Democrats aren’t alone anymore in sounding the alarm about the paralysis gripping Congress these days. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former congressman and the lone Republican in the Cabinet, says he believes his own party has put defeating President Obama ahead of creating jobs in America.
“I’ve been in Washington 35 years… and I’ve never seen a time when people have put their own personal political feelings over how we can get the economy moving,” LaHood told Newsweek and The Daily Beast in a wide-ranging interview.
Even in the wake of a national report declaring 200 bridges structurally deficient, including one that brings tens of thousands of commuters from Virginia into Washington each day, and one that spans the home states of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, Republicans are expected to maintain their wall of opposition to a new round of stimulus spending on infrastructure. The infrastructure bill would put thousands of people to work, says LaHood, “but because of their own personal political feelings against the president, they don’t want to hand him a victory.”
LaHood has been dropping hints for some time about his frustration, and last week he unloaded in the interview.
“The crowd that was elected the last time not only came here to do nothing, they also came to put down the president,” he says. “And the way to put him down is not to give him any kind of opportunity to be successful.”
He faults the Tea Party freshmen, but doesn’t let the GOP leadership off the hook, recalling McConnell’s remark that his No. 1 goal was to defeat Obama.
“Republicans made a decision right after the election—don’t give Obama any victories. The heck with putting people to work, because we can score points,” LaHood says.
Republicans dispute their former colleague’s assessment. “The president spent all summer calling on Congress to pass the trade agreements, the trade adjustment assistance, the patent-reform bill, an extension of the highway bill and an extension of the FAA legislation. Guess what? All of those were passed on a bipartisan basis and signed into law,” says Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman.
A gregarious politician with a working man’s sensibility and a gift for putting people at ease, LaHood seems genuinely baffled by the sharp turn away from the across-the-aisle lawmaking he was accustomed to. Not that he’s a pushover when it comes to partisanship, he first won election in 1994 as part of the Gingrich revolution, though he points out that he was one of only three Republican members who won that year who didn’t sign Gingrich’s “Contract With America.”
There were sharp edges in that GOP freshman class, but the difference is, “They didn’t come here to do nothing. They came here to vote on things, to make change for the positive…That’s not the fact with this crowd [Tea Party].”
The then-newly Republican House passed legislation at such break-neck speed that a Saturday Night Live skit memorably spoofed Gingrich wielding the gavel with lookalike Chris Farley playing the speaker. Much of that legislation died in the Senate, but LaHood’s point is that the ’94 revolutionaries saw their role as shaping legislation with Bill Clinton in the White House, not just blocking the president’s proposals.
LaHood says in the 235-year history of the Republic, a few issues have always been bipartisan: agriculture, intelligence, and transportation. When he was a member of Congress representing Peoria, Ill., he recalls, two major transportation bills passed, each with almost 400 votes in the House, and more than 80 votes in the Senate. As a congressional staffer in 1982, he watched a conservative Republican president, Ronald Reagan, working to pull the country out of a recession, appeal to a Democratic Congress to pass a transportation bill. “And by the end of the year it was on his desk… that’s been the tradition of Congress.”
Pressed for a prediction as to how the current impasse will be resolved, LaHood says there is a debate inside the Republican caucus. One side is the Tea Party members “who want to do zero. They came here to do nothing, and they’ve done nothing.” The other side is much smaller, he concedes, as he names two of his former colleagues first elected, as he was, in ’94—Ohio Rep. Steve LaTourette and New Jersey Rep. Frank LoBiondo. Members of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership, they’re pushing Boehner hard for a jobs bill, but the math is challenging. Subtract 87 Tea Partiers and for a bill to pass, it would have to attract a lot of Democrats.
“Now, whether that package includes enough for Democrats to vote for is obviously the $64,000 question,” says LaHood.
LaHood calls himself a proud Republican and doesn’t see a conflict between his party loyalty and being a member of the president’s team. He says he hasn’t been ostracized by his party, and that Republicans recognize that what he’s saying is the truth. “I don’t have any heartburn about any of this.” The way he looks at it, he has enjoyed a rare chance to serve at a high level on both major political teams, and while he doesn’t plan to run for elective office again, he clearly relishes the combat.
Though he declined to comment on the GOP presidential field, he did note at the end of the interview, in response to a question about whether Obama had gotten credit for bailing out the car companies, that if Mitt Romney had been president, GM and Chrysler might not be with us today. “And to turn your back on the American automobile industry is something people will remember in the next election.”
LaHood wants his colleagues to think about the consequences of those no votes.