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Meet the Congressman Who is Leading Us to a Credit Default

Roll Call/Getty Images

As House Republicans once again march us toward the precipice, they are being led by one Tom Graves, a member from Georgia. It was Graves who took charge earlier this month in demanding that the defunding of Obamacare be a requirement for keeping open the government, and it is he who rebuffed Speaker John Boehner’s attempt yesterday to keep the government running and delay the Obamacare fight until the debt ceiling showdown next month. “I’d like to see us keep that focus there,” said Graves. “We’ve got a responsibility to finish this up and let it play out.”

I’ve been amused (albeit in a despair-for-the-country sort of way) to see Graves moving into the spotlight like this, because I have a certain recollection of Graves from the last time we arrived on the verge of a credit default. Graves arrived in Washington as, essentially, an advance member of the firebrand class of 2010—he won a special election in the spring of that year to fill an open seat that runs from the hill country along the Tennessee border to the exurbs of Atlanta. By the following year, as the new House Republican majority decided to make a stand around the debt ceiling limit, Graves was a vociferous member of the Tea Party faction urging against surrender: “This is something that we've been fighting for for a long time,” Graves told a Dalton (Ga.) Tea Party gathering on July 20, 2011, as the debt clock ticked down. “There's a strong group of conservatives that are holding together and standing firm for what we know are the solutions to move us through the debt crisis…The debt crisis is not a future crisis. It's today's crisis. We’ve got to cut the deficit now.”

Two weeks later, Graves was one of 66 Republicans to vote against the last-minute deal to raise the debt limit and avert catastrophe. But he did not take the defeat too hard. That same evening, he slipped off to Nationals Park to take in a game between the Nats and his own team, the Braves. Well, that wasn’t the only reason for going to the game. It was the scene of a $1,500-per-head fundraiser being held in his honor—in the AT&T skybox at the park.

I’d seen mention of the event and found it rather remarkable, given the context—a Tea Party congressman arriving in Washington on a wave of populist fervor and invoking that fervor to risk a default on the national debt even as he basked in the comfort of a corporate skybox. And of course, it wasn’t just that one night’s fundraiser—Graves and his Tea Party brethren had been backed all along by more than just the might of rusty pitchforks: the top two donors to his 2010 campaign were the Wall Street-backed Club for Growth and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s “leadership PAC.”

I decided to head over to the park myself to see if Graves had in fact made it there despite the hugely consequential showdown on the Hill that he helped precipitate. I talked my way into one skybox after another, looking for him in vain. The game ended—the Nats won, 5-3—and I was about to give up when there, coming out of one of the skyboxes and into the corridor was Graves, dressed in faded blue jeans and flanked by two aides. I approached him to ask about the fundraiser and was stiff-armed away by one of the aides while Graves fled into the men’s room. “Standing firm,” indeed.

I reached him the next day on the phone as he headed to a corn roast in his district to explain his vote to his constituents. “Unfortunately, it was a compromise,” he said of the deal. “Compromises led us into this mess, and you can’t compromise your way out of it.”

As it happens, Graves was in the news just ten days after that for a different debt-related story. From the Associated Press:

The former chairman of a north Georgia bank who signed off on a $2.2 million loan to two prominent Republican lawmakers said he believes the eventual default on the loan was partly to blame for the bank's financial collapse. Morgan Akin told The Associated Press in a recent interview that Bartow County Bank took an $875,000 hit on the loan when U.S. Rep. Tom Graves and state Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers defaulted. The bank went under in April."Was it the only loan we had default? No," Akin said. "But it was one of the larger loans, and it contributed significantly (to the bank's failure)."

Graves and Rogers recently settled a lawsuit filed against them by the bank, but both sides have signed a confidentiality agreement and declined to provide specifics of the settlement. Neither Graves nor Rogers would respond directly to Akin's claims. "As the congressman said, all parties involved have reached a positive agreement and have moved on," Graves spokesman John Donnelly said…

Akin said that while the arrangement may be fair and equitable for Graves and Rogers, it hasn't been good for Bartow shareholders who saw the nearly 40-year-old community bank sink. Nor has it been fair, he said, to the FDIC, which says the bank's failure is expected to cost $69.5 million. The FDIC is funded by insurance fees from banks. Akin said he was speaking up because he felt only one side of the story had been represented. He said he was disappointed with Graves and Rogers, who cast themselves as champions of fiscal responsibility.

"They talk up the tea party stuff, but when it comes to their own finances they're irresponsible and leave the bank on the hook," he said.

Remarkably, the disclosure of that episode has not kept Graves from now taking up the fiscal-rectitude standard again, with even greater prominence. But if you’re looking for him on the night when it all comes crashing down, don’t necessarily expect him to be on the Hill. There won’t be any more Nats games by then, but the Redskins are at home on October 20 against the Bears, three days after we’re supposed to hit the debt limit. Anyone got a corporate skybox available at FedEd Field for a Tea Party fundraiser?