Packard Known for His Independence : Constituent-Oriented Congressman Breaks With GOP on Social Issues
Rep. Ronald C. Packard was reading the mail in his Washington office on Jan. 28 when an aide burst in to say that the space shuttle had exploded. Several days later, the south Orange County congressman was one of six members named to a House task force probing the tragedy.
As a task force member, Packard will play a key role in deciding how and when NASA will build more shuttles. He is also the ranking Republican on a House subcommittee which reviews all science programs launched by the federal government.
Last week, as President Reagan received a report highly critical of NASA’s role in the Challenger tragedy from a White House commission of inquiry, Packard was briefed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida--and he was upset by what he heard from NASA officials.
“It was sort of a surprise that NASA is taking the position that it was an unavoidable accident, and clearly the commission felt it was avoidable,” Packard said of his briefing. “I think it’s an attitude problem and that disturbs me immensely. The committee (Science and Technology) is going to take a much stronger oversight role in dealing with NASA.”
Packard, 55, admits this is heady stuff for a congressman serving only his second two-year term. But he is strongly committed to resolving the current crisis in the U.S. space program without waiting for NASA to come hat in hand to Congress.
With his mind on space exploration, Packard still has found time to build a reputation as a staunch but politically independent conservative, breaking ranks with his own party and even President Reagan on some key social issues. Unlike his four Orange County colleagues, for example, he has voted regularly for federal programs designed to feed the poor.
Packard’s ability to get along with House members of all political persuasions also sets him apart from many of his conservative colleagues. He has helped win bipartisan support for such programs as the $1.2-billion Santa Ana River Flood Control Project, a top county priority.
House members who know him say Packard has been one of Congress’ most constituent-oriented officials since coming to Capitol Hill in 1983. Norm Ornstein, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, said it’s not uncommon for new congressmen like Packard to be district-oriented. But he added that Packard’s activism on behalf of the poor is unusual for a congressman with one of the most conservative and Republican districts in the United States.
Packard, a former Carlsbad mayor, drew national attention in his landmark 1982 election, when he became only the fourth candidate in U.S. history to win a write-in campaign for Congress. Moreover, he was the first to do so with both a Democrat and a GOP candidate already on the ballot. He defeated Republican Johnny Crean, a travel-trailer manufacturer, and Democrat Roy Archer, a college political science instructor.
In the years since then, Packard’s presence has been felt by the city officials in his district, which stretches from southern Orange County to northern San Diego County, and includes San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Mission Viejo, Capistrano Beach, Vista, Carlsbad, Escondido, Fallbrook, Oceanside and Camp Pendleton.
They credit him, for example, with obtaining a $3.5-million Department of Housing and Urban Development grant to finance a 72-unit senior citizens’ housing project about to rise across the street from San Clemente’s civic center.
But there has been criticism from a handful of district officials and political activists, who have said that Packard did not consult them often enough about the Reagan Administration’s plans for offshore oil drilling in California.
And although the congressman gets along with local GOP leaders, his South Orange County field representative, Mike Eggers, has had several personality clashes with district activists that have rubbed off on Packard’s reputation.
In particular, the politically ambitious Eggers ran unsuccessfully for a seat on a community college board at the same time he was working for Packard and running his own public relations firm on the side.
Eggers and Packard, brushing aside questions of conflict of interest, point out that Eggers is paid as a self-employed, independent contractor rather than as a regular congressional staff member.
Despite these problems, Packard was unchallenged in the June 3 GOP primary and faces an underfunded campaign by Democrat Joseph Chirra, a Vista lawyer, in November.
“He seems to be everywhere at once,” said John Cronin, a GOP activist from Coto de Caza. “I go to the supermarket and he’s there. I go to a local community meeting, and he’s there. And when I’ve been in Washington, D.C., on business, he’s been there. I don’t know how he does it, but he is the most accessible guy I’ve ever known.”
Although some House Democrats disagree with Packard on national issues, he gets high marks from them for his near-perfect attendance record and for doing his homework on committee matters.
“He’s very conscientious, and I think he represents his district very well,” said Rep. James J. Howard (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Public Works Committee, on which Packard sits. “You don’t see many members fight harder for their district’s interests than he does.”
Howard’s panel oversees the massive $1.1-billion Santa Ana River Flood Control program, the largest public works project in Congress. Although the flood control project is not in Packard’s district, he has still become active on many projects in neighboring areas, including efforts to reduce sewage pollution on the Tijuana River near the Mexican border.
When the bill containing the Santa Ana River project recently went to a joint Senate-House conference committee, for example, Packard pressed for a seat on the committee and got it, arguing that the Santa Ana River project is the biggest item in the legislation.
Packard said the priority now is to lobby President Reagan to support the project, which is no easy task, since the White House objects to other water projects contained in the same bill.
Doesn’t Grab Headlines
A retired dentist, the silver-haired Packard doesn’t make a lot of speeches on the House floor and doesn’t grab headlines with controversial statements on national or international issues. He is not widely known outside the Public Works and Science and Technology committees on which he serves.
But he has gained recognition for compiling one of the most conservative voting records in Congress. Only five California House members had higher ratings from conservative groups than Packard in 1985, and he scored higher than Orange County’s four other congressmen. He supported President Reagan 75% of the time on votes last year where the White House took a position, according to Congressional Quarterly.
When Packard fails to side with Reagan, the issue usually involves aid to the poor, and then he often breaks ranks with fellow congressmen such as Reps. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach), William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton), Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) and Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach).
Congressional Quarterly editor Alan Ehrenhalt described Packard as someone who “blends the smiling geniality expected of a dentist with a set of doggedly held Mormon convictions and an abiding sense of right and wrong.”
For example, Packard was alone among the county’s all-GOP House delegation to support the creation of the House Select Committee on Hunger, and he was also alone in voting to increase food aid to drought-stricken African nations from the $90 million sought by President Reagan to $150 million.
Also, Packard on several votes has supported increased federal child-care subsidies when his Orange County colleagues did not.
Asked to explain these votes on behalf of the poor, Packard said his Mormon upbringing and a childhood spent on a poor Iowa farm have left their mark on him.
Another explanation may involve the demographics of his district. Unlike most other GOP strongholds, a preponderance of Packard’s constituents are old or retired, many live in rural areas and a large number rely on government programs like Social Security or on military pay.
‘Been an Education’
“It’s been an education,” Packard says of getting to know his district. “It has been touched by urban and rural problems, so I get a taste of just about all the issues that end up coming before Congress.”
Last fall, Packard successfully authored a bill that set aside the Sunday before Thanksgiving as a national day of fasting, with Americans asked to donate the cost of whatever meals they skip on that day to food distribution charities.
Although the legislation was approved too late to do much good in 1985, about $3.8 million was raised nationally, primarily through church groups. Packard said he will try to generate more awareness of the national day of fasting this year so church groups won’t be the only major source of contributions.
During a televised U.S. Senate committee hearing last September on Packard’s bill establishing a national day of fasting, U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) scolded Packard over the Reagan Administration’s cuts in food programs. Kennedy supported Packard’s bill but said he feared that a voluntary fast day might be used to reduce federal efforts to provide food to the poor.
Aided by committee chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a fellow Mormon, Packard won the upper hand. He told Kennedy he had voted for government food programs but favors voluntary efforts. Then Hatch intervened in the discussion, according to the following transcript from the Congressional Record:
Hatch: " . . . How many brothers and sisters (did you have)?”
Packard: “We needed a program like this just to feed my own family, it seems like. I am one of 17, so I understand.”
Hatch: " . . . As I understand it, you have followed a practice for many, many years of fasting at least one day a month and giving the equivalent of those meals to the poor, is that correct?”
Packard: “My own experience, throughout my whole life, has perhaps led me to this concept that ought to be made available to the American people as a whole. I do. I fast every month, two meals, and give the equivalent or more of the cost of those meals for the needy.”
Hatch: “And your wife and children do the same?”
Packard: “We have done it, yes.”
Married and the father of seven children, Packard’s political career began as a Carlsbad school board member concerned about his children’s education. He eventually served as Carlsbad’s mayor from 1978 to 1982.
Six months after being elected to Congress, Packard successfully lobbied Rep. Robert A. Roe (D-N.J.), chairman of the water resources subcommittee, and got the Santa Ana River Flood Control Project included in the House omnibus water works bill of 1983.
Ability to Get Along
Packard’s ability to get along with House members of all political persuasions has served him well, especially in the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, where members keep strict records on whether they vote for each other’s pet projects.
Asked if this doesn’t result in political horse-trading at taxpayers’ expense, Packard replied:
“It’s not quite that simple. But it’s implied and practiced, no question. And, frankly, that (Public Works and Transportation) is a committee that is very autocratic in many ways. The chairman runs that committee. He expects his members on both sides of the aisle to support the committee unless they have some very personal reasons why they can’t.”
Packard cited his vote against a Manhattan freeway project in New York as an example of how the committee operates.
Asked if committee members threatened to hold his bills hostage because of his opposition to the Manhattan freeway project, Packard said: “I’ll make no comment on that. . . . I got the message, though.”
In an interview last year, Packard said the intensity of such vote tracking surprised him.
“I did not realize to what extent they did keep track until the last couple of weeks. It has become very obvious to me that they monitor every vote like that, and I’ve not seen that on any other committee. They follow up with it also. They go visit the congressman’s office and want to know why. That’s an interesting power play.”
Packard has had his share of legislative defeats, including the bill he is most proud of, the Youth Opportunity Act of 1985, authored at President Reagan’s request.
The bill would have exempted employers from paying the minimum wage to teen-agers, but not less than $2.50 an hour. Packard and the Reagan Administration contended that the legislation would generate 100,000 new summer jobs for unemployed youths. The bill never got out of the House Education and Labor Committee because of strong opposition from labor groups.
At home, Packard has also run into criticism for not consulting officials in coastal communities often enough about federal proposals for offshore oil drilling.
At first, Packard participated in negotiations that led some California congressmen to conclude a controversial agreement with the Interior Department to develop some tracts along the coast. Neighboring Congressman Badham, from Newport Beach, refused to get involved in those discussions.
When the agreement fell apart, Packard and Badham disagreed about what to do next. Congressional Democrats agreed to abandon some tracts proposed for Badham’s district and eventually won his support for an unsuccessful move to retain a 3-year-old moratorium on offshore drilling.
But Packard refused to go along, believing there weren’t enough votes in Congress for an extension of the full moratorium. He still believes that, but said he is now supporting renewed efforts on behalf of a moratorium because a House subcommittee has expressed some interest.
Wind Up in the Courts
The real problem, Packard said, is with the Interior Department, where officials have expanded the number of proposed tracts off the Orange County coast instead of reducing them. If they succeed, Packard said, there will be a “picket fence” of drilling rigs along a line three miles off the coast. The issue will inevitably wind up in the courts, he predicted.
Not surprisingly, San Clemente officials were disappointed when Badham proposed switching some offshore tracts from his district to Packard’s district, near Camp Pendleton. But they also bristled when Packard, without consulting them, proposed placing the tracts near San Onofre, just a few miles south of San Clemente.
“I believe he (Packard) was a minor player in the bargaining that was going on,” said San Clemente Councilman G. Scott Diehl. “That was not entirely his fault. We really felt we needed to be as forceful as we could be on the issue, and I would have been happier if he had discussed things with us first. . . .
“But he did redouble his efforts on our behalf, and he has been very open-minded. I think we’re happy with his overall representation.”
San Clemente Councilman Robert Limberg agreed: “We were not happy with what happened on the offshore oil issue. . . . I feel he could have talked to his constituents a little more. . . . But Ron has been very responsive to the city and he has been a good congressman for the district, and I say that without any hesitation.”
Chirra, Packard’s Democratic opponent, also argues that Packard has not done enough in Congress to protect coastal residents from offshore oil drilling. As he campaigns, Chirra also has charged that Packard rubber-stamps costly Reagan Administration defense programs.
Despite these criticisms, Packard’s staff receives praise for handling constituent matters, something the congressman said is his highest priority.
“That’s why I’m here. . . . That’s why people elect a congressman,” Packard said.
Rep. Ronald (Ron) C. Packard Age: 55 (born on jan 19, 1931, Meridian, Idaho). Family: Wife is Roma Jean Sorenson; seven children. Time in Congress: 1983 to present Orange County office: 28262 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo, Calif. 92692., (714) 495-1243 43RD DISTRICT AT A GLANCE DEMOGRAPHIC PROFILE Population 525,956Republicans 54.5%Democrats 31.9%Declined to state and small parties 13.6%Household income (mean) $24,215Families with income above $50,000/year 13,134 Population below poverty level 46,659 Asians/Pacific Islanders 3% Spanish origin 13%Blacks 3%Whites 87%Others 1% (Population totals more then 100% because official U.S. Census statisitics include some people in more than one category. For example, there is some overlap between blacks and people of Spanish origin.) Foreign born 55,986 Median age 30 Primary industry ---- Durable Mfg. Primary occupation ---- Clerical, Craft/Repair, Assembler Government Employment 30,383 Federal contracts (in billions,1984) $0.7 Households recieving: --Social Security 47,239 Households recieving: --Public Assistance 10,515 Population under 24 Completed 4 or more years of college 68,341 Single-parent households 12,556 Living with six or more in household 7,819 Live in rented housing 167,171 Live in owner-occupied housing 335,297