Bill Flores

By Gretchen Eichenberg

Former congressman reflects on his time in Washington

Former Congressman Bill Flores never thought of himself as a politician — and he certainly doesn’t consider himself a Washington insider. But serving the 17th District of Texas for the past 10 years, he most definitely had an insider’s perspective, as he cast more than 6,000 votes on legislative activities, processed more than 5,000 casework requests on behalf of his constituents, helped get more than $700 million local grant and support requests approved, and traveled over a million miles, visiting U.S. troops and personnel in more than 30 countries around the world. He’s seen government at work — and at a standstill.

With the end of his tenure culminating in a global pandemic, extreme social unrest and a bitter presidential election, Flores sat down with Wacoan writer Gretchen Eichenberg to share his insight on everything from border security and the nation’s COVID-19 response to the January 6 riot and his relationship with Donald Trump.

THE BORDER

WACOAN: How do you define what is happening on our southern border right now? The Biden administration has said it is not a crisis. What is it?

Flores: It is a crisis. There is no other way to define it or to describe it other than a crisis.

WACOAN: Have you toured the border recently?

Flores: I haven’t toured it recently, but I did tour it during the Obama administration when we had a surge at the border. I went back early in President Trump’s term.

WACOAN: So, you have a sense for what it’s like there. There were so many in Washington who have never been there.

Flores: There’s so much misinformation now. And, of course, right now the media seems to be biased to minimize the problem when four years ago their bias was to maximize the problem.

The catalyst for the problems that we had four years ago is different than the catalyst that we have today, but we still have to deal with the problem the same way. And that’s going to be: We’ve got to secure the border. President Trump went a long way toward doing that.

Now the new president has decided that border security is not a big issue, and he’s paying the cost for it. Our South Texas farmers and ranchers are paying for it, but ultimately all parts of the lower income part of the working-class Americans are going feel the impact of having several hundred thousand new people coming in and competing for their jobs. Also there are the loads on our health care system, our educational system. The costs are going to be dramatic.

WACOAN: Enforcing the border is a national responsibility, but why is there not more power or control from the local level, the sheriffs?

Flores: The sheriffs, whether it’s a local government or state government, do not have any jurisdiction over border violations. They only have jurisdiction over if [immigrants] come over and they are committing other crimes or getting involved at DWI or things of that nature.

WACOAN: Many people — whether Washington politicians or everyday citizens — have opinions about the situation on our border. People who’ve never been there and people who aren’t from border states and communities make judgments about how it should be handled. What do you wish they knew?

Flores: That there is a huge human cost to not having good border security and that human cost is the impact on wages for lower income Americans.

Look, we have a legal immigration system. It doesn’t work as well as it should. It needs to be fixed. But when somebody comes here illegally, they hurt everybody who tries to immigrate legally because resources are diverted to deal with the illegal immigration problem.

WACOAN: How do we balance the need for border security with compassion for humans who are seeking asylum?

Flores: We should be compassionate. But to seek asylum, you can apply for asylum at a port of entry or you can apply at the embassy in your own country. You don’t have to break across the border.

There are ways to seek asylum, but [most] people that were applying for asylum did not qualify under the legal definition of asylum. So, asylum is being used as a way to try to game the immigration system.

COVID-19

WACOAN: It is pretty surreal to think back on the early days of the pandemic with those daily briefings with President Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci. Were you confident at that time that we were getting accurate information about everything?

Flores: Yes and no. I felt like the president’s advisers did a good job of sharing with America exactly where we stood. I think sometimes the president was trying to be the cheerleader, and I don’t blame him for that. He wanted Americans to feel confident and not be scared.

You know, if you remember [President Franklin D. Roosevelt] said, all we have to fear is fear itself. I think President Trump was trying to do the same thing. He just probably wasn’t as articulate about it.

I think because he was trying so hard to be positive that it may have put him in a position to be vulnerable, where people thought he was not being truthful with them. But he really thought we had a way to deal with this.

On the other hand you saw people that were totally misleading, [New York] Gov. Cuomo, for instance. He totally misled the folks in New York and the whole country about what he was doing.

I wrote an editorial, saying America’s in a unique position to deal with this better than anybody else. I was criticized for it, but I was right. If you think about the initial death projections from this, it was 2.1 million people by November or December. We had a lot of deaths, but we didn’t come close to that.

It’s because American health care responded, the American people responded, the American government responded, and American businesses responded. And that collaborative effort solved this. So we had fewer deaths than what we were petrified about, and we have a vaccine today.

WACOAN: What about the shutdown of the economy and the schools and, basically, the world — now, looking back, was that the right thing at the time?

Flores: In retrospect, we can say it probably wasn’t, but we didn’t know. I mean, we were driving into a dark fog, and we didn’t know all the details about the virus. There were so many unknowns.

You’ve got to remember where we were at that point in time: You couldn’t get [personal protective equipment]. We didn’t have a vaccine. We didn’t know what medicines would alleviate and mitigate the impact of the disease. We didn’t know how transmissible it was among kids. It was scary.

We didn’t have to shut the economy down. We needed to all, as Americans, be personally responsible and to wear a mask and to be careful and be socially distant. But I don’t think we had to shut the economy down. I think in the context of where we were at the time, we probably had to do that.

WACOAN: Gov. Abbott was criticized for being one of the first governors to lift the state mask mandate. What did you think of that?

Flores: I think the governor made the right decision. The science was starting to prove that we were getting on top of this bug. We were vaccinating millions of people, and the governor felt comfortable that we could begin to reopen the economy. And he was right, though he was widely criticized for it.

WACOAN: Do you have any reservations about how quickly the vaccine came together?

Flores: Not at all. We had hearing after hearing and briefing after briefing about the progress we were making, and I actually participated in the Moderna phase 3 study. I wanted to do the phase 2 trial, but they told me no, they didn’t want to kill a congressman. So when the phase 3 trials started, I didn’t tell them I was a congressperson. I just signed up like anybody else.

WACOAN: Why did you feel so called to do that?

Flores: Well, because I was hearing the politicization of the whole vaccine development effort. And the mRNA vaccine was partially developed by NIH, National Institutes of Health. That is one of the best government agencies we have. So, since they had their fingerprints on the messenger RNA technology, I felt comfortable that it would be OK to do it, and I’d studied how it worked when it gets into your body.

So I signed up to do it, and I thought, you know, leaders lead. I’m going to show leadership in this by getting it myself, getting it early, getting it first, and being part of the process. It turns out I got the placebo. I found that out in January, so I got four shots.

That put me in a position to say, look, I did it. It’s OK. Go get it. We want this to be over.

WACOAN: Do you have confidence in where we are right now and where we’re going in this pandemic?

Flores: Yeah. I think we’re going to look back and say the American people and the American economy, the American private sector and American government responded in an amazing way to defeat this. Better than anybody else in the world.

ELECTION REFORM

WACOAN: Do you think voter fraud impacted the 2020 elections?

Flores: Look, there’s voter fraud in every election. There are people that try to do things they shouldn’t.

There were substantial irregularities in this particular election. There’s no way to measure it, though. So you don’t know that impacted the election or not.

I don’t know, but I can tell you what voting irregularities do. They cause a lack of confidence in our democracy. And when you allow voter irregularities to go unfound or unpunished or unchecked, then you create a discord and you create uncertainty and you wind up with January 6.

WACOAN: Is that what happened?

Flores: There are lots of things that happened that caused January 6, but one of the things that happened is the American people, irrespective of party, didn’t trust the voting system. And we need to have a system that is ironclad, where all 160 million people who vote know that their vote counted and no irregular vote offset their vote. That’s what we need.

WACOAN: What about voter ID? Is that important to holding secure elections?

Flores: Voter ID is an integral part of maintaining the security of our voting system.

WACOAN: Do we need to make it easier to get an ID?

Flores: When the state of Texas first required voter ID, it came up with all these ways to make it super easy for somebody to get an ID so that when you voted, everybody knew that it was a valid vote.

So for people to try to discourage voter ID or to criticize voter ID goes well beyond the pale. You’ve got to have an ID for almost everything today. Voting is one of our most sacred responsibilities when you live in a representative republic.

WACOAN: What could Texas do better in our election process?

Flores: The area where the state of Texas really needs to clean up its act, I think, is mail-in ballots. There are still ways that mail-in ballots can be manipulated. So we’re going to have to come up with better signature verification.

In Limestone County, we had a lady who was applying for blank ballots [134] times. She was caught, but for every one that’s caught, we know there are people that don’t get caught.

JANUARY 6, 2021

WACOAN: Do you think ‘insurrection’ is the right word for what happened on January 6?

Flores: I don’t know what the right word is, but it was a dark stain on our American history and the American experiment with democracy. I think it’s going to be something that damages our republic.

With everything bad that happens, you hope something good comes out of it. I haven’t seen anything good come out of this one yet.

WACOAN: What could have been done differently?

Flores: If there’s uncertainty of the voting process — and I’ve said this publicly — President Trump had two things he could do: He could go to the state legislatures and say, you guys need to rethink those votes because the executive branch of your states didn’t follow the statutes, and let those state legislatures figure out how to deal with it. The second option he had was to go to the courts.

Nobody should have ever said we can go on January 6 and change the outcome of the electoral college vote. That is something you cannot do. That should not have happened. And for anybody to promote that was an unacceptable solution.

WACOAN: Then, to what extent do you hold President Trump responsible for what happened?

Flores: He was partially culpable for it. Did he cause it? Absolutely not.

You had fringe elements that were trying to take advantage of anxiety and uncertainty and anger, and that caused a bunch of people to show up in Washington on January 6. What started out as a peaceful demonstration became a mob. I think there were certain elements of people that were trying to cause that to happen.

WACOAN: You were already gone from Washington, right?

Flores: Yes. My last day in office was noon on January 3 when the new Congress was sworn in, so we were watching it on TV. I’ll never forget the picture I saw on the front page of the Wall Street Journal on January 7. I thought, I can’t believe this is our country. This is not … Bolivia or Venezuela. It was very concerning to me.

WACOAN: Was your successor, Rep. Pete Sessions, already there?

Flores: Yes.

WACOAN: Were you in communication with him?

Flores: No. It’s his job now.

One of the mistakes I saw as I’ve been in the corporate world is where, when a CEO left the company, they didn’t fully leave and they kept trying to put their fingerprints on it. So, when I decided to leave office and Pete Sessions won, that’s what he gets paid to do. It’s not my job anymore. All I become is what I was before: a voter.

That’s what the founders intended. You live among your neighbors, you get elected, you go serve your neighbors and then you come home and live among your neighbors.

DONALD TRUMP

WACOAN: Do you have a personal relationship with Donald Trump?

Flores: Yes.

WACOAN: What’s he like?

Flores: Like all of us, he’s a mixed bag. The things he did well, he did really well. But Trump was also sometimes his own worst enemy because he liked to fight. Sometimes it’s OK to fight when you’re fighting on behalf of a cause.

But sometimes when you’re just fighting to try to, you know, smack somebody back that says something bad about you, that’s not appropriate. And because he couldn’t modulate that, I think he hurt himself. Then, he hurt his agenda at the same time.

What I wish President Trump could have done is to be more thoughtful about what he said and more thoughtful about what he tweeted. I think that a couple of things would have happened: No. 1, I think he’d still be in office. And No. 2, we’d still be making great progress for the American people.

WACOAN: So, you liked him? You were able to see the good he did.

Flores: I liked the man in terms of what he accomplished. I did not like the way he always behaved, but when you are in the Oval Office with him, he’s the most personable guy.

WACOAN: What kinds of things did you discuss with him in the Oval Office?

Flores: Military prisoners. Under the Obama administration, there was an effort to court martial every battlefield infraction that happened. So you take a warrior that we trained to go out and kill the enemy. Then, when they do their job, they get court martialed because they didn’t dot the Is and cross the Ts. So they wound up in prison for the rest of their life, and I felt that was wrong.

[Trump] had an affinity for that [issue]. He wanted our war fighters to be war fighters. War is dirty. There was this feeling in the Obama administration that you could have nice, manicured wars, and you can’t. [Trump] took people we believed had been unjustly convicted for war crimes, and he pardoned them.

WACOAN: So, he was a compassionate person? The public doesn’t see that side.

Flores: Yeah. They never show that. Look at the way he was compassionate after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. There are videos you’ll never see in the media of him holding young kids or moms that are crying. Melania was the same way, but they were the most vilified people in the country.

They got a raw deal from the American media, and it was unfair to the American people, the way the media treated him. He did a lot to bring it on himself, but he was not the caricature that you saw on CNN.

WACOAN: Do you think he’s going to run again, and do you think he should?

Flores: I think the presidency is one of those jobs you do, and when you’re done, you’re done. I think it’s time to let the next batch of people run for office.

Now, he’s going to have an impact on America for a long time. Probably the best thing he was able to do — if you look at our lowest quarter of people in the American economy, in terms of wages, they had the most wage growth and the most opportunity and the best job growth of any class of Americans. He truly made the economy work for everybody.

WASHINGTON POWER

WACOAN: ‘Deep state’ is a term Trump used a lot. Is there a deep state culture in Washington? Is that just a conspiracy theory, or did you feel that?

Flores: I don’t know that I would use the term deep state. I will say that there were parts of the federal bureaucracy that did all they could to impede the president in carrying out his agenda when he got elected. And not only in bureaucracy, but it happened in Congress too.

In particular, they were embedded in the Department of Justice and also in the FBI. Now they’re in other areas as well. But I think the areas where they did the most damage to him, his administration, were in the FBI and the DOJ.

WACOAN: Who do you think holds the real power in Washington?

Flores: Well, it should be the American people because everybody in Washington works for the American people. I do see, given the growth of the federal government, that we’ve lost some of that. We need to have a reset.

There’s no one single person that pulls all the strings in Washington. Our government was designed by the framers of the Constitution to have three equal but separate branches.

Unfortunately, Congress, starting about 40 or 50 years ago, began to write legislation that was less precise. Congress has ceded a bunch of power to the executive branch. And so the executive branch has grown huge. You see it through the way the regulatory process works. You see it through the way health care works.

If you go back to the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, there were several thousand references to the Secretary, so instead of Congress defining it, we turn it over to the Secretary of Health and Human Services to define. This is just one example.

WACOAN: Do you consider yourself a Washington insider?

Flores: No. I hated getting on the plane to go to Washington, and I loved heading to the airport after the last votes. You get to come back to what I always call ‘the real world.’ The real world is where it’s at.

WACOAN: What about a politician?

Flores: I’ve never considered myself a politician. Everybody needs to remember who their employer is when they go up there. They forget that.

WACOAN: If I throw out a few names of Washington elites, can you tell me what you think of them?

Flores: Sure.

WACOAN: President Joe Biden

Flores: I’ll be candid. I’ve never met him. I think Joe Biden was disingenuous for the American people because if we remember what he said, when he was going through his primaries and when he was running for president, he said he was going to govern as a moderate and that he was going to try to pull us together. All he’s done is the exact opposite of that. So I’m disappointed in Joe Biden.

WACOAN: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Flores: If we rolled the clock back to 2014, I was part of the Congressional delegation to go to Europe for the 70th anniversary of D-Day, and she was the Democrat leader that trip. She was pretty delightful to deal with as a person. She was OK. But as a politician she’s ruthless.

She gets her way. It’s her way or the highway. I’d hate to be a Democrat today because you’ve got to do what she says, or you’re going to pay the price for it, either with a lack of financial support or no committee assignments or a myriad of other ways. She’ll make your life miserable if you don’t get in line with her.

The Republican leaders were never that way, but if you are a member of the Democratic caucus, you better do what Pelosi says, or else.

WACOAN: Will some of these younger people, the [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes], be able to get past her?

Flores: They haven’t been successful so far. I mean, if you look at the leadership of the Democratic caucus, the average age is about [70]. No young person has been able to displace them. There’ve been a lot of young people who have tried to get a position of leadership in the Democratic caucus. But that’s more of a tenure-based shop. So once you get your time there, man, you’re in, unless the voters throw you out. On the Republican side, it’s more of a merit-based shop.

WACOAN: Vice President Kamala Harris.

Flores: Never met her. Don’t know her. I mean, what I see, I don’t care for. I think there is a strong socialist agenda that’s part of her makeup. And if she ever ascended to the presidency, she’s going to try and do that. I don’t think anybody’s really seen the real Kamala Harris.

WACOAN: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Flores: Mitch is like President Trump — and like all of us — there are good qualities about him and there are qualities that you don’t appreciate as much. I think one of the things that every organization should do is to have turnover and to have a free exchange of ideas. To have free exchange of ideas, you have to have changes in leadership from time to time.

I’m not being critical of Mitch, but I think that if I were Mitch, I would allow somebody else to move up to be the majority leader — or in this case, the minority leader.

This is going to sound controversial, but I think that Mitch cost us the Senate. When we were having the big debate over what size the individual stimulus payments should be last December, he was fighting against the $2,000 payment. I was one of the people that were supporting where President Trump was to have a $2,000 payment.

You remember, President Trump had already lost the election by then, but for some reason, Mitch fought that, and I think it cost us the Senate. And the Senate was going to be our check on what happened in Washington.

MEMORABLE MOMENTS

WACOAN: What accomplishments are you proudest of from your time in office?

Flores: Let’s start here in McLennan County, where we were an integral part of the recovery of West. Now look, the people of West were the [reason] West recovered. I’m not taking credit for that, but we helped get the federal response because Obama initially denied it.

From a district perspective, we have a lot of veterans in this district. We’ve had a lot of them go off and fight overseas, and they’ve come back and they’ve had to deal with economic challenges and health challenges. I was part of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee when we rewrote veterans health care, so that veterans could go outside of the veterans health care system if they wanted to. So we were one of the authors of that process.

You may remember the waiting lines under President Obama. From an economic perspective, there’s a transition program for people to go from uniform to civilian life, and it didn’t work very well. I was the chairman of the subcommittee on Veterans’ Affairs that rewrote that.

We used real-world examples, real-world testimony to design the transition assistance programs so that people could make the transition more seamlessly.

We worked really hard to save the Waco VA, and we were able to name it after one of our local heroes, Dorie Miller. The secretary of the Navy and I worked together to have the nation’s next aircraft carrier named after Dorie Miller, [the USS Doris Miller]. And what’s unique about that is he will be the first enlisted person to have an aircraft carrier named after him and the first African American.

I was one of the two Texas leaders on getting the oil export ban lifted. We worked with Democrats and Republicans and President Obama to get it lifted, and that has been responsible for tens of thousands of jobs in this state.

Within 18 days of President Obama signing that legislation, the first cargo crude left Corpus Christi and headed for Europe. So we were part of that effort. That also had a huge impact nationally.

WACOAN: So many important things happen on the House floor and the general public never even hears about it. Is there something like that that stands out in your mind?

Flores: There’s things that nobody really knows about but that would have huge implications if we had not fixed it. Helium is used in everything from manufacturing to the cooling of MRI magnets in the hospitals.

Congress had screwed up the design of the helium markets years, decades ago. And we were about to run out of helium. It never made the news really, but in my first term, [Rep.] Doc Hastings and I helped reset the helium markets to be a more free-market-oriented system.

WACOAN: I’ve heard you say you’re particularly proud of being able to listen to and serve the people of your district with issues, big or small. Talk about that.

Flores: We had 5,737 people come to us with a particular issue — either a passport or couldn’t get their VA benefits or couldn’t get their IRS refund check or something like that — we called it casework. That’s an integral part of the job of a congressperson — to help be the interface between that person’s challenge and the federal government. We successfully addressed, you know, 98% of those casework area issues.

When somebody comes up and says, ‘Bill, you don’t know me, but so-and-so in your Waco office did this for me when I was on my knees needing something to happen — and your team made it happen.’ That just makes you feel good. That’s what the job of a representative is, is not only to represent your folks in Washington, but also to be their sounding board with the bureaucracy.

WACOAN: What is one of the best things you got to do as congressman?

Flores: Probably the highlight of my job was to nominate young men and women, high school seniors, to the service academies. We had a group of volunteer board members that were former military, former educators, and we would get together and go through these applications. We would interview these incredibly bright young men and women.

And then we would pick the best of them and nominate to the [military] service academies. The reason that we took that responsibility so seriously is because you knew from the point in time when they accepted that military academy, 10 years later, they’re going to be out in the battle space somewhere — under the ocean, on the ocean, in the air, in space or in the cyber world, protecting the America population.

It’s just so fulfilling. I mean, you felt good about America, knowing there really are still kids these days willing to go serve their country. And they’re just our best and brightest.

THE FUTURE

WACOAN: What will you be doing with your time now that you’ve returned to the private sector? And for those who might not know, maybe give a little background of what you did before public service.

Flores: I got an accounting degree from Texas A&M [University], and I earned my CPA certificate from the state of Texas shortly after I graduated. I later got a master’s in business administration. My career started in public accounting, and then I switched over to the energy industry.

I spent 30 years in the energy industry. My last 20 years in the energy industry were as a C-level officer, either as a CFO or a COO or CEO. Then I made the jump to elected office as a policy maker.

What I intend to do going forward is part of what I call ‘Bill 3.0,’ and that includes spending more time with family, particularly my grandkids and my parents, who are in their senior years.

The professional part of ‘Bill 3.0’ includes getting back to the private sector through board service. So I’d like to get on between two to four corporate boards to help provide value because of my expertise. In addition to that, I’d like to help with not-for-profit activities.

WACOAN: So you’re going to have a full schedule.

Flores: I’ve never been one to let the grass grow under my feet. I want to be part of any initiative where I can add value to the country, to the economy, to underrepresented groups, because of my experience, not only in business, but also in public policy.

WACOAN: What else will you be doing for fun?

Flores: I’d like to do more flying and snow skiing.

WACOAN: You’re a pilot? Where do you like to fly?

Flores: My perfect mission profile is, well, I’ve got three of them. One is from Bryan-College Station to Telluride, Colorado. I’ve got about 200 landings at the Telluride airport. And every one of those is an adventure.

Then, Bryan-College Station to Atlanta where our grandkids are located. And then the third one is Bryan-College Station to the panhandle of Texas where my parents live.

When you’re at 30,000 feet and you’ve got God above and earth below, it’s just a chance to reconnect with the awesome power of God and his creation. It’s amazing.

WACOAN: What’s your outlook, in general, on the future of our country?

Flores: America is at a crossroads. We can either go down the road of division and anarchy and every person for themselves, or we can go down the road where we truly want to be a great society that believes in equality of opportunity and that every person counts, that everybody’s the same — and that we are strong and vigorous and have a great economy. We’re at that crossroads.

I, as a grandfather and a father, worry about what road we will take as a society. It does feel to me like we’re going down the wrong road, and that bothers me. I’m hopeful that we, as Americans, have what I’m going to call a ‘significant emotional event’ that causes us to wake up and say, ‘Hey, we don’t want to go down that road anymore. We want to go down this road.’

That happened after 9/11. It was a significant emotional event for us. And we, as Americans, dropped most of our divisions. We realized we still had differences, but we dropped that and we realized we’re Americans first.

I hope that if we have that significant emotional event, it’s not like 9/11, but I hope something comes up that slaps us up the side of the head. We’ve got to stop fighting with each other. We are better than this. We are a good nation. We are a solid people, and we need to find the goodness in each other. We need to pull together keep the country great.

WACOAN: What can everyday people do to contribute to that?

Flores: No. 1 is pray for our society, pray for our country, pray for each other.

Secondly, get off of social media. If you’re on social media, do things that pull people together. Don’t do things to divide people. Don’t fight on social media.

We, as a society, have become coarse. We care more about our opinions than we do about each other. We need to start caring about each other, and we can stop a lot of this.

WACOAN: What’s the beacon of light for you?

Flores: The thing that makes me hopeful is the high school students we’ve interviewed these last 10 years, who have applied to attend our nation’s service academies. They love our country. They understand our country. They are willing to serve our country.

If they have enough influence as they continue through their lives and careers, I think they give us hope because their commitment and capabilities and passions will rub off on a large group of their peers. Hopefully they’ll be able to get the conversations going again. I feel like maybe these kids can make that happen.

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