Edolphus Towns and the Limits of Pork

Rarely do I harbor thoughts of divine intervention, but after spending over two hours composing, refining and polishing a study of the failings of Congressman Edolphus “ET” Towns, only to have it disappear in a matter of seconds due to my computer illiteracy, I am now almost convinced that there is a God, and that God firmly supports Ed Towns as the lesser of the evils in the 10th Congressional District. So, before I try again, let me make this offering to the force Reform Jews refer to as “Our Parent, Our Ruler”: "Ed Towns is the political equivalent of indigestion; Charles Barron is a heart attack. Supporting Charles Barron as a cure for the ills of Ed Towns is like curing a hangnail by amputating your foot." That offering being done, I will now proceed.

A reader, one Jesse McCollum, has responded to my column outlining the case against Charles Barron by making the concomitant case for Ed Towns (See, http://www.r8ny.com/blog/gatemouth/curse_you_chuck_barron.html#comment). To sum up, the case is that “Ed Towns brings home the bacon”. This is essentially the case that many Democrats, Towns among them, made for years on behalf of Alphonse D’Amato. My response to that argument was always that D’Amato stood for all the wrong things. The argument against Ed Towns is entirely different; Ed Towns stands for nothing at all.

Take the issue largely responsible for this primary, Towns’ support for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). As a Thomas Friedman reading, Bill Clinton Democrat aware of the roots of Clinton’s eight straight years of economic growth, I find opposition to Towns based on this issue to be somewhat vexing. I would normally oppose Towns for any reason, or no reason at all, but not for this reason. Why cannot organized labor understand that trade barriers are ultimately counterproductive? Has anyone who supports protectionism ever read a history of the depression? The names Smoot and Hawley should live in infamy alongside those of Taft and Hartley. Sadly, Labor does not need to beat Towns to win this race; all they need to do is prove that anyone who defies them buys themselves a well-financed primary opponent. Most members of Congress are risk adverse and will draw the obvious conclusion. Ironically, while many Democratic members of Congress courageously supported Clinton on NAFTA, Ed Towns was not among them. A Google search indicates that his voting record is 70% anti-free trade.  So, one must assume that, on CAFTA, Towns traded his vote, one time only, without regard to any big picture.

In the early seventies, “Congress Watch”, a Ralph Nader project staffed by the likes of Mark Green, published a study of Congress, in which Manhattan’s Ed Koch, pretty much the group’s model of an ideal public servant, explained that Congressional votes divided into three groups. There were moral issues, on which one voted their conscience; areas in which one had special expertise, in which one followed their intellectual conclusions; and all other issues, where one tried to vote in a manner reflecting what their constituents would do if they possessed all the facts. Naturally, there are other decision making models. There is, for example, the “what are you offering me?” model. I would regard it as incredibly elitist to argue that it was illegitimate for a representative from a poor district to use virtually every opportunity which presented itself to cut the best deal for his constituents. And, this is undoubtedly the model Ed Towns sees himself as following.

Still, there would seem to be limits. The City’s Republican State Senate delegation has argued for years that their signing onto the Republican Party agenda is a price worth paying for the millions they bring home to their constituents. But, is it not pennywise and pound foolish to facilitate aid formulas which ultimately hurt their constituents far more than the momentary benefits brought by the pork they bring home?  Likewise, if free trade ultimately hurts working people (or, for that matter, ultimately benefits them), isn’t it foolish to vote the opposite way for, say, the payoff  of a couple of small business loans for constituents?

Moreover, even the poorest Congressional districts have the right to occasionally expect their representative to vote their conscience; say, on matters of war and peace.  But, to Ed Towns “war” and “peace” translate into nothing more than “whore” and “piece”. On April 28, 1999, the House of Representatives voted on two resolutions concerning our efforts to stem the tide of genocide in Kosovo. One resolution sought to restrict the ability of President Clinton to deploy ground troops, the other supported the concept of air strikes. Members had the opportunity to take any of three positions which could have been justified as principled. They could have supported the air strikes and the President’s right to deploy ground troops, in the name of stopping genocide; or they could have opposed both, in the name of moral opposition to military actions when we were not under attack; or they could have pragmatically split the difference, and supported only the air strikes.

There was, theoretically, a fourth possibility, which virtually everyone agreed made no sense. One could support the President being able to deploy ground troops, while opposing the air strikes. But, who could possibly support that? Yet, that was the way Ed Towns voted. Those who cared searched for a rationale: soldiers going into combat were always issued cigarettes, but the combustibility of jet fuel made smoking in the bombers impossible; maybe ET was just being the Marlboro man again. Slowly, the real story became apparent, as members of ET’s staff told constituents that ET voted as he did on ground troops because the President called and asked him for his vote. Clearly, as the other vote was a freebie no one was willing to pay for, Towns decided it was an opportunity to throw a bone to the peaceniks, not understanding that his lack of consistency made him look like a fool. It was that rare example in politics when having a moral compass would have yielded some positive personal benefits.

Other times Towns seems to be making it up as he’s going along. A few years ago the House voted on a resolution, sponsored by the Republican leadership, condemning Nation of Islam Minister Khalid Muhammed for a speech which was outrageously racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Catholic (it was also notably homophobic, but one doubts this bothered the Republican leadership). Towns was one of the few members who voted no, saying he was a First Amendment absolutist, and such resolutions had a chilling effect on free speech. Frankly, I’m pretty much a First Amendment absolutist myself, and I don’t see how a sense of the Congress resolution threatens anyone’s rights; no one’s speech is restricted, in fact the debate is expanded. But, there were legitimate civil libertarians, including San Diego Congressman Bob Filner, a man who’d spent his career working for Jewish organizations, who took the exact same position as ET, so I was willing to give Towns the benefit of the doubt.

Then, the other shoe dropped. A few months later, First Amendment absolutist Edolphus Towns voted to repeal the First Amendment by voting for a constitutional amendment criminalizing flag burning. As I understand it, the Towns position is that it’s wrong for Congress to condemn someone’s repugnant speech, but it’s fine for Congress to incarcerate them for it. More likely, the rationale for the conflicting positions was “I already give the Satmar Hasidim a car load of money, and am to the right of Likud on the Gaza Strip, so the Jews are taken care; it’s time to give the Sonny Carson crowd some love; and the flag burning stuff ‘ll play well among the white folks in Georgetown and the Vet groups.”

I don’t necessarily think Charles Barron would prove superior on any of these issues. Kosovo? Barron believes that the use of American military power is always evil (although he might be conflicted by the fact Muslim lives were at stake). Khalid Muhammed? Barron would probably propose we name Gateway National Park for him. Flag burning? The day will probably come when Barron will participate in burning a flag  on the Capitol steps, a scene which will later be featured in a direct mail fundraising piece sent out by the RNC. And, there is no doubt Barron would be less effective at bringing home the bacon than Ed Towns. Hell, Barron would make Major Owens look effective by comparison.

Yes, it’s always nice to have a Congressman with a belief system so the voters can have some clue as to how their representative will analyze the available information and cast their district’s vote when a new issue arises. There is no doubt that we’d get that with Charles Barron. Charles Barron is a man with an unyielding moral code; but, responding to our country’s dismal moral climate by electing Charles Barron makes as much sense as responding to 9/11 by invading Iraq. Yes, Charles Barron has the courage of his convictions. That’s what I’m afraid of.