By Dave Ongie and Scott Robertson
Like most Americans, Rep. Phil Roe took some time out recently to gather with his family during the holiday season. With the end of his sixth term in the United States House of Representatives looming on the horizon, Roe said he had a conversation with his family that has become somewhat of a tradition during his six terms in Congress.
This time around, Roe witnessed something that has become increasingly rare in the polarized political climate that has enveloped Washington D.C. – a unanimous vote.
“I’ve done this every time I’ve been in Congress, waiting until I got around Christmas, got my family together and had a discussion with them,” Roe said during a conference call with reporters on Friday morning. “It was unanimous from my family that I retire and start to act like somebody who is in retirement mode.”
Roe announced his decision to retire and not seek reelection in a press release on Friday morning that preceded the conference call. While Roe plans to retire at the end of the 116th Congress, he was quick to point out that he has one year left and plans to spend that time wrapping up some unfinished business.
Roe said he has meetings set up for next week to work on legislation to end surprise medical billing, and addressing the high prevalence of suicide among both veterans and civilians is also an issue that is on his radar. He added that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and the Surgeon General would both be visiting Tennessee’s First District in the near future during continuing efforts to address the public health crisis of suicide.
“A lot of the focus is going to be on a public health approach to mental health to try to reduce the incredible number of suicides that occur in this country each day,” Roe said.
While Roe has plenty of work on his plate as the new year unfolds, he took some time on Friday morning to reflect on his time in Washington D.C. He said he is particularly proud of the work he has done as a member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, which he chaired in 2017 and has continued to work on as the ranking member.
“I think my legacy will be the amazing amount of legislation we got passed in the (VA committee), and I’m very proud of that,” Roe said. “I think 25 of our bills that came out of our House Veterans Affairs committee got signed into law by the President.”
Among those bills were the VA MISSION Act and the Forever GI Bill, which Roe considers among his crowning achievements in Washington.
For Roe, politics has been something of a second act that came on the heels of a 31-year career as a medical doctor. Roe got his feet wet in government by serving on the planning committee in Johnson City before a stint on the Board of Commissioners, where he served as the mayor from 2007 until 2009.
As Roe has navigated the halls of Congress over the past 11-plus years, he said he has drawn upon all of his experiences in order to be an effective legislator.
“I learned a lot in the planning commission about listening to both sides of the story,” Roe said. “On the city commission, it only took three votes (to pass something). In the House, it takes 218.”
Roe credits a mix of patience and persistence for allowing him to get bills passed in Washington. He said a face-to-face approach has allowed him to slowly build consensus, which has eventually allowed several bills become laws.
A prime example, Roe said, was the Blue Water Navy Act, which finally passed the Senate unanimously last year and was signed into law after a full decade of work by Roe and others. The bill extends disability benefits for veterans who served on Navy ships off the coast of Vietnam.
Roe’s announcement was met with statements of respect from those who have worked with him on Capitol Hill. “Phil Roe has been a champion for veterans, for students and for common sense in government,” said U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander. “His background as a practicing physician has been crucial to our work to lower health care costs. I value his friendship and will miss his leadership in the Congress.”
But as he prepares to depart Washington, Roe said he has grown to respect the snail’s pace at which things often happen on Capitol Hill.
“What you have to learn is patience,” he said. “The government moves slowly for a reason. Our founding fathers didn’t want it to happen fast.”
Speculation regarding the list of possible candidates to succeed Roe has been a favorite topic of conversation among regional political pundits for the last three years. Among the names most frequently bandied about have been Tennessee State House Representatives Jeremy Faison, David Hawk and Timothy Hill; State Senator Jon Lundberg, former Johnson City Mayor Steve Darden and former Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge. All are Republicans. The GOP has held the 1st District seat for the last 138 years.
Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden issued a statement saying, “I have confidence that the next Congressman from Tennessee’s 1st District will lead with the same strong conservative values that Dr. Roe has maintained throughout his tenure as a United States Representative. We are grateful for Dr. Roe’s service to our country and we wish him the best in this next chapter of life.”
Roe was non-committal about his plans once his term expires next January. He said he had not had any discussions with the Trump administration about his decision to retire or about the possibility of him filling a departmental role. But that doesn’t mean there’s much chance of any moss gathering underneath Roe’s feet once he begins the third act of his life.
“I haven’t had more than two weeks off in 60 years,” Roe said. “It’s time that I let off the gas. When I grow up and figure out what I’m going to do with the rest of my life, I’ll let you guys know, but I suspect I’ll figure out something else to get into.
“I wouldn’t take anything for the experience,” Roe continued. “There are only about 13,000 people in the history of the United States of America who have ever gotten to do what I’ve gotten to do, and I’ll forever be grateful for it. I hope I have served the district well.”