Why I Put My Political Career on ‘Operational Pause’ | Commentary
I love serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, and I have especially enjoyed my time on the Ways and Means Committee. Serving the people of Arkansas’ 2nd District is the honor of a lifetime, and I’m grateful for the opportunity I have been given by my fellow Arkansans.
I grew up when “Schoolhouse Rock” taught millions of American kids how a bill becomes a law. During my childhood, my father, a Southern Baptist minister, and my mother, a teacher, made sure I took educational trips to cities such as Washington, D.C., Williamsburg, Va., Philadelphia and Boston to learn about America’s history. I trace my interest in politics and government back to those days, and I think of them often as I climb the steps and walk the halls of the Capitol.
Folks often ask me what has surprised me the most about serving in Congress. To be honest, there have been very few surprises. With 10 years of experience in Washington as a staff member on Capitol Hill and beyond, I generally understood what the job entailed and what the pressures were like.
The decision not to seek re-election was an agonizing one for my wife and me, but we know it’s the right one. I’ve talked with several former members who made similar choices, and they all said the same thing: I will not regret having more time with my young family.
When I was elected in 2010, my daughter was 3 years old and my son was only a few months old. As I settled into the weekly routine of flying back and forth to Washington, I missed my wife and children, but my time away didn’t fully register with our kids.
That’s changed as they’ve grown older — fast. Now, Mary Katherine, my daughter, knows when I’m not around to help with homework. She knows when I’m not there for tennis, and John, my son, knows when I’m not there for soccer. Thankfully, my wonderful wife, Elizabeth, continues to keep things together when I’m gone.
Still, every time I walk out the door now, even if I’m just getting the newspaper, John asks me, “Dad, are you coming back?”
I will always have to travel, sometimes extensively. But right now, I need a little more say in which days I miss and which days I don’t. I’ve missed all three of John’s birthdays and it looks like I’ll miss his fourth, but I’m going to be there for No. 5. Many members have children who are in high school or married, or who have moved out of the house; that’s a completely different situation. Other members who have young children may be able to handle their parenting duties differently. It’s a very personal decision each family must make on its own.
With my family in Arkansas, Washington was never going to be a home, so I chose to sleep in my office. It’s great, and as a bonus, I don’t have to worry about a car or a commute. I can work in my office until late at night, go to bed and when I wake up, I’m already at work. Hitting the congressional gym provides a great opportunity to build friendships. Even if I stayed in Congress for a decade, I would still sleep in my office every night.
From the beginning, I’ve tried to model my service after the Founding Fathers’ ideal of the citizen legislator in terms of accessibility and tenure: I routinely give my cellphone number to constituents, and I always knew that I would serve in the House for years, not decades. My decision to hit the pause button on my time in Congress is also consistent with my 2010 pledge to serve no more than six terms in the House.
Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1785 that members of Congress “are of the people, and return again to mix with the people, having no more durable preeminence than the different grains of sand in an hourglass.” George Mason, a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention, agreed, saying in 1788: “Nothing is so essential to the preservation of a republican government as a periodical rotation. Nothing so strongly impels a man to regard the interest of his constituents as the certainty of returning to the general mass of the people, from whence he was taken, where he must participate their burdens.”
I don’t presume to know how often this “periodical rotation” should take place for everyone serving in Congress; that is up to each member — and the voters — to decide for themselves. All other factors aside, if a representative believes he or she is the best candidate to serve the district, they should endeavor to serve.
After all, it was the various “burdens” Mason referred to, and my worry about what kind of future my children faced, that motivated me to go to Washington in the first place. When President George W. Bush left office in 2009, our national debt totaled $10.6 trillion — an astonishing, unacceptable amount after an increase of $4.9 trillion in eight years. President Barack Obama called it “irresponsible” and “unpatriotic,” but in the five years since, he’s swelled the national debt to a shameful $17.3 trillion. At the end of his two terms as president, he could very well double it to $21 trillion.
Our unsustainable fiscal trajectory is in large part attributable, of course, to autopilot, mandatory spending: Medicare, Social Security and an expanding Medicaid will not survive without reform. But for the three years I’ve had a vote, Democrats in the White House and the Senate have blocked any attempt to solve Washington’s entitlement spending and debt addiction. Am I frustrated and disappointed? You bet.
I’m open to working with Obama, but I’m disappointed that he is not willing to get serious and address the structural fiscal issues everyone knows exist. I don’t expect everyone to agree on exactly how to fix these problems, but we must all agree that the status quo is unacceptable. I remain hopeful the president will work with us to tackle these challenges before I leave Congress and before the next generation is forced to. But I am still waiting.
Despite what you may hear elsewhere, Republicans in the House have made historic progress getting discretionary spending under control. Under Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi, it increased to an all-time high. Since Republicans won control of the House in 2010, we have reduced discretionary spending by $165 billion. Now, under the Paul D. Ryan-Patty Murray agreement in fiscal 2014, discretionary spending — which makes up approximately 32 percent of the federal budget — will be $53 billion less than it was under Bush in fiscal 2008, adjusted for inflation. It will also be $27 billion less than the amount Ryan, the House Budget chairman, proposed in his original budget and $46 billion less than the base discretionary level set by the 2011 Budget Control Act. That’s something to tell your kids about.
There is still much that Congress can accomplish this year, and as I serve the remainder of my term, I am working just as hard as I did on my first day in office. I’m hopeful both parties can agree to a comprehensive overhaul of our bloated, needlessly complicated tax code. Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp continues to demonstrate bold leadership on the committee, and I’m excited about the tax reform legislation we are finalizing. I’ll continue fighting for a simpler, fairer and flatter tax system that broadens the base, encourages growth and helps create jobs. It’s a no-brainer, and if we want to compete, we must.
I have yet to decide what I’ll do professionally when I return to private life. I do know that I will continue serving as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, which I joined 18 years ago this June. And I will still be heavily involved in the political process, just as I was in the decade before I filed as a candidate.
Down the road, when my children are a little older and my wife and I believe it’s right for our family, I fully intend to seek public office again — this is simply “operational pause,” as we say in the Army.
For now, I’m enjoying retracing my old steps through America’s historical sites with my children, hopefully fostering in them the same love for our country and its founding principles that my parents developed in me. From the smiles I saw on my children’s faces in Williamsburg, Va., as we left Chowning’s Tavern and watched the firing of the cannon at the Magazine, we’re off to a great start.
Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., is retiring. He is a member of the Ways and Means Committee and is currently serving in his 17th year as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve.