hardline political news and analysis

Month: May, 2015

Shortsighted Strategies Promote Polarization

Memo to the House Republican Conference: Summer begins on June 21. Tens of millions of Americans (AKA your constituents) are planning their vacations in the national parks, forests, wilderness areas and monuments. Endangering the ability for Americans to enjoy the natural resources they own is not a clever summer message. And yet, here are, barely past Memorial Day, and the Republican majority is threatening to end funding for the public lands, and maybe deauthorize a few parks as well.

Several years ago, when Republicans actually did shut down the government for a few days, the Number One public protest centered on the inaccessibility of national parks, monuments, etc. The nasty reaction didn’t just come from tourists who discovered the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian were closed: the howls of anger emanated from all across America, yes, even from those conservative bastions whose senators and representatives perorate endlessly about the federal government “stealing” their states’ lands and undermining the tax base. Turns out people in Utah, Arizona, Alaska and Idaho also like to hike, hunt, camp, and park at look-out points.

My experience (as staff director of the House Natural Resources Committee) was that much of the anti-park sentiment voiced by conservatives wasn’t exactly on the level. The rhetoric was terrific – “the war on the West” and all that – and some ideological zealots like Interior Secretary James Watt (who didn’t have to answer to any constituents) might have actually believed it. But Members know that protected public lands promote economic activity and jobs for their constituents. True, when public lands protections conflicted with natural resource development by mining companies, foresters or energy development, there was a genuine battle between preservation and exploitation. But often, conservatives were voicing a reflexive hostility to protection in the name of the detested federal government.

Proposals to “return” federal lands to the states meet with cool reactions from states that are not seeking the management responsibilities and significant costs. I recall when one powerful Western congressman denounced the alleged damage to his district by a parks designation, Democrats offered to deauthorize the park. Of course, he protested that so many hotels, gas stations and restaurants had been developed in proximity to the park that the local economy would be undermined by deauthorization.

The House GOP seems inclined to tamper with the funding pipeline that provides essential money for acquisition and maintenance for hundreds of parks, monuments, wilderness areas, and other public lands, and they run the risk of a furious public reaction for their actions. That funding source is the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), created half a century ago and funded by (of all things) revenues from outer continental shelf (OCS) oil and gas development. LCWF also provides assistance to states to manage their public lands. But LWCF is due to expire in September, and disagreements within the GOP threaten to push the parks off the proverbial cliff.

There is nothing particularly new about the disagreement over LWCF’s mission, but we will have to wait to see if reason will prevail and save the national parks. At the same time, Congress will have to figure out whether to fund the repair of crumbling bridges and highways, or allow the Highway Trust Fund to wither away as well. Should be an interesting summer as the Republican majority wrestles with the messy business of governing.

But to be fair, conservatives are not the only ones behaving irrationally these days, and a leading candidate for shortsighted strategists of the year must fall to leading environmental organizations (yes, the same people who are looking to their friends in Congress for help in … funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund).   How better to bump up your standing with your allies in Congress – a select group in the case of the environmental community – than by trashing one of the leading environmentalists because he has a difference of opinion with Big Green.

Earl Blumenauer of Oregon is a 19 year veteran of the House, a conservationist so earnest and unimpeachable that he wears a fluorescent plastic bicycle in his lapel instead of the ubiquitous American flag. Blumenauer has been a staunch proponent for increased bicycle usage (he rides one to work) and used his position on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to promote inclusion of peddle power in the nation’s transportation plans.

Now, as a member of the Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee, Blumenauer has indicated he might support President Obama’s Pacific trade initiatives, a position endorsed by Oregon’s senior senator (Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden) and probably a good number of Blumenauer’s constituents who work in technology-related fields that support expanded trade.

Leaving aside the relative merits of TPP and TPA, on which reasonable people can evidently differ, you might think that Blumenauer has the right to take a position on such a policy without suddenly becoming the Judas-Brutus-Benedict Arnold poster child for political betrayal. But you would be wrong.

Leading environmental organizations, including Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, have decided that an outstanding use of their time and resources would be to launch a searing attack on Congressman Blumenauer. They do not dispute his 95 percent approval lifetime from the League of Conservation Voters. “Representative Blumenauer has been an important champion on climate change and the environment,” admits Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica. But… “we can’t have ‘environmental champions’ supporting a bad trade deal.”

‘Environmental champions,’ in quotes? Really? Does Blumenauer’s apostasy genuinely raise questions about his environmental credentials? Over the past 19 years?

Well, according to a TV ad the environmentalists are running (in Blumenauer’s district, for maximum damage), the trade deal would “devastate our environment and contribute to climate change.”

Now, it is perfectly legitimate to question the shortcomings of the trade agreements’ environmental provisions; past efforts have been largely ineffectual. And one can certainly cite many reasons, from labor impacts to the ceding of congressional authority to placing U.S. law at risk of international court rulings, for opposing this trade plan. But launching an assault on Blumenauer illustrates one of the major reasons that the environmental community has lost so much of its punch on Capitol Hill in recent years.

When the environmental community was young and lean and battling polluters, energy companies, developers and the like, it matched its assertiveness with grassroots political skills and savvy legislative strategizing. Groups like the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action exerted real influence over the Congress not because of the moral righteousness of their cause (righteous though it may be) but because they went into congressional districts and organized, registered voters, targeted real enemies, and made politicians weigh the consequences of voting against sound environmental policy.

But along the way, a lot of these groups became less membership oriented and more Washington-centric. They lost their ability to influence because they lost their ability to mobilize. They sought to influence through pronouncement instead of through organization. They fell under the domination of well-heeled advocates who funded organizations to promote pie-eyed but unrealistic vanity policies while picking unnecessary turf fights with like-minded organizations.

Running expensive hit pieces is no substitute for the grunt work of sustained political organizing. And the reaction it will generate, from many in Congress, is likely to be anger that a loyal friend and dependable ally is treated so shabbily because he dared to disagree on one issue. Alienating key friends is not a smart lobbying strategy.

Of course, there are many green groups that do terrific work and I certainly do not mean to paint everyone with the same brush. But the thuggish attack on Earl Blumenauer illustrates not only the misdirection of environmental energies, but also reminds us that culpability for political intractability (and therefore, the polarization that supposedly everyone decries) is not the exclusive purview of the Tea Party and other right wing dogmatists.

Coincidentally, it was the Pew Research Center that, in a major study last year, illustrated the depth and seriousness of the partisan divide (Pew also runs some of the most respected environmental efforts in the country these days).

The intolerance for divergent views illustrated by the assault on Rep. Blumenauer demonstrates why unraveling the partisanship skein will prove so challenging. As Pew pointed out, “Today 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.” With special interests (including the unregulated fat wallets) on both sides attempting to eviscerate anyone who does not demonstrate absolute fealty to their views, it is no wonder that so few legislators are prepared to venture into the political killing zone of pragmatic compromise.


The Passing of a “Public Man”

Former House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas, who died on Wednesday, described himself in the title of the autobiography that sealed his downfall as “a public man.” As one who served in both state and federal government for more than 30 years, he surely was one. But he was also a man of contradictions and surprises whose rise to leadership in the House was a singularly discordant act amid the reform fervor of the 1970s.

Most of the obituaries focused on Wright’s assertiveness in foreign policy, particular his willingness to act largely independent of the pro-war Reagan Administration to negotiate with combatants in Nicaragua during the late 1980s. Some in Congress lacerated him for usurping the presidential role – even suggesting that he violated the 1790s Logan Act which bars private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments.

Wright’s aggressiveness embodied an important era in which Congress, reacting to the Imperial Presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, sought to reestablish itself as what the Founders envisioned, a co-equal branch of government. The 1973 War Powers Resolution and the Budget Control and Impoundment Act of 1974 reflected a determination by young, reformist legislators to challenge automatic deference to the White House, regardless of party. The same sentiment was later espoused by Newt Gingrich who asserted, “ One of my goals is to make the House the co-equal of the White House.” The outgrowth of that bipartisan objective over the past 40 years can be witnessed in the current debate over trade and Iran.

Wright was not a product of the reform movement that swept the House in the 1970s. Indeed, as the number of young, progressive, reformist Democrats steadily rose after the 1958 election, Wright was a largely absent figure. He seemed almost out of touch with his times. In an era of expanding attention to equal rights, he voted against the 1964 Civil Rights bill (though he had supported anti-lynching legislation during his brief career in the Texas Legislature). As the country reeled from the Arab oil embargo and energy reform emerged as a powerful issue, Wright remained a loyal defender of his home state’s industry. As the Congress increasingly became critical of the war in Vietnam, Wright sponsored a resolution in 1969 endorsing Nixon’s escalation. During the great fights to challenge the power of the Conservative Coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans, Wright played no significant role, preferring to dole out pork barrel favors to helpful Members from his senior position on the Public Works Committee.

It was one of the great anomalous moments of the post-Watergate era when Wright, who held only a minor assistant Whip position, won the 1976 race to become Majority Leader, a position vacated by Tip O’Neill as he ascended to the speakership. Wright was not even supposed to be a factor in that election, let alone the winner. The main combatants were the decade’s two leading spokesmen for House reform: Phillip Burton of California and Richard Bolling of Missouri, and they detested each other.

Burton was the tactical genius, the Machiavellian, three-dimensional chess player who could rewrite Caucus rules, devise an amendment strategy, and redesign congressional district lines from his darkened Longworth building lair, a tumbler full of vodka firmly in hand at 5 pm. Burton relished placing expanded autonomy in the hands of younger subcommittees who could defy autocratic chairmen. He had no problem cutting deals with conservatives in pursuit of a larger good, although his willingness to do so raised suspicions among some young liberals. Burton envisioned the Democratic Caucus, which he conveniently chaired, as the legislative and strategic center of the House.

Bolling was a severe, cerebral reformer, author of manifestos of reform like House Out of Order (1965) that advocated a strengthening of the role of leadership and a tighter control by the Rules Committee, on which he conveniently served. If Burton was gratuitously insulting and confrontational, Bolling was universally perceived as arrogant and insufferable. In 1975, he asked Rep. Dave Obey (WI), a supporter, “If I ran for Majority Leader,” which everyone knew he would, “what’s first thing I should do?” Obey replied, “Stop being such a prick,” to which Bolling replied, “I think you are absolutely right.”

Burton and Bolling squared off against Wright, a late entrant (and Whip John McFall who had no chance whatsoever). In a series of votes that remain the subject of debate, accusation, counter-accusation and speculation to this day, McFall and then Bolling were eliminated, and Wright defeated Burton by a single vote on the third ballot. Who cast the decisive vote, who threw votes to whom, whose vote was deemed invalid, who double-crossed whom will be debated as long as there are congressional historians to write the story. Not even all the participants were sure what had happened. One report recalls Dan Rostenkowski, a Wright nominator, expressing amazement at the outcome to Burton and then bursting into tears.

The details of that crucial election were little discussed in Wright’s obituaries, but his victory had profound ramifications for the House. He served as Majority Leader for a decade under O’Neill, during which the New Republic called him the “last of the old-time Democrats.” But to the surprise of many, he largely shed his earlier reputation as a slick, smooth-talking Texan, emerging as a staunch defender of the House’s prerogatives. When he advanced to the Speakership in 1987, he made clear he was not interested in extending the bonhomie that sometimes characterized O’Neill’s relationship with Ronald Reagan. Instead, he acted and sounded like the toughest of the 1970s reformers, challenging the right of a president to again maneuver the nation secretly into a war, and he earned the liberals’ praise. George Miller (CA), one of Burton’s strongest allies, observed that by standing up for his Members, Wright ‘s “risk taking has given the House back some of its pride.”

Wright was also prepared to assert himself within the House itself. As a new generation of aggressive Republicans, their eyes on a future House majority, used the liberal floor rules to offer amendments that exposed vulnerable Democrats to district criticism, Wright began “tightening the screws,” according to his biographer, shutting off many of the legislative opportunities granted Members in the 1970s reforms. Wright’s action reduced the number of politically damaging votes, but gave credence to the Republican charges of autocratic Democratic rule that could only be remedied by ending their nearly 40 year control of the House. To this day, while most Democrats point to Gingrich’s hyperbolic tactics as the source of contemporary hyper-partisanship, many Republicans believe, as one senior GOP Member recently told me, that it was Wright who “really poisoned the well.”

When Wright was brought down in 1989 amid multiple charges of wrongdoing and vicious assault from Newt Gingrich and other Republicans, he gave a poignant farewell speech to the House. Yielding his gavel and his seat, he pleaded for a reduction in the partisanship and bitterness that had crept into House deliberations and interpersonal relations.

“It is grievously hurtful to our society when vilification becomes an accepted form of political debate and negative campaigning becomes a full-time occupation,” Wright said a quarter century ago, before the Koch brothers and Citizens United and screeching cable TV and talk radio obliterated most civil discourse. “In God’s name, that’s not what this institution is supposed to be all about. When vengeance becomes more desirable than vindication and harsh personal attacks upon one another’s motives and one another’s character drown out the quiet logic of serious debate on important issues … that’s unworthy of our institution and unworthy of our American political process. All of us in both political parties must resolve to bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end!! We’ve done enough of it!”

One can only marvel that, less than a decade later, when Newt Gingrich – facing serious ethics charges of his own – announced his resignation as the first Republican speaker in 40 years, he similarly referenced his distaste for the “cannibals” who preferred defeat, in pursuit of unattainable victory, to compromise.

Wright remains a controversial, contradictory, complex figure in the history of the House, but his role in seeking to regain a co-equal place for the Congress in the crucial decisions of war and peace earn him our respect and admiration. He made mistakes, he admitted, as do we all; but he served his Congress and his nation with distinction.