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House Rules: A Freshman Congressman's Initiation to the Backslapping, Backpeddling, and Backstabbing Ways of Washington.

Why even the best congressmen sell out to stay in

Arriving at the Speaker's throne in January 1989 for his swearing-in, Nebraska Rep. Peter Hoagland was something of an ornament to the political process. At 47, tall and rangy with wavy black hair, he had the kind of smooth good looks that deflect resentment by virtue of one homey defect, extruding ears. Scion of a family prominent in Omaha for five generations and heir to a tradition of "giving something back," he had half a lifetime of conscientiousness behind him-honor graduate of Stanford, a Vietnam-era hitch in the Army, captain of his moot court team at Yale Law School, and years amid the legal nitty-gritty as a public defender. Along the way, he defected from his parents' Republicanism when he saw in John F. Kennedy's administration "a disinterested quest for intellectual truth."

Returning to Omaha in his mid-thirties, Hoagland built a $250,000-a-year personal injury law practice, spearheaded a "sunshine laws" ballot initiative that paved the way for a tough new ethics law in the legislature, served on the national board of Common Cause, and won election to Nebraska's unicameral legislature, where he earned a reputation as a reformer and a man of "candor and directness."

Even upon his ascent to Congress, he refused to accede to the self-inflation of his new position. Forbearing to use his staff as chauffeur and valet, he commuted to Capitol Hill from the suburbs each day via bus and subway, seeming always to wear the same baggy blue suit. He resisted the pomp, indulged in by most members, of stationing flags of nation and state on either side of his office door, and he declined to wear the gold eagle lapel pin that heralded him as a congressman. Soft-spoken in private as well as in public, he never exploited the power or the tensions of office to abuse underlings. It is a sworn fact that his chosen expletive was "gee whiz." Through years of the forced conviviality of politics, Peter Hoagland had hung onto a remnant of personal dignity; he shrank from the back slapping that is a congressional rite and had been seen to wince when back-home hacks or labor union allies called him "Pete."

He would seem, then, to have posed a considerable challenge to the assimilative powers of Congress. But it is the message of this new book* that he, like others before him, did not. The twin facts that cripple congressmen's ability to serve the public interest-fear of losing office, and the institutional tentacles Congress throws out to banish that fear-immediately began to close in on him. Robert Cwiklik, without losing faith in Hoagland, traces that encirclement with remarkable fair-mindedness and insight.

Hoagland was in sync with one basic truth about Congress long before he got there: Party or platform wasn't the thing, incumbency was. The central circumstance making his congressional career possible was the existence in 1988 of an "open seat"-i.e., the incumbent was not running for reelection. He knew, as only a long-repressed office seeker could, that the incumbent's advantages-name recognition, campaign money, staff organization, the support of special interests, and credit from thousands of constituents for helping with federal services-had effectively removed that seat from the democratic process. Eight years he had waited for the seat to open and now that he had it, he intended to close it off for at least another decade. His predecessor had locked up the seat as a Republican; he could do so even more easily as a majority Democrat-if only he had the time to learn how to exploit those advantages and get them in place.

Not to worry. Congress laid them all out upon his arrival, as if in a display case.

One night early on, Hoagland, a newly minted member of the House Banking Committee, responded to an invitation to a fundraiser for a colleague, Rep. Tom McMillen, and the scales fell from his eyes. It has long been illegal to use a congressman's office suite for soliciting contributions. That's why the Democratic Club is just around the comer from the Capitol. A banquet room was filled with two types-lobbyists, wearing lapel stickers that identified their employers and bearing checks of up to $2,000 ($85,000 would be netted); and fellow congressmen, who helped draw the lobbyists and who were circulating among them, laying the foundations for their own fetes. Other such banquet rooms adjoined-Hoagland learned that some of his colleagues attended two or three fundraisers in an evening. And just around the comer from the Democratic Club was yet another ethics-free zone where hustling money from special interests was de rigueur-a building that housed both the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), equipped with boxy little offices just right for congressmen, one at a time, to work the phones, using time-proven lists to seduce PACs around the nation.

From that night on, Hoagland became a regular, not only raising money for his next campaign but also earning back the $293,000 he had lent his last one, which, under House rules, was legal. Quickly he mastered the time-saving pragmatics, not bothering with any PAC "whose legislative interests don't coincide with any of the committees I'm on." So adept was the neophyte that a secretary at the DCCC said Hoagland should get the "telephoner of the year" award. Says Cwiklik, "The process is quite routine -like ordering towels from a catalog. On a typical call to a PAC run by Massachusetts bankers, Hoagland was put through to the secretary in charge of solicitations. Would one of their lobbyists be at his upcoming fundraiser? The secretary asked the congressman to fax an invitation, then said, Could you spell your name for me?"' Dignity had become a disposable encumbrance.

Cadging away day after day, the unknown Hoagland would collect 800,000 during the term-serviceably intimidating for a district in frugal Nebraska.

Pen pals

Efficient fundraising was only one arrow in the incumbent's quiver. Another was proper partisan use of his government payroll-$431,760 for staff salaries. "Exactly none was spent on hiring people with Washington policy or legislative expertise," reports Cwiklik. The key positions went to campaign organizers and media flacks who could channel the taxpayers' largesse and the Congress's "free media" into a steady stream of favorable publicity that no lurking opponent could hope to match. The rest went largely to case workers and secretarial support.

Henceforth, every month or two, on the pretext of holding a series of "town meetings" in the district that would draw maybe 20 souls each, the "media team" would mail out blizzards of invitation cards, tens of thousands of them, each bearing Hoagland's name and picture, showing that he was accessible and on the job. Every week, people in his district would get "personal," computer-generated letters with his machine-generated signature, "targeted mail" -elaborating positions with which the computer knew the recipient agreed. In one weekend alone, 165,000 letters were dispatched.

Every day, someone in his district-veteran, pensioner, student, small businessman, whose name and problem Hoagland did not know-would bless the congressman because his staff had influenced a federal bureaucrat to move the constituent's file from the bottom of a pile to the top; happily, all those who were hurt by this, those whose files had moved down a notch, would never know they had been screwed by a congressman. And every hour Hoagland's media team would be massaging some cog in the Nebraska press to ensure that the publicity the office propagated made it smoothly to the first edition. Cwiklik observes that the state's press delegation in Washington, like many others, more or less just took what they were given" by the many congressional offices they covered with too few hands. Sixty percent of Hoagland's coverage in the district originated from his own flacks and his own "reaction quotes" to the issues of the day. When it was decided back home that the S&L legislation, Hoagland's main concern his first year, was "too complicated" for Nebraska's press delegation to cover, the media became dependent on Hoagland's staff for its coverage of his role.

After two years, Hoagland's office could recall only one unfavorable story that had appeared in the Nebraska media, and that one originated with a national paper. The staff waited and waited for someone to ask where Hoagland had gotten the $293,000 of his own money that he had lent to his election campaign, but years passed and no one ever did.

Rep school

When Hoagland first left Omaha for Capitol Hill, he promised "to continue to tell the hard truth" and proclaimed that his election was a "mandate" to tackle tough problems. But two weeks of breathing the defensive air of Congress withered his boldness. His watchword to staffers became "only 654 days until the next election." Sure, he was still against the B-2 bomber-"the biggest waste of money he'd ever seen"-but now he mused that to oppose it was impolitic and that it might take three or four terms before he was strong enough to confront the dragon. His private reaction to the Supreme Court decision throwing out anti-flag burning laws was supportive"You shouldn't go to jail for burning a piece of cloth"but in an interview with an Omaha TV station he called the decision unfortunate," voted for a House resolution expressing "profound concern" over the court's ruling, and showed up on the Hill with an American flag pin on his once-austere lapel. In his speeches back home, notes Cwiklik, gone was the talk of mandates' to raise taxes or to cut someone's favorite program" in order to meet the deficit crisis head-on.

Before long, his conversations-and his votes-reflected the standard congressional duplicities: Sometimes," he would note, "you have to fall on your sword" (i.e., vote for a bad bill in order to please special interests while hoping piously that the bill will be defeated or vetoed). "The safest thing to do is vote against a bill that passes or vote for a bill that fails"-as when Hoagland voted against the bill to raise congressional salaries and then privately rejoiced when it passed overwhelmingly.

The sense of personal dignity that had set Hoagland apart, the rejection of the pushier forms of self-aggrandizement, did not long survive. During the congressman's weekend speechifying in Nebraska, his staff began to hear mysterious mention of "my war on drugs"; when asked for elaborations, the staff couldn't find a single drug bill introduced or even cosponsored by Hoagland but finally dug up two defense appropriations bills he had voted for that had some relationship to combatting drug use." Invited to visit Boys Town's Flanagan High School, established in an Omaha slum, Hoagland pressed to be allowed to bring TV cameras and the media and perhaps "announce some phase of my war on drugs." Boys Town respectfully declined. Explains Cwiklik: "They didn't want their children exploited."

Meanwhile, Hoagland had been making stabs at locker-room bonhomie. A staffer noticed that when Rep. Paul Kanjorski applied the blather to Hoagland about how proud the seniors were of him and clapped him on the back energetically, "Hoagland slapped Kanjorski's back in return, but hesitantly, as if he were swatting a spider."


The trying thing about raising money is the lobbyists that come with it. They not only filled Hoagland's waiting room and his appointment book, but the overflow was such that he had to schedule walking sessions": Lobbyists would wait their turn for the buzzer that called him over to the Capitol to vote and would walk along with him, making their pitch, with a relief detail penciled in for the walk back. The staff often referred to lobbyists as slime,' as in 'there's slime waiting to see you. "'

Lobbying rose to fever pitch at the committee mark-up sessions, where laws are actually written, line by line. For a critical meeting, lobbyists would hire bike messengers at $10 to $30 an hour to "stand in" for them from early dawn, sometimes all night, in a line that ran around the comer. Just before the proceedings opened, the limos would pull up and hordes of well-heeled lobbyists would disembark and take the places of their stand-ins. "I've never seen the public in here," lamented the staff chief of the Banking Committee.

At the S&L bill mark-up, the lobbyists kept score cards, provided by the committee itself, on each member. They sent up questions for their tigers to raise, submitted statements for members to make espousing amendments the lobbyists had written. The committee room "looked more like a cattle auction," Cwiklik writes. "Lobbyists not only packed Rayburn 2128, they were six deep in hallways outside. When members and staff dared to step out of the hearing room, they were hailed, pawed at, grabbed by the arm, and otherwise implored to sponsor amendments.

"A lot of lobbyists had approached Hoagland this way, and he was tempted to offer more of their amendments. Nancy [a Hoagland aide] said that a couple of times she had to stop Hoagland from offering their amendments."

Nancy was not always around, however. Cwiklik describes how Hoagland labored torturously to get through an amendment exempting Omaha business kingpin Mike Yanney from the S&L bill's requirement that two or more financial institutions that were "commonly controlled" would be liable for one another's losses. There was a rationale for this amendment; there always is. But it was tainted by two considerations: 1) It was aimed at rescuing one wealthy constituent and his set-up from a universal law; and 2) during the previous election campaign Hoagland had asked Yanney for a contribution. He had been turned down, but when he won, Yanney's PAC came through with $5,000; the businessman later sent a lobbyist to Hoagland to obtain his sponsorship of the amendment. During the term, Yanney-related contributions would reach $11,400, but more important was Yanney's value as a conduit to those reaches of the Omaha business community previously uncharmed by Hoagland.

Hoagland kept the Yanney matter secret from his staffers until it was well in the works. When they found out, they were dismayed. "It smelled like a rotten fish," said press chief Gary Caruso. Hoagland's chief of staff, Jim Crounse, tried to get him to abandon the amendment and estimated that if there was to be a flap over this, it would cost $50,000 from the advertising budget to neutralize it. (Such is the educated cynicism of campaign managers today that they can give snap quantifications of the future cost of squelching a particular type of scandal.)

But Hoagland was adamant. When the Yanney amendment was sidetracked because of its "special interest" taint and only the conference chairman could revive it, Hoagland sank to the last resort, begging on a personal basis. He scribbled a note that revealed just how much the matter meant to him: "Chairman Gonzalez, I really need this amendment. I won my race by only 3,000 votes."

The chairman relented. The amendment became law.

In May 1990, when Hoagland's campaign chest and poll ratings reflected the huge bulge of incumbency, he quietly returned Yanney's $11,400, "to inoculate himself," says Cwiklik, "from anticipated charges of serving special interests on the S&L bill." In November 1990 Hoagland won reelection with a smashing 58 percent of the vote, a giant step toward a permanent lock on the second congressional district of Nebraska.

There is an undeniable unfairness in tracing falls from grace.; it tends to obscure all the times when grace won out-for instance, when Hoagland supported tough S&L regulations and fathered some constructive provisions to strengthen them, and when he stood by his civil liberties lights in opposing random drug testing and voting against the flag-burning amendment.

But the question still lingers: Do the temptations of continuously running for office, inflamed by the climate of a Congress that values self-preservation above all, make a promising member a better public servant? On this reading, the nays have it.
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Author:Boyd, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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