Posts containing my opinion of the race.

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.

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 Doesn't Like the Budget

President Bush's new budget isn't sitting well with Randy Kuhl. He's concerned about cuts in the funding to the West Valley Demonstration Project and a reduction to the rate of increase of Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement.

Both of these spending reductions have serious impact in the 29th. The West Valley project is an old nuclear site that has been on the cleanup list for years. Hospitals in smaller towns with large elderly populations live and die based on Medicare reimbursements.

Kuhl's concern is focused in the right place. But, as with many other issues in the 29th, we need look at the big picture. Kuhl's position in the 2006 campaign was that the Bush tax cuts are a good thing. Laura Bush endorsed his position, and one of the cornerstones of his ad campaign was that Massa would raise taxes. If Kuhl wants more money for West Valley and Medicare/Medicaid, he needs to tell us where it's coming from. Does he want to raise taxes to get it? Or does he want to cut spending somewhere else? Those are the tough choices that don't make the press releases.

Update: The Hornell Evening Tribune's coverage includes a sentence that sums it up:

Among the parts of the budget Kuhl like were a $550 increase in Pell Grants for college students, as well as the president's desire to balance the budget.

Desire doesn't become reality without hard choices.

Significant Votes

Deciphering Congressional voting records isn't easy. Of the 1100 roll-call votes in the 109th Congress, most were procedural or insignificant. Finding out how your representative voted on issues you care about in this mass of data can be daunting.

To help readers understand Randy Kuhl's voting record, I'm experimenting with a new page: significant votes. This page will be regularly updated with votes that meet the following criteria:

  • Disputed - the vote isn't unanimous or almost-unanimous.
  • Non-procedural - the vote doesn't involve referring a bill to committee or tacking on an amendment, unless the procedural vote kills a disputed bill.
  • An Issue of National or Regional Relevance - the bill isn't a resolution honoring someone or renaming a postoffice.

This is a high bar: of the 73 roll-call votes in the current Congress, seven of them are significant by my measure. Of those seven votes, Randy Kuhl voted with the Democratic majority on five.

In the past month, Kuhl has been a relatively reliable member of the 60 or so Republicans who are voting against their party on significant issues. As the 110th Congress progresses, I'll be using the significant votes page to track this trend.

Gates Stops Stop-Loss

Two days after a letter from Randy Kuhl and four other Congressmen, Defense Secretary Gates called for an end to the stop-loss program. According to a memo obtained by The Hill newspaper, Gates included an end to stop-loss as part of wider changes to deployment policies for reserve, guard and active-duty units.

Under the new policy, the Pentagon's goal is to mobilize reserve and guard units for 12 months, and to follow that with five years of demobilization. However, the previous 24 month limit on total active service has been lifted, and the Pentagon acknowledges that some guard and reserve deployments might stretch up to 24 months. This means, for example, that units that spent 18 months in Iraq or Afghanistan might be redeployed under the new policy.

Overall, Gates' memo is a mixed bag for guard and reserve units. Stop-loss was a program aimed at individual soldiers whose tours of duty were expiring. Under the new policy, those soldiers will end their tours at the initially agreed-upon date. The new 12 month/five year deployment cycle for guard and reserve will shorten the length of each deployment for those units, but it might also lead to unexpected second deployments.

Kuhl's response to the stop-loss announcement was positive:

“This is excellent news for guardsmen and reservists and Randy is thrilled about the new defense secretary’s quick response to the issue,” said Bob VanWicklin, Rep. Kuhl’s press secretary.

Kuhl has not gone on record responding to the entire new Pentagon policy. Another member of his party, Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, called it "wrongheaded" and "devastating".

Kuhl, Revisionist

Kuhl continues to refine his position on Iraq. This puts him in a delicate position. As Rochesterturning reports, Kuhl's latest press conference was full of qualifications and revisionist history. When asked whether he's changing his position on Iraq, Kuhl said the following:

“I’ve always felt I was standing on my own and that I was mischaracterized,” Rep. Kuhl said. “The general public in my district saw through that,” he added.

That's nonsense. Here's his campaign position on Iraq:

The new government of Iraq is continuing to make progress, with the Iraqi Security Force due to take over security in all 18 Iraqi provinces by the end of the year, alleviating the burden of the United States and Multinational Forces. The Iraqi Army and police forces’ increased participation has contributed to security and stability, which has, in turn, sustained Iraq's political progress.

During the campaign, Kuhl tried to hide behind the fact that he wasn't in Congress for the vote on the war to straddle the fence when pushed. However, his public pronouncements, such as the one quoted above, were consistently (and unrealistically) rosy. In the debates, he tried to leverage his trip to Iraq to hint that the situation on the ground was better than the reports in the media. It's not a mischaracterization to say that he followed the Republican playbook on Iraq -- it's a fact that almost lost him the election.

In the same press conference, Kuhl also tried to spin the Democrats' Hundred Hours as a failure:

Congress is not moving very fast... Not one bill has gone to the President for his signature. This Congress has done nothing in the first three weeks.

Well, the House (not Congress) passed 6 no-brainers that had been languishing for years, and Kuhl voted for 4 of them. That seems like progress to me.

A Leadership Job Is Not A Suicide Pact

Rochesterturning notes that the announcement of Randy Kuhl's appointment as minority whip seems at odds with a couple of recent votes. On Tuesday, Kuhl voted with the Democrats to implement the findings of the 9/11 commission. Yesterday, unlike the majority of his Republican peers, he voted to increase the minimum wage.

Both of those votes were smart ones for a Representative who was one of fifteen Republicans who won by tight margins in 2006. Kuhl's long-stated position has been to support the minimum wage, though his 2006 opponent argued that his position didn't always match his voting record. Yesterday's vote takes minimum wage off the table for 2008. The 9/11 vote was another no-brainer. Republicans opposed it because they believed that inspection of cargo ships would be too expensive. They also tried to send the bill back to committee for further amendment. Kuhl voted with his party on that procedural vote, but he wisely supported the 9/11 bill when the motion to re-commit failed along party lines. Being seen as soft on terrorism is the last thing Kuhl needs as he heads into the '08 race.

If Kuhl is going to vote against his party to support popular initiatives, why did he join the leadership? There are a couple of reasons. First, Kuhl is at heart more of a party loyalist than his predecessor, Amo Houghton, who was not part of the leadership when he retired. Second, joining the leadership gives Kuhl a little more clout to bring home appropriations to the 29th. Since his view of the role of Congressman is one who serves his district, and service for Kuhl means getting money for projects like roads, he's more likely to achieve that goal as a whip than as a backbencher. Finally, it sounds good: Kuhl's a leader, not a follower.

Kuhl's role as whip will be more apparent on key party-line votes. These are the votes where the minority decides to take a stand and wants all hands on deck. I'd be very surprised if Kuhl doesn't vote in the majority when one of these measures comes to the floor.

Media Lessons

As Randy Kuhl begins his new role as member of the opposition, he can learn from the media coverage of his leadership and hopefully avoid a couple of mistakes:

  • First, it's easy for the opposition to sound like whiners. Consider Adam Putnam, the Florida Republican who's been given the unenviable job of chief complainer. Putnam's current gripe is that the Democrats are doing to the Republicans what the Republicans did to the Democrats: limiting amendments and debate. Here's a telling exchange from last night's News Hour interview:

    MARGARET WARNER [reporter]: And you don't think there's a bit of a double-standard here in you all complaining about that now?
    REP. ADAM PUTNAM: Well, you know, obviously people at home are saying, "Oh, you guys are just complaining about the same stuff the Democrats used to complain about."

    When you acknowledge that "people at home" don't give a shit about what you're saying, perhaps it's time for a new media strategy. The Putnam lesson for Kuhl is that people don't care about process, as long as it yields results. The Republicans need only wait 100 hours to start complaining about results, and Kuhl would be wise to hold his tongue until then.

  • The second lesson is that demonization is a double-edged sword. The terrible reign of Speaker Pelosi that was forecast during the 2006 campaign has so far been non-apocalyptic. She looked pretty good yesterday. Pelosi limits her media presence and has ironclad message discipline. I don't see her becoming the she-devil forecast in campaign rhetoric unless the power that she so obviously enjoys goes to her head. That will probably happen soon enough. Until then, attacking her will probably be counterproductive.

Pork Between the Lines

WHAM-TV has a skeptical take on the impact of the one-year moratorium on earmarks in the 110th Congress. Both Randy Kuhl and James Walsh (NY-25) are quoted in the piece bemoaning the loss of funding for projects in the region. Kuhl believes that the earmarks are important, because "you have to have economic development".

WHAM's story features a list of earmarks. These include money for the Monroe County Water Authority and the Erie Canal, which causes WHAM to ask the question: why do these projects, which are ostensibly already funded by taxpayer money, need earmarked funding?

Though WHAM is unable to get the Water Authority's answer to the question, I'll offer mine: the earmark process is part of the machine politics practiced by majorities in both parties. Though "machine" usually refers to the ability of a political organization to turn out votes, it also refers to the interlocking set of relationships between local, state and federal officeholders. By using a combination of earmarks and regular funding to finance projects for the Thruway and Water authorities, legislators at all levels are able to assert greater control and to glean far more personal credit for even the most minor capital projects.

Instead of saying that "I voted for federal support of the Thruway Authority, and the Authority financed improvements to the park at your local lock", the legislator can say "I was personally responsible for the $115K needed to put a new playground in at Lock 42, because of my personal commitment to the children in my district." The difference is huge. By allowing Members of Congress to take credit for even minor projects in their districts, earmarks play a key role in personalizing politics and entrenching incumbents. Any idiot can vote for an appropriation for the Thruway Authority. It takes a special and powerful politician to personally obtain funding for a new park.

Louise Slaughter (NY-28) calls most of the earmarks "frivolous". Perhaps some are, but Walsh and Kuhl have a point: there's going to be some pain in the transition back to traditional funding. Whether that pain is something voters will hold against the Democrats, who cut out the earmarks, or the Republicans, who were responsible for letting them get out of hand, isn't clear to me. Based on this story, I think Walsh and Kuhl are betting that voters will resent the Democrats for taking away their pork.

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