Monday, September 8, 2014

Congressman Rehberg, Post Offices, and the Meaning of Representation and Legislative Effectiveness

I first met Denny Rehberg in the fall of 2008, my first semester teaching at Montana State. He dropped by for an engaging give and take with students in my Introduction to American Politics class. He made it a point to drop by my classes each semester thereafter. His eldest daughter was a student in my Congressional campaigns class in the spring of 2010 when, on a warm spring day, he helped dispel the notion that a member of Congress doesn’t work much throughout the year. He also did something unusual which I will never forget: He very deliberately and carefully de-constructed his race against his Democratic opponent, and described what it would take for his opponent to run a better campaign against him. It was an amazing performance, demonstrating the Congressman’s political acumen and attention to detail. 

I liked the Congressman as I got to know him over the years. The more I engaged and talked politics with Denny, the more impressed I became with his abilities as a political tactician and knowledge of the legislative process. And, as I followed him on the campaign trail in 2011 and 2012, the certainty of my initial impression deepened. Rehberg knew and breathed politics. Without a doubt, the Congressman would present a formidable challenge to Senator Tester when he chose to run for the United States Senate. My main question would be whether the Denny I saw and had come to know would be the one Montanans witnessed on the hustings.

During the 20-month campaign, Tester’s campaign organization unfurled several lines of attack against Congressman Rehberg to draw contrasts between him and the self-described dirt farmer from Big Sandy. One of the early attack lines suggested Congressman Rehberg had done less in his decade of service as a Congressman than perhaps Senator Tester had done in less than six years in the Senate. Pointedly, they said that Rehberg was a poor legislator.

At the Mansfield-Metcalf dinner in March 2011, Senator Tester brushed off Rehberg’s ten years in Congress, saying dismissively that “the guy who wants my job does have a record of naming a few post offices” but little else. It was a theme that Tester continued when we sat down in August at his Big Sandy Farm for our first formal, on the record interview for Battle for the Big Sky. Here is an extended portion of that conversation that does not appear in the book.

Me: “What is very unusual is we have three statewide legislators in Washington. How do you guys think of Montana differently? How do your jobs differently? How are you different?”
Tester: “Let’s go with Rehberg first. My difference with Rehberg is I am there not for my own personal benefit . . . It is even apparent in the fact he’s never done anything in ten years but name three post offices. And that is a fact. He has concocted a lot of issues. And he’s got solutions for those issues. But the fact is he is never, ever stepped up to the plate and led. And there’s been a lot of people who’ve come and gone in the House over the last ten years that have been there less time than he has that have stepped up to the plate and got some stuff done. 

And by the way, on the other side of the coin, if you take a look at my record and look at what we’ve got done. When we see a problem, whether it’s a problem with the forest health, that probably—politically—isn’t the best thing to jump into, if you’re going to play the game. If you’re going to play the game easy, you don’t jump into things that are difficult. But that’s not how I’m wired anyway. You see a problem, you try to fix it. Wolves. You try to fix it. Mileage for veterans not up to snuff? You try to fix it.”

Rehberg, for his part, took umbrage at this criticism. When I met him less than a week after interviewing Tester, we discussed the question of effectiveness before he sat down for an hour long radio question and answer session at KMMS in Bozeman. Rehberg made three important points in response to Tester’s claims about effectiveness.

First, about the post office bills, Rehberg noted that while they seem on their face to be unsubstantial, they do “honor the accomplishments of individual Montanans.” But more to the point, he said that shepherding them through to passage helps one better understand the legislative process—and that is instructive in its own right as a legislator. You have to crawl before you can walk is what he seemed to suggest, especially in the House where legislation very often does not pass. 

(Don’t believe me? Remember School House Rocks, “I’m Just a Bill”).

Second, Rehberg emphasized that bill passage is not the only definition—or even the most important—definition of legislative effectiveness. Ideas and suggestions made by him—or any House member—do make it into legislation. Tracking that process completely, however, is incredibly challenging and difficult.

Many of the suggestions and changes Rehberg makes during the appropriations process do not pass as single bills but rather get wrapped up in the appropriations chairman’s mark, which then becomes the template for the appropriations bills Congress does pass. That bill, of course, is never sponsored by individual members on appropriations. As Rehberg put it, he may not have a bevy of bills with his name attached to them but every step of the way he is “in the arena.”

Third, and finally, Rehberg claimed that appropriators—by their very nature—sponsor fewer bills because of the nature of their work (I found that the data support Rehberg on this point). They make policy not through legislation, but via Excel spreadsheets and budgets. Again, another example of how the metric used by Team Tester to assess his worth as a legislator was fundamentally flawed.

This first on the road conversation with Rehberg, initiated by him right after we shook hands, confirmed my initial impressions made back in 2008. Rehberg is a quick study and shrewd. He has a deep understanding of policy making, and that too often, both political scientists and campaigns, are quick to establish metrics for success bearing little resemblance to the reality of politics. As Senator Tester’s own record then and now illustrates, when legislative ideas become law, they often do so through deft parliamentary maneuvering that is less easy to follow and document. Bill passage rates, in short, do not define whether a member of Congress is successful or not. Rehberg’s response to the Tester attack lines emphasized his knowledge of the reality of politics, underscoring my initial impression of his abilities as a politician and someone fundamentally engaged in his job in Washington.

More importantly, Rehberg made a valuable point that I would remember throughout the campaign and as a political scientist ever after: Representation is bigger than counting bills, laws, or ideological measures of voting behavior. That’s certainly part of it. But it is also about attentiveness to constituents, helping them manage the federal system, bringing attention to problems and concerns that might easily get ignored in Washington, and carefully knowing how and when to insert ideas into the legislative process even if credit will not immediately follow.

Both Senator Tester and Congressman Rehberg, as representatives and legislators, were more than their bill passage rates. The question which remained open during the campaign would be how and on what both candidates would be judged by the electorate.

Battle for the Big Sky releases on October 21.

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