Congressional District Change of Party

It comes with a big change of infrastructure

The Spokane County Democratic Party’s Tom Foley Legacy Dinner will be held this Saturday evening, March 11th. The Dinner brings together eastern Washington Democrats to honor Tom Foley, one of the greatest Democratic Congresspeople ever to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives from the State of Washington. The Dinner sold out last week. Tom Foley (1929-2013) was a native Spokanite who represented our 5th Congressional District (Eastern Washington) in the U.S. House for thirty years, the last six of which as Speaker of the House.

Until the Trump election in 2016 I mostly thought of politics as something that happened every four years around the presidential election. In addition, thanks to our arcane, archaic, compromise system for electing our President, the Electoral College, and thanks to my never living a “swing” state, it was easy to think of my involvement—and my vote—as counting for little. I was wrong.

Living in eastern Washington in the early 1990s I was aware—and I was quietly proud—that we were represented in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. by Tom Foley, a man I assumed everyone in eastern Washington recognized as a person of great integrity—and a major asset to all of us living in the region. By 1994 Tom Foley had ably served in the U.S. House for twenty-nine years. By the time I was paying any attention at all Tom Foley was Speaker of the U.S. House. I assumed that a man of high stature and integrity was electorally secure in 1994 (an assumption that I suppose was shared by many others as well as, perhaps, Tom Foley himself). After all, he had won every election up to 1994 by large margins, often receiving more than sixty percent of the vote. That was about to tip.

When the results came in for 1994 general election the voters of eastern Washington, by a margin of four thousand votes among two hundred and sixteen thousand cast, Tom Foley had lost. Worse, the winner, George Nethercutt, campaigned on a platform of term limits, promising to serve only three terms. To his everlasting discredit, Mr. Nethercutt disavowed his term limit promise and went on to serve five terms. When Nethercutt finally stepped down in 2004 he anointed Cathy McMorris Rodgers as his chosen successor. She has held the position ever since.

What most voters (including me) did not understand in 1994 was this: when party control shifts in a congressional district, money and support flows in from multiple sources to consolidate the new winning party’s power in the district. What Nethercutt won by that slim electoral margin in 1994 using his term-limit-lie was far more than a change of one person to another. The current day salary of a U.S. Representative is $174,000 plus a variety of benefits (clear here for the details), but that is just the tip of the iceberg. U.S. Representatives also receive (since 1995) something called the “Member’s Representational Allowance” (MRA), a sum of money that currently varies between 1.2 and 1.4 million dollars. The MRA, paid out of taxpayer dollars, is meant to cover the cost of offices in the district the member represents (as well as their D.C. office), salaries for up to eighteen full time employees, travel to and from D.C., and mailing expenses (something of a holdover from the pre-email era). (For details click here)

The eighteen full time employees provided for in the MRA are meant to cover “analysis and preparation of proposed legislation, legal research, government policy analysis, scheduling, constituent correspondence, and speech writing.” Of course, if one is able to rely on outside sources for many or most of these functions, the money in the MRA can be used to hire interns and incubate new political/idealogical talent. 

In the early days of the Trump presidency when Rep Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ and the entire Republican Party’s sole purpose was to repeal the Affordable Care Act—and I still naively thought that she might listen to a local physician—I visited her office in downtown Spokane with some regularity. This is what I wrote about the experience at the time in a post entitled Member’s Representational Allowance:

  • Most of [McMorris Rodgers’] staff in Eastern WA seems devoted to interfacing with constituents, not discussing legislation. In fact, my experience has been the local staffers are usually less informed regarding legislation than I am.
  • Whoever holds this office uses the money to help advance like-minded individuals by offering internships and work opportunities. During McMorris Rodgers seven two year terms [as of 2018] she has fostered the careers of several. Toppling an incumbent House member changes the political landscape of the District more broadly than one might appreciate.

So where does the rest of the work McMorris Rodgers’ MRA is supposed to cover actually get done? That was made abundantly clear when I, invited as an interested physician, attended McMorris Rodgers’ “constituent briefing” on healthcare policy in 2017. McMorris Rodgers’ policy and legislation incubator is the Washington Policy Center, a service for which she pays nothing. I wrote about the experience of the briefing in a post entitled “Constituent Biopsy by the Washington Policy Center fbo CMR”, a post worth re-reading in the current context. It was there I first observed Chris Cargill (of the WPC), frequent “Guest Opinion” writer for the Spokesman now elected to the Liberty Lake City Council and agitating for the Council to take over book approvals for the local library. 

All of that said, the results of the 2022 midterm election in one corner of Washington State offer some hope. Tucked away in the southwest corner of Washington State in Congressional District 3, one of McMorris Rodgers’ nurtured trainees, U.S. Representative Jamie Herrera Beutler, last August was primaried out of the running to retain the seat she had occupied for twelve years. She lost by a tiny margin to an extremist even further to the right than she, Joe Kent, who went on to lose (by another small, but slightly larger, margin) to Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez. One hopes that Ms. Perez’ win heralds the beginning of the unwinding of the McMorris Rodgers’ political incubator.

Keep to the high ground,


P.S. I tried to research the history of the Washington Policy Center (WPC), the 501(c)(3) non-profit that provides idealogical and policy support for McMorris Rodgers and other local and statewide Republicans. The WPC is generally understood to be part of the Koch-donor-funded, Powell Memo-inspired, free market/libertarian State Policy Network, an organization founded in the early 1990s. Despite WPC’s local and Washington statewide influence, the internet, Wikipedia, and the WPC website shed almost no light on the specific history of the organization, as if it sprang fully formed out of nowhere. One intriguing article from 2001 noted:

The Washington Institute Foundation, a Seattle-based organization that promotes limited government and free-market solutions to local issues, has changed its name to the Washington Policy Center. Daniel Mead Smith, president of the center, said the new name reflects the organization’s growth and its ability to influence policy in the state.