U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith strolled into town last week less like a victor among his spoils and more like a bridegroom in an arranged marriage: happy to be here and hoping to assuage the concerns of his new constituents.
If Smith is re-elected to Congress in November, which is likely, he will represent the middle swath of Hays County. His newly redrawn district is geographically centered among the Hill Country towns of Kerrville, Fredericksburg, Bandera and New Braunfels. A tentacle-like arm of the district extends north to bust up the liberal population base of Austin.
Along the way, Smith’s district skirts the western city limits of Kyle and includes most of Buda north of Goforth Road.
The San Antonio Republican is a 25-year veteran of the U.S. House and has been in the headlines most recently for his sponsorship of the Stop Online Piracy Act, which met a swift end earlier this year amid howls of protest from Google, Wikipedia and others who said the bill threatened free speech and innovation.
During a March 14 interview at the Hays Free Press office, Smith wore rimless glasses, and his brown hair was gray around the ears. He was smaller and more soft-spoken than one might expect of a Texas politician. He answered questions from editor Wes Ferguson.
HFP: Welcome to Hays County. What brings you to our neck of the woods?
Smith: Nice to be back to Hays County, as a matter of fact I did represent Hays County for a short period of time ending in 2007. I represented the entire county at that point and now have a part of the county back. My district is basically from the west edge of San Marcos going half-way I guess across the county. I cannot tell you why exactly the lines were drawn the way they were, because for example, I don’t have most of Kyle, but I do have Buda. So I think its maybe 300 population in Kyle, but then I pick up almost all of Buda and but I’m looking forward to representing my Hays County constituents, there are good people everywhere and as I say it is sort of a return to a point where I was 5 years ago when I represented all of Hays County. And you’re right that we have been able to meet with a lot of community leaders, a lot of elected officials yesterday and today and it’s nice to get a warm welcome. It’s nice to meet up with old friends, several years ago. Already I have gotten several assignments from officials and others as to how I hope I can be helpful in the future and that’s really what I’m here about. It’s just to get in touch with old friends and make new friends and offer to use my position to help my constituents in Hays County.
HFP: Right. You know in Kyle and Buda we kind of think of ourselves as two halves of the same whole, and Hays County feels that it’s one community of interest. How will being divided among three congressional districts affect our representation?
Smith: You’re right. I happen to think it’s going to be helpful to Hays County because and I have been in this position before where you have a medium sized county, represented by more than one member of congress and that gives the officials and constituents of the county 3 people to call upon and I think in this case it might triple the influence, triple the ability of Hays County to make federal government work for them. You’re right. We have 35, 21 and the new CD 25 as well cutting through Hays County and I think it really triples Hays County’s influence and ability to get in touch with member of congress and try to make the federal government more responsive. So I think it’s a benefit. Just because any of us represent less than a whole of the county, doesn’t mean we’re going to work less hard on behalf of our constituents, so I think you’re going to get 3 members of congress all of whom are trying to show that they are responsive and they want to represent the county, so I think it’s going to benefit the county to have 3 members of congress have ties.
HFP: A lot of the complaints we’ve heard is that we’ll end up slipping through the cracks.
Smith: Oh, just the opposite. You’ll probably see three members of Congress, with the sense of competition, trying to outdo themselves to help Hays County. As I say, I have been there before when I was first elected, since I represented all of Midland county and eventually I was one of 3 members of congress to represent Midland county, and believe me people are happy to have 3 members of congress representing them rather than just one, but you are not going any diminution of effort on any member of congress’s part, just because they don’t represent the whole county or just a part of county. I guess I should say there are common interests here and those interests exist whether you represent part of the county or all of the county, the interest really cut across district line and that is going to focus our attention and I think that all members will be responsible.
HFP: So can we talk about your opponents? You have some interesting guys challenging you.
Smith: Interesting is a nice word. (laughing)
HFP: Can you tell me a little of the background of -
Smith: Although I’m probably not going to dwell on them too much, but I’ll be happy to try and respond.
HFP: OK, can you tell me a little background on Sheriff Richard Mack?
Smith: Oh well, we know what we read, I should say. He’s a newcomer to Texas and I know what you know. Formerly elected as a sheriff in Arizona. Small Arizona county is a democrat and defeated for re-election as a democrat and I sometimes get my states mixed-up because he’s ran for office in a couple of different states but he’s ran and lost as a democrat, a republican non-partisan race for city council and as a libertarian and currently he’s ties to libertarian party are very strong so maybe Mike’s (district director Mike Asmus, who was present during the interview) a better one to answer some of this, but it seems to us that he has made past statements that would indicate he’s not a supportive of republican party and I’m a life-long Texas resident and republican and happy to run on a record of accomplishment and happy to demonstrate I’m a conservative republican and look to continue to have people’s trust and support.
HFP: Okay, and then Richard Morgan.
Smith: Who I haven’t met.
HFP: A couple of swinging (Richards).
Smith: Actually I haven’t met either one. Mr. Mack came to an event where I was a speaker a few weeks ago, but did not introduce himself. He left very quickly and Richard Morgan I’ve heard about and he just moved into Austin just a few weeks ago, I’m told and so I’ll see where that goes. But you know, I take any election seriously and we will be camping it hard and I will be introducing myself to some new constituents in this re-configured 21st congressional district. I have to say I am going to concentrate on demonstrating to my future constituents, what I’ve accomplished, what I’ve done for them, why am I conservative republic and not spending a lot of time, worrying about my opponents.
HFP: Yeah, well for sure. It seems Mr. Morgan became interested because of SOPA. Can you tell me a little about your experience with that bill?
Smith: Yeah sure. Listen, two or three things real quickly. One, I think there are legitimate concerns that we need to address before we go further. But second of all, there was a lot of misinformation. This was a bill that targeted foreign websites, and despite what a lot of people say and despite of misinformation, it was not a threat to any domestic websites.
Smith: It was totally on the language that there were foreign websites primarily engaged in illegal activity and there is a real problem there particularly with China and Russia, who are stealing our ideas, stealing our inventions, stealing our intellectual property, counterfeiting our products. Could be a hundred billion dollars a year that was stolen from us, and that translates into loss jobs as well. So I think that there is a real problem, there may be a better way to approach it, we’ll see where that goes in the future but —
HFP: Wasn’t the — I think the domestic web providers were saying that the government had the authority to black them out if they —
Smith: Which was not the case. That was led by Google and very few people realize that Google recently settled a criminal investigation for half a billion dollars that was brought by this Department of Justice for the very reason of directing web users to illegal foreign websites and then trying to cover it up. And so clearly, their profits were going to be threatened if we tried to constraint foreign websites engaged in illegal activity. So they didn’t come to the debate with clean hands or just because they’ve been making profits from directing people to illegal websites, so that was the main opponent. But a lot of misinformation spread very quickly. We didn’t have time to correct it as much as we would’ve liked and when people find out we were- well there are already laws against domestic websites to engage in illegal activity, we were looking to apply the same kind of laws to foreign websites, and when people find that out, their opposition subsides but still, it takes a lot of correcting this information we need to come up with a new approach and reassure people that we have no intention whatsoever constraining internet or closing down any websites, whatsoever. Like I said, a lot of bad information. So a lot of what was said, is inaccurate but you’re right. There are some people that sort of grabbed some misinformation and are trying to convert it into some political value.
HFP: Other than marketing the legislation and trying to correct that record, what of substance needs to change or what do you expect to revise before you bring it back?
Smith: Just to reassure individuals, we may need to come up with a better approach. And like I say, I think there are some legitimate concerns and those need to be addressed.
HFP: What are those?
Smith: Well, you ought to talk to the other people about that. (laughing)
But to the extent that in any way hamper the legitimate use of the Internet, we need to make sure we do not hamper the legitimate use of the Internet. It is a wonderful device, it is a wonderful tool, it has done an immense amount of good and we need to protect that in the future, but we need to protect it in a way that reassures people that we are not trying to interfere with their use of the Internet and we have no claims now for anymore legislation on this subject. I think we need to wait and start over again in some point in the future.
HFP: So you’ve been in congress what, for 25 years? That’s a very long time.
Smith: No one is going to accuse me of political expediency. I’ve just become chairman of the judiciary committee this last year.
HFP: What do you consider the your biggest accomplishments in that time? The biggest impact for your constituents.
Smith: I will start of by saying that as Chairman of the Judiciary committee was my goal to be a hard working committee and produce legislation that benefited the American people and we found out that at the end of this last year, 2011 the Judiciary Committee actually produced more legislation that went to the House more than any of the other 20 committees in congress and among those pieces of legislation that will benefit my constituents and benefit Texans are everything. I will start Patent reform bill, probably the only major piece of legislation to pass in 2011, that’s going to generate jobs, it’s going to encourage inventions, it’s going to help everyone from the lone inventor from their garage to the high-tech companies that files for lots of patents. Our problem today is we have a million patents in the pipeline. It takes 3 years to get a patent proved, that’s 3 years of uncertainty and 3 years of waiting to know for sure that you are going to be protected and that hampers job growth and productivity as well. So Patent reform bill is particularly good for this area of Texas. We processed 3, what we call Reg relief bills, regulatory relief bills that will lighten the burden of unnecessary regulations on small businesses, unnecessary regulations those that go beyond protecting American’s health and safety, are literally stifle the growth of small businesses and therefore job creation in America. We passed 3 bills and the Judiciary committee with all three of which are passed to the house floor, now waiting for action from the senate. They basically say, you’ve got to tell the American people regulation are going to cost before you impose them. you have to conduct a cost benefit analysis before they are implemented and on any major regulation should vote to approve it so you can have someone hold accountable for them. So reg relief will help small businesses in Texas and help job creation. I think we need to get our economic accounts in order. It is an absolute threat to the future of America for this administration to keep spending as it has. It is now to the point where we are boring 40 cents on every technical dollar spent. That is a road insolvency, it is the road to being in the position that a lot of European countries are in now. This is the 4th year in a row that the administration has proposed a trillion dollar deficit. President Obama came into the office saying he would cut the deficit in half, he’s doubled the deficit and that is a drag on the economy as well. You’ve got a situation today where we’ve had 3 years of unemployment over 80%. We haven’t had that since the Great Depression 80 years ago and that hurts a lot of families and is a drag on the economy as well. The Judiciary Committee , we passed a balance budget amendment and it got solid majority on the house floor but not the 2/3 required for constitutional amendment, so we’re going to keep pushing to try to send them a signal that we feel strongly about the need to get a balanced budget, the need to not engage in such extreme deficit spending and extreme boringment on the 40 cents on the dollar. And the Judiciary Committee, we’ve passed laws to better secure the border. We’ve passed laws, as I say, to get our economic house in order. We’ve passed laws to reduce the burden of regulations on small businesses. We’ve passed a law to make it easier for Americans to register their patents. As far as my record goes, I feel that we should repeal and reform our health care delivery system. By the way, CBL just got a breaking news this morning and has now come out and said it’s going to cost almost twice what they projected, it was going to cost us now- gosh I wish I kept that on my BlackBerry. Is there a way to get that thing here. I don’t know how many trillions of dollars that was over the next 10 years, but it was up from 800 being to 1.5 trillion dollars or something like that over the next 10 years. I think we’ve had hearings in the Judiciary Committee on why the individual mandate is unconstitutional and of course the Supreme Court is hearing arguments on that this week and we’ll render decision in June and I don’t know what that’s going to be but I do feel strongly that, that governmental mandate if allowed to stand, will power the government in the future to start telling American’s what they have to buy, whether it’s cars, certain kind of cars whatever it might be. So we got into that debate a little bit, I covered six-
HFP: You consider the deficit the most pressing issue before the House now, or what?
Smith: Certainly the excessive government spending, bar 40 cents on the dollar, the doubling of the deficit in the last 3 years and it’s drag on the economy has to be one of the most pressing issue because that threatens our economic security, it threatens our economic future, so I think that is one of our top priorities.
HFP: But the view from people like me, back in Hays County, is the congressional leadership and the administration are just at loggerheads. This kind of intractable battle. Do you have any hope that anything will happen before the election?
Smith: I do. Well you have, you know, for good or for bad, we have in the constitution are these branches of the government, and you have the House obviously controlled by the republicans and the senate controlled by the democrats. There is a natural clash there just because they have different philosophies and people have different political philosophies. But the Patent Reform Bill that I introduced this year that passed, was bipartisan bill, bicameral bill and might well be the most significant bipartisan bill that passes in this congress. We’ll have to wait and see on that. I introduced it in the House, Senator Leahy, democrat from Vermont, introduced it in the Senate. On the Judiciary Committee, if anybody has a good idea, republican or democrat we process that idea. A good example, this last week we approved a bill that was actually introduced by Silvestre Reyes, a democrat from El Paso, to make it illegal for an individual to finance or build a tunnel between the Mexican United States that was going to be used for smuggling drugs. You would think that such a law would already exist, but it doesn’t and so we passed that. A week before we passed and approved a bill by Howard Berman, a democrat from California, that dealt with investor visas. It was actually a Berman-Smith bill there and so it goes back to when I was a junior member of congress and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee was a Texas democrat from East Texas by the name of Jack Brookes. I had a bill that I had gotten wide-spread support for and no opposition to it and Jack Brookes called me into his office and said “Lamar, we’re going to mark up your bill next week.” and I was just excited as I can be. It’s unusual for a new member to get a bill passed. He said “I’m just going to change one word” and I said “What’s that Mr. Chairman, fine with me”. He said “The name on the bill.” So it became the Brookes bill not the Smith bill and something in the back of my mind made me think, that if I was ever in that position and here I am years later, I was not going to treat other individuals as I have been treated and so when about of the third of the bills we approved in the Judiciary Committee are in fact democratic sponsored bills. Yet the Judiciary Committee is a very partisan committee in a sense that, republicans and democrats feel strongly about issues but we have found some common issues that we can agree on whether it’s stopping illegal drugs coming into the country or encouraging people to come in on investor visas and things like that.
HFP: You all just gonna have the fence going into the ground too now?
Smith: A hundred and fifty tunnels have been discovered in the last ten years. Coming into warehouses, or coming through stone foundation.
Smith: You don’t want to compromise on principle, but if you can find common ground from the good of the common people, we’ll do that too. But you were asking about the partisanship. The Patent reform bill, by the way it was a nice and totally unexpected honor political publication in DC that gets some coverage. I mean gets some circulation beyond DC. Named two of us in the house as policy makers of the year. They named Paul Ryan for his budget proposals and me for passing the Patent reform bill.
S: So that happened in December. I got the award there, and I was totally shocked, but nice to have happened. But that’s an example of the bipartisan bills that will benefit the American people and a lot of constituents back home. We’ve got a job fair on April 10 in Austin that you might want to take a look at cause it might be of some interest to people in this community. I know —
HFP: Any journalism jobs?
S: Not that I’m aware of, not unless you would put up a table and you’re looking for a copy editor or something like that. But we’ve done one other job fair in San Antonio, we had a hundred employers there, we had a thousand people show up, looking for a job. You’re heart goes out to them and there are a fewer things that I have done more satisfying than connect a job provider with a job seeker and we placed almost a hundred people. You know that’s gonna help them, it’s gonna help their families in a real tangible way, it’s not just theoretical. It’s practical.
HFP: What are some of the employers or some of the types of jobs that can be expected at this fair?
Smith: Oh my gosh, they all range from minimum wage entry-level up to even management jobs and we can tell you probably a week from now who some of the employers are going to be coming to the job fair in Austin. It’s going to be at the Erwin Center, at the UT campus, 10 to 2:00 on Wednesday, April 11 and parking is available right there. I was in Austin a couple days ago and met with AMDs, an example, they said “Yeah we’ll be there.” I was talking to some folks in San Marcos yesterday, they’re going to be there and so we’re hoping to do some good and like I said, in a practical way on April 10th. We actually have a flier in the car.
Correction: An earlier version of this interview provided an incorrect date for the job fair U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith is hosting in Austin. The job fair is set for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 10 at the Erwin Center in Austin.
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