No regret for Todd Tiahrt as he exits Congress

WASHINGTON — The boxes in his office are piled high and the walls are bare and scarred with nail holes.

Even the phone in the private office of Rep. Todd Tiahrt from Kansas' 4th Congressional District does not ring that much anymore. When it actually did on a recent afternoon, it was a wrong number.

Tiahrt, elected during the 1994 Republican "revolution," is packing up and heading back home to Goddard.

But he's not returning shell-shocked and reluctant, like so many Democratic incumbents that voters tossed out in the midterm elections this month.

Tiahrt, 59, declined to run for his House seat to reach for another rung — the Senate —but lost the Republican primary. Now, with his party set to retake the House in January, is he plagued by regret that he didn't opt for the likely sure thing?

"No, I think I made the right decision," he said.

He is amused at the notion that 16 years of his life was now neatly organized into perfect columns of boxes. Life on Capitol Hill was never so orderly.

But it was a "front row seat" on history where Tiahrt got to not only witness, but participate in, some of the great dramas of the period: the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton, the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when he served on the House Intelligence Committee.

"Those were very intense battles," he said, and not all of them "brought out our better angels."

His legislative successes were varied.

From his seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, he has steered millions of dollars to Wichita's aviation industry and other economic projects.

He got a statue of President Dwight D. Eisenhower placed in the Capitol, and his "Tiahrt Amendment" inserted into the foreign operations bill to ensure that family planning efforts overseas were voluntary.

Critics complained that his ban on allowing needle exchanges for drug addicts in Washington, D.C., exacerbated an AIDS problem in a city where it was already out of control. The ban was later overturned.

A coalition of mayors and law enforcement groups objected to Tiahrt's efforts to prevent the FBI and other federal agencies from sharing confidential data about gun purchases with local police departments and prosecutors.

Tiahrt claimed the data could compromise undercover officers and informants, or tip off targets in weapons investigations. The mayors, led by Michael Bloomberg of New York City, said tracing those weapons was an important crime-fighting tool.

"On our issues, you get a lot Republicans who vote the right way," said Tom McClusky, senior vice president of the Family Research Council Action, the legislative arm of the social conservative policy group. "He was one of those ones who would also stick his neck out."

Personal tragedy, however, overshadowed Tiahrt's time in Washington. His 16-year-old son, Luke, took his own life in 2004, a deep wound that the congressman does not discuss.

"It did focus him," said Matt Schlapp, a friend and former aide.

Political savvy

Tiahrt had been a proposal manager at Boeing and member of the Kansas Legislature in the early 1990s. His political activism developed during the abortion wars raging in Wichita at the time.

He unseated Dan Glickman, a senior House Democrat, in the 1994 elections when Republicans took over the House of Representatives for the first time in decades. Tiahrt was one of the young Turks under Newt Gingrich, the renegade Republican backbencher who became speaker and shook up the Washington political order.

"What you see with a lot with social conservatives is they come in and work like the devil on abortion or something else and nothing else interests them very much," said Burdett Loomis, who teaches political science at the University of Kansas. "Others understand that's part of their constituency, but they're going to be able to have a big impact in a lot of ways. Tiahrt comes from the business community. He understood that."

Tiahrt said he never lost any of his early zeal, although the robust mustache he sported at the time was a casualty.

"After my first round in political cartoons, I decided the mustache had to go," he said with a laugh.

Politically, he learned over time to temper his tactics without moderating his commitment.

"I know there's a certain wisdom that has come with working here, wisdom in how you get things done and what things really are important," Tiahrt said. "You can be very effective behind the scenes, as well as on the floor."

Among his regrets was the inability to get the Kelsey Smith Act signed into law, although he remains hopeful. She was an Overland Park teenager who was abducted and murdered in 2007. His bill would allow law enforcement authorities to use cell phone information to track down missing persons.

'Hallmark' of career

Republican Sen. Pat Roberts said that while his Kansas colleague held strong views, "he got along with other members on the other side of the aisle. He's cordial and down to earth."

Roberts worked closely with Tiahrt on the still-ongoing campaign by the Boeing Co. to win an Air Force contract to build aerial refueling tankers.

But he said the "hallmark" of Tiahrt's congressional career was his dogged effort to secure the release of Kansas missionary Gracia Burnham, who, with her husband, Martin, and others was captured by Islamic terrorists in 2001 in the Philippines.

She was freed a year later after a raid by the Philippine military, but Martin Burnham was killed.

"She's alive because of Todd," Roberts said.

Schlapp, who worked as a White House political aide during that period, said Tiahrt never gave up.

"When Todd wanted help with Gracia Burnham, he burned the phone lines and broke down the doors," Schlapp said. "He was not going to take 'no' for an answer."

Plans uncertain

Tiahrt is not sure yet what he'll do after he leaves Congress. With his experience in aviation and Capitol Hill resume, he said he will likely operate between Kansas and Washington.

"It's human nature to have some concerns with change," Tiahrt said. "I've seen great joy with this job, but I've also witnessed regrets and sorrows as well. I've experienced life, I guess."