The Pacific Northwest used to enjoy a vibrant, competitive press corps in Washington, D.C. As D.C. correspondent for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, back when the Hearst paper had money, I was present at what was a high tide of regional journalism.
“What is Seattle’s interest in this?” Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois would ask, more than once, when I showed up on the presidential campaign trail. The answer: we were and are part of the country, with not inconsiderable influence on Congress’s deliberations. In those years, senators from Washington, Oregon, and Alaska chaired the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Tom Foley was House Speaker.
We’ve lost that journalistic presence in the capital, with media outlets starved or now owned by out-of-state conglomerates. We’ve severed our readers’ and viewers’ connection with a city almost 2,500 miles away. Our congressional delegations’ influence is arguably greater than ever, yet there is a disconnect. Being there, with ears wide open, once brought news to a region where the federal government has exercised outsized influence.
During one annual Salute to Congress dinner, I was chatting with Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Oregon. Hatfield was a fascinating figure, at once idealist and master of the pork barrel. He was shaped into a near pacifist after being one of the first U.S. servicemen to witness what the atomic bomb did to Hiroshima. He was also Oregon’s provider — witness the federal courthouse in Portland and marine sciences center in Newport that bear his name.
Hatfield had a leak this night: The Reagan Administration was on the cusp of shuttering the plutonium-producing N-reactor at Hanford in Eastern Washington. He was tipping me off to prevent last-minute reversal of the decision. The administration dared not tick off Hatfield as chair of Senate Appropriations. I delivered the story minutes short of the P-I’s early 9 p.m. deadline.
On another occasion, Rep. Al Swift’s staff uncovered a report on the then-pending Everett base for the carrier U.S.S. Nimitz. The city had campaigned to get the base, with support from Swift and colleagues. The report showed pains going along with gains, forecasting a housing crunch and waterfront congestion. Swift did not want surprised and angry constituents. Everett Mayor Bill Moore reportedly ripped up a copy of the newspaper, but the news was out.
What are we missing nowadays? Both of Washington’s senators chair powerful committees. Murray is boss of Appropriations, seatmate Sen. Maria Cantwell chairs Commerce. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, is chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., chairs the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Backstage, Cantwell hammered together legislation designed to restore America’s computer chip industry. McMorris Rodgers pushed the House to pass energy legislation that preserves tax breaks for fossil fuel manufacturers and keeps public lands open to oil drilling and coal mining. (It’s going nowhere in the Senate.) In the waning days of the Trump administration, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., joined with military brass to block the president’s attempts to politicize the Pentagon. Smith was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
In this Congress, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Colleague Rep. Susan DelBene chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Blunt-spoken Rep. Marie Gluesencamp-Perez, D-Wash., is the undisputed star of Congress’ freshman class, having upset a MAGA Republican in last November’s election.
We see these folk making announcements out here: The Infrastructure bill is paying for airport upgrades and such improvements as a new Lummi Island ferry in Whatcom County. Sens. Cantwell and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, have joined forces to push successfully for new polar icebreakers – the U.S. currently has just one – likely based in Seattle. The two “Gentleladies of the Senate” have fiercely opposed each other on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But both are adults: Relationships matter on Capitol Hill, even in a polarized America.
Our long-serving senators are reminiscent of the long-entrenched “gold dust twins,” Sens. Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson, D-Wash., who served together for 28 years. If you want to know what they accomplished, look around, from the Trident nuclear submarine base at Bangor to the giant third powerhouse at Grand Coulee Dam, which is heating Northwest homes on this chilly early spring day.
Magnuson used to repeat a familiar line: Congress is composed of show horses and work horses. We have an excess of show horses in this era of cable TV news, members who use televised bombast to raise profile and money. A prime example: extremist Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia. The workhorses, effective backstage players, are underappreciated and not well known. They are vulnerable to being “primaried” back home. Joe Kent, a Fox News fixture, upset Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., who was of 10 Republican House members who voted to impeach Trump after the 01/06/2021 insurrection that trashed the U.S. Capitol.
A substantial amount of journalism consists of uncovering secrets – e.g. the Department of Energy plotting to make Hanford recipient of the nation’s nuclear waste – and witnessing the exercise of power. The environmental writer with the New York Times used to say, “You’ll get more bang for the buck if you give the story to me.” True, but our region has been the scene of major battles over oil ports and wilderness areas.
As well, our capital is home to fascinating characters. Nicknamed the “widow of opportunity,” Pamela Churchill Harriman was once married to Winston Churchill’s son and later former New York Governor Averill Harriman. She used her salon to raise thousands of dollars for Democratic candidates, and she was a close friend of House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., through which I gained entrée. The Georgetown mansion was filled with great art and pictures of World War II leaders.
It was revealing to watch a Democratic incumbent or candidate stand up, positioned between a Degas and a Renoir, to argue that Republicans were out of touch with the working people of America.