From Leftist to Left-ish

The "Real" Garbage Can

U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett, 1998

photograph by Charles Steck

Answer #1: The "real" garbage can -- i.e., the place where you put "wet waste" -- is almost impossible to find in Room 126 of the Cannon House Office Building. Receptacles for recyclable discards, on the other hand, are everywhere."He is fanatical about recycling," says one Doggett staffer about the boss. "He will inspect the containers as he walks through the office and make sure everything is in its proper place."

Doggett brings his domestic discards to work to be picked up for recycling, since the cash-strapped D.C. metro government has suspended its curbside pickup. He also took to the floor to blast the Republican leadership for their lackluster management of the House recycling program, even though the attendant bill was about to pass with overwhelming support from both sides of the aisle. "Only Doggett," said one GOP observer, "could find a way to make this a partisan issue."

All of which is totally consistent with the Legend of Lloyd -- dogged, detail-oriented, thrifty to a fault, potentially challenging to work for, outspoken, unapologetically partisan, and committed to what he sees as the right causes, with protecting the environment being high on that list.

Of course, it's high on our list as well, and as single-issue voting blocs go, the enviros among us have plenty of cause to be happy with Lloyd Doggett, one of only about 20 members of Congress (and, needless to say, the only one from Texas) who scored 100% ratings from the League of Conservation Voters in 1997. Likewise for the pro-choice voters, though other liberal constituencies -- such as the gay community, consumer advocates, civil libertarians, and organized labor -- do not regard him as flawless (though much preferable to the likes of fellow Texans Dick Armey or Tom DeLay).

Because Austin does take its national identity seriously, we seem to see folks more energized by Doggett's spotless environmental voting record, on legislation that has little to do with Austin itself, than by his votes and actions that do affect Austin directly. Indeed, some of the essential generic-progressive causes, like those of labor, become wedge issues in a town where high-tech industries dominate the economy.

"When I first ran, I met with 50 people who wanted to severely curtail H1-B visas," Doggett recounted just before he voted to expand the controversial program, which allows employers to import foreign workers with skills not available in their local labor markets. "It's a divisive issue, and it's more challenging now that we've had tech-sector layoffs in Austin. The people laid off at AMD or Motorola may not have the software programming skills those companies need," and that's why they're using H1-B employees. "But we also need a continuing incentive to develop our underdeveloped workers at home. We can't do all one or the other."

Early in his first term, Doggett and Virginia Republican Tom Davis -- former CEO of a D.C.-area federal high-tech contractor -- formed the Congressional Information Technology Working Group, which sought to introduce the fairly computer-illiterate Congress to the world in which most Austinites live. "Most members don't realize the importance of I.T. to their local economies, but they have to deal with the issues," Davis says.

The H1-B vote was one of three scheduled within the last two weeks of the 105th Congress, set to adjourn October 9, that Davis describes as "defining votes, tough issues where party pressure affects members." The others include encryption, which pits high-tech against law enforcement, and fast-track trade legislation, which like H1-B splits tech and labor. Doggett has sought to make friends on all sides of these issues, and "his vote is not an easy one," Davis says. "His base constituencies are against each other for cross-purposes." On all three, Doggett expresses ambivalence, though he ended up voting for H1-B expansion and has in the past supported fast-track.

"Whatever you think of Lloyd's politics, he's a very able member," Davis notes. "He can be highly charged and partisan, but he is very well respected, and has a foot in the camp among some Democrats who never pay attention to these things. We need a different group of members to spread this message, and Lloyd is part of a different group of Democrats."

A similar assessment comes from one of the prior generation of Dems, California's George Brown, ranking member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee (on which both Doggett and Davis serve), who entered Congress three months after Doggett's predecessor Jake Pickle. Brown says that high-tech legislation "is often controversial and misunderstood by Republicans; they describe initiatives like [SEMATECH] as corporate welfare since they involve helping out the private sector, and I have never met anyone who can deal with that resistance better than Lloyd Doggett. He's a very quick learner and an eloquent orator under any circumstances."

photograph by Charles Steck

For his part, Doggett thinks the high-tech industries he champions could do much to help themselves. "Considering the impact of the industry, technology has little presence in D.C.," he notes. "AMD has no permanent Washington representative [i.e., lobbyist] at all." He cites how local employers approached lawmakers with their concerns about tax treatment of chip-making equipment, such as that produced by Applied Materials out at Harris Branch. "Their attitude was to come to town and tell us what we had to do. When we asked how we should pay for the changes they wanted, they said, 'You figure that out.' They need to be more realistic about how politics works; they could work with, or at least learn from, the traditional Rust Belt industries who enjoy substantial support in Congress."

Another issue where U.S. House votes can have direct impact on local life is our horrendous transportation crisis. Our traffic woes are so bad, and such an impediment to NAFTA dreamers, that Lloyd got help from neighboring GOP Rep. Lamar Smith and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in his efforts to get federal funding -- under the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), the successor pork-barrel to the famous ISTEA -- for State Highway 130 and for light-and commuter-rail transit. (In case you need a reason to like her, Hutchison is about the only Sunbelt senator with a genuine commitment to public transit.) None of these three ended up on the House-Senate conference committee that produced the final TEA-21, but Phil Gramm did, and he promptly stripped out the provisions inserted by Doggett to require that SH130 be routed east of Lake Walter E. Long, as East Austin neighborhood groups desire.

"We got significant funding for SH130 and for the Austin Transportation Study in general, but that doesn't mean TxDOT will undertake the projects," Doggett says. "In my experience, all the way back to the state Senate, TxDOT has been as insensitive as the IRS; they build where they want, not where the roads are needed. It's the same with a lot of issues -- such as the environment or community policing -- where the federal government can be a lot more sensitive than the State of Texas."

As far as transit is concerned, state support is virtually nonexistent, and Capital Metro is expecting to draw at least $100 million in funding out of TEA-21. "Before that happens, though, there need to be better public trust in Capital Metro and support for a specific light-rail plan," Doggett adds. (As it happens, one of Doggett's meetings attended by the Chronicle in D.C. was with Cap Met's Washington lobbyist, who told the congressman things he apparently was pleased to hear.)

As a lawmaker, Lloyd Doggett does not spend most of his time on projects designed specifically to help the folks back home, but at the same time, he takes great pride in his district office and constituent service. "It's a constant juggling act to balance the two Lloyd Doggetts," he says. "I'm still trying to decide how much to be at home, in the district, and still be here to work with colleagues and be known as someone who does his homework. Some days, the only satisfaction here comes from what I can do for the district."

The two Doggetts have two different staffs, and it's the folks in the district office here who do the heavy lifting on all the little jobs that make a big difference to individual constituents -- solving visa problems, going to bat against the IRS, arranging for servicemen to come home for family funerals, mediating between local neighborhoods and the Postal Service. The Washington staff suspects that dealing with the vagaries of the House may be the easier task. "The work back in Austin," says staffer David Watkins, "may be more important to Lloyd than anything we do here."

The At-Large Whip

Answer #2. An At-Large Whip is not a treat one buys at Dairy Queen, but Lloyd's junior-manager role within the House Democratic leadership. There's a lotta whippin' goes on in Congress. Majority Whip Tom DeLay, the Sugar Land exterminator who, for some strange reason, is one of the most powerful men in America, maintained an Internet site called the Whipping Post, until he found that "" took Netizens to a completely different kind of whippin' inconsistent with GOP values.

On the Dems' side, there are a number of at-large whips other than Lloyd -- including Houston's Sheila Jackson-Lee -- as well as regional whips, all of whom work through four Chief Deputy Whips -- including Waco's Chet Edwards -- managed by the Democratic Whip, Michigan's David Bonior. The whips have daily meetings, described by Doggett chief of staff Leo Coco as the "best meetings in Washington. It's where you can get real information and find out how people really feel about issues. ... If there's any meeting where people will speak out, this is it. And Lloyd will often speak out."

Much is made about Lloyd Doggett's prior experience in the Texas Senate, as preparation for Congress, but the differences between Granite Mountain and Capitol Hill are more striking than the similarities. The Texas Senate has all of 31 members, just one more than the state's U.S. House delegation, so there is no need for whips, though our state senators may benefit from, or enjoy, a good whipping.

With 435 members -- too many of whom, on both sides of the aisle, are (to echo Mark Twain) idiots -- getting anything done in the U.S. House requires not just playing politics, but playing a familiar sort of office politics, which is the job of the whips. Round up these votes, schmooze these fence-sitters, find out what the Texas delegation thinks about this. "Electronic mail makes this a lot easier," says Coco, a 21-year veteran House staffer. "But it's still a fair amount of work."

Hard work is nothing new to Doggett, the man who famously went to his Senate office on Christmas Day, found the State Capitol closed, and complained to Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby. On top of the whip meetings, Doggett also "religiously" attends near-daily sessions of the Dems' Communications Group, known informally as the Message Board, chaired by Connecticut's Rosa DeLauro, another busy Democratic worker bee and one of Doggett's closest allies. (She is also a Chief Deputy Whip and is preparing to run -- against Dallas' Martin Frost, current chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- for Democratic caucus chair, #3 on the minority party org-chart.) This is where the most voluble Dems talk about their message of the day, and decide who will enunciate it and how. Often, that task falls to Doggett.

Lloyd's preferred medium is the "one-minute," the 60-second speeches beloved by C-SPAN viewers that begin each House workday, in which members get to orate on the topic of their choice. Most one-minutes sound like bad talk-radio calls (not to keep picking on the Bug Man, but DeLay is one of the worst offenders in this regard), so regardless of whether or not you agree with him, it's refreshing to watch and hear Doggett's one-minutes, because he actually knows how to give a speech, playing not just to the C-SPAN cameras but to the actual flesh-and-blood audience, meager as it usually is. "It takes him back to his college debate days," notes David Watkins.

To the degree that one-minutes are politics as performance, Lloyd is the James Brown of the art form, and back in 1994, when his subjects of choice were the horrors of Newt Gingrich and the "Contract on America," Doggett quickly became a popular source of sound bites. "As someone who opposed their programs, and who had experience being in the opposition," Doggett says, referring to his far-left status in the mostly Democratic Texas Senate and on the wildly polarized Texas Supreme Court, "I was given the opportunity to fight back and fight hard.

"This Congress, Newt decided, after his ethics troubles, that his coalition was so fragile that the House should do next to nothing but paint Democrats as pagans, so our message is more blurred," Doggett continues. "But there are weeks where I'm not speaking on the floor because they're pushing less bad stuff. And really, now, everything has been swallowed up by the scandal."

Oh yeah, that. Having narrowly evaded Dick Gephardt's interest in putting him on the Judiciary Committee -- a logical assignment for a former state Supreme Court justice -- Doggett promptly, two days before the release of the Starr report, expressed his disgust with President Clinton, with whom he has fought directly and publicly in the past. (It was Lloyd who told Clinton to his face, back in early 1995, that nobody knew what he stood for, provoking a "heated" response from the Slick One.) Since then, he's been notably silent on the news from Planet Monica (though his constituents haven't been, judging from the stacks of correspondence in his office).

After all, someone has to do the real work of the House, even when that work is itself as stagy and predictable as the orbit of Planet Monica. One of the events on Doggett's agenda attended by the Chronicle was a "Save Social Security" rally, in which various noteworthy Dems "marched" across the Capitol parking lot, followed by persons with disabilities, union members, and senior citizens who, shall we say, did not just happen to be strolling down Pennsylvania Avenue and got caught up in the excitement. Buses were procured to ferry the lawmakers the 300 feet from the Capitol steps to the "staging area." Lloyd walked.

Silly as this all was, though, the subject is a serious one, and the ugliness that defines today's Washington was evident when the visiting press and curious bystanders were joined by staffers from the office of House Majority Leader Dick Armey, the pride of Irving. After damning the citizens in the march with the worst word they knew -- "activists" -- this crew speculated thusly: "I wonder if they all escaped from their nursing homes." "No, they told 'em they'd get extra bingo cards if they came out and marched."

And on and on; the rally was a "perfect Democratic event," for it included "The Drunk" (Ted Kennedy), "The Communist" (David Bonior), and "The Whiny Women's Chorus" (Patty Murray and Barbara Boxer, whose appearance was hailed by cheers of "Babs is goin' down!") Remember, these yahoos do the bidding of another of those unaccountably important Texans, in a Congress that's supposed to be, and used to be, collegial, and where the GOP leadership, including Armey, maunders on and on about "bipartisanship." No wonder the Dems feel the need for Lloyd to go out and bare his lefty teeth on TV.

"There are some pleasurable parts of a good legislative debate, but only if they lead to some productive end," Doggett says. "At the Supreme Court, in the beginning, I was actually the moderate, but by the end I turned to caustic dissents because that was the only alternative. Right now, that's how you get heard, but I'd much prefer quiet committee work that got things done."

Lloyd is indeed generally quiet in his committee work, though that's more a function of his committees -- Science, which tends to be uncontroversial, and Budget, which has been nearly immobilized by the distracting big-boy (perhaps even presidential) ambitions of its chair, Ohio Rep. John Kasich. (As you may have heard, the Budget Committee never got around to passing a federal budget resolution for the new fiscal year.) More productive has been the whipping and party work, which simultaneously allows Lloyd to build relationships, and "build confidence in my colleagues and the leadership that I'm a good guy to have on their side."

This networking points toward an eventual leadership role for Doggett himself, though no one is quite committal on the point. "He's no more liberal in his views than Dave Bonior, so he could be a logical successor to him at some point," says George Brown. "There's a lot of talk about what the succession would be if Gephardt gives up the Leadership to run for president; I imagine Doggett would be a strong candidate to move up. He's not outside the mainstream of the Democratic party, though all of us have become more centrist."

Lloyd has excellent relationships with most of the Democratic House powers, both current (Bonior, Gephardt, Frost, Edwards) and up-and-coming (DeLauro, California's Nancy Pelosi, Georgia's John Lewis, Maryland's Steny Hoyer), but talk of Lloyd the Leader "is still a long way off," says his chief of staff, Leo Coco. "Leadership is about both personal timing -- are you ready, have you paid your dues -- and the timing of when things open up."

Doggett himself notes that "in this system, seniority counts for a lot, and I need to respect the fact that Martin Frost and Chet Edwards are ahead of me in line. I believe that many in Austin have interests that aren't parochial, and a leadership position would be consistent with that. But I need to respect the system that I'm in."

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