Wally’s world

Catching up with our congressman after a summer of town-hall craziness

This past summer, for the first time in the 23 years he’s represented the 2nd Congressional District, Wally Herger, a genial and predictably conservative but heretofore obscure Republican, was thrust into the national media spotlight for a comment he made Aug. 18 during a town-hall meeting on health-care reform.

That now-infamous exchange at Redding’s Simpson University, a four-year Christian school, involved a man named Bert Stead, who stood and described himself as a “proud right-wing terrorist,” much to the delight of many in a crowd estimated at 2,100 people.

Stead, captured by a KRCR television news video that went viral on YouTube, asked Herger to go back to Washington and tell “the self-appointed king and all the king’s men we are fed up. We don’t want government in our face anymore.”

As the hearty applause and raucous shouts of approval subsided, Herger smiled, nodded and said enthusiastically, “Amen. God bless you. That’s a great American, isn’t it?” And the place went crazy.

A few days later, a Mt. Shasta Herald story recounting the event was re-published on the widely read Huffington Post Web site. Then CNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann named Herger that day’s “World’s Worst Person.” Olbermann said Herger wasn’t fit to be the city of Redding’s dogcatcher, let alone a congressman.

The following day, Olbermann gave Matt Lavoie, Herger’s communications director, the same dubious honor for issuing a statement that said Herger stood by his remarks.

“The Congressman doesn’t at all regret commending [Stead] for standing up, exercising his free speech rights, and expressing his strong concerns with the direction liberals in Washington are taking our country,” Lavoie wrote.

Olbermann chided both men, saying they were acting irresponsibly in this day of angry tea-partying, gun-toting town-hall attendees. They were, Olbermann said, contributing to the paranoia and violence enveloping our political system.

The incident told me the time was right to interview Herger. In the weeks following the brouhaha, I tried to set a date with the 64-year-old congressman, through Lavoie. But communications between Chico and Washington, D.C., were a bit frayed. Phone messages were exchanged, interview dates agreed upon, but the congressman kept having scheduling conflicts.

The third time was charmed. Let me say this: Herger is a friendly guy, the kind of person you’d make small talk with at a backyard barbecue—sports, movies, the weather.

“How you doin’, Tom?” the congressman asked, as soon as he got on the phone. “Boy, it’s good to talk with you. I gotta ask, how long ago did we first meet?”

I told him that would have been back in 1996, when I did a story for this paper called “Interview with the congressman, or the Wally Herger we’ve never met.”

That story began: “Who is Wally Herger? We’ve been electing him as our congressman every two years for the last decade, and chances are we’ll send him back to Washington, D.C., to represent the good folks of the 2nd Congressional District again this year. But how many of us really know the man?”

We learned in that story, from friends and aquaintances in the tiny Sutter County town of Rio Oso, that Herger was a friendly sort, an all-league catcher on his East Nicholas High School baseball team and class vice president. He was an asthmatic child raised on a 250-acre dairy farm. His father, Walter Sr., a gruff old guy, now deceased, was divorced from Wally’s mother in 1958 and in 1969 started a propane company.

Herger still owns the Rio Oso dairy farm, but he now lives in a gated community in east Chico. And his local office, then located in the Philadelphia Square complex at The Esplanade and Eaton Road, has moved to Forest Avenue.

And we learned back in 1996, from one of his former classmates, that Herger had married his high-school sweetheart, Deborah Dianna Burke, while she was still a junior in high school. Their first child, Melissa, was born July 22, 1963.

Herger attended American River College in Sacramento, and worked for a time as a manager for a Sacramento restaurant called Ole Frijole. He also did a stint with Pacific Gas & Electic before taking over the family propane business. He and Dianna had another child but divorced. Herger subsequently married his present wife, Pamela, a Mormon. He converted. They’ve had seven children together.

Ownership of the propane company apparently worked out well. According to Herger’s financial disclosure statement, Herger Gas Inc. is now valued at anywhere between $1 million and $5 million.

In fact, Herger’s wealth is in the top 10 percent of all members of Congress. A Web site called The Sunlight Foundation lists him as the 43rd-wealthiest Congress member, estimating his current worth at about $12 million.

On Monday, Nov. 2, 50-60 supporters of government-run, single-payer health insurance gathered outside Rep. Wally Herger’s Chico office to ask for the congressman’s highly unlikely support. Herger was in Washington, D.C., at the time. Led by Forest Harlan, a member of the Butte County Health Care Coalition, participants dressed in black and wore skeleton masks, or dressed up like rich people. The idea: Wealthy Americans have health insurance; poor Americans are doomed.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

Not bad for a Rio Oso farm boy.

Today Herger is a strong proponent of the military and its use as a foreign-relations tool, but 47 years ago he sidestepped service in the Vietnam War courtesy of a couple of draft deferments: He was an enrolled college student and a married man. (President Lyndon Johnson nixed the marriage exemption in 1965.)

Herger was a member of the East Nicholas School District Board of Trustees when, in 1980, Assemblyman Gene Chappie gave up his seat to run for Congress. Herger was recruited by the Republican Party to run for the seat and defeated Yuba City Police Chief George Garcia. On the ballot, he identified himself as an “independent propane salesman.”

He told the Marysville Appeal-Democrat that he won because the voters were tired of “professional politicians.”

Six years later, Chappie retired from Congress, and Herger successfully ran to replace him once again. He’s been re-elected every two years since, regularly amassing large campaign warchests and defeating token Democrats by comfortable margins in the heavily conservative district.

He now sits on what is invaribly described as the “powerful” Ways and Means Committee. That committee holds sway over taxes, tariffs, Social Security, unemployment benefits, Medicare, child support, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, foster care and adoption programs.

And he is a good Republican, voting the party line 94 percent of the time, according to the Web site Project Vote Smart.

Back to the interview: I first asked Herger how everything was going. “For me personally everything is going well,” he replied, and then it was as if he’d shifted into another gear.

“We have a lot of challenges facing this nation right now,” he said, “and health care is one of them. But it’s not just health care. That is the big issue that is pretty much taking the oxygen out of Washington right now. But we have a jobs problem. We have an economic problem. We have a spending problem. We have an incredible debt problem. So there are a lot of challenges there in Washington, and before our nation today.”

He continued without a prompt.

“We still have a war going on over in Afghanistan. We are kind of winding down our involvement in Iraq. There are a lot of concerns of meeting the challenges before us.”

In recent weeks, Herger issued a statement supporting a troop increase in Afghanistan. President Obama, he charged, is stalling.

“Well, if we look at what worked in Iraq … Many felt we were not following our generals to begin with. Many were saying we needed more [troops]. [Donald] Rumsfeld, who was our secretary of defense at the time, said we needed fewer. But when we did go in with what we needed, what the generals indicated we needed, we had very good results.

“Now we are able to begin pulling forces out. Again, I think we should be listening to what our generals are telling us, particularly … in an area that is very important to us. Not just Afghanistan. As important or more perhaps is Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons [and is] right next door [to Afghanistan].”

Herger’s pro-military stance sometimes runs up against other values, however. In 2007, he voted against a defense appropriations-bill amendment to add $31 billion for operations in Afghanistan. The amendment contained a provision forbidding U.S. forces from conducting torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading punishment, as defined by the United Nations.

Last month Herger voted against a $680 billion defense appropriations bill because it included an amendment that defines crimes committed against people based on their sexual orientation as hate crimes. He was one of 131 Republican congressmembers who voted no. The bill passed in the House. Last week the Senate also passed the bill, and Obama signed it into law.

I turned to the series of raucous town-hall meetings. Had he ever witnessed anything like them in his two-plus decades as a congressman?

“I’ve never seen anything like this … since 1980, when I was in the Assembly,” he said. “To have a town-hall meeting with well over a thousand people… It shows how incredibly volatile and how unhappy people are with what they are seeing in health care.

“People are … concerned that they are going to lose their health care.”

They were also worried that something so important was being rushed through the process, he said. Speaking to the 800 or so folks who attended his Chico town-hall meeting at the Neighborhood Church, he used a confusing flowchart of the plan projected on a large screen behind him to illustrate how rushed the process had been.

Wally Herger’s 2nd Congressional District stretches from near Sacramento to the Oregon border.

He made a brief reference to the chart, remarking on the labyrinthine complexities of the plan. What he didn’t tell his audience was that the chart had been designed by Texas Republican Congressman Kevin Brady as a visual aid to argue against Obama’s health-care reform.

During our phone interview, he reiterated his concerns.

“We are having legislation that came up before in the Ways and Means Committee that I sit on. That legislation wasn’t given to us until 10:30 the night before the 9 o’clock meeting the next morning. One thousand, one hundred pages, plus 300 pages of amendments that showed up at 3 a.m. in the morning. Again, people are very concerned about this.”

Does he regret, in any way, the “proud, right-wing terrorist” incident that brought him so much negative national attention?

“Of course you have to know that it was clearly satire,” Herger said. “A week before that we had [House] Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others in the media that were referring to people turning out to these town-hall meetings as right-wingers. They had different derogatory adjectives. The Department of Homeland Security report that came out was saying that some of these people could be terrorists.

“So this individual, this constituent, who happened to be a 67-year-old retired veteran, got up and used these same adjectives that had been used in the media just a week before. He was clearly poking fun at them. Again, the estimated 2,100 people that showed up, he was a sampling of these people. I’ve never seen democracy in action like it has been at these town-hall meetings. So again, it was clearly something that was being said in satire and was received that way.”

The DHS report, released in April, was titled, “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruiting.”

The report warned that “rightwing extremists may be gaining new recruits by playing on their fears about several emergent issues. The economic downturn and the election of the first African-American president present unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment.”

At the town-hall meeting in Chico, a young man asked Herger about the Obama administration’s plan to send “450,000 U.S. troops into the streets of America and force people to get the swine-flu vaccination.”

Just like the persistent rumors of “death panels” for old folks and free health care for illegal immigrants, bizarre rumors like this make their way onto the Internet and eventually take hold.

Though he had a chance to nip this particular fantasy in the bud right then and there, Herger didn’t do so. “I don’t think I understand the question,” he said at the time, choosing instead to move to the next query.

Wouldn’t it have been better, I asked Herger, to say, “No. That is not true”? These crazy rumors, I suggested, cloud the real issues of the debate.

Herger hesitated before answering.

“Now I have to say,” he began, “I didn’t understand what he was asking me. That sounds pretty bizarre, that 450,000 troops. I hadn’t heard that. So I might have misheard what he said. But no, that is somewhat of a bizarre question. It is almost so bizarre, I think I would like to have him repeat it to make sure I understood it correctly.”

But he didn’t. He left that insane suggestion hanging out there to fester, unchallenged.

At the same meeting, local nurse practitioner Paul O’Rourke-Babb asked Herger about the $85,500 in campaign contributions he’d received from the health-care industry during the 2008 election.

Herger again chose not to answer, changing the subject, as many in the audience shouted, “Answer the question!”

But he didn’t.

Already this election season, Herger’s taken $44,000 from the insurance industry and another $32,550 from a health-care professionals’ PAC. The insurance industry has been his leading contributor in seven of the last nine campaigns: 2005-06, $67,250; 2003-04 $48,500; 2001-02 $54,500; 1999-2000 $44,165; 1997-98 $11,770.

I asked him the question again: Does it affect how he approaches the matter of health-care reform?

The congressman’s family. His wife, Pamela, is on his right. They have seven children; he has two others from his first marriage.

Photo By

“It doesn’t affect it at all,” he said. “When you look at the total amounts spent on campaigns … many times, on a spirited campaign, $2 million or $3 million go into it. Now, I’ve never had to spend that much, but you look at the total amount, and it is a relatively smaller percentage of what goes into campaigns. And if you look also at others, I mean Nancy Pelosi, she’s received far more from these insurance companies than I have.”

This is true. In the 2008 campaign, according to the Open Secrets Web site, the insurance industry floated $120,000 to Pelosi (fifth most), and the health-professionals industry gave her another $151,850 (third most).

Herger repeated his idea for bringing down the costs of health care: creating more competition among the health-insurance companies and rejecting “frivolous” medical-malpractice lawsuits, also called tort reform.

The medical-malpractice argument is bandied about a lot these days by those opposing health-care reform. But in 2004, a Congressional Budget Office study found no proof that restricting malpractice lawsuits reduces medical spending. Nor did it find a significant difference in how much is spent on health care in states with limits on malpractice awards and those without limits.

Then there is the argument for allowing insurance companies to cross state lines, thus creating greater competition.

“This is what I advocate every place I go,” Herger said. “There is nothing like competition to bring down costs [and] raise quality. And we’re seeing one of the big problems with cost escalating today, even though there are some 1,300 different health-care insurance companies in the United States.”

He said each state has “an average of only two or three” companies competing within state lines. California, he allowed, “has five or six, but right now it’s illegal for any insurance company to compete in another state. We need to change that at minimum. We need where insurance companies can compete regionally, so instead of only two or three, we can have these 1,300 competing. I’m sure insurance companies aren’t happy with me for advocating that, but that is one of the things we should be doing.”

But the numbers don’t add up. If each state had as many as five companies competing, that would account for only 250. Where are the other 1,050? Turns out the 1,300 figure includes company subsidiaries and even individual insurance vendors.

But it still raises the questions: Why can’t they cross state lines to compete? Is this a federal or state-by-state law?

“I don’t understand why it is that way either,” Herger admitted. “I think people should decide what they want in their insurance coverage, not the government.”

Fact is, there’s no interstate competition because of the McCarran-Ferguson Act, which Congress passed in 1945. The act gives states the right to regulate health-insurance plans, free of federal control.

The industry is not subject to interstate commerce laws because the act states, and the Supreme Court has confirmed, that insurance is not commerce. The act also exempts health-insurance companies from federal antitrust laws, which are designed to break up monopolies.

As a result, there are 50 sets of regulations for insurance companies, and crossing state lines to enter another market can prove costly, so the companies don’t do it.

There has been talk lately of ditching the act, but doing so was removed from the plan passed last month by the Senate Finance Committee. Instead it will be addressed with a separate amendment.

What about allowing the federal government to provide competition? I asked.

Herger answered quickly: “Now you do write for a private newspaper,” he said. “How would you like it if you had the federal government competing with you? The federal government doesn’t have to turn a profit. As a matter of fact, they can lose money; they can do it inefficiently. That isn’t competition. What that is, is a sure guarantee that they will run everybody out of business.”

But how, I asked, is that different from Medicare?

“Well, Medicare is for seniors, which is about 47 percent of our health care in the United States,” he said. “And we see that the federal government pays hospitals about 20 percent less than what the hospitals’ costs are.

“Medicare, by the way, is going broke. I don’t know of anything the government runs efficiently. I don’t know of anything they don’t run into debt. Having the government involved is probably the last thing in the world we want to be doing.”

That’s a remarkable statement coming from a man who’s been working in government all these years. Yes, there are certainly many government programs that are not run efficiently—none more inefficient and wasteful than Herger’s pet, the military. But there are far more that are run well, from local libraries and fire departments to the Veterans Administration, the U.S. Forest Service, the Coast Guard and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Internet, which by every measure is one of the most transformative systems ever created, is a government-made and -run program.

In the end, I said that the job must wear on him, especially after 23 years. How much longer, I asked, will he continue?

He perked up, his voice returning to its normal level of enthusiasm, which had drained away toward the end of the interview.

“You know,” he said, “I enjoy doing what I am doing. … I appreciate the honor that’s been given to me these years, and hope to continue doing it for a while, by the grace of God and the grace of the voters in our district.”