'Frozen chosen' Price copes with Members Dining Room

Sometimes when a restaurant meal takes too long to be served, it’s easy to start thinking that the sugar packets might not taste so bad. You’re just too famished to know the difference.

That may be the case when I join freshman Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) for lunch in the Members Dining Room. A place to see and be seen, it couldn’t be more unPrice-like.
Pedro sa da Bandeira
Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) waits patiently for a table in the Members Dining Room, a place to see and to be seen.

This is his first time in the dining room. And judging from how often the 50-year-old orthopedic surgeon had to approach wait staff to move from one juncture of the meal to the next, it may be his last.

Price’s personality is a pleasant surprise. Extremely low-key in manner, he has a subtle sense of humor and unjaded confidence. The best description of him is his own: He calls himself a member of the “frozen chosen” — in other words, a practicing Protestant.

In some ways he sounds like a Democrat, in that he believes Congress went too far in the Terry Schiavo case. “It was an extremely painful and difficult process to watch,” he says. “It was so public, something that ought to be so private.”

However, he adds, “I felt it was appropriate that Congress give Terry’s parents an opportunity to have a review of the case, the same way we do every person sentenced to death at the state level.”

Price believes that when an issue is so emotional, the rhetoric ought to be lowered: “There were things said on both sides of the aisle that I don’t think belong.”

Price looks like former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.). He’s short and slim, wears glasses and has a combed-back puff of grayish-white hair. He and Barr could pass for cousins, though his spokesman assures that this is not the case. Curiously, Price’s eyebrows are dark but his mustache is grayish-white, like his hair.

On any other day, Price would not be here. “I normally grab a sandwich in the cafe off the room,” he says. I ask if he’s referring to the “Cloak Room.” He laughs. “As a physician, I rarely ate lunch, so eating on the run is not unusual.”

Other typical lunches for Price include sandwiches in his office, or at his Capitol Hill apartment. “I’m a worker type,” he says. “Any success I’ve had has been due to the diligence and work I’ve put into the activity. People recognize sincerity and hard work.”

But somehow the wait staff at the Members Dining Room fails to recognize our presence. For a good 15 minutes, no one approaches our table, at which point Price, who isn’t the type to complain in a restaurant, approaches a waitress and politely tells her we are ready to order.

He isn’t overly impressed with the dining room or who is eating there. He doesn’t scan the place and doesn’t work the room.

“We’re pretty down-to-earth,” he says, referring to himself and his wife, Elizabeth. “It’s wonderful to participate with folks who are well-accomplished, but we’re sent here to get work done. I take that very seriously.”

Born and raised near Lansing, Mich., in the small town of Fowlerville, Price believes he was a misfit for the state. He never liked cold weather, and as a child, when the other kids were out in the snow, he was inside, staying warm and reading.

He says he doesn’t worry much about his health because he is blessed with good genes. All of his grandparents lived to be in their late 90s. His father, however, suffered from emphysema and died of “Lucky Strike” lungs at 69.

“I don’t exercise as much as I should, but I’ve been really healthy,” he says. “We try to stay active as a family, but I’m not a jogger or anything like that.”

Twenty minutes later, we still have not seen any glimmer of hope that a waitress will approach. Price is genuinely curious about this. “It’s hard to imagine why it’s so empty and still so deficient,” he says. “Maybe the thing to do is, as soon as you’re seated, know what you want from the beginning.”

His impressions of the House are far different from those of the dining room. “I’ve been impressed with the volume of work that gets done,” he says. “There’s a general impression that Congress doesn’t do a whole lot, but it’s clear that the committees work aggressively.”
Price sits on two committees, Financial Services and Education and the Workforce. “My two policy passions are healthcare reform and tax reform,” he declares.

Yawn. Where’s that waitress, anyway?

As he talks, the congressman taps a spoon lightly against his cup, or kneads his hands while deep in thought.

Once again, he gets up to find a waitress. “Well wait 10 minutes and we’ll do it again,” he says. The odd thing is, Price isn’t shaken or annoyed, just curious why the process of the dining room isn’t working. “Hey, Patricia, can we order?” he calls out to the waitress at a nearby table.

Price is a third-generation physician. His father was an internist and an emergency-room doctor, his grandfather a family doctor. His father was originally a dairy farmer but at 36 decided to go into medicine and moved the family to Dearborn. His mother taught nursery school and college.

“She is the eternal optimist,” Price says, “always had us believe we could do whatever we set our minds to do. The sun’s always shining somewhere.”

Finally, we order. Price will have the bean soup, followed by a tomato, basil and mozzarella sandwich. The soup arrives within minutes.

“Well, I highly recommend the bean soup,” he says, while picking apart a multigrain roll that he doesn’t eat.

The third of five children, Price attended the University of Michigan for college and medical school but, as soon as he could, gravitated toward the warmth of Atlanta, where he trained at Emory University.

“I loved surgery,” he says. “Orthopedics is an area where folks are generally healthy. They’ve just banged themselves up.” He practiced for 20 years, and notes that his was the largest private practice in the nation, with more than 60 physicians.

“Excuse me, excuse me,” Price says, fighting to get the attention of a waitress so that he can get a water refill.

In the early ’90s, he got involved in medical politics and healthcare reform as an alternative to President Clinton’s proposal for nationalizing healthcare. Price circled the state talking to civic and church groups and “seemed to have some facility connecting with people about healthcare.”

In 2002, he won a seat in the Georgia Senate, where he served four terms, eventually becoming the first Republican majority leader in the state’s history.

His race for Congress in 2004 was among the nastiest and most expensive in the country. Instead of worrying about a Democratic opponent, Price, who raised $2 million for the race, had a seven-way primary. He won 34 percent of the vote but was forced into a runoff. He won by 54-46 percent and had no general-election opponent.
The tomato, basil and mozzarella sandwich arrives. “I’m not sure I knew what I was getting here,” he says, flipping through the layers of his sandwich with a fork, “but then that’s been true from the moment we sat down.”

Price eats every morsel of food with a fork, including the french fries. “It’s edible,” he says, as though he is shocked by this conclusion.

The conversation takes a turn to Social Security. “The fundamental problem we have is the aging of our population,” he says, explaining that if you want to address the problem honestly, you must look at this problem. He thinks personal retirement accounts are a “wonderful, empowering program.”

Price picks apart his sandwich, casting the bread aside.

Asked to expand on his thoughts on religion and how it should relate to politics, he says, “We’ve strayed as a nation from appreciating our Judeo-Christian origin. We’d be better off as a nation if we paid more attention to that history. Our nation is clamoring for people of moral principle to lead.”

The one thing Price says is missing from his day is time to reflect. He says he’d like some time in the evening to think about what went on during the day and what he might do differently.

“I see that as a major challenge,” he says. “At the end of the day, I find my head hits the pillow and I’m asleep.”

It’s time to ask for the check. Price looks around the sparsely filled dining room and, in his typical dry wit, says, “We get to see what service is like at critical mass.”