Rep. Tom Graves (R., Ga.) arrived on Capitol Hill several months in advance of the GOP tidal wave of November 2 — and certainly without all the fanfare. But he still considers himself a member of the freshman class — “a freshman in spirit,” he tells National Review Online. And while most Republican veterans would probably love to describe themselves as such, there are, in truth, few who actually fit the bill. Graves is one of the few.
In fact, Graves’s name appears on a number of select, enviable lists. In 2008, FreedomWorks, the conservative grassroots organization, honored two state lawmakers with “Legislative Entrepreneur of the Year” awards. One was Marco Rubio, then speaker of the Florida house. The other was Graves, then serving in the Georgia assembly, where he had led a successful effort to cut more than $3 billion from the state budget (long before austerity had caught on with most nationally known Republicans). In December, Graves was one of four new members named to a coveted post on the House Appropriations Committee. His selection “thrilled” Rep. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), the six-term fiscal hawk also chosen for the committee. Anyone familiar with Flake knows there are few lawmakers who are fiscally conservative enough for his taste.
Graves was elected in a June 2010 special election to fill the seat vacated by Nathan Deal, who resigned to pursue a successful gubernatorial bid. He went on to win again on November 2. And although his time in Nancy Pelosi’s 111th Congress was short (for which he is grateful), the experience helped give him a crucial leg up on the class of 2010. His six-month head start, combined with his background as a state budget hawk, positioned him to play a critical role in the first major victory of the Tea Party Congress.
When members of Congress returned to Capitol Hill on February 7, following a district work period (during which members return to their home districts to meet with constituents), the freshman class was vexed and restless. The Appropriations Committee was set to produce a continuing resolution that included $58 billion in spending cuts from the president’s (never-enacted) 2011 budget request. New members wanted to know what had happened to the $100 billion figure given in the GOP Pledge to America, which so many of them had successfully campaigned on. And even when they heard the countervailing arguments about half-finished fiscal years and shifting baselines, they still weren’t satisfied.
The next day, Tuesday, February 8, the Appropriations Committee voted to bring the $58 billion proposal to the floor, despite protests from Reps. Flake and Cynthia Lummis (R., Wyo.). Graves reluctantly supported the plan, with the assurance that Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio), the new chairman of the Republican Study Committee, would be waiting on the floor with an amendment to cut an additional $42 billion. Tensions boiled over at a closed-door conference meeting the next day, where members had what Graves describes as a “very respectful, but also very blunt” conversation about the need to cut a full $100 billion and fulfill the Pledge.
That’s when Graves decided to take action. On the morning of Thursday the 10th, he began a series of meetings in his office with freshman members that continued throughout the day. Graves gave his new colleagues a rundown of the appropriations process and gradually built a consensus to get to $100 billion in cuts before any amendments would be added. “We knew this was going to be the opening kickoff to a long season,” Graves says. “The thinking was: ‘Let’s kick it deep and start off with the strongest field position we could.’”
That afternoon, he brought that message from a unified freshman class to a meeting with the Republican leadership. “I told them: ‘We’ve got to get to $100 billion if we want this CR to pass,’” Graves says. “That’s what these freshmen want.” Party leaders heard that message loud and clear, he says, and called an impromptu conference meeting that night to iron out the details. Sure enough, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) emerged from that meeting to announce that the GOP would make good on its $100 billion promise. It was a momentous victory for the new class, for the Tea Party, and for “freshman in spirit” Tom Graves.
“Congressman Graves was extremely instrumental in pushing to make sure that we were staying true to the Pledge to America,” a House leadership aide tells National Review Online. “He really stressed the fact that these freshmen were elected by the grassroots, and it was important that their voices be heard.”
Freshman Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R., Miss.), also a member of the Appropriations Committee, says Graves’s extra few months of experience and already-established relationship with party leaders made him perfectly suited to be a liaison between the two sides. Graves’s diligence may well have saved the Republicans from an embarrassing vote on the House floor. “Given Tom’s background as a state legislator, he understands the concept of vote-counting in this business,” Nunnelee says. “Whatever you put on the floor has got to get 218 votes, and if you can’t get it passed it doesn’t matter what you put out there.”
Graves’s brief stint in the 111th Congress not only allowed to him to get his feet wet and start building relationships, but it also gave him a glimpse of life in the minority party, as well as a great appreciation for GOP leadership under House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio). The freewheeling process that recently produced a continuing resolution with more than 60 successful amendments, he says, is testament to Boehner’s commitment to openness (unlike some other speakers we have seen).
“Speaker Boehner has said many times that the House of Representatives is the closest institution to the people,” Graves says, “and he recognizes that by empowering the members to have direct input into the process. It’s a bottom-up approach, as opposed to Speaker Pelosi’s top-down approach. It’s a refreshing change.”
In person, Graves, at age 41, exudes a quiet confidence, expressed in his distinct southern drawl. This disposition is captured perfectly in a famous YouTube clip, which shows Graves speaking on the House floor in support of a CR amendment offered by Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R., Mont.) to deny funding for the implementation of the health-care law. At one point, Graves is interrupted by Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D., Fla.), who objects to his use of the term “Obamacare,” claiming it is a “disparaging reference to the president.” Rather than yield time to hear the congresswoman’s objection, Graves shoots her a quick look and cracks a sly grin before continuing: “Let us remember the cost of Obamacare . . .”
Like most new members, Graves has a bold vision of what he wants to accomplish. “I’m a very results-oriented person,” he says. “I want to see us move the ball forward.” For example, he would like to see federal spending capped at 18.5 percent of GDP, or consistent with the historical average for spending levels, and significantly less than the 21 percent recommended by the bipartisan deficit commission, to say nothing of the 25 percent called for in President Obama’s 2012 budget (which would be the highest level since World War II). When it comes to entitlement reform, he says Republicans must not hesitate to take the lead. “We campaigned on the need to step into that area,” he says. “There’s no alternative. Difficult cuts are going to have to be made.”
Graves hopes to use his position on the powerful Appropriations Committee to institute significant reform of federal agencies and regulations. At the subcommittee level, he plans to request that relevant federal agencies submit a series of budget proposals that reflect spending reductions of 10 percent, 20 percent, and 25 percent. He has a list of simple questions he will ask of every item included in every appropriations bill: 1) Is it an earmark? 2) Is it duplicative? 3) Is it efficient and effective? 4) Does it place an unnecessary burden on states or businesses? He promises a thorough oversight process to ensure that taxpayer dollars aren’t being squandered.
Graves’s exasperation with the glut of spending in Washington was on display during a floor speech in support of an amendment offered by Rep. Tom Reed (R., N.Y.) to strip $10 million in funding for a sewer-rehabilitation project in Tijuana, Mexico. “Something about that just stinks,” he joked. “I would hope that members of this House would send a message to the American people: It doesn’t matter if it’s one dollar, $10 million, $1 billion, if it’s unnecessary funding coming from this government, we’re going to get it out and get this fiscal house back in order.”
For this “freshman in spirit,” cutting the deficit and balancing the budget are more than political objectives, they are a “patriotic duty.” And Graves’s view is widely shared among new members. “What’s unique about this freshman class,” Graves says, “is that we’re not concerned about the next election, we’re concerned about the next generation. We’re at a very pointed time in our nation. We can either build on the greatness of America, or we can fade off into history.”
Here’s hoping that freshman spirit prevails.
— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin fellow.