The vast majority of the House members departing from Congress in a few weeks are doing so because their political careers are coming to an end. Beto O’Rourke is not in this category.
The El Paso-area Democratic congressman gave up his House seat this year in order to mount a nearly impossible, grassroots challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, a place where Democrats have not won a statewide election in 20 years. He didn’t win, but he came remarkably close, and undeniably helped a few House Democrats down the ballot over the finish line.
So naturally, O’Rourke’s name was immediately included along with the approximately 4,000 governors, senators, former Cabinet members, and Resistance Billionaires said to be considering a run for the Democratic nomination. Earlier this month, O’Rourke topped the list in a straw poll of MoveOn.org members asking who they’d support in 2020, beating out other potential frontrunners like Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
During his Senate campaign, O’Rourke ran on a pretty liberal platform—legalizing marijuana, supporting a public option and at least paying lip service to Medicare for All, rejecting PAC money, and so on. One of the best moments during his campaign was when he spoke forcefully for justice after Dallas police officer Amber Guyger shot and killed Botham Jean in his own apartment. Not exactly conventional wisdom for someone running a statewide race in Texas! But with a few exceptions (notably found in Texas-based media), O’Rourke’s voting record during his three terms in the House, for most of which he was an unknown backbencher, faced a surprising lack of scrutiny from the media during his nationally visible run for Senate.
With the possibility of a presidential run in his future, that’s not gonna happen again. On Thursday, David Sirota of Capital & Main co-published with Newsweek and The Guardian an overview of O’Rourke’s voting record in the House, and uh, it’s not great. Per Sirota:
Amid persistently high economic inequality and a climate change crisis, O’Rourke has voted for GOP bills that his fellow Democratic lawmakers said reinforced Republicans’ tax agenda, chipped away at the Affordable Care Act, weakened Wall Street regulations, boosted the fossil fuel industry and bolstered Trump’s immigration policy. Consumer, environmental, public health and civil rights organizations have cast legislation backed by O’Rourke as aiding big banks, undermining the fight against climate change and supporting Trump’s anti-immigrant program. During the previous administration, President Barack Obama’s White House issued statements slamming two GOP bills backed by the 46-year-old Democratic legislator.
For example: O’Rourke co-sponsored and voted for a GOP-led bill in 2015 to repeal a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rule aiming to shield consumers from racial discrimination by auto lenders; a 2015 study showed that black car owners were often charged hundreds of dollars more than white car owners due to paying higher interest rates.
“This CFBP guidance was offered without public comment, review or examination of the data and methods used to decide the extent to which discriminatory lending is occurring,” O’Rourke said in a 2015 Medium post explaining his vote. “This lack of openness has created uncertainty, criticism of the CFPB’s conclusions, and has made loans more expensive to borrowers.”
Earlier this year, Congress repealed this bill and Trump signed it; O’Rourke, who was running for Senate at the time, changed his mind and voted against the bill that was signed into law.
O’Rourke also voted for some extremely pro-cop bullshit multiple times throughout his House career. One bill O’Rourke and 47 other House Democrats voted for, which was dubbed the Thin Blue Line Act, added killing a police officer to “the list of aggravating factors” to justify a death penalty sentence in federal cases. In June of last year, O’Rourke voted to waive polygraph test requirements for Customs and Border Patrol agents, which CBP was using in an attempt to root out the widespread corruption throughout the agency. O’Rourke’s reasoning for voting for the bill was that these anti-corruption measures were just slowing down the CBP’s hiring too much.
“If we want to capitalize on our relationship with Mexico and Canada, increase trade, reduce wait times and improve quality of life for people who live along our country’s borders we need to make sure that CBP has the tools it needs to hire efficiently and effectively,” O’Rourke said in defense of his vote. No thanks, man.
In all, during the past two years—where Trump’s presidency and O’Rourke’s tenure in the House overlapped—O’Rourke voted with Trump nearly 30 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. That’s about 12 percent more than he’s expected to given the makeup of his district.
If your response to all of this is, “He’s a Congressman from Texas,” Hillary Clinton won O’Rourke’s district by 40 points in 2016, and the district has had a Democratic member of Congress for all but two years of its 100+ year existence. If your response is, “You sicko radical left Bernie Bros are at it again!!!,” damn. You got me.
In all seriousness: It’s possible that O’Rourke has evolved, and that his rhetoric on the campaign trail reflected what he now truly believes. Maybe you’re the kind of person who can overlook some of O’Rourke’s votes here (and others detailed in the Capital & Main report) as the cost of doing business when you’re in the minority party, as O’Rourke was during his entire tenure in the House. But ahead of what promises to be a very long, drawn out, and enormously shitty 2020 cycle, it’s important that people know who and what they’re voting for before the hype machine takes over.
And, if nothing else, this is a great reminder that you should always give more weight to what politicians actually do rather than what they say.