11 Jan

House Blue Dogs out in the cold — as are other Democrats

When Kurt Schrader was first sworn into the House of Representatives, in 2009, there were 255 Democrats, against 188 when he began his fourth term last week. The membership of the Blue Dogs, a caucus of moderate, fiscally conservative Democrats that Schrader now co-chairs, has shriveled from 54 to 14.

Still, the Oregon Democrat sees the possibility of having an impact, on a principle he picked up before getting to Washington.

“When I was in the legislature,” Schrader recalls, “(Senate President) Peter Courtney would say, if a bill is 60 to 70 percent good, try to find a way to vote for it.”

The question is how often, even for a Democrat trying to work with the Republicans, that question will come up.

Last week, Speaker John Boehner made a point of sounding conciliatory, and the question of whether he might sometime need some Democrats hung open. A record 25 Republicans voted against Boehner as insufficiently conservative – although there are now so many Republicans in the House that he was elected anyway – and Republicans actually lost the session’s first House vote, coming up short of the two-thirds needed.

And by Schrader’s count, the 14 Blue Dogs can be bolstered by the 40-member New Democrat caucus. The group, says
Schrader, is “a balance to the Elizabeth Warrens of the world,” referring to the Massachusetts senator who’s become the idol of the other end of the party. In the House, it’s “a way to show we’re not all like Nancy (Pelosi, the minority leader).”

On the other hand, if this Congress turns into a partisan battle between the Republican leadership of the two houses and President Obama, “We’ll sustain most of the president’s vetoes.”

But Schrader, whose hopes are fed by a new slot on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee (joining Oregon’s sole congressional Republican, Greg Walden), thinks something more productive could happen.

“My feel from back home in Oregon is they’re tired of gridlock, and want us to work together,” he says. “If it’s reasonable, we’ll support it.”

As an example of an opportunity, he cites tax reform, pointing out that both the president and the Republican leadership – along with Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee – have said it’s a priority.

Of course, everybody’s interested in tax reform – but everybody means something different by it.

Schrader sees a particular opportunity for one of his Oregon priorities, the proposal he developed with Walden and Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio to increase logging on the federal O&C lands, dividing the huge, scattered area into sections that would be permanently protected and sections to be managed by the state for timber production. Last year, the proposal passed the House but was declared dead on arrival in the Democratic Senate, on the grounds that federal land should not be put under state control.

Schrader hopes for a “much friendlier environment” for the idea in the new Republican Senate. Moreover, he insists, the land would still be “controlled by the federal government, but managed by a consortium named by the state.”

Even with Senate Republican support, there’s still the option of a Democratic filibuster, and perhaps more likely a presidential veto.

Every congressional session lately begins with solemn pledges of bipartisan productivity, just as every campaign begins with commitments to stay positive, and in both cases things then get very nasty very quickly. By Thursday, Boehner was promising a full-on attack through the budget process on President Obama’s executive orders on immigration, an approach likely to unite virtually all surviving congressional Democrats, even those most eager to craft a separate identity.

It’s hard to imagine any Democrats from Oregon, or from anywhere on the West Coast, joining an assault on the president on immigration.

But Schrader’s efforts to find a role distinct from the House Democratic leadership has a point beyond legislative output, or the more likely lack of much. Back in his freshman term, when there were 54 members of the Blue Dog caucus, it not only meant a somewhat different balance to the House Democrats, it meant that they had a majority. The deep Democratic losses of 2010, and the additional losses of 2014, came largely in swing districts (now somewhat less swingy after the 2011 reapportionment) largely represented by Blue Dogs.

“The path to the majority for Democrats,” points out Schrader, “is electing more moderate members.”

At the start of a new session, it’s good to have a new seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

It’s better to be in the majority.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oreegonian, 1/11/15.

11 Jan

Congress is in gridlock, but traffic shouldn’t be

I don’t have great expectations for this Congress, with Republicans controlling both houses, a Democratic president and the 2016 presidential campaign starting last week. It would be nice to have a working budget process, with Congress passing each departmental budget on time and not throwing everything together at the last minute just to keep the government open.

Of course, it would also be nice for Congress to make heating oil out of Diet Coke.

But there’s something that Congress should be able to do, and really ought to do.

Every five years, Congress is supposed to pass a transportation package, covering roads, bridges and transit, trying to keep the country up-to-date in an area where we’re falling wildly behind. China and Europe spend way more on their systems than we do, and we’re trying to move a 21st century economy on a 20th century transportation grid.

In 2012, Congress gave up on passing a five-year bill, and passed a two-year measure, which runs out May 31. If it’s not replaced, we could lose the entire summer construction season. The President and Congress won’t agree on everything, but they should agree on something.

Democrats and Republicans may disagree on where we’re going, but wherever it is, we need to be able to get there.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 1/10/15.

11 Jan

California goes forward on undocumented driving; Oregon is stalled

L0ast week was a big week for adding a little more order to the roads, for increasing the chances that thousands of people driving on a daily basis might know the rules, and even have insurance. It’s always nice to think the guy steering the truck next to you – or right at you – is working off the same driver’s manual.

It didn’t happen here, of course. Last November, Oregon voters rejected, overwhelmingly, a new law passed by the legislature to let undocumented immigrants get driver’s licenses, if they passed the same tests and requirements everybody else has to meet. Overruling the law didn’t take anybody out of the driver’s seat, and certainly not out of the country or the state, but apparently it made some folks feel better.

The change happened in California, which has been having this argument for a long time, and where last Friday as many as 1.4 million drivers got the opportunity to become legal. On the first business day when the law went into effect, immigrants lined up even before DMV offices opened. Nobody knows how many will also get insurance, but The Los Angeles Times reported Sunday that insurance companies across the state had added staff to deal with an expected surge in applications.

For most of the twentieth century, Californians only had to show that they lived in the state to apply for a driver’s license, vital in a place where walking is considered a suspicious activity. Then in 1993, as part of the anti-immigrant surge that ultimately rebounded disastrously against the state Republican Party, proof of citizenship was required for a license.
People did not leave the roads, but some observers did notice a difference. “For 60 years, California had the safest highways in the country,” Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo told the Times last week. “Then we started playing immigration politics with highway safety, and our highways got a lot less safe.”

The rule was reversed in 2003, and then put back in place under the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who may have been worried about undocumented terminator immigrants from the future driving on California freeways.

Now, with AB60 signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, California has joined 10 other states (including Washington state) and the District of Columbia in allowing undocumented immigrants to qualify for driver’s licenses. The change stirred considerable support: “The California Police Chiefs Association supported AB60,” said Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyers, “because we knew that it would allow for more licensed drivers on our roadway and we want to make sure the people we share our roadways with understand the driving rules of California and this legislation will allow for that.”

That’s not happening, of course, in Oregon, where the 66 percent No vote on Measure 88 – it passed only in Multnomah County – pretty much takes the idea off the table for the immediate future. “With the threat of international terrorism, the spread of Ebola and other third-world diseases,” warned Oregonians for Immigration Reform, “it’s vital to take all possible precautions in the control of immigration.”

Because Ebola is a greater health threat in Oregon than a guy in a pickup not sure when he can make a left.

Now that Measure 88 has been defeated, there’s no sign that we’ll be going anywhere on the undocumented immigrant issue. The measure was supported by agricultural groups, especially the nurserymen, who have undocumented employees who are driving. Nobody thinks they’re now going to stop.

Nobody thinks, either, that we’re going to resolve the issue with a magic bus that carries more than 160,000 undocumented Oregonians, including those who have been here for years and those who have children who are citizens, out of the country. The feds, under any administration, have never shown no intention of deporting the country’s 11,000,000 undocumented immigrants, and don’t have the resources to do it anyway.

Republicans in Congress will now seek to block funding for President Obama’s plan to ban deportation of 5,000,000 undocumented immigrants, but it’s not as if they have any other plan. In fact, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio cheerfully told The New York Times Sunday that it was a mistake to think Republicans had to do anything on the issue.

Now, California has joined Washington and eight other states in concluding that if you have hundreds of thousands of people in your state who aren’t going anywhere, you need to think about fitting them in.

Oregon has voted to pretend they’re not here.

Even if they’re driving a truck in our direction.

NOTE: This column appeared in Then Oregonian, 1/7/15.