The House managed to pass a complicated, high-stakes and surprisingly bipartisan piece of legislation on Thursday — a bill that gives Puerto Rico a path out of its mounting fiscal crisis by creating a new federally appointed financial oversight board and an orderly process for restructuring its $72 billion in bond debt. At the center of the long and thorny negotiations was Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the Natural Resources Committee chairman whose dry wit and closet full of three-piece suits have made him one of the most indelible personalities of the House Republican Conference.
PowerPost spoke to the seven-term lawmaker Friday, a day after the House voted 297 to 127 to pass the rescue bill — giving the Senate less than three weeks to act before Puerto Rico goes over a July 1 fiscal cliff when $2 billion in bondholder payments are due. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You’re somewhat famous for your sense of humor. Have you found it hard to maintain it through this process?
Look, if you’re working back here, I can’t see it any other way. There are just so many incongruities that take place in government that it is a funny establishment, it’s a funny place to be. It’s just an outlook on life I guess I have.
Sure, but wry and sardonic don’t tend to typically go over well around here.
I did a production of The Fantasticks once where somebody came up and said, “You were the second-best El Gallo I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen someone play that part sarcastically.” I was just reading the words. So I guess it’s just innate; I’m sorry.
When House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) asked you to do this — to take the lead on one of his major legislative priorities for the year — how did that conversation go?
It was basically, “Thanks a lot,” but it was also a process in which there were some concerns — whether you’d have any kind of bankruptcy involvement, which is not our committee’s jurisdiction. Because our committee has jurisdiction over territories, we would have had a say in the bill regardless. And when they decided we should be moving towards an oversight board as a solution to this problem and getting away from any kind of Chapter 9 bankruptcy, that’s when I think leadership asked our committee to be the lead on it. Basically we had staff come up with some preliminary ideas of a way of solving this problem that had worked in the past and could work in the future.
You’ve talked about D.C. control board that was active in the late 1990s as a model for proposed oversight board for Puerto Rico. To what degree did you see the D.C. experience as something to base this on?
The net effect from the D.C. experience was a very positive one. I think you can build on that basis, obviously with the understanding that there is a difference between a city which is still ultimately controlled by Congress versus a territory which is ultimately controlled by Congress, but only kind of. There’s a level of difference there, but, ultimately, in both of those areas the Constitution gives the final authority to Congress to make sure that we do the right thing. It still is a different animal. The D.C. government still has Congress basically having control of the budget process. Puerto Rico could have that happen if Congress says it happens, but Congress can also grant home rule as they have in the past. It makes it a little bit more complex.
Are there any key differences with Puerto Rico that make you more concerned about the outcome there versus D.C. over the long term?
I’m optimistic on what will happen in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has better beaches — much better beaches. There’s a size differential. It’s much bigger as far as land mass. It’s much bigger as far as people. I think it probably even has a more diversified economy, even though they’re having real problems keeping an economy in Puerto Rico. In some cases, that makes it a little bit more difficult. There will be some slight differences, but I think the prognostication is that everything is going to be very positive.
In terms of the economic fundamentals, obviously D.C. has the federal government as the cornerstone of its economy. That’s not going out of business any time soon. With Puerto Rico, it seems to be in a more precarious place.
As far as infrastructure is concerned, as far as energy, it’s much more difficult in Puerto Rico than it was here in Washington, D.C. If we cannot give Puerto Rico some ability of streamlining and improving their energy production, to bring those energy costs back, they’re not going to be able to attract jobs back there again. That’s why we also gave the board some ability to go in there and try and restructure all of that so they can bring efficiencies and economies into it. You’ve also got to have some real things in there that will help with the growth of the economy. That last factor I don’t think was ever anything you had to deal with Washington, D.C.
The bill creates a congressional working group that is going to report back with recommendations on policy changes to encourage economic growth in Puerto Rico. Were there particular items that were left out of the bill itself that you’d like to see taken up in the future?
There was a public lands component that should never have been taken out of the bill in the first place.
The Vieques piece?
Yeah. At some point that land was supposed to go back to Puerto Rico. It deserves to be with Puerto Rico. There’s no reason the federal government should have it. I’m sorry, the federal government is not doing a good job in the way they’re managing the land right now. At some point, I think we’ll readdress that.
Looking towards the Senate, what can they do to screw this thing up?
You’ve been saying that for a few weeks now. What do you mean when you say that?
The bottom line is, there’s a time factor here. The fact that the House passed this bill with a very strong majority from both parties gets a message out, especially to the crediting community, that gives a reassurance that there will be a final solution. It would be best if this could be passed before the July 1 deadline, but if it doesn’t happen, the world doesn’t come to an end. Having said that, the longer the Senate takes to actually do something the more difficult it makes the entire situation — especially because the board has to be up and it has to be running and it has to be done quickly. The sooner that board is up, the sooner you solve the problem. I really think or hope that the Senate will take up this bill and move as quickly as they can with it.
You’ve been in Congress since 2003, and you’ve chaired this committee for a year and a half. Is this the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your time here in Congress? Or is this not even in the top five?
No, we got this one done. We’re dealing with a government land agency dedicated to expanding itself. Those are the tough issues. This is going to happen before the Senate actually picks up our forestry management bill and solves the problems of wildfires. That’s been sitting for too long. We have too many energy development opportunities that are going to make the difference on whether this country is actually a leader in energy development and an asset to our allies or not. Those are still things we are still fighting through. Puerto Rico is done, basically, checked off. These things still aren’t.
Have you at least enjoyed the attention and the platform you’ve gotten from dealing with this issue?
Well, obviously, anyone who’s in politics likes the attention, so that’s a plus. Although, the rule of thumb on the House side is if you’re in the papers, you did something wrong. I have to say, also, it’s a bit disconcerting because I have the propensity of just saying things that are not necessarily serious, that do not necessarily look good in print. Trying to censor myself as I talk is not the easiest thing to do. I’m looking forward to going back to being the back-bencher that everyone ignores from here on in.
You’ve also got new attention for your sartorial splendor. A couple of members have mentioned that since former Speaker John Boehner felt that the fashion standards of the House had fallen. Do you agree things have slipped lately?
It is so bizarre that you would actually say that. Yes, I’ve been known for my three-piece suits. But if I’m not in a three-piece suit, I’m in shorts with no socks. One of the people that Boehner was actually ragging on all the time was me.
Oh, yeah. Especially on those fly-in days, I would stay up in the lobby in shorts and flips and just come in and vote. I do not do business casual. I either have three-piece suits or shorts. There’s nothing in-between. The nice part about Boehner is, if he was insulting you it was because he liked you. None of us really took offense at that. He was very specific, and he told me I can’t do that anymore. I have to dress for success over here.
Roll Call noted a couple of years back that while you do have a Twitter account, you have “the unique honor of being the only person to never post a single thing” to it. Why not give it a whirl? You’d be great.
Yes, I am the only one who has a Twitter account that’s never actually even tested it. And now you’ve challenged me into maintaining that standard. I don’t think I could in good conscience tweet from now on. You also have to realize I’m an old teacher. I taught grammar and English, and using abbreviations is something that used to drive me crazy. I insisted my students had to write “because” there was no such word as “cuz” then.
So, it comes down to, Rob Bishop cannot be contained in 140 characters?
Why didn’t I say that? That’s a great line. Quote me as saying that.