It’s a mid-Monday morning, and Congressman Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, and two of his aides have arrived at the Observer Media Group’s downtown offices.
Buchanan looks casual in his open-collared blue dress shirt and dark slacks. He’s relaxed and smiling as he shakes Observer staffers’ hands.
But he is walking gingerly. He’s still recovering from lower-back disc surgery on Jan. 14, a 25-year malady that flared up and could be put off no more.
That came on the heels of his wife, Sandy, undergoing an emergency appendectomy over the Christmas holidays. She’s doing well, Buchanan says.
The 62-year-old congressman is anxious to get back into his daily bicycling routine — 20 miles a day, five or six days a week, starting at sun-up. He lets us know he rode 4,000 miles last year.
Staying fit is important for Buchanan. “I like to eat,” he says. The bike rides help him regulate his weight. He’s noticeably thinner than when he started in 2006. Buchanan has lost about 25 pounds since he was first elected. He says his heart rate is 43 and his blood pressure pumps at 115 over 75.
Buchanan has agreed to chat for about an hour. Any topic is fair game. We cover many of them — flood insurance; Obamacare; the farm bill and unemployment benefits; tax rates; Benghazi and IRS investigations; immigration reform; whether Republicans can win the U.S. Senate next November.
But the topic saved for last is Buchanan’s career in the U.S. House of Representatives. Buchanan began his political career in 2006 when he beat Democrat Christine Jennings by 369 votes. And since then, Buchanan’s legislative career hasn’t exactly made a lot of national news.
He’s not the household name of, say, Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio. You don’t see Buchanan on the Sunday talk shows or Fox News’ nightly lineups. In his seven years in office, Buchanan clearly has not established himself as a policy bomb thrower who lives in the media spotlight.
Nor is he a policy wonk, flooding the House with proposed bills that are intended to change the world. Among Florida’s 26 U.S. House members last year, Buchanan ranked 11th in terms of number of bills he introduced (10), according to Govtrack.
U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson led with 45. Buchanan co-sponsored 143 bills, 17th among Florida’s 26 House delegation.
If he is known for any legislative agenda, it’s his annual filing of a bill to create a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. “It’s the only way we’re going to get our deficit under control,” Buchanan tells us.
The closest he has come to having the bill pass was in November 2011; 272 members voted on the House floor in favor of Buchanan’s bill, just 13 votes shy of what he needed for passage.
Buchanan acknowledges it’s frustrating trying to get anything accomplished legislatively. When he was first elected, Democrats ruled the House and Senate, rendering junior Republican House members as sideliners. Two years later, after Barack Obama took the presidency and Democrats held the House and Senate, Buchanan and his fellow Republicans became even more emasculated. And even since 2010, with a Republican House, Democratic Senate and Democratic president, the partisanship has made it even more difficult to show legislative accomplishments.
There’s another aspect that inhibits congressional ascension and effectiveness: the seniority system that is so cemented in Congress. House Speaker John Boehner, for instance, was elected to Congress in 1990. It took him 11 years before he became a committee chairman. It took him 16 years to become House Majority Leader. It took him 20 years to become speaker-designate.
There are always exceptions, of course. When Adam Putnam, a Republican from Polk County, was elected to Congress in 2000, he was only 26. By the end of 2006, at age 32, he was chairman of the House Conference Committee, the third-highest ranking Republican in the House.
For most of the 435 members of the House, it’s a long slog of dues paying and being a team player to get to positions of influence and leadership. Buchanan has stuck to that strategy. He, like all of his colleagues, knows that votes that buck the party leadership can mean banishment to the House basement and a legislative career of obscurity and little accomplishment.
But one area that has won Buchanan favor among House leaders and where he has shown particular skill is in fundraising. In 2012, Buchanan chaired fundraising for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the arm of the party that raises money for congressional races.
“There are very few people in Congress who have the business track record that Vern does and the ability to raise money like he does,” says Joe Gruters, chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota County.
“The most important thing in politics is raising money. He has the relationships from business and the ability to make the ask.”
Before seeking public office, Buchanan developed an extensive address book of business connections through his quick-print franchises and auto dealerships; his association with the national business group, Young Presidents Organization; his directorship on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and as chairman of the Florida and Greater Sarasota Chambers of Commerce. Gruters says Buchanan is often able to bring in six-figure checks and millions of dollars to the NRCC.
Buchanan doesn’t flaunt this side of his congressional work in his district. But it increasingly is earning him access to and the attention of the Republican House leaders — and moving him up the ladder of influence in Congress.
That was evident this past weekend when the members of the National Republican Congressional Committee held their winter meeting in Sarasota, including a dinner at Buchanan’s Longboat Key home, instead of its traditional location in Naples. Among the guests: Speaker John Boehner and Reps. Darrell Issa of California and Greg Walden of Oregon, who chairs the NRCC.
Buchanan’s fundraising prowess also played a role in his appointment in 2011 to the House Ways and Means Committee, arguably the most powerful committee in Congress. It controls all federal taxes, revenues, borrowing, trade and social-spending programs, including Obamacare. He also serves on the Ways and Means’ subcommittee on trade and oversight and is co-chair of the Florida House delegation.
Buchanan is the only Florida House member on Ways and Means.
If he wins re-election this year to his fifth term, Buchanan says “there’s a good possibility” of chairing one of the Ways and Means subcommittees.
That would put him just about on schedule for being on the House leadership track — 10 years. How long does he see himself wanting to stay in Congress?
He’s not sure. “I like the idea of doing public service,” he tells us. “It’s the way I can give back.”
BUCHANAN ON THE ISSUES ...
In his nearly eight years in Congress, Rep. Vern Buchanan has stuck to the same legislative mantra: legislating to create jobs and economic opportunity; help small businesses; cut federal spending; and end annual deficit spending.
He can’t stop at those issues. Last year, House members cast 641 votes on a wide variety of issues. Here’s what Buchanan had to say about some of those issues in the public eye today:
• FLOOD INSURANCE: Lately, Buchanan has been focusing much of his legislative time on staunching a flood — the flood of opposition in Florida to the Biggert-Waters Act, the now-infamous legislation that is threatening the state’s property owners with skyrocketing flood-insurance rates, some of which will force Floridians to give up their homes unless amended.
The U.S. Senate late last month adopted a measure to delay the Biggert-Waters Act for four years for primary home owners; it does not help second-home owners, home buyers or commercial property owners. House members, meanwhile, are expected to introduce a vastly different version of a fix late this week.
Says Buchanan: “We’ve talked to (Speaker John) Boehner, and he’s open minded.” Buchanan, who like most of Congress voted for the original bill, did not offer any specifics. “There are a lot of moving parts,” he says.
• FARM BILL: A nemesis of fiscal conservatives, this is the bill that perpetuates subsidies to farmers and appropriates $76 billion a year for food stamps and uninsurance benefits. This year, Buchanan and other House members from Florida, Texas and California secured in the farm bill $125 million over five years for research on citrus greening, the disease threatening the nation’s citrus industry.
Asked why the industry should have taxpayers cover its research costs, Buchanan says: “They convinced us they don’t have the money, and the disease is putting the whole industry at risk.”
For Florida, that means 76,000 jobs and $9 billion annually in economic activity, according to Buchanan.
• EXTENDING UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS: “I’m against extending them,” he says. “There’s a better way to create small-business jobs and get the economy growing.”
• AFFORDABLE CARE ACT: “Health care is going to bankrupt this country,” Buchanan says. The Affordable Care Act, he says, “is bankrupting the middle class. Obamacare may have helped the poor, but the middle class is paying for everything. The whole thing is going to implode.
He says House Republicans are expected to introduce this month more legislation as an alternative to Obamacare.
“I think the answer is more a community-based solutions,” he says.
• REPEALING THE MEDICAL-DEVICE TAX: “We haven’t gotten Democrats there yet.”
• LOWERING CORPORATE TAX RATES: “I’m on the committee for that. We’re pushing for going to 25% from 35%.”
• IRS / BENGHAZI INVESTIGATIONS: “Our committee (House Ways and Means Committee) is still pursuing the IRS very aggressively. (Benghazi) is still being very much worked on.”
• IMMIGRATION REFORM: “I’m against amnesty. We need to enforce the laws on the books. I don’t think the issue will be pursued” in the House before the November elections.
• WHY HE KEEPS PROPOSING A BALANCED BUDGET AMENDMENT: “It’s the only way we’re going to get our deficit under control. It’s immoral to put this on the backs of our kids. And it’s not ‘if’ we’re going to go bankrupt as a country, it’s a matter of when.”
• WHETHER REPUBLICANS WILL TAKE THE U.S. SENATE IN NOVEMBER: “I’m hopeful.”