Congressman Mac Thornberry was in an upbeat mood Friday.
That’s because he was in Wise County, not Washington.
Thornberry, an Amarillo native whose district includes the western half of Wise County, made a visit to Devon Energy in Bridgeport and stopped by the Messenger office afterward for a quick interview. He said Devon is at the forefront of the strongest sector in the U.S. economy right now.
“What we’ve done in energy, in the last few years, shows what entrepreneurship can do and the difference it makes,” he said. “Energy is the bright, shining light in our economy right now.”
He cited job growth of 40 percent in the energy sector over the past few years, noting that “if the rest of the economy had done nearly half as well, we’d be in an economic boom.”
Thornberry said the consquences of the U.S. energy boom are global, political and hard to overstate.
“The United States could be energy independent at least by 2020,” he said. “When you think about the way Canada, and now Mexico, are beginning to develop their resources – and with the progress we’re making on liquefied natural gas – we could be an energy exporter.
“When you think back to the Arab oil embargo and the long lines at the gas pump in the 1970s, that’s hard to imagine.”
And, he added, “government didn’t do that.”
The mood changes when the discussion turns to what government does – and doesn’t – do.
“We’re facing some pretty major issues this fall,” he said, citing the debt ceiling and the federal budget. He noted federal spending has gone down for two straight years for the first time since the 1950s, and the budget deficit is actually shrinking.
But the spending reduction is partially due to one-time events like banks paying off bailout debt, and even more to cuts in defense spending from “sequestration” – forced across-the-board cuts mandated because Congress could not agree on selective reductions.
“My goal is to not have sequestration continue on defense,” he said. “We’ve cut enough. I’m for substituting defense savings with other savings.”
The real savings still needs to come from the “entitlement” side of the federal budget, he said – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Those expenses keep ratcheting up in every budget cycle and must be brought under control for there to be any long-term deficit reduction.
“There’s still a chance that we could have some budget entitlement reform and some tax reform that would put us on a better track, long-term,” he said. “I think this fall we have an opportunity to focus on the two-thirds of the federal budget that is tied up in these mandatory spending programs.
“That, plus the good news we’ve been hearing lately puts us on a better track for getting our fiscal house in order.”
POLITICS IMPEDES PROGRESS
Congress itself seems to be one of the major drawbacks.
“The House is a tough legislative body to lead right now,” he said. “Although Republicans have a majority, if you lose 14 votes you don’t have a majority, and that has happened several times recently.”
House Republicans, he said, are generally trying to decide if they want to celebrate a few small victories or “go for a touchdown on every play,” he said. There’s little concensus.
“Some people are more concerned with Twitter followers than they are with legislation,” he said. “Some are just working on looking good in the media, and some are running for president. There are a lot of personal agendas.”
But crafting legislation is very much a team sport, he said.
“In Congress, you can’t do anything by yourself,” he said. “So there’s a tension between this kind of individualism and the necessity to work as a team. It makes it very difficult to get things done.”
Add to the mix a second-term president who seems to have given up on trying get legislation passed and is implementing his agenda through regulations and selective enforcement of laws.
“The Obama administration seems to be pushing regulation on every front,” Thornberry said. “A piece I read recently by a Harvard law professor points out that regulations are growing much, much faster than laws. The administration is pursuing an aggressive regulatory and selective enforcement agenda, and that does not bode well for these big fiscal issues.”
Thornberry, who serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, also took time to address recent scandals relating to the government gathering data on citizens.
“It’s a concern that people will lump all this together – the IRS and other scandals,” he said. “If the IRS had one-third the oversight the NSA (National Security Agency) has, we’d have never had this mess. There’s a huge amount of day-to-day oversight of the NSA, between Congress, the courts and internal oversight from inspector generals.”
He pointed out that while even Congress has had limited success penetrating the arrogance of the IRS, the NSA has “a lot of people working to make sure everything was done right, and if it wasn’t, fixing it.”
As far as the government listening to phone calls, logging them and using that data to track potential terrorist threats – it’s absolutely essential in the post-9-11 world, he said.
“It is the most important weapon we’ve got to stop terrorism right now,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of oversight to make sure it’s used for that purpose and that purpose only – but if we lose that ability, we will be much more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.”
Thornberry and his wife, Sally, were happy to see Wise County’s economic prosperity and the greening effect of recent rains. As a rancher from the Panhandle, he appreciates the value of rain and a break from 100-degree days in the middle of August.
“Our August break comes at a good time,” he said. “Everyone in Washington is in a pretty sour mood right now. It’s good to go talk to the folks back home.”