As U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney wraps up his second term, he’s frustrated about the partisanship of Congress. He’s concerned a President in his own party hasn’t let science take the lead on pandemic response. And months after being the last Republican House member to go on record opposing impeachment, he suggests the greatest problem was Democrats who didn’t take the time to make their case.
The Naples Republican spoke with Florida Politics about his hopes for the future and the plagues that endure in the nation’s Capitol.
FP: You recently suggested to Spectrum News you saw elements of Joe Biden’s pandemic plan that were better than the current administration. Can you point to specifics?
Rooney: Well, I think we ought to listen to the scientists. I’m not a scientist. I think that most of what I’ve read, says the best two things you can do are wear masks and keep distance and not stay out.
Should there be a mask mandate statewide or nationwide?
Rooney: I don’t know that we need a mandate, but from what I’ve read, masks are a very important element in preventing the spread of COVID, so why not do it?
It caught people’s attention when President Donald Trump talked about ‘[Anthony] Fauci and these idiots’ at a rally. Do you believe that’s political rhetoric, or is the administration listening enough to the CDC’s guidance?
Rooney: Well, there seems to be some acrimony between the administration and some of the scientists that are involved. I don’t know about the CDC per se; the CDC seems to be doing pretty much what the President wants. You know there’s been a kind of back and forth on their guidance here and there. Some of the papers or articles I’ve read in The Wall Street Journal. These have indicated that the administration has a lot of dialogue with the CDC.
So how can we get back to a spot where scientists are leading policy rather than the other way around?
Rooney: It will take leadership at the top deciding they want to do that.
Do you think there’s any difference in how Mike Pence has led the White House Coronavirus Task Force and what we see from the President?
Rooney: I haven’t necessarily felt that. I think they are all pretty much in sync.
Should state governments be stepping up more with their own leadership on the response?
Rooney: I would say this is a national emergency and calls for national leadership myself. I think a lot of states have taken a lot of leadership. But if you look at as a national challenge, like polio was considered a national challenge in its day, and malaria and yellow fever and all these other things, then you would probably look for a national policy and response.
Have you been surprised how long this pandemic has affected our lives, and do you think anything could have been done to prevent that?
Rooney: No, I’m not, because once it came about, the only answer was going to be to get a vaccine, and those things take time.
How long should America be braced for it to take before a working vaccine is available?
Rooney: I was just watching Fauci here on CNN, and he’s saying you know we’re getting to the cold time of the year, which means we will have more cases. I really don’t know. That’s so far out of my competency and experience.
But you don’t feel we have turned a corner?
Rooney: I don’t think we have, have we? You know I don’t know if we have or not. I just am hoping that more people will wear masks and socially distance and that the vaccine makers will continue their all-out efforts, and I think they’re all going all out. I think the President’s supportive; that’s been a good thing. And hopefully, we’ll come up with a couple of vaccines here before long that people will believe in.
Is there anything Congress could do to steer this ship?
Rooney: The only thing I can think of the Congress can do is do another aid package, if they can come to an agreement on one, which they have not done yet.
Why’s it taking so long to reach a deal, in your opinion?
Rooney: There are a lot of differences of opinion about the spending, and they’re well-founded. We’ve been spending like crazy the last four years, ever since I got into this business. I mean, that tax cut was one-and-a-half-trillion dollars. The spending bills were one-and-a-half-trillion dollars, and this is when we had Republican control of the whole government.
How can that change?
Rooney: That’s gonna take some people that are willing to say no and not spend money. But I don’t know where you’re ever gonna get that out of politicians.
Any advice to Byron Donalds, the Republican running to succeed you?
Rooney: I would expect Byron would be pretty conservative on that step. I hope he will. He has been in the past at the state level. Next week I’m going to [look] for the chance to visit with him. Find out what he thinks. It would not be my place to be giving anybody advice. If Byron, or whoever wins, came and asked me about something, I’ll be glad to help out any way I can. But that’s really up to them to decide what advice they want.
You were the first Republican to vote by proxy in the House. Why did you do that over the objections of caucus leadership?
Rooney: I think it’s a good idea, and I don’t know what the problem is. I’ve listened to the arguments against it, but they just don’t seem all that meritorious to me. I think it’s just should be due to the exigency of the virus. But in Estonia, you vote for President on your laptop. Technology is different. It is kind of a game-changer in some things. But I didn’t want to go down there. I think that on a good day, it’s a dangerous environment of germs and cold and things like that. I just didn’t want to take the chance of getting the virus. I’m 67, I’ve had asthma and a few things like that, and I just don’t have any interest in getting that virus. If I have the option to remote in, I think it was a good idea. And I encouraged the leadership to do it. This business about unfettered power to the Speaker and how she can drive people to vote a certain way, that’s not true at all. The guy that I’m pairing my vote with, Don Beyer, a Democrat from Alexandria, he voted against his own bill because I wanted to vote against it.
Do you think the House needs to be aggressively investigating some of these communications that have come allegedly from Hunter Biden’s computers?
Rooney: I really haven’t paid much attention to it. I paid a lot of attention to the hearings about the impeachment, and Burisma, and the call of the President and all that. But as far as what was on the laptop, I haven’t paid that much attention to it. My understanding is that even though there may have been discussions of the Vice President [Joe Biden] doing a meeting, I don’t think the meeting took place. I mean, obviously, Hunter Biden was used by the Ukrainians, and they paid him an awful lot of money to get his attention.
Having followed this closely, would Joe Biden, should he be elected, be compromised in dealings with Ukraine?
Rooney: No. I mean, it doesn’t sound like he did anything, the Vice President.
There are Republican voters in Florida’s 19th Congressional District who were frustrated you didn’t take a harder stance against impeachment proceedings, even though you ultimately voted against impeaching Trump. Why did you entertain the investigation?
Rooney: I wanted to hear the evidence. And I’m going to tell you the evidence that I heard; it’s not really great. I think the call was kind of inappropriate. And he [President Trump] did pressure Ukraine, but I talked to two ex-White House counsels and a lot of other people, and nobody that I talked to you felt that rose to the level of impeachment. I mean, look what it took to get Nixon. It took a lot of things. It took a long time. It ultimately took those tapes. There are a lot of people [who] feel that Nixon never would have had any trouble if it hadn’t have been for the tapes. I was an intern in the Senate at the time for Henry Bellmon.
What do you think will be the legacy of the impeachment?
Rooney: I think it reinforces the partisanship of the whole situation. And it didn’t do any good. And the Senate didn’t convict. In some ways, it might have been a gunshot that was fired too quickly. And maybe if they’d waited to see some of the other things that seem to be happening. How about this thing today of a no-bid contract for the 5G network. I hope that’s not true; I really do.
Are you saying a better case for impeachment could have been made if they had moved more slowly?
Rooney: I don’t know; I’m just saying there’s a lot of things to keep piling up. You know, you have the when did the President know about COVID stuff and when did he act on it. You have this thing that came up today about a no-bid contract. I just can’t imagine that’s true; I just absolutely hope that the White House can totally deny that.
Have you voted?
Rooney: I’m going to vote next week in Naples.
Should we presume you will vote for the President’s reelection?
Rooney: You know, one of the few remaining sacred rights of the citizens around here is to have a secret vote. Most of the other rights have got compromised one way or another. Fortunately, the administration’s done a good job of helping protect the First Amendment rights, and I thank them for that, and of course, the Second Amendment as well, but the Supreme Court took care of that with DC versus Heller.
What are your thoughts on the Supreme Court confirmation hearings?
Rooney: Amy Coney Barrett is going to be a great Justice. It’s been much more civil than it was Brett Kavanaugh, that’s for sure.
As you leave, what could be done to improve how Congress does business?
Rooney: There’s three things that could be done. One, you could eliminate highly partisan districts. Two, you could put in term limits. Remember, the Founders never envisioned a professional political career. They thought it would be citizen service, and it started out that way. It started out that way. And the third thing you could do would be to put back the Fairness Doctrine if you could figure out how to do it with the new technologies where public service broadcasting requires that if you say one side of a political position, you have to also say the other side.
Talk radio personalities have pushed back on that for a long time.
Rooney: They are opposed to a lot of things. What do they have to fear? What’s wrong with putting out both sides and letting the people decide?
What are you proudest of from your four years in the House?
Rooney: Definitely two things. One was getting the offshore drilling ban passed in the House and being part of a team of Senators and Representatives to convince our President to extend it [a drilling moratorium off Florida’s coast]. That’s a good thing. The other thing is getting a couple billion dollars for the Everglades. That’s part of why I ran for this. We’d gone all these years and gotten a paltry $30 million or something. That’s not going to get us to the finish line on building out all these big projects. Now we have got a lot of money. They can finish the Herbert Hoover Dike a couple of years early, which means they can store more water. We’re going to get the Picayune Strand finished now. They are starting the A-2 Reservoir now, the next big project that will move water down to the Everglades National Park. There’s a lot of real positive stuff that you can do.