Bill Thomas Looks Back Serenely at House Career

Posted November 26, 2008 at 1:17pm

Former Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) chaired two committees and steered dozens of pieces of legislation during his 28-year career. He openly relished his Ways and Means chairmanship — “the only job that I really, really wanted” — and he was a divisive figure whose skirmishes with Democratic colleagues were legendary.

But to hear Thomas explain it, it was all part of the job, and he has moved on.

“When my kids were little, we’d be in local parades and we’d always be in the front. We’d sit and watch the rest of the parade go by, [and] I tried to explain to them we were up front for a reason, and it wasn’t us,” Thomas said during a recent interview with Roll Call.

“It was the circumstances [we] were in. And that pretty much defines the job,” he said. “It’s not a lifestyle. It’s not a lifetime endeavor.”

Now a consultant at the downtown law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Thomas, who turns 67 on Saturday, has quietly immersed himself into a life more similar to his earliest days as a political science professor in Bakersfield, Calif.

He ponders the implications of legislation as an outside observer. He offers suggestions in dry policy papers. He provides mentoring and guidance to former students and staffers. And he does not engage in partisan chatter.

In fact, Thomas had glowing words for former Ways and Means colleague and outgoing Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), the newly named chief of staff for President-elect Barack Obama.

“I think he’s very talented. He’s bright. He’s kind of a policy wonk on issues when he has time to do it,” Thomas said, making an “OK” sign with his hand. “Obama’s selection of Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff was one of the best political decisions I’ve seen in a long, long time.”

During a two-hour interview, Thomas brushed aside questions on his once- contentious relationship with House colleagues, including his fierce rivalry with current Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.). Instead, Thomas opted to discuss the mechanics of the institution and how party battles will shake out next year.

Alas, retirement has given Thomas the benefit to reflect on a nearly three-decade run in which time was a luxury.

He shuttles between Washington, D.C., and California, where his wife, Sharon, and two grown children still live, although he now keeps a much steadier schedule. He voted at his precinct in Bakersfield on Election Day this year and discussed the results with the local community college alumni association instead of appearing on television or attending more high-profile events.

Colleagues at Buchanan Ingersoll do not refer to him as “chairman” or “Congressman” because, as he sees it, he retired that jersey a long time ago.

“One of my sports idols was [Los Angeles Dodger] Sandy Koufax,” Thomas said. “When he retired, a lot of the sportscasters were quizzing him, and they said ‘Why are you retiring? You could still possibly pitch a no-hitter?’ And he basically said, ‘That’s the reason I’m retiring. I could still do it.’

“So I retired knowing I could probably still do it.”

The grandfather of two said he “didn’t want to be there until someone carried me out or led me out.” Instead, he left, like his sports idol, at the top of his game. “I tried to impress on a lot of other Members that you should think more about that and that you should look at it as a job.”

Like his favorite Hall of Fame pitcher, it seems that Thomas is satisfied simply in knowing he could still do it.

Gesturing to the pictures from presidential bill signings that adorn his office, Thomas points out with a grin, “That’s my bill, and that’s my bill, and that’s my bill.”

But when asked what he misses most about Congress, the prolific legislator flashed a smirk and said “I mean, look, I was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee with a Republican Congress and a Republican president.”

Thomas now lends his legislative acumen to Buchanan Ingersoll, where he advises clients on how bills coming out of Congress might affect their business investments. The law firm’s government relations unit is growing, and Thomas often joins meetings with prospective clients, including health care groups and energy companies, to weigh in on the upcoming legislative session.

Some former Members and policy wonks find the shift to business rocky. The financial concerns are different and require more than a simple majority to pass muster. There are no markups to a deal, and the process moves in a rhythm that does not follow a Congressional calendar.

Impatient as a Congressman and a wiz with numbers, Thomas enjoys the change.

“It’s easier because it’s more transparent in terms of what the interests are,” Thomas said. “I used to remember dealing with Southern Members, and I didn’t know which of the six agendas they were working on at that time. If you know what it is you’re looking for and there is an honest discussion of what you want, then it’s much easier to make things happen.”

Still, there are adjustments for the once-mighty chairman.

“It used to be that if I was chairman and an idea came along, you just tried to make it happen. Here of course, the numbers have to fit, and sometimes it’s frustrating if everyone agrees and the numbers don’t fit,” he said.

This is where Thomas’ creativity comes into play. When he was pushing through massive tax bills, he was working with a slim 12- to 18-person GOP majority in the House and had to weave through the priorities of his fellow Members to collect enough votes for passage. He made his deals “on the margins” and is doing the same now.

“I batted 1,000 percent when I was chairman, so maybe we understood something about the dynamics and the mechanics of the place,” Thomas said, noting the same goes for both sides of the aisle.

Thomas was the only nonincumbent Republican elected to the California General Assembly in 1974, and for the first 16 years of his Congressional career, he was in the minority party. At the AEI, the one-time underdog writes policy papers and leads discussions on issues that Republicans can focus on, and hopefully, garner a few legislative and political wins.

Thomas voiced support for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), who is “surviving” despite two horrible election cycles, and said he talks often with his successor and one-time staffer, Rep. Kevin McCarthy. He tells them, “you have to have creative offerings, especially vis-à-vis their offering.”

But he is careful to maintain a low profile, cautioning “you involve yourself as an external factor at your own peril.”

“I feel a sense of obligation to try to make sure that the institution works the best it’s able. Right now there’s a need to do something. Doing nothing is not an alternative,” Thomas said. “For someone who was in it and who is a keen observer and participates, it’s a very, very interesting historical time.”