Robert Draper's new book on Congress — Do Not Ask What Good We Do — highlights several members of the U.S. House, including a couple from Texas. Draper, a correspondent for GQ (and a former writer for Texas Monthly) has written a number of other books, including Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush. Today's excerpt is about U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, from a chapter entitled "Coffee with Your Congressman."
At 7:30 on a spring morning in Ingleside, Texas, Blake Farenthold walked into the local youth community center and nodded appreciatively at the stock of Starbucks coffee and breakfast tacos that his staff had provided for whoever might show up. That had been the big question throughout the “constituent work week”: was he ever going to meet the majority of registered voters in the 27th District, most of them Hispanic, who had not bothered to vote in the previous election but would likely do so in 2012?
He had not met them at his town hall two nights ago, in the border city of Brownsville. That audience had been almost entirely Tea Party libertarian, most of them Anglos. Nor had he met them at last night’s town hall at a Corpus Christi elementary school. “I’m gonna be real honest with you — I’m a little disappointed with the turnout,” the congressman had said to the hundred or so who had filed in. Several of them were local Democratic activists. One of them trained a video camera on Farenthold throughout and had criticized the Ryan budget plan’s refusal to raise taxes on the wealthy while cutting programs to the poor and ending the Medicare guarantee. “Not all of us were born with a trust fund,” the Democrat concluded pointedly.
Farenthold had not responded to the matter of his personal fortune — which Roll Call had estimated at $8.51 million, placing him at thirty-ninth in wealth among the 535 in Congress. But he did conclude that evening by telling the activists, “Can you and I find some time to sit down and talk about issues and see where we can find common ground? Because I want a better life for this district and I just think we differ on how to get there.”
Of course, the “better life for this district” for Blake Farenthold, politically speaking, was to have a better district. The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature was on the case at that very moment. Assuming that it withstood court challenges, Farenthold’s new district would extend no farther south than Corpus and would instead be stretched northward along the Gulf Coast and then cut sharply westward into the Hill Country, like a bloodhound hot on the trail of conservative white constituents. He would no longer represent the border city of Brownsville, whose transit authority director had recently pled with him not to reduce federal funding for the city’s bus lines. The previous congressman, Solomon Ortiz, had procured millions in grants for the Brownsville Transit Authority. Farenthold had nothing to offer the director.
Still, for now, this was his district, and he intended to represent everyone in it. He had visited some of the rural community health clinics and could see their value. If the Republicans succeeded in repealing Obamacare, such clinics were the only answer for thousands of his low-income constituents. The clinics, of course, were being slashed as well.
It did, nonetheless, irk Farenthold, this wholesale dependency on, as he put it, “what can the government do for me?” At the previous night’s town hall in Corpus, the normally placid and good-humored congressman had suddenly become red-faced as he said in a rising voice, “As you listen to the budget debate and you listen to people saying don’t cut this, don’t cut that, the government’s got to do this, the government’s got to take care of that problem, I’m reminded of something John F. Kennedy said: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’ And it’s not the government’s job — this is the greatest country on earth! People are risking their lives every day to sneak into this country illegally, just for the chance to have an opportunity! And we are sitting here bickering! This is still the land of opportunity! We get there through hard work, self-reliance, helping our family, and helping one another!”
The JFK line “just popped into my head,” Farenthold said as he waited for the Ingleside crowd to trickle in. “And again, I feel like that’s what’s wrong with America today. We were built on rugged individualism and that’s the American dream: going out and becoming a millionaire as a result of the fruits of your labors and the brilliance of your idea, not by sitting home and watching Jerry Springer and getting your welfare check. ... If you talked to every successful person, they’ll have failed at something. I was fired at my first job at the radio station by the guy who’s now the Republican chairman of Nueces County and one of my biggest supporters.”
Why, exactly, was he fired?
“I deserved to be fired,” Farenthold grinned goofily. “It was, uh, a behavioral issue. I was sixteen, and indiscretions were committed.”
Committed in the radio studio, perhaps?
“No comment,” said the freshman, blushing somewhat.
The people from Blake Farenthold’s sliver of America filing in to have coffee with their congressman had greater preoccupations than the sins of his youth. The unemployment rate remained at 9 percent, and job growth had ground to a halt. On April 18, Standard & Poor’s downgraded its appraisal of the United States’ debt from stable to negative for the first time in the nation’s history. “We believe there is a material risk that U.S. policymakers might not reach an agreement on how to address medium- and long-term budgetary challenges by 2013,” the financial services firm intoned.
The looming issue of the moment was the debt ceiling. In a GOP conference, Speaker Boehner had warned his colleagues that failing to raise the ceiling would amount to “Armageddon.” That was not what Farenthold was hearing at the town hall in Brownsville the other night. The tea partiers in attendance maintained that such apocalyptic talk was baloney. Farenthold wondered if there was a way to leverage the issue into something that would please the conservative base. He wrote Boehner a letter about the debt ceiling matter just the other day.
“My fear,” the letter said, “is that the debt ceiling is very possibly a hostage we’re unwilling to shoot.”
Boehner had not yet responded to the letter. “Politically, I would be better off voting ‘no,’ ” he mused aloud. “But all the financial people tell me it’s gonna be Armageddon. So at this point I’m officially undecided.”
Gesturing to the people filing in, he continued, “The purpose of these town halls is to discuss this and get a feeling. Again” — he interrupted himself — “I’m a representative. And part of being a representative is listening to the people that elected you. But leadership is doing what you think is right. You’re a leader and a representative. And not always do those coexist. But you have to do both.”
He sounded more than a little miserable.
Nearby stood a white-haired man in a black T‑shirt. He stepped away, shaking his head. “I was listening in, trying to figure out if he’s left[-wing],” the man said of his congressman. With disgust, he added, “He’s left. Undecided on the debt ceiling, to me, is left.”
Farenthold began as he always did, as pretty much all of the Republican freshmen did — with a monologue on the nation’s debt, Washington’s addiction to spending, and the oppressive state of government overregulation. “Texas is particularly hard hit — it seems that they don’t particularly like us,” he said of the EPA. “No one gets fired in Washington, D.C., for saying no. We need to change that culture to where you get fired if you say no.”
The audience applauded warmly. Once again, Blake Farenthold found himself preaching to the Tea Party choir. The other voters of the 27th District had yet to surface.
His voice became sheepish as he turned to the nation’s spiraling debt. “We all went up to Washington on a mission to change things,” he said. “What I found is that the Founding Fathers set it up where it’s a little more difficult to do. We’ve got the Senate and the president to deal with. So we’re trying to put the brakes on the spending without creating too much of a situation where ...”
Farenthold stared at the floor and said nothing for several seconds.
“I’m just gonna say it,” he then continued. “There’s a real concern about shutting down the government.”
The reaction to those last words was instant, almost Pavlovian:
“Why? Why not shut it down?!”
“I lived through it before — we shut it down twice!”
“Didn’t hurt a thing!”
“And that’s what we need to talk about, and this is what I want to listen to you guys about,” he said hurriedly, a calming hand up in the air as he toggled from “leader” to “representative” mode.
The questions he fielded were uniformly of the antigovernment sentiment: the dubiousness of the debt ceiling, the foolhardiness of taxing the wealthy, the illegal immigrants on Medicaid. Then Ingleside’s city manager, a middle-aged man wearing a tie and lizard-skin boots, named Jim Gray, stood up. “You mentioned jobs,” he said. “Ingleside right now is probably the largest job creation area in this region. But it’s a small community, and about ninety percent of the people who work here live somewhere else. The infrastructure costs are borne by the city.”
The city manager was referring to the fact that Ingleside had been the home of a naval base that was designated to be closed in 2005 as part of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) program. The Ingleside port remained active, but the federal funds promised from the base closure program had not materialized. Gray continued, “We have a chance to put six thousand jobs in this area. We are a job creation area! And we’ve heard all the talk about what government isn’t going to do — but I’ve got a $15 million sewer plant and a $15 million road I need, and that doesn’t count the water tank we’re already going to fund with our ratepayers . . . Do we put it all on the backs of our taxpayers? Or do we come to you for help, when you were elected not to spend money? I mean, I get the dichotomy . . .” His voice trailed off helplessly.
Farenthold smiled, looked at his feet, shrugged. “Bring me a solution,” he said.
The city manager said that he would endeavor to do so, smiled bravely, and sat down.
The radio talk show atmosphere quickly resumed as audience members decried the big spenders in Washington. “As much as I hate to say it,” Blake Farenthold lamented, “what I’m coming to realize is that all we’re really able to do is put the brakes on. Imagine going real fast in a Flintstones car, and my heel is out there. I went to Washington to change the world, and all I can do is put my heel out.”
Pacing, the cherubic congressman awkwardly waved an arm and said, “You’ve got the Michele Bachmanns and that group out there saying, ‘Cut, cut, cut.’ And another group out there saying, ‘We can’t do that, or we’ll never get elected.’ ”
“But you will get elected!” someone in the audience protested.
“That’s the tension in the Republican Party right now,” Farenthold said helplessly. “The government was built on compromising. And it’s frustrating as hell.”
“But you didn’t get elected to compromise!”
“But you have to, if you want to get things done,” Farenthold mumbled. He sighed. “It’s a delicate tightrope.”
“The only time anyone compromises is when the Democrats want something!”
Farenthold nodded vigorously. “I said this during the campaign, and I’ll stand by it today,” he declared. “One of the problems the Republican Party has had is that we’re too fast to compromise. You can compromise on the little stuff, but you can’t compromise on your core principles.”
Almost to himself, he murmured, “I worry about it every hour of every day.”
From Do Not Ask What Good We Do, by Robert Draper. Copyright 2012 by Robert Draper. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.