Washington D.C. — From behind the yawning oak door comes the unmistakable buzz of hundreds of tiny blades working in unison, a chorus of miniature metal machinery befitting a vanity counter but incongruous here. It started about a minute ago and — well — there, it just stopped again. The expressions on the faces don’t change. The din of a modern office, four rooms that include a stable for staff, a foyer and two private suites, is pervasive and singular again, a soundscape of phone calls and tapping keyboards with no partitions and all the privacy of a single load-bearing wall.
Seated behind his desk, sharp dark suit and modern one-color tie, having thus sacrificed virtually every moment of the privacy his tidy former life afforded, considering a stack of periodicals with the vigor common to midmornings on Capitol Hill, is U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth. Clean-shaven. The electric razor that formerly lived on the passenger seat of his car now sits on his stately desk, probably eight feet wide by four deep, forested with papers. He sits quietly for the moment, perched near the front of his chair, not utilizing the backrest. That will soon change. Nothing stays still for long in Washington.
To misjudge his opportunity would at this point be difficult for the freshman, sworn in for his first term in the House of Representatives on Jan. 3. Those who overestimate their power often wind up on the hanger: the Bob Neys, the Tom DeLays, the Randy “Duke” Cunninghams. As inscrutable as the ganglion of American government may appear, it is still a place where people forget that thousands of eyes are always watching them. That is a fundamental truth of American government, and it’s why Yarmuth is here.
Last November, the people of Louisville — albeit not overwhelmingly — gave chance to change after a decade of representation by a staunch Republican and career politician who is now running for governor. The polls said they were sick of scandals, sick of the war, sick of hearing lies.
Now, the door to Yarmuth’s Washington office is open and the guest registry is filling up with names. He is here among the statues and monuments, and he seems to grasp the gravity of the work intuitively, just six non-controversial weeks into it. A part of this gig, a large part, is breaking with your personal life. That’s why he doesn’t eat lunch a lot of days, has played golf and worked out exactly once this year. It’s why he shaves at his desk.
The carpet in John Yarmuth’s office is the color of good red wine, which makes the scarcely decorated walls stand out like sourdough bread — even more than walls that stretch some 30 feet to the ceiling normally would. The Congressman, his nom de Washington, has a separate suite within the office, large but not sprawling, modestly decorated with a shiny round table and chairs, two desks, a firm leather couch, and two curio cabinets, one housing some of his prized possessions: a placard signed by President Bill Clinton, a pair of boxing gloves signed by one of his personal heroes, Muhammad Ali. A stack of framed keepsakes — newspaper clippings relaying Yarmuth’s monumental victory, him and all the other freshmen members on the front page of The New York Times — leans against one wall, awaiting proper placement. Louisville artists will soon decorate Yarmuth’s suite with a custom collection.
The tall ceilings confer grandeur to a place that is otherwise blasé, with a handful-and-a-half of oaken desks, printers, computers, bookshelves, cabinets, leather-and-wood chairs and a loveseat, in front of which sits a coffee table prominently displaying that day’s Washington periodicals, a national magazine or two (Time, Newsweek), and recent copies of LEO, which The Congressman founded in 1990. The five-foot Louisville Slugger that was just delivered may eventually help define the feng shui of Yarmuth headquarters, although nobody is concerned much with that right now. It’s readily apparent that freshmen have precious little time for frivolities.
Yarmuth moves comfortably over the cushy carpet, often appearing from nowhere in one of the three prominent doorways: his, the one opposite his that opens into the larger room where much of the staff works, or the adjacent office of his chief of staff, Julie Carr. Dexterous though he has been, the mobility requirement was most surprising to him: This is a profoundly physical job.
The Cannon House Office Building, Yarmuth’s digs, is one in a row of three that house all 435 representatives, scores of committee rooms and an adequate cafeteria. Along with the two Senate office buildings and the Capitol, they are connected by a labyrinthine series of tunnels comically out of character for a suit-and-tie establishment: You’re as likely to bump into Henry Waxman as you are a janitor.
The committee rooms are the scenes of most official Washington action. Yarmuth sits on Oversight and Government Reform, affectionately known as the Waxman Committee after the Los Angeles representative who’s long been known — even as a member of the powerless minority — for persistence on government ethics and dogged pursuit of accountability on matters ranging from the Iraq war to the Bush administration’s politicization of science. Yarmuth’s other assignment is the Education and Labor Committee, where he’ll help rewrite No Child Left Behind this year. Within those, he’s assigned to four subcommittees: Higher Education, Lifelong Learning, and Competitiveness; Healthy Families and Communities (under the Education and Labor Committee); Information Policy, Census, and National Archives; and National Security and International Relations (under OGR).
In these prodigious committee rooms, bills are debated and amended, during sessions called markups. Issues are aired out during hearings, through interviews with oath-taking witnesses like the one three weeks ago in which Waxman, Yarmuth and others questioned L. Paul Bremer, former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, on the $12 billion of American taxpayer cash — literally, dropped into Iraq on tightly-wrapped wooden pallets — currently unaccounted for in the reconstruction.
Yarmuth is a voracious consumer of information, wonkish even, and this carries over well in Congress. During hearings he listens intently; rather than script questions beforehand like some members do, he tends to formulate them based on what’s being said. With 15-hour days the norm, and Yarmuth running around like a maniac much of the time, his almost-religious desire for information is useful: If he is not in a committee hearing he is meeting with a constituent group; if he’s not being lobbied by paid professionals, he’s at a reception for a colleague or an organization desperately trying to find a few ears in Congress.
Within this paradigm many things are impractical. For instance, it is unfeasible to not be accessible at all times. Therefore, Yarmuth’s Blackberry remains fastened securely to his belt, in a black plastic holster often covered by his suit jacket. Lest he fly in the face of quantum mechanics, The Congressman cannot be in more than one place at a time. Thusly, when one committee meeting conflicts with another, like a couple weeks ago when a markup of the Employee Free Choice Act in the Education and Labor Committee happened at the same time as one of his subcommittees held a hearing on the Freedom of Information Act, a staffer will keep tabs on what’s happening in the room where Yarmuth isn’t and drop him a message (or physically retrieve him) when it’s time for a vote or questioning.
That’s not to mention the times Yarmuth is electronically summoned from committee work to meet with constituents who’ve just arrived from “the district.” As a witness testifies about the difficulty government auditors have had retrieving information from the Defense Department pertaining to the reconstruction of Iraq, for instance, Yarmuth dons his reading glasses, balanced near the tip of his nose, spins the Blackberry’s selector wheel with his right thumb, rises quickly from his leather seat and quietly excuses himself to meet a waiting staffer. He’s back in a few minutes.
As for legislation, Yarmuth doesn’t read every word of every bill he’s expected to debate or vote on; you’d be hard-pressed to find a member who does.
The daily inbox of Lillian Pace, Yarmuth’s 26-year-old legislative director and a five-year veteran of the Hill who used to work for Rep. Ben Chandler (D-KY, 6th District), grows by about 100 sheets of paper a day. Those are mostly “Dear Colleague” letters from various Congressional offices about bills other members are introducing, letters going to committee chairs or maybe the White House, or correspondence directed at other government agencies. Pace gets thick briefing books about the major initiatives — the most significant now is No Child Left Behind — and, along with the other seven staffers in the D.C. office, works directly with The Congressman to devise his positions and votes on the bills before him.
It is nothing if not a gradual, deliberate process, and a paradox of American government: When every word must be so carefully considered, each idea given hearing, how can a 535-person deliberative body such as Congress get anything done?
“Last week, I’m trying to remember .the issue we were talking about, it was one of the hearings in Waxman’s committee, and we had — it was the day after Bremer — we had this hearing on government contracting in the reconstruction effort. And the first witness was a panel of four women — remember when the four security guys over there were killed and burned? Well, we had a panel: It was two of their wives and two of their mothers.
were working for a subcontractor, providing security ultimately for KBR, the Halliburton subsidiary, through a series of four subcontracts. It was a compelling panel, and there was some pretty good, solid information that came out of it about contracting and where some of the problems were when you subcontract through four stages, and there’s no accountability, and how it boosts the cost — those four were all being paid, although they never were paid, $600 a day. By the time it got back to the taxpayer, it was over $1,100. That’s what the taxpayer ultimately paid for each of those four employees. So there was good information. One of the Republicans was trying to discredit the women, which was totally insane, you talk about what are you thinking, you just shut your mouth. They got into a dispute over who wrote their testimony, ’cause in fact a lawyer had written their testimony. He was trying to make a big deal about it, like for some reason they weren’t sincere. I don’t know what he was trying to prove. So the coverage of the hearing in Roll Call and The Hill was on this fight about who wrote the testimony and the dispute over — because one of the other members got in an argument with him and there was an intramural hissy-fit between two members of the committee — and that was the story. There was nothing about what they testified to. Again, that’s a perpetual problem.”
Two days after John Yarmuth says this he is again sitting in the front row of the Waxman Committee, under massive portraits of Reps. John Conyers (D-Michigan) and Dan Burton (R-Indiana), both former chairs of this committee, wearing a black suit and the muted-orange tie that was a staple on the campaign trail (it should be noted that Yarmuth also wears patterned ties). This room is vast and consuming; it makes you feel small, which is to some degree the point of a committee like Waxman’s, considered second-tier in Washington until ethics and reform became matters of grave interest, a mainstream sentiment that’s about two months old in Congress and more like two years old among its constituents.
Before the committee today is a threesome of government auditors: U.S. comptroller general David Walker, special inspector general for the Iraq reconstruction Stuart Bowen, and William Reed, director of the Defense Contract Audit Agency. They’re here to answer questions about a new batch of missing taxpayer money. As much as $10 billion is gone to contractors in questioned or unsupported costs. “Fraud has not been a significant component” of the reconstruction, Bowen says, responding to a question from Waxman. Waste is another story.
Roughly $22 billion of $57 billion audited is unaccounted (the war has cost more than $350 billion, so there’s work yet to be done). One of every six dollars the Defense Contract Audit Agency has examined falls into the category about which this hearing has been called, Waxman says. The Department of Defense doesn’t know how many contractors are working on the American dime in Iraq, according to the Government Accountability Office. Some $2.7 billion of the $10 billion being examined today is in contracts with Halliburton, the company formerly run by Vice President Dick Cheney. Nearly $3 billion of U.S. money has been spent on rebuilding electricity infrastructure; as of now, the average Baghdad family has power six hours a day, going on and off in random intervals.
Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, calls up a pair of photos on a flat-screen hanging from the wall: the first, of a decimated swimming pool; and the second, an Olympic-sized lap pool. DynCorp International, a reconstruction contractor, built the first with money from the American till, though the project was never authorized. The construction was so inferior that it soon collapsed and was rebuilt, again without authorization. The pool is one among several egregious examples of such waste.
The strength of opposition forces in Iraq is one of the utmost problems contributing to such rampant waste, Walker testifies. American contractors did not expect to be working in a white-hot war zone. As well, there are no consequences for shabby contracting, he tells the committee.
Yarmuth’s five-minute slot arrives. His right hand lightly grazing the top of his jawbone, he shifts his eyes to Walker, asking him what kind of cooperation other government agencies have offered the auditors. The question gets a rise out of Walker, and his frustration spews over his lips like a volcano. The State Department has been so slow in acting on information requests as to obstruct, he says. Auditors aren’t authorized to spend enough time on the ground, he says, and the short intervals are throwing wrenches in the machinery of accounting. The bureaucracy is far too thick for the business of accountability.
Such a sentiment, expressed so publicly by a government auditor no less, suggests the mountain of work before the Waxman Committee and the 110th Congress in general, which has (by way of the majority party) pledged to focus more effort on oversight than any in recent memory. If you want proof, know this: By the time the House voted on the nonbinding resolution to oppose President Bush’s troop surge on Feb. 16, the last day of its sixth week in session, this Congress had held 71 hearings on Iraq. The last held 12. Total.
“It’s been significantly more enjoyable than I anticipated it would be. It’s been exciting. I didn’t really expect to be giving floor speeches the first few weeks I was in Congress. I didn’t expect to be asking questions in committee hearings. I really thought we were going to have to bide our time as freshmen. That hasn’t been the case at all. The leadership has actually pushed us out. They want us to be visible. Their position is, we put them in the majority, they want to make sure they do everything possible to help us succeed so that we’ll be reelected, so that we’ll stay in the majority. They’ve done that, and that’s made it a lot of fun.
“I guess after a month, it seems as though virtually everything I’ve done in my life, other than the golf, has prepared me for this job. Having worked in the Senate 35 years ago, as a journalist writing about so many topics and studying so many different things and obviously debating, working at the university
, working in health care. So when I hear about — we had a hearing last week on fraud and abuse in pharmaceutical pricing, and they were talking about, yeah, the prices are high but drug companies do a lot of important research and so forth. Because of both my time at U of L and my involvement with my brother’s company
, I understood how research is done and that most of it’s funded by taxpayer dollars, initially, most of the basic research. Time after time, I run into situations in which my experience just seems to make
really easy to do.”
The easy part came and went fast. That is to say, most things in Congress are slow. Traumatically slow. But the Democrats’ “100 Hours Agenda” advanced past the House after something like 30 hours of debate, hyper-speed for issues that seemed so ominous during the campaign, when Republican candidates portrayed a minimum-wage hike as a step away from funding a terrorist insurgency of pissed-off, purebred American suckfish. No, the Democrats — God bless ’em — jumped in there and did something, seven things, that spoke directly to the reasons they were elected: raising the minimum wage, repealing billion-dollar tax breaks gifted to oil companies by the administration and overlooked by Congress, funding more stem cell research, enacting the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, giving Medicare bargaining power over pharmaceutical companies to negotiate prices under Part D, cutting interest rates on student loans in half, and quickly (and symbolically, really) increasing government transparency to make it look like the “culture of corruption” is waning. It was a paragon of execution a la the ’88 Lakers, a deft jackhammering of the conflicted Republican bullshit now being exacted on some of the bills by the Senate, where the blue majority barely exists. The Senate might gut or kill the bills; the White House could veto certain ones. Nonetheless, with a favorable change in the White House next year, anything shot down this year may soon get another chance.
For a second there, though, the People and the Politicians were just about on the same page.
That was the zeitgeist at Yarmuth’s Jan. 27 rally, his first official Louisville affair since the swearing-in. The Congressman, who co-sponsored all the “100 Hours Agenda” bills, invoked Winston Churchill for the occasion, calling the passage of the package “the end of the beginning” for the new majority. Around 100 people came to the IBEW Union Hall on Preston before noon that Saturday to whoop and holler with Louisville’s drip of the New Blood; the place was so contaminated with optimism you’d have easily forgotten that Jan. 20, 2009 is still 691 days away. Nevertheless, good things tend to happen when people involve themselves in their government, and the responsiveness of the Democrats had opened a panorama of hope soon to be cracked by the words “nonbinding” and “resolution.”
This is the House floor, the place that looks so ceremonious and colossal on CSPAN, nearly empty late on a Thursday afternoon. The words of an historic debate bounce off the vacant seats; it’s like the lineup of a major league baseball team cycling through batting practice, each representative offering thoughts on H.R. 63, the 97-word nonbinding resolution Democrats have mustered as their counter to the president’s plan for escalating the Iraq war. Nothing is unexpected, except perhaps when Rep. Don Young, a Republican from Alaska (he of “bridge to nowhere” fame), butchers an Abraham Lincoln quote and says, “Congressmen who willfully take actions during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs and should be arrested, exiled or hanged.” There are representatives on deck, seated in the front rows. The speakers go Democrat-Republican-Democrat-Republican.
Yarmuth steps to the podium, thanks the presiding speaker, and embraces an opportunity he’s been anticipating: The chance to speak his piece on the Iraq war before, well, an empty House. The floor speeches — Yarmuth has given a couple handfuls, more than freshmen typically do, which is true of most of this freshmen class — are largely exercises in pleasing the constituency: They can watch you on CSPAN. Your words become part of the permanent Congressional record. It’s no surprise that nobody’s here — the slog of governing occurs elsewhere. It’s just kind of off-putting, from a constituent point of view.
“We who support this resolution honor and respect our troops, we care deeply about the international reputation of our country, we are unequivocally committed to our nation’s security, and we always want America to succeed,” Yarmuth says. “By supporting this resolution we undeniably succeed, because we honor our nation and its citizens, who have entrusted us with the simple but grave responsibility to listen to them.”
Much has been said about Democrats’ attempt to provide a single voice of opposition to President Bush’s planned deployment of 21,500 additional troops to Iraq. It passed the House 246-182, with 13 Republicans voting for it along with every Democrat. The Senate ultimately blocked the resolution that weekend.
“It was legislation that neatly solved the political problems of the Democratic leadership by declaring principles while scrupulously avoiding the actions those principles seemingly require,” wrote U.S. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican, last weekend in an op-ed for The Signal, a paper in his district. Though McKeon went on to spew the standard Republican hypocrisy over the resolution — from one side of his mouth calling it feckless and without teeth, from the other saying it is so powerful as to damage troop morale, harm the mission, separate the soldiers from their elected representatives and embolden the enemy — he touched on a major problem for the Democrats when it comes to Iraq: unity.
Although widespread opposition to the war is largely credited as the driving force for the Democratic takeover in November, many are reluctant to take a real stand on Iraq. “We had a session two weeks ago — we meet with Nancy
, the freshmen do, every Wednesday — and this conversation, that exact conversation
. I said, in my district it’s not a political risk. I’m prepared to vote for the strongest measure I can vote for to get us out, and I don’t think it’s risky at all. All I get when I’m home is ‘get us out.’ And other members have said the same thing, that the people are way ahead of the politicians on this. I believe that’s true. There are others who say, particularly in the Democratic Party, who say, ‘This is Bush’s war, and we can express our disapproval, but that’s all we should do, because we don’t have an obligation to come up with a plan.’”
Yarmuth, who’s criticized the war since Bush started suggesting it five years ago, is co-sponsoring a bill introduced by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pennsylvania, to redeploy troops outside Iraq and pursue security there through a diplomatic approach.
“I’d probably say I’m feeling my way and evolving as a representative.
two different roles and they’re played in very different ways. The one role is you’re part of a collective body, you’re part of a big organism. When I’m questioning Paul Bremer, it’s not an individual-type thing. In that particular thing, I’m part of a team that is trying to assemble a record as to what went wrong, document this so that we can try to correct or prevent those types of things from happening again. When I cast a vote on the floor, I really don’t think of it as much as an individual vote as part of this organism.
“Then there’s the other part, which is I’ve got people at home that I directly represent, and my responsibility is to do something directly for them. That is an individual responsibility. So you have a collective responsibility and function, and then the individual one. That sometimes, although I haven’t had to do it yet, that sometimes is going to involve fighting against, potentially, 434 people who — not fighting against, but fighting for something where 434 people have no interest in it, in helping you, and they’re all fighting for their own constituencies too.”
There is a healthy flow of letters into both of Yarmuth’s offices, D.C. and Louisville. Some thank him for legislation, like increasing the minimum wage, which was a campaign promise made good. Many concern the war, and most compel Yarmuth to do whatever he can to get us out. A host of other issues — the downtown arena, the solvency of Social Security and Medicare, immigration policy, student loan interest rates, government ethics, energy policy, protecting the environment — seep in as well.
“We get a good mix of both, sort of form letters that people who are in organizations send in about minimum wage, about the budget for the national forests, which is a big thing right now,” Elizabeth Sawyer, staff assistant in the D.C. office, said. A gregarious 25-year-old with black-coffee hair and eyes the shape of streetlights, Sawyer is a Louisville native who’s lived in D.C. for two years. “Then we get a lot of individual letters,” she said, and telephone calls as well. Most are positive; naturally, there is the occasional bitter writer/caller who thinks Yarmuth is the worst thing to happen to Louisville since William Cowger lost the seat to Romano Mazzoli in 1970.
There is no signature Louisville issue in a national sense, the way many western cities have immigration or New York City has, among others, homeland security. Louisville is more a microcosm of what’s happening nationwide, Lillian Pace, Yarmuth’s legislative director, said. On the trail, he heard complaints about the cost of health insurance, gas prices, heating bills — the economic inequity fostered largely by consecutive years of tax breaks for the wealthy, a low minimum wage, skyrocketing health insurance costs, eroding workers’ rights, and so forth. As for Congressional responsiveness to such issues, the Education and Labor Committee just moved the Employee Free Choice Act — expanding rights to unionize — to the full House a couple weeks ago.
Much of what The Congressman will do over the next two years is behind the scenes, helping redraft some big laws: No Child Left Behind, the Higher Education Act, the Workforce Investment Act and the Head Start program. As a freshman, he is unlikely to push any major legislation; thus far, he has sponsored a resolution honoring the U of L football team for winning the Orange Bowl and the decidedly more critical Student Loan Sunshine Act, which would reign in high-interest lending at universities, something U of L president James Ramsey has pushed for recently. With three four-year universities and a host of other colleges in his district, higher education is obviously a big issue for Yarmuth.
“Given John’s dedication to education and working families, I am proud that he has joined the committee,” Rep. George Miller, D-California, chair of the Education and Labor Committee, said. “We have a lot of work to do this year, and it’s obvious to me that John is ready and eager to work hard.”
Rep. Ben Chandler showed Yarmuth the Congressional ropes when he first moved to Washington (Yarmuth now shares a pad with son Aaron, who’s interning for the Science and Technology Committee). Chandler said Yarmuth has quickly proved he’s a natural for the job.
Though he hasn’t had occasion to work much with the Republican members of the Kentucky delegation, Yarmuth and Rep. Geoff Davis are collaborating on an energy bill relating to coal liquification. Davis’ communications director said the two get along well, despite disagreeing on many issues.
The line curled through the door and down the hallway, 50 feet or so, breaking just before the bank of elevators on the second floor of the Mazzoli Federal Building in Louisville. Hundreds of people waited, chatting idly, a general mash of poli-talk. Inside, Yarmuth was finishing his first district workweek with a two-hour open house, smiling and shaking hands and answering questions. This office, formerly Anne Northup’s, hasn’t been opened up like this in more than a decade, a Yarmuth staffer said.
A week earlier, sitting in his D.C. office, Yarmuth said one of the best parts of the job is being in a position to do something for people who need help. Here, the doors stay open well past quitting time.
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