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Huelskamp's remarkable irrelevance

Published on -1/25/2013, 10:48 AM

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Residents of Kansas' First Congressional District recently were treated to a stark juxtaposition in political styles.

On the big screen Abraham Lincoln, played by Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg's movie "Lincoln," cajoled, maneuvered, pleaded to both the higher and lower instincts of others, and yes, compromised, in pursuit of passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Meanwhile in the present, First District Congressman Tim Huelskamp, proud of the fact he does not compromise, was removed from his Agriculture and Budget committee assignments by the Republican House Steering Committee.

It's worth examining the differing approaches to "principle."

If time has sanitized Lincoln's reputation as someone above the frequent horse-trading of the political process, Spielberg presents a compelling case to the contrary. Lincoln went so far as to keep Congress in the dark about the status of peace talks with the South, feeling a peace treaty prior to such a definitive statement eliminating slavery would set the country up for failure and a future war. Lincoln clearly regarded compromise in pursuit of his principles as a necessary part of the game.

Admittedly, it's a little unfair to compare a second-term congressman to arguably our nation's greatest president. A better comparison is to examine Huelskamp with Lincoln's congressional ally/critic Thaddeus Stevens, the fiercely anti-slavery congressman from Pennsylvania who played a prominent role in the amendment's passage.

Stevens' commitment to the principle of racial equality was never questioned by his peers. Yet at a crucial moment in the debate, he surprised others by dropping his insistence that the amendment deal with matters beyond the elimination of slavery.

Stevens decided to compromise and leave issues such as the question of voting rights for blacks for another battle.

The "principle" for which Mr. Huelskamp claims to stand up is murkier. He says he's concerned about the federal deficit, arguably the biggest issue of our time, yet refuses to consider revenue-increasing measures.

And he won't admit to being a pawn of anti-tax groups such as the Club for Growth, which took credit on their website for delivering his 2010 primary victory. But we can rest assured he won't vote for any tax increases, no matter what the situation.

And he hasn't changed his "principles." As a state senator, Huelskamp was never one to compromise in the interest of his own constituents.

In 2003, he was removed from the Senate Ways and Means Committee by fellow Republicans. He never voted for a final budget in 14 years in the state Senate, and vigorously opposed both highway bills that passed during his tenure, despite the efforts of his district to have U.S. Highway 54 widened to four lanes. That stretch of two-lane highway running through his district had, and has, one of the highest accident/fatality rates in the nation.

Huelskamp has worked furiously to spin his latest political setback to his advantage by saying that House Speaker John Boehner keeps a scorecard of votes, thereby penalizing those who stand up for principle. Boehner denies the existence of such a scorecard.

Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., suggested in a politico.com article another reason for the Steering Committee's action. "It came down to the a-hole factor." According to Westmoreland spokesperson Leslie Shedd, "It had to do with (his) inability to work with others."

As a result, Huelskamp and his constituent farm groups now have little leverage to influence the ag legislation so crucial to his district, a fact lost on those who gave him a standing ovation at the recent First District Republican Convention.

Criticism of Huelskamp has recently come from an unlikely source, former Kansas House Speaker Mike O'Neal, now CEO of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce. O'Neal was recently quoted as saying, "Principle is important, but ... at the end of the day, something has to get accomplished. You can be irrelevant if you say there's not a set of circumstances where you'll compromise."

As Congress returns and tackles the great issues of our day, Mr. Huelskamp looks increasingly irrelevant in the debate.

Alan Jilka is former mayor of Salina.

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