Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, says he’s figured out the biggest problem behind dysfunction in Congress as he is about to retire after 18 years.
“We do a lot of talking. We don’t do a lot of listening,” he says. He added that congressional rules and practices increasingly create obstacles that prevent real dialogue.
The former high school history teacher from Brigham City says the tuning out of alternative viewpoints is a relatively new problem in a Congress that has always been divided and partisan. He notes that historically members even attacked each other with guns, knives and canes — but still often managed to listen to one another.
Bishop, who represents northern and eastern Utah, illustrates how raucous Congress has always been with a favorite story about a congressional hearing when Andrew Jackson was president, from 1829 to 1837.
“The witness was talking against Jackson and his bank issue and one of the members pulled a gun out, aimed it at the witness and said, ‘If you say one more word against Jackson, I’m going to shoot you dead right now.’ The witness appealed to the chairman. The chairman just said, ‘Well, I suggest you not say another word against Jackson,’” Bishop says.
“That’s our history.” But he adds that part of the story also is that “members in those early sessions would write how their ideas and their thoughts changed by listening to the debate.” He says that happened “because people were together and they were listening to one another.”
Why Congress no longer listens
Most debate on the House floor in recent years occurs in a nearly empty chamber, as just a few members show up to deliver speeches to the TV cameras that televise proceedings.
“People started talking to C-SPAN and not each other,” Bishop says. “You don’t want to look stupid on C-SPAN, so the speeches are all written out, which makes them boring. … There was a time before, I believe 1917, when no one could even read a written speech on the floor.”
He also says that in those days before C-SPAN, speakers would yield to let other members ask questions.
“There was actually a little dialogue going back and forth.” That, he adds, has largely vanished.
Another practice that has essentially been abandoned is members hanging around on the House floor because they were unsure exactly when votes would come up. That gathering led to members talking with each other and paying more attention to colleagues.
A “silly rule” called “rolled votes” results in voting postponed until debate is ended for the day — at least on major legislation — and then a series of short votes are held in quick succession. Few if any members are actually present for debate.
The same thing also happens in committees, where members often show up only for votes and skip the discussions leading up to them.
“Rolled votes give more power to leaders and to staff, mean less-knowledgeable voting takes place, and it destroys the quality of the discussion,” Bishop says. “The best thing to produce a more effective, efficient and civil Congress is to get rid of the damn rolled votes.”
Bishop is ending a Washington career where he spent years as chairman and ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, was on the powerful Rules Committee that determines what bills go to the full House, and was a senior member of the Armed Services Committee.
Before going to Congress, he was speaker of the Utah House, and a chairman of the Utah Republican Party.
As Bishop looks back on his career, he revels in how he accomplished several things his leaders said would be impossible. And he is proud of being a top Republican warrior on public lands, and for fighting to protect Hill Air Force Base, one of Utah’s largest employers.
“I’ll miss the opportunity of having somebody tell me, ‘You can’t do that.’ And I sit down and try and figure out a way to actually do it.” He showed that again recently when just days before retiring, he had a stroke. Within three days he was back in the House giving a speech, as many told him he should be in bed.
What he will miss the least: “There are some staffers who are ideologues and some members who are ideologues. That really prohibits you from solving problems and getting things done. I won’t miss that.”
He recalled how he was once told it would be impossible to remedy a problem where the federal government planned to shorten a runway at Dugway Proving Ground because it could not afford to repave all of it. That would have made it useless as a needed emergency strip for jets from Hill Air Force Base training at the Utah Test and Training range in the desert and could have hurt Hill in base closure battles.
“So I tried to think outside the box,” he says, and convinced the state Legislature to provide the $2 million needed — which would also show how much the base meant to the state.
Bishop found as he talked to state House leaders, they liked it but said rules prevented doing it. “Every one of them said, ‘That’s a brilliant idea. That’s really creative. We can’t do it. We have no protocols’” for the reverse subsidy to the federal government.
Bishop says he and the late Sen. Bob Bennett then did an end run by finding a state Senate leader who liked the idea and wrote it into the Senate version of a spending bill — and the House leaders concurred “because I had already talked to all of them about it.”
Sen. Mitt Romney recently told the Senate that Bishop has done such a good job defending Hill’s Utah Test and Training Range that “it makes sense that this key to our nation’s military readiness should bear his name. Next Congress, I intend to introduce a bill to rename it the Bishop Utah Test and Training Range.”
In another example of Bishop taking on the near-impossible, he wanted to block a project to store spent nuclear reactor rods on the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes Reservation in the West Desert. His plan was to designate a new wilderness area that would prohibit construction of a needed rail spur. He says he was told it was a nonstarter. “It took six years and was incredibly complicated,” he says. “But we did it.”
Sen. Mike Lee, who was chief counsel to former Gov. Jon Huntsman during that final battle in the long campaign to derail the nuclear storage scheme, said of Bishop’s role in that fight, “Though relatively new to Congress at the time, Rob was punching way above his weight. Why? Because he’s awesome, and because he was willing to dive into the nitty-gritty details of an issue and put in the hard work.”
Lee added that Bishop did not care who received the credit. “Rob Bishop just wanted to get it done. That’s who Rob Bishop is. That’s how he serves, and that’s why we love him.”
Bishop and other Republicans in 2010 also wanted to reform some entrenched House procedures they felt hurt members, and initially few thought it would happen.
Bishop disliked how at that time, the House worked essentially on a Tuesday through Thursday schedule to allow travel to and from home on Mondays and Fridays. “And everything happened on Wednesday,” he says.
He pushed the idea of switching to work generally two full weeks in Washington followed by a week in their home districts, and the 2010 task force adopted it.
Bishop also successfully championed a change to delay floor votes until 1 p.m., so they would no longer interrupt committee meetings in the morning and often leave witnesses sitting for long periods.
He says making such procedural changes “are some of the things I am most proud of.”
Leader of conservatives
He’s also proud to have fought in Congress as a leader of the GOP right wing.
“I call myself a ‘constitutional conservative’ because I’m willing to make a change as long as I think it blends with the original intention of the Constitution and the concept of federalism,” he says.
“I do believe in federalism and the ability of states to have a greater role in allowing people to have control over their lives,” he says. “So consolidation of power in Washington was the thing that I tried to fight the most. And this push for federalism is one of the things I was proudest about.”
Another source of satisfaction is acting as one of the Republicans’ top warriors on public lands as chairman (when the GOP controlled the House) or ranking Republican (when Democrats held the majority) on the House Natural Resources Committee.
While he was often the archenemy of conservation groups seeking to expand wilderness protection on public lands, he is proud to have pushed for more development and use from oil drilling to mining and grazing.
“The basic issue is to make sure that public lands are open for public benefits. It isn’t just having land itself,” he says.
Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, often crossed swords with Bishop. Despite the conservative’s best efforts, however, “Since Rob has been in Congress, production of oil, gas and coal are all down and the amount of land with protection is significantly up in Utah.”
Groene said collapse of the Public Lands Initiative led by Bishop seeking a grand compromise on wilderness, “led to the creation of the Bears Ears Monument [by President Barack Obama]. So in a twisted way, we have Rob to thank for that.”
President Donald Trump slashed the size of the monument to the cheers of Bishop and other Republican Utah leaders, but President-elect Joe Biden has said he plans to restore the original boundaries.
The exit, and looking forward
One reason Bishop chose to retire was that he was nearing his GOP-imposed eight-year limit as Republican leader on the Natural Resources Committee.
“I was at the apex of my ability of helping the state,” he says. “If I stayed longer, I could probably get more done than a freshman, but I would be stopping somebody from getting the seniority they would need to kind of replace me.”
He adds, “I knew I had to go. I also knew I probably wouldn’t be ready to. But if I stayed till I was ready to leave, then I would probably be dead.”
So Bishop made an unusual decision as he headed out the door — he became the lieutenant governor running mate of unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Thomas Wright.
While many saw that as a potential step down in prestige from Congress, Bishop says he believed Wright was the best gubernatorial candidate — and he offered to allow Bishop to lead out if elected in a few areas where the congressman is passionate, including public lands, education reform and election system improvements.
“It would have given me a chance to go in-depth on a few things I care about, and make a difference,” he says. But after their election loss, Bishop said in the interview before he had a mild stroke that he was unsure what he would do next.
“I would like to teach in some way. If I can stay away from a mirror, I don’t realize how old I really am,” he said. The 69-year-old adds that being around young people on his staff had helped make him feel younger.
He said a few colleges have approached him about positions. “I either teach somewhere or I practice sitting on the swing on the porch yelling at kids.”
How does he want to be remembered?
“For my efforts to protect Hill, my work on public lands and the procedural changes that I did actually implement. And for maybe pushing the idea that federalism is not a dead idea and it is the way of the future.”
Sens. Romney and Lee said in recent speeches how they believe Bishop will be remembered.
“Rob Bishop has earned his place among the greats in Utah political history,” Romney said.
Lee added, “Rare is the person who can come to change Washington but not ever be changed by Washington. Rob Bishop has managed to do just that.”