Mr. Bipartisan: Illinois’ Ray LaHood at the 2008 Crossroads of a Republican Congressional Career and Joining the New Obama Cabinet

This interview was conducted November 24, 2008, at then-Rep. LaHood’s Peoria, Illinois office. We sat down to discuss his legislative career as a Republican, and the historic presidential election that had just concluded. At this time LaHood was seemingly about to retire from Congress without future plans, though—unbeknownst to the public or the author—he was days from publicly accepting a position in then-President-elect Obama’s Cabinet, as Secretary of Transportation. LaHood served the author’s hometown district from 1995–2009.

You’ve represented 18th district of Illinois now for seven terms. Tell me a little about your district.

Fourteen years, that’s right. Well, it’s twenty counties of about five urban centers: Peoria, Springfield, Decatur, and Jacksonville, to a lesser extent. The rest of it is highly rural. So it’s a mix between companies like Caterpillar, ADM, Tate & Lyle in Decatur, and a few smaller companies. A large segment is state employees in Springfield. And a lot of agricultural interest.

Agriculture dominates the economy, along with Caterpillar, which is the number one employer. Health care is very important. Health care is probably the number two employer, in Peoria and Springfield. And so ag issues are important, health care issues are important. But trade is issues are central too. Almost all of my district runs along Illinois River, so environmental issues are up there, conservation. It’s about as diverse a district as I think you can get.

It also comprises all of Abraham Lincoln’s district, during this one House term from 1847 to 1949.

Lincoln had nine counties to my twenty, but it is all within what he represented. Lincoln’s home is in my district, as is the Lincoln Library and Museum. Lincoln’s New Salem is a part as well, and of course he’s buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery.

So Lincoln is a big part of this district. You know, when people ask me, one of the things I’m proudest of is working this Senator Durbin, former Governor George Ryan, former Speaker Dennis Hastert, and the former major of Springfield to bring together a lot of different around the idea that there ought to be such a Lincoln museum that exists today. It’s a magnificent facility which really captures Lincoln. We were able to get some federal resources, some state resources, and private, and I’m very proud of that, for my district.

What have been the most pressing concerns for your constituents in 2008?

I would have to say the economy, although bank failures and home mortgage failures have not been at the level they are nationally. National City was bought out by a Pennsylvania-based company, but other than that, but other than National City—which is obviously not a local, but a Michigan-based company—I’d say the rest of our banking and mortgage industry have had no where near the foreclosures that the rest of the company has.

Our economy in Illinois is based on three things: Caterpillar, state government, and agriculture. Caterpillar, because of all the trade trade agreements are doing very well. State government is doing terrible, but people are still employed there. Agriculture has had a bonanza the last two year. Bumper crops, good prices.

I would say the economy is something the people are worried about, particularly because of the energy costs, with gasoline over four dollars a gallon almost all summer. In inhibited people from going on family vacations and doing the things they would ordinarily do. But obviously that’s subsided now too.

I do remember many I places I traveled to in the world often seeing Caterpillar—a familiar yellow earth-mover on the tiny islands of Cape Verde, off Africa. Moving on, Representative-elect Aaron Schock, at 27, is going to be the youngest member of Congress and the first to be born in the Eighties. While campaigning for him this year what advice did you offer, and how did he pick your brain?

Oh, of course. He’s a smart young man and will do well. It will take him some time to gain the experience and the know-how to be able to accomplish what we’ve been able to do, or Bob Michel was able to do, or someone like Evert Dirksen. If he stays around long enough he’s a smart guy and he’ll do well.

My advice is remember the people who sent you to Washington. Remember where you came from, and remember the values and principles of the people who elected you. If you do that then you won’t get caught up in Potomic fever, and you won’t get caught up in the idea you’re so self-important.

                                Then-Rep. Aaron Shock, Bob Michel, and LaHood in 2009.

Most of the people I represent are just basic, hard-working people that probably don’t make over $100,000 a year, and some of them likely much less than that. And they’re people that probably work hard, play by the rules, and have a pretty deep faith in God. If he remembers that he’ll do well. Because that’s his district. We traveled a lot during the campaign and talked a lot about the job, what I’ve done to be successful. But we’ve tried to included him even before, in a number of local activities, particularity here in the local community. He knows this is a good district, and if he works hard and shows up, people appreciate that.

It seems that being a freshman Republican Congressman in 2009 will be much different than for you in 1995. True?

Well look, I had an advantage. I was a staffer for seventeen years prior to getting elected [first to Rep. Tom Railsback and then Rep. Bob Michel]. And even though I got elected in 1994, with seventeen years experience, you thing I didn’t realize or dream of was being a part of the majority party [Democrats having controlled the House for 40 years]. That offers great advantage, twelve years of being the majority party. With the Speaker of the House hailing from our state I was pretty much in the cat-bird seat. I was able to do a lot of good for my district, and we played it as well as we possibly could.

Aaron Schock will be part of Republican minority that will have 175 members. Our high mark was 230, 229, something like that. And he won’t have that advantage. Even though I never chaired a committee, I chaired House proceedings a lot, and I think I was at the focal point of a lot of decisions that were made, because of my relationship with our leaders. He’s just going to have to put his nose to the grindstone, and shoulder to the wheel, and do his work.

I was struck by the fact that, as an incoming freshman, you were one of three Republicans not to sign the Contract with America.

I think when you look at this district, people are pretty independent-minded. Even Bob Michel, the longest-serving Republican leader, he was known as a guy that could get along in a bipartisan way. I just thought the Contract with America really didn’t reflect one of the major things I ran on, which was balancing the budget and getting deficits down. That seemed to be the number one priority, before passing more tax cuts onto people.

And the crown jewel of the Contract with America was the tax cuts. Look, I didn’t many very friends in our leadership when I got elected by not signing. And I voted against the tax cut provision. I voted for many parts of the Contract with America, but I did vote against the so-called crown jewel. And our leadership was very mad at me.

As you’re saying now, sometimes yours relationship with Majority Tom DeLay or Speaker Gingrich was rocky.

Yeah, and that was part of it. When I think somebody is doing the right thing I’ll support them. When I don’t think they’re doing the right thing then I feel an obligation to speak up. And I think the beginning of the downfall for our party was Tom DeLay. He wanted the Republican Conference to change the rules after he had been indicted in Texas. The rules were that you had to step down from your leadership job, and he wanted the conference to change the rules. I didn’t agree with that, and I think that was the beginning of the end. His associations with Jack Abramov, and dragging a lot of other people in, I thought, was very bad for the party. When I see things that are not right I speak up.

One thing I do personally remember of your career was watching TV in 1998, the House impeachment debate. You served as the acting Speaker, overseeing the debate.

Right. I was selected by Speaker Gingrich because I had chaired House debate, and been Speaker Pro Temp on a number of very controversial issues: Medicare reform, Social Security reform, and some other controversial items.

                                Acting-Speaker LaHood opens House impeachment debate, 1998

People saw me as someone who followed the rules, let members speak, and I did it in a fair way. I didn’t favor Republicans who were speaking, or favor individuals. I did it by the book, and when it came time for impeachment Speaker Gingrich decided he simply couldn’t chair the proceedings, he asked me to do it. So that’s obviously a high mark of my career, to be able to chair an impeachment of a president.

The Democrats pushed for a motion, during the proceedings, that called for censure instead of impeachment. You refused, and the Democratic members protested by walking out. What happened?

Well, I did a lot of preparation once Speaker Gingrich called me to ask me to chair the proceedings. I had many, many meetings with the parliamentarians—these are the professional lawyers who work with people who chair, to make sure that rules are followed. And they themselves went back and did a lot of research on whether censure could be a possible provision. And we determined that it could not be. So they wrote that opinion that I was a part of, knowing that the Democrats were going to offer that as an alternative to impeachment. And we knew, after they offered it, that it was going to get voted down—well, after it was ruled out of order—and after an appeal to the chair they were going to walk out of the chamber. But we knew they would soon come back because we had begun voting on impeachment articles, and they didn’t want to miss that.

After Barack Obama was elected to the Senate in 2004 he specifically called you.

He did. He called me a couple days after his election. And I had never met him during the campaign, and I had never met him when he was a state Senator. He called me and said, “I’m coming to Peoria, and I’d like to meet with you.” He sat right there where you’re sitting, and I sat right here. We met for ninety minutes, and we talked about how we could work together on infrastructure issues, on issues for my district, and issues for Illinois. It was his way, I think, of reaching out and saying we need to work together.

Following our meeting we had a press conference which was jam-packed with media. And we did work together. We worked together on transportation issues. We worked together on the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, we worked together on other issues for Illinois.

And a few days before he announced for the presidency I called him. He was in his Senate office, and I wished him well, safe travels, and good luck. We’ve had a very good relationship. I liked his message of bringing people together. I think that’s what the American people want. I liked his idea of bipartisanship, really trying to reach out. I think it comes from the heart. It’s not a phony thing, he doesn’t make it up, and I think he really believes in it.

Of the other key figures of 2008—Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Sarah Palin—with whom have you worked with or had contact?

I’ve not really had any experience with Biden. With Hillary a little, not much. With Senator McCain very much. I’ve been with McCain since the beginning. I endorsed him almost from the very first stages, because I believed in his experience. I believe he would make a good president. He was a good House member and Senator, and he knows how to get things done. His record shows that, and he’s a very bipartisan person all well.

                           Sen. John McCain, left, with LaHood in Peoria, Illinois, 2007

We’ve worked together on comprehensive immigration reform, even though it fell short. I didn’t agree with him on McCain-Feingold, but it passed. I thought he would bring experience and know-how, and the bipartisanship, to the job. But obviously it wasn’t to be,but I still have a very high regard for him.

For Governor Palin, I never met her. But when people were yelling “Osama” for “Obama,” or “He’s a terrorist,” or something like that, she should have done what Senator McCain did. At one of his rallies he said, “No, it’s not true. You shouldn’t be saying that kind of stuff.” And I felt she should have done that, too. Here they are, running for the highest elected office in the country. There people, you know, it was ridiculous—she should have done what Senator McCain did.

You’ve recently called the Electoral College “antiquated” and in need of change. You’re probably not alone, but what should be done?

It is. A few days ago an editorial in the Journal-Star substantiated that. Two weeks from now, twenty-one electors are going to go to Springfield, selected by their state party—and only twenty-one Democrats, because Obama won the state.

But the truth is, if you were one of the Electors, you wouldn’t have to vote for Obama. The Constitution doesn’t require you then to vote for the person who won the majority. You can actually vote for anybody you want.

And the Electors were really put in the Constitution because the Framers, the writers of the Constitution, thought the country—the people—would really never have access to a presidential candidate. Would never really hear a debate, would never really hear a speech, because there was no way for them to communicate. And so the Framers thought there needed to be a small group of people, maybe the smartest in the country—the aristocrats, if you will. And the other thing they wanted to do was give small states the vote, or clout, of the big states.

But it is an antiquated system, when you look at every elected office in the country—every elected office, it’s done by majority vote except for the highest office in the country, the most powerful. The 2000 election proved that the person who got the popular vote did not win the election! So, I think we should change it, but we probably won’t.

Rahm Emmanuel is about to be the new Chief of Staff. Considered quite a partisan for some, the two of you are friends.

We are friends. Rahm and I have been friends since he was elected. We worked together on health care legislation for kids, called S-CHIP. We worked on some economic stuff. We’ve talked on a lot of things for Illinois, getting resources back to our districts. He and I this year sponsored six bipartisan dinners, where I would invite maybe seven or eight Republicans, and he’d invite seven or eight Democrats, and we’d go to dinner and talk about politics and policy. So we have worked together, again, for Illinois and for the country.

The night of the election David Broder wanted your “broad-minded opinion” and thoughts on the result.

He called me about ten o’clock that night. I told him what I would tell him on television. I was on channel 25 here in Peoria, during some analysis on the ten o’clock news, and when they asked my reaction, I said, “Look, I’m proud to be an American. We have to overcome a tremendous blindspot in our society, that a black man could become president means that Americans have overcome their own discrimination and their prejudice. And we should all be proud to be American.” And that’s what I told Broder: “I’m proud to be an American tonight.” I know I was a McCain supporter, but I’m proud of America that we could overcome 230-plus years of prejudice, 230 years of discrimination, and elected a black man as president. I think it speaks volumes for our country, and sends a good message around the world that we’ve overcome our prejudice.

How might Barack Obama fare as president?

If past is prologue, you know, he’s captured the imagination of the American people. He’s a very good speaker and a very good communicator. That’s a big part of doing this job. And so he’ll be able to communicate well, and he’s putting a good team of people together. He’s getting the so-called best and brightest people with a lot of experience.

He’s taken his rivals and made them a part of his Cabinet. Biden was certainly one of his rivals, during the primaries. Bill Richardson for the same reason. Hillary Clinton was of course one of his rivals. Obviously Biden is now a part of his team, and it appears that Hillary and Richardson will be part of his team. And maybe others. So you have to give him his due. He’s willing to set aside whatever differences he had because people can be helpful to him and the country. At the moment I would would give him an A-plus in terms of getting off to a very good start, for America.

How often might Representative Schock and fellow Republicans members have Obama’s attention, for your experiences with him?

The administration’s going to be looking for Republicans to support their initiatives. They’re going to try to carve out some Republicans that can be helpful to them. I think they’ll do it on a regular basis. Depending on the issue they’ll find people that will want to be helpful.

Returning to your career, what bill are you most proud of?

I don’t know. I’ve never really judged my career based on introducing bills. If you look at my record, I’ve never spoken on the House floor that much. I haven’t introduced that many bills. I really look at my record as what have I done for my district. I have a good, strong voting record, but I don’t have a list of bills that would I, you know, these are the three bills I’m most proud of.

I worked on a DNA bill having to do with the death penalty that I’m proud of. It took five years. I’ve worked on making ethanol a renewable fuel of choice; it took two years to do that. So I can’t point to any one bill, but I can point to a number of things I’m proud of. Health care for people that don’t have insurance. There’s a health care clinic in Peoria, Decatur, and Springfield. I’m proud of that. There’s a VA clinic in Peoria, Decatur, and Springfield. I’m proud of that. Every one of my rural hospitals are getting reimbursed now because they are critical care facilities, which we helped them achieve. I would say the things I’m proud of have more to do with areas of concern to my district than any particular bill.

                           LaHood with then-President George W. Bush

On October 10, 2007, you were one of eleven House Republicans that met with President Bush on the matter of Iraq. You are quoted as saying, “It was about as candid I’ve seen from members of Congress from President Brush.”

A lot of people were very frustrated at that point. They were frustrated about the number of men and women being killed. About the amount of money being spent, and about the fact that the president wasn’t willing to budge on how we were going to pay for this. At this point it was $10 billion a week, which is what it’s still at now. It was probably over four or five hundred billion total then, it’s over six hundred billion now. Close to five thousand American lives lost, and people were very frustrated. And, you know, they knew President Bush was low in the polls, and they knew that he wasn’t going to be up for re-election, so I think there were a lot of things in play, but people were very candid.

Would you care to elaborate on their candid nature?

No, I think it would be better to just say it was very candid, and I think people walked away with the idea that they had had their say, knowing full well the president wasn’t going to change his mind.

You also said at the meeting he listened intently.

Oh no, he’s a very good listener. President Bush is a very good listener, he really is.

What other instances have you had to work with or meet with President Bush, and what has been your sense of him?

I like President Bush very much. I think he’s about as decent, honest, and hardworking a president as I’ve ever seen. And I think if it hadn’t been for 9/11 he would be very popular right now. I think his tax policies haven’t been very good. No Child Let Behind could have been tweaked to an extent, to mute its criticism.

Right after he was elected he worked with George Miller, one of the most liberal House Democrats, from California, and Ted Kennedy, or one of the most liberal Democrats in the Senate. And they put together No Child Left Behind.

Then 9/11 happened, and the whole world changed. And President Bush’s world changed. And then we had to vote on things like the PATRIOT Act, and we had to vote on how to detain people. And we had to vote on FBI issues and the TSA that now secures all of our airports. And the Homeland Security Agency—we put 22 agencies together. And he went from this agenda that he campaigned on to an agenda that no one ever dreamed of, spending an enormous amount of money.

What was your grievance with House Resolution 2975, passed on October 12, 2001? You were one of three Republicans, along with Ron Paul and Butch Otter, to vote ‘no’ to a measure “to detain and punish terrorist activities.”

I just felt we needed to have better policy. Our policy was ill-defined at the time, and it was really giving America a bad name. It should have been much better defined in how we treat people, and if they are going to be detained then the way they should be treated, and that sort of thing.

You also voted no on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.

My main objective there was the creation of the post of Director of National Intelligence. I served on the Intelligence Committee for eight years. I served prior to 9/11, and I served at 9/11. I saw all of the reports that weapons of mass destruction, why we should go into Iraq. I supported the resolution that allowed the president to go into Iraq.

The 9/11 Commission recommended setting up another bureaucracy, another level above the CIA and the National Security Agency. I thought it was a waste of money, and I saw no value in it. That’s the reason I voted against it.

Can you tell me about the internal discussions that were going on in Capital Hill in October 2002, when the debate of authorization were going on?

If was basically information provided to us from the Defense Department, the CIA, the NSA, the showed Saddam Hussein had the capabilities for weapons of mass destruction. And we knew from intelligence reports that he killed a number of his own countrymen. He either gassed them, or tortured them, or he just simply killed them. So we knew he had the mindset of being a pretty vicious guy. He killed 10,000 Kurds.

                           Secretary LaHood blocking for President Obama, in January 2010

At the end of your career, is there something you wish you had one more crack at to bring to fruition?

I think comprehensive immigration reform would be good for the country. I worked on that, and was disappointed when my party decided they weren’t going to work on it, for politics reasons.

Comprehensive means it was more than than building a fence. It was more than just building walls. It was more than just border patrol. It was accounting for fourteen million people that live here illegally—that are almost all working, doing jobs Americans don’t want. We ought to find a path for them to stay here, whether it’s with citizenship or without citizenship. So that they pay taxes, can feed their families, and they don’t have to live in fear of being sent back to the country from which they came. They’re contributing to our country. And we ought to find a path for them to allow them to do that.

That said, part of it does have to be the building of fences, or border patrol, and those kinds of things, because it is a great source of irritation if you live in California, Texas, and Arizona. So comprehensive means accounting for the fourteen million people here illegally, working and not paying taxes.

And I don’t think we would have ever gotten to if we stayed as we were in the majority, but I think we would have gotten to it with Senator McCain. I’m sure we’ll get to it with Obama. There’s also the S-CHIP bill, trying to expand that children’s health care is very important. Health care is an important thing for children. So maybe those two.

What plans do you have for your retirement?

Oh, I don’t know. Not really. I’m going to wait until I walk out the door. I have lots of opportunities. But I want to continue to do something significant, but I’m going to be out of the rat race. While it’s been a pleasure to serve, I will no longer have to worry about twenty counties. I’m not going to have to be worried about going to every county fair and every parade (laughs).

This is a great job. It’s the best job I’ve ever had because we’ve been able to accomplish a lot and do many good things for the people. It’s a great job for what we’ve been able to do for the people, and that’s how I really look at it.
And to be able to go out on top. To be able to walk out the door and say it was done the right way.

*Rep. Aaron Schock announced his resignation from Congress on March 13, 2015, during allegations of questionable reimbursements. Source: Schock in limbo as feds still loom

Illinois’ 18th district is currently served by Rep. Darin LaHood, a son of Ray LaHood’s, since 2015.

***For more oral history interviews concerning the 2008 election of Barack Obama, click here:

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