For seven years now, from his days as a congressional candidate riding the 2010 tea-party tidal wave to Washington to his concluding tenure as chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, Bill Flores has lambasted President Obama as contemptuous of Congress and intent on circumventing its constitutional authority to forge law through bureaucratic overreach and executive orders. The Central Texas congressman has spoken eagerly of the Obama administration’s Jan. 20 exit.
“The American people have spoken,” the usually unruffled, former oil company executive said in a statement after the Nov. 8 election. “They will no longer stand for Washington’s weakened national security, expansive bureaucracy and excessive spending. Our nation is ready to turn the page from the last eight years of failed Obama policies. It is time that we restore confidence in our federal government. My fellow conservative colleagues and I will continue to push our ‘A Better Way’ agenda throughout the next Congress. We can and we will deliver a promising future for hardworking American families in 2017 and beyond.”
Left largely unsaid since then: What Flores thinks of unwittingly becoming an example of what Republican lawmakers can expect from President Donald Trump and fiercely supportive alt-right and white supremacist “news sites” if Republicans on Capitol Hill don’t fall in line with Trump’s wishes, confounding as those may be.
Consider how Flores spent much of the holidays: being trashed by the extremist fake-news site TruthFeed in a malicious, wildly misleading Dec. 6 account drawn from a Breitbart story about how Flores intends to sabotage Trump’s “election-winning priorities.” TruthFeed placed this incendiary headline over its own story: “BREAKING: Rep. Bill Flores Has CRAFTED a PLAN to BLOCK Trump’s Immigration Reform.”
Things got worse when Trump loyalists spread the TruthFeed account via social media. For instance, one prominent local Republican posted the story to his Facebook page, inciting a frenzied mob of “friends” vowing to oust Flores, complete with allusions to Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp.” I was astonished at how few area Republicans rushed to Flores’ defense.
Flores’ example has not gone unnoticed by the national media. In a Dec. 21 report, Politico noted this unusually vicious fallout, particularly after Trump acolyte and Fox News commentator Sean Hannity aggravated matters further. “@RepBillFlores get in @realDonaldTrump way & we will burn your career down until you are reduced to selling life insurance,” one Trump loyalist tweeted. Another wrote: “@RepBillFlores you can go hang yourself!!”
Or as one posted: “Recall and replace! You GOP folks are SERVANTS, GOT IT! You will be FIRED!”
Any rational Republican who bothered to listen to Flores’ remarks sparking all this furor would be surprised at how measured and innocuous those remarks are. The low-key congressman offered his thoughts before a mostly conservative audience at a Dec. 1 forum at the American Enterprise Institute, a long-established conservative think tank. And his comments on immigration came largely separate from those on Congress’ possible differences with the Trump administration.
And of differences between Trump and Congress? Well, Flores hasn’t changed his belief in Congress’ constitutional authority in crafting laws. But some constituents sure have changed theirs.
“I think we’d all agree that some of President Trump’s proposed policies are not going to line up very well with our conservative policies [in Congress],” Flores said at the AEI forum. “With respect to that, what I’d like to do is, if I had absolute control over the agenda in the House, and I don’t, I would say: What are those areas where we have good alignment with where President Trump wants to go and where we want to go, and we just tell him, ‘Hey, we’ll take the lead on this and we will give you the legislative and constitutional support to go forward.’ That way he’s not inclined to try to use a pen to follow the Obama model [of overreach through executive orders].”
Flores continued: “Early on, during the election process, [Trump] said, ‘I will do executive orders to do this, this and this,’ and I think you saw over time where he began to ameliorate those views and soften them because I think his advisers said, ‘Hey, you got to pay attention to what Article I [of the Constitution] says [regarding congressional law-making authority] versus what Article II says [regarding executive-branch authority].’ So I think to reinforce that and make him feel comfortable with that, let’s do tax reform, let’s repeal Obamacare, let’s replace Obamacare, let’s start dealing with border security, let’s rebuild national security.”
Flores said the first six months of the congressional session beginning Tuesday could be spent passing legislation on which Trump and congressional Republicans agree: “And that gives us the next six months to try and figure out where is the commonality between what he wants to do with respect to infrastructure [projects] and what we would do with infrastructure, just as one example.”
TruthFeed’s interpretation days later: “We cannot forget that President-elect Trump is heading into a global snake pit and he will get push-back and attempted sabotage at every turn. Just because we elected a populist does not mean the globalists will turn over a new leaf. As a matter of fact, it looks like they’re already scheming to stop Trump. An ally of [Republican House Speaker] Paul Ryan, Rep. Bill Flores, has already crafted his strategy to isolate and block many of Trump’s campaign promises including immigration reform.”
Actually, Flores’ immigration plan — shaped by local conservatives such as Baptist pastor Ramiro Peña and given something that sure sounded like consent during Flores’ town-hall meetings, including one at Texas State Technical College’s Waco branch just last August — only confirms that Flores is representing his constituents in all this. His plan includes a pathway to legal status for illegal immigrants, a path to citizenship for so-called “Dreamers” brought to the United States as children and, first and foremost, tightened border security through a wall, virtual or otherwise.
“And so I think you go back to what President-elect Trump said — you build a wall,” Flores said at the AEI event. “I look at whether it’s a physical wall or a virtual systems wall. But you make the American people feel comfortable that they’re safe from people coming across the border. Then you can have the discussion about what to do with the folks who are already here, the Dreamers, the folks who actually committed the crime when they came across. And if you can take a conservative district like mine and find a way that sounds like a liberal policy but it’s not — it’s a compassionate, conservative policy — I think there are ways to have a good, robust discussion about this and do the right thing.”
Ironically, even Trump has relaxed his hardline immigration views since the election, particularly regarding those brought to the United States as children — though his staff has greatly confused matters by walking such talk back.
Far more troubling: Flores and fellow House Republicans may find themselves confronted with constituents who loudly cited the Constitution’s Article I powers amid federal overreach by President Obama but are happy to overlook such constitutional niceties now that their man is bound for the White House and ready to employ the same executive excesses. Given that Democrats have ceased to be politically relevant, one big question of 2017 is: Can Republicans restrain the same executive-branch abuses by one of their own?
Comments on Flores’ own Facebook page suggest some constituents might have conflicting standards. One, invoking the need to build a wall at the border, added: “Rep. Bill Flores needs to get on board the Trumptrain when it comes to border security. The idea he can block Trump on this will be devastating to his career! We’re watching!!” Another warned: “I pray that you and other conservatives work WITH Pres. Donald J. Trump and not try any funny stuff.”
For his part, Flores voices guarded optimism about dynamics swirling about in the chaotic Republican universe these days. At least, that’s how he couched all this to me: “We just won this great victory and the American people spoke pretty loudly on Nov. 8 in terms of what they want. I’m hopeful we can work together on these things. I know Donald Trump and I can work together. I know Mike Pence and I can work together. I just hope all the other Republican elements can work together. I do see from time to time that people are going to try to stir things up.”
Trump himself will likely do some of the stirring, judging from the clear threat he leveled at House Speaker Ryan during a Trump victory tour stop on Ryan’s own Wisconsin turf last month. During an interview on MSNBC, Republican Congressman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania was cautious when questioned about the prospect that Republicans on Capitol Hill might be intimidated by threats and criticism from President Trump and social-media sites loyal to him. Dent insisted of Trump and Congress: “We might have to check him from time to time… We’re not a bunch of potted plants.” That, of course, remains to be seen.
Nor will the political pressure lighten from other quarters. On Dec. 15 a group of local citizens spent part of the afternoon at Flores’ downtown Waco office, expressing deep concerns for the safety and rights of immigrants (including Dreamers), racial and religious minorities and women under a coalescing Trump administration that in campaign mode expressed hostility to all at one point or another. To their credit, the local group rigorously discouraged anyone from bringing signs to the congressman’s office so as not to humiliate or intimidate Flores.
One shouldn’t look for many such considerations and courtesies in 2017.