Former Republican Congressman Bill Thomas, who capped a 28-year House career as chair of the Ways and Means Committee, has been out of Congress for more than a decade. His name is no longer familiar outside of his Bakersfield base.
But two of his protégés are very well known – House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who served as Thomas’ district director, and Oversight Committee Chair Devin Nunes, who Thomas encouraged to run for Congress and who nurtured his career after he got there.
Both were close to Thomas, both earned their political stripes in local politics and both rose to influence in the House.
Congress now is “an entirely different ball game. It’s much more polarizing.” — Bill Thomas
While still in school, McCarthy interned for Thomas and later became a member of his staff. Building on the local alliances he forged as Thomas’ aide, McCarthy successfully ran for Thomas’ congressional seat in 2006 after Thomas stepped down. Earlier, Nunes had swerved on a local community college district board and became close to Thomas, who helped with campaign strategy, and once Nunes was in the House, Thomas helped him get a slot on Ways and Means.
The atmospherics of Congress have changed, however.
Congress now is “an entirely different ball game. It’s much more polarizing,” said Thomas who, despite a sharp temper and tart tongue, was viewed as something of a moderate when he served in the House.
“It’s a zero sum game,” he added.
When asked to assess how his prominent protégés were doing, he demurred. ““I can’t empathize because I don’t know their exact situation, but I do sympathize,” Thomas said.
Thomas began as a political science instructor at Bakersfield College, and in 1974 he was elected to the California Assembly. About four years later, he was elected to his first term in Congress.
During his tenure, Thomas served on various committees and rose in the House hierarchy to become chair of the powerful Ways and Means committee during the second George W. Bush administration. Termed out of the chairmanship, he left the House in 2007.
But the policies and politics of Nunes and McCarthy, influenced in part by their association with Thomas, live on.
“The only tools I ever had was listen to what people want, build a coalition and pass legislation.” — Bill Thomas
McCarthy took Thomas’ congressional seat. Thomas “basically recruited Devin Nunes to run for office,” said retired reporter Vic Pollard of the Bakersfield Californian and Gannett News Service. He aggressively covered Thomas for 12 years.
Ways and Means is the House’s oldest committee and is the chief tax-writing committee, with jurisdiction that covers revenue from trade agreements to social services programs.
Or as Thomas said he used to jokingly call it, the powerful committee offered ‘ways to separate you from your means.”
In this committee and during his time in Congress, Thomas said he would find out what people wanted and packaged it into bills.
“The only tools I ever had was listen to what people want, build a coalition and pass legislation,” he said.
But if he was a House member today, he doesn’t think he would have anything in his tool box to use, he said.
While he too had experienced the transition from becoming a minority party to a majority as Republicans took control in 1994, the most recent wave of elected legislators has been more radical.
They’ve been electing people who are farther right, like the Tea Party members or those supported by the billionaire Koch brothers, he said.
“So how can you form coalitions of the willing when people are in different camps?” Thomas asked.
“Thomas is also known for losing his temper when people are unprepared, earning a reputation for sharp interrogations.” — Mark Foley
The fact that positions in the Trump administration are still unfilled and the presidency’s direction can change with one tweet doesn’t help either, Thomas said.
He used his coalition-building skills, backed by an iron fist, to pass Medicare Part D through a Republican legislature and presidency, even as he crafted a political machine back home in Kern County.
Thomas, who once won his party’s endorsement for Congress only after several rounds of voting, was so angry with the Kern County Republican Central Committee that he pushed to pack the party with his supporters.
This was not the last time Thomas showed his temper.
Pollard said Thomas was “usually the smartest man in the room” and he got things done, but he had a prickly attitude that could get in the way of that.
A poll of congressional aides by Washingtonian magazine of the “best and worst” in Congress, put Thomas at No. 2 for “brainiest”, No. 3 for “workhorse” and No. 1 for “meanest” with the “hottest temper” in the House.
“Thomas is also known for losing his temper when people are unprepared, earning a reputation for sharp interrogations. He’s revered, but he’s also reviled to some degree,” fellow representative Mark Foley once told CQ Weekly.
Once the congressman forbade Democrats from meeting in a room and called Capitol police to remove them, Pollard recalled. Thomas later apologized on the House floor for his actions.
Thomas is currently a Kern County Community College District trustee and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
But he finds the current situation in Congress “somewhat frustrating,” especially as problems with Social Security, Medicare, and undocumented minors further develop.
“I don’t think he would be a very good fit in Congress today,” Pollard said, citing Thomas’ moderate social policies and believing in working together.
“He was an old-fashioned Republican.”