WASHINGTON – A feud broke out Wednesday between Northwest Republicans in Congress after public records revealed Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson coordinated with Oregon’s Democratic governor before unveiling his proposal to restore salmon runs by breaching dams on the lower Snake River.
In a joint statement, Washington Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Oregon Rep. Cliff Bentz accused Simpson of misrepresenting the proposal he released in February as merely a starting point for negotiations, and communicating with aides to Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon “under wraps and out of the public eye.”
“For months, Rep. Simpson has been speaking with us about his sweeping dam-breaching proposal, touting transparency and an open process while telling us it was simply a ‘legislative concept’ for the Northwest delegation to consider,” Newhouse, McMorris Rodgers and Bentz wrote.
“What he didn’t tell us was that he has been coordinating for months with Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s staff behind the scenes to shepherd his proposal through Congress with little to no support from Pacific Northwest representatives – Republican or Democrat.”
The correspondence in question is contained in hundreds of pages of emails – mostly between Simpson’s chief of staff, Lindsay Slater, and aides in Brown’s office – released through a public records request filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmentalist group that opposes Simpson’s framework.
The emails show a wide-range, cordial back-and-forth over the proposal and how best to present it to other officials and the public. The emails don’t discuss specific legislation and don’t criticize other politicians.
While congressional offices are not subject to public records laws, state governments are.
In a statement of his own, Simpson said there was nothing unusual about his staff being in contact with other officials before releasing the proposal and called his fellow Republicans “dead wrong” for saying he is not open to feedback.
The Northwest Republicans’ spat broke out just as the GOP prepares for a public battle that could oust Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, from the party’s No. 3 leadership position.
“My staff has had discussions with nearly every governor, Member of Congress, and U.S. Senator in the Columbia Basin on this proposal,” Simpson said. “Most politely listened. Others engaged. From the start, I have said I wanted this to be a regional solution to a regional problem.
“I expected pushback when this all started,” the statement continued. “What I did not expect was colleagues with whom I have worked for a number of years on a number of issues to question my integrity, to insinuate I have lied about my motivation and in fact have nefarious intentions–to–what? Sabotage the economy of my own state? I have a strong record of public service to the State of Idaho that does not need to be listed here to prove the absurdity of that notion.”
In several emails, aides to Simpson and Brown say their discussions should be kept “confidential” until the proposal was unveiled. In one email, Slater tells Jim McKenna, an adviser to Brown on natural resource issues, “I’d be very happy to touch base and would like to keep it under the radar for the time being if that’s all right with you given many moving pieces and dynamics.”
In his statement, Simpson said private communication about a not-yet-public proposal is normal and suggested the Washington Republicans’ complaints were in bad faith.
“I did not want to release the Columbia Basin Initiative until all the extremely complicated aspects of the plan came together,” he said. “As I have mentioned, I have been working on this for THREE YEARS. How is that secret? I told everyone who would listen, including Reps. Newhouse and McMorris Rodgers, that I was working on this.
“I knew there would be a lot of questions about the concept when it was released, so I wanted to have as many answers as possible before going public. The emails released show this.
“Anyone who has ever worked on solving a complex issue knows that to release a plan before it is complete is to lose credibility before you have even started.”
The Center for Biological Diversity, which requested the correspondence under Oregon public records law on April 9, opposes Simpson’s proposal over pollution concerns and a provision that would freeze dam-related lawsuits for 35 years and agriculture-related lawsuits for 25 years.
“We rarely agree with Rep. Newhouse, but when it comes to removing the Snake River dams, we too insist that there must be a transparent, open process that involves all stakeholders,” said Brett Hartl, the group’s government affairs director. “A deal made behind closed doors with just the good ol’ boys will be worse for salmon, worse for the river and worse for the region.”
In his statement, Simpson called the Center for Biological Diversity “one of the extreme environmental groups that is opposed to my concept because it would end their business model of keeping the stakeholders in the region in perennial litigation over the four Lower Snake River dams.”
Simpson has said he hopes to include the $33.5 billion his proposal calls for in a forthcoming infrastructure package President Joe Biden has called on Congress to pass. While the Idaho lawmaker has emphasized he has not written legislation and he has continued to solicit feedback, Newhouse, McMorris Rodgers and Bentz called the proposal “not just a starting point, but rather a radical and fully-baked plan he is actively seeking to put into law.”
Simpson brushed off that accusation, pointing to an email in which Slater wrote to McKenna, “Regarding specificity, as you have seen, we are keeping it at a fairly high (broad) level describing the issues that need to be addressed with some form of general solution - knowing that very important decisions like these will need to be made and determined by the governors, delegation and a number of varied interests.”
In other emails, McKenna refers to conversations Brown had with Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, who have so far released only a noncommittal joint statement with Washington Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell calling for more dialogue to restore Northwest salmon runs.
The three Republicans also suggest Simpson’s collaboration with Brown could undermine an agreement signed last October by the governors of Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana to work together on the decades-old conundrum of dams contributing to declining salmon runs.
A spokesperson for Brown did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In response to the three Republicans’ claim that his coordination with Brown had “harmful impacts on our regional dialogue,” Simpson snapped back, “I would argue that nothing undermines regional dialogue more than refusing to talk.”
“In my travels around Idaho, I have found people to be more open to listening, more thoughtful, and frankly more interested in solving these issues together than some of my colleagues,” Simpson said. “While I am deeply disappointed in the destructive approach by some, I continue to be encouraged by those who actually want to protect agriculture, end frivolous lawsuits, give salmon their only fighting chance to avoid extinction, and create certainty and security for generations to come.”
Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.
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