Health care, veterans are part of Stearns' legacy
Published: Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 5:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 5:51 p.m.
The one-time citizen legislator is close to being just a citizen again.
U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns ends his 24-year career in Washington on Thursday, giving way to Ted Yoho, the political upstart who shocked the long-term incumbent with an 875-vote primary win then sailed past a Democratic foe to become North Central Florida's new congressman.
Stearns, an Ocala Republican and one of 13 House members from both parties to be upended by a primary challenger in 2012, recently reflected back on his career on Capitol Hill, calling attention to his major accomplishments and regretting that some initiatives he rigorously championed fell short.
He believed foremost that he was accessible, hosting roughly 650 town hall meetings over his tenure.
"I think I was very transparent," he said. "I was always trying to get the feeling of the people."
Stearns ranked high on his list of achievements his work in the decommissioning of the federal government's Cross Florida Barge Canal project, his advocacy on behalf of military veterans, and some health care legislation that captured some of his own medical history.
According to THOMAS, the Library of Congress' website that monitors and archives congressional legislation, Stearns has authored 359 bills, amendments and resolutions during his time in Congress.
The first, introduced in May 1989, advocated a time extension for senior citizens to qualify for housing under the Fair Housing Act. The most recent, proposed this past July, blocked the Obama administration from charging military veterans an enrollment fee for the Tricare health care program.
Along the way, nine of the bills sponsored by Stearns passed the House and four were eventually signed into law, according to GovTrack, another legislative-monitoring website. (Numerous amendments he tacked on to other bills also were adopted.)
Stearns indicated in an interview that many of the causes he fought for mirrored his own personal circumstances.
For example, as a Marion County resident, he proposed the decommissioning of the Cross Florida Barge Canal initiative launched by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1942.
Stearns' bill, introduced in March 1990, eventually turned 86,000 acres of federal land, most of it in Marion County, over to the state of Florida to create the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway.
Stearns, who spent four years in the Air Force in the early 1960s, was a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee for his entire career. That perch allowed him to be a vocal proponent for military veterans and military spending.
In the interview, he highlighted his Veterans' Millennium Health Care and Benefits Act that President Bill Clinton enacted in March 2000.
That law, among other things, forced the Department of Veterans Affairs to give veterans left severely disabled by their military service much higher priority for nursing home care. It also expanded VA-provided care for military retirees as well as active-duty troops with substance abuse problems and granted the agency wider latitude in treating victims of sexual trauma.
Stearns also touted his efforts, through the earmark process, to establish VA outpatient clinics in Ocala and Leesburg; to build another VA health care facility in Marion County near The Villages; and to expand the VA hospital in Gainesville.
Stearns also advocated for federal spending locally to boost military preparedness.
The biggest recipient of his funding requests was Camp Blanding, the Florida National Guard training facility in Clay County. Stearns secured $101 million for equipment and infrastructure improvements at the 72,000-acre site.
The veteran congressman also worked to ensure veterans had a proper final resting place, helping establish a new national cemetery in Jacksonville in 2003.
Stearns' advocacy for military matters earned him the Air Force Association's W. Stuart Symington Award, the group's highest honor bestowed on a civilian in the field of national security.
Stearns also has been a constant advocate for certain health issues.
Suffering from allergies and bouts with asthma prompted Stearns to promote awareness of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, asthma, cystic fibrosis and other ailments.
He also has been recognized by activists for his work on prostate cancer, efforts to speed up the federal approval process for drugs that treat rare diseases and helping the blind.
Two of his four bills signed by a president involved health care matters.
In November 2000, Clinton endorsed a measure to house defibrillators in federal buildings to aid heart-attack victims. Four years later, President George W. Bush signed Stearns' bill that prioritized federal public-health grants toward states that require public school students to self-administer their asthma medication.
During his career on Capitol Hill, Stearns has won the admiration of budget watchdog groups for his stances on fiscal issues.
Conservative organizations like Citizens Against Government Waste, the National Taxpayers Union, the American Conservative Union and Americans for Tax Reform have all praised the veteran Republican lawmaker for his advocacy to reduce taxes and control federal spending.
Last year, for instance, when Stearns was named a taxpayers' "friend" by the National Taxpayers Union, the organization's president, Duane Parde, noted that Stearns had one of the best "pro-taxpayer" scores in Congress.
"By casting principled votes for limited government time and again, Stearns has led by example in the fight to defend overburdened taxpayers across the country," Parde said.
Yet the glare of election-year politics in 2012 illuminated another side to Stearns' fiscal record.
Periodic news reports during the election year indicated that Stearns was more than willing to be a spendthrift with taxpayer money when it came to his own career.
In April, for example, USA Today reported how budget cuts would force House members to pare back on taxpayer-funded office expenses.
According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, House members in 2011 were allotted between $1.4 million and $1.7 million to operate their offices, with the average running about $1.45 million.
USA Today reported that 45 lawmakers had spent 95 percent or more of their allotted amount in 2011.
Stearns' office operations consumed 96.5 percent of its budget, USA Today noted. That ranked Stearns 22nd-highest overall among the 436 members in the analysis, and tied him for first place among Republicans with Rep. Don Young of Alaska.
One item out of Stearns' office budget made a segment on the television magazine Inside Edition in May.
The program reported that 82 House members lease cars at taxpayer expense. Stearns was one of 38 Republican lawmakers included on that list, spending $789 a month for a car.
While some lawmakers noted in the report spent much more than Stearns on their vehicles — some topping $1,000 a month — the list revealed that several of them exhibited much more modest tastes, with monthly payments of less than $300.
Then, there is the expense for franked mail.
Taxpayers cover the postage for official correspondence from Congress that updates constituents on a House member's activities.
For all of 2011, Stearns spent $104,760 for postage on franked mail, the 23rd-highest total in the House among the 445 lawmakers included in the House's report for last year.
And some of his targeted budget items may have helped lead to his defeat.
During the GOP primary campaign, former state Sen. Steve Oelrich maintained that Stearns' support for the College of Central Florida, or CF, coincided with his wife's rise through the college's administrative hierarchy.
Stearns secured about $5 million for CF projects beginning after his wife, Joan, was hired there. As the earmarks poured in year after year, Joan Stearns was elevated into posts that, Oelrich asserted, were beyond her qualifications.
Both Stearns and college officials denied that Joan Stearns' promotions, and accompanying pay raises, were connected to the amount of money her husband landed for the school.
Like many Republicans, Stearns has positioned himself as a business deregulator and protector of corporate interests from pointless litigation.
For example, as he exits, he has called attention to his role in negotiating the final draft of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Proponents of that law, which was signed by President Clinton, credit the measure with expanding competition and bringing down costs in the telephone and cable TV industries, and boosting the rise of the Internet as a tool of commerce.
One of the ideas Stearns shepherded into law was the "Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act" that President Bush endorsed in 2005. The measure protected gun and ammunition manufacturers from being sued because of the "misuse" of their products by others.
Stearns also was a staunch proponent of anti-abortion measures and took pride in forcing Planned Parenthood to open its books for the first-ever review of its handling of federal funding.
Stearns also routinely battled the National Endowment for the Arts for its support of projects he felt were objectionable; proposed on more than one occasion that, despite U.S. Supreme Court rulings, Congress could impose restrictions on desecrating the American flag; and wanted to outlaw Internet gambling.
Stearns' pursuit of steroid abusers encompassed both the National Football League and Major League Baseball — with the latter moving to ward off congressional oversight by adopting its current penalties on players testing positive for drugs. He also believed that professional boxing and the states were incapable of regulating the sport, and recommended the creation of a U.S. boxing commission.
Stearns also fought to withhold federal funding from universities that banned ROTC units or military recruiters from their campuses. And he saw a narrow defeat to a bill that would have blocked the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from pursuing cases against employers who demanded that their workers speak English.
"Cliff's record from a conservative point of view is excellent," said Roy Abshier, chairman of the Marion County Republican Party. "He represented his constituents very well in the conservative stances he would take. He was a conservative stalwart for his constituents."
Stearns' departure, Abshier noted, would diminish Marion County's clout. Yet he believed Congressman-elect Yoho would do a good job promoting conservative principles in Stearns' stead.
Buddy MacKay, a former Democratic congressman and Florida governor, did not agree with Stearns on many things but felt he had ably served the community.
"I think he has represented us well and unlike some members of Congress, he has not been a showboat," MacKay said. "He's done his job and I think he's had a good career."
Stearns said he regrets exiting Congress with some unfinished work.
His bill to allow holders of concealed-weapons permits to have those licenses recognized outside their home state easily passed the House, but will likely die in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Stearns also acknowledged disappointment that his efforts to protect consumer privacy and cut down on identity theft fell short in this term — as did his plan, which had solid, if not yet majority, support to repeal a 75-year-old law that permits employers to pay disabled workers less than minimum wage.
Stearns also said he will miss helping constituents, especially those who hope to land slots in the military academies.
He has not decided on his next move or where he will live. He owns homes in Ocala, St. Augustine and Fleming Island, which he purchased in anticipation of winning the August GOP primary.
He is weighing some "opportunities," he said, and expects to make an announcement about that soon.
As for another bid for Congress, he added, "You never say never."
"I left 24 years ago, and you feel a certain amount of pride in what you've done," Stearns said.
"But then you realize you can be replaced, and the next member comes along, and you hope that a lot of what you did continues."
Contact Bill Thompson at 867-4117 or bill.thompson@ starbanner.com.
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