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Leaving Congress, Rep. Chris Stewart looks back on his first government shutdown

It was ‘kind of a slap in the face,’ Utah Republican recalls

“Some of the best people I’ve ever worked with are up here on Capitol Hill,” says departing Rep. Chris Stewart, seen here at a February hearing.
“Some of the best people I’ve ever worked with are up here on Capitol Hill,” says departing Rep. Chris Stewart, seen here at a February hearing. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The countdown begins. Another government shutdown looms. The tension on Capitol Hill is building with every second — and a key player has escaped.

It’s something straight out of a thriller — a genre Utah Republican Chris Stewart knows well as an author of multiple novels and someone who has seen his fair share of funding battles over a decade in Congress. But this time, he’s removing himself from the narrative to write a new kind of story for himself.

After his wife, Evie, suffered a stroke, Stewart announced earlier this year that he would be resigning from the House to focus on family. His last day was scheduled for Friday.

Stewart’s departure sets off a race to replace him on the Appropriations Committee, right as lawmakers feud over stopgap plans to fund the government before the month is out.

With his name already gone from his office door, Stewart left the Capitol on Thursday before the final votes of the day. In an interview with Roll Call on his way out of town, he shared his next moves (including buying some cows) and recalled his “somber” mood in 2013 during the first shutdown of his career. “We did what we thought was right at the time, and it didn’t work,” Stewart said.

A special Republican primary to fill his seat was held in the Beehive State last week, where his former aide, Celeste Maloy, clinched the nomination and is heavily favored to win on Nov. 21. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: What would you fix about Capitol Hill if you could?

A: So many things need to change. The budget process — I mean the actual process, not just the outcome. The actual process is broken, and the way to fix it isn’t hard. I think you go to biennial budgets. There are certain reforms you can put in that aren’t partisan in any way and can actually make a big difference. 

Q: Do you support any of the members trying to take your seat on the Appropriations Committee?

A: I won’t weigh in on that. I’m not sure who all of them are — I mean, I know some of them. But I’ll just say that it’s a very important committee, as indicated by the fight we’re having right now to pass the appropriations bills.

Q: What was your worst moment in Congress?

A: One of them was when we were in the middle of our first government shutdown, which happened [in 2013] after I’d been in Congress a short time. We fought and fought, and we had a goal to repeal Obamacare and tried to cut spending, and you know, that ultimately failed. 

We did what we thought was right at the time, and it didn’t work. I remember that being kind of a slap in the face to say, “Hey, this is going to be harder than you think it is, and this tactic doesn’t work. You’ve got to find something that does.” But it was a bit of a somber time for me to think that, yeah, these are enormous problems and we haven’t yet taken steps to address them.

Q: What was your best moment in Congress?

A: One of them was when we passed the 988 national suicide prevention hotline number, and the reason is it was just clear this is going to save literally hundreds of thousands of lives and help people who desperately need help. I got involved with suicide prevention when I first came to Congress because we had such a high suicide rate among my fellow veterans, and then I expanded that work because we had a shockingly high suicide rate among young people in Utah. 

But I’m going to share one more: landing at an airport in the Middle East on a congressional delegation with a very small group of people, most of whom were Intelligence Committee members, and looking back at the airplane and seeing this beautiful jet that says the United States of America. It was just a real powerful moment to remind me that the world looks to the United States for leadership, and whether we like it or not, we’re the glue that holds the world together. I mean, if we fail, the world crumbles underneath us in a matter of a few short years. Seeing that beautiful jet sitting there on a tarmac in the middle of a very, very troubled part of the world was a really powerful symbol to me.

Q: Mitt Romney, your senator and fellow Utahn, just announced this week that he won’t seek a second term. Do you have a favorite to fill his seat? 

A: There are some good people running. I mean, Brad [Wilson] would be a great candidate. I would love for John Curtis or Blake Moore to get into the race. I think both of them would be extraordinary candidates. 

Q: Any retirement plans?

A: Honestly, I’m going to buy a ranch and buy some cows. Can’t wait to do that.

Q: You have another career as an author, starting with fiction like “Shattered Bone,” about a stolen B-1B bomber. You also helped kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart write her memoir. Do you have any new books on the horizon? 

A: I wrote several books while I was in Congress, and I’m surely going to return to writing. It’s one of the things I really enjoy, but not because I want to make money. I write because I just love telling stories. So I’m sure I will, but right now I’m going to concentrate on a couple of other things and keep that on the back burner for a little while. 

Q: What will you miss, and what will you not miss, about Congress?

A: I’m going to answer both questions, because they’re the same answer. The people. Some of the best people I’ve ever worked with are up here on Capitol Hill — some of my staff and some of the other members. They are genuinely some of the best people I’ve worked with, and I include with that my time as a business leader and as a military officer. 

But there are also some of the biggest goofballs, and they make what we’re doing so much harder. I won’t miss that. 

Q: What’s the legacy you want to leave behind in politics?

A: We have a motto on my campaign: “Duty, honor, service to God, family and country.” We got that motto from my parents. I think if I were to be remembered for something, I would want it to be that he really actually believed that. So that when the medical situation with his wife required him to retire from Congress, he put his family first. 

He actually did what he said he believed — I think that’s the nicest thing anyone could say about someone. They had principles and they tried to live by them.

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