By Pamela Pritt
In the three and a half decades Rep. Nick J. Rahall III has been in Congress, he’s seen plenty of changes — his coal-black hair has faded to gray, and his home state has done an about-face in its voting patterns, changing from staunchly Democratic to increasingly Republican.
Although Rahall, D-W.Va., has won re-election every two years without fail, even since the state began supporting Republicans for president, his margins of victory have been decreasing over time. Rahall defeated Republican challenger Rick Snuffer by 30 percentage points in 2004, but in 2012 Snuffer decreased that margin by 22 points, 54 percent of the vote for Rahall to 46 percent for Snuffer.
Next year, his opponent will be Evan Jenkins, a former Republican, who changed his political party to Democratic and was elected to the state Senate, and then switched back to Republican to make a bid for Congress in 2014.
Jenkins’ television advertising, sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has attacked Rahall on his support of the coal industry and links the longtime congressman to a president so unpopular in the state, he did not win a single county when winning re-election in 2012.
Rahall is both offended and unsurprised by the onslaught.
He says Charles and David Koch, libertarian-minded billionaires who believe in free markets, deregulation and the reduction of social services to poor people, are ultimately behind the ads. The Koch brothers help fund campaigns and organizations that are against health care reform and climate change regulation.
Rahall spared no quarter in his analysis of what the Koch brothers’ support actually means.
“They’re a right-wing bunch of whackos that first want to demolish every union in this country,” he said Friday. “They don’t have the interest of West Virginia at heart; they have their own pocketbook at heart.”
And those ads? He’s incensed, to put it mildly.
“Ads that label me as anti-coal are wrong. They’re false. They’re absurd. They’re ridiculous,” he said. “They’re run by these out-of-staters.”
Jenkins has outpaced Rahall in fundraising by $50,000 in the third quarter of 2013, and has narrowed last year’s eight-point gap in the polls to four, although national pundits are still predicting the race will go to Rahall by a small margin.
The congressman says he is confident in the intelligence of the voters in his district to separate the wheat from the chaff.
“(West Virginians) are not going to allow outside special interest groups to come in and use (us) as pawns in their game,” Rahall said. “(West Virginians) are not going to put up with that.”
Rahall is relying on voters in his district to remember his record, which he says clearly shows he’s defended the coal industry and coal miners “every step of the way.”
“I’ve been a leader in the fight for black lung benefits, for health care benefits, and most importantly for their safety,” he noted. And he noted with some satisfaction that the Koch brothers are on record as being against coal mine safety laws.
“Now, come on, West Virginia. Who are these people really for?” he said.
If politics were a football game with coal as the ball, Rahall would be the defensive lineman, because, he said, presidents of both parties have politicized the fossil fuel and maneuvered their own agendas in doing so. But perhaps none so much as Barack Obama.
“They love to tie me to a very unpopular president,” Rahall said, and even joked that some people think “Obama” is his first name. “I’ve disagreed with this president more than I did with George W. Bush.”
And he listed those disagreements: Coal. Gay rights. Abortion. Gun control. Trade pacts. West Virginians hold strong views on all these issues, Rahall says.
“I am the last standing pro-coal Democrat in the House of Representatives,” he said. “It makes no sense to vote out a pro-coal Democrat when you have to work across party lines.”
The task of working across party lines is increasingly difficult as well, he said, with tea party Republicans taking a hard line on every vote that remotely agrees with or supports any portion of Obama’s agenda, particularly the Affordable Care Act.
And that issue is one where Rahall stands with the president, wholeheartedly agreeing that every American has the right to health care.
“I’ve said that in every campaign I’ve ever run, from the beginning. Health care should be a right for every citizen, not a privilege,” he said. “There’s a role for the federal government in delivering affordable, accessible health care.”
Having said that, though, Rahall acknowledges that the ACA is not the perfect solution to the problem, which in itself is not the problem, at least as he sees it.
“In 37 years I have not seen the perfect law pass Congress,” he said. The ACA has to be tweaked, just as Social Security and Medicare had to be tweaked, he said.
Rahall said the legislative process is about “tweaking,” about give and take and what has become a four-letter word in Washington — compromise.
“I believe in the word ‘compromise,’ and I believe that’s how our Constitution was formed,” he said. “Let’s tweak (the ACA). Let’s make it work. Because it’s not going to be repealed, not by this administration, certainly, but not by any future administration, either.”
Rahall said by the time the next president takes office, the “good” will have come out of the ACA, and the American people will like it, because it will work. Rahall has said there is more good than bad in the current law, and he’s happy to outline the good.
Children can stay on their parents’ plans until they are 26; seniors no longer have to pay out-of-pocket when they reach a certain level on their prescription drug benefits; there’s no yearly cap on catastrophic illness coverage, or any coverage; no one can be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition; there’s expanded coverage under Medicare; and there are expedited black lung benefits, Rahall said.
Still, the law needs some adjusting, and Rahall has either introduced or supported amendments to the ACA that he says will help Americans digest its passage, like lengthening the transition process to ease financial burdens on individuals and small business; preventing the IRS from penalizing individuals for not meeting the law’s requirements next year; and, perhaps most importantly, allowing existing health insurance plans to continue into next year, even if customers have received cancellation letters.
“We need to fix the flaws, but unfortunately there’s a determined group in the Congress that wants to block anything that makes the law more workable because they’re afraid it will work,” he said. And Rahall said that points to politicizing an issue for personal gain.
And he lays blame, in part, with the national media.
“Too many in the national news cycle love the polarization, the 24/7 talk shows, both far right and far left,” Rahall said. “It gets their ratings up; it means more money for them.”
And while talking heads on TV whip their viewers into a fervor, representatives in Congress contribute to the spectacle by providing more fodder.
During his “talk-a-thon” that shut down the federal government last fall, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, raised millions of dollars, Rahall said, not only in his own district, but from outside interests, as well.
Cruz and his tea party cohorts may not mind that the government shutdown actually cost $24 billion, but Rahall does, and he said that in spite of the current trend to dismiss the importance of a central government, it does have a role in people’s everyday lives. Issues like health care, transportation and infrastructure as well as defense are essential, he said, and the federal government should carry out the best interests of Americans on those issues.
But the government should not be spying on its citizens, he said. Rahall’s record on that issue goes back to 2001 when he opposed the Patriot Act, which allows the harvest of meta-data from telephone companies. Rahall opposed the Patriot Act’s reauthorization in 2010, as well.
Now that a federal judge has ruled collecting that data is likely unconstitutional, Rahall said it is incumbent on Congress to act ahead of the president, and ahead of the courts.
“Oversight hearings should be conducted,” he said. “I will continue to support efforts that strengthen congressional and judicial oversight for our nation’s intelligence gathering process.” Rahall said he voted for the Amash amendment that narrowly defines collection of data by intelligence agencies that is not related to terrorist activities. “I think it’s a tightrope we have to walk between balancing our constitutional duties and our national security.”
But as for Edward Snowden, the contractor who leaked the fact the National Security Agency was collecting domestic cell phone data, Rahall said he has harmed the country’s national security and its relationships with foreign allies.
Perhaps Rahall should get used to tightropes. He’s certainly walking on one in the next election cycle.
He’s concerned about that on one hand, but on another, he’s concerned about how the state will fare without some seniority in its congressional delegation. Rahall now ranks seventh out of 435 in the House. When he was approached to make a bid for the U.S. Senate to replace Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., that seniority weighed heavily in his decision to stay put, he said.
“Seniority has clout in Congress,” he said. “And anybody who tells you it doesn’t is really drinking the tea.”
Rahall is ranking member on the influential Transportation Committee, and while he acknowledges it’s better to get to be the chair, the “driver,” he’s “shotgun.” Rahall said he got to that point by being able to work with moderate Republicans and reach a workable path to a goal, and he’s used that clout to push for technology, transportation and tourism in southern West Virginia, issues Rahall calls the “three T’s.”
“That’s how you get things done,” he said. He pointed out that the first bill to pass the House after the shutdown came out of the Transportation Committee, and it had an impact on the health of the coal industry. The Water Resources and Development Act helps move coal on navigable rivers, and helps maintain the ports from where the state’s coal is moved abroad. Some of those tea party folks helped move that bill along, and it passed the House 417-3.
Rahall said that clearly points to tea party folks not being so against earmarks they won’t vote for bills that benefit their own districts.
The entire Transportation Act expires in September 2014, and Rahall said it’s “vital.”
“I’m going to have my hands full running a re-election campaign and working on that bill,” he said.
That’s OK. I can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
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