Transcript

Rep. Tom Davis on His Retirement

After 14 years in the House, U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) says he is ready to take a
After 14 years in the House, U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) says he is ready to take a "sabbatical." (Lauren Victoria Burke - AP)
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Rep. Thomas M. Davis III
U.S. Representative for Virginia's 11th District
Friday, February 1, 2008; 3:30 PM

U.S. Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia's 11th District was online Friday, Feb. 1 at 3:30 p.m. ET to take readers' questions about his pending retirement from the House, his political career, and what he hopes to accomplish during his final year in office.

The transcript follows.

Rep. Davis has been a U.S. Congressman serving Northern Virginia since 1994. He spent was chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee from 1998 to 2002 and has been the head Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform since 1998. He led that committee's Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia subcommittee until 2000.

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Arlington, Va.: Since you term your leaving Congress as a "sabbatical" and not a retirement, does this keep open the possibility that you may run again for Congress -- perhaps if the Republicans regain control of Congress?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: Hi everyone. Welcome to the chat. Yes to this question. It's not likely, but it is possible.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Considering that economists predict that the majority the economic-stimulus rebates will go toward reducing consumer debt, how do you see this as adequately stimulating the economy?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: I don't see it adequately stimulating the economy -- but you have to remember, Congress is running for re-election in November. So, instead of letting the economy work out its kinks, members want to try to show they are doing something to help. I'm concerned that the $150 billion we are throwing at this problem will be a longer-term problem than the short-term benefit. Easy to say when you're not running for re-election.

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Washington: Rep. Davis, thank you for taking my question. Though I am a Democrat, I think you are honorable and courageous for being such a strong advocate for D.C. voting rights. The House (and the GOP) will miss your principled leadership. I was wondering if you could tell us why so many of your Republican colleagues are hostile to this issue. Are they really so cynical as to vote against D.C. voting rights just because the District is heavily Democratic? To paraphrase your famous quote, do they really try to make a straight-faced argument that the capital of the free world shouldn't have voting representation?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: I agree -- and I think that if Washington were a Republican city, Democrats would take a different tack. There is too much partisanship in this town after November. I can understand it before an election, but after the election we need to act like grownups and work together.

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Richmond, Va.: When is the House going to pass your bill that would give the FDA common-sense oversight of the manufacture, advertising and marketing of tobacco products? Here we have a bill that finally would prevent tobacco companies from building their profits by selling to kids, and fewer than three dozen Republicans are supporting it. Why aren't more members of your party among the 218 cosponsors of HR 1108?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: This is in play. We have bills moving through the House and the Senate. The legislation has gone further than ever before, and as one of the two House sponsors, we're optimistic.

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San Francisco: Thanks for joining us to chat today, Rep. Davis. Can you give us some insight into your decision not to seek Sen. John Warner's U.S. Senate seat this year?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: The Republican Party chose a nomination vehicle that would require me to talk only to  the Republican base for the next six months. Given that Mark Warner is a strong and formidable Democratic opponent, I didn't think a four- or five-month campaign would be enough to surmount his name identification and financial advantage in the current environment. A primary would've allowed me to campaign to a broader electorate much earlier. I still think I would've beaten Jim Gilmore in a convention fight, but there would've been nothing left for November.

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Washington: Is it true you want to be baseball commissioner? Have you had discussions with Major League Baseball?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: Who wouldn't?

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Clifton, Va.: As a Defense employee for 22 years with a girlfriend who is in Army -- an E-7 with 19 of service -- and who has lived in the 11th District since it came about, I would like to thank you for all your hard work on behalf of us feds, military members and your constituents. You have set the example for what a senator or representative should be. Fair winds and following seas, sir! And I would have a voted for you for senator in Virginia. Tough choice with Mark Warner running. Congress needs more senators and representatives like you. And I predict in next two to three years, the Virginia Republican Party comes knocking on your door -- they are in big trouble. From an 11th District independent.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: I hope you're right; thanks for the kind words. Maybe in a few years, the party will grow up. And if not me, some Northern Virginian who is willing to work across party lines to get things done will benefit.

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Rosslyn, Va.: Hi Tom, this is your old neighbor from Juniper Lane days. Just wanted to say your moderate views and influence will be missed by many in Northern Virginia and elsewhere. Best of luck to you in the future, which I hope includes a return to political life.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: Thank you. One of my biggest disappointments was losing Ravenwood Precinct in my last election, although I still got 56 percent overall. I'm glad I still have a few friends over there.

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Reston, Va.: Tom, you have represented the federal workforce in an outstanding manner as my congressman and as my Fairfax County chairman -- you represented Northern Virginians beyond your potential. What would it take to have you reconsider your decision to leave public office? Thank you.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: Thank you. I thought long and hard about the decision, and I'm ready for a break.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: Congressman, do you foresee Northern Virginia Republicans and Democrats forming coalitions on issues like transportation and education, given the apparent hostility of the state GOP to anything north of the Occoquan? On that score, do you think the General Assembly will have a majority of Northern Virginia seats after the next redistricting, or will the rest of Virginia hang on one more cycle?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: Right now, Democrats in Richmond are showing no effort to work with Republicans. The previous State Senate operated in a very bipartisan manner, but the politicization in the most recent election has ended that, and the State House continues to be polarized. Maybe one day we'll get a governor who, when he's elected, wants to govern in a bipartisan governor. Mark Warner was fairly successful in that regard, but in the last 20 years, he's the only one.

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Washington: Please tell us what role you played in assisting David Safavian in becoming administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: He was not the person we recommended for the position.

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McLean, Va.: Who would you say are the experts on computer security and the government now that you are leaving? Is Adam Putnam the main guy? Who will step up on the Democrats' side?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: Darrell Issa, I think, understands the issue. He made tens of millions of dollars running an alarm-system company and developed more than 30 patents. Adam Putnam and Todd Platts are two others we should look at.

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Arlington, Va.: You will be missed! I am sorry to see you go, but can't fault you for your reasons ... Washington is way too partisan -- and the fewer politicians like you, the less likely I think this is to change. My question: Do you see any chance that whoever replaces you (Democrat likely, or Republican?) will continue in the bipartisan manner in which you worked, or will the acrimony that exists on Capitol Hill extend to suburbia as well?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: Voters need to reward bipartisanship, not punish it. But, if you look at Maryland today, both Al Wynn, on the Democratic side, and Wayne Gilchrest on the Republican side, have strong primary opposition because they tried to work across party lines. The reality is, bipartisanship generally is not rewarded by the electorate.

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Fairfax City, Va.: Congressman, I'm just writing to say thanks. Virginia and America are better because of your service. Hope to see you at Woodies for ice cream this summer.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: See you there -- just because I'm leaving office doesn't mean I lost my taste for ice cream.

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Falls Church, Va.: Congressman Davis, Since you will be retiring, you have nothing to lose politically by helping protect your constituents from the economic, social and physical burdens of illegal immigration. Will you cosponsor the SAVE Act, or take any other action to reduce the negative effects of illegal immigration on your constituents before you leave office?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: Illegals shouldn't receive federal benefits, that much is clear. I was chief sponsor of REAL ID, which mandates only persons with legal presence can get drivers licenses. Having said that, the inability of Congress to compromise and reach any accord means continuation of the status quo, which is unacceptable.

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Fairfax, Va.: You have a son who has graduated college -- has he expressed an interest in running for office in the future? Would you support him, given the demands politics has on the family?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: He was the youngest delegate to the 2000 Republican convention, and was an elector to the electoral college in 2004 and a former president of the Swarthmore Young Republicans. But he's in law school at the University of Virginia right now, and my advice to him is to build a career first before he looks at public service.

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Fairfax, Va.: Mr. Davis: You have been a wonderful representative for our district and we will miss you. I strongly would ask you to consider running for governor next year, and I am sure you will be a great governor.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: Given the party's penchant for conventions, I don't think that's viable. Moreover, let me establish a new career in business for a few years before I think about returning to public service.

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Bennett Point, Md.: Isn't the leftward drift of Northern Virginia a result of the failure of repeated Republican administrations -- especially the two Bush administrations -- to cut government? Government bureaucrats are natural Democrats, and every year more and more of them move to Northern Virginia and vote out Republicans like Jeannemarie Davis.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: I think what has happened is that Republican job-creation policies in Virginia have brought in a new creative class of technicians from Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, India and elsewhere who are alienated from Bush administration social policies. This has made it difficult for Republicans to attract them, and they have been trending Democratic. However, Democratic governance will end up raising their taxes, halting free trade and overregulating the industries that provide their livelihoods; this will give the Republicans an opportunity to be competitive again if we're smart enough to take it.

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Alexandria, Va.: Rep. Davis, thank you for your advocacy efforts on behalf of the District -- you will be missed. That said, your opinion please: As a Republican moderate, how do you feel about your party's fixation on marginalizing gays and lesbians? Its quixotic efforts to outlaw abortion? Can these hard-right positions be healthy for the future of the party?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: I voted for Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which most Republicans and Democrats in my district agree with, but fewer than 30 House Republicans did so. While I respect positions from both sides on these issues, I don't think they should be defining issues for political parties. Republicans have been an open party historically, respectful of rights of others.

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Hagerstown, Md.: What are your one or two accomplishments that you are the most proud of that have gone unmentioned by the press these past couple of days?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: The National Guard Empowerment Act gave the Guard the seat at the decision-making table it long has deserved -- I got a beautiful award for this earlier this week, by the way. Also, postal reform, the Services Acquisition Reform Act, the E-Government Act and the Federal Information Security Management Act. I was chief sponsor of more than 100 laws in numerous areas, so it's hard to single out one or two. All I can say is there are three ways to leave public office, and two of them aren't very pleasant. I'm glad I've opted for the third.

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Fairfax, Va.: What are your goals for your last year in Congress?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: Metro funding, rail to Dulles, D.C. voting rights (we haven't given up) and a few procurement reforms, including an update of the Federal Information Security Management Act.

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Annandale, Va.: Looking back on your 14 years in office, what was the biggest surprise you experienced? Proudest accomplishment? Greatest disappointment?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: Biggest surprise: that I, a lifelong baseball fan, would end up involved in the baseball steroid hearings. Best surprise: the working coalitions I've been able to establish with Jim Moran, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Henry Waxman and Steny Hoyer.

Proudest accomplishment: closing of Lorton Prison and passage of the D.C. College Access Act.

Greatest disappointment: continued lack of D.C. voting rights.

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Falls Church, Va.: Will you co-sponsor the bipartisan SAVE Act for workplace verification and border enforcement on the illegal immigration problem? If not, why?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: I certainly support workplace verification and border enforcement, and I voted for a strong House bill two years ago that criminalized illegal border crossing. However, this is a far more complex issue, with geopolitical implications and I'm more frustrated by Congress' inability to get anything done while the status quo continues.

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Logan Circle, D.C.: Just writing in to say thanks for everything you've done on behalf of the District. You are one Republican I truly respect and admire. You have been a advocate for us, and this Democrat appreciates it! Other politicians could take some cues from you on how to reach across the proverbial aisle.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: In general, a strong Washington is key to a strong region. I've tried to help there where I could.

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San Francisco: Having headed the Oversight Committee when it was in GOP hands, do you ever wonder about the Truman Committee during World War Two, and the good work Harry Truman did exposing war profiteers? Do you wish you'd had more of an impact in that arena yourself, especially as we learn more about the atrocities committed by private contractors in Iraq?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: We have had an impact -- not only the Truman Commission, but Sen. Gerald P. Nye held a commission after World War I. We've come a long way since then. Under my watch, we held numerous hearings on contracting in Iraq, exposing problems in the acquisition workforce and contracting in a war zone. Henry Waxman has continued those hearings. However, most contractors shy away from doing business in war zones because of the high risks to their personnel and reputations. We contract as much as we do in Iraq because federal employees are understandably reluctant to go over there. This is a multifaceted problem that deserves a serious study, not high-flying rhetoric. Waxman and I will continue to try to improve the contracting process. We come at this from different perspectives, but we share a common goal of wanting to improve it.

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Arlington, Va.: As an independent who sometimes votes for Republicans and sometimes for Democrats, I was sorry to hear of your retirement. You've served Northern Virginia and the nation well and should be proud of the way you've conducted yourself. When I heard you wouldn't run again, I thought the same thing I did when Warren Rudman left the Senate years ago -- "too bad it's the good ones who voluntarily leave."

But I understand the political realities that probably led you to decide to leave. Virginia now is a purple rather than a red state, and Northern Virginia is turning increasingly dark blue. Unfortunately, I think there is an ever widening gap between those who demand "purity" from Republican candidates and what opinion polls show the general public wants.

We are so tired of partisan bickering and the effort to make people who merely are opponents (within a party or in the other) appear as "enemies" or evil. That's a sentiment I keep hearing not just from independents such as I, but also from my Republican friends in the Washington area. Are there leaders in the Republican party who are looking beyond 2008 and giving serious thought to what has happened to the party, and how it should craft its message -- in tone as well as substance -- in the future?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: Thank you for your comments, but I still believe Virginia will be a red state at the national level even if it remains purple at the state level. Discerning ticket-splitting voters are becoming fewer, but will be decisive in districts such as mine.

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Alexandria, Va.: Sorry you're retiring, but here's something to make you go "hmm": Jim Webb is selected as the VP candidate, gets elected, and the Senate seat opens up for a 2009 election; Gilmore likely will have been badly beaten in the 2008 Senate race by Mark Warner, and the Virginia GOP turns its lonely eyes to you. I know you can't say much in response other than "hmm," but I hope a seed has just been planted.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: Thanks -- and hmmmmmm...

Although Jim Webb is an extremely able individual, he has been a bit of a disappointment to me as a senator. I hope he will learn that there is good in both parties and not just in his new party.

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Friendship Heights, Md.: Rep. Davis, with regard to the latest rail-to-Dulles debacle, can you explain why Congress cannot simply appropriate the money for this project (and enough to put it underground) to get around these ridiculous objections from the FTA? Perhaps someone should attach it to the stimulus package that is going around ... seriously, given the economic clout of the D.C. region, it is hard for me to understand why this can't be resolved through an appropriation. Thanks.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: We could appropriate it, but everyone else wants the money. If we get it, it comes out of someone else's pot. We have appropriated more than $200 million directly, but it's difficult to get funding for a project the FTA says doesn't meet requirements. The governor is working with us to try to preserve the $900 million we've set aside, and we're hopeful we can be successful.

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Columbia Pines, Va.: Rep. Davis -- thank you for your years of service to Mason District, Fairfax County and your constituents in Congress. As evidenced by Eleanor Holmes Norton's comments, you will be missed in Congress. Is there anything Congress can do to ensure that the Dulles Rail project is approved by the Federal Transit Administration?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: We're working on it every day. Warner, Moran, Wolf and I are working hard to retool this project and preserve the funding.

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Mayfield, Ky.: Rep. Davis: How many hearings did you hold as chairman of the Government Oversight and Reform Committee, and what were the results of those hearings? Also, why did the House allow the administration to pile up so much debt? Thanks for taking my questions and best wishes on your retirement from Congress. God bless you and may you have a blessed week.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: We held more than 160 hearings in two years. Unfortunately, on the debt, two-thirds of the budget is on "auto pilot" -- Medicare, Medicaid, etc. -- and without meaningful entitlement reform and restructuring, we are unlikely to reverse course. These are tough issues, which we overcame briefly during the Clinton years with bipartisan agreements; I hope the next president will attempt to do the same. Unfortunately, this administration, saddled with Sept. 11 and a war in Iraq, was unable to close the fiscal gap.

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Anonymous: Any reactions to the GOP presidential candidate debates? What about the calls for both tax cuts and balancing the budget? I found it interesting that when they were asked what sacrifices the American people would have to make to get a balanced budget, most if not all of the candidates said none (and, of course, no one mentioned $10 billion a month in Iraq and Afghanistan). Reminded me of Democrats (and Republicans at times) calling for great new programs but not mentioning increased taxes needed to pay for them. Do you have to take classes to talk honestly again after leaving Congress?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: Thanks, Anonymous. I'm in rehab right now. The real problem occurs in the next 10 years when baby boomers retire and entitlement spending spikes. The problems really start to add up then. The sooner we address this, the more options we have for fixing it.

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Fairfax, Va.: Like you said, you're retiring, so you can give us some straight talk. So congressman, Nats or Orioles?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: Nats ... in the National League.

Orioles in the American, of course.

How's that for straight talk? This is why I'm in rehab.

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Arlington, Va.: If you still have future political aspirations, how do you better position yourself to obtain the Republican nomination for a statewide office when you will be doing so without a platform of elected office? It seemed to me that you would have your strongest appeal after serving in the House and being at the forefront on many important national issues. Outside of a prominent position in an administration, I can't imagine a better launching platform for a statewide run than serving in the House of Representatives.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: I didn't make my decision to reposition myself for higher office. I'm making the best decision I can for my family. But, being out of office sometimes can be an asset -- ask Mark Warner.

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Springfield, Va.: When you were a committee chairman, was there pressure on you to act in a more partisan manner than you might have otherwise?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: No question. However, that's just one factor in the agenda you set. Remember, committee chairmen get their power from their caucuses. I took risks on issues such as Metro funding and D.C. voter rights, investigating the Abramoff scandal and writing a critical report on the response to Katrina that probably didn't sit too well with many Republicans. On the other hand, many of our hearings on government waste and fraud and government overregulation played well with our caucus. Being a committee chairman requires some level of agility.

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McLean, Va.: I generally admire you and know you will be missed in Congress, but I was very disappointed in you when you expressed your opinion that George Soros should not be allowed to be a part of a group to buy the Nationals. I did not think it was your business to get involved in that. Could you comment on that issue please?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: George Soros is a convicted felon. Baseball needs to clean up its act after the steroid scandal. This was not meant as a political statement. Obviously, baseball agreed.

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Herndon, Va.: How has gerrymandering affected the makeup of Congress? Is it a contributing factor for the partisanship on Capitol Hill? Should we outlaw it?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: Gerrymandering has created many safe seats. This increases partisanship and makes compromise more difficult. It also amounts to a cynical manipulation of the electoral process. I didn't invent the system, and I haven't benefited either -- I'm in a 50-50 district.

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San Francisco: Congressman, thanks for taking questions today. Both the Senate and House GOP campaign committees are way behind their Democratic counterparts in fundraising this year. Do you think this has much to do with the wave of GOP retirements? To what do you ascribe the drying up of funds?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: I think it has to do with the fact Democrats are in power in the House and Senate, and people like to give to winners. The Republican National Committee has outraised the Democratic National Committee significantly. It's only in the House and Senate campaign committees that Democrats hold a significant advantage.

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San Francisco: Congressional Baseball Game: Without you in the line-up, the GOP may find it hard swinging in the summer classic. Who takes you spot in the roster? Virgil Goode?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: First of all, I have one more year, and I'm looking to build on my hitting streak. I may be 59 years old, but I hit like a 56-year-old.

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Washington: Because you're waiting to finish out your term, you're barred for two years from lobbying, correct?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: The House is one year. The Senate is two years. My job prospects probably won't include lobbying anyway.

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Arlington, Va.: How should a thirtysomething moderate-to-conservative lawyer inside the Beltway prepare himself for life as a politician someday?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: Get involved in your community in areas outside your political party to build support. Learn how to raise money.

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Fairfax, Va.: The commute into the District was just too much, huh?

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: No, but the hours are terrible.

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Rep. Thomas M. Davis III: I want to thank everybody for your questions and interests. When I entered office more than 28 years ago, I never thought it would be such a rewarding experience. I have grown tremendously and have learned to respect different perspectives in approaching public policy. I am fortunate to have represented one of the best-educated constituencies in the United States and probably in the world. This has forced me to thoroughly research issues and to make sure I could explain my votes in town meetings to people who knew more about the issues than I did. To some extent, that has made me, if not more moderate, at least more thoughtful and less ideological.

I want to thank my constituents for giving me this experience, and I want them to know I tried to do my best through various pressures that were applied to me.

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