Congressman Bill Flores, 64, a retired oil and gas industry executive who lives in Bryan, seeks re-election to the 17th Congressional District, which includes Waco. He serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. During the 114th Congress, colleagues elected him chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the largest and most influential caucus in the U.S. Congress.
Q The House of Representatives may flip from Republican to Democrat this election, but I see the long-reliable Cook Political Report shows you a solid bet for re-election.
A What was it I read the other day? That there’s like a one in 100 chance that [a Democrat] could win this seat — something like that. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not taking it for granted. We’re going to run a full campaign just like we always do. As for the No. 1 issue we’ve been hearing, the big topics ebb and flow, but right now it’s pretty well immigration and border security. People are uncomfortable with border security. They feel better about it than they did a couple of years ago, but they still don’t think federal policymakers have it right. I agree. And then because of the labor shortages we’re having, they don’t think we’ve got immigration law right. And the way the Dreamer issue and family separation issues have come up, they’d like to see that addressed.
Q You have long cited these labor shortages, such as at local construction sites, in the hospitality industry and at high-tech research facilities. Yet at the same time people are concerned about border security, we’ve got the Texas Department of Public Safety and Texas National Guard plus federal forces all along the Texas-Mexico border. Are these fears justified? Do people realize we have a lot of folks securing our border right now?
A Our border security today is better than it was two years ago, but it’s not where any of us want. They hear about crimes committed in sanctuary cities where you have somebody who’s been harbored and has gone and killed somebody or raped somebody or something like that. That headline-grabbing type of story is what makes them feel like it’s not being done correctly yet.
Q But that’s pretty statistically insignificant.
A It’s statistically insignificant, but they hear about it, they read about MS-13 coming across the border, they read about the things that MS-13 does and they say, “OK, you guys in Washington don’t have it right yet and I want it right.” So they’re safer than they were. Are they as safe as we’d like them to be? No. But that’s the No. 1 issue.
Q You’ve been in Congress since 2011. You came into office on the tea party tidal wave of 2010. Putting aside your participation in big votes such as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, what legislation have you personally pressed that benefited both country and district? I’m talking about your legislative legacy.
A Sure. Actually I had my team do a spreadsheet and there have been 57 bills logged where I have been the sponsor or one of the principal co-sponsors. Not all of those are needle-movers in terms of impact on the country or on this district or Texas. But several are. One is the improvements we made to the Transitional Assistance Program available for veterans [to help them transition from military service to civilian life in terms of education, career and business start-ups]. We had several rounds of conversation out of the VA committee where we got feedback from users who had difficulty in transitioning from military to civilian life. We were able to put those into a bill and actually get it through into law. Now, my bill didn’t make it on a stand-alone basis. It’s pretty common in Washington: You’ll find a bill that’s going to move and you take all these other things that are good that have come through committee and you weld those to a bigger bill. So in this case it wound up as part of a larger bill. So that’s one that I’m particularly proud of because of the significant veterans’ footprint we have in this district. The second is the work I did to lift the ban on the export of oil [in 2015]. And if you look at where we are in Texas today, we have created whole new markets for Texas oil — well, for U.S. oil, and with Texas being the lead producer, that’s had a big impact right here.
Another bill that has not made it into law yet but should make it into law is a pipeline regulatory reform bill that basically says that Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is the lead controlling agency for all applications and that all subsidiary [agencies], be it state, local, other federal agencies, all have to adhere to the timelines that FERC sets. And they have to be accountable. Because right now—
Q Is this to bring uniformity to all this?
A Certainty and some standardization of process. Because today you can have a locality hold it up or a state hold it up or some other federal agency will hold up the process. So this is coming forth. And if you look at the challenges we’re having in energy in the country today, we can’t get enough natural gas to the Northeast because you have people who are blocking the construction of pipelines. So this bill would clean that up. It doesn’t take away the regulatory process. It just basically organizes it into something where it’s done on a timely basis. And so it can still be stopped if for some reason FERC or one of the subsidiary agencies says it’s not good enough. It can be stopped. So we’re not short-cutting it. We’re just saying we want it organized. [Note: Other accomplishments listed by Congressman Flores include scrapping a proposed tax on tuition waivers for graduate students; fighting relocation of the Doris Miller Veterans Affairs Medical Center Post-Traumatic Stress Residential Program from Waco to Temple; advocating for a permanent solution regarding the Dreamers; pursing federal funding to help restore the city of West after a deadly and devastating ammonium nitrate explosion of 2013; and renaming the Waco Veterans Affairs Medical Center for World War II hero Doris Miller.]
Q Given that you were swept into office on the tea party movement and that the tea party back then was all about federal deficits and national debt, how concerned are you about the fact tax revenue has indeed increased [since the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act of 2017] but federal spending has increased even more? The Wall Street Journal, hardly a liberal newspaper, had an editorial reporting that the president’s tax cuts had produced $26 billion more in federal revenue for the 10 months ending July 31 than for the same period in 2017. All well and good. However, spending was $143 billion higher than at that point last year, while the annual deficit was up $116 billion. How can Republicans keep that sort of thing up and claim to be fiscally responsible?
A Typically the No. 2 issue that’s brought up is the fiscal condition of the country.
A lot of people said the tax cuts were going to blow up the deficit and we’re saying exactly the opposite. We’re seeing what we thought we would see. Even though we’ve had lower tax rates as of Jan. 1, we’re producing more revenue.
Our discretionary spending today is actually down slightly. Discretionary spending is now $1.31 trillion versus $1.35 essentially. So in terms of parts of the budget where Congress can twist the needles, we’ve done fairly well. And actually between here and there, there was a dip in that number, but it’s come back up and the reason primarily is that we have to invest in the military. So the biggest chunk of the increase in this from let’s say four years ago is military spending. So the question is: What drove the deficit higher? Why are we going to have about a trillion dollars in the deficit? And all you have to do is look at mandatory spending: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, things like that. So that’s part number one. Part number two is interest [on the national debt]. So we had about $200 billion in interest. It’s now gone up 50 percent to $300 billion in interest. Those are the two things. If we’re going to change the fiscal trajectory of the country, we have to touch the “third rail” of politics.
Q Yet both the president and many of your constituents say, “Don’t you dare touch Medicare and Social Security.”
A Exactly, and so that’s the challenge we face. If you’re a policymaker like me, you’re concerned. People say they’re concerned about the deficit and they think you can take it out of [discretionary spending]. Well, that’s only a third of the budget — and half of that is for defense.
Q What would be an ideal reform for Social Security and Medicare? I know that’s the third rail, but if you could create something that wouldn’t cause a rebellion nationwide, what would it be?
A Let’s say we didn’t have a party system where one party is always going to trash the other party’s policy ideas. Then we could have a conversation with the American people about what we need to do to fix those three big programs [including Medicaid]. We don’t have that luxury. Because of the fact we don’t have that environment, there’s nothing we’re going to be able to do.
Q Didn’t Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson propose something several years ago — National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform report? Democrats and Republicans ran like hell when they came forward with bipartisan recommendations.
A If we could sit down and get the American people to have that conversation rather than have [a fiscal catastrophe involving entitlement programs] happen and then say, “Now that we’ve had the ‘aw shucks’ moment, let us fix it.” The problem is when you get to that “aw shucks moment,” the policy options get tighter and less friendly. They’re not as easy. So here’s what we do to fix these programs. To fix Social Security, you do three things: You start resetting the retirement ages based on longevity and have them indexed to longevity. You fix the [cost-of-living adjustment] to address the true cost of retirement. And you means-test benefits for wealthier retirees. If you turn those three knobs, you fix Social Security for about 75 years. Then you take all the unfunded indebtedness, the unfunded obligations we have for Social Security today, and it goes from $11-$12 trillion to zero.
Medicare today is a sort of demand-driven program that doesn’t have any consumer involvement in it. So what happens is if somebody’s sick, they don’t have to make any kind of economic decision about how they get their care. They go to the emergency room, they go to the most expensive specialist, there’s all kinds of things. They just go and get their services. They have no idea what it costs. The government gets the bill and it gets paid and so the patient has no idea about the economic impact on particularly their kids or their grandkids. So on Medicare, what we have proposed, and we’ve put this in every House budget since 2011 or since I got elected in 2010, we propose that you provide what’s called premium support. So everybody gets a stipend of X dollars per month. And then you go out and you buy the health-care [insurance] program you want. As for Medicaid, the federal government has put so many strings on it that it’s basically a federal program [rather than a federal-state program]. We propose to say, “Okay state, you get so much per person that’s Medicaid eligible and then there will be bans on how much it can be adjusted based on geographical price differences and population risk factors that you have.”
Q You wanted to make one more point about the tax-cut legislation.
A One of the things that people don’t realize is that the tax cuts, because of the stimulative impact on the economy and producing more revenue, we’re producing more payroll taxes into the Social Security trust fund and into the Medicare trust fund. People don’t realize that. But we have extended the fiscal life of each of those programs because of the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act.
Q I saw the administration’s report on economic growth a couple weeks ago. The president often talks of companies and how well they’re doing, but I keep seeing reports that suggest wages remain stagnant. Many companies are not giving employees wage hikes. I appreciate the government’s attempt to encourage that kind of thing through tax cuts, but aside from doubling the standard deduction, things like that, many companies seem to be using savings for such pursuits as stock buybacks.
A We’ve got empirical evidence to support the alternative. There’s 15 data points where you can look at wage growth in this country. And what has happened with some leading publications, primarily in the Northeast, is they pick the ones where they can’t find that growth and they point those out.
Q You think critics are cherry-picking?
A It’s cherry-picking. We’ll provide empirical evidence for you. [Note: The congressman has supplied a September analysis in which the U.S. Joint Economic Committee took three leading Bureau of Labor Statistics wage series and seven different inflation measures and computed them to arrive at 21 different inflation-adjusted wage-growth measures, only one of which shows wage growth lower than during the Obama years.]
Q So if I went out to the Heart of Texas Fair & Rodeo and asked people what they’re doing with their pay raises, what are they going to tell me?
A What we’ve been hearing in our office is they were able to replace a clunky car or put their kids in a different school or pay for a vacation or retire some credit card debt. The Millennials are saying, “Hey, I got to move out of Mom and Dad’s house and get a good job” or start their own business. It’s been remarkable what it’s done. If you’re coming out of high school or college today as a new graduate, starting pay today versus a year ago is 5.2 percent higher. When we designed this tax cut it was a working-class tax bill in two ways. One, it allowed people to keep more of their paycheck through different tax tables and the higher standard deduction and child tax credit. The other way was by recalibrating the business tax code so we go from the least competitive [corporate] tax system to one of the most competitive in the world. Suddenly these companies are reinvesting. And we haven’t seen all the impact yet, because if you look at business reinvestment in their capital base, new machinery and technology and so forth, that all begets higher productivity, which means they’re setting the stage for the next round of more hiring. One of the challenges we’ve got now, we just don’t have enough people to fill all the jobs. We got more open jobs than we got people to fill the jobs. We have to fix that on the labor supply side.
Q Which brings up immigration again. Polls suggest that Texans continue to, as you’ve mentioned, place immigration as a key issue. Yet even a Trump proposal such as this year’s making 1.8 million Dreamers eligible for citizenship and bolstering border security went down in defeat, partially because of liberal Democrats, yes, but also because of far-right conservatives in the Freedom Caucus. I know you’re not a member of that group, but they shot the president’s plan down. I know you backed President Trump’s plan. What happened?
A Let me start with my side of the aisle first. We’ve got a small element of House Republicans who think if you’re foreign-born, you need to go back home. I can’t go there. But that’s the way they think. That’s not this country, though, and that’s certainly not Texas. So you got that element and they’re able to stir up emotions by throwing out the “amnesty” word. And so when the “amnesty” word is thrown out, that seems to chill another extra percentage of my side of the aisle. I’m not scared of that word, because you design programs to deal with it. You take amnesty out of the equation and people get reconciled to them all. The second thing was the Democrats do not want the president to have any policy victory. Period. And especially on something they consider to be one of their core issues. And so we got zero Democratic votes. We had two really good bills on the floor and I supported both of them. I pounded the table for both of them and we should have passed one of those. This should have been bipartisan. And both of them had the president’s plan embedded in them. It is the right thing to do, particularly for the Dreamers. And both of them had child-separation solutions, the family-separation solutions. And they had border security. For the life of me, I can’t understand why people would vote no because it’s not good enough, because when you vote no, you’re voting for the status quo. And the status quo sucks. And that’s what those people did. When [lawmakers] put that [voting] card in the slot and voted no, that was voting for the status quo. I can’t go there. The people didn’t hire me to go up there and vote for status quo. And it’s unfair to our economy, it’s unfair to the schools educating the Dreamers, it’s unfair to the employers trying to hire people. It’s just not right.
Q Do you see this issue coming up again?
A I’m hoping in the lame-duck session [after the Nov. 6 election] that we’ll find a way, because you’re going to have considerable congressional turnover in the House. I hope we do it. Then again, in the Senate, because of Senate rules, I don’t know what you get.
Q You’ve taken heat about your decision to avoid the in-person town halls you once routinely held. I acknowledge I enjoy the new versions personally because —
A Is that on the record?
Q Sure. By the same token, and as this paper has also made clear, we feel there ought to be at least some opportunities where you mix online town halls with your actually meeting the public in town halls. As we said in an editorial, sometimes people need to get up and say, “Hey, Bill, I think you’re all wet on this.”
A So what’s the best way to do it? What’s the best way to say, “Bill, you’re all wet?” The best way to do it is to call me up and we’ll go over to our offices right down the street here and we’ll have a meeting. My style of communication is not any different than it is right here [in this Q&A]. So they’re going to tell me I’m all wet and I’ll say, “Well, thank you. Here’s where I agree with you, here’s where I don’t agree with you, and here’s why.” That’s the best town hall to have. In the last 21 months in that office, we’ve met with over 500 people.
Q The Waco office?
A Yes. And either onesies or twosies or I can get up to about 10 people in one office.
Q What topics do they come up with?
A Oh, my gosh, immigration, same-sex marriage, transgender issues, guns, school violence, bullying, Social Security, Medicare, veterans issues. And sometimes it’s just somebody saying, “You know, I can’t get the VA to give me my medicine.” So we say, “We’ve got an app for that.” So we’ll bring [administrative officials] in, they take down the information, we get a consent form and we go fix it for them, and we’ve got a really good track record of doing that. Sometimes they come and say, “I can’t get my passport.” We’ve got an app for that and so we get these things fixed. Sometimes they come in but they’ve got a macro issue. Why can’t we fix the border? Why can’t we take care of the Dreamers? Why can’t we deal with all this? It’s all over the board.
Q Do you understand the frustration, though? People think of the all-American town-hall meeting and want to come, get up at a microphone and yell at their congressman in front of everybody. Is that inappropriate?
A I find it unproductive. If you don’t like your government, you have a chance to air your grievances on a face-to-face basis with Bill Flores and my numbers are all easy to find. I’ve got three offices in this district. And it’s easy to handle. And you don’t have to worry about getting shot, OK? I’ve had one of my friends get shot and almost killed and I’ve had death threats. I’m not going to put my team or my family or my constituents, the constituents of this district, in a position where they could be in danger. And there is an element of the population out there that views Republicans as bad people. Just look at what they did to Sen. Ted Cruz [heckled by left-wing activists in a Washington restaurant]. Consider the last few weeks with the powder [sent to Cruz’s Houston campaign office] and the funny stuff that gets mailed to my house. I am not going to put anybody in that position. I have 75 percent positive results from the [online] town-hall meetings we’ve had, so people have the best of both worlds. We can have a meeting in a controlled environment, one-on-one, two-on-one, 12-on-one or we can have a broad-outreach thing where we’ve touched almost 50,000 people. And they like it.
Q People on the right and left agree that Congress is utterly broken. OK, you guys have passed a lot of bills, but public estimation is pretty low. I assume this is why we have emboldened chief executives in American political life, whether it’s Obama or Trump. I assume this is why the Supreme Court is so politicized, right or left. Many political scientists suggest it’s because Congress is dysfunctional. Fair statement?
A From the outside looking into Washington, it does appear that all of Washington is dysfunctional, including Congress. But in the last 21 months, I think the policy outcomes from Congress have been exceptional. Not only the volume but the quality of the policy solutions we’ve developed for the country have been exceptional. They are manifested in what you’re seeing in terms of a revised set of relationships around the world in terms of a broader economy that has the lowest unemployment for blacks and Hispanics and women, the greatest opportunities for young people that we’ve seen in generations. So the policy solutions are good. The problem is, people hear all the rhetoric and dissension but you never hear about the 98 percent [of approved legislation] that’s bipartisan. Those are things where you’re dealing with mental health and opioids, where you’re dealing with human trafficking. I mean, talk to UnBound Waco and find out how happy they are with what we’ve done in Congress on human trafficking — and in a bipartisan manner. They will tell you that we have moved the needle in human trafficking. We still have a ways to go. But you never hear about that stuff. All you hear about is you watch the hearing where Brett Kavanaugh is there and the Democrats and the Republicans look like they’re from Mars and Venus. So, yeah, unfortunately, the way the party system works, it causes people to think that you’ve got one group of people that says the most outlandish things and the other group of people says 180 degrees different.
Q Do the political parties have too much influence on the legislators?
A I think they do on the rhetoric, not the legislation. If it had too much influence on the legislation, you wouldn’t have 98 percent of the 250 bills we’ve done [this Congress] being bipartisan. What you do see is people trying to score points. I get tired of people trying to score points on the back of somebody else. Everybody knows you got to fix Medicare, and so we came up with a solution to fix Medicare in the 2011 budget when I was on the budget committee. Within 36 hours, there was an ad that had somebody looking like Paul Ryan wheeling Granny in a wheelchair over the cliff.