Hurt Pained By Lack Of Capitol Gains

Published 5:04 pm Thursday, October 6, 2011

FARMVILLE – Mr. Hurt has gone to Washington.

And he doesn't like a lot of what he sees.

Even the Washington Monument is cracked.

Robert Hurt has only been a congressman for nine months but he's already so frustrated by partisanship and the “pitiful” legislative pace that any gloss the nation's capital may have seemed to possess has dimmed considerably.

Congress is an unenjoyable work environment and he doesn't know if he wants to be there 10 years from now.

The Fifth District Republican is also well aware of nationwide public anger over the partisan gridlock. He's angry, too.

“People ask me if I'm enjoying my time in Washington. I enjoy the people I represent. It's an honor to represent them. I enjoy the people I work with. I'm very proud of the staff that we have. But I can tell you, it's not an enjoyable place to work, when it comes to actually, at the end of the day, laying your head down and being proud of what you've accomplished,” he told The Herald in an interview last week. “It's very frustrating.”

Is it the place he wants to be 10 years from now?

“Umm, not sure. Not sure…If we could balance the budget,” he answers, pondering and musing. “You know, somebody asked me one day, they said, 'Robert, if you can do anything what's your solution? You're the new guy. What's your solution?' I'd like to balance the budget in one term and go home is what I'd like to do.

“I don't know what 10 years looks like,” he said. “My only focus, my only commitment is to get the budget balanced, get us on a sustainable path, for my three boys and for all the children that I represent…”

The pace of legislative accomplishment seems almost non-existent when compared with life in Virginia's General Assembly, and that surprises him most, so far, about being a member of congress.

“I was probably prepared for this. I don't know if this was surprising, but I will tell you that, coming from the state legislature, it is the pace,” he said. “Despite how busy we are when we're there in terms of just consuming the day with meetings and so forth and votes, the process is so slow.

“In the first quarter, the first three months that we were there, we probably voted on, from the floor, a couple of dozen bills. During that same period of time in the General Assembly, granted not always acting as responsible as we might like, but generally speaking they deal with 3,000 bills in two months. And we voted on a couple of dozen. It's pitiful, if you ask me,” he said, “and I think that's been frustrating.

“And then the partisan nature.”

Ah, yes, the partisan nature, as much a part of nature in Washington, D.C. as the famous cherry blossoms and the Potomac River.

The congressman has found that partisanship is so deeply rooted in the structure within Congress it is impossible to avoid.

“One of the things that I think is a symbol of how there's a culture there that is designed for partisan battle-you have a committee process. Committees are where the work's done. In Richmond…we had one committee staff that served the chairman and all the members, regardless of whether they were Republican or Democrat.

“So when the Houses flipped (from control by one political party to the other) you have the same people working there. People had institutional knowledge and they were there to serve the body, to serve the committee and to serve the people of Virginia,” Rep. Hurt said.

“You go to Washington-I couldn't believe this-they had two separate committee staffs. One for the Republicans and one for the Democrats. Stop and think about that for just a second. You've got the Republican committee staff that's committed to Republican principles, and Democrats committed to the Democratic principles,” he said, “perhaps all in good faith, but at the same time you're setting up a conflict where a lot of times, maybe, conflict doesn't need to exist…It's a culture in Washington.”

It ain't fixed so…

“It needs to be broken,” he said of that built-in partisan structure.

The American public is decidedly angry about the partisan gridlock that has been pushing the nation toward the brink of loan default and running out of money, blaming both parties in Congress and the White House.

Rep. Hurt doesn't need a microscope to see the anger and frustration.

“I can tell you that people are very, very frustrated with what they view as unacceptable gridlock in Washington. I can tell you I agree with that completely. I agree with that assessment completely,” he said. “I am optimistic that we are going to get through this but it is not going to be easy. And the questions we are confronting, on both sides, at some level I think there's good faith philosophical differences that we have to bridge.

“But I understand completely the frustration and I can tell you there's nobody more frustrated by it than I am. Especially coming from Richmond where 90 percent, or maybe even more, of the legislation that gets passed is done in a very workmanlike responsive way, as opposed to Washington where it seems the whole system is set up to thwart agreement and bipartisanship,” he said.

So, how does it feel to get out of Washington?

“Very nice,” he answered. “Very nice.”

But he will have to return to the halls of congress and its partisan committee meetings. Does he really believe it is possible for congress to work together effectively in a bipartisan way on issues that really matter, like the economy?

“Yeah,” he said. “First of all, we have to. I will tell you, and this is frustrating for me because I think that people that I represent expect me, expect us in Washington, to just get it done. Period. They don't want to hear any excuses. They want us to get it done.

“It sort of reminds me of the way I feel about my children when I hear them fussing upstairs in the bedroom. I don't really care whose fault it is. I just want you to get it fixed, right? Just stop it. And I think that's what people expect of their representatives in Washington,” he said.

“I don't want to hear excuses but I will tell you that my frustration is compounded by the fact that since January on the House side we've taken very serious, serious, serious action in terms of trying to promote job creation. We've sent dozens of bills from the House side down to the Senate and Harry Reid and the United States Senate haven't done anything. These are jobs bills that are stacking up. These are bills that would make it easier and less costly for people to run a business, to stay in business, and make it more attractive for them to hire and reinvest…”

Ironically, GOP House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor has declared the House will not vote on President Obama's jobs bill in its entirety, that it will not be brought up for a vote.

Symbolically, even the Washington Monument is cracked, broken and shutdown as the interview at The Herald is underway, so how is this bipartisan bridge going to be built?

Rep. Hurt points to President Obama and the White House.

“He's talked about the need to cut spending. There's so much on the table, so much opportunity there to cut spending. Let's sit down and talk about the specifics. And we have. He talks about tax reform. I'm hopeful that at the end of the day we might issue some tax reform. I am hopeful that we will have the opportunity to pass something, some significant tax reform, but that is going to require a tremendous amount of political capital that he is going to have to spend and it's going to require everybody to do the hard work,” he said.

“If you want to do what I think we need to do, and that's broaden the tax base, make it apply more broadly. Get rid of the special interests who are feeding at the trough, get rid of those tax giveaways, and then lower the rates, we can do that and it would make our country far more competitive, I think.

“But I will tell you this from a practical standpoint, (tax reform) will absolutely have to be one big package because there's no way you can do something that huge and that politically sensitive. There's no way you can do that (piecemeal). It's got to be all part of a package,” Rep. Hurt said.

So, bipartisanship isn't a hopeless dream.

“…I think there are opportunities for us to get together,” he replied, “especially on things that we can all agree on…”

But what about on the issues where there isn't agreement, such as the issue of tax revenue, the possibility of raising tax rates or eliminating tax cuts.

Politics has always been referred to as the art of compromise, so does he see the possibility for compromise on the issue of tax reform, in terms of perhaps additional revenue?

“I think that that's going to be a much harder sell…My sense is that people don't think that Washington has a revenue problem. And I don't believe that it does. We have a spending problem,” Rep. Hurt said. “To the extent we need new revenue or to create new revenue it needs to come from the dynamic of the private sector. It needs to come from a growth in jobs, from growth in the economy. That's what I believe will drive revenue. That's where we need to get our revenue from. I think the idea of putting additional taxes and creating class warfare, I think it's wrong to burden the economy with additional taxes at time we need people to be growing new jobs…

“Let me just say about the whole issue about the compromise. I'm always going to look for ways to find agreement with whoever I'm dealing with, whether it's people in my own party or people on the other side. I think you're right. It's critical,” the congressman answered.

“But what I think we have to be careful about, with all due respect to those who want us to compromise at all costs, in my opinion the reason why Washington has become what it has become is because year after year people have gone to Washington and said 'We're going to compromise.' What they mean in Washington, what compromise means in Washington is different than what it means in Farmville. What compromise in Washington means is everybody gets everything they want. Because there's no check on it, because we can borrow 40 cents on every dollar we spend. That's what compromise in Washington means,” Rep. Hurt said. “That's what's gotten us into the problem so I don't subscribe to the compromise at all costs. I think we really have to drill down and make compromises that are good for the country, not just giving everybody what they want…

Rep. Hurt mentioned 'class warfare,' a phrase widely used on the GOP side of the aisle to criticize President Obama's position on economic reform. But is it really class warfare? Ronald Reagan raised taxes more than half a dozen times?

“What I mean by that is not that the tax policy in and of itself creates class warfare. What I can't stand is the politics of it. It's the rhetoric. It's all of the class warfare rhetoric,” the congressman said. “You can talk about corporate jet owners if you want. The dirty secret about that is the revenue that would be raised would be nothing, but does it sound good to pit corporate jet owners against children? That's what the president did in his speech when he came to congress. That's what he did. He said it's the millionaires and the millionaires versus the children. Give me a break. That's not leadership. He's running for 2012. That's what I cannot stand. Let's take the rhetoric and the class warfare out of it”

(President Obama said this in a press conference this summer: “if we do not have revenues, that means there are a bunch of kids out there who do not have college scholarships. It might compromise the National Weather Services. It means we might not be funding critical medical research. It means food inspection might be compromised. I've said to Republican leaders, 'You go talk to your constituents and ask them, 'Are you willing to compromise your kids' safety so some corporate-jet owner can get a tax break?'”)

Partisanship provides stern challenges in any year, but how much more difficult does it make that we are basically in an election year, even though the election is next year, with the primary race going on for the Republicans and the rhetoric there, and that stirs the pot. And then Democrats and the White House respond to the rhetoric from the GOP candidates seeking the presidential nomination and it all mixes up in congress. How much harder is it?

“Oh, it makes it impossible,” the congressman said, without the slightest hesitation, but he professes to be an optimist. “…I believe at the end of the day they (Senate) will listen to the people that desperately want a revived economy and want our country to have a balanced budget. But it is so disturbing to see the elections ramping up and it means you've got people who are more worried about the next set of elections when you have an opportunity now to solve these problems. I can't tell you how frustrating it is. And I don't blame just the president. Obviously it happens on both sides. Everybody rushes to their (political party) base, rushes to the edges. That makes it almost impossible but I'm a hopeful guy.”

What lessons has he learned in congress so far?

“It's been a fascinating experience, being in Washington, seeing how great the challenges are that we have. I guess the lesson to draw from it is that we need to be more like the commonwealth of Virginia,” he said.

The biggest difference between congress and the General Assmbly?

“The discipline the comes from having to balance the budget,” Rep. Hurt answered.

And what, nine months into the first year of his first term, is he most proud of?

“Despite all the challenges, I am proud of the work that we've done on the House side to push the country in the right direction. I'm very frustrated by the fact that we can't break through.

“I would like to be proud of the fact that I have been true to what I said I was going to do in the campaign,” the congressman answered. “I don't think anybody can look at what I said in the campaign and look at how I've represented the people and say that I haven't been consistent. And that's very important. You tell people this is what you're going to do and then you go up there and you stand for it and you raise your voice for them and I'm proud of the fact that we've done that…”