WASHINGTON — The mild-mannered, middle-aged man with the ever-present Blackberry that he peers at through metal-rimmed glasses boarded his usual 6:30 a.m. flight from Dallas-Fort Worth airport to Washington Oct. 28th.
It’s what U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, does every Monday when Congress is in session, after driving his Toyota Prius from his nearby home to the airport.
This week, however, wasn’t exactly routine. Burgess was looking at a short, but intense three-day week on Capitol Hill that centered on his signature issue: health care.
A 62-year-old physician who had an ob/gyn practice for over 25 years in North Texas, Burgess had to prepare himself for a marquee hearing Wednesday when Republicans finally had a chance to grill Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about the disastrous launch of the Obamacare website.
From the moment he headed to his suite of offices in the Rayburn House Office Building to the time he left Wednesday afternoon, there was no stopping Burgess.
The physician legislator is an Energizer Bunny, busier than many members, with two A-list committees. He’s often racing from the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Rayburn, with jurisdiction over everything from energy production to health care to the environment, to the House Rules Committee in the U.S. Capitol building across the street. The panel is the procedural hub of the House, where members review every bill headed to the floor for a vote.
It’s not a pace for the faint-hearted. In Congress 10 years longer than Burgess, Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, said that he admires his colleague’s stamina.
“To be on Rules, it’s almost like (being) a glutton for punishment,” Green said.
But Burgess, who lives in his office to save money – making it easier to get to early meetings – revels in the fast pace.
“Doctors get up early,” he said with a grin early Tuesday morning during an interview, showing no signs that he had spent the night sleeping on a cot in his office.
The office décor includes lots of black and white photographs from Denton County in the first part of the 20th century. There’s also a plaque in the reception area from the Southlake Department of Public Safety for having saved a man’s life during a town meeting in 2004 – a little known feat that Burgess doesn’t make a big deal about.
This is the year that the six-term congressman has become more visible, in demand as a talking head about Obamacare on cable TV and more prominent in the House Republican Conference. But, self-effacing, he likes to describe himself as a backbencher.
“He’s a low-key guy,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, a long-time friend who takes credit for putting him on Energy and Commerce when Barton served as chairman. “Some like to toot their own horn. He’s the opposite of that.”
Burgess represents the 26th congressional district concentrated in Denton County, just north of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, a suburban area that is predominately white and Republican, and which voted for 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney by more than 60 percent.
His wife, Laura, is an architect and designed their home. They have three grown children and two grandchildren.
Burgess was tapped to be on Rules this year. It was a rare opportunity to serve on two major committees and came from another fellow Texas Republican, Rep. Pete Sessions, the committee chairman, with the approval of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
“I knew health care was a huge issue,” said Sessions in an interview. “I changed the process so I could get an expert like Michael Burgess.”
Burgess is the representative for all Energy and Commerce Committee issues before the panel. “It was a promotion,” Sessions said.
It also meant Burgess had to come to Washington a day earlier than before and attend some late-night meetings since the committee meets the day before floor votes. At stake are amendments and the way a bill comes to the floor – seemingly arcane issues that are often deeply partisan and can determine the legislation’s success or failure.
The congressman, affable with a quirky sense of humor and a willingness to bore into almost every subject, said he likes the committee because it gives him a chance “to get into the weeds” on issues.
Monday night the panel met on several bills governing financial instruments. Tuesday he had two Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearings, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and a midday press conference on a bill to make Obamacare voluntary, sponsored by Barton and that Burgess co-sponsored.
Wednesday, which started with a 7 a.m. breakfast with fellow Republican physician-legislators at the Capitol Hill Club, was the key day for Burgess. He would finally have the chance to question Sebelius, who was set to appear before the Commerce committee. With more than 50 members, he, like every other lawmaker, would have to endure a long wait for his meager four minutes in the hearing spotlight to cover a lot of ground with the health secretary.
Burgess issued a statement outlining his concerns about the law – and what he claimed it might do to the health care system.
“Here we are, 30 days after October 1 and the American people are still waiting to see a fully-functional law,” said Burgess, referring to the Affordable Care Act’s start date for enrollment. “The failures of the HealthCare.gov website are just the beginning of the dysfunction that is to come as the implementation of president’s signature law moves forward into 2014. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars the American people deserve some concrete answers and not empty political posturing.”
When his time came, Burgess began by asking Sebelius about a CNN report that the Obamacare website had been hacked. The cable network subsequently reported that the story was actually about a test of potential security weakness in the design of the system that could make consumers’ personal information available to hackers.
He then asked her for the number of people who were able to enroll by phone, a key point to critics of the website since President Barack Obama himself gave out the 800 number as an alternative. When Sebelius said that data would be released mid-November, along with the number for how many people had signed up, Burgess acidly replied, “Telephone data doesn’t seem like it would be that difficult to compile since the number is likely quite low.”
He challenged the president’s promise that people who like their healthcare plans can keep them by pointing to the administration’s own interim rule in July 2010 which projected that a large number of people – up to 10 million – would not be covered. “I hope that the president was apprised of that before he made these statements because clearly his statement wasn’t operational,” Burgess said.
Sebelius countered, “That’s an insurance company choice and that was a snapshot of what the market looked like.”
Burgess asked about two central figures in the website controversy, “glitch czar,” as he called him, former acting Office of Management and Budget Director Jeffrey Zients, who the administration tapped to oversee repairs to the troubled website, and Gary Cohen, director at HHS’ Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight.
Burgess raised questions about Zients’ role in the earlier Solyndra federal loan guarantee scandal where the solar panel maker defaulted and Zients, then overseeing it at OMB, did not appear before the committee until he was subpoenaed. When Burgess asked if Sebelius would commit that Zients would appear before the panel now, she said that would be up to him.
He was more forceful about Cohen, who committee Republicans claim has been “misleading” in appearances before the panel. Burgess’ blunt question asking Sebelius if she would ask for Cohen’s resignation and her answer, “I will not,” prompted news bulletins.
Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the panel’s ranking Democrat, who appeared irked by Burgess’ questions, pointed out that Zients at the time had been given little notice of a hearing and that he shouldn’t be disparaged.
Like many lawmakers, Burgess often carries a stack of books and papers under his arm as he scurries through the underground maze connecting buildings on the Capitol grounds. He takes the Capitol subway sparingly, which apparently is seen as uncool and a mode of getting around for older members. Despite his activity, Burgess, who eats on the run or at the end of the day, has to watch his weight.
He describes himself as a “Texas conservative,” earning an 89 percent rating on key 2012 votes from the fiscally conservative Club for Growth. He is known for his easy-going nature and geniality in his dealing with members of both parties and is working with Democrat Green to protect children’s hospitals from reductions in Medicaid payments.
“We’re very competitive,” Green said. “We have fun with each other. He’s a doctor, I’m a lawyer; we’re oil and water. We find issues we can work on together.”
Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic political action committee, called Burgess “a career benchwarmer. He’s a doctor who doesn’t ever have a constructive solution to dealing with skyrocketing health care costs. In his home state, one in four Texans don’t have any health care at all.”
Though a member of the House Tea Party Caucus, Burgess shies away from being connected to the movement. Indeed, he faces a primary challenge from tea party-backed businessman Joel Krause, who has filed to run against him next year.
Burgess himself came in on an earlier grassroots movement against the establishment when he was the surprise winner in a 2002 GOP congressional primary, defeating the son of then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, who was retiring from the seat. The word-on-the-street explanation for his upset defeat of Scott Armey was that the mothers of the hundreds of children he’d delivered in his medical practice came out to vote for him.
He is in demand from medical groups who like to hear from one of their own.
“We speak the same language,” he said, unlike the large number of lawyers that make up the House demographics. There are now 20 physician-lawmakers between both parties in the House and Senate.
He has led the House effort for what is known as the “doctor fix,” annual legislation to reimburse doctors for their costs in the Medicare program that would otherwise impose deep cuts in the reimbursement – and chase doctors away from Medicare. In his office there is a framed bill signed by Obama that is actually “technical corrections” to legislation that includes the “doc fix.”
During his short week in Washington, Burgess also crammed in a meeting in his office with members of the Texas Association for Home Care and Hospice. “We love Congressman Burgess,” said Dana Madison, an administrator from Lubbock who was the past president of the group. “The whole Texas delegation looks to him for health care issues.”
On Tuesday he managed to speak on health care at a fundraiser lunch for another member – time was so short his staffer drove him the two blocks – as well as a quick speech that night at the American Kidney Fund National Gala. He says his timing is like keeping doctor’s appointments, 15 minutes per patient.
On Thursday he was in Miami to speak to the New Jersey Orthopedic Society about the Affordable Care Act. Friday he was in Lubbock at Texas Tech University to meet with the president and chancellor and participate in a round table discussion at the medical school about Obamacare.
Burgess loves the medical career he had – he still keeps his license active – and said he even dreams about it and may return one day. Going into his office from a subcommittee hearing, he lights up at the sight of a baby in a mother’s arms in the hallway and waves at the child.
“I dream more about medicine,” he said, “than I do about putting a bill into the hopper.”
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