After attending a confidential briefing on Syria last week, Beto O’Rourke said he wasn’t convinced. So El Paso’s freshman representative in the U.S. House said he would vote against limited military attacks on Syria, if given the chance.
But Democrat O’Rourke never had to cast that vote. Events intervened, pushing aside a request by President Barack Obama for congressional authorization to respond militarily to Syria’s use of Sarin nerve gas on its own people.
O’Rourke discussed his reasons for that position in last week’s Q&A. This week El Paso Inc. is publishing the rest of that wide-ranging interview.
Here, O’Rourke elaborates on his objections to the way things are in Congress, from the gridlock and the political parties’ fundraising expectations, to the jostling for high-profile committee appointments to be closer to moneyed interests.
The son of a former El Paso County judge, O’Rourke comes from an influential family made more so by his marriage to Amy Sanders, daughter of real estate mogul Bill Sanders, and O’Rourke’s six years on El Paso City Council.
But he is siding with reformers in the U.S. House, co-sponsoring a term-limits bill that would force members out after eight years and bucking the Democratic Party by speaking openly against Obamacare.
Why would he do that when El Paso leads Texas, which leads the nation, in the percentage of residents without health insurance?
Because the mandate on large employers to provide health insurance would lead to worker layoffs, force full-time workers to part-time, and only worsen El Paso’s endemic shortage of doctors.
“How do you fix it?” he asks. “I think going back to systemic problems in Congress, you have Republicans who will do nothing short of repealing it and you have Democrats who will do nothing short of sustaining the status quo.”
In this interview, O’Rourke also talks about what his days are like, what happens when El Pasoans come to visit and how, despite the long days at the Capitol, he still gets to spend quality time with his wife Amy and the kids.
Q: Didn’t the Houston Chronicle write about you, Sen. Ted Cruz and your fundraising practices recently?
Yes. I didn’t know this before the reporter called, but she said Ted Cruz in this 2012 cycle raised more money than anyone else in Texas from small donors giving, I believe, under $100. She said I was the second out of all Senate and congressional races and maybe statewide races as well.
For us, it wasn’t from a noble intent, it was necessity. I was running against an incumbent who had tied up a lot of the big money in town, and we were forced to do what is called “call time” where you sit in a room for two hours and call everybody you know and say, “Could you spare 50 bucks?” I was doing those calls all day long.
There are dues requested from the Democratic Party. My dilemma is I really don’t like and disagree with the system, but I also realize it is the system and is a part to how you’re effective. So, I’ve contributed, not the requested amount to the party – something short of that, maybe $5,000 total for the last eight months that I’ve been there. But I’ve also contributed to front-line freshman Democratic candidates who I think are going to be supportive of El Paso’s agenda.
I’m not free from participating in the system, but I can tell you I’m only doing it because I want to be effective, and I realize this is part of it. I can’t be the shining knight who’s righteous on this and doesn’t get anything done. I want to be the guy who gets something done for El Paso, but does so consistent with his conscience and keeps trying to move the reform agenda forward.
Q: What do they tell you happens if you’re not making your quota?
It’s all implied and never explicitly said. I think the implication is, “Do you want to move up? Do you want to be on that committee? Do you want to move up in the hierarchy of the leadership of the caucus?” Actually, that doesn’t interest me. I don’t want to be there a long time. Luckily, I’m on the committees I want to be on: Homeland Security is an excellent one for El Paso. Veterans Affairs, given the needs here, is where I want to be. I don’t want to be anywhere else.
I’m trying to stay uniquely focused on El Paso and actually, given the small successes we’ve had in the past eight months, I’m not so certain that I need to play that game. I’m learning, and I hope, frankly, not to be involved in that system.
Q: Does it always come down to pay to play in politics?
That’s certainly the easiest way to quickly move up and be effective. There are some great people though whom I’m getting to meet and want to learn from. There’s a congressman from Maryland, John Sarbanes. His dad was the senator of Sarbanes-Oxley fame. He’s the one who authored the Grassroots Democracy Act, which is I think the best campaign finance reform bill in the house. What’s great about him is he not only authored it and said this is what we should do, he’s actually living the legislation and proving the concept.
He has not taken a single PAC dollar from corporate or union PACs. He has raised a lot of money from large donors, people who “max out” by giving you $2,600 every cycle. But what he has done is put that money in an escrow account and he said, “I will not touch your money unless I can match it with small-dollar contributions from the breadth of my district.” So every precinct has to generate, I forget the number, $5,000 in $100 increments. “If I can’t pull in grassroots support, I won’t use your money. I’ll return it to you in the span of a year.”
He told me it has made him a far better representative and a more dominant campaigner because he’s forced to call the little guy, build a relationship with him. The person who gives $50 is now invested in the campaign. And, he’s in greater contact and more in touch with his district.
It’s a dark picture, but there are some bright people in that picture who give me hope that reform can be possible. I think all of us who are interested in reform agree that unfortunately, as obvious as the need is for that reform, it really will take a super scandal, most likely, to force that reform. There will be some level of corruption so terrible that the people will demand that their members of Congress pass something, do something about it. In my opinion, that Grassroots Democracy Act is ready to go, has its cosponsors and can then move forward.
Q: Regarding the fundraising practices of Rep. Sarbanes that you just described, are you doing that?
I’m not. I think his ideas are great. I think he’s incredibly courageous to do that. But no, I take PAC money. I try to focus my fundraising in El Paso. As the Houston Chronicle pointed out, we’ve been really successful and almost unique in Congress in raising a lot of small-dollar donations. But I have taken money from interests in Washington, D.C., so I’m certainly part of that system.
Q: You’re co-sponsoring a term-limits bill for Congress. What do you see as your own personal term limit?
Four terms, if that’s what El Paso wants to do in terms of returning me three more times and if that’s what makes sense for me and Amy and our family. I do not want to serve any more than four terms. I think eight years is what you can serve on the El Paso City Council, as mayor, as president. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in those limits, so I want to abide by that. It makes sense.
Q: Congressman Reyes said something similar at one point until he became a committee chairman. That changed everything.
I can understand that. I don’t think it’s a slam dunk. I’ve met many very smart people who said term limits are awful and will have unintended consequences of empowering the bureaucracy. It will remove institutional experience that you need to make informed decisions. I think there’s a lot of strength to that argument.
On balance, when I look at how dysfunctional Congress has become and its inability to address systemic issues like Social Security and Medicare and $16 trillion of debt, I think a lot of that has a lot to do with people who have been there too long. I definitely see the pros and cons, but I think the pros of term limits outweigh the cons.
They can’t even make decisions like passing a budget, which we haven’t been able to do in four years, or replace the sequester, which is destroying this local economy.
Q: Obamacare. When you were running, you were not very enthusiastic about it and were inclined to vote no. What about now? Part of it got delayed for a year by the administration. Some are trying to defund it. The House has passed bill after bill to stop it.
I feel the same as I did as a candidate and business owner who purchases insurance for himself, his family and his employees. I think the goals and intentions are noble and in many ways necessary.
As a taxpayer for University Medical Center, I don’t want to pay for the person who doesn’t have insurance and waits until they’re in critical need of care to go to the hospital and we foot the bill. I don’t want you to have worse health outcomes or your dependents. I want you to have the right to be covered regardless of your condition and I don’t want there to be a cap on your coverage. I don’t want the insurance company to say your treatment for this cancer has become too expensive.
All those things are positive, but the devil, as they say, is in the details. I don’t think there has been enough thought put into those details, and I’m hearing from business owners every day about the unintended adverse consequences of this very well-intended legislation.
I’ll give you an example: The owner of a restaurant with several locations called me to explain that he was going to begin to let people go and was going to have to significantly reorganize his business and send other employees into part-time because it was simply unaffordable. One of the unique dynamics no one has picked up on is that even when he has offered insurance to his employees, they declined it because the copay is more than what it would cost them to seek that care in Juárez, which is where they’re seeking it today.
It is what it is for that employer. In a community that has 8.5-percent unemployment, the prospect of employers letting people go or reducing them to part-time means less money flowing through this economy and fewer jobs.
So, that’s the problem. How do you fix it? I think going back to systemic problems in Congress, you have Republicans who will do nothing short of repealing it and you have Democrats who will do nothing short of sustaining the status quo. Both of those are dead-end policies, in my opinion. I think there needs to be, first, consensus that this is a well-intentioned but deeply flawed law and that we need to vigorously address the problems, including the large employer mandate and its unintended effects of firings and reduced hours. We need to fix that.
Maybe it’s a good positive first step on the president’s part to delay the employer mandate for a year, but that is the one that I am most aware of because I’m hearing about it on almost a daily basis.
Then the last thing, and this is perhaps the most important point for El Paso, according to sources I’ve seen, we have the longest wait times to see a doctor of any city in the country. We have one of the worst if not the worst doctor-to-patient ratios in the United States. Interestingly enough, the two countries that have similar ratios are Panama and Syria.
And Dr. Bruce Applebaum, who was until recently president of the El Paso County Medical Society, told me, you can mandate coverage, which we have done with Obamacare, but you cannot mandate access, and the problem in El Paso is access to doctors.
You can cover everyone, but if they can’t get in to see a doctor because the ability to practice as a solo practitioner in El Paso is becoming unaffordable, then what have you done?
Q: How is being in Congress impacting your family?
You know, that’s been a positive surprise. The typical workweek is I fly out Monday morning and, you can set your watch by it, you will vote at 6:30 Monday evening. Your last vote will be late morning Thursday. You can get on the 1:30 flight back to El Paso. So I am home four evenings of every week that we’re in session, and I’m away three evenings.
The August work session means I’m home for the entire month. I’ll be home the week of Thanksgiving; I’ll be home a full week in the spring. So it’s not been as bad as we thought. I brought Ulysses, my oldest, up for a week, the last week of Congress. If you’re under 12, you can come on the floor. He helped me cast all my votes. He started to shake down other members. They’d give him their voting card and say, “Hey, would you vote for me?” And he’d try to get a quarter out of them to do it. I took him to a DC United soccer game.
Q: Would you describe a typical day?
I’ll start out with exercise. I’ll run the Mall. It’s about four miles to the Washington Monument and back and about five to the Lincoln. So, I’ll do one of those runs, pick up breakfast in the basement of the Capitol and usually I’m at my desk by 8 or 8:30. Typically, it will be taking meetings in rapid succession. The Monday vote is scheduled, and after that it’s anyone’s guess, which makes life interesting.
Q: Lots of meetings?
John Meza, our scheduler, gets between 300 to 400 meeting requests a week, so he, my staff and I try to work through those. What’s been great about our strategy of focusing on these three areas is if the EPA wants to provide an update on an initiative, I’ll ask a legislative assistant to take that meeting. I don’t need to be there; it’s not one of our core issues. But if Customs and Border Protection wants to talk about their staffing model, I want to be in that meeting because it’s really important to us. So, we’re strategic on how we accept those meetings.
If it’s an El Pasoan, I take every single meeting. If someone from El Paso is there, my orders to my team are you make sure I get a chance to see them.
Then there are committee hearings and subcommittee hearings and sometimes they’re in conflict. I sit on two committees, Homeland and Veterans, and two subcommittees on each of those committees. Those meetings happen throughout the week.
In the evening, there are often votes. As we were trying to pass the farm bill, there were votes late, late into the night, well after 11 o’clock, close to midnight. You never know when dinner’s going to be. You pick up a slice of pizza or a burrito on the corner on the way home. Drink a beer, answer some emails and then start over again.
The luxury I have that Amy doesn’t have is that for those 14 hours, I can be 100-percent focused on what I’m doing. When I come back Thursday evening, I try to be 100 percent at home, spend a full day at the office on Friday, and unless we have a town hall meeting on Saturday, the weekend is with family and the cell phone off. Then I go back at 7:30 a.m. Monday.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.