Capital Heroes

It's so very easy to dislike Congress these days. House Speaker Newt Gingrich is publicly reviled, and if not for the ineptitude of his colleagues, the whiny Georgian would have been deposed last week. After years of demanding a balanced budget, the Republicans are about to finalize a major tax cut for the wealthy that will quickly throw us back into the red. Campaign-finance reform lies comatose. The venerable Senate Foreign Relations Committee has become a forum for the frothing malice of Jesse Helms. A May Gallup poll showed Congress's public-approval rating down to a dismal 32 percent. But distasteful as Congress may have become, it still influences our daily lives through everything from taxes to abortion laws to speed limits. When we're tempted to turn away from Washington in disgust, it's all the more important to consider what good remains in the marble corridors of the Capitol. And yes, even in 1997, a few legislators are beaming rays of light through a darkened institution. If a perfect politician exists, you won't find him here. But these representatives and senators represent some of the best Capitol Hill has to offer right now. They tend to fall into two categories. Some have been committed and effective leaders on a crucial issue -- the environment, entitlements, technology. Others seem to embody the best in national politics, raising the general tenor of the Washington debate. This list is not exhaustive, and some congressional giants -- Ted Kennedy, for instance -- are plenty familiar already. In fact, much of the Massachusetts delegation merits praise -- think of Marty Meehan's long-time opposition to big tobacco and advocacy of campaign-finance reform, Ed Markey's smart work on telecommunications, and Joe Kennedy's battles over public housing, credit-card rip-offs, and alcohol advertising. But instead of being shamelessly parochial, we've swept the nation for some flashes of heroism in Congress. That said, we'll begin by cheering one of our own. Intellectual warrior REPRESENTATIVE BARNEY FRANK (D-Massachusetts)Even if Republicans have pretty much been able to have their way in Congress over the past two years, there's been something deeply satisfying about watching them listen to Newton's own Barney Frank dismantle their ideas with his rhetorical scalpel. Frank's logic, wit, and sheer intellectual firepower can make his debates with his Republican opponents a little like those US-Iraqi tank "battles" from the Gulf War.Unlike some back-bencher reading from party talking points, however, Frank has a broader political vision informing his sizzling sound bites. Without getting lost in the clouds of highfalutin statesmanship, Frank -- like so few of his colleagues these days -- looks beyond the political skirmish-of-the-week to a broad range of progressive issues. With all Washington crowing about a booming economy, Frank was one of the few to focus on the problem of growing income inequality. Lately, Frank's worked to pry more money out of America's NATO allies so that the US can reduce its military budget and free more dollars for social programs. He has called for more accountability from the interest-rate-setting bankers of the Federal Reserve, including the all-powerful Alan Greenspan. "The last taboo in American politics appears to be monetary policy," he says. Not that he disdains party politics. He's even proposing, somewhat mischievously, a repeal of the Constitution's two-term limit on the presidency.Frank has already written one book about making his party vital (1992's Speaking Frankly), and he's now at work on another, about "the post-Clinton Democratic Party." And gays and lesbians could hardly ask for a more formidable spokesman on issues from same-sex marriage to job discrimination.Frank's famed prickliness can be a fault as well as a virtue, but an angry Frank can be politically devastating. Still, he's got a sense of humor. When the House voted earlier this month to ban nude swimming at a National Seashore beach in Florida, Frank observed that the vote was the clearest example he'd seen that "a member was voting to cover his rear."REPRESENTATIVE SHERWOOD Green guardian BOEHLERT (R-New York)"Sherry is the most important Republican environmentalist in Congress," says Daniel J. Weiss, political director of the Sierra Club. "He has been instrumental in every effort to block anti-environmental legislation. You can't overstate how important he is."In the early days of the Republican Congress -- especially the 1995 heyday of the Contract with America -- the GOP tried repeatedly to gut federal environmental laws. Among their proposals were severe new limitations on the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as a bid to drastically weaken environmental regulations on business. Boehlert, a Republican from upstate New York, organized and led a coalition of fellow moderates to block those attempts, depriving Republican leaders of a majority.Conservative Republicans are listening to the polls now, and they've toned down their radicalism on the environment. But as recently as last month, Boehlert rallied the moderates again to kill off an unusually sneaky amendment to a disaster-relief bill for the flooded Midwest that would have permanently exempted any flood-control project from Endangered Species Act regulation. That provision, as the amendment's authors were well aware, would have exempted not just emergency flood relief but such activities as dam projects and wetlands draining.And even though some members of his party are suddenly finding fake green religion, Boehlert "is no enviro-come-lately," says Weiss. One of his first projects upon arriving in Congress was acid-rain legislation, back in 1983. The last radical SENATOR PAUL WELLSTONE(D-Minnesota)The country veers to the right, installing a Republican Congress. The Democratic Party, and the Democratic president, follow suit with a new, pandering moderation. Even his own state of Minnesota elects one of the Senate's most conservative members.But at a time when most liberals have given up or given in, Paul Wellstone hasn't given an inch. Wellstone is one of the few liberal Democrats who have aggressively shouted down the Republican agenda at every turn -- and none of his colleagues has done so with more vigor or bravery. Although he faced an opponent whose ads repeatedly branded him a "LIBERAL" (as if it were synonymous with "TRAITOR"), Wellstone was the only senator up for re-election last year to vote against Congress's welfare-reform bill.A former college professor steeped in the protest politics of the '60s, Wellstone is a passionate and eloquent advocate for the segments of society that risk being left behind in an era of New Democrats and a Republican Congress. He opposed NAFTA and supports a Canadian-style single-payer health-care system and public financing of elections. "He is a radical and, yes, a 1960s radical at that," the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne wrote in January. But Wellstone is valuable because he's not a caricature of a liberal. His thoughtfulness insulates him from the charge of being a knee-jerk dinosaur. Try a sample of his oratory, taken from a speech at the National Press Club in May:This is a prosperous time for our country, a time of sustained growth and low inflation, of a booming stock market and low unemployment ... But averages are misleading. They tell nothing of the ends of the curve -- the height at the top or the depth at the bottom. And that is ... a quiet crisis of money, power, and injustice, the crisis of a nation in danger of abandoning the principles of equality and justice that are so fundamental to our resilience, that are, indeed, the very meaning and purpose of America.When you're on the Senate's far-left fringe, legislative accomplishments are few and far between. But right now, holding off the conservative onslaught is just as important. Wellstone is thinking about a run for president in 2000. It might be a quixotic campaign, but he would be a welcome contrast to a field of mushy moderate Democrats. Honest budgeteer REPRESENTATIVE JOHN KASICH (R-Ohio)Almost every Republican can spout budget-balancing rhetoric in his sleep, but few have brought to the task either the passion or the intellectual honesty of John Kasich. Kasich's approach has its drawbacks: for instance, he focuses unduly on spending cuts rather than new taxes, which amounts to a formula for screwing the poor. But what truly puts Kasich, chairman of the House Budget Committee, a cut above fellow GOP deficit-bashers is the number of sacred cows he's been willing to slaughter along the way. Kasich blasted the B-2-bomber program in the late 1980s, and has since continued to beat back the GOP barons who want to expand it. More recently, he has joined with such unlikely allies as Ralph Nader to take on "corporate welfare" -- the billions of dollars in tax benefits and federal programs that benefit business.Many find Kasich to be something of an oddball: "so self-righteous and maniacally energetic," reported the Washington Post in March, "that his Ohio colleagues hated to get caught sitting next to him on weekend flights home." And Kasich is a member of Gingrich's inner circle, which is troubling. But he has largely stuck to budgetary ground, playing little role in the House's conservative social agenda. Thanks largely to a booming economy, the deficit has been whittled down to about $70 billion from about $300 billion four years ago. Kasich's budget mission will soon be accomplished. As he chooses new fights, let's hope he continues to challenge his own party in unexpected places.From welfare to Washington REPRESENTATIVE LYNN WOOLSEY(D-California)Poor, unwed welfare mothers have become a favorite topic (or should we say target?) in the Republican Congress. But it's likely that many good-ol'-boy conservatives had never even met one -- until Lynn Woolsey came to Congress in 1994.When Woolsey's marriage fell apart almost 30 years ago, she was left with six children and little money. She went on welfare to get by, and put herself through business school at night. Woolsey worked her way to the top of a high-tech start-up firm, and finally into Congress. Since coming to Washington, she has become one of the most reliable advocates on issues affecting women, children, gays, and the poor. For her 1996 voting record on child and family issues, Woolsey won a 100 percent rating from the Children's Defense Fund. Last week, she introduced a bill that would charge the federal government with enforcing child-support payments. Her record is flawlessly pro-choice, and she's a leading critic of GOP attempts to roll back abortion rights. And Woolsey, who has a gay son, backs legislation to end job discrimination against gays and lesbians.Of course, it's easy for a member of the minority to vote down the line for new social programs without a care for the budget. But given the recent Republican callousness toward the disadvantaged, Congress needs a few idealists like Lynn Woolsey. Friend of the arts REPRESENTATIVE RICK LAZIO (R-New York)When Newt Gingrich and House Majority Leader Dick Armey prepared for a vote to end federal funding for the arts earlier this month, they expected stiff resistance from Democrats. But they probably didn't anticipate the rebellion they faced from a group of moderates in their own party, led by little-known New Yorker Rick Lazio. Although eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts was a prime goal of his party's leadership, Lazio organized a band of dissidents earlier this month and nearly blocked the attempt. The vote to snuff the NEA succeeded (though the Senate is almost sure to restore the agency's funding), but the resistance of Lazio and his allies turned the issue into a more divisive and highly publicized battle than the Republican leadership had wanted. Lazio is said to be eyeing a bid for the Senate in 2000, and in a state that loves the arts, a pro-NEA stance might not risk many votes. But drawing the ire of the leadership, as Lazio has, is never an easy thing to do.REPRESENTATIVE CAROLYN Gun controller McCARTHY (D-New York)Even if the populist disgust with "career politicians" is a little overstated, it's impossible not to applaud the political motives of this New York freshman. McCarthy was a nurse without political ambition when her husband died -- one of six people shot and killed in a 1993 massacre on the Long Island Rail Road. When the Republican incumbent in her home district voted in 1995 to repeal the federal assault-weapons ban, she ran on the issue as a Democrat (even though she was a registered Republican) and beat him.McCarthy hasn't had time yet to make much of a mark in Congress, but she's already pushing two gun-control bills. One would require safety locks on handgun triggers to prevent accidental shootings -- especially by children. Another, prompted by the February shooting at the Empire State Building, would ban the sale of guns to foreign visitors to the US. (Nor is she a Democrat on gun control alone -- McCarthy voted to restore welfare benefits that Congress had earlier denied to legal immigrants, and opposed a ban on "partial-birth" abortions even though she represents a heavily Catholic district.) Critics say that, tragic as McCarthy's story may be, serving in Congress is a grueling job that calls for more than a personal mission on a single issue. It's a good point, but consider the proxies of the oil industry, the NRA, and the tobacco industry who populate Congress. At least McCarthy's single issue hasn't been bought.Truth-teller SENATOR BOB KERREY (D-Nebraska)Outside of Washington, Bob Kerrey may be best known as the senator who dated Debra Winger. But inside the Beltway, he's known as the guy who told the truth on a subject that still makes many of his colleagues shiver: entitlements. Runaway spending on programs like Social Security and Medicare threatens to bankrupt the government. But because that spending benefits the politically vital middle class, challenging it goes against the grain like nothing else in Washington. And because the benefits of fixing the system are long-term and complicated, the political incentive to do so is almost zero: it will require a crisis to provoke action.Unless more people start thinking like Bob Kerrey. In 1994 Kerrey co-chaired a Senate panel whose sweeping report on the state of entitlements established the parameters for today's debates. Congress is now working to "fix" Medicare, and in last year's presidential campaign, Bob Dole called for a bipartisan commission to study Social Security reform. Critics say Kerrey's ideas for entitlements reform -- including raising the retirement age to 70, hiking Medicare premiums, and "means-testing" benefits to trim government spending on the wealthy -- unfairly hit the elderly and minorities. His solutions may not be perfect, but Kerrey dragged into the open a problem much of Washington had hoped to ignore. This year he's proposing that people be allowed to privately invest two percent of their Social Security contributions. That makes some market skeptics nervous, but it shows that Kerrey's still thinking seriously about the problem.Recently Kerrey, a candidate for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, has made noises about a run in 2000 -- bad news to those in Washington who find this sharp-tongued war hero arrogant. But Kerrey would be a refreshing change from a president who avoids hard choices, and often the truth itself. Minesweeper SENATOR PAT LEAHY (D-Vermont)Leahy keeps a lower profile than many of his Senate colleagues. But as the first and only Democratic senator in the state's history, this long-time liberal (and open fan of the Grateful Dead) busies himself with an especially admirable roster of issues.Foremost among them is a crusade to win a global ban on new land mines and the removal of the estimated 100 million existing ones that are buried around the world. He has been a world leader against the deadly weapons, which continue to cripple and kill innocents in former war zones such as Cambodia long after the fighting has ended. The campaign is making progress. In 1994 Leahy helped win a unanimous United Nations vote that would eventually eliminate mines (although "eventually" has proved difficult to define). Last month, Leahy introduced a new bill in the Senate to ban US production of anti-personnel mines beginning in 2000.Leahy brings enlightenment to several other matters. As one of our more Internet-savvy legislators, he sought a repeal of Congress's 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA). He's also a leading environmentalist, and he has signed on (with Paul Wellstone and Senator John Kerry) to a campaign-finance-reform bill that calls for public financing of elections.Campaign-finance maverick SENATOR JOHN McCAIN (R-Arizona)You can tell John McCain is doing something right by all the enemies he's making in the Senate. And nowhere has this former Vietnam prisoner of war alienated more people than in the area of campaign-finance reform, where he is virtually the only Republican senator pushing for serious change. Of course, this challenge to a system that disproportionately favors his party hasn't sat well with McCain's colleagues. "I believe I have their respect," McCain told Vanity Fair magazine last month, adding: "I don't believe I have their affection." A slew of Democrats is now pushing for reform, but without the support of the Republican majority the effort isn't likely to go far -- which is what makes McCain's position so significant.Even more irksome to his fellow senators is McCain's loathing of Congress's cherished pork. McCain keeps an aide on his staff, nicknamed "the ferret," who monitors the Senate floor and alerts his boss when someone tries to sneak through a little gift for the folks back home. McCain has tried in vain to kill off huge government subsidies for ethanol, a favorite of Midwestern farmers. Earlier this month, he challenged a $3 million grant for fertilizer research in Alabama and $7 million for something called the Center of Excellence for Research in Ocean Studies. This kind of spending, McCain was quoted by the New York Times as saying, is why "we are held in low esteem by the American people."A caveat: McCain's contrarian stances have deservedly won some spectacular press. But let's not be seduced into forgetting his history of unpalatable conservatism, including his early and enthusiastic support for that most offensive of 1996 campaigns -- Phil Gramm for President.Cyberpol REPRESENTATIVE RICK WHITE(R-Washington) It's not exactly a surprise that a congressman from the Seattle area is an ace on Internet issues. But with Congress still fumbling to understand the medium -- consider the misconceived Communications Decency Act -- it's comforting to know that Rick White is in the committee rooms and on the floor of Congress. Although White, a former Seattle lawyer now in his second term, was a lock-step supporter of the Contract with America in 1995, he's been at the fore of every battle to defend the Internet against government regulation and censorship.After Congress passed the CDA, which restricted so-called indecent material on the Net, White became its fiercest critic: he formed a Congressional Internet Caucus in the belief that when it came to the Net, many members didn't know what they were talking about. White has also fought the Clinton Administration's efforts to block encryption technology, which would allow computer messages to be put into nearly unbreakable code; the administration fears this privacy-enhancing technology would aid terrorists and other bad guys. And he's pushing a bill to block state and local taxes on Internet commerce (hearings started in the House this month).White has also flashed good campaign-finance-reform credentials. Shortly after coming to Congress in 1995, he proposed the creation of an independent commission to help overhaul campaign financing -- well before the 1996 Clinton-Gore scandals made the issue red-hot in Washington. He introduced a similar bill in the House this spring.SENATOR DANIEL PATRICK Scholar-statesman MOYNIHAN (D-New York)Traditionally called "The World's Greatest Deliberative Body," the US Senate ain't what it used to be. The great statesmen of yesteryear have largely been replaced by shallow ideologues like Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and overgrown frat boys like Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania). Fortunately, there's still a seat for one of the century's leading American public thinkers: Daniel Patrick Moynihan.In the more than 30 years he's spent in government, Moynihan has waltzed across the ideological spectrum, from working-class liberal Democrat to anti-communist neoconservative to the centrist Democrat he's typically labeled as today. Moynihan's 1965 report "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" drew criticism from the left for "blaming the victim" after it cited "a tangle of pathology," including illegitimacy and welfare dependency, as the principal crisis in black America. Now even liberals admit that Moynihan's thinking turned out to be ahead of its time. And yet when the Republican welfare-reform bill came up for a vote last summer, Moynihan was one of the few Democrats to speak out, dejectedly warning that "the children [will be] blown to the winds."Moynihan is one of the most eloquent speakers in politics, and he is the author of a virtual library of important books on policy and statecraft. If, as the American Prospect recently put it, Moynihan's career "has been marked less by legislation than by brilliant signal flares shot up to rouse the citizenry," we'll take that over today's crowd of intellectual weaklings who legislate without thinking. Early warning SENATOR RICHARD LUGAR (R-Indiana)With the Cold War long gone, the American public can hardly be bothered with foreign policy anymore. Expand NATO? We weren't even sure it still existed.But for several years, one senator has been zeroing in on the truly scary threats still lurking out there. When an American city suffers a catastrophic "superterrorist" attack (from chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons), Dick Lugar will assume the grim but well-earned role of saying "I told you so." Lugar has long pushed such obscure but vitally important post-Cold War foreign policy initiatives as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which helps round up "loose nukes" in the former Soviet Union that could fall into terrorist hands. Warning that "it's not a matter of if, but when" superterrorism hits the US, Lugar has called for tighter international restrictions on chemical and biological weapons, including the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty the Senate ratified this spring. For the most part, Lugar has pressed these issues without fanfare or sensationalism, although his ill-advised 1996 presidential campaign included a heavy-handed TV ad featuring a mock terrorist nuke crisis in the US. The spot was excessive. Lugar's concern is not.On the barricades for womenREPRESENTATIVE NITA LOWEY (D-New York)Despite all the lip service Republicans have been paying to women and the gender gap, rolling back abortion rights is a driving cause for Congressional conservatives and the interest groups, such as the Christian Coalition, that have fueled the Republican revolution. Plenty of women in Congress will fight new abortion restrictions to the bitter end. But pro-choice advocates single out Nita Lowey as one of the fiercest battlers against Republican encroachments on choice. "Right now we need fighters," says a spokeswoman for the National Abortion Rights Action League. "Nita Lowey is tenacious and tireless."Even when Democrats still held Congress in 1994, the Bronx-born Lowey, who represents southern Westchester County, organized 72 colleagues in a pledge to oppose health-care reforms if they didn't ensure abortion coverage. When surgeon general nominee Henry Foster was under attack the following year for his pro-choice views, the outspoken Lowey was among his leading supporters. Earlier this year, she railed against GOP distortions during the debate to ban so-called partial-birth abortions (although her side obfuscated as well).Lowey, who co-chairs the Women's Congressional Caucus, also fights for other women's issues: she led an effort last year that restored $90 million in funding for domestic-violence programs cut by the Republican leadership, and she won new money for breast-cancer research. In the words of the authoritative Almanac of American Politics, Lowey "is proof that the Democratic feminist left can be as politically effective as the Republican religious right."Crunchy curiosity REPRESENTATIVE BERNIE SANDERS (I-Vermont)How can you help but root for the lone socialist among the right-wingers of today's Congress? In 1990, long before the advent of the "radical middle" and the Perotistas, the Brooklyn-born Sanders became the first independent elected to Congress since Ohio sent Henry Frazier Reams to Washington in 1950. It can often be hard to tell this former mayor of Burlington from a liberal Democrat. Without the pressure of party leadership, however, Sanders is free to explore the leftmost territory on any issue that comes before Congress, whether it's single-payer health care or laws preventing giant defense companies from writing off the costs of their mega-mergers and passing them on to taxpayers. And Vermont's citizens have been happy to support his far-left ideology.But more than anything, with Republicans stabbing each other in the back and Democrats all but devoid of new ideas, Bernie Sanders is a welcome reminder that you don't have to buy into the two-party system to succeed.

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