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Q&A

Colonel of Truth

Freshman House member Billy Long has gone from selling goods to selling ideas. This job may be harder.

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The Voice: Republican Billy Long(Chet Susslin)

Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., is becoming a larger-than-life figure in Washington. And it’s not just because of his large figure. The Missourian rode the smaller-government, less-spending wave into Congress last November despite (or perhaps because of) his lack of legislative experience.

What he does have is a booming voice, honed by his years in auctioneering and AM radio, that Long is not afraid to inject into the rambunctious debate on fiscal austerity. He is developing a reputation as a straight-talker, and the House GOP leadership has taken a shine to him.

 

Long, who was a no vote on the recent fiscal 2011 continuing resolution that averted a government shutdown because he didn’t think it went far enough to cut spending, is a member of a freshman class that promises to continue to bring a loud and demanding voice to the budget debates ahead. Edited excerpts of his interview with National Journal follow.

NJ How did being an auctioneer prepare you for Congress?

LONG I come from a sales background, and a lot of this is a big sale. You saw [John] Boehner and [President] Obama working on the budget, each guy trying to outmaneuver each other. A salesman is a negotiator, and a politician is a negotiator. The thing about being an auctioneer is that the universal term is colonel. [In the Civil War, colonels were responsible for auctioning goods confiscated by the army.] Here everyone calls me “Congressman.”

 

NJ Which do you prefer—colonel or congressman?

LONG Billy.

NJ Can you cite an example of where your salesmanship came into play?

LONG On the health care debate, I pointed out that Democrats wanted to use 10 years worth of taxes to pay for a six-year program. I thought that was a no-good deal. I said they were trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. That’s exactly what they were doing. Anyway, if you say something like, “You are trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” it’s going to get some attention.

 

NJ I like that, but I don’t know exactly what it means.

LONG It’s a plan that doesn’t make sense. I don’t know about where you grew up, but where I grew up, the adults in my neighborhood didn’t spend 42 percent more than they take in. That’s what we do in this country. That’s not adult behavior.

NJ You also didn’t like the short-term budget deal. How did you feel about John Boehner as a negotiator?

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LONG I think John Boehner did a tremendous job. He was fighting with one arm tied behind his back and had a sprained thumb on his good hand. I think that $39 billion [cut] was big; I think he did a very good job, but I still don’t want to vote for it, because it didn’t go far enough. The other night when they explained the budget bill, Speaker Boehner said, “Here’s the budget figure the Senate gave on January 6, and here’s the figure they gave on January 14, and here’s the figure that Obama gave.” There were like six different numbers. So I got up in conference and said, “You been rattlin’ off more numbers here than an auctioneer. What are we cutting?” He said $39 billion. I sat down knowing that I wasn’t going to vote for it.

NJ You’ve come across as a true tea party kind of guy, but you haven’t joined the Tea Party Caucus. Why is that?

LONG I’m probably more tea party than the tea party. In southwest Missouri, we were tea party before tea party was cool. I don’t join caucuses unless I really feel like I have time to devote to them.

NJ What are the prospects for the next budget negotiations?

LONG I’m a spending guy. The $61 billion—that’s cutting 3.8 percent of the deficit. Now, come on, we can’t cut 3.8 percent off of the deficit we’re running? That’s why I think we need to cut at least $61 billion, and now we are talking about the Ryan plan and we are going to cut trillions and trillions of dollars. And I’m like, how? To me, saying we’re going to cut trillions is like a guy who can’t walk around the block telling me he’s going to run a marathon next week.

NJ How do you feel about Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan?

LONG Anything Paul Ryan does budget-wise has to be pretty good. But it’s going to be tough. Each battle, I think, is going to get tougher. This one may have been tough and almost shut the government down, [but it] is probably going to look like a cakewalk compared to the debt ceiling, and the debt ceiling is going to look like a cakewalk compared to the budget.

NJ Will you vote to raise the debt ceiling?

LONG We are going to have to get some extreme, not extreme—we’re going to have to get some good-sized spending cuts before I’d even look at it. It’s going to be another negotiating thing.

This article appears in the April 23, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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