Wise County’s ‘other guy’ in Congress

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, November 3, 2012

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Wise County residents who were unhappy at being split between two Congressional districts after Texas’ contentious 2010 redistricting battle might want to think again.

They may have hit the daily double.

NEW GUY – Congressman Mac Thornberry (R-Amarillo) might start representing Wise County in the U.S. House of Representatives if he wins the election Tuesday. Thornberry has served in the 13th district, which covers a wide swath of the Panhandle and North Texas, since 1995. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

After years of being fully within the 12th Congressional District, represented by Kay Granger, Wise County was one area whose map changed amid the lawsuits and court rulings over redistricting. The fallout was that the county was divided.

District 13, which includes the entire Texas Panhandle, now has at its easternmost reach about three-quarters of Wise County. The cities of Decatur, New Fairview, Rhome, Newark and Aurora are still in Granger’s district.

The rest belongs to Mac Thornberry, whose only opponents on Tuesday’s ballot are Libertarian John Robert Deek and Green Party candidate Keith F. Houston.

The presidential race may be up in the air, but a tenth term is a virtual certainty for the rancher/lawyer from Clarendon.

“I’m happy to have at least part of Wise County,” Thornberry said during a visit Thursday morning at the Wise County Messenger office. “Amarillo and Wichita Falls are roughly 50 percent of the district, but Wise, Cooke and Montague counties are in the top seven or eight after that. Highway 287 is the backbone of my district.”

Although Wise County faces a few issues that are not on the radar in the vast reaches of the Panhandle, there are still many areas of common interest. Agriculture, oil and gas, small business, and of course overriding concerns like the federal budget, defense and national security come to mind.

Thornberry said he and Granger have no problem sharing Wise County.

“Kay has been one of my best friends in the House ever since she got there,” he said. “I don’t think our relationship could be any closer. We agree on every issue, and our committee assignments interact very well.

“She’s told me a lot about Wise County. A lot of people don’t like the county being divided, but she and I are working hard to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.”

Thornberry is a Texas Tech graduate who earned a law degree from the University of Texas and worked in Washington, D.C., for several years. That included a stint as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs in the State Department under President Reagan.

In 1989, he joined his brothers in the cattle business and set up a law practice in Amarillo. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1995 – the year the Republicans seated their first majority in 40 years.

Among Thornberry’s priorities are boosting domestic energy production and encouraging economic growth. He has also developed a reputation as a leader in national security, serving as vice chairman of the Armed Services Committee and heading up the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats. He also serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which oversees 16 federal agencies such as the CIA, FBI and others.

Like most of the country, his biggest concern right now is the federal budget.

“I’ll have a better answer for you after Tuesday,” he said when asked about the budget. “I feel pretty good about this election, but regardless of how it turns out, we’re not going to go another two years stalemated. So many things expire that even if we do nothing, things will happen.

“The citizens have a very clear decision next Tuesday, and they’re going to answer some pretty clear questions. If the President is re-elected, the health care bill is fully implemented. On the budget, taxes, debt – it’s going to be a different kind of negotiation than if it was President Romney. But we can’t default on our debt, and we can’t let the taxes just go up on everybody.”

Thornberry said he has only met GOP Presidential nominee Mitt Romney once, and that was at a group event. But he has a close working relationship with Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Congressman Romney chose as his vice-presidential nominee.

“I know Paul Ryan very well,” he said. “The thing people should know about Paul is that he’s gotten to this point based on his intelligence, his hard work, the research and the scholarship of what he’s worked on. This isn’t always the case in Washington, D.C.”

A question about agriculture led into a discussion of regulation and the small-business climate that has arisen in the U.S.

“Regulation has just gone too far,” Thornberry said. “Businesses are not going to borrow money, hire or expand until they know what’s going to happen with taxes and regulations.”

That climate will have to change, he said.

“What we’re seeing is, the administration knows they’re not going to get what they want through the House, so they go through the regulators. We can cut funding or challenge things in court, but your options are limited.”

But business growth is essential to moving back in the direction of a balanced federal budget, Thornberry said.

“If private businesses recover, it has a huge positive effect on the government’s business,” he noted. “We’ve got to make cuts, but we also have to get the economy growing again. You’ll never balance the budget just by cutting spending.”

That, he said, is because so much of the federal budget is entitlements and mandatory spending, programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and food stamps.

“The number of people on food stamps, Social Security disability – just the growth in government entitlement programs over the past four years – is staggering,” he said. “There’s much more spending, more dependency on government.

“There’s so much that must be done and undone to get us back on a path toward a balanced budget, toward a business climate where businesses can grow again.”

Thornberry has had a bill in the hopper ever since he was elected to kill the “death tax” – the inheritance tax that has been limited in recent years, but is scheduled to go back up to previous levels if Bush-era tax cuts are allowed to expire.

Thornberry said he’d love to kill the tax, but would be willing to compromise by excluding the first $3.5 to $5 million in an estate from taxes, then setting a flat rate of around 25 percent on the rest. The alternative would be to put families back in the position of having to sell long-held farms, ranches and businesses just to pay the taxes after a death.

Oil and gas issues are among the things Thornberry’s and Granger’s districts have in common.

“There are independent, dependable analysts who say we really could be energy independent in North America in the next 10 years if we let ourselves,” he said. “I’m not sure we can imagine not only the impact on our security and our economy, but the geopolitical consequences of that.”

Thornberry said the Texas Republican delegation – both the House and Senate – has lunch together every week, and the way they work together on issues is the envy of every other state. With the retirement of Kay Bailey Hutchison, the delegation is ready to admit a new member.

“It’s a big deal to get a new Senator,” he said.

Getting a new Congressman is a big deal, too.

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