SN&R goes to Washington

Days of decision on the war in Iraq for our region’s four Congress members

SN&R Illustration By Chad Crowe

In his interview with SN&R, Congress expert Norman Ornstein explained why he believes the 2005-06 Congress was “the worst in modern memory.” Read this and the rest of Ornstein’s interview with SN&R.

SN&R photographer Larry Dalton attempted to shoot pictures of the daily anti-war sit-ins at Congresswoman Doris Matsui’s office that protest her support for Iraq war funding. But Dalton was denied entry by her staff. The protesters say Matsui now refuses the media any access to their sit-ins.

According to a MapQuest search, the distance from the state Capitol in Sacramento to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., is 2,739.76 miles. A long ways away. But that measurement doesn’t even begin to hint at how far the nation’s capital really is from California’s. While they are both political towns, both with their eternal legions of wooden-faced civil servants and mercenary lobbyists and gawking tourists, there is a distance and a distinction between the two that no equivalent quality can overcome. In short, no matter how muscular a governor may sit at the desk at 11th and L streets in Sacramento, only in Washington, D.C., is there the power to declare and wage war.

That, at least, seemed to be the crucial difference during a series of visits by SN&R to the city on the Potomac during the last weeks of February and the first ones of March. The initial purpose of the visits was to inquire into how Sacramento is represented in Washington by the region’s congressional delegation. It seemed an opportune time to make such an inquiry, as the recent change of party control of Congress had brought hopes of something new, or at least something different, from the preceding six years, when one party, the Republicans, had controlled both the White House and the Capitol.

But it remained uncertain what this partial regime change really meant. While there were multiple perspectives from which to view the matter, the Iraq war, this strange war, dominated all others.

During these early weeks of their tenure, it seemed the Democrats themselves had not yet decided what their ascendance signified. While the Democrats were trying to bridge divides, the Bush administration appeared to discover a new determination, a new strategy and a new unity around waging the war. Everywhere in Washington during these weeks, the conversation in this “city of conversations” revolved around the war and what the new speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and her Democratic colleagues would do or could do.

The Sacramento region’s delegation to the House seemed a useful gauge for what the new era in Washington meant for the political parties and for the war. Composed of two Democrats and two Republicans—among them a Vietnam veteran, a former California attorney general, a Japanese-American and an arch-conservative enmeshed in a corruption scandal—together they represent districts that stretch across the valley, from the coast to the Sierras, and from the Sacramento Delta to the Oregon border.

But the result was less a sense of the war’s future than the emergence of an odd feeling: When it came to the political dynamics around the war, it felt like being locked in one of those bamboo finger handcuffs—the harder you pulled to get out, the tighter the grip.

Homeland insecurity
Taking the town’s Metro subway system over to Capitol Hill, another difference with Sacramento emerges: The people of Washington today believe themselves to be imminent targets for a terror attack. This, after all, was a city hit on September 11, 2001, by the plane that went into the Pentagon, and was intended to be hit by another that went down in a Pennsylvania field.

Nowhere is this sense of vulnerability more evident than on the city’s underground Metro subway system. It’s simply impossible to take the steep escalators down into the city’s Metro stations and not immediately consider how obvious a target this would be for a terrorist, just as the Tube had been in London. When regular Metro riders or station managers are asked about the threat, they readily acknowledge it, but then claim that there is some kind of unseen security presence. Pressed on whether they believe they’re safe, the conversation inevitably and eerily proceeds something like this:

“Do you ever think about it?”

“All the time.“

“And when you think about it, what do you think?”

“That you can’t let yourself think about it.”

Some laugh when they say this. Others don’t. One Capitol Hill staffer explains, “All of us living in Washington understand that we wear bull’s eyes on our backs.”

Congressman Mike Thompson is a decorated Vietnam vet who has staunchly opposed the Iraq war since the beginning.

This is how people in Washington think these days. Any doubts about this were removed when emerging from the Metro station on Capitol Hill to be greeted by police patrolling the streets with MI6s.

Vets get it
The office buildings of the House of Representatives lie along Independence Avenue on the south side of the Capitol: Cannon, Longworth, Rayburn. Inside, bordering every Congress member’s doorway, are two flags: the American flag and the flag of their state. The flags are a statement about the dual nature of congressional representatives. They are representing their home districts, but they also are representing the nation. How that equation is balanced by each member defines much about their tenure.

In front of some members’ office doors are large charts sitting on easels. The most common chart is that of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of 37 Democrats who firmly believe in a balanced budget. The chart shows how much debt the nation is in, and how much each American taxpayer would need to pay to cover that debt. In late February, the debt was $8,771,000,000,000, putting everyone $29,000 in hock.

One of these charts sits in front of Congressman Mike Thompson’s office.

Thompson represents the first congressional district, which runs from Humboldt County in the north, down through Napa and over into Yolo County. Davis and West Sacramento are in his district.

His lobby is filled with images of coasts and mountains and sea. The brochure offerings include a booklet on the businesses of Calistoga entitled “Wine, Water, Wellness.”

Though he himself previously worked in the wine industry and owned a vineyard, what defines Thompson is something far different: He’s a Vietnam veteran who earned a Purple Heart.

That gives Thompson, and other House members who are veterans, a special standing and authority in the debate on Iraq. In an interview after just returning from his regular weekend trip home, he doesn’t hesitate to use this standing to bluntly describe the personal hypocrisy of those who launched the country into war. “Anyone who believed that Bush’s policy was wrong-headed on Iraq was immediately labeled un-American, against the military. And this is from a commander-in-chief that pulled every string to get out of going to war, and couldn’t even hold that job. Once he got this reserve flying position, he couldn’t even hold that. And a vice president who is on record saying that he didn’t go to Vietnam because he had better things to do. There are 58,000 Americans who had better things to do. For the vice president to say that, he should be ashamed of himself.”

Thompson has been opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq since the beginning. According to Michael Barone’s Almanac of American Politics, he paid a career price for his opposition. In September of 2002, Thompson took a state Department-approved trip to Iraq with fellow Congress members David Bonior of Michigan and Jim McDermott of Washington. While there, McDermott made strong statements against the impending invasion. The ensuing controversy apparently helped to derail Thompson’s desire to lead the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“The trip was important to me because that was the toughest vote that I was ever going to take—to vote to send somebody’s son or daughter into a combat situation where I knew that people were going to die,” Thompson explains. “I wanted to make sure that I was getting every ounce of information that I could possibly get. I wasn’t getting it here. You had to be a complete doofus to believe that the people they were bringing into hearings to tell us how this was going to unfold were shooting straight. That’s why I went on that trip.”

Thompson acknowledges that the fallout from the trip did probably cost him, as it made some Democrats nervous. He disagreed with McDermott making his statements while in Iraq and told him so. Still, he maintains that “if every member of Congress had gone there, I don’t think we would have had the vote [for the war] that you had.”

Like other centrist and liberal Democrats, Thompson’s district offices have been targeted for regular visits from an anti-war movement that wants Congress to vote for an immediate halt to funding. Detailing his long record against the war, including voting against all but the first supplemental funding bill, Thompson wonders why the anti-war folk “won’t take ‘yes’ for an answer.

“I certainly understand their frustration. The change that they’re seeing hasn’t been quick enough for them. I share their passion. But it’s just not going to go as quick as they want, and it’s not because Nancy Pelosi or Mike Thompson or Doris Matsui is doing anything to stop it from going faster. We all have our shoulders against the same wheel, trying to push this thing up the hill.” Thompson points to the first resolution against the president’s sending more troops as a sign of things to come. “It’s the first debate we’ve had on the Iraq war, and it was a pretty large bipartisan message, a pretty resounding shot at a sitting president.”

Congressman Dan Lungren firmly supports Bush’s commitment to increase the number of U.S. troops.

Regarding the anti-war movement’s pressure on liberal Democrats, Thompson sees it as misplaced pressure. “They should be targeting somebody who is not in our camp, somebody who is for the escalation, somebody who voted for President Bush’s invasion of Iraq.”

Suddenly, Thompson quietly says, “There’s my hero, right there.” Pointing to a television encased in the wall above, on the screen is Chuck Hagel, the conservative Republican senator from Nebraska. Also a Vietnam veteran, Hagel has broken with his party and his president on the war. “A guy who served in combat, a guy that has been very, very honest in his criticism about what’s happened in Iraq. I think that with national leaders like Chuck Hagel and [newly elected Democratic Virginia senator] Jim Webb, you have a bipartisan opportunity to do something over in the Senate. I’d follow Chuck Hagel to the end of the Earth. We differ on a lot of things. But when it comes to foreign policy and military affairs, he’s someone I respect a great deal.”

Thompson is proud of the role veterans are playing in the debate. “When we debated the ‘No Escalation’ resolution, the first group to speak in favor was a group of veterans. Patrick Murphy, an Iraq vet, spoke. I spoke. John Dingell, a World War II vet, spoke. John Conyers, a Korean War vet. Charlie Rangel, a highly decorated Korean War vet. McDermott, a Vietnam War vet. They all spoke. I think there were 11 veterans that spoke. Veterans get it.”

Right on the war
On Iraq, Congressman Dan Lungren is following the lead of another Vietnam veteran. Two months ago, he endorsed former prisoner of war and current Republican Arizona Senator John McCain for president. McCain has staked his future on support for an escalation of American troops in Iraq. Though disagreeing with McCain on campaign-finance reform and climate change, the stance on Iraq was crucial. “I happen to think he’s right on the war,” says Lungren. “He’s been consistent, and I think has shown courage and leadership in saying that he’d rather lose the election than lose this war.”

Lungren represents the third congressional district, a territory stretching from the Sacramento County communities of Carmichael, Citrus Heights and Arden Arcade into the Sierra foothills of Amador and Calaveras counties. Formerly a congressman from Long Beach before serving as state attorney general, in 1998 he lost his bid for the governor’s seat to Gray Davis.

From the many photos on the walls in the lobby of Lungren’s office, one sees a half-century of Republican politics: his father was Richard Nixon’s physician, and there is a picture of a young Dan Lungren with then Vice President Nixon. Perhaps the defining image is that of Lungren first being sworn in as a congressman in 1978 along with fellow Republican freshmen Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich. As a member of Gingrich’s Conservative Opportunity Society, he helped generate support for the Republican wave that ultimately seized control of Congress in 1994 and lost it this past November. But he doesn’t ascribe that loss to the Iraq war so much as to the conduct of the war as a symptom of a broader problem.

“I think the last election was largely a question of competence in governance more than Iraq. They may have looked at Iraq and said, ‘That’s evidence of a lack of competence.’ That was the conclusion drawn by the electorate, whether it was seemingly not getting our house in order on spending, which is supposed to be a Republican strength, to the number of scandals that were here, to us not articulating very well what our mission was in Iraq and how we were accomplishing that and what we need to do in the future.”

It was a storm other than Iraq that, in Lungren’s view, blew away Republican control of Congress. “While Iraq obviously played a big role, Katrina took everything down. I think the president lost his moral authority with the public because of Katrina, and that wasn’t just limited to domestic politics. It went over to international politics. Coincident with the aftermath of Katrina, the president absented himself for six months from the debate [on the war], and I don’t think he ever regained traction on it.”

While dismissive of the Democrats’ stance, Lungren seems to have no illusion that there are any guarantees of success for the Republican path. “The Democrats have a problem. It’s far easier to say ‘no’ than it is to explain what you say ’yes’ to. Thus far, they have said, ‘No, we don’t agree with what the president’s doing.’ That helps you in an election. In electoral politics, that works. In governing politics, that doesn’t work.

“The problem on the Republican side is that we have a tough war. We’ve got a war that is taking time. It is a war that we’ve made our mistakes in. There’s always mistakes that you make. The question is, do you learn from those mistakes? Do you change and adapt in an agile manner such that your lessons from those mistakes are helpful rather than something you just look back at in history books, saying, ‘I hope we don’t make that mistake again.’”

Doolittle financial services
When Lungren referred to “the number of scandals,” he might well have been thinking about his Republican colleague representing the neighboring fourth congressional district, John Doolittle. Despite multiple requests, Congressman Doolittle was the only area House member who did not make himself available to be interviewed for this article. But in Washington, the question on most minds regarding Doolittle is not why he avoids an interview, but whether he will avoid an indictment.

Representing an area from Roseville and Rocklin into the Sierras, Doolittle scores zero in voting ratings from liberal groups, and 90 percent to 100 percent from conservative organizations. Running for his ninth term in 2006, he barely escaped being swept out with other Republican incumbents. In Doolittle’s case, this was largely due to his deep involvement with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and recently indicted defense contractor Brent Wilkes, who, according to federal prosecutors, was the major figure bribing convicted Republican Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham.

Having achieved a leadership position under former House Republican Majority Leader Tom Delay, Doolittle was among the top-five recipients of campaign contributions from Abramoff. Doolittle was heavily involved in support of Abramoff’s efforts to obstruct any intervention in the sweatshop economy of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory producing “Made in the U.S.” garments for corporations like the Gap.

Doolittle’s wife, Julie, set up a fund-raising firm, Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions, incorporated on March 22, 2001, and located in their Oakton, Va., home. With clients associated with Abramoff, she reportedly took 15 percent commissions from contributions to Doolittle’s campaign and political action committees. Virginia records show Julie as the company’s only officer and director, and she is the only known employee. It is unknown what, if any, work she actually did.

Congressman John Doolittle reaped personal financial benefits from his political fund raising and faces an uncertain future.

It is also unknown how much Julie’s company made. House Financial Disclosure Statements do not require spouses’ income to be revealed.

On February 13, 2007, the U.S. attorney for the southern district of California issued an indictment of defense contractor Wilkes for paying more than $700,000 in cash, prostitution services and other gifts to former Congressman Cunningham (already serving an 8 year, 4 month jail term) in exchange for steering millions of dollars of federal contracts to his company.

Wilkes and his associates gave Doolittle’s campaign and political action committees $118,000 between 2002 and 2005, contributions totaling more than what Cunningham received. The San Diego Union-Tribune calculated that Julie received at least $14,400 in commissions from these funds.

Asked whether John and Julie Doolittle were subjects of the U.S. attorney’s investigation, federal prosecutor Phillip Halpern told SN&R that he would not identify any individuals, but noted that, “The investigation is continuing.” According to newspaper accounts, Doolittle already has spent over $100,000 in attorney fees to deal with the investigation.

Doolittle’s friend Wilkes was indicted by the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego, led by Carol Lam. Lam was one of eight U.S. Attorneys abruptly fired in January by the Bush administration. This week, e-mails were released showing the Justice Department warning the White House that Lam’s inquiry into the bribery scandal was “a real problem.”

While waging an aggressive effort to rebuild his credibility with his district’s voters, who in November came within three percentage points of rejecting him, Doolittle has made some peculiar statements regarding the scandal. When the highly detailed federal indictment of Wilkes was announced, Doolittle went out of his way to tell a Sacramento Bee reporter: “I’ve always said that I don’t believe Brent Wilkes could be involved in something like this. The behavior they’ve alleged about Brent Wilkes is inconsistent with everything I know about the man. I’ll be shocked if it turned out differently.” This defense of Wilkes set Washington political commentators speculating whether Doolittle was hoping his public support for the defendant would keep Wilkes’ mouth shut.

Then during a week of town hall meetings in his district in late February, Doolittle declared himself to be victimized by “Hitlerian technology of mass thought control.”

Whether Doolittle broke the law is yet to be seen. But congressional observers have no doubt that he broke the ethical rules of the game. “You’ve got a few people, including the Doolittles, who poison the well here by clearly, openly, defiantly thumbing their noses at the norms of the institution, trying to exploit the rules and take advantage and make large bucks,” comments Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who has been studying Congress for 37 years. “The notion that you will profit personally from your fund raising by taking 15 percent off the top—the theory was that it was for Julie Doolittle’s efforts to raise the money, but it was 15 percent for virtually everything that was raised, whether she had anything to do with it or not—that’s obviously just not an appropriate set of behaviors.

“We know that DeLay, Abramoff and others tried to funnel money to [House] members by funneling them through family members, often for work that was highly questionable in terms of its expertise or the amount of work put in. All of this stuff is on the table in terms of any investigation of Mr. Doolittle. It clearly hurt him the last time around, and he barely escaped with his seat. He’s changing some of his behavior now, but way too late in the game.”

Doolittle has supported the president’s Iraq escalation policy. But that and much else Doolittle does seems largely irrelevant until the federal investigation is completed.

To end a war
On a day in mid-March, it seems like much of Sacramento had descended on Congresswoman Doris Matsui’s D.C. office. SMUD’s government-relations people are there to talk about public power. Representatives from Sacramento ACORN are there to push for guaranteed sick leave for low-wage workers. “If workers don’t have sick leave,” warns ACORN’s Chris Jones, “watch out for your fries.”

Matsui succeeded her late husband, Robert, in the fifth district congressional seat, which covers all of the city of Sacramento and much of the county, after he passed away in January of 2005. Coming into office by special election, she won re-election in November. With a seat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Matsui has been mastering the intricacies of the engineering and bureaucratic politics of water works and flood control with some significant success.

But, like Thompson and the other Democrats who consistently have opposed the war, Matsui is being pressed on Iraq. A coalition of local anti-war groups have been sitting in her district office, located in the Robert Matsui Federal Building on I Street, every day, from opening to closing, demanding that she agree to vote to cut off all funding for the war. The protesters’ view is that anything less is tantamount to support for the war.

In an interview in her office late one afternoon last week, Congresswoman Matsui expressed her understanding, and her disagreement, with the protesters’ position.

Congresswoman Doris Matsui believes the best hope to end the war requires maintaining a consensus of the Democratic majority.

“First of all, I was against the war. I didn’t get a chance to vote on it, obviously. My husband was in office then. He voted against it. I would have voted against it, too.

“I think the American people have spoken. They realize the reasons why the administration wanted to go to war were all invalid. There’s a sense in this country, and certainly with my colleagues on my side of the aisle, we’ve got to end the war. That is the goal: to end the war.

“The protesters speak with a lot of passion. I respect them for that. That’s their job. But my job, and the rest of my colleagues’, is to really listen to everybody.

“I’m elected by the constituents of Sacramento to use my best judgment to figure out how we end this war. I believe we do it as a majority party, together. And you know, we’re a very diverse party.

“My belief is that we’ve got to end this war understanding that we still have to ensure that the troops are protected and served well as far as medical care. I mean, these young men and women went to war on our behalf, and we’re responsible for them.

“We need to have something binding. We need to have some dates in this thing here [the resolution]. The Iraqis do have to take responsibility. There needs to be some sort of political solution that they come to the table with. We cannot forever be there in a combat zone.

“My sense is that we’re going to have to move out of there with certain conditions, and we’re going to have to do it by certain dates. I think people understand that we need to ensure that we have to look to ending the war, and not to short-term solutions.”

Asked whether cutting off funding is a short-term solution, the response is rapid and firm. “Even if we were to make a statement to that effect, the supplemental [funding of the war] will still pass. So why don’t we put conditions on it, and have the president try to meet his own conditions on this thing here? This is not our war. It’s the president’s war. So I think we have to take a responsible position, to understand that we have to challenge him on this, provide for the troops, and figure out how we end the war.”

As we speak
The congresswoman’s position seems close to that of Speaker Pelosi, a position the speaker is attempting to coalesce her party members and the House behind.

But it is a position that also is feeding some of the anti-war movement’s fervor, and their cynicism toward the new congressional majority. By labeling it the president’s war and then funding it, even with conditions, the Democrats appear to be as earnest in avoiding the political consequences of cutting off war funding as in pushing for an end. Deadlines of 2008, the next election year, further bring their plan to end the war into question as a political ploy.

One astute political observer, former Sacramento Congressman Vic Fazio, now a lobbyist at the powerhouse Akin Gump Strauss Hauer Feld & LLP firm, defines the Democrats’ dilemma this way: “It’s very difficult. They’re struggling with it as we speak. It really reflects the conflicted views of the public. The public doesn’t want to withdraw funds to support the troops. But they’re increasingly inclined to want to bring the war to an end.

“The Congress doesn’t have much power other than the power of the purse in this area. So if they were put in a position of terminating funding, they are very vulnerable to attack—you know, ‘You’re not supporting the troops.’ At the same time, if they don’t take those kinds of steps, the left sees all of these non-binding resolutions and mileposts and presidential certifications as ducking the issue.”

Even as Fazio describes the result as “a very tenuous ability to do anything,” he sees movement in the opinion of the military community. “The military families are beginning to say, ‘What is this all about? We’ve accomplished our goal. We got rid of Saddam Hussein. We found no weapons of mass destruction. What are we doing there?’ As a result, I think that’s changing public opinion. But it’s a perception. It’s not yet concrete.”

As this is being written, on March 15, the U.S. Senate rejected a resolution to withdraw most U.S. troops in 2008. Hillary Clinton just announced that as president she would keep a contingent of U.S. troops in Iraq. The House Appropriations Committee approved the $124 billion supplemental bill funding the president’s escalation. Meanwhile, the president has sent even higher levels of American troops than the 21,000 increase announced in January, and his generals have asked for more.

The bamboo finger cuffs feel like they’re getting tighter.