Center for Effective Lawmaking

Discussing Effective Lawmaking with Representative Don Bacon

Discussing Effective Lawmaking with Representative Don Bacon

Representative Don Bacon has served as the U.S. Representative for Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district since 2017. He has been identified by the Center for Effective Lawmaking (CEL) as being the most effective Republican lawmaker in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 117th Congress (2021-2023) and the fourth-most effective lawmaker, overall, in the House during the 117th Congress, despite being a member of the minority party at the time. He was also the most successful member of the House in terms of incorporating large portions of his bills into other pieces of legislation that ultimately became law, as well as the most effective Republican lawmaker in advancing defense policy legislation. (For a summary of our Legislative Effectiveness Scores for the 117th Congress and the unique methodology behind it, please visit our website here).

CEL co-directors Craig Volden and Alan Wiseman recently sat down with Representative Bacon to discuss his career in public service, and his effective lawmaking in Congress; and many of his legislative strategies and his approaches to the lawmaking process correspond with the lessons from research conducted by the CEL. Among the topics discussed were: how his service in the U.S. Air Force and as a congressional aide contributed to his approach to lawmaking; the influence of committees and caucuses, and the related behind-the-scenes work that goes into passing legislation; the importance of getting cosponsors – and gaining trust – from members on the other side of the political aisle; the benefits and importance of constituent services; how close we came to seeing a House speaker who was elected by a bipartisan coalition in October, and how his office brought “three people back to life.”

Bacon on veterans serving in Congress:

  • “Most veterans, particularly those who served active duty… we see things like ‘what is in the nation’s interest? What do we have to solve?’” [For more information about how prior military service influences lawmakers, see our working papers here and here]

Bacon on caucuses and committees:

  • “The caucuses find like-minded people to get together, and you figure ‘Okay, what’s a lucrative area for legislation?’ And then you can take this and then submit bills or go to your committees to do it.” [For more information about how caucus membership can assist in legislating, see our working paper]

Bacon on specializing in issues areas:

  • “If you want to be successful, you got to major in an area and really drill down into it. And, for me, the Armed Services Committee has been a gold mine to get things done.” [For more information about the benefits of issue specialization in lawmaking, see our working paper]

Bacon on bipartisan cosponsors:

  • I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you have bipartisan relationships – that helps you get bills over the finish line. Because of that, I’m also on a lot of their bills. I’m helping them do some lifting as well. So it’s a two-way street. [For more information on the relationship between bipartisanship and effective lawmaking in Congress, see our published paper]

Bacon on serving your constituents:

  • “People come in and give me ideas. I would have never thought about the Foot-and-Mouth Disease Vaccine Bank for agriculture. But folks for our district said ‘Don, this would be a top priority…’ I would never have had that idea. Somebody gave me that idea that became reality.” [Developing a legislative agenda tightly focused on district needs connects with our five habits of highly effective lawmakers]

See the full interview with the complete transcript below (Note: this interview was recorded on Friday, April 19, 2024, shortly before the U.S. House voted on the major foreign aid package referenced during the conversation):

Alan Wiseman (00:10):

My name is Alan Wiseman, and I’m the chair of the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University, and along with Craig Volden of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, I’m also the co-director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking. We’re very excited to welcome Congressman Don Bacon, who has represented Nebraska in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2017, to sit down and talk with us today.

As many of you know, Congressman Bacon represents Nebraska’s Second District, which comprises Nebraska’s largest city, or much of Nebraska’s largest city, Omaha. Prior to serving in the U.S. House, Congressman Bacon served in the United States Air Force for almost 30 years, where he specialized in electronic warfare, intelligence, and reconnaissance. During this time, he was a recipient of numerous decorations, including the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, two Bronze Stars, and two Legions of Merit. He ultimately retired from the Air Force as a Brigadier General. During his time in the House, and one of the reasons why we’re so excited to talk with him today, Congressman Bacon has distinguished himself from his peers in many notable ways, with regard to his engagement with the lawmaking process. In fact, according to our data at the Center for Effective Lawmaking, Congressman Bacon was the most effective Republican lawmaker in the U.S. House, and the fourth most effective lawmaker overall in the U.S. House during the 117th Congress, which convened from 2021 to 2023, despite the fact he was a member of the minority party during this time. He was also identified in our data as being the most effective Republican lawmaker on policy areas dealing with defense policy during this period of time in the U.S. Congress. So, Representative Bacon, thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with us today. We really appreciate you engaging in a conversation with the Center for Effective Lawmaking.

Rep Don Bacon (01:57):

Well, thank you, and I appreciate that kind introduction, and I really appreciate the Center for Effective Lawmaking, you really make a difference.

Alan Wiseman (02:04):

Right. Well, thanks a lot. As you and I talked about a little bit earlier, we’re going to be asking you a series of fairly general questions that focus on your time in the House, as well as the way in which you think about the lawmaking process more generally speaking. But we’d love to hear from you with any specific examples that come to mind based on your own experiences, so please feel free to let us wander a little bit if you’d like.

Rep Don Bacon (02:28):

Sounds great.

Alan Wiseman (02:29):

Okay, so that all said, what I’d like to do is start some of these questions and think about your background. And by that, I mean before you were elected to the U.S. House, and how that perhaps shapes your perspective on the legislative and lawmaking process. So, as I noted just a second ago, starting with your service in the United States Air Force, where, across your 29 years of service, you received numerous decorations. Some of the research at the Center for Effective Lawmaking suggests that military veterans, especially veterans who’ve served most recently, since post-September 11th, for example, approach lawmaking in Congress in slightly different ways than perhaps their non-veteran peers. And I’d really be curious to hear your perspective on whether or not you think that might be true; whether or not there’s something specifically or generally different about a veteran’s perspective on the legislative process versus non-veterans, or how this might apply to your perspective on the lawmaking process.

Rep. Don Bacon (03:24):

I think it’s a great question. When I got elected in 2016, then we did the oath on January 3rd, 2017, my immediate friends were veterans, that’s who I bonded with initially. Initially, you meet your own party, you have some preparations before you get sworn in, and it was the veterans who bonded pretty quickly. I knew who were the Marines, who were the soldiers, who were the Air Force, who were the sailors. I met a couple of the SEALs right away. And then on the Democrat side, my first friends were the veterans. I bonded immediately with Salud Carbajal, he was a Marine out of California. I would say he’s one of my best friends today. We’ve traveled the world together multiple times, multiple places, and we just enjoy each other’s company. We get along well. And so I would say, the first answer to your question is that the veterans were the people I met first, and befriended on both sides of the aisle.

I think bigger picture, though, to your point, most veterans – I won’t say all, there’s a few exceptions – particularly those who served active duty, but I don’t want to overgeneralize that, we see things like what is in the nation’s interest, right? What do we have to solve? And yes, I come in with a conservative mindset, maybe my brother across the aisle comes with a more Democrat mindset. But I find that we sit down and we actually think, “how do we solve this?” So I find veterans say “how do we solve a problem?” And yes, I may put a little more conservative spin on it versus my Democrat friends, but in the end it’s about putting the nation first. And look, my goal is to come at problems as a man of faith, a citizen, then I’m a Republican. And I think it gives me a little bit different perspective, and I find a lot of my fellow veterans feel the same way.

Thirdly, I bring a lot of experience with the Middle East, so I feel like I can bring that expertise to Congress. I’ve served. I’ve seen what it’s like to be in units that are undertrained or don’t have all the parts. I’ve lived in tents for 6 months at a time, or a year at a time in a trailer in Baghdad. I guess I bring a perspective that I know we got to have good training, and we have to have good parts and weapons for our servicemen and women because I’ve been there, and I know the impacts if you don’t do that. I’ve also studied Russia since the 1980s, and China as well. So, I feel like I’ve been able to bring a lot of expertise, particularly in the Armed Services Committee.

And I’ve been able to be a big voice on Ukraine. We take this vote tomorrow on Ukraine as well as Israel, and I think those experiences have helped me on policy.

Craig Volden (06:13):

Yeah, that that that’s tremendous, and we’re interested in building around that. But first let me also join in thanking you for speaking with us today, as well as for your public service overall. Picking up on your military service, specifically how it translates into lawmaking, you mentioned your service on Armed Services, you’re also in a variety of caucuses like the Baltic Caucus and the For Country Caucus. Giving those as examples, what can you tell us about kind of the role of those caucuses, what do they do, and the role of the committee system as it’s working presently to bring about lawmaking in the House of Representatives?

Rep Don Bacon (06:52):

So when you get elected, and then every new Congress, the Steering Committee will determine what committees you’re on. And so, I was initially on 3 committees in the majority: Armed Services Committee, which made sense to me, I’m a retired general. Nobody from Nebraska was on Agriculture. Nebraska is the number 3 agriculture state, so I thought I should be on that for the state. And then they put me on Homeland Security, which fit my background as well. But the Steering Committee decides that. And really, it’s your committees that move legislation, and the most important people are obviously the chairman and the ranking member, whoever the minority party leader is in that committee. But legislation comes out of committees. If you’re on that committee, you get a chance to shape that legislation. You’ve got to do most of that work not in the committee hearings – you got to be at the committee hearings, giving questions, hearing, you got to be participative – but I find most work on legislation is outside of the committee hearings in the committee where you’re working with the staff, putting your inputs in. That’s how you craft legislation. And in a lot of these committees like Homeland Security, you put out individual bills. I’ve been able to get cyber defense bills out of the out of that committee earlier. But when you’re on Armed Services, the biggest vehicle is the National Defense Authorization Act. Hundreds and hundreds of pages. I have probably about 25 bills

that I’ve been able to write and incorporate into the Defense Bill. I’m on the Agriculture Committee and we pass, every 5 years, the Farm Bill. The last Farm Bill, I was able to get the foot and mouth disease vaccine bank into the law. I did it using this big vehicle called the Farm Bill, and so most of your legislation comes out of committee.

Now, I’m a subcommittee chair. But I was thinking,” how can I move things and have an impact if I’m not a chairman or ranking member when you’re a young guy?” So, I was given the opportunity to get in these caucuses, and they’re more informal. These are Congressmen and women who have a common interest, you band together and you’re working on, in my case, electronic warfare. I’m the only electronic warfare officer that’s in Congress right now. But there’s a Congressman from Washington that has an electronic warfare unit. So, we work together on EW stuff, right? I was also on the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Caucus, and the Traumatic Brain Injury Caucus because I have experience with folks who’ve had those problems. I served in NATO, so I was asked to be the chair of the Baltic Security caucus, and I could go on and on. What this does, it allows more informal meetings. So, I got to know all 3 prime ministers of the Baltic states and they come and visit the Baltic Security Caucus. We go out to dinner, maybe with the Ministers of Defense, and you have these discussions. What do we need to do to better deter Russia on the Baltics? Then I could take those ideas and bring them to the Armed Services Committee and write stuff into the National Defense Authorization Act.

For traumatic brain injury, I’ve been able to expand investments into the NIH to figure out how you find traumatic brain injury quicker. And we found when you get a TBI, you get a blood marker, and within an hour of the injury, you can find that blood marker in your blood if you take a blood sample, and if you have the right testing equipment. But we wouldn’t have known that 2 years ago, or 3 years ago, our investments produced this new technology.

So, with the caucuses, I think, like-minded people get together. And you figure, okay, “What’s a lucrative area for legislation?” And then you can take this and submit bills or go to your committees to do it. Here’s another one: I’m a two-time foster care parent, and we adopted. I have four kids in total. So now I’m the chairman of the Foster Care Caucus, and our biggest interest is how we help 18, 19, and 21-year-olds transition out of foster care. Their mom or dad may be in prison, and they have no family. These kids have no safety net. And so, Democrats and Republicans come together in this Foster Care Caucus to figure out how we improve the safety net for kids transitioning out of foster care. And then we submit these bills

together, or co-sponsors together, and we’re able to give them to the right caucus. So, I hope that gives you a dose of a committee and a caucus. But the caucuses are people with a passion, and we’re trying to solve problems. Committees are our formal job, and that’s what we do full-time.

Craig Volden (11:36):

So, you’re gaining a lot of expertise and sort of doing the problem-solving or thinking through those problems in the caucuses, maybe even building some early coalitions, is that is that what’s going on there?

Rep Don Bacon (11:46):

Right, and one of the best ones for bipartisanship is the Problem Solvers Caucus, I’m the whip on that so I whip votes. But we’re half Republican, half Democrat and we’re trying to find ways to work together on legislation and make a more bipartisan House. I’m also on the For Country Caucus, which is half Republican, half Democrat but we’re all veterans. And it’s got the same principles as Problem Solvers, but we’re more national security or veterans-focused.

Craig Volden (12:18):

Yeah, I mean, can we speak just a little bit more on that front, which is does it matter that there’s an equal number of Democrats and Republicans? You were describing the Baltic Caucus, and there’s no such requirement. Is it needed that we need to get to that you know “Noah’s Ark” approach or when is that helpful?

Rep Don Bacon (12:41):

I’m chairman of seven caucuses. I was the chairman of the For Country Caucus, I’ve passed that torch on, and I’m the number three guy in the Problem Solvers, but those are the only two that we Noah’s Ark. There’s other ones you could, but we don’t care. I don’t care if you got seven – on Foster Care – Democrats, and three Republicans. We’re here to work together. If you’re going to try to push me to do a bill I don’t like, I’m not going to get on it. But we, if we work together, it’s good. I think we support each other on our agenda in Foster Care. We do the same thing in Baltic. We do the same thing, you know, for TBI, and so forth. It surely doesn’t need to be 50/50. However, we do think for Problem Solvers and For Country Caucus, because these carry weight when we endorse certain legislation, and when we’re trying to push legislation, we think it’s important to have a 50/50 split because our main goal is to endorse legislation or to write legislation that’s bipartisan, and it has more credibility when it’s 50/50.

Alan Wiseman (13:45):

I really appreciate your perspectives, Congressman, on the ways in which your previous experience with the military really helps to inform the body of expertise you have, that you bring to bear on legislation, as well as the expertise you could cultivate or glean from your caucus partnerships. I’d also be curious just to rewind the clock again a little bit and think about another position that you held prior to being elected to Congress, in the sense that you also served as an aide to Representative Fortenberry from Nebraska. And I’d just be curious, speaking, you know, as someone who currently sits in Congress and someone who has worked for a member of Congress, what did that position entail? What were you doing? And to what degree do you feel that your previous experience serving as an aide helped to inform you about the ways in which you engage with the lawmaking process today?

Rep Don Bacon (14:30):

So, I actually worked for Ed Madigan in 1984, before I joined the military. I was 20 years old, and I was a 20-year-old graduate. I graduated out of college at 20 and went to work for Ed Madigan. He’s the guy that competed against Newt Gingrich for speaker down the road like 4 years after that, and it ended up being Newt Gingrich who won that out, but Edmund is from Illinois. So, I had a little experience as a young guy. I did like 29 years and 8 months, or something like that in the Air Force, always sort of monitoring what’s going on politically, I’ve always had an interest.

When I was the Base Commander in Omaha or Offutt Air Force Base, initially the Congressman there was Lee Terry, and I got to know him, and then the lines got redrawn and it became a Jeff Fortenberry was the Congressman of the base I commanded, so I got to know both of them. And then I went to the Pentagon and just decided it was time to retire. I was a great operational commander, I really did not care for the Pentagon to be candid with you. I’m not a PowerPoint guy, evidently. But when I was getting ready to retire, I called on Jeff Fortenberry, said I’m going to move back to Omaha, and I’m going to be a professor full time, but I wouldn’t mind part time helping you out because my interest is in elected politics. I would like to work with you so I can learn, you know, meet people, see where I could fit in and, you know, grow those connections. And so, he hired me on to be his constituent services guy in Bellevue, which is the city around Offutt Air Force Base. Now he was way in Lincoln, about 50 miles away, so I sort of had this corner of his district that I was his constituent services guy and I worked there. And I was also his advisor on Offutt Air Force Base, which is the second largest employer in the State, and who else better to have on his team than the previous commander that knew a lot about the missions there. So, I got to learn a lot about constituent services and things that interested Congressman Fortenberry, and it helped prepare me later on for run for Congress itself. But I never did that job thinking I was going to run for Congress.

Just by happenstance, Lee Terry’s seat opened up in 2014, 10 days after I retired. When I retired, I never thought I’d be a congressman, but 10 days afterwards he didn’t win, and he was in for 16 years. I didn’t see it happening, but he lost a very close race. And literally the next day I started getting phone calls, saying, “Hey, you’ve been retired a week and a half, but we see already you’ve given speeches for people. Have you ever thought about running for Congress?” So somehow, I got on this wild journey and ended up being the only Republican to defeat an incumbent in 2016 in the House or Senate, and it was quite a journey. But, anyway, I digress. Working for Jeff Fortenberry gave me, I think, a better awareness of the constituent side of what we do.

Craig Volden (17:29):

I’d love to pick up on parts of that, but with a particular focus. You know, one thing that we’ve found at the Center for Effective Lawmaking is that the most effective lawmakers kind of

pick an area and specialize a lot there. Maybe they introduce about half, maybe more, of their bills in a specific issue area but others just kind of get spread out and scattered and become generalists and that actually doesn’t serve them that well. So then when we look at your case, about half of the bills you sponsor deal with issues related to armed forces and national security, and that aligns with your past experience, that aligns with your committee assignments, some of your committee assignments. So that leads me to two questions: One is, how has this specialization helped you to become a more effective lawmaker? And second, and kind of getting back to that constituent services component, are there some other interests, including some that are valued by other Nebraskans, that you kind of had to set aside in order to maintain this level of focus?

Rep. Don Bacon (18:29):

I think you’re right. If you want to be successful, you got a major in an area, I think, and really drill down into it. And for me the Armed Services Committee has been a gold mine to get things done. Last year, in the 118th Congress, I got 8 bills verbatim signed in the law, but through the NDAA, so that gives me 30 now in my fourth term total. And if you look at some folks, you know, one or two may be the norm total for that long, and we’ve been able to get 30 done. But a lot of it, it’s the digging deep into the Armed Services Committee. I do a lot with the nuclear side. I do a lot with the electronic warfare area. I do a lot for quality of life, and I need to come back to that because I was the Quality of Life chairman this past year, and we’re going to move tons of legislation in this area come around June and July. But we can come back to that. But being able to dig deep in this area, and I’m the only electronic warfare officer, for example, in Congress. We let our electronic warfare capabilities in the military dilapidate over 20 years, so I’ve been able to pick up EW on my back and write legislation demanding that there’s a two-star general in charge of electronic warfare at the Pentagon for Joint Staff; that there be one-star on top of this because nobody was in charge for like two decades. I want to put makes put somebody responsible. We got new strategies written for electronic warfare, implementation plans. I’ve been able to acquire new electronic warfare aircraft. That’s just one area that one style that I’ve been able to drill down into.

And like I said a lot, I’ve done a lot for fighters. The Air Force keeps saying they need more fighters to come up to fight against China, but yet they keep proposing that for every fighter they bring in, they deactivate two. I guess I feel like I’m the guy that understands this, and we’re going to tackle this. Air Force: how can you say you need 17 more squadrons four or five years from now, but you’re cutting? So, I guess I’m the guy that knows how to drill down deep on the HASC side, and we’ve been able to make it count. I’ve been able to get a couple of things on Ag, for example, some Ag research has been important to me; animal diseases, foot mouth disease, vaccine bank, and African swine fever. So, I’ve been able to take a little niche there on the Ag Committee.

Some of the other areas that all on my lap, I’ve already mentioned. You know foster care is just an interest of mine. So, I meet with a lot of foster kids and and people who are involved in this. Boys Town is in our district, so there’s a natural linkage there for me to work with Boys Town, who I find an iconic institution there in Omaha. Here’s one that I did see coming. I somehow became the opioid guy on the Republican side. You know, I’ve lost some family members through overdoses. But I was listening to a brief one day and I heard some of these folks who used to be drug addicts. They had to go get Methadone every day, and they would have to drive in Nebraska like three hours every day to get to one of the two clinics, but they had to get Methadone every morning. And you’re like “You got to drive like two or three hours one way, the two or three hours back. How else do you do anything else?” And when you only have two clinics in Nebraska? But you have to go to those clinics to get Methadone. That sort of deters people from getting cured. And so, I started digging in digging in. How do we help folks get care closer to home? But how do we do it in a way that they can’t abuse the Methadone? You can’t just give them a week’s worth of supply, they’re drug addicts, right? So, you got to find a way to protect them from themselves at this point. And now and now I’m on legislation protecting prisoners because we’re we were finding that mail was being soaked in Fentanyl. You can’t even see it, but there is ways you could process it, and once that letter comes in the in the prison, and now they got methadone in the prison. And now these guys are dying of drug overdoses, and it endangers the prisoners and the guards as well. So, I’m on legislation on that.

Fighting a little bit of sniffle. So, I apologize.

My long story short: I major in military and national security. But I have a few minors – niches in Ag, niches in foster care, niches in opioids, but my bread and butter is obviously national security.

Craig Volden (23:12):

Right? So it’s that finding one area, the major, as you’re describing it, and then the minors elsewhere. Sounds like you’re working very hard and you’re not feeling like you’re getting stretched in too many areas when you’re taking on opioids and all of the rest of that?

Rep Don Bacon (23:27):

I do get stretched, and it may not be smart, but somebody’s got to do it. But I think

I’m an aircrew in the Air Force and I got to tell you the way most aircrews in the Air Force think: “We’re going to tackle four or five things at once simultaneously, and I’m going to shoot a heading out. I’m going to maybe it’s a 0 9 0. If I fly for a while and I find them 10 degrees off, I’ll make a correction, right?” A lot of folks have to be perfectionists right out of the chute and then do one thing at a time. That’s not me. I call it parallel warfare, we’re going to do 4 or 5 things at once.

Craig Volden (24:02):

And you need the staff that can back you up along those lines, I assume.

Rep Don Bacon (24:06):

I have one or two key staff members in each area. Well, I have four people working Armed Services, so that’s where I put emphasis. You know, I’m also one of the biggest Gold Star advocates, but that ties me into the military. I had to go to 10 different people’s homes to talk about the loss of their son or their husband. In my case, it’s always men who got killed, so it automatically gives me a passion or compassion, and empathy for gold star families but that’s sort of tied in with my national security. This year I was the chair for Quality of Life

for the military. We have one out of eight listed people on food stamps or SNAP, having to go to food banks. Our barracks were getting failing grades, and I mentioned this to the chairman, saying, “Hey, this is unacceptable.” So, he set up a temporary subcommittee, put me in charge, and we just came out with 35 recommendations. It’s going to be a whole legislative

agenda on this alone. It’s going to be the cornerstone of this year’s NDAA.

Alan Wiseman (25:05):

No, that’s great to hear, Congressman. It’s really impressive to think about the ways, once again, you’ve been able to leverage your personal experience into your legislative agenda.

What I want to do is also ask you a slightly different question that speaks more to your approach to lawmaking, so to speak. And by that, I mean, if we think about some of the research, the Center for Effective Lawmaking has conducted and published through the peer review process, one of the findings that’s emerging is that bipartisan lawmakers, broadly defined, tend to be more effective at moving their legislation forward even in these highly contentious times. By a variety of indicators, it appears that you take a bipartisan approach to lawmaking. According to our data, for example, it seems that you’re very active in trying to cultivate bipartisan co-sponsorship networks such that you’re able to get members from the Democratic party of the House to co-sponsor your own bills and the like. Especially in these contentious times, we’d be curious to hear your perspectives and what you see as the advantages of trying to navigate a bipartisan legislative process in comparison to perhaps trying to go it alone with members of your own party.

Rep Don Bacon (26:10):

Well unless you have huge majorities in both the Senate and the House and the presidency as well on your party, partisanship does not get anything passed. If you’re a hyper-partisan, you’re not going to get to first base, if you don’t have any support from the other side of the aisle, you could maybe get out of the House if you’re in the majority, but it will die in the Senate and unlikely you’re going to get the President sign it. The only thing that really sticks is bipartisan legislation. I would even say this to the Presidents, which they want to sometimes, just through executive order, cram down their agenda because they can’t get it through Congress. But what happens? The next President comes in for a different party and gets rid of it all. If you want to get something permanent, you got to get a bipartisan bill through the Congress and the President signed into law. That’s the only long-term impact that you have. And I’ll tell you when something is passed in a very partisan way, like through reconciliation, and you have a huge majority, the House, Senate, and the President, the other party resents it, and they spend a lot of time trying to undo it in the next Congress. So, bipartisanship works. I’m so grateful that the Center For Effective Lawmaking gave me the rating as, you know, most effective Republican.  Simultaneously, Common Ground, a different organization, rated me the most bipartisan member of Congress, Republican or Democrat for 3 years straight, and this year I’m number two behind Susie Lee. But not too bad for 535 people. I’ll take number two as well. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you have bipartisan relationships and that helps you get bills over the finish line. Because of that, I’m also on a lot of their bills and I’m helping them do some lifting as well. So, it’s a two-way street.

Craig Volden (28:00):

Yeah, I mean that that’s interesting. And we’ve talked about the bipartisanship baked into the Problem Solvers Caucus, and some of the rest. Then again, there are some caucuses, and I’d love to get your perspective here, that are kind of just within the Republican party. So, the Republican Study Committee, which you’re on, and the House Freedom Caucus, kind of taking a different approach to governing through the Republican party. In terms of those sorts of caucuses, maybe across the ideological spectrum, what can you tell us about kind of the factions taking place within the Republican party, and how they resolve their differences?

Rep Don Bacon (28:36):

So, you have like four caucuses of what you’re talking about on the Republican side the Democrats have some, too, almost an identical layout, but on their spectrum. So, the Freedom Caucus probably has roughly 30 people, somewhere in there, I don’t know the precise amount. Obviously, they have been challenging the speaker, and often when they disagree, we’re not the majority anymore. It’s really created quite a ripple there. I’m not a member of the of the Freedom Caucus.

I am a member of the study group or the Study Conference, RSC we call it. And one of the things that I really like about the RSC is that every bill we vote on has a written analysis of the pros and cons. And I find if you want to look at a 500-page bill, it’s nice to read the RSC summary of it, because I don’t think you should just rely on that, but I think it does a good job of “Here’s the pros. Here’s the cons. And here’s what this Bill’s trying to do.” And I love reading those because they help me out in trying to figure out what’s going on. I don’t always agree with their recommendations, but it’s useful information. Literally every bill they analyze, and I find it very helpful to do. I don’t get the chance to go to a lot of their meetings, though. Where I’m probably most active, and I was the chairman, was the Republican Main Street Caucus. And there’s also another group called the Republican Governance Group, RG2. So, you got RG2, and you got the Main Street Caucus. Now I’m a member of both, but they’re different. I would say the RG2 is much more moderate in ideology, right? Whereas Main Street covers pretty moderate to very conservative. But the one thing that unites us is we want to govern. We know that Madison designed a system of government where you got to find consensus. So, we call ourselves Conservatives who want to govern. And that’s sort of where I’m at, fundamentally. I’m in that group, and that’s where my heart’s been. But we also make up a lot of the RG2. We make up a lot of the RSC, so you get some overlap. I know one guy who’s in all four. What I like about what I like about Main Street, though, is we meet all the time. Like we’re going to meet tonight. Talk about tomorrow. And we’re going to talk about vacating the chair. I guess they’re more my soulmates when it comes to the political side.

Alan Wiseman (31:11):

Yeah, there’s a lot of timely events happening in the House even as we speak, so I’m sure it’ll be great fodder for discussion. Thinking about your answers to some of the earlier questions regarding, you know, the way in which you structure your legislative portfolio or your legislative agenda, besides drawing on your own expertise, obviously, it also seems that many of your positions that have been taken in Congress are grounded pretty tightly in the nature of your district, which seems relatively balanced between Democrats and Republicans, which, historically speaking, has led to pretty tight general election results. So, all that said, a question that Craig and I had in thinking about members such as yourself, who come from districts like this is: how do you see the relationship between the lawmaking process and trying to advance your agenda and running for election, or reelection in this case? Do you view them as separate activities, or do you think they reinforce each other in different ways?

Rep Don Bacon (32:04):

Well, they do reinforce each other. Maybe it’s a pie in the sky thinking, that I’d vote my conscience, regardless of what district I’d be in. I would say you probably defend it differently if you’re in western Texas versus Omaha. Omaha we call a R+1 one district. So, if all things are equal, the Republicans should win by 50.5 to 49.5, so almost down the middle. In fact, you know, replaced a Democrat, Joe Biden won it by seven if you round, and then also President Obama won it once as well. So, we’re pretty much a swing district there. I’d like to think I vote my conscience to do what’s right for my country, but if you’re in a swing district way, you defend it, or way you explain, may vary from a hardcore thing. But I want to be an American first. I want to do what’s right for our country. I do think good policy is the best politics. If you could show what you’re getting done and what you’re doing for the country, what you’re doing for the district, that is the best politics right there, because people want to know that you’re accomplishing things. And I can show whether it’s nationally what we’re doing or locally what we’ve accomplished. And it’s easy for me to talk to the district, “Hey, look this is what we’re doing!” You can see the impact right over here, right over there. I see myself as a pragmatic, common-sense guy. That may be a reflection of my district. I’d like to think I’d be that way, no matter what, but maybe because I am that way I could get elected in this district. I may not have been able to get elected that way in a hardcore western Texas district. I don’t know. I mean, it’s hypothetical. But, ultimately, when you’re elected and you got to go for reelection, you’ve got to defend to the voters what you’ve done and why. And in the end, you got to show what you got to show accomplishments, otherwise, it’s very hard to get reelected, and I think we could show a lot of accomplishments in our district.

But again, it wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have the bipartisan relationships, good staff, also great advice from constituents. People come in, give me ideas. I would have never thought about the foot and mouth disease vaccine bank for agriculture. But folks for our district said “Don, this would be a top priority. We could get those vaccines from France and get one here in the Midwest. So, if we have an outbreak, we could get access to those vaccines like immediately.” I would never have had that idea. Somebody gave me that idea that became reality.

Craig Volden (34:34):

I mean, it’s helpful to see how those ideas and you know your early constituent service even before you were in Congress lead to “Okay? And what can we do to solve this problem? You know what’s that next step?” And I’m also impressed by the discussion about, you know just being well grounded, and doing what you feel is right and being consistent. That said, when you have that broad vision, there’s also the strategic element of “How do we get it done?” And I’m wondering how much you feel like your legislative strategy has to pivot when you’re in the majority party, or the minority party, or across different positions you’ve held either in caucuses or committees, that sort of thing.

Rep Don Bacon (35:16):

When you’re in the minority, there are people in the majority that want to cut you out because they want you to lose elections. So, it’s a little trickier. But I have good relationships with the Democrats on both of our committees, whether it’s Ag or Armed Services right now. And so, I was able to get like, as you all know, 11 bills passed. Another group says 16. So, it depends if you count a full bill, or two-thirds, or three-quarters of a bill in some of this stuff. But between 11 and 16, depending on how you count bills put into law when we’re in the minority. And so, that that really comes from having relationships. But it’s got to make sense. I mean in the end, I think good ideas win out. If you could prove or show what this does and the impact when you’re on the HASC or the Ag, folks who are more inclined to listen to you and help you out. Plus, you could also partner with, in my case, Salud Carbajal or Jared Golden, a whole litany of people, and get them honest partners on the bill. Just ask them to help be an ambassador for me on the other side as we’re working on this bill.

One of the things that’s key, majority or minority, treat people respectfully like you want to be treated. You know, if you’re the majority, and you treat people terribly, when you’re in the minority you’re going to get the same treatment. I know there’s some folks on either side of the aisle that nobody will lift a finger for on the other side of the aisle because of how they’ve treated people in the past. And so, the relationships matter, trust matters. There’s a saying that I heard in the Air Force: We’re going to operate at the speed of trust. I think that works here, too. Where there’s trust, good things happen. And so that’s always going to be the coin of the realm more so than just Congress. But surely, surely here for starters. In the majority, you got to run things. You got to govern. In the minority, I can focus on things I am a hundred percent locked into and I can hone in on that as the minority. In the majority, I got to work on things I may be 70% or 60%, but I got to govern. So, there is a difference in how you see the world. It’s easy to complain of the minority, in the majority you got to get it done, and there’s a difference there. I think everyone wants to be in the majority because you want to govern. However, a lot of our folks would rather have something 100% and just complain. So, I know they’re more of a natural minority if you ask me. But we should want to be in the majority and govern.

Alan Wiseman (38:00):

No, that’s really helpful, Congressman, and I’m also thinking about your views on that in complementing your earlier responses regarding what you see as the nature of the Republican party right now, the different Republican party caucuses, and essentially the composition of membership, and the different views. And I want to push this a little bit further, and especially given the point you’re raising about the discussions you and other members going to have tomorrow or tonight regarding floor activity, regarding the potential motion to vacate.

If we just think about the last 6 months to year, through the Speaker battles and beyond, the American people have obviously witnessed some of the divisions taking place in the Republican party. And I’d really be curious, especially given the point you raised earlier about one of your first jobs working for Congressman Madigan from Illinois, and the nature of the Republican party then, do you feel that the current challenges that people are witnessing are unique to the current circumstances of small majorities for the Republican party in the House, or are they temporary differences in the views being held by different members; or given your perspectives on the Republican party, especially given your earlier work experience, do you feel they’re indicative of a broader set of differences or divisions expected to influence governing in the House in the future?

Rep Don Bacon (39:16):

We could write a whole book on this, I believe. But I would say in the ‘80s we were more ideologically similar. And also, we had it in our brain that we’re going to be team players and accept 80%, and that’s part of being a team win. We have less of that team spirit today where people are more interested in being individuals. And if it’s not 98%, they’re going to vote “No.” So I see more fractured personalities here, where it’s more about getting clicks on social media and having podcasts, and having a big following versus being a team here in the House and getting things done. So, I think that, so I’ve seen a breakdown in the civility and teamwork that characterized parties for a long time. So that’s problem number one.

Problem number two: I affiliate with the party of Reagan. I’m a Reagan ideology kind of person. I believe in peace through strength. I believe America should be a humble leader in the world, but be a leader, but we should be humble about it. Shouldn’t be arrogant in our role, but we are an important country, by GDP and our military, and we got to defend freedom. If we’re not, there’s a big void and Russia or China’s going to fill it, or Iran in the Middle East. I believe in supporting law enforcement. I believe in family, traditional family stuff that’s the pinnacle of our consciousness. So, I support institutions, I could go on and on. But that’s a typical Reagan lens.

And today we’re seeing a growing element. People just call them the Populist wing, there may be various names out there for it. They’re much more isolationist in mindset. They don’t want us really putting our heads outside of our borders. It’s a 1930s Republican view. I’m a history guy. And if you look at the 1930s, Republicans had that view. They were isolationists. They didn’t want to get involved in Europe, maybe just a little bit in Asia. They were a little more concerned about Asia than they were Europe. But that’s the 1930s. I also see a growing suspicion of government in our party, and I get some of that. I mean, there’s been some letdowns of people in power that should not have happened, but from that, we’re seeing a growing hostility towards law enforcement in our party. I don’t agree with that. I’m a pro-law enforcement Guy. I’m a law-and-order person. So, my point would be that there’s a growing divide within the party. If you subtract the one wing, we’re not the majority in the House, right? There’s a smaller segment. They’re more isolationist. They’re more suspicious of law enforcement. And that has really defined a lot of our votes, whether Ukraine or on aid Israel; FISA, the ability to listen to terrorists overseas. And that’s created this divide in our party. So, I think it’s two things. I think there’s a character change where more individualism versus teamwork. And if you want to succeed in this business you got to be a team.

When you’re an individual, you’re going to get picked off one by one, and we’re going to be the minority. So, that’s a problem. But we have an ideological split in our party as well. And that’s going to take a while. I don’t know how that’s going to solve it. By the way, we have a little bit of this on the Democrat side. I’m not saying this is bad. I mean, you have a big split right now between, do you support Israel, or do you support Palestine? That’s sort of a big divide right now on the Democrat side of the aisle, and I don’t seek to exacerbate that because I’m a pro-Israel person, I want it to be bipartisan, but just saying it’s a fact of life. But I see a lot of dysfunction on our side, and it’s embarrassing. I don’t think I’m a part of it, however, we have been hobbled on our side by the individualism and this fracture, ideologically, that that we see.

Craig Volden (43:27):

I just want to follow that up, partly because you mentioned Madison previously. And so, Madison would talk about yeah, we’ll see these factions and caucuses and joining together, and, you know, working it out at the same time. Given how much we have parties and the party level of strength, we think of these different groups. Can you imagine a group combining together for a speaker that’s not all just one party or the other party?

Rep Don Bacon (43:55):

Well, this may be news that’s not well-known. We were probably one vote away in October of getting a bipartisan speaker. I kept asking to postpone it one round or two rounds because

oh, I don’t know, just first of all, nobody knows even what that looks like. It’s never happened right? We’ve always had a Republican speaker, Democrat speaker, or a Whig speaker back in the day; a Federalist speaker, right? But it’s always been two parties, by and large, one’s a majority, one’s a minority. We never had a ruler, a bipartisan speaker. You had to have those for both sides to do it. How do committees look? When I looked at it, the challenge of figuring how to execute that looked big. It looked like Mount Everest staring me in the face, so I kept suggesting maybe we should go one more round before we pull this trigger.

You’ll see in the news that some people are floating around Steve Womack as a bipartisan speaker. If we have a vacate the chair that goes through. By the way, Mike Johnson is a great man. He’s he’s a man of character. He’s honest, honest to the bone. A good man. I don’t want to ever see him be vacated. But my whole point being if it happens, and two or three people insist on it, and we don’t get Democrat help to get through it, we’re going to be back where we were in October, which would be terrible for the country, terrible for the Congress. But somebody had floated out Steve Womack’s name the other day as a bipartisan member. So, there is some of that churn going on. And I think on some of the Republican side and some of the Democrat side. We’re at the point where we know that we got to get 218 votes. But you can’t count on the 20 Republicans that are causing all the problems, or 10, depending on the day. There’s a desire to cut them totally out. Take them out. They should not be in the majority. They should not be making decisions. Let’s get 218 that are more centered and we could cut out the progressives and the 10 or 20 guys, but that’s never been done. I don’t know how it would look frankly, but at some point we have to think that way because we can’t let a handful of people undermine the whole system.

Craig Volden (46:12):

So, some of what would need to be resolved there is clearly the institutional choices of committees and all the rest.

Rep Don Bacon (46:18):

We were kicking around in October and, you know, the Democrats obviously like 50/50 committees, even though we had a four-seat majority, you know. So, this is the kind of dialogue you’re going to have if you’re going to get a bipartisan speaker.

Craig Volden (46:29):

Yeah. Now, you’ve alluded to this a couple of times, so I want to do a more deep dive right now on all of this tremendous success that you’ve had embedding your bills within these larger legislative vehicles. The two National Defense Authorization Acts, and now through three where you’ve had a dozen or more of your ideas finding their way into law. Looking at topics of unmanned aircraft, defense, language, education, warrior, brain, health, cyber incident, responses, military bonuses, officer retention, all of that, and you and you were doing that also when you were in the minority party. So, you know, getting really into the weeds, you were saying some of this was done before the NDAA was even up in committee. So, can you step me through some of that for our in-the-weeds rules geeks, how does how does that process actually work?

Rep Don Bacon (47:23):

First of all, you need a really good staff. I have a guy working with me that I worked with in 2008 at Ramstein. He was the baby Colonel, I was the senior colonel. I was on my way to making general, but I thought he was the sharpest colonel I’ve ever met, one of the sharpest people I’ve ever met. Common sense, knows how to get to the core of whatever the problem is, works well with people. So, I worked with him for three or four assignments in the Air Force, and I was a one-star and he was a Colonel. And when I retired, he was still a colonel, and the day I won the election, he calls me and says, “Hey, thinking about maybe getting out of the Air Force and being a part of your team and Congress. What do you think of that?” And I go, well I’ll not use foul language, but yes, like H yes, right? And so, he’s been working with me since day one, and I’ve been working with him, and I worked with him for 6 years in the Air Force before that, right?

This guy is so good. Well, he knows me really well, so he knows what I like. So, he operates independently and autonomously. He’s able to answer things right on the spot and get things done. You need to have someone like that on your team if you want to really maximize. There’s like two Don Bacons working on defense all the time, right? And we’ve been able to recruit people behind them now to fit right in, and so we got 4 people now doing full-time Armed Services work.

So, to your point, we also meet people. I do 15 meetings a day on average in Washington, DC,

so you’re sitting down with people and they’re like, “Hey, Don. We got a problem with windmills. We can’t site windmills anywhere near a base, because the rotating thing throws off the radar, and so then they make the laws way outrageous. And so how do we fix that?” So then we sit down with the military and we come up with a compromise. And you developed this compromise where you could site windmills, but keep them out of the flight path. And then we we built a governing thing of how to they can meet and sort this out, and you write it in the legislation. You get both sides to agree to it. You sell it to the Armed Services Committee, “Okay, what do you think? This solves a problem; can we can make it law?” And they like it, we like it, and so then they take our bill, submit it right under the NDAA, and our bill’s already been written, and they put it in.

And that just one example. So, we’ve been able to solve the windmill problem around Air Force bases. That doesn’t sound like a big issue, but it is if you’re a wind energy person and you’re trying to figure out how to get wind energy to the local area where there’s a base.

Craig Volden (49:53):

No, that’s right, and I want to go back to the point about the staff who know you so well that they can kind of make decisions and have your interests and the district’s interests in mind. I would imagine that, barring that when your staff is talking to, say, the committee staff, they have to do so much back and forth with members that you lose time, you lose opportunities, and you miss out on some of this, is that what you’re saying there?

Rep Don Bacon (50:21):

I’m not a micromanager, if you micromanage, you don’t get much done. I implicitly trust this retired colonel and when he’s negotiating with the staff, they know him well. He’s probably he’s the most well-known Armed Services Staffer that’s not on the staff itself, but as a personal staffer, but he’s the best-known guy for Armed Services because people know him. But we talk all the time, so we’re working together. But he’s in there working with the professional staff. He’s meeting people from all walks of life that have an interest in military. So, for example, housing on bases. We got privatized housing. We got issues there because the military has not been very transparent on how they figure out housing allowances. And we find that there’s been issues at some of the high-cost areas. And so, we get to the root of this problem, we work with the Armed Services Committee staff, we figure how we’re going to solve it. We write the bill, and we get that in the we get that in the NDAA. I could give you example after example. We did the same thing with electronic warfare, right? We just said, “What are the problems with electronic warfare?” So, I craft a bill, I submit it to the Armed Services Committee, I make the case for it on the NDAA markup: “Hey? We need to do this. I got a bill.” And they either put it in because everybody agrees with it, or they say “Not everybody agrees with it, we’ll split up for a vote.” And more often than not we win that vote, and it gets put in.

Craig Volden (51:56):

So just a bit of the back and forth here. You know, I could imagine you were doing this successfully when in the minority party, and yet you’re in a tight district where they probably don’t want to give you a lot of wins, you know, for that setting. What you’re telling me is, there’s at least some processes through Congress that are working in some ways, that are solving these problems even if credit goes to somebody in the minority party because they brought a good idea forward.

Rep Don Bacon (52:31):

I think, okay, we have 20 committees, maybe 21 now, because we have the Chinese select committee that just started. So maybe there’s 21 committees now. I would say that the Armed Services Committee may be the most bipartisan committee right now. I don’t know that it was when I came in. It may have been number two. The Intelligence Committee was also very bipartisan, but then we had the impeachment that came out of the Intelligence Committee, so it’s having to heal right now, after all that. I can’t think of a more bipartisan committee right now than the Armed Services Committee. Agriculture Committee was also at one time very bipartisan. Then we went through some reconciliation bills in the previous Congress and we’re healing from that process, but it’s also maybe in the top five out of the 21 that’s out there. I guess my point to you is that the leadership of both sides do not discriminate against the other party, unless you’re a jerk. If you’re a jerk, you’re not going to get a lot done. I’m sure if they went to Nancy Pelosi or Hakeem Jeffries now, “We want to put five of Don Bacon’s bills in the NDAA,” it may not get put in there, but that doesn’t happen. So, at the committee level it’s very bipartisan. I treat their side well, I’ve traveled with them, I treat their staffs well. So, there’s a mutual respect, not just with me, but by and large 95% of the whole committee is that way. So, that gives me the opportunity to get a lot of stuff done.

Alan Wiseman (54:01):

No, it’s really helpful, and also for people who are of the mind that Congress just is dysfunctional at every level, it’s also encouraging to see really, at the granular level within these committees the ways in which people are coming together to identify solutions to contemporary problems. We want to be mindful your time. But there’s a couple of points you raise that I think are really important to emphasize with a slightly different lens on them. And specifically, just thinking about contentious politics and contemporary times, the importance of highly qualified and highly engaged staff members, and also the ways in which you decide to engage a certain issues. To members of our viewing public who might not be aware, it’s important to note that, in part because of your background and your active roles in the military and national security policy-making, you’ve actually been sanctioned by the Russian government, and you’ve also been the target of Chinese government hackers during your time in Congress. Beyond that you, your family, and your staff, have also faced threats and harassment domestically. And you’re not alone in this. I mean, there’s many other members of the House and their staffs who found themselves in similar situations. So, I just be curious to hear your perspective, especially when you’re thinking, or you’re engaging with younger people who are thinking about lives in public service, how do you think about and perhaps overcome these types of challenges? And likewise, would you still encourage younger people to seek lives of public service in Congress or elsewhere in the face of such challenges.

Rep Don Bacon (55:28):

Well, you can get a lot done for people working on a Congressional staff. So, we are authorized 18 people. I get a few extras because I get an Air Force fellow, I get a wounded warrior assigned to our staff who’s paid separately. But we’re authorized 18 through our Congressional budget. So, if you’re working in Omaha, you’re doing constituent services. We have brought three people back to life. But what do I mean by that? The IRS thought they were dead, and they wouldn’t take their tax returns. So, we have to go in there and prove that they’re alive, so they file their taxes and get their return. So, this has happened three times now where the government says you are dead, you’re not paying your taxes right, and we got to go in and fix it. So, we do stuff like this all the time. We help with people with disabilities and the VA, their passports, visas, folks who want to become naturalized. And so, if you’re working in Omaha, you’re making a difference in people’s lives, right? And I think that’s fulfilling.

If you’re here, you’re making a difference legislatively, you’re getting changes in the laws. You know, my our agriculture guy is an expert on buying irrigation equipment. But all these guys are making a difference legislatively, so you have an impact, and you could see the fruits of your labor when you’re done. So that’s the good side. Now, I would say on the bad side, we’re in this culture right now, where people are angry, and I see a radicalization on both wings. But I see a little bit of this radicalization where folks on both sides think the world is coming to an end. America’s coming to an end. If the other side wins, our country’s over and so we got to do everything we can to defeat the other side. The ends justify the means in their mind in that case.

There’s books out there about how to intimidate your political elected leaders. There’s another book out there telling Republicans how you can intimidate your Republican senior leaders in your state and local level. It’s not very Christian in my mind. I believe in the golden rule, the fruits of the spirit, kindness, gentleness, and goodness. I could just go all night if you want. But

there’s a meanness out there right now. I heard in 2018, I could hear the lady that was answering the phones right outside my office, and they were calling her an effing c-word, and she was trying to be nice. I got in there and said, “Stop, hang up.” Nobody has to tolerate this stuff, right? And we’re going to follow that guy’s name, and we’ll block him.

But at some point, they cross the line. But our young staffers take a lot of abuse, and it’s a shame. But alternatively, they’re getting a lot done. And I always just remind them, those one or two percent that are doing that, they’re one or two percent. They’re not the 100%. They’re not the 98%. And we just got to remember that.

But I am worried about the discourse in our country, and I even see it on my own side. I used to see it mainly on the left. I had 90 days of protest straight one time, threats from the left, but now, ever since the last couple of years, you see a lot more on the right. And when you talk to them there’s a sense of desperation. “If you don’t change, our country’s going to fall apart,” and it’s that mindset they got out there. And I’m like, “I have faith, I know who’s in charge, and I’m trying to do the right thing.” How are we going to be the strongest country in the world and remain that way if we’re so fractured at the edges and I worry about that. We got to come together. We’re not the enemy on the other side. But there’s a lot of that “You’re the enemy” thinking right now, and it’s undermining the strength of our country.

Alan Wiseman (59:31):

I really appreciate your perspectives on that. Sadly, though, our time is essentially up. We really appreciate the opportunity to talk with you today, and really to thank you for your service to your country or our country, during your time the military as well as civilian life in the U.S. House.

As we wrap up, however, we also want to just give you the opportunity to tell us, you know, really anything else that you think is important that we should be thinking about, or people need to understand about effective lawmaking in Congress. Do you think we left anything out, in particular, you want to comment on?

Rep Don Bacon (1:00:02):

I think we covered the processes very well. I got two things that I would like to throw out there. One, my family for two centuries have land right next to the University of Virginia. So they came  to Virginia in 1680, and settled in Charlottesville eventually. Actually, my great, great, great uncle, ran Monticello when President Jefferson was in the White House. But my great-great-great-grandfather became an Abolitionist and before the Civil War ended up leaving Virginia, and we ended up in Illinois. But anyway, I got some roots down there in Virginia and I’m always proud of that.

Craig Volden (1:00:39):

Let us know when we can welcome you back for another visit.

Rep Don Bacon (1:00:43):

Well, I’d love to walk the land. I’ve gone to Monticello a few times. My great, great, great uncle actually wrote a book, I bought it. He talked about his time running Monticello, it was written by  Edmund Bacon. I got a copy, but anyway, I think the thing I’d like to leave your class with is we have a big issue that nobody wants to talk about right now. We used to have 15 to one workers to retirees. Now we’re three workers to retirees. We’re going to two workers to retirees. We have a 34 trillion dollar debt right now, 35 trillion soon. The biggest debt is staring us in the face: the aging population is growing so much faster than those entering the workforce that experts who look at this don’t think that we have the ability to square that circle. And we got to have some serious elected leaders figure out how are we going to keep our nation solvent with this mountain of debt coming at us, and how we’re going to fix that, because if we do nothing social security, the average person will lose 24% of their benefits by 2034, right? And then Medicaid or Medicare before that will have worse problems. That’s spending right now is 70% of our budget. So, defense is part of the 30% of discretionary, and defense is half of that discretionary budget. But it’s so crippling on this 70% that we’re unable to do the things that we got to do on the discretionary spending. This year we’re going to spend a trillion dollars on interest. So, we’re going to have to have some elected leaders that have to have straight talk and it’s going to be medicine that people don’t want. But if we want to keep our country solvent and give us the ability to do the priorities we need to do, we got to have some folks starting to talk real talk to the voters. I don’t hear people talking about it right now, and it bothers me. There’s legislation out there to put a commission together, to come up with recommendations after the election, put things up for an up or down vote, and start steering us the right way. But there’s a lack of appetite for it because, politically, nobody wants to talk about bad news, but I’d like your students to know that we got to get some people serious about this right.

Craig Volden (1:03:06):

Thanks. I don’t want to end up on too much of a downer note there, so tell me about the prospects for this. I mean it would take a bipartisan coalition, and you’ve suggested that those are possible moving forward, and it takes attention from the public, and you’re saying leaders can step in and help gain that attention?

Rep Don Bacon (1:03:24):

Yeah, the commission I was looking at is half Republican, half Democrat. There should be a blend of some elected but mainly more experts, and we probably need one for Social Security, one for Medicare and Medicaid. There are two different beasts out there, so may have to specialize. For both of them. But what we want to do is, “How do you keep Social Security solvent?”  and give the five recommendations, seven, or whatever it is. And I think both sides are going to get some winners and both sides are going to get some things they don’t like. And then they should say, “Here’s our 10 recommendations, and we put them on for an up or down vote, no amendments. And hopefully, we can maybe solve the Social Security problem staring us in the face and keep it alive for decades and decades to come, right? I had heard the other day, one of the leaders on our side said “I’m all for that, but we can’t have any tax increases.”

That probably shouldn’t be part of the legislation there, because there’s probably going to be some adjustments to the caps on Social Security, for example, right? But I’m just trying to find a way, a mechanism to get this done. I came up with solutions when I first ran. I’ve had 36 million dollars in TV ads running against me because I opened my mouth in 2016 as some potential solutions. Now I survived it because I think people think I’m honest, right? I’m trying to solve a problem. But the Democrats, in this case, try to exacerbate anything I said back in 2016 and say I’m trying to cut Social Security, which I’m trying to save it. But those ads are always out there to scare seniors. But I think people have seen through it, and I’ve done all right. But people are scared to do this, because that’s what will happen, and they don’t want to touch it.

Craig Volden (1:05:11):

Well, I’m certainly hoping some of the skills that you represented in effective lawmaking will help us through that big challenge as well. Thank you once again Representative Bacon for spending time with us.

Alan Wiseman (1:05:23):

Thanks so much for your time. Take care.

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