Flynn's Harp: Polarized Congress concerns lobbyist (12-1-10)
Posted on 12/2/2010 by Mike Flynn
In Denny Miller’s more than 30 years as a behind-the-scenes mover in Washington, D.C., first as chief of staff one of the most powerful U.S. Senators then as head of his own respected lobbying firm, he has seen the best and worst of what politics in the Halls of Congress can achieve or thwart.
But he’s concerned about an emerging trend he sees pervading deliberations in Congress in which “it’s becoming exceedingly difficult to create things but easy to kill things.” He blames that on increasing polarization in both houses.
“Part of my concern is that the political center is vanishing, but the political center is where America stands,” Miller suggested. “Americans are not at polar extremes. So in a sense both parties might be viewed as broken right now.”
Miller, who created the government relations consulting firm Denny Miller Associates in 1984 after the December, 1983, death of his boss, Sen. Henry M. Jackson, offered his observations about the current political scene in a telephone interview just prior to the return of lawmakers for their lame-duck session. Uncertainty, even more than during the regular session, will be Congress’ watchword.
“Currently there’s massive uncertainty, and I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel,” conceded Miller, whose tenure in his backstage role in the nation’s Capitol extends back to the mid-1970s when he assumed the Jackson chief-of-staff role. His “uncertainty” comment was meant to apply more broadly than just the lame-duck session.
Asked about the ideological divide that seems to characterize congressional activities, Miller replied: “The sad thing is that members of Congress no longer know each other. If people don’t spend time with one another except for purely business matters, then they don’t know each other so there’s no trust built up”
Miller has been around long enough to have seen how Congress can work when its members know each other as friends, rather than merely as foes.
One that worked was the partnership between Hawaii’s Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye and Alaska’s late Republican Sen. Ted Stevens. “They represented the best team in the U.S. Senate,” as each looked out for the interests of the other in a way that transcended politics. Each was committed to ensuring that no matter which party was in power in the Senate, the interests of both their states were protected.
Miller recalled that Dan Evans, a Republican three-term governor who won Jackson’s seat after his death, “sought to create a family atmosphere in the Senate,” including proposing more time off for family.“
Former Sen. Slade Gorton, who served as senator for three years alongside Jackson after defeating legendary Sen. Warren G. Magnuson in 1980 until Jackson’s death, then alongside Evans for three years, noted that Senate recesses became frequent enough to approximate Evans’ proposal for more family time. “Unfortunately most of that time was and is spent campaigning,” Gorton added.
I asked Gorton in an e-mail about the issue of lawmakers no longer having close relations with each other across party lines and he replied: “the load of issues and outside pressures are so great as to reduce relaxed time together, even within one’s own party, to a minimum.”
“I know of no cure for this condition in so complicated a society,” Gorton added.
Miller, explaining his comment about the vanishing political center, offered the candid observation that Democrats in the House have a contingent that’s far to the left of center while Republicans in both House and Senate have contingents far to the right of center.
That, of course, has been made more challenging with the 2010 election defeat of many moderate “Blue Dog” House Democrats and election of many “Tea Party” conservative Republicans.
Miller came to the Capitol in the late ‘60s as a young man to join the staff of what became the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He specialized in energy policy and environmental, Indian and youth employment issues. Jackson chaired that committee and developed a regard for Miller, eventually bringing him aboard his own staff to run the Senator’s West Coast operations.
That made Miller part of what was regarded then, and since, as one of the most effective teams in the history of the U.S. Senate as Jackson teamed with Warren G. Magnuson, becoming known in the Capitol as “the gold dust twins” because of their accomplishments.
Miller recalls that both Jackson and Magnuson worked to achieve their goals through bipartisan initiatives and cross-aisle coalitions.
“People know that I’m a ‘Scoop Jackson Democrat’ and that’s still admired in this city,” Miller said. “He was known for accomplishing great things in Congress and he did it through coalitions and bipartisan effort. That’s a formula that’s understood in Washington, but not practiced now.”
The term has been used, even years after Jackson’s death, to describe Democrats who supported a strong international presence for the United States, a philosophy that brought Jackson criticism for his support of the Vietnam War. But he authored the National Environmental Policy Act and had one of the strongest records on civil rights of any senator.
Miller, whose first client after he opened his firm was The Boeing Co., which remains Denny Miller Associates’ largest client, acknowledges that the challenges facing a lobbying firm in the current congressional environment “make it more difficult to perform for our clients. It’s not as easy to bring substantive changes through Congress as it has been in the past.”
About 40 percent of the Miller’s clients are Washington State companies, but the firm also represents AT&T and American Airlines among a clientele that is primarily corporate, non-profit and government entities.
When I asked Miller about the current image of lobbyists, he replied: “There are bad eggs in any business. But the legal system obviously worked, since those who broke the law went to jail.”
“Lobbyists aren’t liked. Members of Congress aren’t liked. People in the media aren’t liked. So we find ourselves among a very nice group of people,” he said.