Ross Perot, the iconoclastic Texas billionaire who died on Tuesday at age 89, was well known for roiling presidential politics in the 1990s. But he was also a consistent and colorful presence on Capitol Hill, advocating for a variety of causes, including veterans affairs, deficits and trade policy.
“NAFTA is like a bad-tasting dog food,” Perot said on the Capitol grounds on Nov. 8, 1993, rattling off just one of the pithy, and head-scratching, Lone Star-fried aphorisms that came to help define the man. His enmity for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he predicted would give way to a “giant-sucking sound” of jobs to Mexico, would be right at home in today’s political debates on trade, particularly as Congress considers NAFTA’s successor, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
Perot was a longtime advocate for veterans, from bankrolling missions to hunt for missing prisoners after the Vietnam War to testifying on behalf of research and treatment for those suffering from Gulf War illness, an ailment that befell those returning from the Middle East.
“There is no question in my mind that we left people in Laos, and I think I can prove it to any rational person,” he testified to the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs on Aug. 11, 1992. To that end, he told the panel he had spent more than $3 million of his own money for leads on missing prisoners in Southeast Asia. The committee eventually found that there was no evidence American prisoners were still being held at that time, although they may have been after hostilities ended in the 1970s.
He pushed Capitol Hill hard on the issue that propelled his campaigns for president in 1992 and 1996, the budget deficit.
After garnering 19 percent of the vote in 1992, leading Republicans to blame him for siphoning votes from President George H.W. Bush and throwing the election to Bill Clinton, Perot was an active presence on the Hill, urging Congress and the White House to set an example and trim their own staff and operations as a down payment on cutting the deficit.
He was also active in trying to overhaul lobbying, using an organization he formed, United We Stand America, to push for legislation to change lobbyist disclosure requirements and to crack down on the rules for how gifts find their ways to members of Congress. The bill was the subject of much debate during the 103rd Congress, 1993-1994, with versions passing each chamber. But conference negotiators never could agree on a broader measure.
Perot ran again for president in 1996, this time as the nominee for the party he founded the year before, the Reform Party. He got 8 percent of the vote that year. But he did not fade from public life. Just check the committee witness rolls for any of the above issues.
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