THIS WEEK'S TOP STORIES
Politics: The first from the 7th as Tom Rice goes to Congress
By Jason Lesley
Tom Rice becomes Congressman Tom Rice today when he is sworn in as the representative from the 7th Congressional district of South Carolina.
Rice, 55, describes the circumstances that propelled him from chairman of the Horry County Council to a member of the United States Congress as “surreal.”
He finished second in a field of nine Republicans — most were better known statewide — in a primary, beat former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer in a runoff and bested Democrat Gloria Bromell Tinubu in the November election.
In Washington for almost two months now, Rice says he has finally overcome the urge to pull out his cell phone to take pictures of the Capitol rotunda lit up against the night sky.
“I still have trouble believing I get to work here,” he said.
Rice calls his election “a humbling thing” but insists he hasn’t come the U.S. House to be a cheerleader.
“There’s a lot to do,” he said. “You have to get organized and bring yourself up to speed about the problems the country is facing.”
Perhaps it’s a signal that Rice will be looking at all possible solutions that he attended orientation sessions presented by the conservative Heritage Foundation and liberal Harvard University. He said about 30 Republican freshmen attended the session at the Heritage Foundation, the new employer of former S.C. Sen. Jim DeMint, and 11 went to the one at Harvard along with 35 Democrats.
“Both were very good, very enlightening,” Rice said. “It’s funny, but both painted a dire prediction of our debt. Three panelists at Harvard all said we have to get this straight and we have just one year. The eyes of the financial community are watching. I recognize the need for both parties to come together to move forward.”
Rice says he’s ready to go to work after getting his staff and office up and running.
As a new member of Congress, he had to choose from the leftover offices far from the House floor after returning members and those who defeated an incumbent had an opportunity to move up.
“You don’t have knowledge of the infrastructure,” Rice said. “You are starting from scratch.”
In a bit of good timing, Rice hired Washington veteran Tyler Grassmyer as his chief of staff. Grassmyer worked as chief of staff for retiring Ohio Rep. Steve Austria.
Austria helped Rice open some doors that led to two-year appointments on the Budget, Transportation and Infrastructure, and Small Business committees.
“I think all three are very good committees,” Rice said, “and very good for this area.”
Transportation, for instance, could give him input into port dredging at Georgetown and the proposed Interstate 73 for Myrtle Beach.
“Transportation and infrastructure have been ignored for a long time,” Rice said. “I agree with everybody that spending is our problem, but infrastructure is an investment. We have to choose wisely with our limited dollars. I-73 is one of them. The Georgetown Port is not some pie in the sky thing. The cost is not that high. In the debate with nine primary Republican candidates, I was the only one who said no to closing the Georgetown Port. Infrastructure equals investment with a good return on the money. We haven’t gotten the attention we need, and we’re lagging in infrastructure. That’s one of the main reasons why we’re lagging in jobs.”
Rice said he is most happy with his Budget Committee appointment and the opportunity to work with Rep. Paul Ryan. “Being a tax lawyer and a CPA, I think I can help,” he said. “I am thrilled they want to put my experience to use. I did not come to Washington to sit on the sidelines.
“My perspective throughout has been more jobs, pro-business and getting the economy growing again. We have been our own worst enemy. At one time we could afford to take a position that business would come here. We were the dominant force in the world. There is more competition now, and our regulations and corporate tax rate tells companies that we don’t want them. Millions of jobs have gone overseas, and I want to see those jobs come back, but we will stay on shaky ground until we address our spending problem.”
Rice said he’s pretty sure that Congress’ first work when the session convenes Sunday will be to address the economy in light of the fiscal cliff deal passed at the last minute. He said he would have preferred Mitt Romney’s solution, but he understands that President Obama’s re-election means compromise.
“I work for this country,” he said, “but I am a representative of the people of this district.”
He has no specific legislative goals for himself — he has mentioned term limits — and expects that forging working alliances will be the first important thing he will need to tackle in Congress.
“I think that in the end,” Rice said, “it all comes down to relationships.”