by Eric Neugeboren, The Texas Tribune
Aug. 18, 2022
“Louie Gohmert leaves Congress having passed one law and spread countless falsehoods” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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WASHINGTON — In 2010, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert warned the nation from the floor of the House of Representatives about a looming threat: terrorist babies. He described — without providing evidence — a diabolical and far-fetched scheme in which foreign enemies were sending pregnant women to the U.S. to birth babies that would emerge decades later as terrorists.
He found out about it, he said, from a conversation with a retired FBI agent on a flight, even as the FBI said it had no information about any such plot.
He would go on to fight with CNN anchor Anderson Cooper in an interview that went viral as he for nearly 10 minutes refused to answer questions or provide evidence of the claim, while yelling at Cooper for “attacking the messenger.”
It was a breakout moment for the Republican congressman from East Texas, who had been in office for about five years at the time and whose profile was growing as a member of the newly founded Tea Party. He was something of an outlier in Congress for the ease with which he was willing to make unfounded and offensive pronouncements. But it would prove to be a harbinger of what was yet to come.
This January, Gohmert, who turned 69 on Thursday, leaves office having defined his 17-year congressional career with conspiracy, conflict and fomenting anger.
Some of his most memorable controversies include the time he compared homosexuality to bestiality. Or when he said Hillary Clinton was “mentally impaired.” Or when he speculated that wearing a mask is what caused him to catch COVID-19. Or when he compared former President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler. Or when he said the canceling of a television show for homophobic remarks by its hosts was on par with Nazism. Or when he said he was grieving over the arrests of rioters involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Gohmert was a precursor to former President Donald Trump’s brand of populist, establishment-bucking conservatism that delights in offending progressives and makes no apologies for spreading misinformation.
“He fostered angry, finger-pointing, conspiracy-theory-laden politics that now defines American politics,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “He was the original congressional antagonist.”
Now he’s leaving Congress because he opted to run for Texas attorney general instead of reelection for his seat — which he presumably would have won easily.
He entered the Republican primary for attorney general last November — months after the other candidates, including incumbent Ken Paxton — and raised by far the least amount of money. He came in last place.
He exits office as Texas’ ninth most senior member of Congress, having made a mark — but not legislatively. In nine congressional terms, he’s passed just one bill into law, a measure in 2017 that simplified the process for calling 911.
Gohmert will perhaps be better remembered for his penchant for going against the majority. He was the only member in the House to vote against a bill last month to suspend tariffs on baby formula imports during a national shortage. (He said the bill was rushed.) He single-handedly delayed for a day the passage of an emergency coronavirus relief package that funded free COVID-19 tests, two weeks of paid sick leave and a billion dollars in food aid. (He later withdrew his objection to allow the bill to pass with unanimous consent.) And he was one of four members to vote against making lynching a federal hate crime. (He said the bill’s maximum sentence was not harsh enough.)
His retirement will be less of the end of an era, and more of a changing of the guard — as the House is attracting a new, younger class of like-minded firebrands who similarly seek conflict over policymaking and who came into office during Trump’s presidency. In recent years, Gohmert’s found allies in the House Freedom Caucus including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Matt Gaetz of Florida. Last year, they attempted to visit a Washington, D.C., jail where rioters from the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol are being imprisoned. Greene recently urged the GOP to become the party of Christian nationalism and has made comments supportive of QAnon, an unfounded conspiracy theory and far-right political movement that claims Trump is waging a secret war against Satanic pedophiles.
“He’s gone from something of an outlier that people chalked up to some combination of region and personality, to someone who is more representative of a big faction of a big share of Republican voters and even Republican elites,” said Jim Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
Gohmert repeatedly declined to be interviewed for this story and did not answer questions sent to his office via email.
Asked in a brief exchange on Capitol Hill last month about his time in Congress, he said: “I got a lot done, wish it would have been more, but I didn’t care who got the credit. Got a lot of things passed on, changed, amended, fixed behind the scenes.” He did not answer a question about what he considers his signature achievement.
In his deep-red congressional district, voters have rewarded Gohmert for his combative reputation. He’s never faced a serious electoral challenge, and in his bid for attorney general, he placed first in the 17 counties near his hometown, despite placing last statewide. His supporters say he’s never wavered in his principles — unlike other Republicans they say care too much about appeasing party leadership.
“He has always been true to who he is. He has been uncompromising … in his faith and his love for East Texas, for his community, for his country,” said David Stein, chair of the Smith County GOP.
The lackluster policymaker
Gohmert entered Congress in 2005, unseating a Democrat incumbent a year earlier. He was previously a U.S. Army captain and state district judge in Smith County. In 1996, Gohmert raised eyebrows in his role as a district judge when he ordered an auto thief who was HIV-positive to seek written consent from any future sexual partners. Former Gov. Rick Perry appointed him to be chief justice of Texas’ 12th Court of Appeals in 2002.
Bills on which Gohmert has been the lead sponsor have passed the House six times. Only one was ever signed into law. Of the 118 House members still in office who started before 2010, just 10 have passed fewer bills in the House than Gohmert — three Republicans and seven Democrats — according to a Texas Tribune analysis. None of those members were Texans. Six members have passed the same number of bills.
Unlike other longtime members of Congress from Texas — like Reps. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands; Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas; and Michael McCaul, R-Austin — Gohmert has never chaired a congressional committee. However, he once chaired a subcommittee that provided natural resources oversight.
“I’m not sure what he was able to accomplish, I really have no idea,” said U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, who serves with Gohmert on the judiciary committee.
His supporters in Texas are unbothered by his lack of a policy record. Matt Long, president of the Fredericksburg Tea Party, which endorsed Gohmert for attorney general, acknowledged Gohmert’s ability to pass bills has been compromised because of his reputation for standing up to his own party leadership.
“If they don’t toe the line immediately with the establishment Republicans, then they don’t have a chance,” Long said.
Texas state Rep. Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg, also backed Gohmert for attorney general and said passing bills doesn’t make someone a successful politician.
“Effectiveness has nothing to do with bills,” Biedermann said. “Effectiveness is speaking out for the people, being the voice of the people.”
That has become a growing mantra of today’s Republican Party. More Republicans are focusing on fighting for their constituents and party loyalty, while villainizing efforts to negotiate across the aisle to pass laws.
“It’s been very alarming to see the Republican Party become more about performance,” U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said. “It is becoming more and more like Louie Gohmert and less and less serious about legislation and public policy and solving real solutions.”
Gohmert started making waves in 2009, when he and 11 other Republican members of Congress cosponsored the so-called “birther” bill that would have required presidential candidates to produce a copy of their birth certificate — pressing a false narrative that Obama was born in Kenya and therefore ineligible to be president. (Obama was born in Hawaii, and his father was born in Kenya.)
The birther saga was among the first of several instances in which Gohmert leaned into racist conspiracy theories and took on the role of an instigator. He co-led an effort in 2012 calling for the State Department to investigate the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and Huma Abedin, a former top aide to Hillary Clinton.
After Obama’s 2015 State of the Union speech that addressed nationwide instances of police brutality, Gohmert condemned the president for dividing the country, adding that the president should be more like his former basketball coach, another Black man.
“But unlike my favorite coach in high school, who happened to be Black, he has been more divisive,” Gohmert told reporters.
Gohmert was also just as likely to agitate his own party leadership. In 2014, Gohmert brought up his famously tense relationship with then-House Speaker John Boehner while speaking to the Upshur County Republican Executive Committee.
“If there was one more Louie Gohmert, John Boehner would have a heart attack,” Gohmert said. Boehner was a staunch Republican but faced pressure from hardline conservatives who felt he wasn’t doing enough to stand up to Democrats.
In 2015, Gohmert would launch a quixotic bid to unseat Boehner as House speaker.
Later that year, when Boehner announced his resignation, Gohmert took a victory lap.
“So often, after being elected to Congress, members have the goal drilled into their head that there is nothing nobler than being a ‘team player,’” he said. “For an appropriate use of the sports metaphor, too often ‘being a team player’ has disguised the fact that a play has been called that has us running toward the wrong goal line.”
The feeling was mutual. In “American Carnage,” a book about the modern Republican Party, Boehner told author Tim Alberta, “Louie Gohmert is insane. There’s not a functional brain in there.”
Gaetz, the Florida congressman and Gohmert ally, commended Gohmert for bucking the party.
“He warned against bad decisions Republicans made that lost them majorities and he inspired some of our best moments,” Gaetz said in an interview.
In 2015, Boehner cut Gohmert from two congressional diplomacy trips — to the Middle East and Africa — in retaliation after Gohmert had challenged him for House speaker.
But Gohmert didn’t mind.
“Because he canceled my trip this weekend, I’m going to be on Fox News, so thank you, Mr. Speaker,” Gohmert taunted.
He would in fact go on to become a fixture on right-wing media networks. He’s a regular guest on Newsmax and One America News, networks that have served as a farther-right alternative to Fox News and have become more popular in recent years as Trump’s popularity ascended. He’s recently had segments focusing on what he considers the abhorrent treatment of Jan. 6 rioters, whom he has called political prisoners.
Brady, the representative from The Woodlands who is also retiring this year, said Gohmert’s legacy will be defined as “an outspoken conservative who was in the media trenches every day.”
“His strengths are in the messaging and the communication and in really the social media space there. I think that’s where he feels most comfortable,” Brady said.
He added that he thinks “social media has in some ways driven politics to the extremes,” which has overshadowed some of the more “substantive work and solutions that are so important to run the country.”
When Gohmert’s not appearing on a conservative news network, he can often be found doing what he calls “Gohmert Hour,” one-hour speeches on the House floor where he speaks in front of a near-empty chamber. A speech in June claimed there were no school shootings before prayer was eliminated in schools. Since entering Congress, he has spent 286 hours speaking on the House floor, according to C-SPAN data.
Rep. August Pfluger, R-San Angelo, said “I love listening to him. I love his passion.” Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, called Gohmert “one of the best we have” and “one of the true characters of the House.”
It’s unknown if Gohmert’s successor will be a policymaker or bomb thrower. Nathaniel Moran won the Republican nomination earlier this year and is all but ensured to win the general election in the deep-red district.
Moran is a longtime fixture in Republican politics and is currently the Smith County Judge. He did not respond to multiple requests for an interview but has said that he wants to be a policymaker and “loves to be part of a team,” according to an interview with The Washington Post.
“They hold similar values, no question about it,” said Stein, the Smith County GOP chair who knows Gohmert and Moran personally. “To quote Judge Moran, he may go about it tactically in a different way. And that’s just a matter of preferential style. But he is a strong conservative.”
Since the 2020 election, Gohmert has joined the chorus of Trump acolytes who have spread the falsehood that the election was stolen. The claim has been repeatedly debunked by courts and election audits, and many of the former president’s own top aides have testified that the election was fair.
As he prepares to leave office, Gohmert’s role spreading that misinformation and how it may have contributed to the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection is being scrutinized by congressional investigators.
During the hearings this summer held by the House committee investigating the attack, he was mentioned frequently for his rhetoric ahead of the riot and for taking part in a December 2020 meeting to discuss former Vice President Mike Pence’s role in overturning the election results.
A Republican staffer who worked for Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows said Gohmert was among a group of Republicans who asked Trump for a pardon after the insurrection. Gohmert has emphatically denied doing so.
Gohmert’s appearances in the hearings weren’t a surprise. Days before the insurrection, U.S. Capitol Police flagged comments from Gohmert as potentially inciting violence. In an interview on Newsmax, Gohmert said letting President Joe Biden’s electoral victory stand would be “the end of our republic, the end of the experiment in self-government.”
“You got to go to the streets and be as violent as Antifa and [Black Lives Matter],” said Gohmert five days before the Capitol attack. He later said he was not advocating for violence.
In December 2020, Gohmert led a lawsuit that attempted to give the vice president the power to unilaterally name the next president. A federal judge dismissed the suit for lack of standing.
Gohmert, who objected to the electoral results in Arizona and Pennsylvania, would later downplay the insurrection. He sponsored a bill to award congressional gold medals to Capitol Police officers but made no mention of the Jan. 6 attack. He later voted against a bill to honor the officers that made an explicit reference to the attack.
Gohmert said the bill “does not honor anyone, but rather seeks to drive a narrative that isn’t substantiated by known facts.”
Last month on Newsmax, Gohmert said it “grieves me to see the vendettas” against the Capitol rioters who have been imprisoned. He said he’d have no problem imprisoning some of the rioters, but that “most of them committed misdemeanors.” He tried to visit the imprisoned rioters last year at a Washington, D.C., jail but was not allowed a tour without receiving prior approval.
Gohmert leaves office less of an outlier than he once was, during a time when his ideas are becoming more pervasive in the mainstream of the party.
A Monmouth University poll in June found 61% of Republicans considered the Jan. 6 attack a “legitimate protest,” up from 47% a year earlier. Only 13% of Republicans considered the attack an “insurrection” and 45% called it a “riot.”
As of Tuesday, Trump-endorsed candidates for the U.S. House, U.S. Senate and statewide offices had won 42 out of 54 of their primaries this year, according to Axios.
“Until the American public says they’ve had enough of it, my suspicion is that you’re gonna have more people like Louie Gohmert,” said Sean Theriault, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has researched Congress.
Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/08/18/louie-gohmert-texas-congress/.
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