Last Thursday’s sad spectacle of U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-TX) chastising a poised Park Service ranger at the WWII memorial (and just in time for the nightly news shows) was not the stereotypical result of an “evil Republican” bashing a federal worker. Rather, it was proof of what happens when you’re elected from a very safe district for a very long time. People like Neugebauer lose that reflex -- the brake on one’s tongue – which keeps the elected official from going over the line.
Neugebauer’s outburst shouldn’t be a total surprise to Hill watchers; in March 2010 (during the final Obamacare debate in the House), he shouted ‘baby-killer’ during then-Rep. Bart Stupak’s (D-MI) speech on abortion. Neugebauer later apologized, stating it wasn’t directed at Stupak, who opposes abortion.
But that 2010 outburst had no downside for Neugebauer, he won the congressional election that year with 78 percent of the vote. Last year, he won again with 85 percent of the vote.
According to the Almanac of American Politics 2014, Neugebauer has been on the ballot in the Lubbock, Texas area for one office or another since 1992, doing the traditional things that positioned him well when his local House seat became vacant upon the retirement of the incumbent, Larry Combest (R-TX).
The Almanac’s stats on Neugebauer’s district are worth reviewing: it’s 83 percent white, about 35 percent Latino, and six percent black. (Overall, Texas is about 75 percent white, 38 percent Latino, and 12 percent black.) [These figures do not add up to 100 percent because Latinos may also be classified as “black” or ”white”].
Would Neugebauer dial down his penchant for comments if he had a district that was similar to his colleague’s, Pete Olson (R-TX)? Olson’s district is majority white, but that share is only 64.4 percent. Who knows if that would make a difference … but then again you don’t see Olson getting angry on YouTube either.
Or perhaps the problem of elected officials’ behavior is rooted in voter exhaustion with the endless political cycle. I once asked my husband’s cousin Jim (a smart young man, from a solid Christian family) how he felt about his longtime Congresswoman, Democrat Barbara Lee of Oakland, Cal. Jim looked away, shrugged, and said ‘she’s good for the district, I guess ...’
Lee is supposedly ‘good for the district’ because she’s been very vocal about getting U.S. troops out of the Middle East, while at the same time Oakland’s murder rate makes it one of the most dangerous cities in America. Do Rep. Lee’s priorities make sense? With a re-elect rate of 87 percent last year, I suppose it does to the people of Oakland.
One remedy for out-of-touch and bad behavior is a competitive election – just ask Republican George Allen of Virginia, whose political career came to a screeching halt over his ‘macaca’ statement and propelled Democrat Jim Webb into the Senate. But that involved a statewide election in a highly populous state. It’s another story when it comes to those gerrymandered monoculture House districts.
As long as we have House members who arise from those gerrymanders, we the people will have to endure more emotional rants and personal agendas that have little to do with serving our district’s constituents. My apologies to James Madison, but that’s the way it is.
Joanne Butler is a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a former professional Republican staff member at the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee.