What do you do when your party casts you aside, strips you of committee assignments, discounts your legislative priorities and rolls its eyes at your meek fundraising numbers?
If you’re Rep. Walter B. Jones, you put your head down, you vote your conscience and you find an issue you’re passionate about.
The 10-term North Carolina lawmaker has, for years, been near the top of the list of Republicans most likely to break with the party and he has no qualms about bucking leadership — or about the steep price he’s paid as a result.
“I believe in the independence of the heart and the soul to do what’s right,” Jones told CQ Roll Call this week.
Most lawmakers will tell you they vote their conscience. But few have the record to back it up. Since coming to Congress in 1995, Jones has voted for 111 Democratic motions to recommit, more than twice as many as any other Republican.
“It’s not to make a statement or anything. It’s just that, morally, I think I ought to be voting that way,” Jones said. “My policy’s always been that if a [motion to] recommit has anything in it that will be helpful to our veterans, I usually vote for it.”
GOP leadership hasn’t hidden its qualms with Jones, who voted for former Comptroller David M. Walker for speaker in January instead of Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio.
In 2012, the Republican Steering Committee removed Jones from his plum position on the Financial Services panel. He’s also been skipped over for a subcommittee gavel on the House Armed Services Committee for years, despite the fact that he’s the No. 3 Republican on the panel.
While he voted initially to authorize the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — something he says he’ll regret “to the day I die” — Jones had a change of heart in 2005 and has been an ardent critic ever since. In 2007, Jones was in line to be the ranking Republican of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness.
That’s when former Rep. Duncan L. Hunter, R-Calif. — “not the son, the senior, I love both of ’em” — told Jones that he couldn’t put him in that position because he knew Jones would vote with the Democrats to get out of Iraq.
“I said, ‘Duncan, you’re exactly right; I will,’” Jones recounted. “So that pretty much told me that by doing what you think is right, no matter what the issue might be, there’s a price to pay.”
Jones says he’s “at peace” with not being a chairman — a role his father, Rep. Walter Jones, a 26-year congressman himself, held for the Democrats.
Instead, the North Carolina Republican concerns himself with issues closer to home.
“I’m working on a lot of things for the district that don’t require you to be a chairman,” he said.
The eastern North Carolina 3rd District is home to Camp Lejeune, the site of a major water contamination incident that may have caused thousands on the Marine Corps base to develop cancer and other ailments.
Jones is most comfortable when he’s working on those sorts of issues.
His grandfather was gassed in the Battle of the Argonne Forest during World War I, and he came back from France a sick man.
“And he actually committed suicide,” Jones said, visibly emotional. “In 1926, my grandfather took his own life.”
For years, Jones knew little about his grandfather. But after coming to Congress in 1995, he asked for his records.
“And I saw the pain of a veteran who could not adapt to the injuries of war,” Jones said. “And it plays on my mind, it really does.”
Jones has also made it his crusade to clear up a V-22 Osprey training accident in 2000 that killed 19 Marines.
“I’ve spent 10 years of my life trying to clear the names of two Marine pilots,” he said, noting that he’s now taken the issue all the way up to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. “So my journey might be a little bit different.”
Jones, whose haircut seems to be straight out of the 1970s — mostly because it’s the same haircut he’s had since the 1970s — notes he is deeply religious and holds many starkly conservative positions.
He’s constantly shouting about the debt, he’s a fervent critic of a pathway to citizenship in an immigration overhaul and he’s one of the most anti-abortion lawmakers in Congress.
Jones points to campaign finance as the problem.
“The problem with this place is how we raise money,” he said. “The only way you’re going to change the system is to change the way we finance campaigns. As long as money drives Washington, money is power and power is money.”
As far as his power and money go, Jones isn’t doing too hot. His Sept. 30 filing showed that he had just more than $107,000 in cash on hand for his re-election.
Jones notes his vote isn’t bought.
“It’s all about fundraising,” he said. “Why are we still in Afghanistan? Probably, probably because the military-industrial complex is doing pretty well financially.”
Jones, who endorsed Ron Paul for president, complains about his party sending money to Afghan President Hamid Karzai while passing a bill cutting food stamps — another bill Jones opposed.
Indeed, his GOP dissent has largely come to define him. But Jones tends to think that reputation is unfair. Yes, he knows he’ll always be known as the Republican who changed his mind about the war, but he said when he voted to give that authority to the president, he thought it would be used responsibly.
“How naive, how naive I was,” he said.
Jones told CQ Roll Call that “this whole system up here needs to change,” but he said he doesn’t think it will happen in his lifetime.
What to do in the meantime?
“Just trying to clear the two pilots’ names,” he said.