Supporters of Rep. David Dreier (R) in upscale Malibu, Calif., where he bought a house three years ago, urged him to run in a district there after the one he represents was dismantled by redistricting.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to live in Malibu so I can live back in Washington!’ That wasn’t quite my goal,” the 16-term lawmaker recalled in an interview from his Capitol office.
Kidding aside, Dreier, who has a large say in the way the House functions as chairman of the Rules Committee, is a staunch defender of Congress. Not the idea of Congress or memories of the good ol’ days, but the current, tea-party-infused, 12 percent-approval Congress.
“I said that this institution is as great as it’s ever been. That’s what I said. And people are just kind of like, ‘What? What are you talking about? We have this abysmally low approval rating.’ You know, the approval rating is not the determinant of the success of the institution,” Dreier said.
As evidence, he pointed to last year’s passage of free-trade agreements with Panama, Colombia and South Korea —“the largest bipartisan vote on trade agreements that I ever remember” — and the current debate over budgets, saying, “I mean, right now we’re in the midst of debating six budget proposals.”
And the Republican said he is often thanked for allowing more amendments to be considered from his wielding of the Rules gavel.
“I rarely go through a week that Democrats — and, of course, Republicans — that Democrats don’t stop me and say, ‘thank you, thank you, thank you,’” Dreier said, mentioning Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) as one colleague who praised him for helping her on amendments.
But Dreier is also looking at the issue differently than a lot of people who criticize a lack of quick, neat legislative progress.
“James Madison described this institution, the process of lawmaking, it should be ugly and messy and difficult,” Dreier said.
Recalling an episode early in the current Congress, when an amendment vote-a-rama on a continuing resolution took all night, Dreier said such activity was “not only part of it, it is an important part of it.”
Dreier has often worked on building legal institutions overseas — “I feel as if I’m sitting with maybe James Madison in the summer of 1787 when I am in these countries,” he said — and he shared an anecdote on the messy process of legislating from one of those experiences.
“I was sitting with the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, this amazing woman. She just won the Nobel Peace Prize. ... She’s the first woman to be president of any of the 54 countries on the continent of Africa. And when I was talking to her about this one time sitting in Monrovia, Liberia, I was saying, ‘I’m going to call my book “An Ugly, Messy, Difficult Process.”’ And she looked at me and said, ‘David, but you forgot one thing. Yes, it’s an ugly, messy, difficult process. But it works.’
“When I say the institution is as great as it’s ever been, I think back to Feb. 28 of 1890. All one needs to do is look at those black spots on the stairs of the second floor to the first floor of the Capitol. And those are there because a former Congressman from Kentucky got into an argument with a reporter from the Louisville Times. The Congressman pulled the reporter’s ear, [and] the reporter turned around and killed him. Just like that,” Dreier said, referring to Charles Kincaid’s murder of Rep. William Taulbee (D-Ky.).
House Republicans will be losing a major source of institutional memory when Dreier leaves in January.
But he was quick to explain that leaving Congress was his choice — not something forced on him by the redistricting process in California.
“Redistricting had nothing to do with my decision,” Dreier said, noting that he had decided to retire prior to the current Congress but was persuaded by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to stay on.
The California Republican said there were three districts he could have run in, including one Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.) is now running in.
Dreier said he held off on announcing his retirement because there was still a potential of the district lines changing. If the lines changed and he decided that no other Republican lawmaker could have held on to the seat he currently represents, he would have run again, he said.
After more than three decades in Congress, Dreier said he’d changed his position on a number of key issues. But he regrets one vote in particular.
“Martin Luther King is a real icon. ... There was an argument made that we had so many federal holidays, we didn’t need more. I voted against Martin Luther King’s birthday as a holiday. And that’s, you know, a regret that I have,” Dreier said.
One issue he’s evolved on in particular are proposed amendments to the Constitution.
In 1995, “I thought that the only way we could really turn the corner on this was to amend the U.S. Constitution to require a balanced budget,” Dreier said. “And two years later we balanced the federal budget without touching the Constitution.”
Late last year, Dreier took to the floor to explain why he was voting against the balanced budget amendment championed by the rest of GOP leadership, angering House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
Madison and Thomas Jefferson debated the issue, with Jefferson in favor of a balanced budget amendment, Dreier said, but “the largest non-defense purchase that was deficit spending was launched by Jefferson: the Louisiana Purchase.”
A similar issue is proposed amendments to ban flag burning, Dreier said.
When the Supreme Court ruled that burning an American flag is protected under the First Amendment, the House stayed in session all night speechifying against the decision.
Though he was a passionate supporter of the proposed amendment then, “I finally got to the point where I just said, ‘Why the hell ...’”
But when Dreier first declined to co-sponsor the measure, the late Rep. Gerald Solomon (R-N.Y.) let Dreier know he wasn’t pleased.
Solomon, a Marine who knew Dreier’s Marine Corps drill instructor father well, “slammed [me] against the wall,” pressing Dreier to change his mind.
After Solomon had left Congress, they discussed the issue again when Dreier decided to vote against it.
“And you know what Solomon said to me? He said, ‘Are you all still bringing that vote up?’” Dreier recalled.
“I want to support amendments that expand rather than contract the rights of people,” Dreier said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.