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Independent Thinking

Has Senator Jim Jeffords' defection from the Republican Party helped or hurt Vermont?


The "Thank you, Jim" bumper stickers have faded now, as has the importance of the event that occasioned them. But Sen. James Jeffords' defection from the Republican Party certainly seemed historic at the time. Satellite TV trucks ringed the Radisson in Burlington on May 24, 2001. And hundreds of Jeffords' constituents cheered and chanted as the previously low-profile politician told the world of a decision that tipped the balance of power in the United States Senate.

By single-handedly erasing the GOP's majority, Jeffords appeared to have frustrated President George W. Bush's plans to set the country on a hard-rightward course. Overnight, Jeffords was cast in the unlikely role of avenging superhero. Millions of Americans who believed Bush had stolen the election seven months earlier found sweet satisfaction in Jeffords' move to disempower a president they viewed as illegitimate.

Jeffords' fame lasted a lot longer than 15 minutes. For many months after what University of Vermont political scientist Frank Bryan recalls as that "orgasmic" day at the Radisson, Jeffords was hailed almost everywhere he went -- nowhere more so than in Vermont -- as the courageous savior of the nation's soul. Soon enough, however, far more unimaginable events would dwarf the significance of what Jeffords had done and would in fact lead to the undoing of its effects. A year and a half after Jeffords' announcement -- and less than two months after September 11 -- the Republicans unexpectedly recaptured control of the Senate.

In some ways, it now seems that Jeffords' action actually has been of little consequence. Congressional scholar and UVM professor Garrison Nelson says he can think of no Senate vote during those 18 months that would have turned out differently had Jeffords remained a Republican. Partly because of the patriotic fervor that swept the country in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, Bush was able to advance his agenda on Capitol Hill even more effectively than prior to Jeffords' declaration of independence.

But the political ramifications of that move do continue to reverberate, albeit at a lower frequency. Vermont's junior senator is now viewed much differently by his colleagues on both sides of the Senate aisle. And among Americans generally, Jeffords will never again experience anonymity. "People still come up to me every day and shake my hand," he says. "I gave a lot of people hope that things can change for the better."

A key question, though, is whether Jeffords has become more or less effective as a senator. How much influence does he now have over legislation? And has his abandonment of the majority party proven harmful to a small state that could be made to suffer by a withholding of federal largesse?

Partisans, experts and the senator himself offer different answers. Some say Jeffords made a reckless decision that must now be seen as a colossal blunder. Others argue that his correct choice greatly enhanced his political stature and, at the very least, has had no negative consequences for Vermont. Nothing has shaken Jeffords' own certainty that he did the right thing. He calls the move away from his ancestral political home "the most positive thing I've ever done."

No one doubts that the switch has been beneficial to the man personally. Veteran Jeffords watchers agree that he has seemed far more psychically serene since leaving the GOP. "He has the air of a liberated man," comments a Senate staffer who has observed Jeffords closely, both before and after the big switch.

In the months leading up to his decampment, Jeffords had been "utterly miserable," says Ross Baker, a Rutgers professor who specializes in the history of Congress. Though always something of a maverick throughout his 28-year career on Capitol Hill, Jeffords had been able to develop a modus vivendi with his fellow Republicans, Baker notes. Even conservative ideologues generally forgave Jeffords' votes against his own party, understanding that Vermonters would not re-elect a senator who took consistently right-wing stands.

That tolerance evaporated after the Democrats nearly took control of the Senate in the 2000 election. Trent Lott, the Mississippi reactionary who served as Senate Majority Leader, dispatched enforcers to discipline Jeffords and the few other Republicans who still dared to carry on bipartisan relations. "Trent Lott did all he could to keep important legislation out of the committee Jeffords chaired, and it got very frustrating for Jim," Baker recounts.

Since bailing out, "Jeffords' attitude has been one of exultation," Baker observes. Gary Nelson agrees, noting, "Jim Jeffords is happy because he's doing what's appropriate for Jim Jeffords. The Republican hard right were not the people he wanted to be associated with."

Critics contend, however, that Jeffords failed to give warranted weight to other considerations. During the first half of 2001, he was the only high-ranking Vermont politician who belonged to the party in control of both the White House and Congress. The state's pipeline to power in Washington closed when Jeffords bolted. For the first time since 1974, notes Middlebury College political scientist Eric Davis, one of the two major parties is unrepresented in Vermont's congressional delegation.

For that reason and others, says Frank Bryan, Jeffords' move should be seen as "self-indulgent."

The senator put his own ego ahead of Vermont's interests, adds Republican State Chairman Jim Barnett. "He had been a real workhorse for Vermont, but now he seems mainly interested in Jim Jeffords," Barnett charges.

Underlying these assessments is the commonly held belief that Jeffords' action -- and the subsequent return of the Senate to Republican control -- has diminished the senator's ability to bring the bacon home to Vermont. Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University, judges Jeffords from that perspective. "By renouncing the Republican Party, he gave up his seniority and his ability to move legislation and bring back money to his state, West says. "It was absolutely a mistake from the standpoint of serving Vermont."

Closer to home, Middlebury's Mavis has a similar take. He sees Jeffords as "a relatively marginal figure in the Senate." According to UVM's Bryan, Jeffords' effectiveness is undercut by the personal animosity of several GOP senators. "He pissed off a lot of good Republicans, Bryan says. "Nothing is as important in the U.S. Senate as a committee chairmanship, and Jeffords cost them something they'd been working towards for their whole careers."

An even less charitable appraisal is made by Steve Moore, head of a Washington Republican political action committee called The Club for Growth: "Jeffords deserves an award for dumbest political move of the last few years," Moore asserts. "He gave up his chairmanship and lost a lot of his power and his friends."

Trying to compare Jeffords' success in winning favors for Vermont before and after his switch is a difficult and perhaps simplistic exercise. One fairly crude method is to compare the senator's boasts of the bounty he brought home during, say, the first four months of 2001 -- the period just prior to his switch -- and the first four months of 2002 and 2003. Such a calculation reveals a significant decline in the amounts of federal funding for Vermont Jeffords claimed in his own name in press releases. From nearly $8 million in the first third of 2001, the total drops to about $2 million in the corresponding period of 2002 and just $619,000 from January to April of this year.

In addition, the "Working for Vermont" section of the senator's Web site lists 31 federal projects that Jeffords has secured for Chittenden County. But nearly all these entries pre-date his departure from Republican ranks.

Apprised of these findings, Jeffords' staff was quick to supply a long list of federal appropriations the senator obtained during the past two years for Vermont organizations and initiatives. This tally enumerates several million dollars' worth of grants for a wide variety of purposes, including affordable housing development, police technology upgrades, public broadcasting operations, wind energy research and restoration of covered bridges.

Even some of Jeffords' right-wing detractors acknowledge his effectiveness in funneling federal funds to Vermont. Republican PAC-man Moore, for example, notes that Jeffords' status as the highest-ranking non-Republican on the Senate's Environ-ment and Public Works Committee "enables him to do pretty well for Vermont."

Similarly, The Congressional Pig Book, a conservative group's annual compendium of "pork projects," puts Vermont in ninth place for per capita amounts of allegedly wasteful federal spending. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, $61 million worth of pork was dished out to Vermont in fiscal 2003, or roughly $100 per Vermonter, compared to the national per capita figure of $34. Vermont had the same rank in fiscal 2002, but the state did slightly better the previous year, weighing in sixth on the pork scale.

Jeffords does not seem as proficient in bagging goodies for Vermont as does the state's senior senator. Although he is also not a member of the Senate's majority party, Democrat Patrick Leahy is constantly announcing new infusions of federal funds -- sometimes for centerpiece projects such as the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain on Burlington's downtown waterfront. Capitol Hill insiders point out that Leahy, now nearing his 30th year in the Senate, effectively wields his seniority from his plum seat on the Appropriations Committee. And the booty is particularly plentiful now that Leahy has entered the two-year cycle preceding his expected bid for re-election in 2004. Senate staffers say the number and size of grants for Vermont announced by Jeffords will probably also increase as his term's 2006 expiration date approaches.

One windfall is already in the works. Senate sources say Vermont will receive an additional $30 million in federal highway funds for the coming year, mainly thanks to Jeffords' ranking-member status on the Environment and Public Works panel. Congress watchers note, however, that the bonanza would be even bigger if Jeffords were chairman of the committee -- a post he would likely now hold had he remained a Republican.

"Being in the minority is always a disadvantage," says Ed Rogers, who worked as high-ranking White House assistant under Ronald Reagan and George Bush the Elder. "And the route that Jeffords took to the minority has made him even less effective because many in the majority are less inclined to work with him."

But none of this talk about Jeffords' juice on behalf of his home state matters much, according to Gary Nelson. "Congress members from Vermont have not been sent to Washington to get federal boodle," Nelson says. Gauging the wisdom of Jeffords' choice on that basis is "so simplistic as to be insulting. It's a naïve reading of the process," in his estimation.

Baker, the Rutgers congressional scholar, suggests that individual lawmakers' opportunities to snag swag for the home folk are rather limited. "So much of what comes to the state from the federal government is formula-driven. No senator can cause showers of gold to fall on his or her state," Baker says. In the case of Vermont, he adds, Jeffords' defection "probably didn't make much of a difference."

State GOP chairman Barnett suggests, however, that the change of allegiance mattered a great deal to Vermont in at least one important regard: the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact. "Republican leaders, especially on the dairy compact, would make special accommodations for Jeffords because he was a fellow Republican," Barnett says. "They do him no such favors now, I can assure you."

The dairy compact, which was in effect from 1997 until October 2001, provided Vermont farmers with an estimated $60 million in assistance. The money came from a surcharge Congress imposed on milk processors. Analysts in Washington presumed that Republican lawmakers would take aim primarily at the dairy compact, which was up for renewal in 2001, as a way of punishing Jeffords for depriving the GOP of its Senate majority. And that vital program was indeed terminated a few months after the defection took place.

But Jeffords calls the claim that the compact died because of his decision "baloney." The program would not have had enough votes to survive even if he had stayed in line, the senator argues, adding, though, that his move "may have been a factor in some people's minds."

Jeffords' own interpretation is shared by others with a close involvement in Vermont and national politics. Luke Albee, Leahy's chief of staff in Washington, says the compact was "all set to expire even before Jeffords left, and the chances of reauthorizing it were just about zero."

In any event, this story does have a generally happy ending. Leahy and Jeffords were able to help lasso enough support in the Senate in 2002 to engineer approval of a modified substitute for the dairy compact originally devised by Congressman Bernie Sanders. Jeffords' defenders say his alignment with the Democrats actually turned out to be of crucial benefit in gaining passage of the new program. Sen. Thomas Daschle, who had taken over the post of majority leader as a result of Jeffords' switch, made sure that assistance to Vermont dairy farmers would be restored. This national system of dairy price supports was pushed through the Senate in April 2002 by a 51-47 margin.

The new initiative, which has so far brought Vermont farmers nearly $40 million, does differ in one key respect from the dairy compact. It is now American taxpayers, rather than milk processors, who finance the payments to farmers. In that way, the program bears some resemblance to other U.S. agriculture-subsidy schemes that were roundly denounced at the recent trade talks in Cancun as unfair to would-be exporters in Africa and other parts of the developing world.

Jeffords' work on the dairy legislation is just one example of his continuing effectiveness in the Senate, some lobbyists say. Saluting the senator's "tremendous act of courage and conscience," environmental advocate Gene Karpinski finds Jeffords to be "a strong champion on environmental issues both when the Democrats were in the majority and now when they're not." Karpinski, director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, says that on environmental matters Jeffords is "interested, available, and about the most important voice in Washington."

His standing as the sole Independent in the Senate has enabled Jeffords to communicate his views to a much wider audience, Karpinski says. "His is a unique voice that commands much more attention and respect from the media than if he were just one more Republican."

Paul Burns, head of PIRG's Vermont branch, also finds Jeffords' message to be more candid in its content as well as more powerful in its transmission. "Maybe he senses he has nothing left to lose," Burns suggests.

Late last month, for example, Jeffords railed against the Bush administration's decision to ease enforcement of clean-air regulations on older coal-burning plants and oil refineries. Bush's action "undermines the environmental legacy of the first President Bush and guts decades of progress we've made on cleaning up dirty power plants. This rule is a victory for polluting power plants and devastating defeat for public health and the environment," Jeffords declared.

In a speech last May marking the second anniversary of his switch, Jeffords launched an across-the-board attack on Bush's policies. He condemned the president's exaggerations in regard both to Iraq's weaponry and to the purported benefits of tax cuts that, Jeffords said, mainly benefit the rich. "What makes the actions of the Bush administration so troublesome is the lack of honesty," he told a National Press Club audience. "It amounts, in the end, to a pattern of deception and distortion."

On the education issues with which he has long been identified, Jeffords was equally unsparing in his assessment of Bush's record. "While pretending to have compassion for our children, the approach of No Child Left Behind is heartless," he thundered. Bush's program is "part of a quiet plan to starve our public schools so this country can move to vouchers and private school choice."

In an interview last week, however, Jeffords argued that the Bush administration as well as the Republican leadership in the Senate have actually become more moderate in the two-and-a-half years since he left the party. He said his action served as a warning to the White House and to the GOP hierarchy on Capitol Hill that "they would lose more votes if they stayed steadfastly far right. I had a lot to do with that realization."

Jeffords' analysis may explain why no other Republican in Congress has followed his lead out of the party. Perhaps the four or five similarly moderate GOP senators agree that their party's agenda is less extreme now than in the first half of 2001. Another assessment holds, however, that no one else has wandered from the Republican fold because the risks of such a move are widely considered to outweigh the potential rewards.

Jeffords almost certainly calculated that the Democrats would remain in control of the Senate following the 2002 elections. Unable to foresee September 11 and its long-term political consequences, Jeffords likely assumed the continuation of the tradition whereby a president's party loses seats in Congress at mid-term. Today, most political mavens are betting that the GOP will keep control of the Senate in 2004, so GOP moderates have no desire to duplicate Jeffords' experience of inviting the party's retribution.

Some on Capitol Hill argue that Jeffords' defection was a key factor in costing the Democrats their short-lived Senate majority. Jeffords' move made the Republicans even hungrier for power, said an unnamed senior GOP Senate staff aide quoted last June in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newsletter. "He really motivated the hell out of us," this source said.

Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has a similar view of the effects of Jeffords' switch. "I think it was helpful to us in the election," McConnell told Roll Call. "It set up the obstructionism argument, which seemed to work very effectively for us in certain parts of the country."

Jeffords' supporters have a different reading of the 2002 results. And the senator himself says bygones have become bygones among Republicans in the Senate, which he describes as "a collegial place." Even the strongest critics of Jeffords' move acknowledge that holding grudges often proves counterproductive in an institution that lives by the adage, "It's not the last vote that matters most; it's the next vote."

In arguing that he retains plenty of clout, Jeffords gives the saying a slightly different spin. "Around here, yesterday's enemy is tomorrow's friend," he notes. "You have to recognize you have to work with everybody."

That's especially true in a chamber where a single senator has the ability to put on hold on any piece of legislation for any reason at all. "You can't afford to piss people off in this place, even when you have every right to be pissed off," a Senate aide points out.

Jeffords himself says he no longer feels ill will on the part of his former partymates. "I did feel it for a year or so, but now things are as normal as they've ever been," he says.

Apparently, though, some GOP senators are holding their nose even as they turn the other cheek. Larry Craig, a conservative from Idaho, won't even utter the name of his former partner in the Singing Senators quartet. When asked to comment on Jeffords, Craig responded "Whom?" according to Roll Call, adding, "I don't discuss the issue."

Sen. Craig Thomas, a Wyoming Republican, also seems unwilling to forgive and forget altogether. "Most of us accept the fact that is the decision he made for himself, but most of us think it was a damn poor decision and that is not the way to operate," Thomas told Roll Call.

Even among Democrats, trust in Jeffords may be lacking, suggests Frank Bryan. "Nobody in their heart likes a traitor," the UVM prof says. "The Democrats aren't going to cozy up to this guy, though they're quite happy about what he did."

Jeffords has done the Democrats plenty of favors in addition to putting them temporarily in charge of the Senate. The former Republican and now-nominal Independent raises money for Democratic candidates and twice has given the opposition's response to the President's weekly radio address to the nation. And it's to the Democrats that Jeffords owes his powerful status as ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Baker, the Rutgers scholar, agrees with the view that on practical matters, Jeffords is as much a Democrat as is Congressman Bernie Sanders.

One outcome of the whole saga holds few spectators in suspense. Politicos almost universally assume that Jeffords will win another term in the Senate -- as an Independent this time -- if he decides to run in 2006. No mighty challenger is girding for battle, concedes state Republican chairman Barnett. And Jeffords himself leaves no doubt as to his intentions of running three years hence. "Yes, I want to do it one more time," he says. "And all the indications from Vermonters are that I'll be successful."