Archive (2007)

More VA Drama

It looks like the 8-bed acute psychiatric unit at the VA Hospital in Canandaigua is going to be closed. The Democrat and Chronicle reports that it's a done deal, while the Messenger-Post says the final decision is due this week.

The VA hospital, which has long been under the threat of complete closure, became a political issue in the 2006 campaign. The announcement that it would remain open was timed suspiciously close to the election, and it was quickly followed by the news that the acute unit would probably shut down.

In the Messenger-Post article, Kuhl spits and sputters, saying "I completely disagree with the closure of the acute psychiatric unit and everything about the process the VA has taken to get there." Eric Massa also fulminates over the expected closing in a post on his 29united site. I think both are missing the big picture on medical care for Veterans.

Since many psychiatric emergencies are also medical emergencies, an 8-bed acute care psychiatric unit has great difficulty existing without a nearby medical hospital. The closing of this unit was probably a foregone conclusion, considering that the nearest VA medical facilities are in Buffalo or Syracuse. Of course, using the nearby FF Thompson hospital for acute medical care (except in dire emergencies) is verboten, because VA care can only be delivered through the VA system.

The underlying question, which Kuhl ignores and Massa only partially addresses, is why Vets must receive their care in a separate and usually inferior medical system. Why must a Veteran travel to Canandaigua, Syracuse or God-only-knows-where to get care, instead being treated at a civilian hospital or clinic?

I understand that some care given by the VA is specialized. But most of it is the same medical treatment given to civilians. If we really want to honor the service of Veterans, let's give them an insurance card that gives them access to every hospital, clinic, doctor and pharmacy in the United States. Then let's pick a few really good VA hospitals to serve as specialist centers to serve the unique needs of veterans, and close the rest.

I submit that the reasons why this suggestion won't be adopted, or even considered, is that the VA system exists to ration care for Vets and to serve the needs of interest groups and politicians.

By making care for Vets hard to access, the VA system serves fewer Veterans, thus effectively rationing treatment. Those who have insurance use more convenient local facilities. Only those with special needs, or without insurance, use the hospitals. If VA care were universally available to vets, costs would skyrocket.

By creating large, government-run facilities, the VA also gives politicians plums for their districts. VA hospitals are like military bases in that regard -- they're often situated in out-of-the-way locales (e.g., Canandaigua instead of Rochester) in order to give small towns an economic boost. They're also full of union jobs, and satisfying a union is always a good thing for a politician.

If politicians really wanted to make life better for Veterans, they'd consider a complete overhaul of the way medical care is delivered to them. Instead, we get a series of mini-dramas whenever one of the sacred cow hospitals is threatened.

The Restless Base

Republicans who voted against the Iraq resolution were immediately targeted for primary challenges by commentators on the right. Randy Kuhl dodged that bullet by voting for the Iraq resolution, but the threat of a primary challenge or Conservative Party candidate in the general election is still real in the 29th.

Last month, Bob Lonsberry threatened Kuhl with a primary challenge over the immigration issue. Towards the end of the 2006 campaign, Kuhl moderated his immigration position after receiving complaints from area farmers. Lonsberry kept mum about this during the campaign, but he wasted no time in passing judgment after Kuhl was re-elected:

If [Kuhl] believes those things, then while he's got his head up there he might as well look around and see if he can find any polyps.


You've got it backwards, Randy.

And you need to turn it around.

Or we'll start campaigning for your primary opponent before the spring corn goes in.

Lonsberry's threat is real. In the 2004 general election, Conservative Mark Assini received 6% of the vote. If Assini had run in 2006, it's likely that Massa would have beaten Kuhl. A primary challenge that morphs into a general election run by a Conservative Party candidate in 2008 would probably spell the end of Randy Kuhl's legislative career.

Mark Assini retired from the Monroe County Legislature in 2005 and writes a weekly column. He's tanned, rested and ready if the base loses patience with Randy Kuhl.

Kuhl's Iraq Vote Looks Smarter Every Day

What a difference a week makes. Tonight, the AP reports that Speaker Pelosi has publicly distanced herself from Jack Murtha's plan to put strict conditions on war funding.  Yesterday, the Washington Post ran a front-page story in which a number of Democrats expressed queasiness at the thought of limiting funding for the troops.

After the supposedly momentous vote on Iraq, it looks like the position taken by Randy Kuhl and other House Republicans, which equates defunding the war with abandoning the troops, has taken some of the air out of the Democrat's sails. This shouldn't be surprising, because any move to end the war in Iraq is far more politically dangerous than simply expressing disapproval. Leaving Iraq will require making hard choices and taking some responsibility for those choices, two things that Democrats haven't had to do for a few years.

As I've watched the fallout from the Iraq resolution, I've heard a couple of myths that I think need to be busted.

The first is that Kuhl is not representing his constituents when he made the Iraq vote. James Swarts of SUNY Geneseo put it this way:

The majority of Americans are against the war. It is Kuhl’s job to represent the people not be a representative to the executive branch.

Perhaps the majority of Americans are against the war, but in the 29th, the majority of voters re-elected a man whose views on the war have been in lockstep with the executive. More importantly, those voters did so after being presented a clear choice on the issue, since Kuhl's opponent made Iraq a centerpiece issue. Kuhl can reasonably argue that his position represents that of his constituents.

The second myth is that Kuhl would somehow save his political hide by moving to the center on this issue. James Walsh in NY-25 is living this myth by being one of the few Republicans who voted for the Iraq resolution. I can't see that Walsh is doing himself much good. As analyst Stuart Rothenberg points out, there's really no good way for Republicans to run away from Bush. His presidency is inextricably linked with the Republican party. That's bad news for both Kuhl and Walsh, no matter how each of them votes on the war.

Some of Walsh's supporters will take him to task for abandoning his party, and most of Walsh's detractors wouldn't vote for him no matter what position he took on the Iraq war. I think Kuhl grasps this simple fact and has chosen to stay loyal to his party. I can't see much political downside in his decision.

Catching Up

Last week was an active one for the 29th. I was on vacation, but when I returned, my inbox was full of news:

  • Eric Massa may announce his candidacy next week.
  • Randy Kuhl's Fairport offices were visited by a group of protesters, who delivered letters opposing the Iraq war. Rochesterturning has the video.
  • Kuhl's office began updating the Town Hall Meeting list. A list of 2007 town hall meetings is also available at the Kuhlwatch site.

Kuhl Explains His Vote

Randy Kuhl was one of four New York Representatives who chose not to participate in the debate over the resolution on Iraq. After the vote, Kuhl issued a statement explaining his vote. In the statement, he expresses strong support for the deployment of new troops in Baghdad, calling it "the best possible blueprint for victory".

In addition to endorsing the surge, Kuhl argues that a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq would lead to a disaster, and he also accuses the Democrats of using the Iraq resolution as a first step towards defunding the troops.

I don't think any deep analysis of Kuhl's position is necessary to see what's going on here. Kuhl has not changed his mind about Iraq, and he continues to cast his lot with that of his party and President. There is no shading or nuance that might indicate a reservation about his continued support of the Bush administration's Iraq policy.

Kuhl's hard line is apparent in his accusation that the "Democrat party" intends to "defund the troops, and deny them the best protection and back up available". That accusation is silly. No Member of Congress would propose or vote for such a measure, yet this is the main talking point of the Republican leadership of the House. As I noted earlier, the current Murtha proposal puts conditions on funding which would allow longer rest periods between deployments, and it also insists on proper equipment and training before troops are deployed. That's the polar opposite of denying protection and backup.

Kuhl's continued close alliance with the Bush administration -- including repetition of the rhetoric ("Democrat party") -- is interesting given that his 2006 race was a squeaker. Yet Kuhl isn't the only Republican in a tight district who's chosen to continue to toe the administration line. Of the 16 Republican Representatives who held their seats by 3 percent or less, only James Walsh (NY-25) voted against his party. This shows that the electoral calculus on the Iraq isn't as clear as some might think.

Though polls show that roughly two-thirds of Americans think the war was a mistake, that Bush has mishandled it, and that we shouldn't send more troops, the same two-thirds oppose funding cuts by Congress. This disconnect reflects something deep in the American character -- the thing we hate most about losing is the concrete acknowledgment of our failure. Our exit from Vietnam, which was a painful inching away instead of a clean break, reflects this tendency. Cutting funding for the Iraq war would be a clear, public and unmistakable acceptance of failure, and a large majority of the electorate is not yet ready to do that.

In the next few months, we'll see Democrats trying to grasp the nettle of our loss in Iraq. They'll do so in increments, introducing legislation like Murtha's that approach a withdrawal indirectly. During this time, Republicans will weigh each vote very carefully. They must appease a base that still wants a "victory", yet they can't appear to be out of touch with the majority of their constituents who disapprove of the war.

At some point in this intricate political dance, a few more Republicans will back away from supporting the Bush administration. Despite his unequivocal statement today, I wouldn't be surprised to see Kuhl change his mind before this legislative drama is over.

Kuhl Votes No

Randy Kuhl voted "no" on H CON RES 63, the Iraq resolution. Only 17 Republicans voted for the resolution, which is much less than the 30-60 that was being predicted earlier.

I'm away from C-SPAN, but to my knowledge, Kuhl did not speak on the floor before voting - I'll check the record tomorrow to be sure, and post some analysis then.

Hat tip to Rochesterturning, who got to this first.

I Get Robo-Called

Last night, the phone rang and a recorded voice invited me to participate in a telephone call with Randy Kuhl. After pressing a button, I was entered into a teleconference where Kuhl answered questions from constituents.

Kuhl calls these calls "Telephone Town Meetings". During the call, he takes questions from constituents who choose to ask them by pressing a key sequence on their phones. It sounded like the call lasted for about an hour (I wasn't able to listen to the whole thing), and that the callers where all from the same part of the 29th (southeast Monroe County).

The questions in the call were varied. One caller asked about Iraq. His question concerned why the resolutions being debated didn't talk about victory there. Saying that he didn't want to be partisan during the phone conference, Kuhl gave a pretty balanced answer. He rattled off the text of the current resolution, then noted that he wished that his party's resolution, which would have mentioned victory, could also be debated. Kuhl didn't say how he was going to vote today.

The rest of the questions concerned domestic policy and constituent service issues. One caller, a teacher, asked about "no child left behind" and lamented the lack of parental involvement in city schools. Kuhl drew on his background as a state legislator to explain the limits of federal involvement in education.

Another caller, a health-care analyst, got in a long, involved discussion with Kuhl over the fine points of the issues facing private insurers. Like most of the callers, this one was a bit nervous, and I couldn't quite understand the point he was trying to make.

One caller had a question about disability benefits available from the state, and Kuhl directed her to her local legislators. I'll bet he gets a lot of questions like that, since the phone call comes out of the blue and people might not catch exactly who's calling.

These telephone conferences are an effort to involve people in the process who normally wouldn't attend a town meeting. They occur during times when working people are home, and they don't require a big commitment of time or effort from the participants. They also play to Kuhl's strengths: He has a gentle, reasonable manner, and a broad knowledge of the nitty-gritty details of issues like education and health care.

Kuhl's good at constituent interaction, and it's not surprising that he's using technology to do more of it. The new five-day workweek in the House will make it more difficult for him to meet with residents of the 29th, and teleconferences allow him bridge the distance between DC and the district. I don't know if these calls are directly related to today's vote, but they're certainly part of his re-election strategy.

Kuhl: Decided, but Not Telling

At today's telephone conference with the media, Randy Kuhl said that he's decided how he will vote on tomorrow's non-binding resolution on Iraq, but he's not going to reveal his vote in advance. He also called the debate a "charade" and said that he hasn't decided whether he'll make a floor statement.

I'm not buying what Kuhl's selling. If the vote was really just "political posturing", as Kuhl claims, then why is he keeping his vote under wraps? Why is he robo-calling constituents to ask them about Iraq?

I think Kuhl is under tremendous pressure from his constituents and from his party. This vote is the first in a string of votes about Iraq. Unless some miracle occurs and Iraq is stabilized in the next 18 months, each of his Iraq votes will become an issue in the campaign. Kuhl's vote tomorrow will have a major impact on his political career. Despite his protestations to the contrary, he and his staff are sweating it.

Update: Here's a sound bite from today's conference, thanks to reader Rich.

Draft Massa

Rochesterturning reports that a new Draft Massa site has appeared. It includes a message board where supporters can urge Massa to run.

Only the Beginning

In comments on yesterday's post, reader Rich details a Kuhl robo-call to his brother, which asked him to engage in a live discussion with Rep. Kuhl. This is just one more indication that Kuhl is having a hard time making up his mind on this issue. Even if he votes with the minority on this resolution, he will face more hard choices in the coming months.

The current resolution is just the first in a number of Iraq-related votes. The next vote, which is currently being crafted by Jack Murtha (D-Pa), concerns appropriation for the war. Like the non-binding resolution being debated today, Murtha's proposal will be carefully authored to get full Democratic support as well as some crossover Republicans, perhaps including Randy Kuhl.

Murtha's proposal is simple: Troops should not be re-deployed before the service guidelines for re-deployment (two years for the Army, 7-14 months for Marines), and troops must have the appropriate training and equipment before deployment.

These are sensible proposals that, in practice, will lead to an end to the war, since the Army and Marines don't have enough troops to strictly follow their deployment regulations, and they can't deploy fully equipped troops. These proposals are also politically astute, because they put meat on the bones of the "support the troops" argument.

Speaker Pelosi has indicated that she will consider the passage of this week's resolution as an event that sets the stage for adding conditions to appropriation bills. Each of these bills will increase the pressure on Kuhl to vote with the Democrats, whether or not he votes with his own party tomorrow.

Kuhl: Undecided on Iraq Resolution

Randy Kuhl is one of the two remaining members of the New York delegation who is undecided about this vote on the House resolution opposing escalation in Iraq.

Yesterday, Kuhl voted against the two procedural moves required to bring the resolution up for consideration. Both of those were standard party-line votes and don't provide any insight into Kuhl's final vote.

Night Moves

Today's New York Times reports that lobbyists recently paid for Randy Kuhl to attend a Bob Seger concert. To skirt the new House rules on lobbyist-funded gifts, Kuhl held a "fundraiser" at the concert and charged $2,500 for two tickets.

According to the Times, these types of fundraisers are usually held by the lawmaker's leadership PAC, which has fewer restrictions on accepting gifts for personal use. I wasn't aware that Kuhl had a leadership PAC, and FEC disclosure rules make finding leadership PACs difficult. I'll be on the hunt for the disclosure for this expenditure as well as for Kuhl's leadership PAC, if it exists.

Obviously, these kind of fundraisers are political dynamite, and Kuhl's judgment in holding it is suspect.