Despite a roller coaster two years, Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho) says being in the 111th Congress was a better experience than the last time he worked in Washington, serving in President Nixon's Watergate-besieged White House.
Minnick spent two-and-a-half years at the White House working on a project that led to the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency. The one-term lawmaker is set to leave Congress in a few days after being defeated by Republican Raul Labrador.
Though serving in the 111th Congress was better, that is not to say Minnick does not draw parallels between Watergate and this Democratic Congress, especially when it comes to energy and environmental policy.
"Very little went well in energy and the environment," the 68-year-old representative said in an interview last week. "That was an area where we had a particularly tin ear and where the solution to the biggest issue -- global warming -- proposed by the party ... got transformed by its opposition from cap and trade to cap and tax and became politically toxic almost every place in the country."
Minnick calls the political misjudgments that led to House passage of the "American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009" and the inability to then message the bill or have a fallback position "equally disastrous" to the way the Nixon administration tried to message Watergate.
The process, Minnick said, was an "absolute total failure."
The way the former timber company CEO sees it, the bill actually sent the country's energy policy backward.
"Not only did we fail to move the ball forward, the global commitment to doing something about what is the greatest ecological threat to humanity since the emergence of civilization is simply dissolved," Minnick said. "How can you have a more catastrophic failure than that?"
"It was a failure of Democratic leadership," Minnick continued.
In part that was due to the fact that the solution was so partisan and that there was no buy-in from the Republicans, he said.
Minnick faults Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for running the House in a top-down style similar to that of one of her predecessors, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). He noted that each party suffers the same problem of being too partisan when in power, which causes distress among the electorate. That leads to a change in control that prompts the other party that has just taken control to adopt the same shortsighted attitude.
"The lesson has been, 'now it is our turn' and that is how I fault our leadership," Minnick said.
And he sees the midterm election results as only adding to that problem.
"My centrist friends are either gone or totally intimidated if they are Republicans," he said. "One of the reasons that I'm not upset about not being here is I think it is going to be a very depressing and frustrating place to serve for a centrist."
"The best ideas to major problems whether they be global warming or this deficit issue or other big, big issues are ones that come from the center and they include elements and ideas from both parties," he continued.
Currently, Minnick said, Congress doesn't reward that sentiment.
Minnick was the first Democrat elected to Congress from the Gem State since 1994. That win allowed him great latitude with Democratic Party leaders, who he said never pressured him for a vote.
He carries the distinction of being the Democrat who voted least often with party leadership on contested votes.
"I've disagreed with some of the judgments, but our leadership was totally professional," he said, giving credit to Pelosi.
The congressman recounted meeting with Pelosi along with five other colleagues in the speaker's office the day before the vote on the Waxman-Markey climate bill. At the end of 45 minutes, she asked each if they had changed their vote and he recalled, "She came to me and I said, 'Nancy, I'm sorry I can't help you. I don't believe cap and trade is the way to approach this problem.' She said, 'I'm sorry' and went to the next person."
However, partisanship was not why Minnick voted against the bill. "I voted against cap and trade because I concluded it was not a viable solution in the form it was presented."
Instead, Minnick said an energy tax would have been far more palatable to industry because that would not have added yet another "hurdle to our competing with our biggest export competitor. That was a flaw in the solution."
Additionally, Minnick said the bill was overly complex and would have added new burdens to government and business alike.
Minnick confesses to having had a hard time adapting to being a freshman representative in the people's House after 21 years in business, 15 of those years as the CEO.
"There isn't any freshman member of Congress that is remotely in charge of very much," he said.
When Minnick left Washington in 1973, he left the Republican Party. This time he has no plans to switch sides.
"What I've concluded is I'm not much in favor of either party," he said. "The American political parties right now are captured by their fringe elements. They drive the nominating process. The extreme solutions in the Democratic Party to major issues are every bit as silly as the extremist tea party solutions are on the Republican side."
The best solutions come from the political center, Minnick said. He saw that in Idaho, where he moved after leaving the White House.
He spent 21 years at TJ International, a pioneering engineered lumber company, where sales grew from $35 million to $700 million annually over the course of his employment. And during that time, Minnick found himself frequently on the outs with his industry as he testified about the importance of environmental stewardship.
Now, he said "the timber wars are over in a very constructive way but I was there in the middle of them and I would come back and testify in Congress in favor of setting aside big parts of Idaho as wilderness and come back to my office and find some of my suppliers so upset with my testimony that they would want to boycott my company's products or not sell to us," he said.
"It led me to believe that being a centrist is the right place to be on most issues and that was one of them. Because the best solution for both the environment and for jobs was in the middle and it was not the extreme environmental fringe elements or the 'take no prisoners' industrial development elements. The solutions were in the middle and the industry learned that and so did the environmental community substantially. It is sort of a microcosm of what needs to happen on federal energy policy."
Legally there is no comparison between the 111th Congress and Watergate.
"I've had a colleague who's been censured and another one who just spoke but nobody's going to jail during the time I've been here," Minnick said. "At the White House, my office mates, boss and boss's boss all went to jail over Watergate."
Hired by John Ehrlichman, the counsel and assistant to the president for domestic affairs, Minnick worked directly for Egil "Bud" Krogh, the president's liaison to the FBI and the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. And his first office was Room 16 in the basement of the Old Executive Office Building, which he shared with the "plumbers' unit": Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy and David Young.
Minnick resigned from the White House after the "Saturday Night Massacre" in October 1973, when special prosecutor Archibald Cox was fired. Nixon that Saturday accepted the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson, who Minnick was set to brief the following Monday on Mexican heroin production; and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus.
Of his Watergate years, he said, "it clearly seemed like working on the deck of the Titanic as it was slowly taking on water."
The native of Walla Walla, Wash., penned his resignation notice, left the practice of law and moved to Boise so he could have easy access to fly fishing and skiing.
This time he is not turning his back on Washington.
Minnick has no plans to run for re-election but he is keeping his Washington apartment -- and keeping his options open.
"While the Democrats lost an election, the ship isn't going to sink," he said.
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