Remember a time when lawmakers would work together?

Robert Houk • Mar 12, 2012 at 8:37 AM

Former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker often told a story about a key meeting a predecessor had with President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the early days of World War II.

FDR called Sen. Kenneth McKellar, a Democrat who chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee, to the Oval Office to ask if he could hide $2 billion for a secret project — which we know today as the Manhattan Project — in the Senate’s budget bill. McKellar, a staunch purveyor of patronage, said it wouldn’t be a problem, but had one question for the president.

“Where in Tennessee do you want me to hide it?”

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a protege of Baker, tells a similar story of how Oak Ridge came to be. It is a perfect example of an elected official using his position to benefit his district.

When the Tennessee Valley Authority began buying up farmland to build dams and create lakes, McKellar used his power on the Senate Appropriations Committee to force the federal utility to fairly compensate landowners.

Ah, those where the days. Yes, they were also days filled with backroom political deals and graft, but things got done. Important things. And Washington was much more than the partisan soap opera it has become today, with members of one party opposing the ideas of the other just for political sport.

Bipartisanship was not a bad word then. Members of Congress used to reach across the partisan aisle to work together to get things done. Important things that impacted the lives of all Americans. A few of today’s members of Congress remember those days, and know that following those principles is the cornerstone of good government.

Undoubtedly that was what Alexander was thinking last year when he stepped down from his GOP leadership post in the Senate.

Alexander wanted to be free to go his own way on issues that he and the rest of the Republican Party might not see eye-to-eye on. Mountaintop coal removal is one such issue, as is his stand on eliminating sales tax loopholes.

State Rep. Kent Williams of Elizabethton admires Alexander for his courage to step outside the tightly controlled box of ideology. Williams has also voiced opposition to blasting off the tops of mountains to get at a little bit of coal.

“Like Lamar Alexander, I like to think of myself as independent minded,” Williams told me recently.

Williams, who calls himself a “Carter County Republican” after being stripped of his official party designation by the state Republican Party a few years back after he voted with Democrats to get himself elected speaker of the state House of Representatives, is content to seek re-election this fall as an independent candidate.

That doesn’t mean, however, Williams wouldn’t mind being welcomed back into the GOP fold. Redistricting has seen Williams lose a few of his voting precincts in the 4th District (Roan Mountain, Elk Mills and Hampton) to the 3rd District. His district is now most of Carter County and all of Unicoi County.

If re-elected, Williams promises to work as hard for Unicoi County as he has for Carter County. Williams is from the old school, where a politician is judged by what he has done for his district — not by how well he can parrot his party’s rhetoric.

Certainly, voters in Tennessee’s 1st Congressional District have known the value of electing representatives who know how to get things done.

That was true of Congressman Walter P. Brownlow, who was responsible for bringing federal dollars back to his district to build a fish hatchery in Erwin and an old soldier’s home (now the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Mountain Home) in Johnson City.

It was also true of Congressman Jimmy Quillen, who was instrumental in helping to create a college of medicine at East Tennessee State University.

In recent years, however, constituents of the 1st District have had little of that enormity on which to grade their representatives.

In fact, I’ve heard from more than a few who wonder what, if anything, has Congressman Phil Roe, R-Johnson City, accomplished in his nearly two terms in Washington.

One of his partisan defenders told me earlier this year that I needed “to get on Phil Roe’s bandwagon.”

On the contrary, I think Roe needs to get on the bandwagon of his constituents. Particularly those of us who still value getting our mail on a timely basis.

I’ve not been alone in noticing the congressman hasn’t exactly gone to bat for keeping the U.S. Postal Service’s mail processing center here in Johnson City. Last year, he basically told a group of postal workers who would be impacted by the facility’s move to Knoxville that times are changing and such things are inevitable.

I doubt that would have been the position a Sen. McKellar or a Congressman Quillen would have taken.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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