Rep. Womack gets to keep promise on cuts

Now that fiscal year 2012 spending limits have been set, the House Appropriations Committee faces the difficult task of finding where to make the specific cuts in spending to fulfill the goal.

It’s a task that Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), one of three freshmen on the committee, says he came to Washington to complete.

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“I got on the Appropriations Committee for the simple reason that I felt like government had gotten too big and at some point in this process people had to have the ability to say no,” Womack said. “And I felt like as a mayor, I had done that, albeit at a much smaller level with a lot less zeros attached to the numbers.

“It doesn’t intimidate me, but the size and the scope and the rather desperate condition our country is in right now is going to require a lot of tough decisions — some very unpopular decisions but decisions that still have to be made,” he said.

Womack was first elected the mayor of Rogers, Ark., in 1998, and during his 12 years of service, the 50,000-resident city experienced unprecedented economic growth. He said he achieved success because he limited government involvement in some areas while increasing infrastructure development by $1 billion.

“You’ve got to have all of that infrastructure in place so you can have the private developer come in and take it from there,” Womack said. “Sometimes government tries to do too much, to become too responsible for the economic well-being. I think it plays a role, but it should be a much more limited role and it should be confined to the things that the private business person cannot do by themselves.”

The infrastructure improvements in Rogers resulted in a new shopping center, hospital and convention center.

“We created thousands of jobs, we significantly improved our quality of life and we never raised the taxes on the general population there, so I am proof that it can happen and I believe it can happen at the federal level,” Womack said.

He added that this approach worked in Rogers because he was able to convince stakeholders to “get on the rope and pull in the same direction.” But he isn’t sure that’s possible in Congress today because of partisanship.

“[In Rogers], people were focused blindly on the results, and I think that’s the secret — and so Washington is in serious breach of that philosophy,” Womack said. “We’ve got a deeply divided Congress and the end result is we don’t look like we can get along, we don’t look like we can get anything done, that there’s no room for compromise, that there are two sides dug in and they’re polar opposites and the people in the middle are losing. I think that’s part of what Washington has to be willing to change.”

While he was mayor, Womack continued to serve in the National Guard. He retired in 2009 with the rank of colonel after more than 30 years of military service. During those 30 years, he was deployed once.

Womack commanded the first National Guard infantry battalion sent overseas following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“A National Guard battalion hadn’t been mobilized in decades for overseas service, so it was unheard of in contemporary thinking,” Womack said. “[My commander] said, ‘Steve, I’m going to send your unit to Egypt,’ and it came over me — I don’t mind telling you — I don’t know that I was prepared for that.”

Womack’s battalion, whom he called “the gunslingers,” deployed to Sinai, Egypt, to take over peacekeeping duties in January 2002 so the regular Army units could be freed for action elsewhere. The unit successfully returned unharmed six months later.

“The National Guard is now doing that same mission 10 years later, so we were the first and it’s been in the National Guard’s hands ever since,” Womack said. “We taught them something about the Guard that the active [military] component needed to know. The performance of the gunslingers in 2002 convinced a big Army that the National Guard can handle its work. I think the Guard has acquitted itself very nicely over time and is now a major part of our operational force, so I take a lot of pride in that.”

Sunday was the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Womack said that thinking back on those events reminded him that “freedom isn’t free.”

“Sometimes the tragic circumstances, the hardship and the pain get lost over time — but it will never be lost on me. It was personal to me, not because I lost anyone I knew in the events, but in the aftermath and in the War on Terror … I’ve lost several of my friends,” Womack said, referring to five of his soldiers who were later sent to Iraq and killed.

“So it’s a personal thing with me and it stings even today and probably will for the rest of my life,” he said. “But it also gives us, as Lincoln said about Gettysburg, ‘a new birth of freedom,’ that America can regenerate itself.”