Friday, September 22, 2006

Hooley, DeFazio Fence in Their Constituencies

It's a rare sight to see three Oregon Representatives vote yes on a Republican-sponsored bill; usually either it's a safe enough vote to be unanimous, or there's only one straggler on an otherwise repugnant bill. Yet last week's "Secure Fence Act of 2006" (I still shake my head every time I read that) won two defectors, Darlene Hooley and Peter DeFazio, to go along with "sure George, whatever!" kid Greg Walden. The bill passed by a margin that exceeded Democratic votes for the bill, but just because you know you're going to lose doesn't mean you necessarily need to vote for it...

...unless of course you're using an electoral rather than ideological/policy lens to evaluate the bill. If there are two House races with any contest value at all this season, it would be those involving Hooley and DeFazio. Both are facing well funded challengers, and Hooley's opponent in particular has launched a fierce attack on her credibility. Plus, after Walden they hold the two "reddest" seats in Oregon. DeFazio's Democratic registration edge is currently fewer than 10,000 voters, and Hooley starts off with a 7,000 voter deficit in the 5th. Having just been back in their districts, and perhaps getting the sense that their more Republican constituents have immigration on the brain, I'm not so sure personal ideology or rational consideration drove the votes here.

As WaPo indicates, the whole process was somewhat of a farce. The bill calls for about 700 miles of double-layer fencing across the southern border; an agreement to study the northern border for fencing there; and the power of Customs agents to apprehend fleeing people as the Coast Guard would--meaning, with force. Each of these elements was part of an omnibus immigration bill that passed the House last year, but failed in the Senate and died without a conference agreement.

Coming back from the Labor Day recess, Republican leadership seemed to telegraph that immigration reform was considered dead for the year because of the gap between the House and Senate versions. But the House leadership decided they might be able to force the Senate to vote on the same bill, only in a la carte fashion. From the WaPo article, it's not at all clear the Senate is going to buy the gambit, which surely everyone in the House understood when they voted. As with nearly all bills you'll see passed in the early fall session of an even-numbered year, any relationship the vote has to an actual problem that the bill might solve is entirely incidental.

So Hooley and DeFazio were doubly freed: they knew their votes would never impact the Act's passage, and there is little to no chance that the Senate will pass the comprehensive reform bit by bit in individual bills. They may say that they were freed to vote not their conscience but their political strategy, since it cost nothing in real terms but may blunt a later attack saying "Darlene Hooley voted against securing our borders" or "Peter DeFazio wants open borders and no fences to stop the onslaught."

But that's what Democratic politics is lacking: any kind of stand that attempts to persuade rather than accomodate. It is NOT wrong to attempt to convince the electorate that your party's ideology, policy and competence are the proper set. What IS wrong is fearing an attack for voting the way you believe, and having so little faith in your own position as to leave you voting a particular way in order to get by within your district. Does Hooley really believe a series of fences is going to stem immigration--especially when half of undocumented aliens arrive legally? God, I hope not--and since there's not actually any funding for the fence, which may run anywhere from $2bil to $7bil to build, they were triply freed to vote No on an empty legislative promise.

One thing that DeFazio may have going for him that Hooley doesn't, is that he voted for the original House bill that was borderline racist in intent. Hooley, however, voted no. As I said, the 2005 bill was comprehensive, so there may have been some kind of poison pill in the larger bill that triggered her 'No.' But last week's bill was lifted almost verbatim from the original, down to the location and length of some of the specific areas for the wall. I waited all day to hear from the Hooley camp as to why she switched her vote, but no matter what they say, there's a strong argument for Nov 7th as the prime motivator for these Yea votes. Boooo.