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Rouzer, Tillis reflect on first year in Congress

Via Star News Online

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The departure of John Boehner and the rise of Paul Ryan. Visits from Pope Francis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Travels around the world to meet leaders of nations.

And, in one case, choosing to sleep at the office.

2015 was a hectic year for the freshmen members of Congress representing Southeastern North Carolina.

U.S. Rep. David Rouzer, a Republican elected in 2014 after serving in the state Senate, said he achieved all of his first-year goals for committee service, adopting transportation funding and for constituent service. Rouzer serves on the Transportation and Agriculture committees and the House passed the FAST Act, a five-year, $305 billion transportation package. He said his office also handled more than 50,000 constituent cases in 2015.

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, meanwhile, said he was pleased with his work on the Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees. That work included globetrotting to numerous countries and meeting several dignitaries, such as King Abdullah of Jordan. He said his office also focused on constituent services, fielding more than 300,000 constituent letters and handling thousands of cases — primarily focused on issues for veterans.

“Outside of the Senate chamber, things moved quickly,” said Tillis, a Republican elected in 2014 after serving eight years in the state House, including four as state House speaker.

Rouzer has yet to have a bill make it past the committee level. All eight have been stalled, though one he converted to an amendment, which repeals U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules that he said make it harder to produce wood pellet stoves, has passed the House.

Tillis, meanwhile, has had one bill — to ensure benefits paid to those whom the government sterilized without consent decades ago aren’t counted as income when factoring welfare eligibility — pass the Senate. It has bipartisan support and is expected to pass the House and be signed by the president early this year, his office said.

“We were pleased to get that done,” he said.

Tillis said he is also pleased with work toward establishing increased benefits, including educational opportunities, for veterans. A Republican, Tillis has reached across the aisle to form something of a partnership with Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio to extend veterans benefits.

“Those were the kind of things we wanted to get done this year,” he said. “Those sorts of things are important.”

But Tillis said he is hoping to work toward establishing rules for introducing appropriations bills earlier to avoid having such sweeping — and often controversial — bills introduced at the last minute to avoid possible government shutdowns. And he said it should be easier to get bills, especially routine ones, to the floor.

“It takes months to do what should take weeks,” he said.

Making it count

Both are making their votes count. In their first year, Rouzer missed just two of the more-than 700 votes taken by the House in 2015 and Tillis missed just one out of 339 votes taken.

“As a member of Congress, your first responsibility is to show up and do your job,” Rouzer said. “Why wouldn’t I try to make every single vote?”

Rouzer’s first year also saw former Speaker John Boehner of Ohio narrowly be re-elected, only to abruptly resign his office shortly after Pope Francis’s address to Congress. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, was ultimately selected speaker after initially saying he didn’t want the job.

“It was a very historic year,” Rouzer said. “I’ve been here for one year and had two speakers.”

In Rouzer’s case, serving in Congress has also meant calling his office his temporary home, as he is among an estimated 50 members of the House — including Ryan — who choose to sleep in their offices rather than rent an apartment or hotel room while in Washington. He said he often doesn’t finish with committee work or floor votes until as late as 9:30 p.m. and likes to be at the office early, so he crashes at the office.

“It’s worked out well,” he said.

But the practice has been criticized by some, including members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, as an extra benefit members of Congress are helping themselves to by essentially living rent-free in an office paid for by taxpayers.

For his part, Tillis said he rents a place.

“I don’t sleep in my office nor do I have patience for those who do,” he said.

Tough votes

The end of 2015, along with the beginning of this year, has included votes that show how convoluted Congress can be.

They included the omnibus spending package, which Rouzer and Tillis voted for. It restored defense spending cut by sequestration reductions a few years ago but also funds Planned Parenthood, something Rouzer, Tillis and many other congressional Republicans vowed to fight. A subsequent bill to strip Planned Parenthood of funding and repeal the Affordable Care Act — commonly known as Obamacare — passed the House and Senate, but were vetoed by President Barack Obama.

“There were a lot of things in the omnibus bill I didn’t like,” Tillis said.

Rouzer admitted that congressional Republicans “have taken a little bit of a beating” after voting for the recent omnibus spending bill. One person throwing punches at Rouzer is Mark Otto, his opponent in the March Republican primary election for his District 7 seat, who called the follow-up votes on Planned Parenthood and the Affordable Care Act a “show vote.”

Rouzer, though, likened the vote to buying screwdrivers. You need specific tools, but see that stores sell only packs of multiple tools.

“You really only need two out of the five, but you buy the pack because you really need those two,” he said. “In the end … sometimes you have a combination of things in a bill.”