Rep. Rick Nolan's vision for a mining research center may seem politically infeasible: It would cost $250 million annually to operate at a time when Congress is obsessed with cutting spending.
But the Minnesota Democrat has more of a shot at getting it done than perhaps any of his freshman peers. That's because he enters Congress this year with the seniority of a four-term lawmaker, thanks to his six-year tenure in the House 30 years ago.
Nolan's experience was a large part of his campaign to unseat Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack in Minnesota's 8th District. Cravaack had upset then-Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Jim Oberstar (D) in 2010; Nolan's win, by 9 points, put the northeastern Minnesota district solidly back in Democratic hands.
But the question now becomes: What will Nolan do with his second bite at legislating?
He has so far identified top priorities that are in line with his party -- namely, preserving Medicare and Social Security, ending what he calls "wars of choice," and investing in infrastructure. Nolan has also promised that his first bill will target campaign finance reform, after a congressional race that attracted more than $9 million in outside spending and became one of the most expensive in the nation.
But mining will no doubt also be one of Nolan's central concerns, thanks to his district's location in the Iron Range, with its taconite formations and a rush to mine other on-demand materials.
"I don't apologize for being preoccupied with taconite, timber, tourism," Nolan said in an interview yesterday after being sworn in. "I want to do everything I can to protect jobs in those vital industries in my district."
One of the area's biggest projects has been in the works for almost 10 years, prompting complaints about a lengthy permitting process. Polymet Mining Corp. wants to open Minnesota's first sulfide mine, an open-pit project for extracting copper, nickel and other materials.
While Cravaack blamed permitting and regulations for slow-moving projects, Nolan has focused on the limits of mining research. He envisions a new center in Duluth, Minn., that would research new technology to enable the efficient mining of non-ferrous metals like copper and nickel.
"We're sitting on 4 billion tons of some of the world's most precious metals that are so vitally needed in the advanced technologies of our economy," Nolan said at a debate with Cravaak a couple of weeks before the election. "It just represents a great opportunity for us ... to create jobs and to build opportunities and to build communities in the process."
Calling for the research center may inoculate Nolan from at least some criticism from the environmental community, which is deeply skeptical of a mining boom close to wooded areas and the Great Lakes. It may also bring him closer to the mining industry, which largely favored his opponent in the election (Greenwire, Oct. 10, 2012).
"Nobody cares more about the great outdoors than those of us in the 8th District," said Nolan. "I am convinced that the days when you had to choose between advancing business and industry or the environment, those days are behind us."
Nolan envisions an economy that moves beyond iron, in which northern Minnesota provides the minerals needed for renewable energy. But he argues that the technology needs to be developed -- and that the government should invest in finding more efficient ways of extracting it.
Oberstar, who backed Nolan in the campaign, said the lawmaker's first big challenge will be pushing through the Polymet project, which has been in the environmental review process for eight years. But he also expressed confidence that Nolan could also wrangle $5 million out of Congress to start up the Duluth center.
"He's going to hit the ground running," Oberstar said in a recent interview. "He's not going to be distracted or carried off in too many directions."
A 'clear-eyed' legislator
Nolan's return to the House is most surprising, perhaps, not because of an expensive and hard-fought campaign, but because he voluntarily left Capitol Hill 32 years ago. After winning a seat in 1974 as one of the "Watergate Babies" -- the Democrats elected after President Nixon's resignation -- he walked away after three terms with the opinion that Congress was "impotent."
Nolan spent the next few decades running a sawmill and serving in a variety of positions, including as president of the U.S. Export Corp. Now 69, he believes he has a second chance to enact the kind of changes that seemed impossible to him in the 1970s.
"There are times when people are willing to make big changes," Nolan told Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report in 2011, when he was still mulling a bid.
"We are at a tipping point with wars of choice, the financial future of our entitlements, the federal budget deficit and the decimation of our middle class. This is a time when big changes are needed."
Oberstar described Nolan's current outlook as more realistic than his outlook in his previous tenure. Back in the 1970s, "it proved very, very burdensome. It disrupted families, and Rick experienced that, as well," Oberstar said, referring to Nolan's divorce.
He added, "He really put his life back together and is very clear-eyed about the challenges and how to cope with them, how to get them accommodated, how to balance the legislative process with constituent service needs."
Nolan will be well-positioned -- or as much as a Democrat can be in a Republican-led House -- to push the issues important to his district, with assignments on the Agriculture Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Throughout the campaign, he emphasized the importance of high-speed rail, better roads and a renovated Port of Duluth.
"Building a strong surface and water transportation system creates good paying jobs, improves the quality of our lives, and is the economic backbone of a large district like the Eighth," Nolan said in a statement last week. "Timber, taconite, tourism and manufacturing spread over a large geographic area all require strong transportation to be successful."
During his term, Cravaack worked to roll back the Obama administration's regulatory agenda. For example, he pushed for legislation to prevent U.S. EPA from adopting new air pollution standards affecting taconite facilities.
He also shepherded legislation through the House that swapped state-owned land in a protected wilderness area for federal land that could be opened up for mining and logging leases (E&E Daily, Sept. 13, 2012). Environmental groups opposed the bill.
Nolan has said he wants to find compromise. He also has high hopes of working with Republicans. Nolan told the Associated Press last month that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is a "good man" with whom he will work well.
"I was a very effective legislator in my day, but I always had a Republican partner in anything and everything that I ever accomplished," he said.
During the first meeting of the 113th Congress yesterday, Nolan looked comfortable walking around the House chamber and chatting with colleagues like Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) -- who was elected in 1976, two years after Nolan first arrived. But he conceded that some things have changed.
"Namely, the amount of money that's going to campaign and elections," he said, calling for more transparency and limits on the amount of time politicians spend campaigning and raising money. "We need to change the way we do politics to get this Congress and nation back on track."
"I could not be more thrilled," he said about being back in the House. "I could not be more excited. The challenges could not be greater. I could not feel better prepared. I'm just wildly enthusiastic about the opportunity to serve again."