Rep. Bill Thomas' Capitol Hill hideaway, minutes before the interview,
a quick inventory is taken. Thomas, the Bakersfield, Calif. Republican
who chairs the House Committee on Ways and Means, is one of the most
important players when it comes to the nation's tax policy, international
trade, Medicare and Social Security. For the past five years, legislative
changes in these critical areas have started here.
At the end of a long table, rests a cigar, slightly damp at the edges.
(The chairman is known to chew rather than smoke.) A dozen news publications
-- The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and National Journal
among them -- are lined up neatly nearby, tools Thomas uses to keep
abreast of the issues that come before the committee.
On his desk rests a heavy statue of Winston Churchill, a book: "Constitution,
Jefferson's manual and Rules of the House of Representatives of the
United States" and three framed photos of Thomas looking on while
President Bush signs into law the bills he drafted and steered through
committee: the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of
2001, the Trade Act of 2002, and the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement
Act of 2003.
The photos capture the reasons why Bush has nicknamed Thomas "The
Mailman." One of the most skilled negotiators in Washington, Thomas
delivers. What's inside the packages is often a source of contention
between Republicans and Democrats. But the two parties generally agree
on one thing about the chairman himself: In the end, no one is more
skilled at getting people to yes. "It's not always a happy yes,"
Thomas will explain later, but making people happy is not in his job
The Mailman Cometh
"He's here," a staffer whispers. Thomas enters
his domain and grabs his television remote to mute the televised activities
on the House floor. Led to the back of the room for a brief photo shoot,
Thomas engages the photographer in a discussion of the merits of digital
photography versus film. "Art doesn't have to be difficult to be
good; it has to be creative and inspirational," Thomas says. Could
he smile for a few last shots? "This is phony," he says. "I'm
not happy." Still, the chairman plays along, grinning as he says,
"I'm happy, giddy, so happy to be here."
After the shoot, Thomas searches for his chair, testing out several
before finding the one he's "spent a lot of time adjusting."
The interview begins.
Thomas was born in Wallace, Idaho, one day before the attack on Pearl
Harbor. His father Virgil worked in the silver and lead mines before
he moved the family to Southern Calif. where he worked as a plumber
and pipe-fitter in the shipyards during World War II. The Thomases were
living in their second government housing project in San Pedro, Calif.,
when Virgil took an 18-month work assignment overseas. Thomas was a
teenager when his father returned with the financial means to purchase
the family's first automobile and a house in Garden Grove.
Thomas' parents, who married in the middle of the Depression, weren't
able to finish high school. "Surviving was a slightly higher priority
at the time," Thomas says. As for him, "Education was always
an expectation … the typical American dream -- go on, be better
educated … so you wouldn't have to work with your hands."
Thomas completed an undergraduate and master's degree at SFSU but his
mother Gertrude once remarked that she could die happy simply because
her son finished high school. Thomas laughs. "It was a struggle,"
he says. "I had a little difficulty with authority, and teachers
represented authority. And if I liked them, I got an A, and if I didn't,
There's no better example of the "well …" than the House
floor where Thomas has never been one to mince words. Republican Rep.
Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut has told the press, Thomas "doesn't
pussy-foot around. If you've got a dumb idea, he'll tell you that you
have a dumb idea." Or as Thomas' mother once put it, "When
they were passing out moderation, Bill was hiding behind the door."
Thomas appears to have been fully present when they were passing out
negotiating skills. His first successful negotiation? "Probably
convincing my father that I didn't have to cut the hedges right when
he asked me. That I could do it at halftime, still do a good job but
be back on the couch to catch the rest of the game." Whether cutting
shrubbery or adjusting the nation's prescription drug coverage, being
a skilled negotiator boils down to two things, Thomas says: learning
as much as possible about any given issue, and understanding how the
other party views the world. The latter involves a skill set he developed
From OC to SFSU
Thomas earned his A.A. degree at Santa Ana Community
College before transferring to SFSU in 1961. "I was interested
in State because of the diversity and the desire to get out of the environment
that I was in, just to see what other [places] were like … I did
think I could meet some folk I probably wouldn't meet in Orange County."
He offers a representative sample of his environment: his philosophy
instructor at Santa Ana, John Schmitz, a declared member of the ultra-conservative
John Birch Society. "I knew SF State would be a modest change,"
says a smiling Thomas.
He entered SFSU a voracious reader and a student of politics. Did Thomas
always identify with the Republican Party? "Probably, although
it wasn't a big identification with the Republican Party, it was identifying
with the individualism, resources, creativity, non-collective kind of
a position," he says.
Today he's known as a moderate Republican, but don't call him a conservative.
"I cringe a little bit when you say the word," he says before
launching into a lengthy explanation.
"I guess what I am is more 18th century classical conservative
which actually was liberal. If it's a personal or social issue, in that
area, I'm probably as much a libertarian as anything else. I think people
should be able to define for themselves, what they want to do, how they
want to live -- as long as it doesn't damage or detract from others.
… But in terms of [being a] fiscal conservative -- I always thought
that was important, that you tried to be resourceful, live off what
In the early 1960s, as the Associated Students director of organizational
affairs, Thomas was tasked with keeping student organizations running
smoothly. "There were a couple scandals, students making off with
student money -- typical stuff. I had to stay on top of them,"
he says. Thomas helped bring speakers to campus including Republican
Assemblyman Joe Shell, who attempted to unseat Nixon as California governor
in 1962. "I was trying to give as broad a spectrum as possible
for student debate," Thomas says.
The discussion turns to the heated student arguments on campus in recent
years -- people happy Bush won, other students not so happy. What was
it like to be a Republican at SFSU in the 1960s?
"We've always been outnumbered. That's the way it's always been,"
says Thomas, adding that being in the minority was just fine with him
-- he welcomed any political debates on campus. "That's one of
the reasons I came in the first place."
Thomas has a sense of humor when it comes to his connection to a largely
left-leaning campus. In 2005 he brought two tables of family and friends
to the Seven Hills Conference Center for his induction into SFSU's Alumni
Hall of Fame. Thomas walked to the podium and began his speech, "When
you started off talking, President Corrigan, about the fact that we
were going to be role models for students here, well, I'm ready to meet
the seven Republicans."
Building a Mosaic
Thomas traces his success in politics back to the late
Professor Otto Butz who "provided me with some tools that allowed
me to do what I'm able to do."
The memorable lesson: "When people tell you how the world is, they're
telling you more about themselves than they are about the world. All
you have to do is to begin to understand how they look at the world,
and if you look at the world the way they look at the world, you can
then better understand what their needs and wants
As for those lessons from Butz, Thomas says they've helped him to better
determine and understand his colleagues' needs and wants. They are like
broken pieces of tile, he says, and his job is collecting them together
to form a mosaic.
"If enough [people] see what they want to see in the picture, then
you get the job done. … That was an understanding that could probably
not have been perfected had I remained in Orange County, because when
you collect a bunch of pieces of broken white tile, the mosaic is not
quite as colorful as the one that I learned to build [at State]."
After earning both his undergraduate degree and master's in social science,
Thomas went to work as a professor of political science at Bakersfield
Community College in 1965. "I was trying to teach ‘Thinking
101,'" he says. In examining the Constitution in a political science
class, Thomas says, it wasn't important to know "the what":
that the legislature consists of two houses -- but rather, why
was it set up that way? The professor in Thomas can't resist offering
a careful examination of this "why," first from Beard's perspective,
As he did in the classroom, Thomas now advises younger members of Congress.
"He pushes you to think in multiple dimensions, helps broaden your
views," says one of these younger members, Republican Rep. Paul
Ryan of Wisconsin. He adds that Thomas' ability to see the big picture
makes him the best negotiator in Congress. "Most people think in
terms of the next step in any negotiation. Bill is simultaneously thinking
about every step at every stage."
The Mailman's most recent delivery happened in November. The House approved
legislation authorizing $38 million in federal funds to preserve sites
related to the confinement of Japanese-Americans during World War II,
so that future generations may visit and learn from the dark chapter
in U.S. history. "A great people -- and the American people are
a great people -- can make mistakes. What you need to do is admit it
and don't make it again," Thomas says.
What may be his greatest negotiating challenge is still ahead: Social
Security reform. Thomas says it's going to be like anything else, building
a mosaic, then collecting people's needs and wants. He laments that
people have lost their pensions, that so many companies have gone bankrupt.
Possible solutions, including private accounts, have been bandied about
in the media over the past year, but for now, the issue has taken a
backseat to more immediate problems.
"Social Security reform is still on the table only because [Thomas]
is here," Ryan says. "A lot is out of his hands with the war,
the vice president's chief of staff, it's a tough political climate
to get things done but if anyone can do it, he can."
The Man Behind the Negotiations
Thomas has the support of his constituents. Since his
election to Congress in 1978, voters in California's 22nd Congressional
District have consistently returned him to the House with little opposition.
On Capitol Hill Thomas is known as hard-working and prepared -- and
sometimes impatient with those who lack the aforementioned qualities.
Any gruffness on Thomas' part, Ryan says, is "surface, an exterior
he portrays to good effect, a strategic thing, not who he is. He's actually
a very generous and warm person. I think his intelligence intimidates
people. Bill Thomas knows more about any given issue than any person
and that person's entire staff. He has a steel-trap mind."
The mind houses more than strategies, tax code and Constitutional bylaws.
Thomas knows much about most any make or model of car and is prone to
long tangents on machinery, engines, anything with moving parts. He
can cook, sew, knit and crochet, skills he acquired growing up with
three sisters. In fact, he just whipped up a batch of his mother's cinnamon
rolls for his daughter Amelia. (Thomas has two adult children.) His
wife Sharon passes along reading suggestions from her book club. Thomas
enjoyed John Grisham's "The Broker," but didn't think the
latest Harry Potter was the best in the series.
After "last book read," he fields the "personal hero
question," listing "Churchill, Washington, Jefferson …
People who respond creatively to their environment." He spends
the most time discussing hero number four, Jim Hall, inventor of "the
vacuum car." The first to apply airplane- wing technology to a
race car, Hall created a downward suction between the car and the track,
allowing the car to corner at incredible speeds -- and win every time.
The Going is the Goal
Thomas' cousin Larry Hughes (B.A., '58) traces Thomas'
decision making back to his days in Idaho, when he was known as "Baby
Billy." The two cousins watched their parents work tirelessly to
make ends meet. "Bill remembers how humble the origins of our family
were," Hughes says. "He has brought to
the California State Assembly and the House of Representatives a deep
caring for the average citizen … worked to the best of his ability
to help those who aren't able to take care of themselves."
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Thomas was instrumental in helping
move through the House two tax relief bills aimed at helping families
and individuals affected by the disaster. Democratic Rep. Bill Jefferson
of Louisiana says that while his state could use quite a bit more funding
to deal with the devastation, "Bill's really worked with me and
I think with many of his side who didn't want to spend as much money,
worked with us fairly."
After working closely with Thomas on trade, tax and maritime issues,
Jefferson says he knows the chairman better than most Democrats. "He's
a very bright and innovative legislator. I've been able to work with
him and find ways to move around objections, work through questions
and problems. Working with Bill can be exciting, sometimes difficult.
He fights back when he feels put under unfair pressure."
However Thomas doesn't appear to be concerned with other people's perceptions.
How does he want to be remembered? "I don't care," Thomas
says. "I don't care because you know, the going is the goal …
I always try to do what it is I'm doing to the best of my ability without
relying on a third-party grading system." As long as you're having
fun and making a difference, that's what counts, he says.
Is he having fun? "I am."
Is he making a difference? Rep. Devin Nunes, a fellow Californian Republican,
says, "If [Thomas] stopped today, he's already done more in the
past five years than anyone else who's held the job in recent history.
[When it comes to] his successes in tax codes and trade bills, he's
done more than anyone."
As for his detractors, Thomas says, "Most people remember the negatives,
not the positives. But if I got them to yes, that's all that counts."