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Spin Control

Sunday Spin: What the McMorris Rodgers report tells us about campaigns

Cathy McMorris Rodgers may or may not get the House of Representatives equivalent of 20 lashes with a wet noodle for improperly mixing campaign business with congressional business.

But documents released from an official investigation into a disgruntled former employee’s complaint makes one thing clear: By limiting debates with opponents in 2010 and 2012 campaigns, McMorris Rodgers wasn’t showing a lack of political courage; she was being a good steward of the public treasury.

They also show that anyone thinking a congressional debate will produce earth-shattering revelations probably thinks reality TV is reality. . .

To read the rest of this item, or to comment, continue inside the blog.

. . . Although McMorris Rodgers has spent almost her entire adult life in the political environs of Olympia and Washington, D.C., standing for election no less than once per biennium, documents released last week show her October 2012 debate against political novice Rich Cowan generated an “all hands on deck” response from her congressional staff moonlighting as campaign volunteers.

Congressional workers doubling as campaign staff in their “free” time should come as no surprise to anyone even slightly familiar with Congress. Many legislative workers break in on campaigns, proving worth and an ability to work long hours on little more than a few slices of pizza and endless cups of bad coffee. After an election, job offer might come from the person they supported, someone who got a recommendation from their candidate or the hired-gun campaign manager who recognized talent.

The volunteer becomes a staffer and before you know it, another election is upon us with lots to do. There are letters to the editor to write, and people to find willing to sign their names to these ghost-written missives. Campaign press releases to compose and stump speeches to craft, preferably – as McMorris Rodgers explained to investigators – by people who know her best, which would be her congressional staff.

And debate prep for those head-to-head matchups with a challenger.

This is so common the House of Representatives has rules governing how staff can migrate back and forth between congressional and campaign duties. They come down, basically, to do it on your own time and keep records that prove it. Pay for congressional business with taxpayer money, but pay for campaign stuff with campaign money, and do it away from the congressional office.

This all gets a little murky when a trip to the district has campaign events and “congressional business”, as the McMorris Rodgers’ staff insisted a pre-debate trip to Spokane had in October 2012. Enough congressional business, they believed, that taxpayers should foot the bill for $4,794 in travel expenses.

An investigator said there wasn’t, with agendas showing debate preparation on three of four days prior to her Oct. 12 debate, and interviews with two newspaper editorial boards in that stretch as well, during which one can logically assume she was asked mostly questions about the campaign.

An attorney for McMorris Rodgers, Elliot Berke, said they were just doing debate prep and other campaign work on their off time, and the rest of the days were filled with official business, hanging out at the Spokane district office or accompanying the congresswoman when she stopped at an event for former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, pressed the flesh at factories and businesses or met with local elected officials and business leaders.

Berke did acknowledge one mistake that McMorris Rodgers copped to in her interview with an investigator. Before flying west, she and her staff gathered for debate prep in the D.C. congressional office. Probably shouldn’t have done it, he said, but it was noisy at her home from little kids running around. Besides, they talked about congressional stuff, too.

The hundreds of pages of exhibits filed for this complaint – tempest in an espresso cup if you’re a Republican; major scandal if a Democrat – show the level of detail the staff compiled to prep McMorris Rodgers for her debates. They scheduled four one-hour mock debates, got help from a high-powered consultant working on her speechifying abilities, submitted detailed reports on Cowan statements in primary forums and news stories, and provided parries for expected verbal thrusts from Cowan or debate panelists.

If Cowan says he created jobs, she should say he did it at the expense of other businesses because his film company was eligible for tax breaks. If panelists ask about the failed farm bill, emphasize “good communication” with farmers in her district. Possible foreign policy problems with China, Russia and North Korea? Keep the United States strong economically and militarily. Sprinkle in some biographical data, defend Social Security and Medicare, oppose tax increases, stick up for the GOP on women’s issues.

The kind of stuff she arguably should have been able to do in her sleep.

McMorris Rodgers did two debates within a few days in 2012, double the number in 2010. In both instances, her opponents wanted more, as opponents always do. One shudders to think at the amount of staff time and brain power, along with office expenses, that would have consumed had she agreed.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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