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Why is Walz’s clout on Capitol Hill on the rise? Think swing district

WASHINGTON, D.C. — After just a year in Congress and with the help his party’s leaders, Rep. Tim Walz is building a reputation on Capitol Hill as a deal-maker who brings home federal money to his southern Minnesota district.

“People have always said in the past, ‘You are seen and not heard as a freshman,’ ” said Walz, a Democrat and former high school teacher who had no aspirations for public office until 2004.

Rep. Tim Walz
Rep. Tim Walz

Any other year, Walz’s assumption would have been on the money. Most new members are relegated to inconsequential committees, saddled with the most onerous tasks and largely ignored by senior members of their caucus.

But unlike his freshmen predecessors, Walz is president of his freshmen class, winner of millions in earmarks, spokesman for veterans affairs issues, and negotiator between the moderate and liberal members of his party.

In the past year, Walz sent home about $35.6 million in federal money for land conservation, veterans benefits and transportation projects, among other things.

Walz’s quick climb to the top of the freshman class is due, in part, to his background and personality: his time in the National Guard, for example, fits with the Democrat’s efforts to reach out to the military.

“He represents the change that we came to Congress to talk about,” said Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic caucus. “And he’s an affable guy. You can see why he was high school teacher of the year.”

But Walz has another important advantage. He hails from a swing district, where he narrowly unseated six-term Republican Gil Gutknecht by a 5.6 percent margin in 2006.

As one of the new long-shot members of Congress who Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has taken to calling “the majority makers,” Walz has been given unprecedented opportunities to cut his legislative teeth and bring home big wins for the First District.

The House leadership’s goal is simple: Retain those swing districts in the 2008 elections and turn voters there into loyal Democrats.

As a practice, there’s nothing new about that strategy, said Kathryn Pearson, assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota.

“But the extent to which they’re promoting vulnerable freshmen like Walz is unprecedented,” she said. “Not only can Democratic leaders help him, but he’s also a moderate leader they can put out in front of the party.”

Farm bill dealmaker
Hoyer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s tactics have marked nearly every piece of legislation passed in 2007. They have made painstaking efforts to balance the demands of the liberal left with the semi-conservative needs of districts like Walz’s, all while getting just enough support from GOP lawmakers.

The 2007 farm bill is a good example, said Walz, who helped Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., negotiate some important deals as part of the measure.

From the start, the farm bill was pulled between a wide swath of liberal Democrats who wanted to cut subsidies and old-school farm-state lawmakers looking to preserve current agriculture programs. That conflict was complicated by a tight farm bill budget; lawmakers were barred from spending any more on farm programs than they did in 2002, when the last measure was written, unless it was offset by tax increases or spending cuts.

One budgetary solution proposed by Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., would have cut subsidies and reinvested the savings in land conservation programs, food stamps and rural development initiatives.

But it was clear early on that cutting supports to fund new programs would not work in Walz’s district, where farmers collected $900 million in federal dollars — about 2.6 percent of the national total — between 2003 and 2005. Nor would Kind’s proposal go over well in other swing districts where farmers are dependent on farm supports.

Walz and others argued to leadership that the Kind amendment threatened to undercut their campaigns in 2008 — and the progress Democrats made in traditionally conservative rural America.

Walz said he told Pelosi: “We’re making huge inroads with these people. We’re showing a sense of fairness, we’re showing a sense of respect for the business these people are in. We’re making new friends with people who haven’t seen Democrats as friends in this business before.”

The plea worked. Leadership discouraged lawmakers from supporting the Kind amendment — a proposal that Pelosi herself supported in the 2002 debate — and it was handily defeated on the House floor.

Walz counts his effort to keep the Kind amendment at bay as one of his big victories in 2007, but he also touts new perks in the farm bill that will help his district. They include new money for biofuels research, tax breaks to help young people get into the farming business and a proposal to make rail rates more competitive for agriculture — all issues that came up during the farm bill listening sessions Walz held in his district.

‘It’s all spin’
After the House passed its version of the bill in July, lawmakers hailed it as a huge victory. Peterson jokes it’s a compromise bill that “everyone hates equally,” and Pelosi said it represented a “new direction” bill in American farming.

Attorney Sara Hopper of Environmental Defense, an environmental non-profit advocating for stronger land conservation programs in the farm bill, isn’t so impressed. She said a new provision in the House bill that would bar landowners making more than $1 million a year from getting federal dollars isn’t meaningful reform.

“It’s all spin to be quite honest,” Hopper said, pointing out that most farmers in Minnesota and other Midwestern states best known for their cultivation of corn, soy and wheat don’t come close to making that much money annually.

She’s also skeptical that the farm bill will actually help Walz and the other freshmen Democrats woo Republican voters next year.

“Farmers who are Republican are going to vote Republican no matter what because of guns, gays and God,” she said. More freshmen Democrats would have benefited if the farm committee had decided to redistribute subsidy money to land conservation programs supported by the farm bill, according to a report by Hopper’s organization.

Others say the glaring lack of reform in the House measure gave senators carte blanche to do just as little in their version of the bill. Senate lawmakers imposed only slightly more stringent limits on federal subsidies by barring farmers making more than $750,000 from getting federal supports. In addition, both bills would keep farmers from collecting money on more than one farming property.

The bill’s real test will be during the House-Senate conference this month, where lawmakers will have to decide which version of farm subsidy limits they’ll adopt, among many other things. For his part, Peterson says he’d like to do more to make sure that most farm subsidies are going to the little guy.

Walz said he supports stricter limits, but not at the expense of the farm safety net. Walz said there’s more he would have done for conservation, rural development and alternative energy. But, he said, because of budgetary constraints, “a lot of that stuff just wasn’t realistic.”He said those are among his goals for the next farm bill.

In the meantime, he said he’ll be cultivating his reputation as conciliator.

“I’ve always been very pragmatic, I think,” Walz said. “I wouldn’t say I’ve compromised, but I understand the need to be that way and I understand the way things need to work around here.”

Catharine Richert reports on developments in Congress, agriculture issues and other topics. She can be reached at crichert [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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