Congressional GOP Freshman: Rep. Todd Rokita
There are 87 new Republican congressmen. They ran on fiscal conservative principles and are dedicated to repealing ObamaCare. But they are otherwise a diverse lot. Some come from the private sector and others from state government. Some are interested in preserving a strong national security policy even in tough budgetary times; others want to slash defense. Over the weeks and months ahead, Right Turn will interview a number of them and then follow their progress in the House.
Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) isn't out to win friends inside the Beltway. He doesn't mince words, shows little regard for the D.C. work ethic, and, at least for now, is in no mood to compromise. He also is unusually qualified for the job. He served as Indiana's secretary of state, was elected president of the national organization for secretaries, was the named defendant in a key Supreme Court case on voting rights, and has traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan. But now he occupies a modest office in the Cannon House Office Building. A blank wall separates the cramped lobby from the staffers. He is suffering from a slight case of the flu and is about to give his maiden floor speech on health care.
Despite his background, Rokita confesses, "It is still a big transition, mostly because of a change in branches." He explains, "In the executive branch you have your own levers. Some of those were the governor's, but I had mine." He says he wasn't planning on a career in Washington until "the last year and a half." He admits, "It sounds too partisan to say Obama was elected and the country went to hell in a hand basket." In his view, the issues facing the country, and what brought him to Congress, are "multi-generational" ones that have been building for a long time.
He will be in a position to focus on those on the House Budget Committee. He says candidly, "I am looking forward to learning at the knee of Paul Ryan. He doesn't strike me as a politician. He strikes me as an economist." Rokita brings the firebrand ethos of the Tea Party. He says with regard to spending and debt, the jury is still out on the Republican leadership. "The question," he says, "is whether they will go far enough." As secretary of state, he used "heavy doses of technology, furloughs, and pay cuts," to keep his office running on the same dollars it spent in 1987. And he embodies the Tea Party's take-no-prisoners style. "I hope I don't have to buck the system. But if it requires bucking, I will do it."
On defense funding, he takes a tough line, perhaps at odds with House leadership. He favors across-the-board cuts, pointing out that even in Indiana the "sacred cow" of education took a 5 percent cut, sizable but less than the rest of government. Unlike the president, who has recognized American security requires a successful outcome in Afghanistan, Rokita says, "You can't tell me that all the wars we are fighting are in America's national security interest." That sounds more like Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) than the chairman from which he hopes to learn.
On his other assignments on the House Education Workforce Committee, he says he is prepared to look at the defunding of the D.C. school voucher program without necessarily increasing total dollars for education. "I am a funding switcher," he says. He also wants to make sure "card check" doesn't come back. (It has been dead for a while, but Rokita isn't taking anything for granted.) On the Administration Committee, he thinks there has been improvement in the troops' access to absentee ballots, but is certain "we can do better."
He is clearly resisting the temptation to go "native." He says, rather literally, "I haven't left Indiana." He goes back and forth each week to Indiana and his two young children, and his wife did not follow him to D.C. He is sleeping in his office, because he "can't see spending more on rent than I do on mortgage. I am too cheap." He hasn't quite worked out all the kinks. The office clock still buzzes at night, and he's trying to figure out which clothes go in his office closet and which in the gym. For now, he's taken aback by the leisurely work schedule in the Capitol. Given the fights ahead, however, that may change sooner than he thinks.
We will see whether Rokita learns to work within the confines of the House, where the leadership generally calls the shots. And in the months ahead, it will be interesting to see if the "bull in a china shop" persona remains.
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