Congressman returns to find a changed political atmosphere

by Cliff Buchan
ECM Publishers

Give Rick Nolan a couple of cups of hot, black coffee in the morning, and the 69-year-old is ready to roll. That’s how the 8th District’s new congressman from rural Crosby, in the lake country near Brainerd, likes to start his day.

Nolan has compared himself to Rip Van Winkle, the storybook character created by author Washington Irving. Van Winkle is the hen-pecked husband who slips into the Catskill Mountains of New York, falls asleep and awakens 20 years later to find a changed world.

Eighth District Congressman Rick Nolan, DFL, returned to the U.S. House of Representatives after 32 years in domestic and international business and community work. The Eighth District includes 18 counties that run from the top of the state's Duluth'Lake Superior Arrowhead region, through some of the nation's richest mining, timber, lakes and tourist country. (Photo by Howard Lestrud, ECM Publishers)

Eighth District Congressman Rick Nolan, DFL, returned to the U.S. House of Representatives after 32 years in domestic and international business and community work. The Eighth District includes 18 counties that run from the top of the state’s Duluth’Lake Superior Arrowhead region, through some of the nation’s richest mining, timber, lakes and tourist country. (Photo by Howard Lestrud, ECM Publishers)

It is somewhat the same for Nolan, but his story is set in the District of Columbia, not the Catskills. Nolan is a “new” member of Congress, but not really; he is a fourth-term Congressman. Nolan served three terms from the 6th Congressional District in the late 1970s as a Democrat before leaving national politics in 1981.

A year ago he was coaxed out of retirement and returned to Congress with a decisive win over Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack, the upstart who sent DFL veteran Jim Oberstar into retirement in 2010.

After 32 years, Nolan was back in Washington for a stint of public service.

“It’s really changed a lot,” Nolan said on Tuesday, Sept. 24, during a meeting with a panel from the ECM Editorial Board. And money is the root of the change, he said, as fundraising has become almost nonstop for many members.

An estimated $20 million was spent in the 2012 8th District race, and that number could be a reality again next year, Nolan said, calling that level of spending “obscene.” Nolan said he is a proponent of campaign reform laws that would limit spending and the length of time for campaigns.

Right now, he said, experts who run campaigns urge candidates to spend 30 hours a week “dialing for dollars” and another 10 hours a week in “fundraising development.”

Nolan said the time to do his job in Washington is crimped further by the 14-hour round trip to and from Washington and the Brainerd lakes area.

“And you haven’t had lunch yet,” he joked.

Nolan said he has heard the message from the experts in Washington but will draw the line on compromising his time if it takes away from his duties. Nolan said he is obligated for some fundraising efforts and will call supporters when in the district.

“I’m not doing any calling time in Washington,” he said.

Why the escalation in campaign funding? A big reason, he believes, is the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision that tossed out the bans for corporations and unions on making independent expenditures and financing. The ruling gave corporations and unions the green light to spend unlimited sums on ads and other political tools. And many have climbed on the campaign cash wagon, he said, driving up costs significantly.

That has contributed to the hard line in Congress when it comes to compromise and governing, Nolan said. He compared Congress to a huge ship that turns slowly and may be steered in the right or wrong direction.

As Congress heads to a major showdown over the current budget debate and a possible federal government shutdown, Nolan believes common sense will prevail. The quarrel over the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare will soon come to a head, he believes, and will remain law on Oct. 1 when state health exchanges are slated to go live.

Too much time has been wasted, he said, that could have been used on other business.

“It takes a lot of time to try to repeal Obamacare 42 times,” Nolan said, adding that the current Congress has passed a total of only 22 bills.

While Obamacare has been a target for Republicans, there are few complaints over provisions of the law that close the doughnut hole for senior citizens needing prescription drugs, prevent denial of insurance based on pre-existing conditions, eliminate caps on coverage and the ability of parents to keep adult children under their health insurance until age 26.

In Nolan’s view, the push by Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner to risk shutting down the government over eliminating funding for Obamacare borders on “the definition of insanity.” The move is a step to appease the “radical element” of Boehner’s party over fear of losing the speaker’s position, Nolan said.

In the end, Nolan believes a compromise will be reached on the budget prior to Monday’s end of the federal fiscal year. He believes cooler heads will prevail and some budget cuts can be found as part of the compromise. The Senate, be believes, will in no way follow the House’s lead to defund Obamacare.

Another concern is the federal debt ceiling decision that is looming in the weeks ahead. Nolan said he expects President Barack Obama will remain firm on the need to increase the debt ceiling and will not compromise here.

“And I don’t think he should,” Nolan said.

Nolan was in the district earlier this week even though Congress was technically in session but holding no meetings and members were not required to stay. He returned to the Capitol on Wednesday and was awaiting a call to session.

 

Cliff Buchan can be reached at cliff.buchan@ecm-inc.com.

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