December was instructive, a month in which disturbing political trends in Kansas politics crystalized in the news from Washington.
First came the spectacle of a recently hospitalized Bob Dole in his wheel chair, paying a visit to the U.S. Senate. Dole, who championed the cause of disability rights during his 35 years representing Kansas in the House and Senate, hoped to secure votes for an international disability-rights treaty and make the United State one of more that 150 nations to endorse the UN agreement.
The treaty, negotiated by former President George W. Bush and signed by President Obama, would have been a bipartisan no-brainer — but for a twist of logic on the political right, which argues that the UN treaty interferes with American sovereignty. It’s a contorted position, but its supporters, who are shrill and politically menacing, had persuaded so many Republican senators to fear this good-will treaty that an ailing Dole had himself wheeled into the chamber.
When the treaty affirmation came up five votes short, it was clear that the political capital of Dole, the most nationally prominent congressional Republican in Kansas history, was no match for the intimidation of the political far right, which now dictates votes of many Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate.
Among those who voted against the UN treaty were Kansas’ own U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, who in turn held Dole’s 1st District House seat before advancing to the Senate. For Moran, who had issued a statement supporting the treaty, the vote was a public reversal.
But Roberts’ and Moran’s rebuffs to Dole in the Senate were eclipsed that week by disconcerting news from the House, where Tim Huelskamp, who now represents the 1st District, lost two of his committee assignments. Huelskamp, a far-right candidate who was elected to Congress in the conservative wave of 2010, had been given seats on Agriculture, essential to the rural district that covers the western half of the state, and the Budget Committee, which gave him a seat at the table during crucial budget discussions.
These are high-caliber assignments that members of Congress work years to secure, yet Huelskamp was rewarded for his conservatism and handed positions of influence coming in the door. From such committees, a prudent freshman congressman with social skills might have provided solid representation for the 1st District and positioned himself for the next available U.S. Senate seat, as Dole, Roberts and Moran have done.
Instead, Huelskamp spent his first term shooting off his mouth, publicly and stridently criticizing his party’s congressional leadership. While details of the party vote that cost Huelskamp the committee assignments are murky, there’s no question that Huelskamp was viewed as unwilling to work with Republican colleagues. It also is clear that revocation of committee appointments, which happens rarely, was an extraordinary and even extreme move by the leadership.
While 1st District voters rewarded Huelskamp’s uncompromising defense of far-right principles by electing him to a second term in November, they have not been well-served by his public outspokenness. Huelskamp has been a media glutton, turning up frequently on cable news shows — both Fox and MSNBC — as the right-wing congressman who says the most outrageous things.
This public combativeness appears to have been part of a strategy encouraged by Jim Pfaff, Huelskamp’s chief of staff. Pfaff, a former talk radio host, had no experience in Congress before the freshman congressman hired him in 2010. But Huelskamp’s public abrasiveness predates Pfaff. Huelskamp’s inability to be a team player also cost him a choice committee post in the Kansas Senate a decade ago.
Although Huelskamp publicly characterized his most recent banishment as politically “vindictive” — at the same time he was asking U.S. House Speaker John Boehner to give him his committee assignments back — reporting by Politico, whose sources characterized Huelskamp as a “jerk” and worse, attributed Huelskamp’s downfall to his personality.
The losers in this debacle are Huelskamp’s constituents in Kansas’ 1st House District, whose congressman has rendered himself politically irrelevant.
More broadly, Huelskamp’s undoing and the UN treaty vote provide an opportunity for Kansans to reflect on our congressional delegation and what standard of leadership — and civility — we expect from those we send to Washington.
Gwyn Mellinger is a professor and chair of the mass media department at Baker University and a member of the “Insight Kansas” writing group.