Kansas Rep. Pompeo dives in to busy D.C. routine

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 14, 2011 

WASHINGTON — It's 7:20 a.m. and Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas is sitting in the back of the Longworth Building cafeteria nursing a Diet Coke.

Congress runs on caffeine.

He's been up since 5:30 and has a plane to catch back to Wichita at 4. Between now and then he has a teleconference training exercise with the Army War College, a Commerce and Energy subcommittee hearing on job creation and a freshman class meeting with the speaker of the House.

He also has to meet with his congressional scheduler, sit for several interviews and get to the House floor to cast votes.

The 47-year-old freshman Republican lawmaker has heard all the cautions about how legislating can be a rude awakening after campaigning. It's harder, certainly more restrictive and can often be frustrating.

"I don't see it," Pompeo countered. "I've heard this before. 'You come here and the bloom is off the rose.' I've not experienced that personally. I was candid with folks: 'Here's what I think we can do.' "

He exudes the unshakable certitude that has become the hallmark of the 85 GOP freshmen. They arrived on a wave of concern over government spending and a dislike of President Obama's policies, if not the president himself. They vowed that few programs would go untrimmed.

The result was a budget crafted by House Republicans to fund the government through September that slashed $61 billion in domestic spending.

Pompeo wanted more. He belongs to the Republican Study Committee, the House's conservative caucus, which hoped to cut an additional $20 billion.

Included, though, was Pompeo's amendment to cut $8.4 million for an industry greenhouse gas registry and another that would withhold money for a consumer-friendly product safety database.

He said the database might knowingly contain "false and misleading information." The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which launched the database Friday, denied it.

The Senate rejected the House budget, and negotiations continue. But the programs that Pompeo voted to downsize would, if adopted, have affected Wichita and other communities across Kansas and the rest of the country.

They included money for Pell Grant scholarships to help low-income students attend college, teachers, homeless veterans, urban redevelopment, community health centers and home heating assistance, to name a few.

"It would just be devastating," said Mary Baskett, executive director of the Kansas Head Start Association.

She said that about 2,000 of the 9,000 Kansas children in the national early-education program would be turned away under the House GOP plan.

At a news conference Friday, the president said that cutting scholarships and other educational opportunities "makes no sense."

Pompeo acknowledged that "some of the spending goes for programs that are seeking to accomplish noble ends, sound goals."

He paused — cafeteria sounds filled the void — then said matter-of-factly: "We're broke. I think you saw serious people trying to prioritize. There's only so much money."

Pompeo, who had just returned from a week in the district, said he has faith that communities will step up if government assistance to meet social needs is cut back.

"I had three town halls," he said. "I gave them the same answer: Our office will do everything we can to help them find a solution. We are a great nation. The Presbyterian Church, the United Way and civic clubs — these are good people who will rise up to take care of their own."

Under the microscope

For new members like Pompeo, the vote on the House budget bill was a big test of their post-campaign stick-to-itiveness, and make no mistake: People are keeping score.

"The microscope is on all of these members of Congress," said Derrick Sontag, director of the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which has helped tea party groups become politically active. "We're going to be watching every single thing that Mike and all the other congressmen do. There's no doubting that."

Americans for Prosperity is funded in part by billionaires David and Charles Koch, the top officials of Wichita-based Koch Industries, an international energy conglomerate. They are influential backers of conservative causes.

Pompeo's critics claim that he's too close to the Koch brothers, who have become major power players in GOP politics. They were his largest contributors during the campaign. His chief of staff, Mark Chenoweth, used to be a lawyer for the corporation.

"We have some people who are extremely rich and they were very, very strong supporters of Pompeo," said Betty Arnold, chairman of the Sedgwick County Democratic Party. "Their agenda is, let's make this a country where the advantages are for the well-to-do and let's disregard the rest."

Pompeo spokeswoman Rachel Taylor said the criticisms were "baseless" and "precisely why the liberal agenda is losing with Americans. People are tired of personal attacks and want real, practical solutions."

Asked about the congressman's relationship to Koch Industries, Taylor said that the company's world headquarters is located in his district. She said that one of the Wichita companies that Pompeo started, Thayer Aerospace, received an initial investment from a "Koch-related entity" that amounted to less than 2 percent of Thayer's total financing.

'Real-life experience'

Congress is Pompeo's fourth career. Before Capitol Hill, he was a soldier, then a lawyer and then a businessman.

He spent five years in the Army, leaving with the rank of captain. After Harvard Law School, where he was three years behind President Obama, he worked for a top Washington law firm, but soon left for Wichita, where he started the aerospace company. He left that to start an oil field equipment company.

"Mike has real-life experience as a business owner to know just what is needed to create a job," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia said. "I've already been impressed with his ability to lead on the big issues facing our country."

Pompeo has a friendly, courteous manner and an air of self-assurance. That's what graduating at the top of your class at West Point and making law review at Harvard will do.

He is built like a college wrestler, solid, from top to bottom, has an engaging smile and speaks in a quiet, easygoing way.

The congressman grew up in Orange County, Calif., a traditional bastion of Republican conservatism south of Los Angeles. He moved to Kansas in 1996. His political philosophy can be described as pro-business, pro-growth and very limited government.

"By no means is he an extremist," said Mel Kahn, who teaches political science at Wichita State University and who has invited Pompeo to speak to his classes. "He is an anti-administration, solid businessman. He comes across as a very decent guy, not a hateful type of fellow showing any kind of animosity."

During an Energy and Commerce committee hearing in February, however, Pompeo had little patience with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, as he fired off a series of pointed questions at her critical of EPA regulations affecting business.

At another hearing this month on job growth, he challenged Obama administration officials on the impact of the stimulus program.

"I came from small business," Pompeo said during the floor debate on the budget. "Until 45 days ago I was running one. What we don't need is government taking our money and handing it back to folks."

Though Pompeo had never before run for office, he has worked on campaigns for Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and for Wichita City Council member Sue Schlapp. He has also been a Republican national committeeman.

His opportunity came when Brownback chose to give up his Senate seat after three terms and run for governor. Todd Tiahrt, who had held the 4th District House seat for 16 years, went after Brownback's seat, though he lost the nomination.

Pompeo defeated three other Republicans in the primary by "managing to be much more appealing to the right wing," Kahn said. He beat the Democratic candidate, state Rep. Raj Goyle, in November.

His track record shows that he seems to always be looking over the next fence, so Pompeo said he's not sure whether he's cut out for a long career on Capitol Hill.

"I do think that folks come here and spend too much of their life and become disconnected from things that are happening in other places," he said.

Still, Pompeo said, you never know.

"In my life I have been a soldier, practiced law and run two very different businesses," he said. "Now this. I should be careful about predicting the future."

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