For at least the last 50 years there has existed a bipartisan consensus in Idaho regarding the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory. The consensus held that Idaho political leaders from both parties – Jim McClure and Frank Church, Richard Stallings and Larry Craig – would do what it took to protect the federal investment and jobs at the sprawling site in the Arco desert west of Idaho Falls.
The consensus did not mean that the “site,” as locals call it, would ever be free from controversy. Then-Gov. John V. Evans, a Democrat, pressured the Department of Energy in the 1980′s to end the practice of injecting less-than-pristine process water into a well that eventually made its way into the vast Snake Plain Aquifer. DOE finally ended the practice and I still have a hefty paperweight on my desk that marked the public capping of that controversial well.
Former Gov. Cecil D. Andrus, another Democrat, fought the DOE to a standstill in the late 1980′s and early 1990′s over its various waste handling processes and eventually won federal court guarantees about how Idaho’s share of the environmental legacy of the Cold War would be cleaned up and moved to move appropriate disposal sites. Gov. Phil Batt, a Republican, continued those efforts, which remain on-going to this day.
Yet even when controversy erupted over environmental issues the bipartisan consensus held. When it came time to present a united front in support of federal funding for research or environmental restoration at INL pragmatism always seemed to trump ideology. Andrus and McClure, a Democrat and a Republican, linked arms to support new initiatives at the site when both were in office. Stallings became a champion of INL funding during his time in Congress. Craig inherited McClure’s role as the Senate champion of DOE funding for Idaho.
It may be an overstatement to suggest that the long-time INL consensus has come to end with the current division in the Idaho delegation over support for the budget bill that recently passed Congress, but it seems pretty clear that political pragmatism no longer automatically trumps ideology when it comes to supporting INL funding.
Second District Congressman Mike Simpson, a long-time champion of the site, now chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on Energy and Water. It’s no secret that Simpson took over that important spot – he had chaired the subcommittee on Interior and related agencies – in order to have even more direct influence over INL funding. Just before the recent and bipartisan $1.1 trillion spending bill passed the House and then the Senate, Simpson was saying that he’d been able to reverse Obama Administration cuts in DOE spending in Idaho.
“In fact,” Simpson said in a news release on January 14, “I have increased funding for INL’s nuclear research programs, ensured full funding for the Lab’s vital security force, and boosted funding by more than $20 million for the ongoing nuclear cleanup activities in Eastern Idaho. This bill not only stabilizes funding at INL after a couple of years of uncertainty, it sends a strong message that INL’s work as the DOE’s lead nuclear energy laboratory is critical to our nation’s energy security.”
It’s worth underscoring that part of the money Simpson helped secure – beyond what the administration had proposed – funds the on-going clean-up at INL; a critical effort that both Republican and Democratic governors in Idaho have supported.
That is the kind of budget work that would have once almost guaranteed a release from the entire Idaho delegation claiming credit for protecting jobs and investment in Idaho and getting the better of a hostile Democratic administration. Instead Simpson was blasted by his Republican primary challenger Bryan Smith for being the “left flank of the Idaho congressional delegation.” Smith pointed out that the three other members of the Idaho delegation – Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Congressman Raul Labrador – all opposed final passage of the budget legislation. Just for the record the budget legislation, a product of a spending framework hashed out by Democrat Patty Murray and Republican Paul Ryan, passed the Senate 72-26 and the House by an overwhelming margin of 359-67.
Crapo and Risch issued a joint statement explaining their NO votes. The statement stressed the big national debt and the need to bring it under control and made no mention that the NO votes also had the effect of rejected Simpson’s budget work on the Idaho National Laboratory.
There are lots of ways to look at this set of facts. A NO vote on a big budget bill, even one that had strong bipartisan support, forecloses another government shutdown and was certain to pass, is a politically safe vote in Idaho these days. It is often easier in politics to explain a NO vote than to justify a YES vote, particularly given the increasingly conservative nature of the Idaho GOP. If you want to apply a particularly cynical analysis to the facts you might conclude that the three NO voters in the Idaho delegation simply calculated that they would let Simpson take the heat for passing a trillion dollar budget knowing full well that the DOE spending that he had helped secure for Idaho would be included.
But there may be a larger and more important lesson.
As I’ve written before, Mike Simpson, by any measure, is a very conservative guy. Yet his pragmatic heavy lifting in his House committee to enhance the DOE budget to the benefit of thousands in Idaho – a position that once would have demanded a rousing show of support from interests as diverse as the Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers – has, in the political environment of 2014, opened him to a charge of being a big spending liberal.
Simpson is no liberal. What he really is – and I mean this as a high compliment – is a throwback to those days when passing a budget that provided stability to a major Idaho institution was cause for celebration. Simpson is a legislator in the same way Jim McClure, Larry Craig and Richard Stallings once were. Each of them considered it re-election must that they campaign on the basis of how strongly they supported the INL. Pragmatism in those days trumped ideology. It may not any longer.
We’ll see in the weeks ahead whether a serious, pragmatic legislator looking out for the interests of his district and state and determined to actually help pass a budget that funds the government can withstand a challenge that calls into question the very essence of what it means to be a legislator. Those interests that have long supported the Idaho National Laboratory better hope that pragmatism wins.