With Congress’ approval rating plunging to single digits, being part of the leadership that controls the U.S. House of Representatives could work against an incumbent’s effort to stay in office this year.
That’s what Democrat Joe Pakootas hopes as he takes on U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers for Eastern Washington’s 5th Congressional District seat. The Inchelium businessman is questioning her effectiveness after five terms in the House, where she currently serves as the majority Republican Conference chairwoman, the No. 4 position in the GOP hierarchy.
Yet Pakootas – chief executive officer of the company that runs the Colville Confederated Tribe’s businesses, a former tribal chairman and council member, and environmental activist making his first run for office – has to fight for name recognition in the sprawling 10-county district, while McMorris Rodgers benefits from a series of high-profile political exposures. She gave the televised GOP response to this year’s State of the Union address, was recently profiled in the National Journal and offered career advice for women in an interview in Glamour magazine.
She has raised some $2.4 million, about equally divided between individual donors and national political action committees. Pakootas has raised about $149,000, almost all from individuals and none from national Democratic PACs.
McMorris Rodgers represented northeast Washington’s 7th Legislative District for 10 years and was serving as state House minority leader in 2004 when she won a hotly contested race for an open congressional seat. She has been re-elected easily ever since. Pakootas argues she’s a professional politician – she was a legislative aide after college and again before she was appointed to the seat – while he’s got the business experience the region needs to help with the economy. In 2010 when he took over the Colville Tribal Federal Corp., which manages three casinos, three grocery stores, two smoke shops and a handful of other businesses, it was deeply in the red. He instituted some significant restructuring, shut down some unprofitable operations and refinanced debt. Within nine months the tribal corporation was in the black.
While Pakootas criticizes the partisan battles in Washington, D.C., McMorris Rodgers paints herself as someone who can rise above the daily political scrum, pointing out where she’s joined with Democrats to form coalitions or push legislation. Congress may be on track to pass a record low number of bills but of the 72 signed by President Obama so far, she sponsored two, she said – one on hydropower and another on pediatric research.
“Those are the only two bills she can talk about,” counters Pakootas. “That’s not a whole lot to wave around.”
In almost every campaign, challengers question an incumbent’s effectiveness. Political experts say measuring one member of Congress against the other 534 is difficult.
“There is no hard and fast standard,” said Dan Holler, of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Everybody’s going to have a different idea of what is important for a member of Congress to do.”
Longtime congressional observer Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, another conservative Washington, D.C., think tank, said measuring a legislator’s effectiveness is particularly difficult in this Congress because “so little’s getting done.”
He doesn’t regard McMorris Rodgers as a strong legislative craftsman, but the fact that she rose quickly through the ranks of House GOP leadership suggests she has the skills to put together a coalition of Republicans to get elected. She also has become the public face of the House GOP on many women’s issues to counter the Democrats’ charges that Republicans are unsympathetic to women on issues such as abortion and equal pay.
Congress.gov, the website for the Library of Congress that tracks members and their legislation, lists two other pieces of legislation McMorris Rodgers sponsored that made it all the way through the process. One bill renamed the Spokane International Airport tower for Ray Daves, a veteran of Pearl Harbor who worked for many years at the tower. The other was a resolution designating 2010 as the Year of the Father.
But that system doesn’t account for some of her bills that became parts of larger legislation through amendment, McMorris Rodgers said.
In an effort to develop an objective standard, a pair of political science professors, Alan Wiseman at Vanderbilt University and Craig Volden at the University of Virginia, have tracked all legislation introduced in Congress since 1973 and developed an index that takes into account a member’s seniority and awards points for how far his or her bills get in the process.
Based on that index, McMorris Rodgers scored “about average” in the 2011-12 term, the most recent in the index, for a member of Congress with her tenure, party affiliation and committee assignments, Wiseman said.
McMorris Rodgers says one measure of her effectiveness is her work with Democrats on matters important to Eastern Washington. The mother of a child with Down syndrome, she helped form a caucus that focuses on that genetic condition. She is a co-chairwoman of that caucus as well as others for military families, lumber, neuroscience, and rural health.
The Military Family Caucus is particularly important to a community like Spokane, which has Fairchild Air Force Base as one of its major employers, she said. Caucus Co-chairman Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., has made two trips to Fairchild and she’s visited Fort Benning in his district to talk with military members and their families.
“Congress is based on relationships,” she said. “I don’t believe one party has all the answers.”
Leadership a plus or minus?
McMorris Rodgers and Pakootas differ sharply on the value of her role in House leadership.
She says it helps Eastern Washington because she can bring up regional issues like military, farm or veterans concerns in leadership discussions.
He counters that it’s a detriment to the district when that leadership is blocking legislation from moving forward.
One example Pakootas cites is the comprehensive immigration reform that passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote but is blocked in the House. The region’s farms need immigration reform to get the labor needed to harvest crops, he says.
McMorris Rodgers counters the session isn’t yet over and some immigration legislation could move through when Congress returns after the elections.
Commitments to leadership duties also came up in a recent rating by the Washington Examiner, a conservative online news site, which listed McMorris Rodgers as having the second worst record for attending committee meetings in the House. After a study of committee transcripts from the Government Printing Office, the Examiner said McMorris Rodgers missed 92 percent of the meetings of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the only policy panel on which she serves. Committee meetings are where “the nuts and bolts work of Congress gets done,” the Examiner said.
Pakootas echoes that criticism, questioning how she can bring up the district’s concerns when she’s not attending committee meetings.
McMorris Rodgers said she was asked by the committee chairman to serve on the panel even though he knew leadership meetings would conflict with many of the panel’s sessions. Although most members of House GOP leadership don’t have committee assignments, she agreed to be one of more than 50 members of the panel. She deflects Pakootas’s criticism by citing results: both the hydropower and the pediatric research bills, which she counts as legislative victories, started in the Energy and Commerce Committee.
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