In the Weeds: Exit interview with Bradley Byrne

In the Weeds: Exit interview with Bradley Byrne

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

Today I’m talking with Bradley Byrne, the outgoing congressman from Alabama’s 1st District. This is actually my third “In the Weeds” interview with him. The first was when I went up to DC to interview the entire delegation about two years ago and the second was just before the March 3 Republican Primary for U.S. Senate.

It may seem like overkill to do another one so soon, but there are specific reasons I wanted to talk to Bradley in this moment. First, I love doing exit interviews of sorts because people get contemplative as they are looking back on a job or career. Second, I am really curious about the future of the Republican Party in this very precarious moment and as an outgoing congressman, he has an interesting perspective. We talked at length about all that, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

Byrne has had a 25 year career in politics. He was on the State School Board from 1994 to 2002, before being elected to the State Senate from Baldwin County. I got to know Bradley back in 2007 when he was appointed to serve as Chancellor of the two year college system. Those were heady times. I worked for Gov. Bob Riley at the time and we were all engaged in what felt like this battle for the soul of state government. The system of patronage that had been set up was really something: all these state lawmakers had do-nothing jobs at community colleges, sometimes multiple jobs making a few hundred thousand dollars. Bradley blew the system up, with the help of clever lawyers and aggressive federal prosecutors, and the rest is history. You never forget who you were in the trenches with, so to speak, and so there’s lots of us who won’t forget Bradley Byrne’s work back then.

Of course, the unspoken combatant early on in that war was the Alabama Education Association. You’d never be able to prove Paul Hubbert was involved in the two-year patronage system, but he certainly benefited from it in the Legislature. Looking back it’s no surprise that AEA went after Bradley Byrne so aggressively in his run for governor in 2010. Given his dismantling of the two year patronage system and tough rhetoric toward AEA on the campaign, it was only a matter of time before Hubbert retaliated, which he did in the form of about $8 million of brutal attack ads that ultimately sank Byrne’s campaign. Of course, there were other factors and I could talk for days about it, but that was the biggest one. Anyone who has worked in Alabama Politics for some length of time has surely contemplated how the state might be different had Byrne prevailed as the GOP nominee for governor in 2010 instead of Robert Bentley.

As exciting as all that was back then, I have to say I think Byrne has been at his best as a congressman. When he won the special election to replace Jo Bonner in 2014, he was immediately like a duck to water in Washington, D.C. He went on the Armed Services Committee, which is important for shipbuilding in Mobile, and the Education and Labor Committee, where is has been a natural fit. He talks about his work on both committees in our talk, as we as some interesting tales from the somewhat mysterious Rules Committee. I love good stories I haven’t heard before and he has some.

It’s important in Congress to have a healthy respect for the institution but to also never be intimidated by your surroundings, and I’d say that described Bradley. He wasn’t there long enough to get a committee chairmanship our the plum appropriations spot or some of the other things people wait around 20 years for, but he punched above his weight and delivered on issues important to his constituents. And that’s the job.

This year, Byrne saw disappointment again in his second statewide run for office, this time for U.S. Senate. Ultimately, in this Trumpian world we are living in, he wasn’t enough of an outsider to win the Senate nomination. He does have a wealth of experience and knowledge, which I appreciate him sharing with us for the podcast.

So here it is, In the Weeds with Bradley Byrne.

Todd C. Stacy: Hey, Congressman. 

Bradley R. Byrne: Todd, good to see you. 

TCS: Yeah, good to see you. Thanks for taking the time. I have been looking forward to this. So seven years now you’ve been in Congress. 

BRB:  Seven years this week. 

TCS: How about that. Because that was the special election back in 2014, I suppose. 

BRB: December 17th. 

TCS: How about that. Well, have you had time this year reflect on that? I mean, it’s been a busy time. Have you had time to do that or does that come after the last day? 

BRB: Well, I’ve had some time. Unfortunately, this has been such an awful year and we’ve had to deal with so many awful things this year. First COVID, then the recession caused by our reaction to COVID. Then these protests, some riots. And then my district got hit with not one, but two hurricanes. So we’ve had a lot to do for the people in this district and we’ve been extraordinarily busy just trying to take care of that in addition to the regular legislative stuff we’ve got to do. But obviously, I’ve done some reflection and I’m sure I’ll do a lot more when it’s all over. 

TCS: If you could, indulge me. What’s something that, looking back really proud of in terms of, you know, an issue you can assuredly say “this is better because of our work.” 

BRB: Well, I’ll pick two. You know one is the work that I and others, including Mike Rogers and Mo Brooks and Martha Roby and Robert Aderholt, have done to turn around our defense posture in this country. We’ve had three members from Alabama on the Armed Services Committee these last seven years and two appropriators who played really big roles. My first year in Congress, the following things happen literally in one year: Russia took part of the territory of a sovereign country in Ukraine; a group we never heard of before called ISIS took over the eastern half of Syria, the western half of Iraq; and China started building those artificial islands in the South China Sea and Little Rocket man started shooting off missiles. That all happened in my first year. And I think that galvanized a lot of people in Congress to say we’ve got to do something dramatically different. And that process really began that year, 2014, but certainly picked up steam in the Trump administration. I think we’ve made a big, huge leap forward there, including what we do with the ships at Austal in Mobile and including building that Space Force, which I think is incredibly important given what China and Russia are doing. 

The second thing I’m proud of is that you will remember a very liberal Democrat from California in Jackie Speir. Jackie Speir has been the person who’s led the charge of trying to make sure that Congress plays by the same rules when it comes to sexual harassment as people in the private sector. And when all that “Me Too” stuff came out and we started finding out about all these members of Congress that violated just about any norm you can imagine, because of my background as a labor attorney, I didn’t have the capacity that Jackie did to be sort of the out front person, the spirit behind it, but I had the technical capacity. So I’m very proud of the fact that very liberal Democrat Jackie Speier and very conservative Republican Bradley Byrne worked together to put together a piece of legislation that makes congressmen and senators even more responsible now than people in the private sector when we can be held personally liable for this stuff. And we passed it through both houses of Congress by unanimous vote. So I’m proud of both of those things. 

Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., speaks as the House of Representatives debates the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. (House Television via AP)

 

 

TCS: Was that a year ago or two years ago? Because I remember it. It came up on my it came up as like a time hop memory or something that you had been working on this. It was a obviously a big story at the time. I think it could have been two years ago. Two or three years.

BRB: Yeah.

TCS: Anything that, on the other hand, that “I would like to have that one back?” Another shot?

BRB: Yeah. I don’t think we did the repeal and replace of Obamacare very well. Obviously, it failed in the Senate altogether. And I’m not blaming the Senate for that. I’m disappointed that they weren’t able to get the bill out, but I’m not going to blame them for that. I thought we were going to be better prepared for that anymore. And I felt like as as a rank and file member that’s not on the committee of jurisdiction, I felt like, gosh, where’s our work product here for me to start chewing on? And I think we could have done that better and I think it would have enhanced the chances of success for both House and Senate. So I would love to have that back. The only other thing I would love to add back is I probably would run for the United States Senate. 

[laughter]

TCS: Well, you know, I was going to ask you about that because it’s interesting, I guess the primary was March 3rd, right? And so it’s been a little while now, but just thinking back, you ran for almost two years, right? 

BRB: For 14 months. 

TCS: Okay, so, I mean, you spent a lot of your time doing that, a lot of energy, your family’s time, hired a whole team and everything. And basically two candidates who might not have been even in your mind in terms of who is going to run in that race, ended up running and affecting it the way they did. But you couldn’t have foreseen that. Are there are some circumstances that could have changed that make you in the United States Senator?

BRB: Well the reason Jeff Sessions wasn’t in my mind is that he and I had been talking and we had a very good in-person conversation about it. And so I was blindsided by his decision at the very end of the qualifying period to jump in. Tommy Tuberville wasn’t in my mind because I didn’t know he lived in Alabama. Thought he lived in Florida. The first time I knew he was even thinking about it was at state Republican Party meeting after I had already announced. I wish Tommy Tuberville great success and it’s very important for Alabama that he be successful. So, no, I wasn’t thinking about either one of those. And I’d love to go back in a time machine and spare my family and me and my supporters all the time and effort and money that went into that. But I’m going to be followed in this House seat by a really good guy in Jerry Carl. He’ll do a fine job. So I don’t I don’t regret that. I just I regret the fact that we went through all of that for 14 months and were unsuccessful. 

TCS: You have served in both Congress and the Alabama Legislature. What’s the difference? Obviously, the scope. It’s, you know, federal rather than state. But are there some similarities between the two? Should state lawmakers have ambitions for federal office? 

BRB: Well, it depends on the state lawmaker. But in general, of course. My observation is that some of the better members of the House are people who served in the state legislature because there are certain similarities, learning how to put a group of people together as your supporters on an issue. So you build out what you need to get your bill up on the floor and get enough people to support it to pass. We learn how to build those relationships and pull people together and that is very important. Also just the ability to negotiate over the various things you’ve got to negotiate to get a piece of legislation put together and through through the House. 

And I think there’s just sort of a pragmatic view that most state legislators develop because you have to to get that job done. That I think is very beneficial to the members of Congress. You can almost tell in Congress somebody has been in the state legislature when they’re new because you know that he’s done this before somewhere. And usually it’s in something like Congress. Or it could be like in Jerry Carl’s case, he’s been working on a county commission. So that sort of experience is good. On the other hand, it’s so dramatically different. I mean, the sheer scope of the issues that you’re dealing with, it’s almost everything you can think of. And in a very intense, in depth level, you know, when I was in the state Senate, I shared one clerical employee with no senator. That was it.

TCS: Yeah. 

BRB: To be able to have not only the staff that I had, as you know, I had a very high quality staff. But to have the resources at our disposal, if I need to know something, you pick up the phone, the Library of Congress and somebody over there comes to you, or some other thing like that. I just told a number of people it’s been like being an adult graduate school for me or senior adult graduate school in my case because you’re learning all sorts of new things, that there’s no reason you would know about them if you were in the state legislature. I don’t think about foreign affairs. I know some about defense because it’s around us, you know, but I just didn’t know at that level. The only thing I knew about health care policy was Medicaid, because the state deals with Medicaid, and the federal government does so much on health care policy. But, energy, all these scientific things I don’t know a whole lot about. And I’ll go back to the foreign affairs part of it. There were sometimes they would call the name of a country and I’d have to go get a map and figure out where. I don’t know where Ukraine was. This country, Niger, where we lost several soldiers a few years ago, I told my staff, just get me a whole map, big map of the continent of Africa. And I looked on that map and I said I’ve never heard of some of these countries. So leaping from a state legislative position into Congress is not easy. It’s hard. There’s a lot more to it than you’re used to. But those basic skills will serve you well. 

TCS: What about your time as chancellor? Do you think that served you well in terms of preparing you for higher stakes battles that were to come? 

BRB: Well, certainly my service as chancellor would.

[laughter]

TCS: It’s a little calmer these days.

BRB: A lot calmer. Good for Jimmy Baker.

You know, I learned that you’re going to have people throw stuff at you and you can’t react to everything that they throw at you. You’ve got to make sure you know what you’re doing, you’re doing the right thing and just keep plowing ahead. But also I served on the Education and Labor Committee because I had that experience and because people in the higher education world knew about who I was. I had some very interesting meetings, discussions, very interesting input and various things with educational leaders all over America. I mean, I you know, I had everybody from the president to Harvard to the president of a community college in north Alabama to come offer some things and say, look, you know, you’ve been in this world. You know what I’m talking about, we need your help on X, Y or Z. And that was fine. 

Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., left, and Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, walk to a closed-door GOP meeting as the Republican leadership tries to reach a policy agreement between conservatives and moderates on immigration, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 7, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

 

TCS: Going back to Congress… From the outside looking in, it can seem like it doesn’t work or it doesn’t work very well. And you can speak to whether that’s true. But is there anything that you, now that your time is starting to come to an end, that you could say, “if I could change this one thing or if I could change these two things, it would be a lot more productive or results driven or what have you.” Or is there anything you would change about the institution? 

BRB: Yeah, I guess I would change two things. One is I would require every piece of legislation to come through a regular committee process or a regular markup. Too many bills are coming to the floor of the House that have not even been through committee, which means…

TCS:  They’re substituted or something?

BRB: No, they just come straight to the speaker’s office, to the floor.

TCS:  Huh. Did that happen when…? 

BRB: It happened some when we were in power and I used to not like it. You remember I was on the Rules Committee. So bills would come to the Rules Committee that I sat on and they hadn’t even been through the committee of jurisdiction. And as a member of the Rules Committee, I may not know anything about this piece of legislation. And there’s nobody from the committee of jurisdiction there because it didn’t come through their committee. I thought that was not a good way to do things. And I think most of the time those were bills that were not being pushed for the purpose of actually getting substantive legislation and I think it would eat into our time in a way that didn’t make sense. While we did it some, Nancy Pelosi has been promiscuous about it and I think we’ve gotten bad legislation as a result. There was a study that came out the other day said this has been the least productive Congress since the 1970s, just in terms of legislation passed and actually enacted a law. So I would require everything to go through the committee of jurisdiction.

The second thing is,  and this is more of a tone thing, but sometimes in Washington, we’re just too darn tribal and not everything that there has to be tribal. I understand the parties have differences in policy and principles, and that’s important for them to stand on their principles and fight for the policies they believe in. But a lot of stuff up there just isn’t tribal. It just doesn’t boil down that way. And I got to see that being on the Armed Services Committee, where we passed the National Defense Authorization Act every year out of committee by huge bipartisan majorities, we did this year unanimously. And I think that there’s a tone up there where everything starts out tribal and it shouldn’t.  We should start out trying to find the common ground and working together on the common ground. I’ll give you a perfect example of that. Senator McConnell has been saying this. Senator McConnell’s been pushing a bill for months now on COVID relied that everybody agreed on the stuff in that bill, but the Democrats couldn’t agree to it because they wanted more. Well, get what you can get today and keep working on it. And that is not the way the thinking up there [is]. We just we just try to find ways to find differences with one another. Instead, try to get the people’s work done. because they’re getting worse. 

TCS:  Has it gotten worse?

BRB: Yes.

TCS: Seven years you’ve been there. 

BRB: Yeah. The last two years it has gotten far worse. And I’ve even had some of my Democratic colleagues who complained to me about it that it you know, it’s very frustrating to them that they’re not actually encouraged, they’re discouraged from coming to us and working things out across the table. And I don’t think that’s good for the country and I don’t think it’s good for either party, frankly. 

TCS: Well, it seems like part of the basis for that is these days getting elected means winning your primary. And it’s been that way for a while. But that being the case, you know, you run more toward the right or you run more toward the left. And so little by little, the what middle we had goes away, and I used middle is a broad term: people that could actually see, you know, trying at least to work on compromise rather than just the opposite ends, never wanting to ever come together. So, I mean, is that part of it just we we now must appeal to the base voters. And there’s there’s not a lot of liability in not.

BRB: I don’t remember ever having one of my constituents come up to me and complain that I was working with the Democrats on something. In fact, most of the time people came to me and said you need to work together. But I think the truth to what you just said is this: primaries have become more important because of the way that these congressional districts are drawn. The districts aren’t drawn to include, you know, a broader cross-section. We try to shove as many Democrats into a Democrat district, then shove as many Republicans as we can into a Republican district.

TCS: Oh yeah. And both sides do it. Have for years.

BRB: We have to go through redistricting next year in Alabama. You watch, we’ll do it in Alabama and they’ll do it all over the country. But if I only have to worry about my primary, I don’t have to worry about a general then take whatever most extreme position you feel comfortable taking and stick to it and you’ll be served well in the primary. I just always took the point of view that what’s more important than that to the voters is getting stuff done for them. And what I noticed was that the best bills we passed in Congress were bipartisan bills and the hardest bills to pass were the ones that weren’t bipartisan.

TCS:  What about redistricting? What have you heard? It looked like for a while there, it was almost guaranteed that we would lose a seat. Then a percentage of participation was way higher than anybody expected. I kind of think it’s funny, but what do you think? How do you think those districts are going to go? 

BRB: Well, even if we don’t lose a seat, there’s going to be substantial change because there have been parts of the state like where you’re sitting right now in Baldwin County that are growing really well, then other parts of the state that are either stagnating or shrinking. So, for example, Terry Sewell’s district is going to have to pick up counties even if we don’t lose a seat. And she knows that very well. That’s not something that she would disagree with. If we lose a seat then everybody’s district is going to grow and you’re going to have at least two members in the same district.  That’s the worst game of political musical chairs I can imagine. I don’t know how it’s actually going to play out. 

Chris Pringle is a friend and is chair of the House Committee on Redistricting. He and I have talked about it some. I’ve been pretty frank about telling people I’m going to try to be involved in it because I have one interest, and that is to keep Mobile and Baldwin counties together.  I think it would be foolish to have Mobile County in one district or most Mobile County in one district and Baldwin County in another. I don’t think that makes any sense. But if you do that, then that begs the question: Where do you go to get the rest of your folks? Can you keep this district together the way it is? I don’t know the answer to that right now, but obviously when we get the census numbers back, we’ll be able to make a little more deliberate, thorough decision making about how to do it. I’m glad I’m not in the legislature to do it, though. 

TCS:  Could you imagine having to represent Mobile and Baldwin and Houston County?

BRB: Well, I actually testified about that in the federal lawsuit? I don’t know if you knew that.

TCS: Oh, no, I didn’t. 

BRB: I think Jo Bonner and I both did. It was a federal court lawsuit in Birmingham where they were trying to get a second minority majority district. I was there to testify on behalf of the state against that. And I was asked to take that example because virtually all the maps they presented put Dothan and Mobile in the same district. I said, look, those two places have stuff in common, but there are also some things that aren’t in common. And you’re talking about a much bigger geographic area. Once got a naval shipyard, one’s got a major Army helicopter training base. One’s got Troy University that’s a pretty major international type university. One’s got the University of South Alabama. They actually are, you know, competitors in sports. There’s some obvious differences. Now, if that district ended up being that way, whoever that congressman is would work very hard and the staff would work very hard and they’ll do the very best they can to cover it and cover it well for all the different parts of that district. But it’s hard to do. What I think is more challenging is imagine somebody who’s got a district that starts in Birmingham and ends in Mobile and has in between Tuscaloosa, Selma to Montgomery. 

TCS:  I mean, you’re thinking if they tried to bring Congresswoman Sewell down into Mobile. 

BRB: Yeah. Suppose they cut off Mobile from Baldwin County and have Mobile go all the way north like that. That’s a crazy district. 

TCS:  Yeah, it is. Well that’s interesting. I mean, we’re going to watch it play out and I think they’re going to the legislature is going to delay as long as they can to to deal with that because because all the uncertainties.

BRB: I’m glad I’m not going to be in the legislature to have to do it. 

TCS:  Well, they might ask you to come and testify. Who knows.

BRB: I don’t mind testifying and I’m going to obviously have my opinion about it. But I mean, if we lose a seat, there’s just no happy answer.

 

TCS:  Alright. Let’s talk about the president. Here we are, I guess we’re right about five weeks until his term is up. I mean, the electors are voting today. I know that he’s not conceding and probably won’t for a while. I don’t know how that drama is going to play out, but his term is ending. However, I don’t think his influence in the party is going to end. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know whether he might run again. He’s kind of threatening maybe to run again for president. How do you see that? Do you see his influence in the party remaining strong as it has been? Does it weaken a little bit? Does that all depend on something else? I mean, where do you see the trajectory of the Trump influence and Trumpism? 

BRB: Well, I think the president, if he chooses to remain active – and I don’t know him that well, but I know him – I think he’ll want to remain active. I think you can continue to be a significant player in the party and if he wants to run again in four years, I think he would be a formidable candidate. 

TCS:  Do you think that would be good for the party?

BRB: You know, I think he has done some remarkable things for the party. Look at the number of people that voted for him in November. The only person who ever got more votes than that in a presidential election was Joe Biden. And he brought out a lot of people that helped flip House seats, hold on to Senate seats and retain state houses and gain one state house across the country. So his ability to turn out voters, to excite voters, who perhaps would not have voted at all or voted Democrat in the past, I think that’s been a very positive for the party. Now, going forward, we’ve got to figure out in this party how we can do a better job of appealing to people that live in suburban areas. We know that.  You don’t have to be a political scientist to figure that out. And I don’t really think it’s the substance of our policies, I think they have some problems with style. So I think we Republicans  – and I’m not trying to put this on President Trump’s shoulders at all –  I think we Republicans as a group, we’ve got to figure out what’s a better way for us to make sure we’re presenting the message we think is winning message with them. How can we appeal better to suburban voters? 

TCS:  Well, yeah. I mean, that’s kind of the paradox. You just said it because without Trump, you’d probably lose a couple of Senate seats, probably don’t win nearly the number of House seats. His massive turnout, his base turnout is the reason why those are possible. And yet, at the same time, his lack of appeal to suburban folks in these swing states, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, is the reason why he couldn’t get over the top. And so it’s just a paradox. You can’t almost can’t win with him, can’t win without him. But in terms of winning the White House, again, I just don’t know what changes in terms of tone and style if he remains…

BRB: You know, I’m not personalizing that to him. I’m saying across the board because I think we have to learn how to appeal better. We being the entire Republican Party, we’ve got to appeal better with suburban voters. I think the president did remarkably well in the face of three major obstacles. One was a once-in-a-century pandemic. The second was the economic downturn that resulted from the reaction to that pandemic. And the third was, I’ve never seen the national news media so absolutely determined to defeat a president of the United States like they were Donald Trump. I mean, there was no holds barred in what they did to try to defeat him. Put those three things together and good Lord, I think he did pretty well. And the fact that he helped us down ballot is really big. Remember, he leaves office having put three people in the United States Supreme Court. 

TCS:  It’s amazing. And I’m not denying his accomplishments. In fact, I think they are many. But clearly, that tone, that style or tone that he has didn’t hurt down ballot races. It may have hurt himself. So I’m just I’m curious as to will other people, you know, try to step up or is everybody going to wait for him? I mean, that’d be a precarious thing to do. If you’re a, you know, Nikki Haley or, Kristi Noem, some of these popular people. But if he’s if he’s still talking about it, then I don’t know. Maybe unwise to put your name out there. 

BRB: Well, you know, I served with Kristi Noem when she was in the House and one thing I can tell you about Kristi Noem is she’s not scared of anybody. She’s a strong, very capable public official. I got to know Nikki Haley because she was the U.N. ambassador and I participated in a number of things with her. And I reminded her that she had met at an aviation conference in Charleston. But before I came to Congress and we just built a friendship and she’s like Kristi. She takes care of everybody. And she’s a very strong, very capable public official. 

So, you know, I can see either one of those two women doing very well in the suburbs. I think a lot of women in the suburbs are going to say, “Yeah, I like her. That’s what I’m looking for, somebody like that.” So we’ve got a wealth of talent in the Republican Party at the national level. If President Trump doesn’t run, we’ll get somebody good out of those two or somebody else. And I can see him having some interesting conversations with those two women. I really can. I’m very upbeat about the prospects for the Republican Party. I think we’re going to do well in the midterm elections. I don’t think Joe Biden is running again and that’s going to present a huge problem for the Democrats because they’ve got a vice president who’s going to say it’s my turn, then they’ll have some other folks saying no, it’s my turn. Let them fight out their fight and let’s stay focused on the stuff that we need to do to replicate our success down ballot from this past November. 

TCS:  What about you? We talked about Senate. That was a disappointment, and now your your term is ending in Congress. Do you have anything else you might want to run for? People ask me all the time. Is he going to run for governor? What about Senate down, you know, a couple of years from now? People do talk about it. 

BRB: Well, it’s not that I’m dodging the question. It’s just that literally the day after I lost my primary, I had to fly to Washington to vote on the first of the COVID bills and I’ve been busy on that I don’t see me running for the Senate in two years. I don’t see me running for governor two years. I’m just being honest. Now, they say never say never in politics, so I won’t say never. But that’s certainly not where my head is right now. I’ve always run for offices that I felt like that I had something important to contribute, not only to the office, but to whatever the greater effort was, whether it’s a state school board, the state Senate or being in Congress. Just running for office to run for office or holding office just to hold office – that’s just not me. I’m not interested in doing that. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I get out of Congress. I’ll get something. I think it’s probably a smart thing for me to give me and my family, my supporters a rest. It has been a hard year. And then if something comes up, it looks like something I need to do, by golly, I’ll take a hard look at it, but that’s not where my head is right now. 

TCS:  Is there anything that interests you outside of politics professionally? Consulting and academia? I mean, there are different paths and everything, but it is all that sort of on hold for now. 

BRB: No, I wouldn’t say that. Not on hold at all. Obviously, before I got to Congress, I had a background in education policy and only furthered that because I got the national perspective on it, which I had somewhat before, but obviously serving on that committee and being in positions I held , I got a lot more. I was a journeyman lawyer before I got Congress, and then to serve on that committee, chair one of the key subcommittees and to deal with people at the national level on those issues, including secretaries of labor and members of the National Labor Relations Board, EEOC, et cetera, that really deep in my understanding and my approach to those issues. And then I added something completely new to my public policy background, and that was all this foreign policy defense stuff. So those three areas continue to interest me a lot: education, labor / employment, national defense and foreign policy. I could I could see me doing something inside or outside of government or on on any one of those three. But just to run for an office just to hold it because I’ve got to hold an office and I got to have an office, I’ve never felt that way and I don’t feel that way. I could be completely happy not doing that. And maybe, as I said, is good for me to take a little bit of time, not be in the public eye, spend more time here in Fairhope, up at hunting camp near Stockton and see my grandchildren, that sort of thing. I also think it’s healthy for us to take time out of these public positions to remember what real life is instead of the sort of artificial bubble you when you’re in public life. 

TCS:  It is a bit of a bubble, isn’t it? I mean, you’ve got staff that are tending to your needs, not in a kingly way, but you’ve got a team, you’ve got resources and certainly people that are affirming what you’re saying, hey, great job and stuff like that. 

BRB: My staff never did that.

[laughter]

What I’d do with my staff, Todd, was [say] I want you to come in here and disagree with me. I want you to challenge me. I mean, once I’ve made my mind up and I’ve made a decision, obviously that’s where the office is going. 

TCS:  See, that’s where I never got – was I actually supposed to stop arguing?

[laughter]

BRB: So my staff regularly disagreed with me and regularly changed my mind because of the strength of their arguments. 

The bubble to me is more the you know, all the stuff that happens around you. The press makes a big deal out of you. People that come saying they want something from you make a big deal out of you. Obviously, the House staff, the floor staff, the Capitol Police are taking care of you. It’s pretty easy  and you’re in the Washington social scene if you want to be – it’s pretty easy to get kind of snuggled down in that and say, oh, this is fun. Well, it’s not bad every now then to get out of that bubble and realize that’s not the way other people live. And when you get out of that bubble, you realize things aren’t exactly the way they appear from a Washington perspective. 

TCS: Well, that sounds like pretty good advice. I was going to ask you about advice and I’m sure you’ve been in touch with Jerry Kark quite a bit. What advice have you given him about how to be successful and maybe more generally, what is good advice from your years of service in Congress for some of these new people coming in? 

BRB: Stay as close to your constituents as you can. And that’s not as easy to do as it sounds, because when you’re in Washington four to five days a week, either they give you those district work weeks every now and then. That means that you’ve got to devote at least some part of your weekend after you’ve flown back home to stay in touch with people. But I think the closer you stay to your constituents, the better off you are, not just politically. Obviously, it helps politically, but you’ve got a better perspective on things. I think it strengthens your ability to argue in Congress about various issues. You say, “no, no, I talk to my constituents about this.” 

There was a general that was testifying before the Armed Services Committee just in the last several weeks, and we were talking about what to do about our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. I said, “General, I hear you talking and I hear all the reasons why you think we need to stay there, but my constituents don’t believe that. And I know because I’ve talked to them and they talk to me, and I don’t think that we can justify our presence somewhere when don’t have the support of American people behind what we’re doing.” If I had had those discussions with people, I couldn’t have said it with the authority I said to the general, and you could tell it registered with him. When he responded back to me, he said, “I know you’ve heard that because I sometimes I hear it to.” So I think it’s important to stay close to your constit{“type”:”block”,”srcClientIds”:[“08824672-4b39-4ada-b284-6cd62fcd8852″],”srcRootClientId”:””}uents. 

If you do that and do your homework, you’ll be fine. You really will be fine. 

The other piece of advice I would give to anybody is that if you ever get to the point where you walk on the floor of the House of Representatives and you’re not in awe – go home. Go home, you’ve been here too long. You should always be in awe on the floor of the House of Representatives. You should always feel an incredible privilege that you get to vote out there on that floor for seven hundred thousand people. If you ever get to the point where you don’t realize that you’ve forgotten it, go home.

TCS:  You’ve served at several different levels in offices and public office. And you talk to you just talk about constituents and how they direct you sometimes. How much of leadership in public office is listening to constituents versus leading them? It’s not a direct democracy. We don’t ask for a show of hands on every single issue. That’s why we elect people, right? I mean, there’s got to be some kind of balance, I imagine. How does how does one do that? How much is it listening to the constituents versus saying, no, actually, I’m right on this because I’m an informed member of Congress or state school board member, state senator, or what have you. 

BRB: It’s far more listening than leading, if you put it that way, but you can’t really lead if you don’t listen. I’ve always believed that in public life or otherwise. I’ll give you two examples. Well, I just gave you one about what I’m hearing from constituents about our presence in the Middle East. I’m not sure what I would have thought about that if I hadn’t had such strong conversations with people.

There are times when it’s your job as a congressman to inform your constituents because they may not know, and I’ll give you two examples of that. One year, I think it was my first year, I voted on an omnibus appropriations bill, the big appropriations bill. And we had a Republican Christmas thing that I was a speaker for as soon as I got home.  There was a man in the room who was visibly angry with me. He was so angry with me he was shaking. And he looked at me and says, “give me one good reason why you voted for that bill.” We were on the causeway out here and I pointed over and said, “You see that shipyard over there? Austal they make Navy ships?” He says, “yes sir.” 

“There are four thousand people that work at that shipyard, we got three ships for that shipyard out of this bill. That’s four thousand reasons for me to vote for that bill.” 

And everybody in the room looked at me and starting nodding their heads. 

Now, the other example where I had to do probably more leading and sometimes a little bit against the grain were on some trade issues. I represent the Port of Mobile. I represent, you know, a place that has thousands of jobs that are tied to international trade.  And there was a time, I think it was when I voted for – I thought it was the process bill What’d they call it, TPA?

TCS: Yeah, it was TPA and then…

BRB:  Trade Promotion Authority is the authority… 

TCS: …then it was the [any actual trade agreement]

BRB: Yeah, yeah. So I voted for the TPA. 

TCS: That was a tough vote.  

BRB: Well, they started burning me up on the local radio programs, all three were friends of mine, by the way. And I said, I’m going to go on those radio programs and talk with them and tell them why I think it’s important to have the process set up right. They said, “well, that means you got you’ve got to approve this Trans-Pacific Partnership.” And I said, “no, I don’t approve of that one. It actually strengthens my ability to fight against that one if I can be involved in the process before they actually get the trade agreement sent to Congress, which I can’t do now. Well, with TPA, I can do that.” And by the time we got to the end of it, a lot of the people that were in disagreement with this one,  swing around and said, “you know, now that we’ve looked at it, now that we’ve listened to you, yeah, we think you’re right now.”  So sometimes, it’s your job to, you know, explain things to people. 

I’ve never been in a position in Congress where I felt like I was at odds with the interests of the people in my district. I’ve never been in that position. I do lots of town hall meetings and always had great rapport with people, even when they disagreed with me. I mean, I’ve had people come to my town hall meetings who’ve beeb mad as you-know-what at me. Particularly after President Trump got elected and we started doing repeal and replace of Obamacare. I have one town hall meeting in Mobile where, I mean, the police were there and it was 

TCS: Because people thought you were taking away their health care or something?

BRB: Yeah, well, it was it was the general Democrat reaction to President Trump being president. And they were just angry this was their first chance to get out and say something. 

TCS: That’s right. It was like an organized thing, going around the town halls. I remember that. 

BRB: And there were people who’d say, why don’t you just back off the town halls? I said I’m not going to do that. First of all, they have a right to come out here and talk to their congressmen, and I’m going to give them an opportunity to do that. Secondly, we may learn something. So let’s go listen to the people. I don’t regret any my town halls, although there are some incredible stories to come out of the town halls. 

I had one where a woman was arrested at the end of it for public intoxication. 

TCS: Oh, boy. Where was this? 

BRB: It was in Monroe County. 

TCS: So this wasn’t like a Mardi Gras thing. 

BRB: No, this wasn’t a Mardi Gras thing. I had one where there was a man in the back of the room who was very, very much against my position on immigration. And before I had a chance to answer, the rest of the crowd shouted him down because they agreed with me. But we also had one day, and I was very nervous about this, you know, my communication director, Seth Morrow. Seth set it up for CBS Morning News to come down and spend a day with me. 

TCS: Oh, yeah. 

BRB: We’re doing these town halls in the middle of repeal and replace. We are very nervous about it. You know, are they going to make me look bad?  Will they make Alabama look bad?

But at the end of that day, the crew turned to me and said, “These are some of the nicest people we’ve even met. Even the people that are mad at you or disagree with you were really nice.”

I said, “Yeah, that’s how we roll down here.”

If you go back and look, it’s about a four minute [program], it was a long for television. That’s a long amount of time. You go back and look at it – that is democracy in action. So I think we should listen to our constituents, and yeah, sometimes they gonna teach us something that’s a good thing. 

TCS: I just wanna keep talking about stories. That was really good. Any other great memories from from Congress, whether in Washington or back home?  I know you all had a pretty tight relationship in the delegation. Will you miss that? 

BRB: Oh yeah. The members of the Alabama delegation, to a person, are good friends of mine. And I’m a good friend of theirs. And I’ll miss not seeing them, not being with them, not working with them on these things, because our strength as a delegation is that we all work together. If there’s something for Huntsville, we all work together for Huntsville. If there’s something for the Wiregrass, we’re all going to work together for the Wiregrass. And that working relationship is really good. I’ll miss that. I mean, the people are probably what I’ll miss the most in general. I developed some relationships outside delegation that are going to be long time relationship to me. Liz Cheney and I are our very close friends. And and she and I don’t always agree. But I’ll tell you the story about Liz. Liz and I were both on the Rules Committee together and all the Armed Services Committee and that very first push, under President Trump, to try to increase defense spending kept being held up.  Paul Ryan would promise and promised and promise, and one night they were trying to get the votes together for yet another continuing resolution, and Liz and I just locked down and said we’re not voting for it.  So they hauled us up to the Whip’s conference room at the top of the Capitol and brought in the Whip. We weren’t budging. Then they brought in the Speaker. Now, if you’ve ever been hotbox by the Speaker. It was a hotbox box, and I just said, “I’m not changing my vote.” And Liz said, “No, absolutely not.” You promised us that we’re going increase defense funding and you keep putting it off, putting it off. We’re not backing down.” Paul Ryan got up and left angry. Now, Paul’s locker in the gym was right around the corner from me. Paul and I talk every morning. We’re friends. And one of his staff people says the Speaker wants to see you, and it was that kind of tone where you know you’re in trouble. So I go and see Paul and Paul says, “look, I’m willing to do the deal for exact amount of money you want, but I can’t say it out loud just yet. You’ve just got to trust me on this.”

And I looked at him and I said, “OK, but if you don’t deliver…” He says, “I promise you. How long have we been friends? I promise you. Now you go out there and convince Liz. 

I said, “You go out there and convince Liz.” 

“Would you stay here with me?” he asked, and I said, yeah. 

They brought her in and she got right in his grill. I’m mean, she got right in his grill. 

He says, “Liz, I’m trying to tell you I agree with you.”

 And she says, “I don’t want you to tell me you agree with me. I want you to do it.”

TCS: She would have been a freshman at the time if I’m not mistaken.

BRB: She was in her first year.

TCS: Wow. 

BRB: She is tough. Having friendships with people like Liz Cheney, who I’m telling you what, she will knock any wall down to get where she thinks she needs to go. So to have a relationship with her to have a relationship with these members in a lot of the southern states where Mike Rogers organizes a dinner for once a month.  To have those relationships, it’s just been invaluable to me as a person. I don’t know what makes a difference toward what I would do in the future, but it’s been great for me as a person to have those relationships and I’ll miss that. 

TCS: What happened to the bill? 

BRB: We passed the C.R. and when the appropriation bill came up we got more money than what we told him we had to have. That’s a long story about the Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee in Trump’s first year telling his secretary of defense and his OMB director, ya’ll haven’t put enough money in here for national defense. That took a lot of guts chutzpah. But in the end, the president turned around and agreed with us and went against his OMB director, and that was the beginning of the defense buildup under President Trump. 

TCS: That’s interesting, because I’ve always observed that your vote, at the end of the day, that is your leverage. And very few, especially new members of Congress or, you know, newish members of Congress are willing to leverage their most important asset, their vote, against the speaker or something like that. 

BRB: Well, in Liz’s case and in my case, we were members of the Rules Committee, and that’s the speaker’s committee. 

TCS: Right. 

BRB: So you’re supposed to be there to be the speaker’s people on that committee. And we defied him because it was that important to us. And I’m going to tell you something – that made an impression on him when he had two of his rules committee members who defied him. But Liz and I felt strongly enough about that defense bill that we were willing to defy the speaker, and I told my staff I’m perfectly prepared for him to throw me off the Rules Committee over this, that’s home important this is. But the end of the day, I think what Liz said and what I said proved to Paul Ryan that we needed to do that. And I think that moment changed the prospects for the spending on defense in this country. I really do believe that moment changed it. 

TCS: Well, thanks for spending all this time with me. This has been a lot of fun listening to all these stories. It seems to me you’re better at this than you’ve ever been. 

BRB: Telling stories?

TCS: Well, politics. Whether it’s the minutia of the House or or campaigning and all that kind of stuff. I mean, you always you seem more relaxed and and better at this than I’ve ever seen. It’s really something. 

BRB: Well, thank you. I’ll take the compliment. It doesn’t do me a whole lot of good going forward, but I appreciate it. 

TCS: Well, it’s great visiting with you. Thanks for taking the time. 

BRB: Thank you.