End of an era
In December 1935, the Nevada Colorado River Commission reported to Gov. Richard Kirman that if the state built transmission lines to supply power to western and northern Nevada, the cost of electricity to consumers would be reduced.
It didn’t happen. Not until three quarters of a century had passed, in February 2009, did U.S. Sen. Harry Reid pledge to support building a major transmission line linking north and south for the first time. As it happened, the same month—in a reaction to the Great Recession and the Wall Street meltdown—Reid and his fellow Democrats pushed stimulus funding through Congress, providing a source of funding for the line. The next month, President Obama signed a public lands act freeing up 70 acres for a transmission line corridor near Sunrise Mountain in Southern Nevada.
Construction began in 2010. That same year, Reid pushed through a measure to shift the line to avoid sensitive historic and wildlife sites. Another year later, a federal $343 million loan guarantee was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy. In 2011 and 2013, the Energy Regulatory Commission—chaired by Reid nominee Jon Wellinghoff of Nevada—eased regulatory obstacles to the transmission line. In 2015, Reid won enactment of a measure assuring a corridor through an abandoned manganese mine and mill site used in World War I.
The 235-mile, 500-kilovolt, 600-megawatt line is now in place. Cost: $510 million. Reid shepherded it along, removing roadblocks, clearing the way. And he insisted that part of the deal would be reduced coal use and increased renewables.
The hatred that found its way to Reid during his Capitol Hill years cannot argue with his record of accomplishment. In fact, it sometimes seemed his congressional tenure was devoted to unblocking old projects that had been proposed by earlier legislators but never reached fruition. On Nov. 4, 1986—the night he was elected to the U.S. Senate—he promised to win enactment of a Truckee River operating agreement, badly needed for decades. Indeed, his Senate predecessor Paul Laxalt was at that moment making a last, unsuccessful stab in his final weeks in office to push a Truckee agreement through Congress. It’s unlikely that even Reid had any idea how long the agreement would take—nearly his entire Senate service. It’s a separate, three-decade story that needs telling, but for our purposes here it’s useful to show Reid’s history of achievement that had eluded other state leaders.
As a member of the U.S. House, Reid took on the task of creating Great Basin National Park, an idea that had been kicked around during the 20th century without success. In 1934, landscape architect William Penn Mott surveyed the area for the National Park Service and recommended creation of the park. It didn’t happen. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson supported the idea in the 1960s. Still no luck.
Reid succeeded, pushing through legislation creating a park with 76,800 acres (about 120 square miles), including Wheeler Peak and the Lehman cavern.
Reid went after wilderness areas, which Republicans had held to a minimum in Nevada. There was no reason for him to win. The state’s then-four person congressional delegation was anti-environment, with Reid the only Democratic member. He outlasted them. The two Republican senators departed, to be replaced by Reid and his friend Richard Bryan. Nevada got 700,000 acres of wilderness, and Reid has been adding to it ever since.
Not all of his legislation concerned once-stymied projects, of course. He developed a terrific dislike of coal power, a factor in asthma attacks, chronic bronchitis, heart attacks, hospital admissions, premature deaths and lost work days. Reid worked on shutting down Reid-Gardner, one of the nation’s dirtiest coal plants. Most of it was finally closed, and a $4.3 million settlement was paid to the nearby Moapa Band of Paiutes for health problems. Reid also prevented construction of two coal plants in eastern Nevada, infuriating local leaders who wanted the jobs.
In the Truckee Meadows in the 1990s, there was an unpopular plan to import water for growth from the Honey Lake area that straddles the Nevada/California border north of Reno. Reid helped kill it (though it later came quietly back to life). Paradoxically, in southern Nevada where water officials are trying to import water for growth from areas along the Nevada/Utah border, Reid has aided the importation plan.
There are those who say Reid gets more credit than he is due for stopping the proposed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, that three governors kept the federal government chasing its tail for a couple of decades. That is certainly true. Reid did change the dynamic when he won for Nevada one of the first presidential nominating events in the nation—the early caucuses. An entire generation of political leaders came to Nevada and took a pledge against Yucca, akin to the Iowa pledge on ethanol.The bad new days
Reid's career in Congress more or less parallels the Era of Bad Feeling, when Republicans stopped working with Democrats and learned to parlay polarization into election successes—if not legislative accomplishments.
In 1999, Reid became the assistant Democratic leader in the Senate, informally known as the Democratic whip. In that post, he made allies in both parties by accommodating and servicing the needs of members. His cooperation coupled with his relatively conservative voting record made him the Republicans’ favorite Democrat. Trent Lott called him “soothing,” not the kind of term normally applied to a partisan fighter.
But then in 2005, Reid became Senate Democratic leader. There is substantial reason to question whether Reid was ever the person for the job. Today’s party congressional leaders must also be national party leaders. Rank-and-file party activists did not want him, preferring Richard Durbin of Illinois as more media-savvy and a better salesperson. Six months into the job, Reid was asked if, given his conservative voting record, he was miscast as Democratic leader. His answer was a Capitol Hill one—“Well, 44 [Senate] Democrats don’t think so.”
But senators want a leader who makes their lives easier. That doesn’t necessarily mean they know to choose the best person to sell their policies, either in substantive or public relations terms. The first thing that started happening to Reid was that, under the dogma of today’s Republican politics, people who had never heard of him before began hating him. It wasn’t rational. If Reid had stayed in the more below-the-radar post of whip and Durbin had become leader, it would have happened to Durbin. But soon, Reid was learning more about this new world of polarized, mean-spirited politics. He did not thrive in it. Probably no other single member of Congress changed so much in the polarized climate. His demeanor changed. His personality changed. His looks changed. At any time during Reid’s tenure, it was possible to run a Google image search for photos of him and get mostly frowning, scowling portraits.
It did not go unnoticed. In 2013, Conan O’Brien had a visual aid that cast the dour farmer in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” as Harry Reid. In 2014, a site called Red Alert Politics posted some freeze frames from a 1986 C-SPAN interview with a smiling, friendly U.S. Rep. Harry Reid and contrasted them with recent shots of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid: “This video reveals a different side of Reid that modern America has rarely, if ever, seen, a once happy warrior who smiled amid the discussion of politics and local issues and spoke with respect and praise of Republicans. … From appearances, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid derives little pleasure from his job. … Bitter, bitter man.”
Reid tended not to say anything when he encountered the hardball tactics of the period, instead letting tension build inside of him. It’s where some of his gaffes came from. When he finally blew, it was on something unrelated to what was really bothering him. Thus he made impolitic comments on the hygiene of summer tourists visiting Capitol Hill or Clarence Thomas’s poor legal scholarship.
He was aware that his words were now being weighed on a different scale. He once told us that “even when I was assistant leader, nobody really cared what I said. And certainly when I was just a senator, it was rare that anybody even wrote what I said. But now, people are even wondering what I’m thinking about. … I mean, who would think that somebody would cover a high school class I was talking to? Or who would think that somebody would pick up the Ralston—something I may have said on the Ralston show, for heaven’s sakes, and send it across the country? But I’ve learned over the months that that in fact is the case.”
But it did not curb his often sharp tongue.
It is difficult, indeed, to resist the notion that both Reid and Nevada would have been better off if he had stayed out of the congressional leadership pool. In 2001, Reid—then still serving as Democratic whip—lured Republican Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont away from the GOP. Jeffords changed to independent and voted with the Democrats to organize, switching the Senate from a Republican to a Democratic majority. One of the carrots Reid used was giving up his own expected chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to Jeffords.
Senate Environment is a prized committee for any Nevada senator. As its chair, Reid would been a policymaker in areas the state cares about. He might well have accomplished a good deal more for his state than he did as party leader, while making life a lot easier on himself and preserving the cooperative relationship he once had with Republicans.The dysfunctional Senate
In 2008, the Wall Street meltdown and the Bush recession gave Democrats one of their great historic majorities. Reid made things much harder on himself by not doing anything about the silent filibuster while he had the power. With a majority of 60 votes, the Democrats were held hostage to any one Democratic senator who threatened a “filibuster.”
In 1975, the Senate Democratic majority had amended the rules to reduce the number of votes needed for cloture to 60. Cloture is the number of votes needed to stop a filibuster. A filibuster means talking endlessly on the senate floor until the other side gives up.
But that’s not the only thing that happened in 1975. Senate Democratic leader Mike Mansfield and his whip Robert Byrd came up with a plan for preventing filibusters from tying up the floor. In what was called a silent filibuster or the two-track system, senators would be able to announce their intent to filibuster and the cloture threshold—that is, the 60-vote supermajority used to stop a filibuster—would automatically be applied to the bill at issue. The senators would not actually have to go onto the floor and talk endlessly anymore. This would keep the floor free for other business.
The two-track system depended on trust, on senators not claiming they would filibuster when in fact they had no intention of doing so. But as polarization came to Congress, fair play became passé. Senators began announcing filibusters by the dozen, tying up bills with 60-vote cloture thresholds constantly. Soon, the Senate was operating routinely as a house where 60 votes were required to pass any major bill. A 51-vote majority was a thing of the past.
The abuse of the two-track system was almost entirely Republican—and grass roots Democrats, members of the House, and a variety of others called on the Senate to get rid of the system. Reid defended it for most of his tenure as Democratic leader, and when he finally yielded, it was only for presidential nominations. The Senate still remains a minority-controlled house. Reid paid a high price. During the debate over the Affordable Care Act, Democratic Senators Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln and Joe Lieberman all held up the Senate for concessions, causing health care to be watered down and threatening support by key Democratic groups like labor. In addition, the stimulus bill was far smaller than Democrats had wanted because of filibuster threats.
What was striking was how easy it would have been for Reid to end the silent filibuster. When I tried to find the rule under which it functioned, I could not locate it. I wrote to the Senate Historical Office asking for the 1975 rule covering the two-track system. Senate Historian Don Ritchie informed me, “The ’two-track’ process is simply a leadership tactic and is not codified in the rules.” By implementing the two-track system on his own authority instead of with a rule, Mansfield had presciently anticipated that it might one day get out of hand. He had left future successors free to get rid of it on their own authority. Thus Reid had the sole power to reverse Mansfield’s change and put the Senate back on a simple 51-vote majority basis. But he would not do it.
A couple of years ago, during an interview with Reid, I found out why. Neither he nor his staff had ever had historical research done on the filibuster. Reid believed—and still believes—that a rule covering the silent filibuster had been approved by the Senate in 1917. He and his staff could not be convinced otherwise. Nothing happened in 1975, Reid told me, except the change in the cloture threshold. One of his aides contacted me by phone to try to convince me. He challenged me to prove my case. I sent papers by several scholars describing the system’s creation in 1975, but never heard anything back.
Without the two-track system, the entire Democratic/Obama program could have been enacted in the first month of 2009 instead of eating up most of the year. ACA could have been put into effect fast, in the full form sought by the Democratic majority. The stimulus could have been larger and more effective. The Democratic Congress’s public image as efficient and effective would have been stronger. And the Senate would have stopped being dysfunctional.Judgment
History would have been of greater help to Reid in another way, too. He tended to yield to presidents on national security issues, though history demonstrates how untrustworthy they are. We have been unable to find any U.S. military action in Reid's tenure that he opposed at the outset. This was most glaring, of course, in the case of Iraq. And it took him a long time to learn from the experience. As late as 2007—four years after the war began—he was defending the vote. “That was an easy vote for me,” he told Las Vegas editor Steve Sebelius.
He came to resent George W. Bush’s false information given to Congress—but too late. However, senators had contrary information from U.N. weapons inspectors who—unlike Bush administration officials—had actually been on the ground in Iraq. Moreover, of course Bush misled Congress. Every president since World War II has lied about matters of war or peace. It’s a law of nature. Why was Reid not more skeptical?
Reid’s own political savvy sometimes ran head-on into his own fellow Democrats. Senate Democrats were often unwilling to take strong action, but they became alert to the party’s Howard Dean-inspired grass roots demands that party leaders get in the Republicans’ faces. At one point, Democratic senators wanted to filibuster against a troop funding bill that had been loaded down with unrelated measures, including REAL ID, a federally required form of personal identification. Dianne Feinstein of California was ready to lead the filibuster, but Reid feared what the GOP would do with it and vetoed the idea. “This was not a time to filibuster a bill that was providing the money for the troops,” he later told us. The senators felt they could use the filibuster—a real one, when people talk endlessly on the floor—to spin it as a case of Republicans using the troops for cover to pass controversial bills that could not pass on their own merits.
Reid’s false claim that Mitt Romney had paid no taxes for 10 years was another instance that put Democrats in a poor light. News reports often described Reid’s claim as “new Democratic tactics” or some such. Embarrassed Democratic leaders were reluctant to criticize Reid—though John McCain, John Boehner, Marco Rubio and other Republicans had repudiated a Michelle Bachmann smear of an Obama administration official two weeks earlier. So they just lived with it, staying silent in the face of a McCarthyite attack by one of their own.
Reid also had difficulty making the case for the Democratic Party when it was not doing well. For a period he was citing the Democratic effort keeping Social Security from being a Bush Wall Street investment program as one of their great triumphs. He didn’t seem to understand that the party protecting its proudest legislative achievement of the 20th century was the least that should be expected of Democrats.Finale
Reid has a reputation of having lived on the edge in elections, but in fact once he arrived in Congress, he had only one close call. That was 1998, when he was opposed by Republican John Ensign and a recount affirmed Reid's narrow 400-vote win. Otherwise, he always won by comfortable margins. He actually talked about running again in 2016, but sight and other problems he suffered after a freak accident with workout equipment made it difficult. (Conspiracy theories of how he actually sustained his injuries were an example of the weirdness of today's politics.)
Many of the Reid achievements mentioned at the start of this article were already accomplished or well under way when Reid became Democratic leader. Certainly a grad student writing about his career a hundred years from now will consider the accomplishments in that time frame among his most important. There are not a lot of Reid measures after that.
It’s hard to imagine Nevada politics without Reid in it. He goes out on what he would consider a high note—his state voted Democratic in the presidential race, three of four U.S. House races, gave both houses of the legislature to the Democrats. It also elected a Democrat to replace Reid himself.
Moreover, he leaves a Senate that, though he predicts it will someday get rid of the supermajority cloture requirement, didn’t do it on his watch.
“One thing we fought for that’s worth defending is a fairer, more open and more productive Senate,” he wrote in the New York Times shortly before leaving office.