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Gwyn Mellinger: December was bad month for congressional delegation

  • Published Friday, Dec. 28, 2012, at 5:21 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Dec. 28, 2012, at 5:22 p.m.

December was instructive, a month in which disturbing political trends in Kansas politics crystallized in the news from Washington, D.C.

First came the spectacle of a recently hospitalized Bob Dole in his wheelchair, 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 States one of more that 150 nations to endorse the U.N. agreement.

The treaty, negotiated by President 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 U.N. treaty interferes with American sovereignty. 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 U.N. treaty were current Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, who in turn held Dole’s 1st Congressional District seat before advancing to the Senate. For Moran, who had issued a statement supporting the treaty, this was a public reversal.

But Roberts’ and Moran’s rebuff to Dole in the Senate was eclipsed that week by disconcerting news from the House, where Tim Huelskamp, who now represents the 1st District, lost his assignments on the agriculture and budget committees.

These are high-caliber assignments that members of Congress work years to secure. 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 have Dole, Roberts and Moran.

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.

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.

Huelskamp publicly characterized his most recent banishment as politically “vindictive.” But at the same time he was asking House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to give him back his committee assignments, 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. Their congressman has rendered himself politically irrelevant.

More broadly, Huelskamp’s undoing and the U.N. 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 chairwoman of the Department of Mass Media at Baker University in Baldwin City.

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