John Laird: ‘Puppet’ accusations don’t always hold up to scrutiny

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

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photoJohn Laird is The Columbian's editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at john.laird@columbian.com.

Many liberals in Southwest Washington are quick to label Jaime Herrera Beutler as a puppet of the Republican establishment. That characterization is untrue, as you’ll see a little later. But first, let’s examine the charge for exactly what it is.

This denunciation of the U.S. representative from Camas actually is not so much about Herrera Beutler herself as it is about her status as a first-term member of Congress. As long as we’ve had elections, both parties have tried to cauterize opposition rookies with the “dutiful robot” brand. Sometimes it’s true. Congressional novices often wrap themselves in the warmth of party loyalty, at least until they accumulate seniority and the concomitant clout.

That’s not an absolute with Herrera Beutler, though. Her willingness to venture off the GOP reservation was evident last year when Republicans tried to kill the Emergency Mortgage Relief Program. Herrera Beutler was one of two Republicans in the House to support funding the agency that offers short-term loans to people who are at risk of losing their homes because they’ve lost their jobs. And she was one of 36 who broke ranks with the 242-member Republican caucus and voted to protect funding for the Endangered Species Act. Also, she was one of six Republicans in December to vote for the payroll tax cut extension.

But Herrera Beutler’s relative independence is not verified by just these three bits of anecdotal evidence. It takes an objective trend analysis. For that, we have the National Journal to thank. Patient and precise wonks at the National Journal have for 30-plus years studied and ranked members of Congress on liberal and conservative ideological scales.

They do this by examining roll-call votes: 949 last year in the House and 235 in the Senate. Their website explains: “Unlike interest groups that rate lawmakers, National Journal does not attempt to say how members should have voted. Our goal is to describe how they voted in comparison with one another.”

The latest rankings (Feb. 23) show Herrera Beutler as the 222nd most conservative member of the 435-member House. This puts her almost squarely at the ideological center of the House, hardly the residence of a Republican robot. National Journal also ranks members of Congress percentage-wise on three major issues. Herrera Beutler ranks in the 48th percentile on economic issues, 55th on social issues and 53rd on foreign issues … again almost squarely in the ideological center of the House.

Clearly, this rookie’s critics will need to come up with more compelling evidence that she is an obedient servant of the Republican establishment. And those critics will be hard pressed to match the depth of research performed by the National Journal.

Other observations

Also according to this year’s National Journal rankings:

Directly next to Herrera Beutler’s 222nd-most-conservative ranking is U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., at 223rd. Reichert’s district (east of Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia and west of the Cascades) is similar to Herrera Beutler’s district, although redistricting is extending her 3rd Congressional District east of the Gorge into Klickitat County.

Another frequent charge that Herrera Beutler is merely an operative of U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, for whom she used to work is refuted by the National Journal rankings, which list McMorris Rodgers as the 117th most conservative; that’s 112 rating spots more conservative than Herrera Beutler.

What about Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., often castigated as a supposedly wildly radical left-winger? She’s the 22nd most liberal member of the 100-member Senate, not exactly moderate, but not radical fringe, either. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., ranks 35th on the liberal scale. No. 1 is Oregon’s Jeff Merkeley, tied with Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

No doubt, the puppet-robot accusations will continue, but objective trend analyses are instructive for those who are willing to look beyond their own predispositions.