Womack criticizes political climate amid divided Congress

‘Distractions’ stop function

U.S. Rep. Steve Womack (left), R-Ark., then the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, talks with the then-chairman, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., at the Capitol in Washington in this Feb. 12, 2020 file photo. Womack had been the chairman of the committee, and Yarmuth the ranking member, before Democrats took control of the House in 2018. Yarmuth retired from the House in January 2023 after eight terms. (AP/Alex Brandon)
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack (left), R-Ark., then the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, talks with the then-chairman, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., at the Capitol in Washington in this Feb. 12, 2020 file photo. Womack had been the chairman of the committee, and Yarmuth the ranking member, before Democrats took control of the House in 2018. Yarmuth retired from the House in January 2023 after eight terms. (AP/Alex Brandon)


WASHINGTON -- When U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, left the House Republican Conference meeting Wednesday morning at the Capitol Hill Club, he was greeted by reporters looking to speak with Republican lawmakers.

In Womack's account of the moment to the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas on Thursday, the first question directed to the congressman was about Rep. George Santos, the New York congressman indicted on multiple federal charges.

Womack answered the question, calling the situation a "distraction" and a "punch line," but contended Thursday the focus on Santos is part of a larger issue regarding the nation's handling of political issues.

"There is the poster child for what's wrong in America, what's wrong in this town," Womack said about the question. "We get distracted by junk, by noise, and a small handful of people make all of this happen."

Womack and other Arkansas congressional delegates spoke to the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas on Thursday during the groups' annual Washington Fly-In summit. Lawmakers provided reports on legislative issues and answered questions from Arkansas business leaders.

The trip coincided with a hectic period in Washington. White House and congressional leaders are working to find common ground on a plan to raise the debt ceiling. The House of Representatives passed a sweeping immigration bill Thursday along party lines as Republicans decried the end of Title 42, a public health emergency order expelling migrants who enter the United States illegally.

House Republicans struggled to get enough votes Wednesday to set up passage of the immigration bill; Republicans control the chamber by a nine-seat margin and scurried to get enough votes from their caucus. Womack noted Santos' significance in passing conservative proposals given the narrow majority.

"It's no doggone wonder that the American people out here who are getting up every morning, going to work, doing their jobs, educating their kids, paying the mortgage, and dealing with inflation and all of things that are going on in this country," Womack said before breaking off.

"Rome is burning, and Congress is fiddling. And this is the challenge that we have."

The biggest challenge facing Congress and the nation, from Womack's perspective, is overcoming the "division of the body politic." While House Republicans have succeeded in passing parts of their conservative agenda, the bills have poor chances of getting out of the Democrat-controlled Senate.

"There are so many issues facing us right now, and yet we are so politically divided," said Womack, a former Rogers mayor. "Everything up here is a weapon. Everything up here has some political weaponization to it."

The congressman added: "It's sad that the greatest country in the history of the world has this great political divide going on that's keeping it from doing its most basic function."

The split is evident in efforts to raise the debt ceiling. President Joe Biden and congressional leaders met Tuesday to discuss a possible deal with little progress. House Republicans approved a plan last month to increase the debt ceiling through next March with limits on discretionary spending and collection of unused coronavirus relief funds. Democrats have called for a clean debt limit increase with warnings about how the House plan could curb government services.

A meeting between Biden and lawmakers planned for today was called off.

Arkansas' four House members supported the chamber's proposal, which passed in a 217-215 vote.

"If you read what we passed two weeks ago, you would think that the House Republicans are trying to reclaim some moral high ground on deficit and debt, and nothing could be further from the truth," Womack, a senior House appropriator, said Thursday, acknowledging the bill as a "small baby step."

"It would only bring us back next year to have to revisit this same stuff."

If national leaders want to address annual deficits, Womack said, everything must be considered, including what he acknowledged as the elephant in the room: spending related to Medicaid and Social Security.

The House plan does not include cuts to either program.

"We're going to have to talk about it," Womack said. "I want you to be careful not to think I'm implying we need to be cutting entitlement programs, because I'm not suggesting that. Too many people rely on them."

Womack emphasized talking about spending for such programs would be part of a "full-throated, sober, adult conversation" concerning federal spending.

"You were sent up here to manage some of the nation's most difficult challenges," he said in reference to his colleagues. "It's going to require some tough votes."

"We got to get Congress working together again, and we got to find some bipartisan solutions, which means that I'm probably not going to get everything I want, and they're probably not going to get everything they want," Womack added. "Whatever we produce might make everybody mad, which may be the litmus test to whether it's good or not. But we got to fix this."

Lawmakers have weeks to find a solution on the debt ceiling. The Department of Treasury may be unable to continue meeting the nation's obligations if Congress fails to act by June 1.