U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, left, speaks to a large crowd Tuesday, Aug. 9,2011, at the Fort Smith Public Library. Womack, R-Rogers, is one of 87 Republican freshmen in the U.S. House of Representatives and one of only three freshmen on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
Calling U.S. Rep. Steve Womack’s little more than eight months in Washington a learning experience might not capture the intensity of his on-the-job training.
The Rogers Republican said based on the knowledge he’s gained, the relationships he’s built and the subjects he’s delved into, eight months feels more like three or four years.
Womack said the most surprising revelation so far is the level of partisanship in the nation’s capital.
“I knew it was bad. I didn’t know it was that bad,” Womack said.
With the success of Republicans in the 2010 election and what he called the “liberal side of the aisle” getting rid of most the “blue dog” Democrats, Womack said much of the political discussion has been pushed to the fringes.
“I think it frustrates most Americans. That’s what I hear. ‘Why can’t you guys get something done? Why can’t you guys work together? Why can’t you guys sit down and have a conversation together?’” Womack said.
Womack said he’s had some success reaching across the aisle for co-sponsors on noncontroversial pieces of legislation and is working to build relationships with members of the Democratic leadership.
“I’ve been encouraged by some of those discussions,” Womack said.
Womack is among the 87 GOP freshmen in the House, but he spends most his time with veteran members who offer him the “type of experience and institutional knowledge” he thinks is important to served his district.
Hal Rogers, R-Ky., John Kline, R-Minn., and Tom Cole, R-Okla., are among the members with whom he spends the most time on the floor of the House.
Rogers is chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations. Womack is one of three freshmen on that committee.
Womack also cited David Dreir, R-Calif., Doc Hastings, R-Wash., Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., and Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, as other veterans from whom he’s working to learn.
“These are guys that I’ve picked up on that have great wisdom and impress me by how good they are at what they do and the subject matter that they command,” Womack said.
Outside of work, Womack said U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., is “who I pal around with.”
Of course, time outside of work is limited.
Womack said although every day is different, the days have at least one thing in common – they all last at least 15 hours.
There are a never-ending series of meetings, debate and votes in the House and constituent activities in Washington and high demand for him whenever he’s back home in the 3rd Congressional District, Womack said.
Womack said he has discovered his scheduler, Stephanie Fontenot, has the most difficult job in his office.
Womack says he has the most fun on the job when a constituent visits, saying it “charges my batteries” when people from Arkansas come to Washington with their children and he gets to give them a personal tour of the Capitol.
But Womack said Fontenot knows that means he’s out-of-pocket for at least 45 minutes and it’s up to her to rearrange his schedule.
“I try to be respectful of people and their scheduled visits, but if it’s a bureaucrat or a lobbyist, they can wait as far as I’m concerned (if he’s with constituents),” Womack said.
Since the 3rd District campaign ended and he arrived in Washington, Womack said he also discovered he was wrong about earmarks.
In a Nov. 18 Tweet, Womack touted his opposition to earmarks: “I made my first vote today as Congressman-elect in the GOP Conference. I voted in favor of a ban on earmarks.”
As late as February, Womack still said he couldn’t support earmarks.
But during a sit-down Tuesday with the Times Record editorial board, Womack’s tone had changed.
“Earmarks were very popular in terms of being a political discussion point, but at the end of the day they weren’t the drivers of the deficit or the debt like they were purported to be,” Womack said.
Womack said he came to that realization after he got to Washington and got to look at the “real numbers.”
The earmark process was broken but not beyond repair, and it should have been retained under a much different, much more transparent structure, Womack said.
“I’ll be a much better candidate next time around because I’ll be able to speak a lot more intelligently about the real truth,” Womack said.