I recently read a report about a vote study from the National Journal that ranks the Kansas delegation as the most conservative congressional delegation in America (May 6 Eagle). One of the delegation’s three freshman congressmen proudly described this ranking as emblematic of the state’s history and political culture.
“I actually think that we fit the state pretty well,” he said. “We come from a pretty commonsense, leave-us-alone conservatism that’s a hallmark of Kansas.”
Having represented Kansas in Congress myself, I know that our state’s political culture has been traditionally conservative, but not one of unbending ideology and rejecting of compromise. I don’t believe the commonsense Midwestern values shared by Kansans of all political stripes have changed that much over the years. I do worry that “leave us alone” could turn into “leave us behind.”
Kansans enjoy the third-highest amount of tax dollars invested in a state relative to tax collected of any state in the union. From military spending at Air Force and Army installations and military contracts with Kansas businesses, to participation in farm programs, to infrastructure needs such as roads and airports, to the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, to health and nutrition programs – hundreds of thousands of Kansans benefit from these investments, and tens of thousands of jobs are at stake.
Cooperation and practicality have been crucial to the well-being of Kansas. It is a state full of examples of the kind of thoughtful and practical political leaders who have worked across party lines to help the state, including Sens. Bob Dole and Nancy Landon Kassebaum, as well as Govs. John Carlin, Bob Docking and Bill Graves. In fact, over the years I personally worked with Sen. Pat Roberts on a number of food and agricultural issues, both as a congressman and then as secretary of agriculture.
Of course, Kansas is and probably always will be a red state. But historically we have benefited greatly from diverse political leadership with a willingness to work with one another on behalf of all Kansans.
I’m not arguing that Kansas simply needs more Democrats in Topeka or Washington, D.C., or that the issues that the current delegations are most concerned with aren’t important. They are absolutely right to be concerned with federal spending, and my political party certainly shares in the blame for the current financial issues facing the nation.
But it’s important to remember that no political party has a monopoly on virtue, and that forging a political culture where disagreement can occur without demonization of the opposition is central to promoting the interests of the state and the country.
In 1977, during my first year in Congress, then-Sen. (and former Vice President) Hubert Humphrey, while dying of cancer, spoke to the House of Representatives and gave some of the most important advice in my life. He said, “Fight every battle like it’s the most important thing in the world, but afterwards go shake hands with your opponents. Today he may be your adversary, but tomorrow he will no doubt be your ally.”
I hope my fellow Kansas political leaders will take the sentiment to heart, because those alliances, I believe, are what the Founding Fathers demanded of all of us.