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Jeff Fortenberry: Crunchy Congressman

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry defied Grover Norquist—here’s why.
Jeff Fortenberry

Jeff Fortenberry is a four-term Republican congressman representing Nebraska’s First Congressional District, which includes the city of Lincoln. A 51-year-old father of five, the Louisiana-born Fortenberry has built a strong conservative record in Washington, particularly on issues key to social conservatives. Yet he has begun to distinguish himself somewhat from the House GOP pack by challenging party orthodoxy on tax and economic issues.

Last year, Fortenberry, who holds an undergraduate degree in economics and master’s degrees in public policy and theology, raised eyebrows by refusing to renew his commitment to the Americans for Tax Reform pledge never to vote for a tax increase. By declining to bow towards ATR president Grover Norquist, a pro forma ritual for Republican lawmakers, Fortenberry signaled a willingness to rethink the right’s tax orthodoxy in light of changing times.

It’s not that the Nebraskan is becoming more moderate, but rather that he sees Republican policies as driven too much by Wall Street and not enough by Main Street. And the devoutly Catholic Fortenberry, whose divinity degree is from the notably conservative Franciscan University of Steubenville, is beginning to advocate a conservatism that draws on the Catholic social principles of subsidiarity, which entails a commitment to localism and strengthening the small-scale institutions of civil society. He thinks this might just be the philosophical breakthrough the conservative movement needs to get unstuck from its intellectual stasis, and to reinvigorate the moral imagination of the country.

He recently spoke to TAC:

Rod Dreher: Like you, Rick Santorum is a conservative Catholic Republican. He had some success in the GOP primary by articulating a conservative vision that was more appealing to blue-collar sensibilities. Now that things are settled in Mitt Romney’s favor, what are the lessons from the Santorum campaign?

Jeff Fortenberry: I think you had two factors involved here. Rick Santorum communicated a degree of vision, absent some tactics. Mitt Romney is an extraordinary tactician, but seemed to lack the ability to communicate a vision. I think that’s why the race kept alternating between the two of them. There is a need for a vision that’s compelling and uplifting, especially in a time when people are worried. At the same time, in this era hard work and lofty rhetoric are not going to compel you to the presidency.

When Rick Santorum told the story about being at his grandfather’s side on his deathbed, looking at how huge his hands were, and realizing that as an immigrant coal miner this man had dug his family to prosperity and freedom, that captured the imagination of people, and formed a connection with people that Republicans need to form. He clearly tapped into something wanting in American life.

RD: You broke party ranks last year by refusing to renew your pledge not to vote for any future tax increases. Since when do Republican congressmen dare to defy Grover Norquist?

JF: My responsibility is to make judgments about hard, complex issues that I believe to be right. Simply looking at the status quo and suggesting that the tax code is sacrosanct and can never change, and that decisions made in the ’80s and ’90s can never change, is absurd. The tax code is weighted toward the ultra-wealthy and ultra-wealthy corporations, and has created an offshore aristocracy of people who can afford to hire an army of accountants and lawyers. This shifts the tax burden to small businesses, entrepreneurs, and others. I don’t want to see taxes go up on any hardworking American. We need a simpler, fairer tax code. Removing special-interest loopholes could potentially increase revenues and allow for lower rates.

RD: You have been a strong advocate of small farmers and strengthening local food systems. Why is this something conservatives should care about?

JF: We can have systems that are small and local and efficient, or big and unaccountable. Take our financial system. We went through a horrific financial crisis because of a lack of accountability, a lack of ethics, and a lack of proper regulatory oversight. We had corporations so big nobody had any understanding of what was in the portfolio. I compare that to what happened in Nebraska. We had hardly any banks with problems, because they’re main-street banks. They’re small banks. They work with the farmer, the small retailer, the entrepreneur. They understand their business model, and they are responsible. They don’t take inordinate financial risks. When you have a system that’s so big that no one can fully understand it, you’ve got a system that’s not only too big to fail, it’s too big to succeed.

I believe in the benefits of localism as a more traditional economic model. We’re trying to revive an understanding of the dignity and capacity of the person who becomes a steward of free-market principles. Localism is natural to agriculture. In Nebraska, we have a growing desire among the next generation to farm, but some don’t have access to the types of capital and landholding necessary to get their foothold. We should encourage an entrepreneurial movement that gives young people the chance to work the land without a lot of overhead getting in the way of their start-up. We need to reconnect farmers to families, urban to rural, and strengthen local economies, while upholding the extraordinary success of production agriculture as well.

RD: How does a farm state Republican congressman stand up to Big Ag like this?

JF: We don’t talk in either-or terms; we talk in both-ands. There is a need for large-scale production. There is also a need for the family farm. And there is a growing market for the new farmer-entrepreneur who is going to move farm goods directly to the dinner table. We can celebrate our current agricultural model and augment it with new agricultural movements that are becoming more viable as new markets emerge and people become more interested in knowing where their food comes from and how it is raised.

RD: But people say that if the market would support this kind of agriculture, we would already have it.

JF: Allowing space for traditional farm markets in many ways is actually upholding free-market principles. We have important ag policies in Washington that have undergirded the huge success of American agriculture, but to suggest that there are laissez-faire economic policies in agriculture is false.

One problem in ag policy is that we have about 70 percent of agricultural supports going to 10 percent of farmers. Government policies underwrite the concentration of land into fewer hands. I think that undermines the free market.

RD: You have criticized bank bailouts and what you call “the privatization of profit and the socialization of risk.” Your fellow Louisiana-born Republican, Buddy Roemer, is a professional banker who strongly criticizes the U.S. financial system, saying that Wall Street has captured the political system. Is he right?

JF: Yes, he’s right. Look at what happened with the whole Dodd-Frank proposal. The whole premise was we have to prevent systemic collapse like we had in 2008. I didn’t support it, but Congress passed the legislation. I have good bankers here in Nebraska who had no role in the financial crisis, who are in fact the antidote to the financial crisis, because they’re small enough to manage their portfolios well. They’re extremely frustrated because of the new regulatory culture brought on them by the misbehavior of the big banks. Ask yourself: what advantage have we seen by concentration of assets in fewer and fewer hands on Wall Street? Five banks now hold a majority of banking assets in the country. I think this is anti-free market. It’s the regulatory capture of an entire industry.

RD: How did this happen?

JF: It’s complicated. A lot of people, both left and right, see Washington as a leading driver of policies and outcomes. Actually, it lags. It’s responding to problems, not preventing problems. While you have a great deal of grumbling over the financial bailouts, which were started under President Bush, carried on by President Obama, and supported by both Republicans and Democrats, you also have complicity. Look at [former] Treasury Secretary Paulson. What did he do before he came to government? He ran Goldman Sachs. What did [Jon] Corzine do? He ran Goldman Sachs. Then he left government, ran MF Global, and broke that company. The system is too big, and there’s no accountability from individuals to the organization. Fixing this would require a different economic model, and that’s a Herculean undertaking given the status quo and the revolving door of big players between government and the financial sector.

RD: You were one of the few Capitol Hill lawmakers to meet with the English political philosopher Phillip Blond when he came to Washington last year to talk about his “Red Tory” reform conservatism. Why did you see him?

JF: I find him fascinating. All of Europe basically works on a statist model. For Phillip Blond to speak about the concepts of localism, this is radical in Europe. Undergirding all this is the philosophical proposition of subsidiarity, which is the idea that those closest to a problem or an opportunity should solve the problem or seize the opportunity. That has been the strength of our country until recently. We’ve strayed from it over the last 30 to 40 years.

Today, we’re stacking more and more responsibility on our government structure in Washington, expecting it to solve problems that it’s not capable of solving. The left wants more money, the right wants to take more money away from D.C. But the real challenge on the right is reviving the formative institutions of local culture that undergird the principle of subsidiarity.

People perceive that telling their congressman to do something about a problem is enough. But we’ve got to revive these institutions of culture. That begins with the family, faith communities, and civic institutions. When somebody comes to me with a problem and asks me to do something about it, I tell them I’ll do what I can to help them, but I also ask them what they’re doing about it on a local level.

We no longer have an understanding of the mediating role of institutions in society. There’s deep brokenness and woundedness, and there’s a place for government programs in the absence of mediating institutions. We’re losing the influence of those civic associations and institutions that teach natural virtues, ethics, and ideals. We’ve taken all these institutions for granted for a long time, and now we wonder why we have problems. So we dump all our problems on Capitol Hill and expect Washington to fix things, and wonder why it can’t.

Nebraska’s past is agrarian. Our culture is rooted in the land. Hard work, personal responsibility, and neighbor helping neighbor are the natural, operative virtues. This has affected our approach to governance, public finance, and education. Put simply, you don’t spend what you don’t have. Decisions regarding the education of young people are left to parents, teachers, and those within a community, not with far-off bureaucracies. An example of a tremendous Nebraska cultural institution is Boys and Girls Town. Theirs is a highly effective model of caring for and nurturing young people who have no one else. It works so well because it builds up these kids within a family structure—a loving, caring mother and a nurturing, protective father.

RD: You have a master’s degree in public policy, but you also have a master’s of theology degree. You’re strongly pro-life and against gay marriage, but how does your faith guide your political thinking beyond those standard conservative issues?

JF: My faith informs my conscience, and I hope it also sensitizes me to the needs of those who are broken, and wounded, and poor. That’s the balance here. How do we rebuild a society that’s founded in truth, built on justice, and animated by compassion? I owe everything to my faith. My faith helps me personally through the gift of grace, to try to heal my own wounds, and I hope I’m making a contribution to healing others.

I got my undergraduate degree in economics. I had a deep longing to explore public service and got a master’s in public policy from Georgetown. I continued to have a hunger in my heart to explore deeper questions, and sought a master’s of theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. I think this made me more well-rounded. I kept asking not just “how” but “why.” You’d read studies of market efficiency, of how the consumer benefits from different modes of production, but you keep asking yourself: What’s the meaning and purpose behind it all? What is the purpose of law? Where does law come from? What is the benefit of this system? I crafted a program that took me deeper into the philosophy of law, the philosophy of the person, and the nature of community. At a younger age, I don’t think I would have had the capacity to even ask those questions. I had an intellectual curiosity in this regard, but I didn’t know where to turn. I’m grateful I was exposed to the great canon of classical-liberal philosophical traditions.

RD: There seems to be more or less a consensus among thoughtful conservatives that American conservatism is stale and intellectually tapped out. Where will the revival come from?

JF: What we’re lacking is imagination. I was elected in 2004. Leading up to the 2006 elections, our freshman Republican class had prominent political figures in the party coming to us saying, “You guys gotta do something, we’re going to get hammered.” It shocked me that they saw the fate of the conservative movement was in the hands of us neophytes. There was such a lack of imagination. So much stagnation.

After we got hammered in ’06, those of us who survived got back to D.C. bruised and angry. We heard lots of talk about how the Republican Party had to hearken back to Goldwater and Reagan. Goldwater? How many people under 40 even know who Goldwater is? I became a Republican under Reagan. He moves me, he animates me, but you can’t return to a concept from 30 years ago either. He engaged the world by moving to defeat the Soviet Union. He did many good things. But you can’t lift that nostalgia and move it into the present. We have to draw on the best and highest of our traditions, but each generation has the responsibility to articulate the timeless truths in language that’s compelling and beautiful in the present moment.

President Obama captured people’s imagination. When I won reelection in ’08, I walked out of my celebration party onto the streets of Lincoln, Nebraska. There was a cacophony. A hundred young people were walking down the main street chanting, “Yes we can!” He really did give the next generation reason to think we can pull together. Now, it was superficially plausible; it wasn’t rooted in first principles. He was, though, able to capture the imagination of many.

We also have to do this. That’s why I think an entrepreneurial model rooted in localism, one that defends family life and defends cultural institutions as critical to social renewal, is a compelling vision. I like to say: let’s keep Nebraska a great place to live, work, and raise a family.

We have to have a vibrant economy that’s good for persons. We have to also be talking about a different economic emphasis, rather than the current one, which simply focuses on the tactics of job creation but is not challenging the concentration of power in Washington and Wall Street, which is making us more insecure.

A farmer’s son recently told me that his dad was known as having the straightest rows in the county. Everybody admired his work. When it came time for him as boy to learn dad’s techniques, dad put him in a tractor and told him to see how straight he could get the rows. He kept turning around to see how straight they were. He got to the end, and the rows were meandering and crooked. His father said, “Son, pick a point in the future, focus on that, and stop looking back—don’t get distracted.”

RD: I often think that the biggest thing standing in the way of conservatism’s revitalization is Conservatism, Inc. The conservative-industrial complex. Do you agree?

JF: I don’t think anger is a good long-term strategy. People don’t derive hope from anger. A sustainable vision for any organization must lift the heart while forming the mind—especially in the midst of great problems and challenges. Think about what inspires: that which is good, that which is true, that which is beautiful.

Any system has to renew itself to stay entrepreneurial. People today are so deeply cynical of the institution of Congress. There’s a media out there tearing down the institution for its own benefit, not to mention the bad examples of some in Congress. So when you have organizations, think tanks, or conservative-movement groups that aren’t renewing themselves, but constantly looking back to models that worked before, their rows are going to be crooked.

Look at fundraising letters. They appeal to fear and anger. They do not appeal to the visionary, or the beautiful. Fear and anger can work, but only in the short term, not the long term. It’s for the hundred-yard dash, not a marathon. We’ve got to focus on the marathon.

Rod Dreher is a TAC senior editor. His blog is www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher.



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