The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Republican deficit hawk flies alone

Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) poses for a portrait in his office on Capitol Hill on Oct. 25. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

There are 291 Republicans in Congress, and only one voted against the GOP tax bill because he thinks it will increase the U.S. deficit.

A 12-term congressman from the eastern banks of North Carolina, Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) says his fellow House Republicans have used cherry-picked data and fanciful projections to delude themselves into believing that the plan will not balloon the federal deficit.

“I guarantee you, if Mr. Obama was the president and he put this tax bill in, those deficit hawks in my party would get out of the nests and start squawking,” Jones said. “But here they are, and because it’s a Republican president possibly adding $1.5 to $2 trillion to this country’s deficit, they’re going to stay in the nest and not squawk about it.”

Jones’s vote against the legislation, which passed last week, makes him unique among his party in putting the preeminent concern that had dominated GOP policymaking for years — the mushrooming national debt — ahead of the tax package.

Jones’s rejection of his party’s top legislative priority carries big political risks for a congressman whom the right has already spent more than a decade trying to take down, but it fits his pattern of bucking GOP orthodoxy on everything from campaign finance to the Russia investigation to the war in Afghanistan. Jones’s mistrust of party leaders has grown since meetings with grieving families shattered his faith in the Iraq War, which he had aggressively supported.

“In terms of his skepticism of authority and power in Washington, I think part of his wiring changed,” said Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who has been close with Jones since they first entered Congress in 1995. “He started looking at leadership’s claims with a skeptical eye, and that’s led to the independence you now see on a regular basis.”

Twelve House Republicans, including Jones, voted against the tax bill in the House. (Every Senate Republican voted for the bill.) Eleven of the those 12 are from New York, California or New Jersey — high-tax areas whose residents will be hit hard by the law’s scaling back of the state and local tax deduction. But Jones represents a state and district that do not have unusually high state and local taxes.

In elaborating on his vote, Jones, the son of a conservative Democrat who represented much of the same area in Congress, sounds more like a member of his father’s party. He cites reports from the Congressional Budget Office and said he learned about the bill from economists at the University of Pennsylvania — analysts the rest of his party have criticized as untrustworthy.

“Money drives policy in Washington. The influence of money is greater today than when I went there in 1995,” he said about the tax bill. “I think money is so important to both parties that we don’t hear from the people back home.”

Jones’s main criticism of the tax package is that he believes it will explode a federal deficit already reaching unsustainable levels. That conviction, coupled with his maverick voting record, was central to his rejection of the bill.

“At the time I joined, the Republican Party was very outspoken about the debt of the nation. … I look at where we are as a nation now, and the Republican Party doesn’t stand for less government and less spending,” Jones said. “It spends like there’s no tomorrow.”

Congressional Republicans have argued that the tax cuts will pay for themselves by expanding economic growth and therefore federal tax revenue — a claim disputed by a number of independent analysts. Many Republicans have also said they plan to tackle the deficit through spending cuts to programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

Scott Dacey, a former Republican operative and lobbyist who is mounting a primary challenge against Jones in 2018, said Jones's vote against the tax bill will spell disaster for him back home.

“I was at a Beaufort County Christmas party for the local GOP, and I was going to each table and telling them that Jones had voted against Trump’s tax reform bill,” Dacey said. “And they said, ‘Are you kidding me? What on earth is he thinking?’ There’s this sense of amazement and befuddlement.”

Though a Democrat while in North Carolina’s state legislature, Jones became a Republican just in time to ride Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” to Congress in the 1994 elections.

Jones had been an avid booster of the invasion of Iraq, voting for the war and leading the effort to rename french fries “freedom fries” and banish the term “French toast” from the House cafeteria after France was critical of the U.S. invasion.

But then Jones attended the memorial ceremony for a slain Marine and met the Marine’s widow and two young children. He started writing letters to the families of Americans who died in Iraq or Afghanistan, a process that eventually led him to question the purpose of the war.

“In all the president’s speeches,” Jones told Mother Jones about Bush, “I’ve never heard the president say that there is an end point.”

Jones eventually became among the first congressional Republicans to demand a timetable for the troops’ withdrawal. Since 2003, Jones has sent more than 12,000 letters to the families of deceased soldiers — letters he has called his “mea culpa to my Lord” for voting for the war. Some families receive more than one letter. Plastered outside the wall of his Capitol office are the faces and names of soldiers killed after deployment from Camp Lejeune, which is in his district.

“I can’t blame Bush for my mistake. I blame myself,” he says.

Jones’s fissure with the Republican Party extends well beyond foreign policy. In 2008 and 2012, Jones declined to endorse the Republican candidate for president, and he opposed Rep. Paul D. Ryan’s (Wis.) first bid for the speaker’s gavel.

This independent streak can strike critics as melodramatic. He once told a group of libertarians that former president Lyndon Johnson, whom Jones blames for the Vietnam War, would probably have to make room in hell for former vice president Richard B. Cheney. In 2015, Jones tweeted a photo of himself swinging a sword at a congressional budget. He has pushed for greater transparency over records related to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination — and has been joined by Roger Stone, who has pushed the conspiracy theory that Johnson was behind JFK’s death.

“Mainly whatever Walter is against, everyone else is for,” said Taylor Griffin, a former George W. Bush aide who lost primary challenges against Jones in 2014 and 2016. “He doesn't fit in any easy boxes, but there's an element of a Blue Dog Democrat, combined with an element of Ron Paul libertarianism and conspiratorial thinking.”

Top Republican donors and outside groups poured more than $1 million into defeating Jones in the past two elections, and they came close in 2014, when Griffin came within six points of beating him.

But others think Jones is more savvy than lucky. “He’s extremely popular in the district. There are a lot of military families in this area who think their husbands, fathers, mothers and wives have been away for too long in deployments that don’t make any sense to them,” said Carmine Scavo, a political-science professor at East Carolina University. “I think he’ll be safe as long as he wants to stay in office.”

The failed attempts to take Jones down only strengthened his independence. This Congress, Jones has voted against the White House’s position 44.2 percent of the time, according to a tally by the website FiveThirtyEight. That’s more often than any other House Republican — and more often than two House Democrats, Reps. Henry Cuellar (Tex.) and Collin C. Peterson (Minn.).

In February, Jones became the first House Republican to call for an independent commission to investigate Russian election interference, and he has co-sponsored Democratic bills to protect special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. He voted against the House bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act this May, arguing that it failed to fully repeal the law, would drive up premiums for low-income Americans and needed to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office before a vote.

Some conservatives in eastern North Carolina think Jones’s positions are about to catch up to him. Jones has been an outspoken advocate for veterans while also rejecting expansions of U.S. military presence abroad, a position that aligns him with some on the left.

“I’ve always supported Walter, but he's turned himself into an outcast. It just seems like he’s become a reliable Nancy Pelosi vote,” said Chuck Tyson, the Republican mayor of the town Trent Woods, in Jones’s district.

When Jones announced on Facebook that he’d vote against the tax bill, about 400 people responded with comments, many of them negative. “Mental Note: Walter B. Jones voted against reducing my taxes,” one said. Another showed Jones’s face emblazoned with the words “PART OF THE SWAMP.”

Jones said he does not think the vote will hurt him politically. At a town hall event earlier this month, he said, about 75 percent of his constituents thought the tax package would overwhelmingly help corporations and the rich.

“There are a large percentage of people who don’t think this tax bill will help the middle class, and I agree with them,” Jones said. “You always run concerned; nobody should, and I don’t, take [the seat] for granted. But I don’t think anyone can question my integrity.”