Pondering Life as a Texas Democrat

Posted May 24, 2005 at 6:45pm

Losing my election after 26 years was disappointing but acceptable, because the people had spoken. How I lost, however, will never be acceptable, and it is emblematic of how Texas and Congressional politics have changed over time. And not for the better. Redrawing Congressional district lines every two years because control of the state Legislature changes is not what I believe the framers of our Constitution intended.

For me, it all began in 1977 with a call from my Congressman, Omar Burleson, advising me that he had decided to retire. Cindy and I sat down with our three children to talk about running for Congress and how this would affect our family. After careful consideration and much prayer, we decided to go for it.

The 1978 campaign was my most memorable. I was on the road for 15 months meeting people, shaking hands and winning votes. Cindy was by my side as she has been through every campaign. In fact, all three children were involved. Seven opponents, 85,000 miles and $300,000 later, we were headed for Washington.

When I first arrived, I was determined to be more than one vote. I believed that by working hard, building trust with your colleagues, demonstrating leadership in areas like agriculture, budget, Social Security and rural health care, I could earn credibility and, ultimately, support for the ideas I had been elected to represent.

From the very beginning, I worked with Republicans and Democrats alike. When the House considered legislation, I didn’t worry about party affiliation. If it was sensible, cost-effective and judged to do the maximum amount of good for the people and at the lowest cost to the taxpayer, I tried to be supportive.

Because I tried so hard to work with my Republican colleagues, I was bitterly disappointed when they weren’t more interested in working with Democrats when they took over in 1994.

We Democrats lost the majority the old-fashioned way — “we earned it.” But my hopes, particularly for fiscal responsibility, were quickly dashed.

President Jimmy Carter’s $50 billion deficits have exploded into President Bush’s $600 billion deficits. It took our country 204 years to borrow the first $1 trillion. We are now borrowing a $1 trillion every 20 months. And the majority party doesn’t seem to care and says so regularly. I never dreamed I would live long enough to see my party have a golden opportunity to again become, sincerely, the party of fiscal responsibility.

The federal debt will soon exceed $8 trillion. We no longer owe this to ourselves, but now to foreign interests. The Japanese owe more than $800 billion, the People’s Republic of China more than $250 billion and all our foreign debt is exploding. We cannot continue to export more than $600 billion of American jobs every year without the market making a severe correction.

Twenty-six years has brought other changes in our political system. Depending on your philosophy, those changes can be good or bad. My friends in the Republican Party have been very successful so far. When Republicans are able to suggest that being a Christian and Democrat — even one who is pro-life and supports traditional marriages — are mutually exclusive, I have to wonder which bible they are reading from. Our Constitution guarantees freedom of — not from — religion. I respect yours, you respect mine. We’ll get along just fine.

I’ve noted other changes. The work habits of Congress have changed. With very few exceptions, committees do not function very well. Meaningful oversight is almost nonexistent.

Much of this is a natural product of one-party rule. Bipartisan markups are rare. Democratic amendments are rarely accepted. Very little debate ever occurs on the House floor. Bills are regularly rewritten in the Rules Committee to accommodate the wishes of leadership.

When my leadership performed in this manner 20 years ago, I never hesitated to join the minority to effect change. Where have all the radical centrists gone in the Republican Party?

One of the few committees that still functions in a bipartisan manner is the Agriculture Committee. Having helped write five Agriculture bills, I have taken the praise (as well as the criticism) of our admittedly imperfect legislation. The good news is that these laws have given America the most abundant food supply, the best quality food supply and the safest food supply at the lowest cost to our consumers of any country in the world. Could we have done better? Obviously the answer is yes. Or just as obviously, it could have been worse.

One last major change over the past 26 years concerns money in politics — how dollars are collected and spent. When more and more Members spend more of their time raising money for their next election than they do doing the work they were elected to do, can it be any wonder that our system of government is hemorrhaging? I know that because I had to raise $2.5 million last year. That is not what I was elected to do with my time.

One of the happiest days of my legislative career was the day the House passed the balanced budget constitutional amendment in 1995. One of the saddest was standing in back of the Senate and watching it be defeated by one vote. Had it passed, the last three Congresses would have been unable to pass the legislation that has dug our country into a deep fiscal hole. For the future, let us remember the infamous words of Confucius or Garfield: “When you find yourself in a hole, the first rule is to stop digging.”

One of the biggest regrets of my 26 years in Congress is that I did not make more of an effort to be part of solving the Social Security and health care challenges for my grandchildren. As I contemplate the next phase of my life, I am reminded of the strength of this great land. According to the Architect of the Capitol, my Congressional office had the finest view of the Capitol dome on all of Capitol Hill. For me, this magnificent building represents the American people: strong, resolute and solid as it looks beyond the horizon to the challenges that lie ahead. Our great nation is facing many serious challenges, and we must unite behind our leaders and work to strengthen this democracy that is the envy of the world. Too much is being made of red states and blue states. Why not spend a little more time on red, white and blue states?

To my fellow Democrats: Think about adopting a Republican. You don’t have to take them home. Just try being kind to one and see what happens.

To my Republican friends: You may prefer a dog, but maybe, just maybe, working with a Democrat every now and then might help solve some serious problems like Social Security and health care.

Charlie Stenholm was a Democratic Member of Congress from Texas from 1979 to 2005. He is now with the law and lobbying firm Olsson, Frank and Weeda.