Senator Thad Cochran
Part One of Two (Click Here for Part II)
By Perry Hicks- Special to GulfCoastNews.com
Leadership is an opportunity to serve. It is not a trumpet call to self-importance-J. Donald Walters
Senator William Thad Cochran has spent nearly his entire adult life in civic leadership; 37 of his 69 years in Federal public service alone. This unlikely revolutionary was in the vanguard of Southern Democrats who switched to the Republican Party in the late 1960s. This mass exit brought a close to the old “Solid South,” something the Democrats have never forgotten- or forgiven.
The switch was truly sensational because Thad Cochran and Trent Lott were only the second and third Republicans elected to the House of Representatives since Reconstruction. Both came to Congress in 1972. Cochran won reelection in both 1974 and 1976 before running and winning his Senate seat in 1978.
While Cochran’s earlier election margins were the quintessential squeakers, his performance in the Senate has continuously earned him ever higher margins of victory, culminating in having no opposition at all in 2002.
If Cochran has been a leader in the Republican Revolution, he has been a quiet one, eschewing media coverage in preference for working behind the scenes to both craft and pass legislation.
In an exclusive Capital Hill interview, Cochran explained his political style this way:
“I don’t make a lot of speeches on the floor of the Senate. I feel like sometimes that I am more effective speaking one-on-one with another senator or trying to persuade somebody to be helpful to us with a particular problem, but I am comfortable with the way I go about serving in the Senate and I am honored deeply- grateful- for the opportunity of serving in the Senate. There is just not another job in the world I would rather have than being here and doing what I am doing.”
Despite these heart-felt expressions, there is today a real concern that Cochran might not run again in 2008. After all, he would be beginning the next 6 year term at age 71.
This final run would juxtapose the argument for term limits against the question of when has a public servant given enough.
Note that Trent Lott has dealt with his own retirement preference by running with the caveat that he may not stay the entire term- something that is well within the realm of possibility for Cochran.
Of course, Lott’s exit criterion is incumbent on conditions being “right” for retirement- meaning his replacement must be a Republican ready and able to meet Mississippi’s unique challenges.
On the other hand, Cochran’s viewpoint might be somewhat in reverse- running only if conditions mandate his seniority and masterful political skills.
Still, Cochran’s staff tells GCN that there is nothing to be read into his refusal to answer the question of will he run. Cochran’s custom has been to announce a year before the election and that he has not revealed his plans to them. As one source put it, “We will have a few months to wait before we will know his intentions.”
One factor beyond his age is the sobering reality of the Capital City itself.
Arriving on the Hill, one is confronted by Fortress Washington; barricades and security levels so high that tourists photographing public buildings are routinely questioned about their business. Those doing the asking will be uniformed members of no less than 6 different law enforcement agencies operating within the District of Columbia’s mere 68 square miles.
This kind of vigilance has been necessitated by the War on Terror and to some degree by the coarsening of American society; a good size segment of the population has not only come to disrespect authority, it is prone to show open hostility to it.
Consequently, the President must travel unannounced to Capital Hill in heavily guarded motorcades and visitors to Congress must pass through airport-like security. No longer may the public simply roam the gilded halls of their Capital on their own.
It should be noted that while I was stopped and questioned numerous times during my trek about the city, all of the officers encountered were very courteous in their questioning. Still, the atmosphere on the streets of Washington is one of scrutiny and stands in direct contrast to the freedom enjoyed just a few years ago.
The shift in power to the Democrats may well portend even greater challenges to Mississippi’s Katrina recovery. While the Democrats portray themselves as representative of the people, they have long ago ceased to be an agrarian party interested in rural America. Over the last 4 decades Democrats have shifted their focus away from suburban America, and have almost exclusively become the party of the inner city.
There is then no wonder why New York Representative Charles Rangel complained that Mississippi was getting more than its fair share of Federal Tax dollars. His remarks, along with the disparagement that “who would want to live there,” could be taken as an opening shot in a fight over the 87.2 billion dollars the 109th Congress allocated to Katrina recovery.
Sustaining recovery provided Trent Lott with the motivation to stay on and may likely be the tipping point in Cochran’s decision.
While nearly all of the media’s attention has been concentrated on the devastation wrought by hurricane force wind and sea water inundation of the coastal areas, Mississippi’s interior also suffered considerable damage. Cochran’s interest in agriculture and rural industry is evident in his service on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.
Although by comparison it is less dramatic than the devastation seen from the shore line up to the CSX railroad tracks, the rural interior, particularly agriculture as defined as farming, forestry, and dairy suffered serious damage.
Particularly in regard to dairy, the number of discontinued farms has lead to an infrastructure crisis in that the number remaining can only marginally sustain the supply and repair providers essential to ongoing operations.
When essential support providers, such as veterinarians and dairy equipment repairman no longer have enough clientele to stay in business, farm operations are impacted. They could even cease to exist altogether.
Beyond the issues of transportation and what would have been expected for damage to barns and other farm structures, dairymen lost vital forage to soaking rains. Furthermore, without electrical power, large herds could not get the two milkings per day required to keep animals healthy. As a result of the loss of food and ability to milk, livestock had to be moved out of the area or even given away.
Another obstacle to be faced was that without rural power, milk could not be refrigerated in the timely fashion required by health regulations. And of course, without the availability of fuel and open roads, refrigerated milk could not be hauled to market.
Prior to Katrina, Mississippi had 235 dairy operations. By the time Federal disaster funds began trickling to the ground a full 10 months after the hurricane; only 198 dairy farms remained in operation.
Forestry was impacted by the depressed lumber prices because of the glut of wood brought to market as a result of storm downed timber.
Cochran addressed the subject of Federal assistance to the Katrina affected interior by saying:
“We had serious damage… flash flooding and things that happened back on the country roads that most people never even saw… we had damage all the way to the Tennessee line- severe damage… so all of these areas qualify for benefits that were approved by Congress to help address the needs caused by that huge disaster. We have now seen appropriated by Congress about $90 billion for recovery expenses… in the area declared eligible- I think about 50 counties in Mississippi- so no county that has had substantial damage has been left out of the picture of eligibility for disaster funds.”
Like the slow movement of relief dollars to Mississippi farmers, GCN has not seen promised relief reaching the ground fast enough to keep Coast residents in their home counties. From the beginning, GCN has forecast that the grant program would take many more months than officials had announced.
Beyond even the impact Federal ineptness has had on farmers and home owners, some of the local governments are slowly being strangled to death by having to take Federal disaster loans in lieu of relief grants. Almost as if he anticipated this concern, Cochran added:
“Congress is going to continue to monitor the recovery and look for ways to be helpful with additional support… While it is a continuing challenge, I think Congress and the Administration will make the best possible assistance to those areas.”
When asked what additional things could be done to assist recovery, Cochran hinted that enough Federal dollars has already been appropriated by Congress and therefore the public should not be anticipating further substantive authorizations:
“Most of the benefits will be flowing from the Farmers Home Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development through municipal and county governments to the people who will benefit from those programs but those are authorized and funded by Congress at very generous levels…”
This does not mean that Cochran is happy with the way the Federal bureaucracy has handled Katrina:
“A lot of the response has been disappointing and I will say that very quickly. I think the emergency housing program that HUD and FEMA were managing was mismanaged. Even now, there are people that do not have access to shelter who ought to be in temporary housing furnished by the government and because of complications, red tape some people left the area and haven’t come back because of the inadequate housing facilities that are available for them to use…”
In regard to the Katrina Cottage initiative by Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour Cochran told GCN:
“Governor Haley Barbour has come up here (Washington) urging funding be given for that (Katrina Cottages) and we have made funds available but somehow funds haven’t gotten into the hands of people that can purchase or acquire and put these facilities to use as they were intended and that has been a great disappointment….”
If the bureaucracy cannot do its job conservatives will naturally look for a private sector alternative. Cochran evoked the name of Viking Range founder, Fred Carl, who has almost single-handedly rejuvenated downtown Greenwood, Mississippi. Carl was in real estate prior to starting up Viking.
“Fred Carl of Viking Range took a personal interest in this emergency housing situation and he is leading an effort by other business people- people who are experienced in how to get things done- to try to address this very problem and I think it will start to show some benefits. We need to get that problem out of the hands of some of the bureaucrats who seem to be taking too long and into the hands of people who can make things happen.”
Four bill carried supplements funding Katrina relief and recovery:
HR 3645 (PL 109-61) - $10.5 billion total
HR 3673 (PL 109-62) - $51.8 billion total
HR 2863, Division B (PL 109-148) - $5.59 billion total for hurricane
HR 4939- $19.338 billion
Total enacted funding for hurricane supplementals: $87.2 billion
Facing the Upcoming 110th Congress
Another factor Cochran must weigh in staying is the 51 to 49 Senate split in favor of the Democrats. While the mainstream media has trumpeted last November’s election as a stinging rebuke for Republicans, the actual election results do not.
In regard to the Senate, the Democrat’s “majority” status is both slight and very fragile. The recent collapse of South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson as made this quite evident.
Desperate to hold on to their majority, Democrats have floated balloons asserting that Johnson cannot be made to resign from the senate seat even if he cannot perform his duties- effectively leaving Democrats in key committee chairs.
Regardless of the outcome, the worst scenario for Cochran is that he will lose his chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee. But, he has been there before. Most of his Washington career has been in a minority status; he knows how to work in this kind setting.
Should Johnson not be sworn in as a Senator and South Dakota’s Republican Governor appoints a Republican replacement, the Senate would return to the 50-50 split Trent Lott had to cope with in 2000. Because Republicans hold the White House, any legislative deadlock could be broken by bringing the vice president up on the Hill where he can both preside over the Senate and make tie breaking votes.
As for himself, Cochran says the transition will personally be a challenging one for him telling GCN:
“I intend to work as hard as I can and not be deterred from not having a title. I will be the ranking minority member of the Appropriations Committee, I assume, and that will give me access to the meetings and the conferences. I will be able to serve on the committees who write the final draft of the bills after they have been passed by the House and the Senate and your meeting together to resolve differences between the two bills...
“I think I will make the transition- not easily maybe- but I will be satisfied with accepting my role and trying to do my best within the limitations that that will present, but I’ll still have an opportunity to be in all the meetings, to attend the hearings, to ask questions of witnesses and otherwise communicate with the administration officials- I will still be in the same party with the President of the United States and with all the members of the president’s cabinet and the leaders of all the Federal agencies, so I can’t make any excuses for not having access to the sources of power in the executive branch. I’ll have more than my counterparts have on the Democratic side here in the Senate and the House.”
Being out of the Appropriations chairmanship means Cochran will have to fall back to a position of being a “Quiet Persuader” as Time Magazine has described him. This will not be an easy task given the expected anti-administration cacophony raised by the far-left.
Although he is not willing to go on the record predicting it, Cochran is quite aware of the acrid atmosphere that could well fill the next two years saying:
“What you may see is Congress turning into sort of a gotcha kind of exercise where members will criticize the administration for everything that goes wrong and try to take credit for everything that goes right…”
Despite the blustering and posturing far-left Democrats will surely do now that they hold a slim majority, 49 seats does not render the GOP position irrelevant. Cochran makes it perfectly plain that Republicans will be far from powerless, explaining it this way:
“In the Senate you have to have 60 votes to pass anything. It is not just a simple majority. 40 senators sticking together voting no on bringing debate to an end and going to final passage of the bill can block the passage of anything- any amendment, any bill. So, Democrats in the senate are going to be forced to negotiate with their colleagues on the Republican side and I am one of them.
“I will use every opportunity to be an influence in a positive way in the legislative process without being mean-spirited in any way or out of line, but just using my rights as a member of the senate.”
The Perfect Gentleman
Thad Cochran embodies those qualities we ascribe to old school Southern gentlemen; speaking softly as to put all present at ease, suspending judgment, and never focusing attention to oneself. It is no surprise that these very qualities have made him not just one of the most powerful men in the Unites States Senate, but also one of the most respected and admired men within the halls of Congress itself.
However much Cochran fits the ideal conservative stereotype, his conversion along with other young politicians to Republicanism was revolutionary. It ignited a mass movement that not only ended Democrat dominance in the South, but also returned the White House to the Republican Party.
Because this shift in allegiance came about amidst the equally revolutionary Civil Rights Movement, Democrats, still angry over the break up of the old Solid South, have branded Republican converts of this era as racists. It has never dawned on Democrats that the real reason could have been the Democrats themselves.
In Part Two, Senator Cochran
explains to GCN why he became a Republican.
About the Author.....
Perry Hicks is the senior writer for GCN. He is a former Mississippi Coast resident and was a correspondent for the old Gulfport Star Journal. He has appeared on Fox News Channel. Perry has also hosted his own radio talk show on the auto industry with a mix of politics. Perry is a former college professor and a frequent contributor to GCN writing on stories of national importance with local interests. His articles can be found in the GCN Archive.
Contact the Author: firstname.lastname@example.org