It probably comes as no surprise to anyone that getting direct answers to direct questions out of politicians can be difficult, and at times even excruciating.
And that was the case earlier this week when Republicans in the U.S. House found themselves on the receiving end of a public backlash after they voted in a closed-door caucus meeting to back a rules change that would have stripped the Office of Congressional Ethics of its independence.
The backlash, which came not only from the public but also from President-elect Donald Trump, was harsh enough that, less than 24 hours later, the GOP caucus met again and reversed its decision.
Like many news organizations around the country, the Journal-World began calling and emailing the offices of its local delegation with what ought to have been a simple question: How did you vote on that issue? It's a question that typically lends itself to three possible answers: "I voted yes"; "I voted no"; or "I did not participate in the vote."
Only two of Kansas' four House members, all Republicans, even responded to the question, and neither of the two who did respond gave any such clear-cut answer. In particular, 3rd District Rep. Kevin Yoder's office sent this written statement, attributed to the congressman:
"In order to ‘drain the swamp’ we must seriously revise the ineffective ethics laws passed during the Pelosi Congress. While I supported the reforms offered, I believe that any changes should go through a full and open bipartisan process. Not a closed meeting where votes were not recorded.”
In retrospect, it's a response that can be interpreted a number of ways, depending on how much emphasis the reader places on key words and phrases. Read one way, it can sound like Yoder supported the ideas or concepts behind the proposal, "the reforms," but that he objected to the way it was presented in a closed-door meeting where there are no recorded votes.
That's how we first interpreted the response and that's what we reported online Tuesday, and in print Wednesday. We were wrong, and we were told so the next day. The story has been corrected online, and a print correction has been issued.
And that's all fair enough, but it leaves open two other questions. First, if Rep. Yoder wanted to convey the message that he voted yes, why didn't he just say, "I voted yes"? And second, if he thinks handling such an issue behind closed doors is inappropriate, then why did he consent to it and vote yes?
As to the first question, Yoder's communications director C.J. Grover said simply that Tuesday was a "hectic day" because it was the first day of the new Congress and all 435 members had to be sworn in. And as to the second question, he said:
He supported the reforms in conference (which has no binding authority and frankly doesn’t affect any policy, the votes on the House floor does that) and would support them if they come back to the floor for a vote like he says in the statement. He has always favored openness and transparency in Congress and this issue is no different. Typically these votes happen at the beginning of each new congress with no fanfare, but as the situation developed it became clear the best way to tackle that particular portion of the rules package would be in the committee process. It’s not contradictory.
It's worth noting that getting a direct answer out of Rep. Lynn Jenkins' office was no easier. Their initial response to the question, How did Rep. Jenkins vote, was this:
“There is no question that the Office of Congressional Ethics needs to be reformed. After eight years, we must ensure that our resources are being used responsibly as we eliminate government corruption in Washington. Though, I believe such reforms should be done in a more transparent and bipartisan fashion. Nevertheless, it is imperative that we hold members of Congress to the highest standard and stop any forms of government corruption.”
Which led to the obvious followup question: OK, but how did she vote? To which, her communications director Michael Byerly wrote: "Today, the amendment was stripped out of the rules package by unanimous consent. I would have to refer you to our quote."
It was only after the third attempt at a direct answer did Byerly offer the following explanation: "The Congresswoman’s flight got in late for the 115th Organizing Conference to Discuss the Proposed Rules of the House of Representatives."
That, apparently, was something that couldn't have been said the first time he was asked.
Still, Yoder and Jenkins deserve some credit because they did actually give responses, such as they were, to legitimate questions from a newspaper in their home state. Such could not be said for the other two House members from Kansas.
Neither Rep. Mike Pompeo of Wichita, who is Trump's pick to be the next CIA director, nor newly elected Rep. Roger Marshall of Great Bend gave any response.
In case of a federal government shutdown, U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and Mark Udall, D-Colo., have filed legislation that would ensure the military and National Guard units assisting in disaster recovery will not have their paychecks delayed.
"The financial well-being and readiness of those serving our country must not suffer due to gridlock on Capitol Hill," Moran said.
"Colorado’s flood victims and military families shouldn’t suffer if Washington gridlock and partisan stalemates lead to a government shutdown," Udall said.
Congress must pass a budget measure to avoid a government shutdown after midnight Monday.
The Republican-controlled House has approved a stopgap funding measure that also de-funds the Affordable Care Act. The Democratic-controlled Senate has vowed to keep funding the ACA and President Barack Obama has said he would veto any legislation that seeks to dismantle the ACA.
The chasm over the farm bill in Congress is no more evident than in Kansas where six conservative Republicans from an agriculture state are divided on the issue.
On Thursday, the farm bill failed in the U.S. House, splitting the Kansas delegation.
U.S. Reps. Lynn Jenkins, of Topeka, whose district includes Lawrence, and Kevin Yoder, of Overland Park, voted for it, while Mike Pompeo, of Wichita, and Tim Huelskamp, of Hutchinson, were among the 62 Republicans who voted against it. The bill failed in the House, 195-234.
Jenkins blamed the failure in the House on the inability to find common ground.
" … still too many Democrats and Republicans allowed politics to trump progress, and chose to defeat this bipartisan effort. I am truly disappointed by today's vote to accept a badly broken status quo," she said.
The Senate has approved a farm bill, but Kansas' senators were on opposite sides. Jerry Moran voted for it and Roberts opposed it.
In the House, Republicans voting against the bill argued it was too expensive. Most Democrats opposed the measure because it included cuts to food stamps that would have removed as many as 2 million recipients from getting assistance.
The Senate version decreased food stamps by about one-fifth of the House bill. The White House had said it supported the Senate bill and would have vetoed the House bill.
U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, who has recently made national headlines in his political battles with U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was in the Statehouse on Monday where he used to serve as a state legislator.
Huelskamp, who represents the Big First, which goes from the western Kansas border all the way to Manhattan and Emporia, took questions about getting removed from the House Agriculture Committee and upcoming battles over raising the debt ceiling.
Asked if there could be a government shutdown if Congress and President Barack Obama fail to agree on a plan to raise the federal government's borrowing limit, Huelskamp said, "There certainly could be if folks aren't serious about the problem."
Huelskamp said Congress needs to adopt something similar to the so-called "cap, cut and balance" plan that he and other tea party-backed Republicans put together in 2011. The plan included large spending cuts and adoption by Congress of a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget. Obama had said he would veto that plan if it ever landed on his desk.
Huelskamp said House Republicans will meet for a private retreat Wednesday through Friday to come up with strategies and proposals in tax and budget fights.
He said conservatives are upset about the direction of the House and that Speaker Boehner needs to come up with a plan. "The onus is on him to produce good Republican legislation," Huelskamp said.
Last month, the Republican Steering Committee, chaired by Boehner, removed several Republicans, who occasionally bucked leaders, from their committees, including Huelskamp from the Ag Committee.
Huelskamp said he was removed because of his staunchly conservative views. Boehner's office has denied this. Politico reported that one conservative close to party leaders said Huelskamp and the others were removed because they didn't work well with other members.
Huelskamp, whose district is dominated by agriculture, said that while he would prefer to keep his place on the committee, he can work on ag issues in other ways, including his membership on the House Small Business Committee.
Huelskamp was among 12 House Republicans who either abstained or voted against re-electing Boehner as speaker. During the House vote, a photograph published by Politico showed Huelskamp working on an iPad with a document on the screen that had the names of representatives that he hoped would oppose Boehner.
Asked if his run-ins with Boehner could hurt Kansas, Huelskamp said, "If the speaker would like to be petty and vindictive, I mean he might try to do that, but media like yourself are watching very closely, looking for those kinds of things, and we'll be reporting if we think he's punishing Kansas because he doesn't like what people say."
First phase of Hurricane Sandy assistance approved in U.S. House; all four Kansas representatives vote no
The U.S. House just approved the first installment of emergency disaster assistance for victims of Hurricane Sandy.
The measure passed with bipartisan support, 161 Republicans and 193 Democrats, for a total of 354 votes for the bill, and 67 votes, all Republican, against it. All four Kansas representatives — Lynn Jenkins, Kevin Yoder, Tim Huelskamp and Mike Pompeo — voted against the bill.
Here is a link to a story on the passage: http://bloom.bg/S9wHdK
U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, and his iPad were in the middle of a revolt against House Speaker John Boehner that almost threw the election for speaker to a second ballot. Here is a link to POLITICO's story: http://politi.co/ULaXTJ
Supporters of wind energy cheered final passage in Congress of the bill to avert the "fiscal cliff."
The bill included a one-year extension of the wind energy Production Tax Credit for projects that start construction this year.
This statement came from the American Wind Energy Association: "America's 75,000 workers in wind energy are celebrating tonight over the continuation of policies expected to save up to 37,000 jobs and create far more over time, and to revive business at nearly 500 manufacturing facilities across the country."
Gov. Sam Brownback has touted Kansas' growth in wind energy and supported extension of the credit. But he has also called for phasing it out over several years.
Recently, U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, has received a lot of national media attention for his uncompromising positions on the budget and gun control.
But those familiar with Kansas politics have long known about Huelskamp's refusal to budge.
Let's review Huelskamp's December.
Just one month after running unopposed to a second term in Congress, Huelskamp was in the middle of a political firestorm when House Speaker John Boehner kicked him off two crucial committees. Huelskamp lost his position on the House Agriculture Committee, a key assignment for someone representing the ag-dominated Big First district, and the House Budget Committee.
Huelskamp called the move "petty, vindictive politics."
Washington observers said Boehner was exerting discipline against Huelskamp and several other tea party Republicans who had voted against U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's GOP budget blueprint that passed the House in March and against the 2011 deal between Republican leaders and President Barack Obama for extending the debt ceiling.
As Boehner and Obama negotiate a deficit-reduction plan, Huelskamp has said he will not vote for any deal that includes a tax increase. Huelskamp cheered last week at the failure of Boehner's "Plan B," which would have prevented tax increases for all Americans but million-dollar earners.
Then last week, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough got angry with Huelskamp during an interview when they talked about the mass slayings at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Huelskamp said some were using the shootings to politicize calls for gun control. Scarborough resented that implication.
Nothing new here.
During his 14 years in the Kansas Legislature, Huelskamp was known for getting cross-ways with leaders, even those in his own party.
In 2003, GOP leaders kicked him off the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Then-Senate President Dave Kerr said at the time, "Sen. Huelskamp has been unwilling to apply constructive criticism and positive solutions to the myriad of budget problems of the state. We have no time to deal with anyone who is unwilling to be part of the solution."
But while he was angering Senate Republican leaders, Huelskamp found favor on the national stage.
In 2005, anti-tax leader Grover Norquist named Huelskamp "Hero of the Taxpayer" for fighting against taxes and trying to reduce the authority of the Kansas Supreme Court after the court declared the school finance system unconstitutional and ordered lawmakers to increase school funding.
Norquist even came to Topeka for a news conference to honor Huelskamp. At that press conference, Norquist illustrated the no-tax, no-way philosophy, saying, "Republicans who vote for tax increases are rat heads in a Coke bottle. They damage the brand. They don't just hurt themselves."
Huelskamp was often critical of Gov. Bill Graves, a Republican, and then in 2008 went after Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' son John for creating a prison-themed board game called Don't Drop the Soap.
Last year, some Republican leaders in Kansas voiced concern for putting the city of Manhattan in the 1st Congressional District during redistricting negotiations because they said Huelskamp would have trouble protecting congressional appropriations for the National Bio and Agro-Defense facility. Huelskamp has said he supports funding for NBAF, but his philosophical desire for smaller government has some worried.
In addition to NBAF, the 1st District depends on Medicare reimbursements for rural hospitals and farm subsidies. And while the potential for more wind farms is great in the 1st District, Huelskamp opposes extension of the Production Tax Credit for wind farms.
In June, several people at a town hall meeting in Hutchinson told Huelskamp that he should support the wind tax credit, but Huelskamp replied, "there is no money tree in Washington, D.C."