David Dreier was 26, still living in a dorm at Claremont McKenna College and working as a college administrator, when he ran for Congress the first time, in 1978. He lost then but never thereafter. Sixteen times, Dreier was elected to the House of Representatives from a San Gabriel Valley/San Bernardino County district. He became the youngest-ever chairman of the Rules Committee, mastering the machinery of the House. But in February, he announced he would not seek reelection. He leaves behind a sharply redrawn district, and a Congress he insists is not so awfully different from the one he entered more than half his life ago.
You went to Washington in the "Ronald Reagan Class of 1980.'' Pundits have said even Reagan wouldn't manage in today's political climate.
I joke that Reagan could not win the Republican nomination and John F. Kennedy could not win the Democratic nomination. When I made my [retirement] announcement, I said this institution is as great as it's ever been. That led everyone to scratch their heads. The institution is reflective of society and the body politic. We have a very divided America; that being represented in Congress does not diminish it, even though it has a 10% approval rating — lower than Moammar Kadafi's, from the people who killed him! The attention is always on areas of disagreement, but that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of things getting done reasonably well.
I don't look at the world through rose-colored glasses. Is it not human nature to talk about the "good old days"? I heard people [in Congress] saying that in the early '80s. I just don't buy it.
Then where does the partisanship leave you, as a known moderate?
I know I'm labeled that, but when I got here I was labeled a Reagan robot. I like to get things done and find areas of agreement. That doesn't mean I'm not a proponent of James Madison's clash of ideas, but you've got to get things done. That means you're compromising, which some see as a negative. You should never compromise your principles, but you should always be prepared to compromise for principle.
Your moderation reportedly cost you the House speakership.
There were people who wanted me to be speaker, and I said I just want to be chairman of the Rules Committee. This committee is the traffic cop through which virtually everything has to go before it's considered on the House floor. It's just an amazing honor.
A group of members, Democrats and Republicans, have said to me, "This place isn't going to be able to function without you." I was reminded of Charles de Gaulle's famous line that the cemetery is filled with indispensable people.
Wasn't there talk of you becoming head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America?
In 2004, I was approached by studio heads. I'm so grateful I [said no]. The things I wanted to accomplish —reverse the 82% non-defense discretionary spending, the Panama, Colombia and South Korea free-trade agreements I'd worked on for a decade, and opening the [legislative] process to make sure Democrats as well as Republicans have their ideas considered. [L.A. Democratic Rep.] Maxine Waters has said to me, "You've handed me more opportunity than Nancy [Pelosi, the former Democratic speaker] ever did."
What happens in January?
Right now I have about 10 different options. I'm so pleasantly surprised. I've been asked by a couple of networks, Fox and CNN, to offer commentary. I'm also looking at new-media stuff. There are people who've asked [me], regardless of who's elected president, to consider posts in either administration.
That would mean living in Washington, not your house in Malibu.
That's why I'm a little conflicted!
Is it hard to be a Republican in a blue-state delegation?
I don't think of it in that respect. Maxine Waters is one of my great friends. I work with [Democratic Rep.] Henry Waxman on a lot of issues. For 11 years I've been leader of the [Republican] California congressional delegation. I'm the only Republican [from] Los Angeles [County]. I work with a Democratic delegation, and I enjoy it.
Did redistricting affect your decision to retire? And what about Republicans and California's changing demographics?
Redistricting played no role. I had made a decision before the last election: I would serve one more term. As far as changing demographics, even though I'm in the minority party in California, I represent the majority philosophy. We need to encourage more people of diverse views into the Republican Party. I believe in limited government, free economy, strong defense and personal freedom.