Monday, March 05, 2012

Not Again! More Good People Leaving the Congress

From 1993 to 1994 I worked for Congressman Mike Kreidler, a Democrat from the 9th district of Washington State. If you don’t remember his Congressional career, that’s OK. Unfortunately he was in office for only two years. He lost his bid for re-election in the famous 1994 elections, when the House switched hands for the first time in 40 years. Fortunately for the citizens of Washington State, he is now their health insurance commissioner, so it worked out for everyone.

One of the members of Congress I had the chance to interact with during my years in the Washington delegation was Representative Norm Dicks (D-WA). When I say “interact,” I mean I’d be behind the scenes in hearings or meetings he was in charge of. I’m sure Rep. Dicks will not be writing in his memoirs “I got to interact with Stephanie Vance.”

What I remember about “Norm” (as everyone, friend or foe, knows him) is that he seemed very scary and acerbic. However, behind his gruff demeanor hid a caring for his district, the state and the people around him unparalleled by anyone in the U.S. Congress. Sure, he could scare the crap out of anyone in his way, and he definitely let his colleagues know when he wanted their support for an issue or funding level. But I never got the impression that any of this was done for “power” or for the “good of Norm.” It was all about a love for Washington state and Congress as the institution representing government “by the people.”

Now, I don’t mean to make it sound like he’s dead. He’s very much alive (in fact, if anyone is, it’s Norm). It’s just that, like Olympia Snowe and other reasonable legislators before him, he recently announced his departure from the House of Representatives. His statement came as quite a shock to D.C. insiders. As the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, Norm holds one of the most powerful positions in the Congress. He was expected to easily win re-election. So why leave now?

He is quoted as saying “At some point you have to retire. I just decided that now is the right time.” And it may all be little more than that. But I do wonder if the institution has just become a lot less fun for someone like Norm who worked well with both sides of the aisle and always sought bipartisan solutions. I can’t put words in his mouth or assume that he’s retiring for reasons other than, in his words, a desire to “see Husky games and go fishing.” I can be concerned that this is another example of what the extreme bipolarization of the institution is doing to the future of our democracy. If we don’t have good, thoughtful, reasonable people who understand the nature of compromise to run it, it’s not going to work all that well.

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