Pragmatist Tom Cole on Legislative Success, Working the Press
Rep. Tom Cole may not make the decisions for House Republicans, but he’s often the one explaining them.
Credit is due to any lawmaker constantly willing — eager, even — to talk to reporters. Love him or hate him — and there are plenty lawmakers from both parties who privately express frustration with his seemingly outsized influence in the media — Cole has emerged in recent years as a fixture for the Capitol Hill press. He’s simply everywhere.
He’s in the second paragraph of a story headlined with the words “GOP lawmaker.” He’s in a basement hallway of the Capitol, staring down the business end of a dozen recorders. He’s in a corner of the Speaker’s Lobby, giving any reporter willing to chat the time of day.
“It usually adds to your credibility,” Cole says of talking to the press. But it’s more than a calculated communications strategy — at least in Cole’s telling. The way he talks about it, it’s almost a duty.
“Our job isn’t to just come up here and vote,” the 66-year-old lawmaker tells CQ Roll Call. “It’s also to educate. You explain both places to one another. In a sense, your job up here is to explain to this place the 750,000 people you represent, or the interests that you’re concerned about.”
Conversely, the other side of the job is to explain to voters how “this thing” — Congress, that is — “works.”
“And why something that seems stupid,” Cole continues, “may not be stupid, when you put it in context.”
The Oklahoma Republican loves context.
Now in his 13th year in Congress, Cole is finally reaching the more powerful rungs of the congressional ladder. He’s an Appropriations cardinal, holding the gavel on what is widely considered the most contentious spending panel: the Labor, Health and Human Services Subcommittee. He also sits on the Budget Committee and the Rules panel, where he gets plenty of opportunities to showcase his fiscal expertise.
Cole, who was a political consultant and a college professor before coming to Congress — with a history degree from Grinnell College, an M.A. in British History from Yale and a Ph.D. in that same topic from the University of Oklahoma — seems plenty comfortable lending a historical lens to the day’s political events. (Cole refers to himself as a “Burkean conservative,” meaning he subscribes to the incremental changes laid out by Edmund Burke, and when asked to name a few politicians he looks up to, the first person he mentions — even before Ronald Reagan, whom Cole worked for “pretty far on down the food chain” — is Sir Robert Peel, which, uh, who?)
Obscure tastes in 19th century British politicians aside, it’s his Burkean willingness to accept small advancements rather than chasing the big overhauls that often puts Cole at odds with some of his more conservative colleagues in the House.
He doesn’t have much sympathy for hard-liners frustrated with GOP leadership. He simply believes Republicans would be more effective as a unified team. And he criticizes conservatives — think Sen. Ted Cruz — for telling voters the world is on fire. He not-so-humbly suggests Republicans go listen to some Reagan speeches about the foreign policy challenges facing the country in the 1980s.
“They all emulate him, but they sure don’t sound like him,” he says.
Cole also says he understands the argument from conservatives that voting “no” on bills can bring leadership further to the right. But he says there’s just as much of a chance that Republicans turn to Democrats for votes, making legislation more liberal rather than more conservative.
Case in point: appropriations bills. Cole says Republicans were once able to pass those spending measures with much smaller GOP majorities, and he calls Republicans voting against appropriations bills either “politically unsophisticated or self-serving.”
“It’s one or the other,” he says. “It depends very much on the case.”
As for the actual, big-ticket legislating that only happens on occasion in Congress — the fiscal cliff agreement at the start of 2013, the Murray-Ryan Budget deal at the end of 2013, or the recent long-term agreement on Medicare doctors’ payments — Cole says members need to understand that if you want to get something done in the next two years, you’re going to have to compromise. “And you’re always going to get less than you want and give up more than you’d like.”
He says the SGR deal Republicans and Democrats brokered a couple months ago is a helpful precedent for what needs to happen in Congress. “And, to me, I don’t care how we did it, I kind of thought it was wonderful that there was a back room around here,” Cole says.
He clarifies he’s not against transparency. (It’s not like he’s keeping any secrets.) He just thinks Congress needs to “stop making the perfect the enemy of the good.” (Not the first time Cole has used that line.)
Cole has certainly had his issues with some conservative legislative strategies. The Oklahoma Republican, who is a member of the Chickasaw Nation, was a big opponent of the 2013 government shutdown. “This is a brave conference,” he says. “It’s a conservative conference. It’s just not always a smart conference.”
No one ever said Cole isn’t quotable.
But Cole wholeheartedly rejects his media-assigned role as an unofficial spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner. While such an arrangement would be convenient for reporters, and while it’s clear he’s often aligned with the speaker, Cole is the first to note he and the Ohio Republican have had their differences.
In 2007, when Cole was chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Boehner told Cole to fire two top staffers. Cole refused. He even threatened to resign.
Now, things seem to be pretty good between Cole and the speaker. And when you press him on whether maybe he does speak for Boehner a bit, Cole points out he doesn’t work from a script.
“We don’t have a message of the day around here,” he says. “That’s just such a waste of time. It comes across as canned and phony because it is canned and phony.”
The Year According to Rep. Tom Cole
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