In the 98th Congress, she was a rookie. In the 113th Congress, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur is a master of legislative politics.
Over 31 years in 15 Congresses, she has endured the good, bad, and ugly on Capitol Hill. The Toledo Democrat describes the current Congress as “among the least performing.”
The first half of the 113th was a failure, said the 9th District lawmaker, arguing that “a pretty fundamental measure of that” was the government shutdown. “It felt like the early [Newt] Gingrich years when the government was also shut down, so counterproductive, so juvenile,” Miss Kaptur told me.
“It had the same chaotic feel to it, with normal committees not functioning and decisions being made by the few,” she added Yet just before the holiday recess, in a rare kumbaya moment, Congress approved and President Obama signed a federal budget deal.
It hardly addresses the deficit, and leaves the battle over raising the nation’s borrowing limit to another day. But it prevents a government shutdown anytime soon.
“A federal budget that was seven months and 25 days late finally got done,” Miss Kaptur said. “And now our appropriations committees [she’s on three subcommittees] will have a couple of weeks to do what we normally have through spring and summer to complete, with hearings and so forth.”
Still, she hopes 2014 will see a return to “regular order” in Congress, where the interests of the country take precedence over partisan warfare. But the seasoned lawmaker, who represents a reconfigured district stretching along the Lake Erie shoreline from Toledo to Cleveland, is not overly optimistic about this Congress.
It’s a midterm election year and there’s “an internal fight going on inside the Republican Party,” she said. Politicians aligned with the Tea Party movement are “about growing their wing, their point of view in Congress,” Miss Kaptur said.
“It’s a very nihilistic bent, but it’s who they are. They’re imbued with a righteousness of their cause” and not open to debate, she said.
She recalled a conversation she had with a Tea Party colleague. The Democrat asked the Republican about his rationale for shutting down the government. He said it was to “bring her down,” to repeal the new health-care reform law.
He had no interest in collaborating with mainstream Republicans in the House or going back to committee and changing the law, she said. He didn’t refute popular opinion about the futility of trying to derail Obamacare under a Democratic President and a Democratic-controlled Senate. He just reiterated the mantra of “bringing her down.”
“That’s the kind of person who’s in the House,” Miss Kaptur said.
These lawmakers defy their leadership and threaten fellow Republicans who don’t follow suit with primary opposition. “The thought of that [a well-funded primary rival] is so chilling to incumbents that they’ll gravitate to the Tea Party for a while, just to curry favor, then vote with a working majority in the House, then run back to the other corner again,” she said.
“They [moderate Republicans] live in constant fear of a primary challenge.” The money available to support those challenges gives outsized influence to a few, Miss Kaptur said.
“A small, very, very well-endowed group of individuals has been pushing money through the eye of a needle to ideologues they champion, and it’s warping the Republic,” she said. It’s also feeding a visceral animosity in Congress toward the nation’s first black President, observed the longest-serving woman in the House.
She hesitated to label the hatred racist, but conceded: “It sure does make you wonder.” The 16-term congresswoman said: “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
She acknowledged that the rocky rollout of the President’s Affordable Care Act didn’t help matters and “had some downdraft” for Democrats. But she expects that as more people enroll for affordable health insurance, the benefits that are realized will outweigh the initial bumps in the road.
For now, she’s focused on where federal dollars will be spent to affect issues involving defense, energy, water, and financial services.
“I do my job,” she said. “I keep serving my people. I put my seniority to work for my region and, I believe, my country.”
But Miss Kaptur suffers no illusions about changing the will of an institution that “defaults to the money.” She’s been at her Sisyphean labor of politics for too long.
Novices, take note.
Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.
Contact Blade columnist Marilou Johanek at: firstname.lastname@example.org