spending, including grants and contracts, like S. 2590; the Truth in Accounting Act – H.R. 5129; and the creation of an Office of Taxpayer Advocacy (see here) that would be charged with the specific mission of representing the interests of taxpayers in opposing unwise or unnecessary spending.

I had expected to receive some kind of pro-forma letter from a member of Congressman Bishop’s staff, but I certainly didn’t expect a personal phone call from the congressman himself. I was surprised that he even placed the call himself instead of having a staffer do it. Here is how Congressman Bishop addressed my questions:
  • “The main problem with the budget process isn’t lobbyists or earmarks, but the basic nature of the process itself.” Congressman Bishop strongly believes that the problem lies in the amount of money available at the beginning of the process, which is currently more or less unlimited at the federal level. Having served as speaker of the Utah House of Representatives for eight years, Congressman Bishop is stunned at Congress’s lack of a system that would force fiscal discipline. In Utah, leadership has power to allocate specific amounts to specific committees, but nothing like that exists in Congress today. In effect, there is no logical limit to the amount of spending each committee can seek to appropriate. He is also very supportive of the RSC budget, which seems to be gaining more support with each passing year.

    But Congressman Bishop is also pragmatic with respect to political realities. “The fact is that a sophomore representative simply doesn’t have sufficient clout to get what he wants very often.” He has had discussions with leadership that have been quite well received, but he currently lacks the ability to push any of his desired changes through. He has plans to achieve goals of encouraging fiscal restraint and more federalism, but they are long-term plans. He discussed the long-term work of building coalitions and relationships that will eventually yield fruit by way of legislation. He expressed the thought that sophomore representatives that make themselves obnoxious can get lots of press, but they rarely actually get support for their proposals.

  • Congressman Bishop is completely in favor of transparency in government spending. S. 2590 is a Senate bill, but he would be excited to support a House version of it.

  • Congressman Bishop is one of 55 cosponsors of the Truth in Accounting Act, but notes that its chief sponsor is Chris Chocola (R-IN), who is also a sophomore. “It’s a great bill, but it’s not going anywhere this Congress.” It will have to be brought up again in the next Congress, and probably in the Congress after that.

  • Congressman Bishop opposes the creation of any new oversight or advocacy offices or agencies, since the ones we have are classic examples of bad government. “They either become weak and highly partisan, or if they are independent they become monsters that exceed their mandate, create all kinds of problems, and become impossible to deal with.” The former simply eat up money, while the latter create problems and eat up many times more money. “It sounds like a good idea on the surface, but in practice it would not accomplish what is hoped.”
I queried the congressman about his thoughts on the chances of the GOP retaining control of Congress in the November elections, since this is a very hot topic among political junkies. He demurred, saying that he does not consider himself a good prognosticator. He said, however, that while public sentiment seemed to run very anti-Republican during the earlier part of this year, the tide seems to be shifting.

Throughout the conversation, Congressman Bishop came across as courteous, very respectful of me and my opinions, very even-tempered (perhaps even to a fault), pragmatic, principled, and reasoned. Throughout the conversation ran a theme of his underlying thoughts about what good government is all about, including federalism, small government, and fiscal restraint. He came across as calm and somewhat quiet with a rock-hard resolve below that surface, and with a willingness to look across the long-term with respect to political achievements.

I cannot say that I agree with Congressman Bishop on everything, but I can say that the more I get to know him and about him, the more I respect him.


That One Guy said...

This is a good example of why idea of term limits and committee appointments by lottery may be a good idea. The halls of the Capitol are clogged with "tenured" politicians who pass their own interests, which may or may not be doing their constituents a favor. Some good, some, not so much.

Anonymous said...

This sounds exactly like Bishop. Pass the buck!! I can't do anything because I haven't been there long enough, the house can't do anything because of the Senate and courts.

All I see here are excuses, and that isn't what I want from my congressman. I want someone that can look at more than his party stance or his own ambition for power and committee appointments.

If you want to see what a real representative looks like just look to our second district. Matheson may not have much power, but the people know who he is and they like him. He sticks up for them, and doesn't just feed them excuses for why he doesn't do anything, like Bishop. And the fact is that he gets things done!!!

I guess I'll just be called a whiney liberal, but the people don't know who Bishop is, and that's the way he likes it. In my opinion this is just his retirement plan. He doens't have to do anything, and people actually buy that he's working for them.

And as far as it being late in Washington, that doesn't matter, he makes up for it by sleeping during meetings with constituents.

Reach Upward said...

Apparently, anonymous, you are unfamiliar with the way Bishop works politics. Check out his career in the Utah House if you want an example. He has a great record at building coalitions and at keeping spending down. You might not agree with his agenda, but while he's quiet, he is not a pass-the-buck kind of guy.

Matheson has a good track record, but he didn't accomplish much beyond the mundane in his first two terms either.

I am somewhat in favor of term limits, but I'm also somewhat ambivalent about it. Bishop credits some of his accomplishments to his staff, which mostly were holdovers from Jim Hansen. Who is going to limit the staffers' terms? If we limit the representatives' terms, the staffers, who know how things work in DC, could become the de facto lawmakers. On the other hand, experience shows that extended time breathing the rarified air inside the beltway turns most politicians into creatures of DC rather than creatures of their home districts. That is, assuming they ever really did spend time in their home districts (see U.S. Senators Hatch and Clinton).

It would be interesting to see committee appointments by lottery, but sometimes that would exclude people that have become bipartisanly respected subject matter experts. Perhaps it would be worth that sacrifice.

Bradley said...

Thanks for this report. As November nears I will be looking for similar reports from our other Congressmen. Like you, I'm fairly disappointed with our Republican congress.