Thursday, November 1, 2012
The Good Soldier
Pretend you're a professional political consultant, flipping through resumes of potential candidate-clients. There's the vociferous ideologue, the one who rallies the base by promising never to compromise with the other side. There's the rich businesswoman, who can give her campaign a solid financial head-start and tap wealthy friends for contributions. Then you look at another contender, a quiet middle-aged son of a school custodian, with no real personal wealth. He went to West Point and then served in active duty and the reserves, the resume reads. He went to Harvard's prestigious Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law School, working in private practice back in his home state. He ran for the state legislature and won, going on to serve in the United States House of Representatives. He built a legislative record and waited his turn to try for the Senate, running when his state's longtime senator, Claiborne Pell, opted to retire.
This is Jack Reed. Rhode Island's senior senator, lauded by Democrats and veteran Republicans alike as one of the most unsung members of the chamber. He has, they say, the ideal skill set for successful legislating in Washington and effective representation of his constituents back home: working-class roots, an Ivy League education and a military career that gives him a disciplined demeanor and political street cred with Republicans. But the Senate he toiled to join barely exists anymore, and Reed - one of the last of a breed of old-school workhorses of the Senate - is struggling to do serious work in an environment where compromise is viewed as capitulation, and vitriol trumps reason.
The frustration isn't always clear in Reed's permanent poker face, he doesn't raise his voice and isn't one of the lawmakers in both parties who fight legislative battles on cable TV and in news conferences.
He's not one of those who compare people in the other party to notorious dictators. He convinced Bush-era Defense Secretary Robert Gates to stay on under President Obama-even though, Gates says, he was very ready to leave the job. In an environment that has gotten increasingly nasty, Reed doesn't get personal with his colleagues. But the underlying frustration is evident as Reed presses ahead on such issues that at one time might have been no-brainers: campaign finance disclosure, honoring the nation's debt obligation, providing help to the long-term unemployed and figuring out the complicated – but potentially wide-reaching – implications of the banks' alleged manipulation of the Libor, the world's benchmark interest rate.
"I think there's been a transformation, in the sense that the newer members coming into the Senate-displacing people on both sides, but particularly on the Republican side – felt there was a very important, vigorous debate about the role of government," Reed says. "The newer, more ideological members come in with this notion that there's no real role – maybe national defense" for government, he says. "A whole shift has taken place – it's more ideology than ideas. More rhetoric than solutions. More speeches rather than legislative action. Basically not cooperation, regardless of the merits" of the legislation.
Consuming Reed in the Senate's last week of session before the election is the ongoing stalemate over the budget and the looming, so-called fiscal cliff. Should Congress fail to agree on a new plan, the Bush-era tax cuts will expire January 1 – effectively raising taxes on everyone just as the economy is in early recovery – and across-the-board cuts to defense and popular domestic programs will go into effect under sequestration. No one really wants those two things to happen, but ideological stubbornness over whether defense should share the cuts and whether taxes should be raised for anyone is holding up a deal.
Reed blames a bunch of members he calls ideological Republicans, who insisted on the sequester threat as a condition of raising the debt ceiling in 2011. "That set up what lies ahead, the sequester and everything else," Reed says. What was so atypical was that for the first time, you had a group of people who were willing to undermine the credit of the United States to make a point, he adds.
Reed, who was a paratrooper and infantry platoon leader in the famed 82nd Airborne Division, assigns a military allegory to the civilian battle he faces now. Why the suspicion, even outright hostility, towards government programs and solutions, Reed ponders in his D.C. office tidy enough to pass the most vigorous sergeant's surprise inspection. "It all comes down to an ideological approach to politics that was, like the line from Vietnam: 'we had to burn this village to save it,'" Reed says. "And there's some dispute about whether that was actually uttered. But it summed up, at that point, the complete futility of our efforts. And a lot of these folks, I think, have that attitude – rather than, there are real problems in the village, how do we fix them? Maybe I don't have the monopoly on wisdom to fix them. I'll listen to you. And maybe together we can come up with something that was better than any of us individually considered. But let's talk, and let's fix the village.”
A classic example, Reed says, was the vote on extending unemployment insurance in late 2009. Republicans had held up, for more than a month, a measure to extend unemployment benefits. But when the filibuster threat was broken (a procedural move that requires sixty votes), the extended aid to the jobless passed ninety-eight to zero – proving, Reed says, that the filibuster was threatened just to slow down the rest of the Democratic agenda.
"Nobody was going to vote against unemployment compensation. But it was a great way to throw a monkey wrench into the gears, to slow things down so we couldn't move on other issues. And it's quite a bit different from the rare filibusters of the '50s, '60s and '70s, when filibusters were about issues of major significance. So the changes have been profound, and I think in that context, there's still a challenge to look for a way to get things done on a bipartisan basis," he observes.
Challenge, indeed. The filibuster, which protects the minority party by allowing lawmakers to continue talking to delay a vote on a bill, has exploded in use. In the entire nineteenth century, fewer than two dozen filibusters were mounted; between 1933 and the start of World War II, senators attempted filibusters only twice. Lyndon Johnson, whose tenure was marked by such dramatic changes as civil rights and voting rights, endured eight. Now, filibusters – or just the threat of one, since neither party really wants to further distract from legislative business by having to listen to a senator read the phone book or recipes just to keep a filibuster going – are commonplace. The 2009 unemployment standoff that so bothers Reed has been repeated on the Senate floor several times. Presidential nominations – ranging from that of a Nobel prize-winning economist to serve on the Federal Reserve's Board of Governors to judgeships and agency appointments – have been held up or thwarted under threat of a GOP filibuster.
Reed is known as a quiet negotiator, and has managed to do some bipartisan work in an inhospitable environment. Most recently, he teamed up with New Hampshire Republican Senator
Kelly Ayotte on a measure to trim what both saw as unnecessary spending on strategic airlift aircraft; he worked with Maine GOP Senator Olympia Snowe to protect low-income heating aid [LIHEAP] in the continuing resolution, and partnered with Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley on tougher financial penalties for Wall Street fraud. Reed was also behind the effort to extend low interest rates for college student loans – a measure not supported by Republicans, but which Reed was so instrumental in achieving, he was invited to the bill-signing at the White House this summer.
But such victories are becoming harder to score in the existing environment. Lawmakers barely socialize with each other anymore, in part because of the bitter partisan divide and in part because they're too busy flying back and forth to their states to raise cash for re-election. Cable TV rewards those who rant, not reflect. Even the advent of technology has influenced the process: With gavel-to-gavel C-SPAN coverage, no longer do senators have to come to the floor to listen to each other. More commonly, senators go to the floor, make their comments and then head back to the office or to a hearing.
The 2010 and 2012 campaigns have produced senators and candidates itching for a partisan fight. When interim Massachusetts Senator Paul Kirk, who was appointed to fill the seat of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, gave his final address on the floor in early 2010, he lamented the erosion of bipartisan work and basic collegiality. Not a single GOP senator showed up to hear his speech. The following February, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, delivering his maiden floor speech, denounced his state's favorite son Henry Clay, the antebellum senator known as "The Great Compromiser,” for his work to preserve the union prior to the Civil War.
The deterioration of cross-party cooperation has led some lawmakers to pack it in. Fully one-tenth of the United States Senate decided not to run for re-election this year, depriving the chamber of such well-respected legislators as Republican Senator Snowe, who said quite bluntly that the "dysfunctional" Senate, "simply put…is not living up to what the founding fathers envisioned."
"It's sad. You've got a lot of smart, accomplished, publically minded people who want to serve their country, but are trapped in a system that is just dysfunctional, and it's getting worse,” says former Indiana Democratic Senator Evan Bayh, who retired after two terms because of his deep disappointment in the operation of the chamber in which his father, Birch Bayh, also served. "Are there ideologues? Yes. Are there strident partisans? Yes. But I think a lot of them would be willing to put that aside" if the environment changed, Bayh says.
The environment, Reed readily acknowledges, is not looking hospitable in the immediate future. Redistricting has created House districts that cater to ideologues in both parties. The primaries are now largely dominated by the extremists in each party, Reed says – especially since political moderates have relinquished their major party registration and become Independents, who generally are not allowed to vote in primaries. The anti-"elitist" mood has morphed into an anti-intellectualism, with the description "Harvard professor" used as a slur against Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren and other candidates bragging about their limited experience in government. Senator Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, worked closely with his Democratic Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Senator John F. Kerry. Lugar was defeated in his primary by Richard Mourdock, a man who declared that his idea of bipartisanship was "Democrats coming to the Republicans point of view.”
Reed seems a man apart in the current environment. He appears uncomfortable with the sort of self-promotion necessary in most modern campaigns, and doesn't even want to talk about earlier rumors that he was under consideration for both vice president and secretary of defense. Was there a discussion with the White House about heading the Pentagon? Is it something he'd want to do? “No,” Reed says. No, there was no discussion, or no, you don't want to do it? “No,” he repeats. Gates points to Reed as the reason he continued in the job under Obama. “In terms of reaching out to me, and whether I would stay on, Obama couldn't have picked a person I was more willing to listen to or respected more than Jack,” Gates says. “If it had been somebody else, it might not have worked. But my respect for Jack was such that I took it seriously.”
When it was time to select someone to succeed Gates, Reed's name was on the list. "I talked to President Obama about it. He shook his head – he clearly has the highest respect for Jack – and he said, ‘I can't lose him in the Senate,’” Gates recalls. Of course, the fact that Rhode Island had a Republican governor who likely would have appointed a GOP replacement might have had something to do with it, Gates adds with a chuckle.
“I'm a simple fella,” Reed, who enjoys representing his state, explains with a slight shrug. Married in 2005 to Julia Hart and the father of a young daughter, Reed is private about his personal life, although he boasts jokingly about having developed a niche interest in the best kids' games (Zingo and Alphabet, he says).
His friends – men he has known since boyhood – describe Reed as someone who, even with his Washington stature, is utterly at home in his native Cranston and current residence in Jamestown. As a kid, Reed and pal John Kelly would hitchhike home from pole-vaulting practice, since neither could afford the bus. Reed had an almost photographic memory and personal discipline, even in those teenage years when pushing boundaries is common. “There were rules, and he followed the rules,” says Kelly. Another longtime friend, Steve Lepre, says the super-serious Reed displays a plebian sense of humor when he's among friends, and greatly enjoys Austin Powers and Will Ferrell movies. Reed passed on seeing Ferrell's The Campaign this summer, Lepre says, since the senator figured it would have some vulgar humor in it, and he didn't want to be seen there during an election season.
Not that Reed needs to worry about re-election. He enjoys a 47 percent approval rating in his state, below the halfway mark but remarkable, compared to the 10 percent approval rating Americans give Congress as a whole. He has a solid liberal voting record and yet is not the target of national Republicans or conservative super PACs. The state Republican party's executive director, Ann A. Clanton, says she'd prefer a Republican in the job and would like to see more jobs brought to Rhode Island. But she still describes Reed as a nice guy. And Governor Lincoln Chafee, who for eight years was on the other side of the Senate aisle from Reed, talks about him as though they were in the same party. “Up here, whatever he's doing, he's working, reaching across all sorts of populations to attract support from unions, business, young people, old people,” Chafee says. “A big part of that success is that Rhode Islanders recognize that part of his life story is his dad, who did maintenance work in schools. It's an approach that Jack is following in his footsteps on a bigger scale, trying to take care of the country as his dad took care of those buildings.”
Ask Reed – who has no serious election challenge but could make an easier living in private law practice – why he bothers persevering in such an inhospitable workplace, and the words come out automatically and without flourish. Duty. Service. Commitment. The legal and government education are clearly there in Reed's approach to his job, but the overarching driver is the military service and experience. Other lawmakers have, on their office walls, photos of themselves with political celebrities, or awards they have been given by various organizations. Reed's meticulously organized office is decorated with items from West Point, and photos of Reed and colleagues on one of his (so far) sixteen visits to Iraq and thirteen trips to Afghanistan. He voted against giving Bush the authority to invade Iraq, and pressed for a timetable to leave. A “Beat Navy” button sits on the upper right-hand corner of his desk. One of the few reminders of his personal life is a range of colorings by his kindergarten-aged daughter, Emily, whose photo also serves as his computer screensaver. And while Reed's face softens with love and pride when his little girl's name comes up, he seems most moved when he tells the story of how Emily answered when someone asked her, at age five, what her daddy did for a living.
“He helps the soldiers,” she said.
Every couple of weeks, without alerting the press, Reed visits with wounded soldiers in Bethesda. In those chats, Senator Reed reverts to soldier Reed, a role he says influences his approach to legislating. “If you feel frustrated, visit Afghanistan, the troops in the field. Go up to Bethesda and visit young people,” Reed says when asked how he deals with the Washington gridlock. “This is a great country, and there are people who are sacrificing every day. We have to work harder and we have to be more committed. But this is all part of serving the country. And our service is important, but in many respects doesn't match the service of so many young Americans and their families who are risking everything to give us a chance to get things right. You go back home, and you see people who are working two jobs to keep paying the rent, doing it with dignity and with decency. So we can't be frustrated down here. You can't pine for the good old days. You have to do your best everyday.”
Colleagues in both parties describe Reed as a man who brings a military-esque service approach to his daily work. Gates, who is working on his memoirs, says he's enjoying writing down “what I was really thinking at the witness table”' when he was answering questions from lawmakers during hearings. “These guys were spouting off. And Jack Reed was one of those people where I was never thinking something opposite of what I was saying,” Gates says. “He was always reasonable. He never postured for the camera. You knew he was a Democrat, from Rhode Island and liberal. But he was a problem-solver.”
Reed approaches his job on the Senate Armed Services Committee with a “duty-honor-country” spirit, says former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, a Virginia Republican who also served as Secretary of the Navy. Former House Armed Services Committee member Marty Meehan describes Reed as “very substantive, very hard-working. Everything you'd want a legislator to be, and dealing with the real substance of complicated defense issues.”
Rhode Island's junior senator, Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, says Reed has an unusual ability to work with Republicans, including those being pressured not to deal with Democrats. Some of the veteran Republicans are nervous about alienating the more conservative Tea Party element of the GOP – even if those lawmakers are less senior.
“The idea, that these [Tea Party movement] guys show up with a big mouth and a big attitude, and are going to start telling them all what to do – you can imagine how frustrating that is,” Whitehouse says of his Republican colleagues. '”Against that, here's Jack Reed. He's very well-regarded by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle and I think part of it is because he is a workhorse, and part of it is that he usually goes out of his way not to get in anybody's face. Indeed, he was an infantryman. Which are the guys who really slog it out.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, says Reed frequently – and unasked – offers to help corral senators for votes or do the grunt work of the committee. “He's not a show horse,” Levin says. “There's a lot more partisanship and a lot less civility than there used to be, but there's still a respect for workhorses. That is an ongoing feature in the Senate.”
When former Vice President Gore was up against George Bush during the recount in Florida in 2000, Democrats were on the defensive over whether to count overseas military ballots that lacked the proper certification. It was a fight few Democrats wanted to wade into, since they were nervous about being portrayed as anti-military. Reed, says former Gore senior campaign aide Chris Lehane, took the political bullet and went on TV to defend the Gore campaign's request to hold the military ballots to the same standard as other absentee filings. “It was just – ‘put me in, coach,’” Lehane recalls.
Fewer and fewer law makers boast any kind of military service, a trend Reed and others say has contributed to the decline of a team spirit in the Senate. It's not that the members don't have a concern for the troops, senators say, but that they haven't had the experience of working alongside people with dramatically divergent backgrounds, learning to put their differences aside to achieve a greater goal. Warner notes that when he was in law school, about three-fourths of his class had been in World War II, and that in his early days in the Senate, a strong majority had previous military training and active service. “We had a spiritedness about us, because many of them had seen the stress and strain of World War II. But we also watched the home front, seeing a lot of self-discipline,” Warner says.
Reed – who is quick to note that he never served in combat – cites the impact as well. The veterans, especially those who had served in the Second World War, “had been involved in a national effort that really worked, that required sacrifice, cooperation, that was not about ideology or political theory,” Reed says. “It was about serving the nation. And they came out of that with this sense that government can do things, and it can do things well. We were able to defeat fascism and able to avoid a nuclear exchange in the Cold War. We were able to do a lot, and it was basically on a bipartisan level. On a personal level, too, there was something in common. And now there's less and less of that. It's more, ‘you're bad; I'm good. I'm the only person who understands the truth and you don't.’”
For the moment, Reed navigates the troubled Senate as he would a war theater, identifying the obstacles, figuring out who his allies are, and trying to focus on the job at hand instead of being frustrated by the difficulty of the overall mission. The bickering, the procedural delays, the partisan divides are worse than ever. But Reed, he says, is soldiering on.