U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, faced 175 unhappy El Pasoans at one of his town hall meetings last week, but they weren’t angry at him.
They filled the seats in Downtown’s Community Foundation Room to hear what he had to say about Syria, and the large majority of those who went to the microphones to express their views or ask a question were clearly opposed to any direct U.S. military involvement in Syria.
Of the first 18 people who spoke, at least half of whom were veterans, 15 wanted no part of yet another Middle East conflict, despite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s apparent use of the deadly Sarin nerve gas last month to kill more than 1,400 people.
O’Rourke made it clear that while he is open to persuasion by President Barack Obama, the administration’s experts and fellow members of Congress, his starting position is “no.”
Last week’s event was the former El Paso City Council member’s 11th town hall meeting since taking office on Capitol Hill, and he said the decision he has to make on whether to vote for war or against the president is by far the hardest and most important he has ever faced.
Though the administration characterizes the options it wants Congress to authorize as only allowing cruise-missile strikes from afar against Assad’s key military assets, O’Rourke says it is war and nothing less.
“If another country fired cruise missiles into the United States, there would be no question but that that’s war,” he said in a meeting the next morning with reporters at El Paso Inc.
His comments, the questions and his answers covered a lot of ground, from the upcoming vote on Syria to the mundane and minute workings of Congress.
El Paso Inc. is publishing the first half of the hour-long interview here. The second half of the interview, including his opposition to Obamacare, his surprisingly candid view of Congress and the term limit he’s set for himself, will appear in the Sept. 15 issue.
In this week’s segment, it is clear that the fledgling 40-year-old representative from El Paso isn’t happy with the institution where he works and that he is part of a minority smaller than the Democrats in the House that will change things drastically if they have their way.
He describes it in detail as a “very sick system” that begs for change.
“Unfortunately, that’s how it works. My dilemma is that’s how that works. I want to be successful for El Paso and to a degree I have to work with the system that’s in place. At the same time, I can’t be complacent and I can’t change that system, which I think is awfully close to legalized corruption,” he said.
O’Rourke tells how he was instructed to focus on raising money, seeking membership on committees that will give him access to big donors and not to bother trying to pass legislation.
But, as he told El Paso Inc., he has chosen a different path.
Q: When is Congress expected to vote on the Syria resolution?
They haven’t called a specific day. I’ll attend a classified briefing on Monday. A lot of the lobbying has already started. The president had the speaker and other congressional leaders over yesterday and they came out with their statement of support.
Q: How are you going to come to a decision?
Last night, we had about 200 people in the Community Foundation room who came out for a town hall on the subject. First, listen to the community. Second, to listen to the case that the administration is making. I have heard the public case, but I have yet to have the briefing so I want to do that. Third, and this is why I’m really glad the president made the correct constitutional decision to seek congressional authorization, I want to participate in the debate in Congress. I want to hear the arguments, and as I reach a conclusion, I want to participate in that debate.
But there are more unknowns than there are knowns. Will a strike have the intended effect of stopping Assad from using chemical weapons again in the future? Will it have the intended effect of sending a warning signal to other countries? Or, could it have unintended affects in both cases? Will Assad move those weapons into ever harder to find locations? Will he be more prone to use them because he is fighting for his life? Will we end up strengthening the largest faction of rebels, the al-Qaida group? What’s the extent of our commitment? If we have a limited military strike and then Assad uses chemical weapons again, must we not amplify that force in the next round of strikes? What’s the end? What does it cost? Who’s going to pay for it?
Here for me is the central question: An international norm has been violated: the 1925 Geneva Convention, which by the way does not have any enforcement mechanism tied to it. It’s incumbent on the international community to respond. That much I agree with. But, what is the unique responsibility of the United States to respond effectively unilaterally? Turkey and France don’t really constitute an international response.
And, I think there is a reason there are those five seats on the U.N. Security Council. If the world’s most powerful nations can’t come to an agreement on the use of military force and war – because this is war – then maybe it doesn’t make sense to move forward.
So, this is a great time to have this conversation. What is our role in the world, and do we really want to work in an international setting or unilaterally?
Those are considerations that I’m thinking about going into this.
Q: How are you leaning?
What I will tell you is – it’s very hard for me to answer the question positively. How does intervening militarily make the situation better? I haven’t been able to answer that for myself, but I want to remain open to the arguments from the administration.
Q: You said it would actually be war, but hasn’t the United States done this kind of thing before? I think of President Reagan’s attack on Libya, the Panama Canal intervention and others. These kinds of actions haven’t really been regarded as an act of war, at least not by Congress. Aren’t you putting the bar awfully high?
I think it’s war. If another country fired cruise missiles into the United States, there would be no question but that that’s war. And if we know anything, I think it’s that we cannot know the outcome of even a “limited military engagement.”
Who would have thought in 2001 that in 2013 we’d still be in Afghanistan? Dick Cheney famously said we’ll be greeted as liberators, we’ll be in and out in Iraq, we’re not into nation building. Etcetera, etcetera.
I think the Constitution is very clear on this subject. Then the War Powers Act in ’73 removed all doubt that only Congress, only the American people through their representatives, can declare war or enter into hostilities with another country.
And, there are some key differences between this situation and some of the others. This is a country that is at civil war with more than 100,000 killed so far.
It would be the third Muslim-majority country that we have attacked in the last 13 years or the sixth in which we’ve had some kind of military intervention, if you count Pakistan and Yemen and Libya.
Q: How do you think the Arab world would see it?
If you’re a 17-year-old kid on the street in Cairo, and the U.S. is firing missiles into Syria, what does that look like to you? I’m certain it looks like war to him. So, yes, I think it’s war. And, I think we cede the moral high ground when we’re not clear about what we’re doing.
The entire Arab world is watching. They’ve seen us prop up Hosni Mubarak in Egypt for decades, speaking democracy out of one side of the mouth and funding a brutal dictatorship on the other.
A number of Syrian Americans spoke at the town hall and besides all being against military intervention, their point was, “Do you really understand Syria? Do you really know what is happening there, why it’s happening, what your involvement will mean to the people of Syria and the Middle East?”
The very honest answer is we don’t. We’ve proven that over and over again through our involvement there, always well intentioned, always for the best of reasons and never with the desired outcomes.
On CNN’s “GPS” show on Sunday, Fareed Zakaria said if you want a textbook example on how not to conduct foreign policy, review the Obama administration’s actions.
Luckily, in my opinion, it’s in the Congress. It’s going to be debated and discussed, and we’re going to make a very deliberate decision and it will be informed I think by town halls like the one I had last night. Two hundred El Pasoans came out for that.
Q: We’re talking about no boots on the ground. Does that change your thinking at all?
No. Here’s an interesting comment made yesterday by Secretary of State John Kerry in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. He actually said there might be boots on the ground, which I think was a very honest response to the question. What if we or the rebels so debilitate the Assad regime’s ability to control his store of chemical weapons? We don’t want them to fall into the hands of the al-Qaida affiliated lead rebel group or other terrorists. We may have an interest in putting boots on the ground to secure those weapons. Then he had to roll the statement back for political purposes because he realized that might cost them the votes in Congress.
So, it’s being very clear about going into war with our eyes wide open, realizing that war is war, and you can call it many different things, and that you can never predict the outcome of your engagement.
Q: So, it sounds like you expect boots on the ground.
I think you should assume a possibility. I don’t think it’s wise for us to say we’ll never put boots on the ground. It’s important to have very clear objectives. I don’t know that we do. The case has not been made to my satisfaction by the president that we have a unique interest there and that we have clear objectives and that we’ll understand what success is.
Q: Of the first 18 speakers at your presentation regarding Syria, 15 were strongly opposed to military action, two were in favor and one was uncertain. Did that level of opposition surprise you?
No, for all the reasons we discussed.
I would say the majority of speakers were veterans with combat experience. That was particularly poignant to have people who have real-world experience in this.
This whole conversation is heavy with the recent experiences and our inability in Vietnam or in Afghanistan to have clear objectives and to clearly communicate them to the American public. I feel like we are repeating that, and many people in the audience felt that way.
This is by far and away the most difficult decision I have ever had to make and perhaps the most important decision I’ll ever have to make.
Q: A very significant majority of Americans are opposed to military action. Could you go against that and authorize military strikes, notwithstanding the opposition?
Yes, that’s my job. I think my job is to listen to all the evidence, listen to the arguments and the people that I represent and then make the best possible decision for my country, something that is consistent with my conscience. I felt I did that on City Council. There were things I voted for that were not popular, but I felt it was the best thing to do. So, I would feel comfortable doing that.
Q: What would you have to hear to vote that way?
I think the answers to the questions that I raised: What are our objectives, what’s the extent of our commitment, what will this cost? And is it right to respond unilaterally or should that be the responsibility of the international community?
Q: What are the risks if Congress votes no?
I think there are some great risks. The leader of our country has said there is a red line and there will be consequences if Assad crosses it and has said we will act unilaterally and that he wants the authorization of Congress. If he is rebuked in that, I think that’s a serious blow to U.S. prestige internationally. I think it could send the wrong message to Iran and other countries that have or are developing weapons of mass destruction that there aren’t consequences for the use or development of them. I think it could further embolden Assad.
But I think our interest is in a political solution to this versus a military one. We may not be able to get there, but I think that is the ideal we should be willing to work for.
Q: What has surprised you the most about the job of congressman?
That they set your expectations so low when you come in the door.
Q: What do you mean?
We, the 40-plus freshmen in the Democratic caucus, received a briefing when we arrived that was probably not unlike the briefing that the freshmen Republicans received. It was that you’re a freshman in the minority party, in our case. You will not pass any legislation or be able to get anything done. You should focus on raising money, winning re-election and returning us to a majority so that you can do those things you ran for in Congress.
Q: OK, what was the biggest positive surprise?
The biggest positive surprise is that doesn’t have to be how it works. We have chosen to focus on three areas: veterans, Fort Bliss and the border. We felt these were three areas where we might be able to make a difference, and I feel like we have. There was the public-private partnership legislation we helped pass. El Paso was one of five ports of all the air, sea and land ports of entry selected for the pilot. There was the veterans legislation that we successfully passed out of the Veterans Affairs Committee and the attention and accountability that we focused on the local VA.
At Fort Bliss and on Department of Defense (DOD) issues in general, we restored the tuition-assistance fund that was zeroed out in the sequester. Every soldier at Fort Bliss received $4,500 to go to EPCC or UTEP and that fund was zeroed out. My office authored a bill, the Tuition Assistance Act, and as a freshman Democrat, I recognized that we needed a heavier partner. My office found a partner in Joe Wilson from South Carolina who is infamous for yelling out “You lied” during the State of the Union. That was one guy I thought I wasn’t going to work with, but he’s on House Armed Services Committee and is passionate about soldiers and families. He’s in the majority party and he was the guy that helped us get it done.
Q: The bill then that passed restored the tuition assistance?
One hundred percent of it.
Q: And are you listed as the author?
I am. Like our ports bill that authorized the five pilot programs, the full bill is still pending, but the language of the bill is inserted in the continuing resolution that funds the government through the remainder of the fiscal year.
Q: Back to the fundraising. What kind of obligation has the Democratic Party put you under in terms of your raising money for the party?
I forget the number, but there is a suggested amount that you contribute to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee every quarter. It may be $5,000. For a freshman who’s not a ranking member of a committee, it’s pretty low. It may be a little more than that. If you are a ranking member or when you’re in the majority, a chairman, your obligations increase exponentially.
This is not a Democratic or Republican issue. Both parties do this. It’s a symptom of a very sick system.
When you’re a chairman of a committee, the implicit understanding is you have sway over legislation that’s going to affect the industries that are concerned with that legislation, and you can go to them and ask them for money. So, if you’re on agriculture, you go to big agri-businesses and you get money from them. If you’re on House Armed Services, you go to Boeing, Raytheon, Northrup Grumman, etc.
You have access to money because they have access to you. On Veterans Affairs, there’s zero expectation because there is very little money-vested interest in the legislation that comes out of that committee. That’s why it was so easy for me to get on Veterans Affairs.
Nobody wants to get on that committee because they can’t fund raise. Very often people are waved onto that committee. They didn’t get their first or second pick and they need to land somewhere.
Q: What does that say about the importance of veterans affairs in Congress?
It probably explains why the VA for a very long time has been so screwed up and unable to meet even its most basic obligations.
The wait time on a service-connected disability claim in El Paso is now over 400 days. You were injured in Afghanistan. You are unable to work at 100 percent. You’re filing that claim with the VA. Right now, you’re waiting more than a year to hear back. You may not be able to work or meet your mortgage obligation, etc.
Q: What advice did you get about committees?
When I talked to a senior member in Congress and asked their advice on committees, they said try to get on a committee where you can raise money, like energy and commerce. Unfortunately, that’s how it works. My dilemma is that’s how that works. I want to be successful for El Paso and to a degree I have to work with the system that’s in place. At the same time, I can’t be complacent and I can’t change that system, which I think is awfully close to legalized corruption.
To that end, I filed, co-wrote and coauthored the first bipartisan term-limits bill in at last 10 years in Congress with Jim Bridenstine, Republican of Oklahoma. The longer you’re there, the more these interests and access agreements you’ve implicitly developed.
In addition to the term-limits bill, I co-sponsored the Grassroots Democracy Act, which seeks to involve more average citizens in the money race. A guy I discovered as I was researching this, Lawrence Lessig, has written that there are really two races in a congressional race or, really, any political race. The first and maybe most important is the money race.
How do I convince these guys in El Paso that I’m viable, in keeping with their interests and hopefully the community interests and that they can fund me? Only when I win or am successful in that, can I move on to the second race to ask for your vote. Right now, I think it’s somewhere close to 2 percent of Americans participate in that first federal race, who contribute money.
More O’Rourke next week:
• The term limits he’s set for himself in Congress
• Why Obamacare is well intended but deeply flawed
• How his new job is affecting his family in El Paso
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.