POTOMAC INDIGESTION

POTOMAC INDIGESTION

CAPITOL CONNECTION

The fire service eats its young, and in Washington Congressman Curt Weldon is being added to some menus.

No doubt, Curt —founder and chairman of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus—enjoys too much of the limelight to suit many national fire groups. He and his staff have accomplished in a few years what the nowdefunct Joint Council of Fire Service Organizations couldn’t produce in several lifetimes—interest and credibility. His Congressional Fire Services Institute has attracted private-sector funding long untapped by the national fire groups.

In spite of his accomplishments— or maybe because of them—the word is getting out: “Curt is out of touch. The Caucus is a paper tiger. Curt has used the fire service to feed his political ambitions.” The words hurt—in part because they come from people Curt has helped. But is there some truth in those unkind words?

IS CURT OUT OF TOUCH?

Lobbyists from three national fire groups as well as officials of at least two federal agencies regularly make this claim. Let me translate. In Washington, the term “out of touch”—as in “Curt is out of touch”—generally has two meanings: Curt’s not following my agenda; and, if Curt gets w hat he wants, it may mean I’ll have to do some real work.

For the most part, Washingtonbased association staff and lobbyists have a limited understanding of the people and causes they represent. They are in no position to say —much less to know—whether Curt is out of touch. Be that as it may, Curt is not out of touch with the men and women in the trenches. Curt continues to be the favored speaker for many, many state and local fire service groups.

I have seen it for myself. In backwater towns, big cities, and state capitals from Maine to Texas, Curt is the guy who draws the crowds. He drives his staff crazy with the commitments he makes and with the growing list of issues they must tackle; but yes, he is in touch with the real fire service. He takes the time before and after speeches to chat and listen. He is a refreshing reminder that the U.S.A. extends outside the Washington Beltway.

IS THE CAUCUS A PAPER TIGER?

Who cares if it’s the largest caucus in Congress? The question always has been. Is it the most effective? No. The Congressional Black Caucus opposes a Supreme Court candidate and alters Senate votes. The steel and textile caucuses affect trade policies. Inner city representatives and rural members of Congress fight effectively for their causes. Actually, the Congressional Fire Services Caucus is at best untested and at worst a mystery.

Weldon and company have struggled for months to pass the Fire Service Bill of Rights—legislation designed to speed through Congress to the applause of a thankful American public. The FSBOR—as it is called— lists a variety of unbinding “rights” for firefighters and authorizes a congressional coin that, when sold, will provide funding to a handful of national fire service groups and the Franklin Institute. The bill prevents the anointed fire groups from using any of the money for administrative costs, although you could drive a haz-mat truck through the loopholes.

The FSBOR has yet to escape the obscure House Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs and Coinage Committee and has gotten mired in some of the pettiest fire politics and most counterproductive screaming matches imaginable. Curt was so annoyed with the nit-picking last April and again in July that he almost decided to turn all of the money over to the federal government’s sinking treasury. Eventually the bill should pass. But a bill to sell coins to help firefighters should not take so much effort or cost so many political chits. Is the Caucus for real? If it were a real player, this bill would sail through Congress like bran through your grandpa.

But let’s make an important distinction. The Caucus should not be expected to produce huge political results just yet—or maybe ever. It is a large, diverse group of independent thinkers. Caucus members who want to cut government spending are not liklcy to endorse big budget increases for federal fire programs. Caucus members who support strong environmental controls are not going to help fire academies dodge groundwater contamination problems. Inner city members of the Caucus aren’t going to focus on the needs of volunteers, and rural members may not care a whole lot about urban search and rescue. The Caucus is an organization that allows members of Congress to deal with fire issues in the manner each member individually sees fit. Period.

Curt, on the other hand, is effective. Against all odds. House Minority Leader Bob Michel frequently complains that his decades as a House Republican have been monumentally frustrating. The Democrats have such a throttlehold on the House that Republicans never chair committees, set agendas, or enjoy legislative privileges. Junior House Republicans —and Curt is one—are the lowest of the low. They may be ignored by their colleagues and by congressional staff.

To make matters worse, Curt has done battle with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski; extinguished a fire in then Speaker of the House Jim Wright’s office—a stunt that thoroughly upstaged Wright; successfully fought Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney’s efforts to kill the production of aircraft assembled in Curt’s Southeastern Pennsylvania district; and supported the controversial “Family Leave” bill adamantly opposed by the Republican administration. Yet Curt is effective. At the very least, he is an important symbol. When Curt agreed to cosponsor the infamous hazardous-materials bill introduced by Ohio Congressman Douglas Applegate, the chemical industry was furious and the International Association of Fire Fighters (which championed the bill) was elated. If Curt was unimportant, who would have cared?

HAS CURT USED THE FIRE SERVICE TO FEED HIS POLITICAL AMBITIONS?

Curt Weldon is an ambitious man. Everyone in politics is ambitious, and it’s no big deal. But his work on behalf of the fire service has done little for him politically.

In politics, just two things ultimately matter: votes and money. You need votes to stay elected. You need money to run the campaign to get the votes.

About half a million people living in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania elected Curt. The 7th Congressional District is located mostly in working class Delaware County. Just a guess, but I doubt if more than a few thousand of the district’s residents are at all interested in the fire service, much less the Caucus.

Doug Ritter, Curt’s savvy chief of staff, was in the district one day getting his car fixed. The repairman agreed Curt was doing a good job in Washington but wondered why the good congressman spent so much time with the firefighters. Doug told me to relate this story, agreeing that Curt’s work for firefighters doesn’t buy much back home.

Let’s look closer at votes and money. Votes first. A few yards from Curt’s office door is a file approximately 1 ½feet thick, containing this past year’s newspaper coverage. One folder holds clippings of Curt’s inspired defense of the V-22 Osprey, the military aircraft high on the administration’s budget-cut list. Another thick file contains articles describing Curt’s role as the deal maker on the family leave bill, a piece of legislation popular with the many two-income families back home. One hefty file contains pieces on Curt’s friendship with the Kuwaiti ambassador, a relationship that could mean Kuwaiti contracts for Delaware County businesses. Then there’s the file with clippings describing Curt’s valiant but unsuccessful efforts to save the Philadelphia Navy Yard, another folder with coverage of his ability to obtain healthy grants for a popular environmental center, and another with pieces on his program to discourage irresponsible oil drilling in Alaska. Oh, fire? A wafer-thin folder holds coverage of the stars of the hit movie “Backdraft” attending the Caucus dinner.

And then there are the editorials. Philadelphia Magazine, commenting on how area congressmen dealt with Operation Desert Storm, wrote, “(Curt) milked more than nonstop media coverage out of the war as a result of his homeboy hawkishness. While the (Philadelphia) Inquirer was peevishly trying to ignore him, Weldon was showing CNN and the networks how he organized the biggest pro-war rally in the country. Suddenly, Weldon’s on every Republican A’ list for Potomac parties.”

In its editorial endorsing Curt’s candidacy, the Inquirer— in a piece titled “Motormouth Rides Again” (the man can talk)—said, “The old rule for gaining power in Congress was to spend the first few years with your mouth shut and your eyes open. But since taking office in 1987, Rep. Curt Weldon has broken that rule—speaking loudly and rapidly on issues and backing up his words with hard work.”

And so it goes. Delaware County voters hear lots about Curt, little about fire. And, to be fair to the media, Curt’s legislative workload has little to do with fire.

In the 101st Congress (19891990), Curt sponsored 15 bills. Just two were fire-related. Of the 300 bills he cosponsored, nine dealt with fire, but 13 helped senior citizens, 10 aided veterans, 12 addressed crime, and 16 involved the environment.

In the first few’ months of the 102nd Congress, Curt already has sponsored nine bills (again, just two are firerelated) and cosponsored 140 bills— three deal with fire, seven address family issues such as child care, six help the environment, and the others concern everything from crime to transportation. The fact is, Curt’s committee assignments—armed services and merchant marine—don’t give him much day-to-day leverage on fire issues. That’s what the folks back home want, that’s what they see, and that’s why 65 percent of the district’s voters sent Curt back to Washington last year.

That’s votes. What about money? According to Federal Election Commission reports for 1990-1991, Curt received financial support from lots of friends back home, organized labor, defense, and chemical and oil companies—but almost none from the fire service.

Organized labor, as a category, led the parade with S20,000—an interesting turn of events for a man who describes himself as a conservative Republican. The Composition Roofers Local #30 gave a whopping 54,000.

Defense companies chipped in another 516,400, with Boeing’s political action committee forking over 54,300—the least they could do given Curt’s defense of Boeing’s V-22 Osprey. Chemical and oil companies added another SI0,000, with oil companies (for example, Arco at 51,600) ahead of chemical companies (for example, Union Carbide at 5300).

But that’s life in the capital city. Elected officials—especially guys like Curt from working-class backgrounds—depend on a little help from their friends.

What about Curt’s friends in the fire service? The firefighters’ union gave 52,100, a fairly classy act given the LAFF’s concerns about Curt’s pro-volunteer attitude. Ed and Mary McCormack of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors gave S800. Art Glatfelter, whose support helped Curt found and sustain the Caucus, gave 53,000, and a very few fire equipment companies did their part. Here and there a few individuals from the fire service helped, but that’s it. The big names, leaders, staff members, and paid lobbyists of the other national organizations simply aren’t on the list we received from the Federal Election Commission.

All of the people who think nothing of demanding that Curt attend a Saturday evening meeting a thousand miles from home, all of the people who ask Curt political favors, all of the people who expect a half hour in the middle of a typically frantic congressional workweek—none are on the official list.

Is Curt using the fire service for his own political gain? No. No way. If any of the sharks who run presidential campaigns ever got a hold of Curt, no doubt they’d say, “Hey Curt baby, enough of the fire thing….” Thankfully, that’s just not Curt’s style. But the day may come when Curt Weldon tires of the nit-picking, the cheap shots, and the fair-weather friends. If and when he does, who will play the role of entree on the fire service menu?*

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