Every two years, people across the United States get to pick who'll be their man or woman in Washington. Here in the Fifth District of Washington -- stretching from the Canadian border to Walla Walla -- only three men have been chosen to fill the post since 1942. Walt Horan and Tom Foley both became living institutions in these parts, and now George Nethercutt, Jr., hopes to follow suit, as he is trying to win a ticket back to Congress for a fifth term. Democrat Bart Haggin of Spokane is challenging him, and Libertarian Rob Chase of Liberty Lake has also thrown his hat in the ring.
Against the backdrop of war, local issues of interest include agriculture, economic development and the environment. National issues include foreign policy, taxes, campaign financing and senior issues like Social Security and the cost of prescription drugs.
The Incumbent -- Like many sitting Congressmen and -women, George Nethercutt has amassed an impressive war chest of nearly $1 million. That's not the biggest out there -- one congressional race in Maryland is expected to cost the two candidates $8 million this fall -- but it does provide ammunition to his opponents. Haggin, whose own war chest is more like a shoebox in comparison, with about $30,000, says money and politics don't mix. "I have no strings attached to me," he says.
Nethercutt answers that he is not beholden to anyone, and that in some votes he has stood in opposition to the desires of some campaign contributors. Characterizing Haggin's money-mocking as "whining," Nethercutt adds that when he first ran for Congress, he only had 4 percent name recognition in the district. "I had nothing when I started; I've had to work hard for all of my support."
Nethercutt does support some campaign reforms, including instant notification of contributions and full disclosure of where the money is coming from. He does not, however, support limiting contributions, as he believes it is a form of free speech.
During this campaign, Nethercutt is in the somewhat ironic position of arguing for the merits of seniority. While most people understand such benefits, Nethercutt won office back in 1994 by arguing, in part, against what can happen when a politician gets too entrenched. Still, he says he has learned a lot in his eight years in office and now realizes that he is more effective today than he has been ever before. The theme of this campaign is to create "relationships" between the federal government and the Fifth District. In some circles, that's known as pork barrel politics -- again, a crime he pinned on Foley back in 1994.
Nethercutt claims success in this "relationship-building" as the convener of a new medical research institute for Spokane, in helping ISR -- a Clarkston-based company now also located in Spokane Valley -- break into new markets in national defense, in helping pea and lentil farmers compete for sales around the world, including in Cuba, and in helping secure additional funding for Fairchild Air Force Base.
But in the area of agriculture, Nethercutt voices displeasure over his party's -- and his own -- embrace of what he called a $20 billion-too-fat Farm Bill. Nethercutt ultimately voted for the measure to protect pet projects of his that were in it, but its passage allowed Democrats to paint the Republicans as big spenders. Nethercutt adds that a bigger fight is to create a level playing field throughout the world for American crops. He is currently supporting a tariff on China, where apple growers have been flooding the international market with cheap juice concentrate, which has hurt the already beleaguered Washington state apple industry.
In his earlier years in office, Nethercutt was often criticized for voting in lockstep with his leadership -- and with Newt Gingrich in power, he wasn't the only one. Now he has staked out some positions that don't necessarily reflect mainstream Republican thinking. Although the deflated stock market has taken some of the momentum away, many Republicans would like to allow people to invest their Social Security funds in the stock market. Nethercutt opposes this, although he would be open to letting younger Americans find conservative ways to increase their returns -- perhaps through bonds, but not stocks.
On the environment, Nethercutt is at least saying he is supportive of the concept that the polluter pays. As for reauthorizing the Superfund legislation that enforces that concept, he says he would only vote for it if it could be proven that the money was going to actual cleanup -- not lawyers. And on the issue of Silver Valley cleanup, in particular, he supports having a Washington state voice at the cleanup planning table -- a voice backed with voting power. He wouldn't, however, want that seat to be occupied by the state Department of Ecology -- he'd rather see an elected official, like Spokane County Commissioner Kate McCaslin.
But there are issues in which he follows the leaders, too. Many economists are predicting that, like the Reagan tax cuts before them, last session's tax cuts will wind up creating huge national deficits. When asked if he would support additional tax cuts even if it looked like they would lead to deficits, Nethercutt is evasive, only saying that "If it would stimulate the economy, I would be inclined to support it." President Bush is expected to press Congress for additional tax cuts next year.
On the corporate scandals that have rocked the nation -- which he calls "outrageous" -- he says the congressional action to create stiffer penalties is enough for now.
"It never pays to cheat, and that's the lesson that corporate America has learned," says Nethercutt, adding that the sight of fellow CEOs being led around in handcuffs is having a deterrent effect. Still, despite the photo opportunities, corporate leaders involved in the scandals have yet to serve any prison time.
As for the war on Iraq, Nethercutt says the president doesn't want war and neither does he. Still, he says the application of pressure and the threat of military action is the only way to force compliance out of Saddam Hussein.
"The world has changed markedly," says Nethercutt, adding that he's living the terror, as one of the shootings in the D.C. area was only four miles from his home. "We have to look at the world differently, but keep our soul and our values."
As a member of the Armed Forces Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, Nethercutt has been very close to a major escalation in military spending. Some government watchdog groups say that in comparison to the Pentagon, Enron is like a check-kiting scheme. Even Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld admits that the Pentagon can't account for some $18 billion a year. Others put that figure as high as $50 billion a year. Nethercutt's committee, along with its counterpart in the Senate, is the only public oversight for this spending, which could reach $400 billion in 2003.
"We're doing our best to control spending," says Nethercutt, who admits that many cost-cutting measures have been shelved since 9/11. Nobody can get their arms around the Pentagon, he says, so he has pushed for smaller changes, like creating a lease-purchase program with Boeing for military planes and forcing the Pentagon to consider smaller companies for military contracts instead of the usual giant military-industrial types.
The Challenger -- In his many volunteer efforts and as a radio commentator, Bart Haggin has developed a reputation as a populist of the old school. Not quite a Green Party member -- although he has been endorsed by the Green Party of Spokane County -- Haggin has that blend of outrage and humor that can fire up the electorate. If, that is, they are in a mood to be fired up.
Some political watchers are saying in uncertain times, people stick with the familiar. It seems to be a point of view shared by the national Democratic Party, which has kept its rhetoric to a minimum, leading some to wonder if there are any differences between the two parties, or if, as Ralph Nader used to say in the 2000 election, they're two branches of the same tree.
Haggin isn't going to let that keep him from sharing his outrage over what he sees as the loss of American democracy to the "extraordinary power being wielded by the ultra-rich and the big corporations of the country.
"Nethercutt, wants to save his job by buying it," Haggin continues. "Why don't we just auction the office off on Ebay?"
Haggin says Nethercutt is on the wrong side of most issues facing the Fifth District and the nation. Haggin says Republican-led deregulation has hurt the environment and allowed corporations to cook their books, ripping off average Americans who invested in the stock market. He says he'd like to see white collar crime fought as aggressively as petty theft and drug dealing. White collar crime, he says, costs the nation four times as much as street crime. And he says Nethercutt has only become a defender of the environment in television ads in the past few months, as the election has loomed. Meanwhile, he says he has been involved on the front lines of local environmental issues for decades.
Haggin, who was a teacher at Rogers High School for more than 30 years and who placed first in his age group at Bloomsday this year, is more of an environmentalist than perhaps any candidate in Fifth District history. While that is raising issues that might not otherwise get debated, it remains to be seen how it will play in the more conservative north counties, where Democrats have traditionally struggled. Haggin is a big advocate of protecting open space, something he says should be worked into farm subsidies, as it is in Europe. Haggin has served on the Spokane County Growth Management Steering Committee and the Natural Heritage Advisory Council for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. At that DNR post, he helped select parcels to be designated as permanent open space.
On the possible war with Iraq, Haggin says he would have voted against the resolution allowing the president to wage war. "Somehow -- magically -- we've turned Osama into Saddam."
The war, he says, is just a way to keep people's minds off of other issues, like the failing economy. Out on the campaign trail, he says, "the war seems to be the last thing on people's minds. The overall perception I'm seeing is that we're going in the wrong direction."
Haggin says, if elected, he will be engaged in the district's struggles to develop a better economic foundation, but he says it's more of a federal issue than most people think. He says states shouldn't be allowed to engage in cutthroat competition -- the "rush to the bottom," as he calls it. The Fifth District, he says, needs solid jobs, not the kind that will flee when better state subsidies emerge. He also advocates the merits of keeping local money local, as in shopping locally and hiring local contractors.
"I want to restore faith in government," he concludes. "It's no wonder that people hate government, but they shouldn't be mad at the government. They should be mad at the people who are renting it."
The Outsider -- Rob Chase won't admit it, but he seems to know he has no chance of winning this race. That's okay, he says, because raising awareness about his fledgling Libertarian Party will be victory enough.
Libertarians are the political equivalent of fundamentalist Christians. While fundamentalists use the Bible's word -- literally interpreted -- as their guide to private life, Libertarians use the Constitution -- literally interpreted -- as their guide to public life.
"If Jefferson and Madison were alive today, they'd be Libertarians," says Chase.
Others might say that if Jefferson and Madison were alive today, the Constitution would look a whole lot different, but still, the Libertarians have a comforting worldview, in which there is an easy answer to every tough question. Shades of gray are conquered by the black-and-white notions of the free market, states' rights and the rule of law. Unlike what some Constitutional scholars and Supreme Court justices might lead you to believe, the Constitution is not, says Chase, a "living, breathing document." If it's not written down, it's illegal.
Chase says he decided to run when he realized taxes were forcing both him and his wife to work. To cut back on taxes, Chase advocates limited government: "The two parties have both become big government parties." Chase earned nearly 6 percent of the vote in the primary and is more likely to take votes from Nethercutt than from Haggin. If he can win more than 10 percent, it would be the best showing for a third party candidate in the Fifth District since 1914.
Chase is against the war in Iraq, quoting Jefferson, who advocated "peace, commerce and friendship" with all nations.
On taxes, Chase favors a federal sales tax as the fairest way to fund the nation's only real mandate -- to protect its citizens.
Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme," and citizens should manage their own retirements.
The government should get off the backs of people who use drugs in the privacy of their homes and aren't hurting anybody.
And the government has no role to play in economic development; that's the private sector's responsibility. If elected, Chase says he would sponsor an anti-subsidy act that would prevent the government from funding anything even remotely private.
"We're the Rodney Dangerfield of the political world," he says. "We get no respect. We're not anarchists. We just believe in personal responsibility and limited government."