He shares a name with a famous comedian but, on Capitol Hill, California Congressman Jerry Lewis is the big celebrity.
The longtime Republican lawmaker from Redlands is stepping down after more than three decades in Congress. Lewis looked back on his political career from his favorite spot in the Capitol: the elegant office of the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Lewis chaired the influential committee for two years. When he remodeled the chairman’s office, he replaced the carpet with blue and gold tiles. Lewis is a die-hard UCLA fan. His beloved dog is named Bruin. But Lewis said it was geography, not the design, that made this office special. It's right off the House floor.
"To the say the least," said Lewis, "it’s nicely situated for the chairman."
Lewis described Appropriations as the heart of the work Congress does. It’s close to his heart as well, and the reason he decided to return to Capitol Hill after a rough freshman term.
Lewis arrived in D.C. in 1979, after a decade in the California state legislature where he worked on creating the Air Quality Management District and early childcare legislation. Congress was different.
"The first two years around here," recalled Lewis, "I came within an inch of going back to California and running for Lieutenant Governor because it was so inane."
But in his second term, Lewis snagged a prized spot on the Appropriations Committee, eventually rising through the ranks to chairman in 2005. He served only one term because Democrats took back the House in 2006. He remained the committee’s ranking Republican and is retiring as its Chairman Emeritus.
Lewis said, over time, "you can have a huge effect upon the way our taxpayers have a chance to get a piece of their money back for public purposes."
Democratic L.A. Congressman Xavier Becerra recently said of his colleague: "Much of the infrastructure in California we owe to people like Jerry Lewis. Lewis can say he helped build America."
For Lewis, perhaps the most important piece of public money was spent on a flood control project in the Inland Empire. He remembers a rainy year from his youth when he dropped a ping pong ball out the back bedroom window.
"The ball dropped about two feet, hit the water and floated out through the back fence," he said. "All those years, the Valley facing this horrendous potential for flooding."
Now, the Seven Oaks Dam, at the very head of the Santa Ana River, controls that flood possibility so that, as Lewis said, the Valley "will never flood again."
Two years ago, Republicans pushed through a moratorium on earmarks, making it more difficult for lawmakers to steer money to projects in their own districts. Lewis is a fan of earmarks. He said it’s a constitutional responsibility for Congress to be what he calls “good stewards of public money.”
The ban was a “cause célèbre” of a few members, he said, "but more and more members are recognizing that to serve their constituents, their voice has to be heard. And you don’t do it automatically because some agency head thinks they know more than the Congress should know about how to spend their money."
Earmarks and ties to lobbyists were what brought Lewis under the microscope of the U.S. Justice Department. San Diego GOP member Randy “Duke” Cunningham pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from contractors while serving on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and resigned from Congress in 2005.
Lewis said a woman "around this place" went to the Justice Department and said since Cunningham had "violated the fundamentals of this process," and Lewis was the chairman of his subcommittee at the time, "he must have been similarly involved and so you’ve got to look at it."
After a four-year investigation, no charges were filed against Lewis. But his legal fees topped $1 million. Lewis said: "(It)cast a shadow that I’m not comfortable with at all. It’ll always be there and the reality is that we have attempted to be a positive impact in public service." He insisted the Justice Department was "dead wrong. But lawyers don’t have to be right all the time."
As Lewis looked back over his years in Washington, he said he’s seen a change in Congress — and not for the better. He said over the past two or three decades, the body has moved progressively down a pathway towards partisan confrontation "almost for the sake of it."
Lewis said the reality is that 90 percent of the issues facing Congress are non-partisan. And he advised new members to go out of their way to get to know their colleagues — particularly in subcommittees.
"I think if you work at that, if you care about it, members are willing to deal with members in a personal way." Lewis said when leadership seeks confrontation for the sake of partisan confrontation, "you may as well walk away from those conversations." But he insisted that, member-to-member, you can make a difference — "and it deserves some serious tending."
Lewis won’t miss the weekly round-trip flight between D.C. and Ontario Airport, with Bruin (a Bichon-Poo) under the seat, his wife of 25 years, Arlene Willis — who was also his chief of staff — at his side.
But Lewis said he will miss one of the perks of office he loved in the early days — walking out the back door of the Capitol and running straight down the National Mall.
"You go past the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial," he recounted. "I would go up the steps, read the Gettysburg Address, and then run back again." Lewis called the five-mile round trip "one of the great, great experiences of anybody’s lifetime."
The 78-year-old Lewis has no immediate plans for the future, but said there are “other chapters in this book of life” and other opportunities to have an impact on public affairs.