Politics & Government

'G.T.' talks the talk, walks the walk on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON — Capitol Hill abounds with formalities, but there are blips. When speakers concede the floor to Rep. Glenn Thompson in a debate, they don't yield to their "good friend, the gentleman from Pennsylvania."

"They yield to G.T.," said the Pennsylvania Republican, referencing the moniker his parents gave him to differentiate him from his father, Glenn Sr. "One of the most affirming parts of being here is that after a period of time, everyone here started calling me G.T."

The jovial-sounding initials have no doubt contributed to Thompson's reputation in the House as a down-to-earth lawmaker. Colleagues describe him as solid and hardworking.

"He's pretty easy to work with, because he's pretty direct," Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said with a laugh.

Thompson represents the 5th Congressional District, which includes Centre County and is by far the largest district in Pennsylvania. He began his second two-year term in January after winning re-election with 68 percent of the vote.

The job has gotten better, and Thompson said he feels he's in his element. In 2009 the Republican newbie was one of the least senior members — No. 429 of 435, in fact — in a Democratic-led House. But the past election saw massive turnover, and he went from bottom of the barrel to chairing the agriculture subcommittee on conservation, energy and forestry.

"My seniority increased so fast I get frequent nosebleeds," he said in an interview over early morning coffee at his Capitol Hill office.

The 51-year old former therapist is stocky but flush compared to his paler colleagues. What little hair he has is buzz cut, army-style. When he's talking, he has a slight drawl — and he pretty much talks all day long. When he's not voting on the House floor, he's meeting with people or doing a group photo, sometimes while walking through the tunnels that link his office with the Capitol building.

Like all 5th District reps since the early 1970s, Thompson is staunchly Republican. His Washington office bears witness to that. Among the official insignia and a wooden statue of Punxsutawney Phil are some ornamental red meat items, like the "I'm a bitter gun owner and I vote" sticker, and the Constitution framed with a smiling Reagan and Ford. In an homage to his alma mater, a life-size cardboard cutout of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno hovers over his staff.

Thompson voted with his party 93 percent of the time his first term, which puts him nearly in lock step with his party. But he sided with Democrats on a few issues, like children's health insurance reauthorization, agriculture conservation and federally funded community service and volunteer programs. On key Democratic issues, he went to town. the new health care law: his "worst nightmare." The economic stimulus package: try stim-u-less. The Clean Energy and Security Act that aimed to combat climate change?: "cap and tax." Some recent 'yeas' Thompson has cast were for bills that would stop funding of National Public Radio, extend the Patriot Act, repeal the health care law, and provide health coverage to first responders to the World Trade Center attacks.

In his own legislation, Thompson said he eschews partisanship, because he wants his bills to pass.

"If you really are sincere that it's the right thing to do," he said, "you need to do it in a bipartisan way."

Several Democrats call him a partner and friend.

Rep. Tim Holden, D-Pa., is the ranking member on the subcommittee Thompson chairs. He said he'd rather be chairman, but if it has to be a Republican, he's glad it's Thompson.

"Having two Pennsylvanians leading the agriculture subcommittee is like poetic justice after having two Texans lead it," he said.

Health care issues are high on the list of his priorities this year. One of his bills hopes to aid small providers of medical devices, who are threatened by Medicare's competitive bidding process. Another is to expand health care access to veterans and service members by removing a state licensing requirement on Department of Defense health care providers, who currently can't treat patients if they're in a different state. Thompson has a bill and an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that allows doctors to treat patients at a distance using telephone and the Internet. The amendment recently passed in the House.

Thompson thinks it could change the way veterans receive health care.

"It doesn't cost a dime. It just reworks a system that needed to be reworked into the 21st century," he said.

Another issue Thompson is working on is making federal funding for impoverished students fairer. According to current formulas for distributing funds under No Child Left Behind, school districts in more populated areas end up getting more money per student, which shortchanges rural districts.

If more than half of the battle is showing up, Thompson's record is strong. He puts over 3,000 miles on his car every month traveling back and forth from the capital and roaming his district. He's voted in 99 percent of roll call votes.

Also, he's no Luddite, but rather an active Twitterer — though he doesn't tweet pictures of himself. He also holds teletown meetings from his Washington office, which is a little like hosting a radio show, except it's a massive conference call.

"The teletown meetings are really pretty cool," he said. "You can call 30,000 of your closest friends. ... You usually get a few thousand on the line, and they can all leave their questions and we'll call them back and talk to them one on one."

On Wednesday, members of the Pennsylvania Equine Council were in town and stopped by the office to give him an update on the issue of horse overpopulation — and to speak their mind on a few other things. Thompson mostly listens; when he talks, he talks with his hands. He's clearly "G.T." with this group, and at the end of the meeting, everyone poses for a snapshot.

"He has a very commonsense approach to government," said Bud Wills, a member of the council and state trail committee chair. "I believe that."

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