Bill Foster relects on life before, during, after Congress
By James Fuller
Bill Foster just wants to watch football.
He’s fresh off a flight home from the first vacation he’s had with his family in four years. His district congressional office is closed, and he’s turned in his politician suit for a pair of jeans and a seat at the dining area table where he can watch people ice fishing on the Fox River. He looks like he could drift off to sleep at any time, but he still retains the stamina that carried him through many a filibuster.
Foster accepts that he lost the race to Randy Hultgren, who was sworn in last week as the new congressman in the 14th District. But Foster doesn’t concede that it’s because the Democrats blew the majorities they had in Congress with a Democrat in the White House to boot. Foster knew he was going down before election night even arrived.
“You could see the numbers had been shifting dramatically against the Democrats,” Foster said. “There was sort of a snowball of press coverage. Nobody wants to be on the losing side, so it just ends up self-amplifying.”
Just two years ago, Foster was an unlikely victor in a district that both voting history and geography said would always be a Republican district. Yet Foster, a Fermilab physicist, somehow outsmarted the experts.
Fast-forward to election night two months ago. With most Democrats going down by wide margins, Foster kept it close. He considers that a moral victory. In practice, it still means he’s out of Congress.
It’s the economy
“There was so much frustration out there because of the economy,” Foster said. “If unemployment was back at 6 percent, I think the results of all the elections would’ve been different.”
Foster then launches into his familiar stump speech about all the wealth Americans lost thanks to the final 18 months of the George W. Bush administration’s policies. In his heart, he reads the numbers and believes the economy is coming back. Retirement plans are reviving. Even some homes are selling. That leaves Foster with a lot of what-ifs and future I-told-you-so’s when he reflects on his time in office.
“Those people who said we’ll just vote everyone out of office and I’ll no longer be upside-down on my mortgage, they are likely to be disappointed,” Foster said. “The argument that won it in the end was where are the jobs. The real answer to that is your jobs were lost sometime around 2003 when the housing bubble was inflated. But that’s not a very satisfactory answer if you’re an unemployed construction worker, or an unemployed Realtor, or anyone in the housing industry.”
Foster’s spent a lot of time thinking about housing and the housing bubble. During the campaign, he was accused of not actually living in the district. That’s a “lie” that still gets his wife, Aesook, riled up. She is a construction manager for a project in New York, which meant the couple passed each other on flights more than a few times back and forth to and from the East Coast.
Their second-floor Batavia condo has all the accoutrements of home, even if neither of them has spent as much time there as the average American family would. There’s a television with two tuners so Foster doesn’t miss anything he wants to watch when he’s home, and an out-of-tune piano that no one really plays.
But the place does look and feel lived in, right down to the holiday greeting sign on the door and the Dilbert stuffed animal on the kitchen counter. Foster looks at these things and knows there are many people in the district who’ve lost their homes. And not being able to tell them it will never happen again is his biggest disappointment.
“We can survive a stock market bust, but we’ve suffered so much from the housing collapse,” Foster said. “If we had created rules to automatically turn up the required down payment on a home when there’s a housing bubble, or just say that the mortgage on a property cannot be larger than the value of the property three years ago, the amount of human misery that would’ve been avoided would’ve been enormous.”
The rules were not and are not in place. Foster blames one man.
“Alan Greenspan is going to go down in history as one of the worst Federal Reserve chairmen ever,” Foster said.
He pointed to Greenspan’s refusal to set mortgage origination standards, even though the Federal Reserve has long had that power. But most of all, he blames Greenspan for creating the housing bubble by playing politics with interest rates.
“Alan Greenspan was a political operative who was simply not repeating a mistake he once made,” Foster said. “In his book, he talks about how hurt he was when George Bush Sr. blamed him for costing him the election when he raised interest rates just before his re-election campaign. When the same market conditions arose when George Bush II was up for re-election, he did not repeat himself. As a result, he inflated the housing bubble.”
Foster knows he has his own critics, particularly with regard to his votes on health care reform and the bailouts. He believes 2011 will be the year many people awaken to the reality that so-called “Obamacare” has many aspects that will change lives for the better thanks to portions of the law that take effect this year.
He believes TARP will turn a profit for the country when historians look back. As for the bailouts, public disappointment in those stem from people believing just a little too much in the power of the free market, Foster said.
“Too big to fail is fine for restaurant chains,” Foster said. “If Denny’s fails, it’s fine for this economy. You can always go down to the TGIFs. But that’s not the same for large-scale investment companies.”
The problem was a systemic lack of regulation in the financial industry, Foster said. Politicians lost sight of the lessons of the Great Depression and why regulations were on the books to begin with. And slowly, lobbyists dismantled the whole system while politicians took campaign contributions and let it happen, he said.
“The lobbyists had, for a decade, the whole system by the throat,” Foster said. “We did not have to turn off our understanding that requiring 15 to 20 percent down on a house is a good thing. We did not have to turn off all the banking regulation that had succeeded for over 50 years and created the most stable system in all the world. But we did.”
Foster has clear disdain for people with a long track record in politics. There’s something about long years spent in political battles that makes politicians only focus on the political battles and not the public policy, he said. Everything is about winning for the party.
“In the lame duck session there were a bunch of senators who always said, ‘I will never ever, ever compromise’ on several issues who all of sudden said, ‘Oh, here’s the compromise,’ ” Foster said. “Many senators were at the end of their careers, and they decided they wanted to do the right thing. It was under those circumstances that don’t ask, don’t tell was repealed and the America Competes Act passed. But it wasn’t easy.”
How it’s done
Foster then tells what he calls a typical story of how legislation is passed or defeated in Congress these days. The America Competes Act provided ongoing funding for the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department’s Office of Science, and the National Institute for Standards and Technology. The idea was to fuel American innovation, manufacturing and technological advances. But for a short while, the act would have done something much different, Foster said.
“We were watching Republicans torpedo the America Competes Act by attaching a provision that gutted the bill and said that nothing in the bill shall provide funding for employees who watched porn on their government-paid computers,” Foster said. “So you had your choice. Gut the America Competes Act, or be in favor of government employees watching porn on their computers. It had nothing to do with good government. The act had very wide bipartisan support. It was going to pass. But Republicans did not want another accomplishment by the Democrats in power.”
The act eventually passed thanks to some parliamentary maneuvers, but votes like that make Foster want to stay away from Washington, D.C., at least for now.
Down the road
Foster has no plans to cash in on his political career by becoming a lobbyist.
“I can rule that one out,” Foster said. “I don’t want to do anything that capitalizes personally on the fact that I’ve been in public service. … You have control over a tremendous amount of taxpayer money in this job. If you’re not careful, you can end up mixing things.”
He said it’s a “strange feeling to vote on a multimillion-dollar package and then come back and manage your own finances and find yourself trying to figure out how to get a slightly cheaper hotel for down in the Everglades. A lot of members of Congress get tempted when they reach that realization.”
Foster doesn’t necessarily have the financial need that might drive an ex-politician to those temptations. Having created one of the largest theater lighting companies in the country as a young man, his net worth is somewhere north of $4 million, according to reports during the campaign.
Foster intends to use that financial flexibility to explore business opportunities coming to him, possibly something in green energy. He still reminisces about the world of science and Fermilab. He even thinks going back to that life might be fun. And he hasn’t ruled out taking a position somewhere in the executive branch in Washington if the opportunity presents itself.
But for now, Foster just wants to catch up with his reading, get some sleep, and be home with his family for a while.
“To serve at a time that was very critical for the country is something I’m very honored to have done,” Foster said.
Then he turns and looks at his wife. His son, Billy, is still unpacking and getting settled after the family vacation.
“I love this,” he said, looking out the window over Batavia. “You can just sit and watch the kids skating in the Fox River. This is home.”