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.”
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.