Bill Orton’s Impact Still Being Felt by Congress

Posted April 22, 2009 at 3:08pm

The Congressional family was saddened this week to learn of the tragic passing of former Rep. Bill Orton (D-Utah). We never know when God will call us — but as far as I’m concerned, Bill went too soon. His wife, Jacquelyn, has lost a devoted husband; his sons, Will and Wes, have lost one of the hardest-working fathers I’ve ever known; and the people of Utah have lost a dedicated public servant who still had much to give.

Bill Orton was the type of Congressman whom most people say they want. For one reason or another, not enough of Bill’s type ever end up getting elected, but when someone like Bill comes along — never afraid to voice his opinion but always willing to listen to an opposing view — Congress is richer for it.

I got to know Bill very well soon after his election. He and I traveled many a dusty road together, fighting lonely battles for fiscal discipline. As a colleague, I came to respect Bill very much, even when we disagreed.

On farm programs, for instance, I had views different from Bill’s, but I saw behind them a true love of the land and the environment. And when it came to feeding the hungry, Bill’s serious application of sociology to rural policy was second to none. He was never afraid to voice his opinion, but he was always willing to listen to an opposing view. I found that when I listened to Bill, I was always better for it.

Bill’s political principles carried over into his life as a private citizen. One of the many issues that he and I agreed on was that the line-item veto was unconstitutional. It was enacted into law over the objections that he raised on the House floor, but soon after, as a private attorney, he played a significant role in getting it overturned. I’m not sure that is not a first for our history books.

Bill was one of the founders of the Blue Dog Coalition. He was very involved in the process of putting together an organization that would work to influence policies. More importantly, he had a critical role in establishing the Blue Dog Coalition as a serious voice on policy issues.

As a member of the Budget Committee, he warned constantly of the dangers of spending money that we didn’t have. His message grew even more powerful when he became a father and began to reflect on the way that his actions in Congress would shape the lives of his sons.

He was the sponsor of the original Blue Dog budget. That budget was defeated soundly, as were many of his principled proposals, but it ultimately became the House Democratic negotiating position in the 1995 budget negotiations. That budget demonstrated it was possible to balance the budget while protecting priorities important to Democrats — a lesson that was critical to Democrats adopting fiscal discipline as one of our principles and helped lay the foundation for the budget surplus in the late 1990s.

Although Bill only served in the House for three terms and left Congress more than a decade ago, the effect that he had on the institution and our nation’s policies while he served is still evident. More importantly, the respect that he earned is evident in the outpouring of grief at his passing.

Professionally, his legacy includes a Democratic Party with a strong moderate voice and a commitment to fiscal discipline. But he may have left a greater legacy as a parent who balanced work as a Congressman with raising his son.

It is fairly common now for Members to rearrange their schedules to balance their legislative responsibilities with taking care of their children, but it was very unusual when Bill became a father while serving in the House. He turned half of his office into a nursery and brought Will into the office twice a week. He was a true trailblazer for a more family-friendly House. And I will never forget the pride and pleasure that he took in watching his colleagues dote over Will. (See Photo From the Attic.)

To Will and Wes, you had a very special dad. And you have a very special mom. Bill, like so many of us, “married up.— Jacquelyn was the perfect helpmate, always so friendly, so interested in Bill’s work and so committed to their family. I was touched reading Jacquelyn’s comments about how last year was Bill’s gift to his family, how he understood how precious life was after years of back pain and heart surgery, and how he lived selflessly to build memories for his family.

It may not be much consolation now, but Jacquelyn, Will and Wes should know that their husband and father was honored and respected by the people of Utah — that he did his part for our nation and left it better for his work.

Bill enjoyed the high honor of representing his community in the Congress of the United States of America. Based on how he distinguished himself here, he should never have been defeated. As father and husband, he never was.

Former Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas), former co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition, is a senior policy adviser for Olsson Frank Weeda P.C.