By Kerry Lester
President Barack Obama has warned that "election-year politics" might keep Congress from acting on substantive issues this year. But House GOP Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam of Wheaton disputes that theory, and points to history to suggest that the time might be ripe for major changes on the horizon, including tax-code reform.
The Wheaton Republican, whose war chest now stands at a hefty $1.9 million in cash on hand, according to Monday's Federal Election Commission filing, is unopposed in the March 20 primary.
He spent the morning Monday with the Daily Herald outlining his legislative and political priorities for the year ahead. Those priorities include guiding members to consensus inside the lower chamber as well as helping them with their re-election bids.
With Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich facing off in Tuesday's Florida Republican presidential primary, Roskam is declining to to make an endorsement, at least for now, saying it's for the good of consensus within the party.
Q: Last fall the House was focused on an anti-regulatory agenda. What's changed with the new year?
A: The real focus continues to be on jobs and economic growth. The entire debate is on how do you do that, how you create an environment when you try to see 5 and 6 percent growth.
Serving (as the chair of) the Ways and Means committee is an unbelievable opportunity to reform the tax code. It can happen in a political year. It has before. In 1986, President Reagan worked with House Speaker Tip O'Neill and (then Ways and Means chair and Illinois Congressman) Dan Rostenkowski to reform the federal tax system. They reformed the act and the bill got signed in two weeks.
So, what we have right now is a tax code that nobody can defend. The whole concept is to make the tax code more competitive. There's a real opportunity for this to reform the tax code and that will create jobs and buoyancy.
Q: But some have speculated that following a year of partisan infighting on the debt ceiling and the like, not much will get done. How do you respond?
A: I say that they're right to be disappointed. But let me put it this way, the country sent a strong message in November 2010. That was to stop the nonsense spending. So the American public had an expectation, I think, that a message would be sent and received in Washington. It's been received in the House, which passed a budget. I think the frustration is they feel like the Senate has not passed the bill.
Q: From your seat at the House leadership table, how do you urge bipartisanship and compromise in the year ahead?
A: What you do is you take the time to build consensus internally.
Every member of Congress is elected and their primary responsibility is to reflect the priorities of their district and reflect what's best for the nation. What I found in the budget process last year is a great example of this. (GOP Whip) Kevin McCarthy and I led 20 "listening sessions" on the budget with members.
What we were able to do internally is give good members good information and give them time. By bringing their ideas to the table, you ultimately try to drive toward a consensus. It can happen if you do the work.
Q: You've spent 15 months on the job now as GOP chief deputy whip. What are some of the lessons you've learned during that time?
A: The biggest learning curve is being proactive in seeking the input of other members. Creating venues where they can get information, creating areas and time where you can actually talk things through. That's one of the things I've learned quickly and it kind of is a natural extension of what I've been doing in the district since I've been elected, to listen to your district and try and learn and reflect and that same skill set.
Q: Politically, let's talk about your war chest and lack of a primary opponent, and what you are going to do to help other members of the delegation who might be in tighter primary spots.
A: One of the things I've appreciated over the years is people have been willing to support me financially. To that end, I was helped tremendously. From other members of Congress, and this created a sense in me, a responsibility to help out other people. I'll be very active with other members of the delegation.
Q: What about Tea Partyer Joe Walsh, who is campaigning for election in the new 8th District, which includes much of your former territory? How will you help him, financially and otherwise?
A: I think that there are a lot of opportunities there for Joe to come in and get acquainted with the new 8th District. To your point, those are folks who I have enjoyed their support over the years. Joe is going to have a good story to tell. He is trying to reflect the fiscal priorities.
Q: Why have you so far declined to make a presidential endorsement?
A: I want to try to create the environment where it makes it easier to work with more members in the House. Presidential politics are interesting and important, and I will have a role to play. But I need to create an environment where I'm in the best possible place to try to be helpful in the House.