SFSU Magazine Winter 2005: Bill Thomas, The Negotiator


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The Negotiator

Inside Rep. Bill Thomas' Capitol Hill hideaway, minutes before the interview, a quick inventory is taken. Thomas, the Bakersfield, Calif. Republican who chairs the House Committee on Ways and Means, is one of the most important players when it comes to the nation's tax policy, international trade, Medicare and Social Security. For the past five years, legislative changes in these critical areas have started here.

At the end of a long table, rests a cigar, slightly damp at the edges. (The chairman is known to chew rather than smoke.) A dozen news publications -- The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and National Journal among them -- are lined up neatly nearby, tools Thomas uses to keep abreast of the issues that come before the committee.

On his desk rests a heavy statue of Winston Churchill, a book: "Constitution, Jefferson's manual and Rules of the House of Representatives of the United States" and three framed photos of Thomas looking on while President Bush signs into law the bills he drafted and steered through committee: the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, the Trade Act of 2002, and the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization
Act of 2003.

The photos capture the reasons why Bush has nicknamed Thomas "The Mailman." One of the most skilled negotiators in Washington, Thomas delivers. What's inside the packages is often a source of contention between Republicans and Democrats. But the two parties generally agree on one thing about the chairman himself: In the end, no one is more skilled at getting people to yes. "It's not always a happy yes," Thomas will explain later, but making people happy is not in his job description.

The Mailman Cometh
"He's here," a staffer whispers. Thomas enters his domain and grabs his television remote to mute the televised activities on the House floor. Led to the back of the room for a brief photo shoot, Thomas engages the photographer in a discussion of the merits of digital photography versus film. "Art doesn't have to be difficult to be good; it has to be creative and inspirational," Thomas says. Could he smile for a few last shots? "This is phony," he says. "I'm not happy." Still, the chairman plays along, grinning as he says, "I'm happy, giddy, so happy to be here."

After the shoot, Thomas searches for his chair, testing out several before finding the one he's "spent a lot of time adjusting." The interview begins.

Thomas was born in Wallace, Idaho, one day before the attack on Pearl Harbor. His father Virgil worked in the silver and lead mines before he moved the family to Southern Calif. where he worked as a plumber and pipe-fitter in the shipyards during World War II. The Thomases were living in their second government housing project in San Pedro, Calif., when Virgil took an 18-month work assignment overseas. Thomas was a teenager when his father returned with the financial means to purchase the family's first automobile and a house in Garden Grove.

Thomas' parents, who married in the middle of the Depression, weren't able to finish high school. "Surviving was a slightly higher priority at the time," Thomas says. As for him, "Education was always an expectation … the typical American dream -- go on, be better educated … so you wouldn't have to work with your hands."

Thomas completed an undergraduate and master's degree at SFSU but his mother Gertrude once remarked that she could die happy simply because her son finished high school. Thomas laughs. "It was a struggle," he says. "I had a little difficulty with authority, and teachers represented authority. And if I liked them, I got an A, and if I didn't, well ..."

There's no better example of the "well …" than the House floor where Thomas has never been one to mince words. Republican Rep. Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut has told the press, Thomas "doesn't pussy-foot around. If you've got a dumb idea, he'll tell you that you have a dumb idea." Or as Thomas' mother once put it, "When they were passing out moderation, Bill was hiding behind the door."

Thomas appears to have been fully present when they were passing out negotiating skills. His first successful negotiation? "Probably convincing my father that I didn't have to cut the hedges right when he asked me. That I could do it at halftime, still do a good job but be back on the couch to catch the rest of the game." Whether cutting shrubbery or adjusting the nation's prescription drug coverage, being a skilled negotiator boils down to two things, Thomas says: learning as much as possible about any given issue, and understanding how the other party views the world. The latter involves a skill set he developed at SFSU.

From OC to SFSU
Thomas earned his A.A. degree at Santa Ana Community College before transferring to SFSU in 1961. "I was interested in State because of the diversity and the desire to get out of the environment that I was in, just to see what other [places] were like … I did think I could meet some folk I probably wouldn't meet in Orange County."

He offers a representative sample of his environment: his philosophy instructor at Santa Ana, John Schmitz, a declared member of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society. "I knew SF State would be a modest change," says a smiling Thomas.

He entered SFSU a voracious reader and a student of politics. Did Thomas always identify with the Republican Party? "Probably, although it wasn't a big identification with the Republican Party, it was identifying with the individualism, resources, creativity, non-collective kind of a position," he says.

Today he's known as a moderate Republican, but don't call him a conservative. "I cringe a little bit when you say the word," he says before launching into a lengthy explanation.

"I guess what I am is more 18th century classical conservative which actually was liberal. If it's a personal or social issue, in that area, I'm probably as much a libertarian as anything else. I think people should be able to define for themselves, what they want to do, how they want to live -- as long as it doesn't damage or detract from others. … But in terms of [being a] fiscal conservative -- I always thought that was important, that you tried to be resourceful, live off what you have."

In the early 1960s, as the Associated Students director of organizational affairs, Thomas was tasked with keeping student organizations running smoothly. "There were a couple scandals, students making off with student money -- typical stuff. I had to stay on top of them," he says. Thomas helped bring speakers to campus including Republican Assemblyman Joe Shell, who attempted to unseat Nixon as California governor in 1962. "I was trying to give as broad a spectrum as possible for student debate," Thomas says.

The discussion turns to the heated student arguments on campus in recent years -- people happy Bush won, other students not so happy. What was it like to be a Republican at SFSU in the 1960s?

"We've always been outnumbered. That's the way it's always been," says Thomas, adding that being in the minority was just fine with him -- he welcomed any political debates on campus. "That's one of the reasons I came in the first place."

Thomas has a sense of humor when it comes to his connection to a largely left-leaning campus. In 2005 he brought two tables of family and friends to the Seven Hills Conference Center for his induction into SFSU's Alumni Hall of Fame. Thomas walked to the podium and began his speech, "When you started off talking, President Corrigan, about the fact that we were going to be role models for students here, well, I'm ready to meet the seven Republicans."

Building a Mosaic
Thomas traces his success in politics back to the late Professor Otto Butz who "provided me with some tools that allowed me to do what I'm able to do."

The memorable lesson: "When people tell you how the world is, they're telling you more about themselves than they are about the world. All you have to do is to begin to understand how they look at the world, and if you look at the world the way they look at the world, you can then better understand what their needs and wants are."

A triptych of photos of Rep. Bill Thomas talking animatedly during the interview

As for those lessons from Butz, Thomas says they've helped him to better determine and understand his colleagues' needs and wants. They are like broken pieces of tile, he says, and his job is collecting them together to form a mosaic.

"If enough [people] see what they want to see in the picture, then you get the job done. … That was an understanding that could probably not have been perfected had I remained in Orange County, because when you collect a bunch of pieces of broken white tile, the mosaic is not quite as colorful as the one that I learned to build [at State]."

After earning both his undergraduate degree and master's in social science, Thomas went to work as a professor of political science at Bakersfield Community College in 1965. "I was trying to teach ‘Thinking 101,'" he says. In examining the Constitution in a political science class, Thomas says, it wasn't important to know "the what": that the legislature consists of two houses -- but rather, why was it set up that way? The professor in Thomas can't resist offering a careful examination of this "why," first from Beard's perspective, then Loch's.

As he did in the classroom, Thomas now advises younger members of Congress. "He pushes you to think in multiple dimensions, helps broaden your views," says one of these younger members, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. He adds that Thomas' ability to see the big picture makes him the best negotiator in Congress. "Most people think in terms of the next step in any negotiation. Bill is simultaneously thinking about every step at every stage."

The Mailman's most recent delivery happened in November. The House approved legislation authorizing $38 million in federal funds to preserve sites related to the confinement of Japanese-Americans during World War II, so that future generations may visit and learn from the dark chapter in U.S. history. "A great people -- and the American people are a great people -- can make mistakes. What you need to do is admit it and don't make it again," Thomas says.

What may be his greatest negotiating challenge is still ahead: Social Security reform. Thomas says it's going to be like anything else, building a mosaic, then collecting people's needs and wants. He laments that people have lost their pensions, that so many companies have gone bankrupt. Possible solutions, including private accounts, have been bandied about in the media over the past year, but for now, the issue has taken a backseat to more immediate problems.

"Social Security reform is still on the table only because [Thomas] is here," Ryan says. "A lot is out of his hands with the war, the vice president's chief of staff, it's a tough political climate to get things done but if anyone can do it, he can."

The Man Behind the Negotiations
Thomas has the support of his constituents. Since his election to Congress in 1978, voters in California's 22nd Congressional District have consistently returned him to the House with little opposition. On Capitol Hill Thomas is known as hard-working and prepared -- and sometimes impatient with those who lack the aforementioned qualities.

Any gruffness on Thomas' part, Ryan says, is "surface, an exterior he portrays to good effect, a strategic thing, not who he is. He's actually a very generous and warm person. I think his intelligence intimidates people. Bill Thomas knows more about any given issue than any person and that person's entire staff. He has a steel-trap mind."

The mind houses more than strategies, tax code and Constitutional bylaws. Thomas knows much about most any make or model of car and is prone to long tangents on machinery, engines, anything with moving parts. He can cook, sew, knit and crochet, skills he acquired growing up with three sisters. In fact, he just whipped up a batch of his mother's cinnamon rolls for his daughter Amelia. (Thomas has two adult children.) His wife Sharon passes along reading suggestions from her book club. Thomas enjoyed John Grisham's "The Broker," but didn't think the latest Harry Potter was the best in the series.

After "last book read," he fields the "personal hero question," listing "Churchill, Washington, Jefferson … People who respond creatively to their environment." He spends the most time discussing hero number four, Jim Hall, inventor of "the vacuum car." The first to apply airplane- wing technology to a race car, Hall created a downward suction between the car and the track, allowing the car to corner at incredible speeds -- and win every time.

The Going is the Goal
Thomas' cousin Larry Hughes (B.A., '58) traces Thomas' decision making back to his days in Idaho, when he was known as "Baby Billy." The two cousins watched their parents work tirelessly to make ends meet. "Bill remembers how humble the origins of our family were," Hughes says. "He has brought to
the California State Assembly and the House of Representatives a deep caring for the average citizen … worked to the best of his ability to help those who aren't able to take care of themselves."

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Thomas was instrumental in helping move through the House two tax relief bills aimed at helping families and individuals affected by the disaster. Democratic Rep. Bill Jefferson of Louisiana says that while his state could use quite a bit more funding to deal with the devastation, "Bill's really worked with me and I think with many of his side who didn't want to spend as much money, worked with us fairly."

After working closely with Thomas on trade, tax and maritime issues, Jefferson says he knows the chairman better than most Democrats. "He's a very bright and innovative legislator. I've been able to work with him and find ways to move around objections, work through questions and problems. Working with Bill can be exciting, sometimes difficult. He fights back when he feels put under unfair pressure."

However Thomas doesn't appear to be concerned with other people's perceptions. How does he want to be remembered? "I don't care," Thomas says. "I don't care because you know, the going is the goal … I always try to do what it is I'm doing to the best of my ability without relying on a third-party grading system." As long as you're having fun and making a difference, that's what counts, he says.

Is he having fun? "I am."

Is he making a difference? Rep. Devin Nunes, a fellow Californian Republican, says, "If [Thomas] stopped today, he's already done more in the past five years than anyone else who's held the job in recent history. [When it comes to] his successes in tax codes and trade bills, he's done more than anyone."

As for his detractors, Thomas says, "Most people remember the negatives, not the positives. But if I got them to yes, that's all that counts."

-- Adrianne Bee