04 Nov

Benghazi persistence could poison House prospects

In ten terms representing mostly the eastern and southern suburbs of Seattle in Congress, Adam Smith has never been particularly partisan. He’s now the ranking Democratic member of the Armed Services Committee – his district approaches the massive Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and defense spending is a fond subject for Washington state congressmen – and he’s been known to vote with Republicans.

But it’s a long way from Bellevue to Benghazi.

Early on in last month’s marathon House special committee questioning of Hillary Clinton on the deaths in the attack in Libya, Smith declared angrily, “We have heard nothing, not a single, solitary thing that hasn’t been discussed repeatedly.” (There had been seven previous investigations, ruining a lot of the suspense.) Later on, he told Clinton, “The purpose of this committee is to prosecute you. This is unquestionably that, a prosecution.”

Over the course of the 11-hour hearing, Smith, Adam Schiff of California and Elijah Cummings of Maryland led the Democrats in challenging Republicans’ questions, often creating loud exchanges that left Clinton watching silently from the witness chair, a mildly interested observer. For long stretches, the hearing seemed less like C-Span and more like “Crossfire.”

In his highest-profile national moment, the only Northwesterner on the special committee was uncharacteristically combative, reflecting his feelings on the investigation as not only poisonously political, but potentially darkening hopes for a more productive House under new Speaker Paul Ryan.
Compared with his previous experiences in Congress, Smith said last week, in language unusual for him, “This investigation was vastly more partisan. The questions had nothing to do with what happened at Benghazi. It’s all a political exercise from the get-go.”

The progress of the hearing – Republican committee members getting more frustrated, Democrats getting more confidently aggressive, Clinton getting a bump in the polls – would seem to discourage the investigators. But committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., declares himself stoutly determined to proceed, suggesting that the next step might be to subpoena all State Department emails having anything to do with Libya – a tactic Smith finds not only desperate but bewildering.

“Chairman Gowdy does not understand the scope of email in the modern world,” says Smith. “He could spend years on this.”

It’s not something Smith looks forward to, even if it gets him on national television again. There was talk, among the Democratic members, of abandoning the committee, denouncing it as pointless and partisan, and leaving the Republicans to read emails by themselves. But to Smith, “We definitely need to stay on the committee, just to call the Republicans on their partisan action.”

It’s not clear just where the investigation goes next – in addition to the emails, there are other people the Republican members might want to interview – but the issue seems likely to hang fire for the immediate future.

Last week, after Speaker John Boehner quit suddenly in the middle of the session, in the mood of someone unexpectedly paroled, House Republicans managed to come together to elect the reluctant Paul Ryan, who insisted that the atmosphere in the House would change. “It`s a new day,” he declared. “We are wiping the slate clean.”

On the question of defunding Planned Parenthood, a conservative demand with the potential of closing down the entire government unless a spending package is passed by Dec. 11, Ryan said flatly, “I think we need to be very clear about what we can and cannot achieve and not set expectations that we know we can’t reach given the constraints of the Constitution.”

Smith thinks the House atmosphere could improve. ‘I think Paul genuinely wants to try,” he says hopefully. “There is some cause for optimism.” He sees some signs of actual progress, such as the budget agreement passed by Boehner (with mostly Democratic votes) before he escaped, and the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank – whose importance to Boeing also makes it important to congressmen from Washington and the Northwest.

But there could be a complication. “Benghazi is the fly in the ointment for Mr. Ryan,” Smith warns. “Republicans make it difficult to move forward.”

Looking at Congress over the past few years, it might be hard to be too optimistic. But Adam Smith, after two decades in the House with a record of working with Republicans – and a priority list of Northwest issues focusing on defense – sees a possibility, and also a potential peril.

If the special committee extends, as some suspect, deep into the 2016 election year, it won’t encourage good feelings in the House.

After three years and eight investigations, Benghazi could claim more casualties.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 11/4/15.

04 Nov

Portland Building a disaster as offices; a whole new option as housing

Last week, almost immediately after learning how much it would cost to fix the Portland Building, Mayor Charlie Hales decided to just clear out.

Any homeowner finding himself $195 million underwater knows exactly how Hales felt.

If only somebody held a mortgage on the building, the city itself could just walk away. But an abandoned building in the middle of the city ends up being owned by … the city.

It’s kind of a Catch-22.

Or a Catch-195 million.

The city’s best strategy might be to get the building rezoned outside the Urban Growth Boundary, and plant the area in soybeans.

That might be tricky – although moss is growing on the building, it’s not clear what else could – but another bold redefinition might help:

Reclassify the building as housing.

As the Portland Building, it’s the kind of workspace where Chinese adolescents assemble smart phones. As The Portlandia, it could become a prestige residence.

As an office building, it’s been depreciating for 30 years. Over that time, Portland housing has gone up about 300 percent.

As a workspace, it’s an illustrated catalogue of building code violations. As housing, it’s a charming fixer-upper.

The Portland Building has uneven floors, patches of damp, and areas with approximately the natural light of Guantanamo Bay cellblocks. As office space, this constitutes a human rights violation.
In housing, it’s called character.

This is true partly, of course, because real estate listings are the most American form of creative writing. But it’s also the product of Portland’s dramatic housing shortage, driving up rents and driving down available apartment space. As the home of Portland’s Water Bureau, Bureau of Parks and Recreation and other municipal offices, the Portland Building is problematic; as 15 stories of studio apartments, it has a whole range of possibilities.

As offices, the spaces are high-maintenance money-losers; as downtown one-bedrooms with kitchenettes, they’d bring in $1,800 a month.

Plus the city could charge for basement parking.

We might even be underestimating our opportunity here. Considering the size of the apartments now being built and offered in Portland, we might be able to fill the Portland Building with enough people to create a state Senate district.

The building would even fit neatly into the patterns of Portland’s current apartment-building boom: close proximity to public transit and geometrically implausible design. The real estate rule of “Location, location, location,” applies directly here: The Portland Building is just across the street from City Hall, making it convenient for residents to complain to the landlord about dampness and uneven floors.

Everybody realizes something dramatic has to be done with the building. Architect Michael Graves, before his death in March, suggested ripping out all the cubicles and replacing them with long work tables.

Once you’ve got tables, all you need to turn the space into housing is minikitchens and walk-in closets. The building already has bathrooms, although like everything else about it, they would take a lot of work.

It’s a plumbing challenge to turn an outside leak into a massage-head shower.

We know whatever is done to the building is going to cost heavy coin. From an early estimate of $95 million, the overhaul plan adopted by the City Council in late October is priced at $195 million – and anyone who’s ever been involved with a remodeling knows that the cost always comes in higher than the estimate, when it turns out that the electricians are working on overtime and the wallpaper is on back order.

No wonder Charlie Hales decided he didn’t want to spend the next four years checking contractors’ receipts and looking at fabric swatches.

Portland plans to pay for this by raising the rents that city bureaus pay to occupy the building.

The city can certainly do this, exercising its statutory power to take money out of one pocket and put it into another pocket. But if its financial strategy depends on raising rents, the city should definitely look at repurposing the building for housing, an area where Portland rents are shooting up on a monthly basis
By the time the remodeling is finished, the rent of a downtown ministudio could approach the price of a Mini Cooper.

The city’s remodeling plan calls for its workers to vacate the building during construction, which shouldn’t be a problem.

The challenge may be getting them to come back in afterward.

On the other hand, we know there would be an immediate market for the Portland Building as housing.

After all, there are a lot of people sleeping on the Transit Mall already.

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