The progressive case against Jim McDermott

Seattle's most popular politician hasn't served his constituents well. In fact, he's done little more than attract national ridicule. Meanwhile, he's taking up space — preventing the rise of potential new leaders of the Democratic Party.
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U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle.

Seattle's most popular politician hasn't served his constituents well. In fact, he's done little more than attract national ridicule. Meanwhile, he's taking up space — preventing the rise of potential new leaders of the Democratic Party.

For nearly 20 years, U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott has been one of Seattle's most popular politicians.

He's been seriously challenged just once — in 1988, when, in his first race for Congress, he received 38 percent of the primary vote, with the remainder split between future Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, King County Assessor Ruthe Ridder, and four others. Since then he's received an average of nearly 78 percent of the vote.

"He will be re-elected as long as he wants to run for office," state Democratic Chair Dwight Pelz told a reporter.

Progressives have praised the 7th District congressman for voting against the Iraq war, and he became a minor national celebrity after appearing in Michael Moore's antiwar film, Fahrenheit 9/11.

But does a progressive veneer make up for below-average performance? Do good intentions excuse a lack of judgment that undermines his effectiveness and make him, in some corners, a laughingstock?

Health care

McDermott's signature issue is health-care reform. The psychiatrist has long advocated for a single-payer system to the exclusion of virtually any compromise or incremental plan.

His latest proposal, the American Health Security Act of 2007 (HR 1200), would eliminate Medicare, Medicaid, and the health plans for federal workers, military dependents, and military retirees. In their stead, McDermott would pool payroll taxes, require the states to create basic health plans, and ban private insurance companies from offering their own plans that duplicate the basic health plans.

It's the kind of sweeping change that McDermott has failed to persuade others is the right change.

And with McDermott, it's all or nothing. In 1993, at the Clinton administration's request, he deferred pushing his single-payer plan, even while attacking Clinton as "going down the wrong road." The next year, as the Clinton health-care reform plan sank under the weight of its own complexity and alarmist attacks by special interests, McDermott urged Congress to abandon health-care reform. "He evidently expected a more favorable political environment after the 1994 elections and, like many, was surprised by the result," wrote Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa, authors of the Almanac of American Politics.

But the Democrats lost control of the Senate in 1994, and McDermott's assessment turned out to be a bad judgment call.

Meanwhile, in 1993, Washington state had developed its own reform plan that would have achieved universal coverage by 2000. The state worked hard with then-U.S. Rep. Mike Kreidler, who now is insurance commissioner, and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray to persuade the federal government to grant a waiver from a federal law so large employers could be required to participate. But the state reform would have had many of the managed-competition elements of the Clinton proposal. Since that didn't reflect McDermott's single-minded approach, he was invisible, other than to offer a lukewarm endorsement, saying state officials "did the best they could."

By 1998, while McDermott continued to advocate single-payer, others had begun working for incremental change. McDermott served on a bipartisan Medicare reform commission co-chaired by U.S. Sen. John Breaux, D-La. Breaux negotiated a proposal to get a Medicare prescription drug benefit that would be tied to structural changes and competition to hold down costs. Breaux got 10 of the 11 votes he needed. McDermott (and other Democrats) dissented, saying the cost controls would bar access for some people. Reform was stopped dead again, and Breaux was bitter, directing his comments to McDermott and his allies. "More and more people in Congress have an all-or-nothing attitude," Breaux said. "All-or-nothing attitudes generally wind up getting nothing."

Is McDermott right in insisting on a single-payer model? Single-payer proponents argue that ending privately funded health insurance would eliminate an expensive middleman, redistribute money more coherently, and reduce costs. But it doesn't change the financial incentives in the system so that they encourage keeping costs down while increasing quality — a key element of the managed-competition reforms that the Clintons and state reformers worked toward.

Reformers also point out that both the Canadian and British single-payer systems are riddled with inefficiencies and bad service. The Dutch system, in contrast, is both universal and seems to be controlling costs; it is based on managed-competition concepts.


McDermott opposed the Iraq war from the start. This early opposition is somewhat of a Northwest tradition: The only senators to vote against the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized the Vietnam war, were Sens. Ernest Gruening, D-Alaska, and Wayne Morse, D-Ore.

However, Gruening's and Morse's early opposition to the Vietnam War didn't turn them into "Hanoi Ernest" or "Red Wayne." In contrast, McDermott became known disparagingly as "Saddam's useful idiot" and, more famously, "Baghdad Jim." It wasn't his trip to Baghdad in 2002 that earned him the title; two other congressmen went to Baghdad with him. McDermott earned the title because of his inability to filter his language, to learn to wrap himself in the American flag when he criticizes the military intentions of a right-wing administration, and to prevent himself from being used as a propaganda tool by a foreign government.

Instead, while in Baghdad on Saddam's turf, he accused President Bush of intentionally lying to provoke the war. Whether this was true or whether Bush was, as apologists say, a victim of bad intelligence, didn't matter. McDermott exposed the entire antiwar movement to attack. Even he later conceded, "I perhaps overstated my case."

It didn't help that McDermott later accepted a $5,000 contribution to his legal defense fund from an Iraqi-American who admitted financial ties to Saddam. (McDermott says he didn't know of the connection, and he returned the money.)

The Almanac of American Politics concluded that McDermott's comments "helped destroy" Democratic chances in the 2002 election. Republicans used the specter of Baghdad Jim to raise money against Democrats.

The wiretap lawsuit

McDermott became chair of the House Ethics Committee in February 1993. He immediately asked for a 12 percent cut in the committee's budget.

In 1997, as the committee's ranking Democrat (he lost his chairmanship when the Republicans took control of Congress), McDermott received an illegal recording of a cell-phone conversation by U.S. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, related to the ethics investigation of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. McDermott leaked the recording's contents to the media, and Boehner sued McDermott for violating his right to privacy. Boehner offered to settle for a $10,000 donation to charity and an apology.

Rather than cut his losses, acknowledge that he violated a House rule that prohibits disclosing evidence in an investigation without the committee's agreement, explain that he tried to act in the greater good, and, in the tradition of civil disobedience, accept his punishment, McDermott first denied leaking the tape, then decided it was a First Amendment issue.

Ten years later, the Supreme Court refused to hear McDermott's appeal of what became nearly $1.1 million in damages and Boehner's lawyers' fees.

Instead of intuitively understanding that he would be unlikely to get a break from the highly politicized, Republican-dominated judiciary, McDermott plowed ahead with the lawsuit. At one point, lawyers for media companies argued that the Appeals Court ruling against McDermott could "jeopardize and chill traditional newsgathering and likely encourage an increasing variety of efforts by the government and private citizens to punish the publication of truthful information on matters of public importance."

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of dollars that could have been contributed to help elect progressive candidates across the country will now be given to McDermott's legal defense fund, helping to pay for his poor judgment.

And McDermott's fine, promised Boehner's spokesman, "will be used to defeat" Democrats.

Home front vs. the world

Beyond American health care reform, McDermott's signature issue has been economic development and health care in the Third World. He's had some real successes in these areas, bringing attention to AIDS in Africa, authoring the African Growth & Opportunity Act to increase trade with and investment in African countries, trying to make his congressional colleagues more aware of such issues, and advocating on behalf of immigrants and political prisoners.

But in the course of his work, McDermott has become the Washington delegation's biggest junketeer, taking 59 trips from 2000 through early December 2007, usually paid for by advocacy or lobby groups, often nonprofits sponsoring conferences. Beyond rugged Third World countries such as Haiti, North Korea, Iraq, and Lesotho, McDermott interspersed trips to places such as Germany, Sweden, and Japan. All told, McDermott and his staff traveled nearly twice as often as former U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Bellevue, the next best-traveled delegation member.

In fact, according to Legistorm, a nonpartisan research company, McDermott took more trips in the past six years than all but six of the 535 senators and representatives.

McDermott's absence from the home front has been noticeable.

Linnea Noreen, a community activist who ran against him in 2006 (and earned about 5 percent of the vote), wrote, "Think back to 1989, and of what has not improved: transportation, health care, energy independence, education housing." While McDermott "pays lip service to these Democratic ideals, he falls short on increasing equality and spreading opportunity. He has given us 17 years of talk and no action, regardless of Republican or Democratic control." Noreen praised him for his opposition to the Iraq war but asked, "What is the end goal — to move a progressive agenda forward, or to constantly rail against the administration?"

Another activist, lawyer Hong Tran, challenged U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in 2006 but originally considered running against McDermott. She told a reporter that McDermott isn't effective, and "he doesn't do enough to help poor people."

The area's movers and shakers make excuses for McDermott. They note that 25 years ago, Sens. Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson had a de facto agreement that Magnuson would bring home the bacon, while Jackson pursued loftier issues, including a run for president. More recently, in a long analysis, a reporter interviewed politicians and community leaders who said they accepted McDermott's dalliances with world issues since they knew they could go to the delegation's senior members, U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks and Sen. Patty Murray, if they needed help with issues close to home.

McDermott is sometimes not even in step with his Democratic colleagues in the delegation. On some issues, he simply refuses to compromise his principles, and that results in obstructionist, sometimes puzzling and quixotic votes. Although electronic medical records would improve the quality of care, McDermott was alone among the delegation in July 2006 voting against giving the industry three years to set standards for sharing the information. The month before, he was alone in voting against a mine-safety bill. In July 2007, he was alone in the delegation in opposing a bill that gave the Food and Drug Administration new authority to protect the public. His proposal in May 2007 to subsidize laid-off workers to take lower-paying jobs was opposed by his erstwhile trade union allies.

His latest bout of publicly poor judgment was his December 2007 vote against an innocuous Christmas resolution. He explained that he wanted to retaliate against the resolution sponsor's opposition to increased funding for children's health.

The upshot of it all? Despite McDermott's seniority, his power within Congress is abysmal. In April 2007,, a nonpartisan research and publishing company, ranked McDermott 115th — significantly below his colleagues Dicks and U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee. In fact, based the ranking he had solely on the fact that he's a subcommittee chair; he has virtually no influence and little impact on legislation. Compared with other Democratic representatives first elected in 1988, McDermott was average.

Conflicts of interest

As members of Congress go, McDermott's personal assets are modest, in the range of $562,000 to $1.3 million at the start of 2007, according to his financial disclosure statement.

One would think that a progressive congressman would invest in socially responsible vehicles, perhaps several of the more than 200 mutual funds that screen for ethical corporate practices.

But McDermott doesn't let his progressive ideals interfere with his investments.

The man who opposed the Medicare prescription drug program because he felt it "was set up to maximize profits for the pharmaceutical and HMO companies" owned more than $52,000 of Pfizer, Merck, and other pharmaceutical company stock at the start of 2007.

McDermott talks the language of addressing global warming. "A prime challenge facing our nation is the reduction of our dependence on fossil fuels such as coal and oil," he notes on his Web site. Yet he owned shares valued at more than $40,000 in Peabody Energy, the world's largest coal mining company and the target of at least two environmental campaigns.

Another McDermott investment, worth about $32,000 at the start of 2007, was in agri-congolomerate Archer Daniels Midland, the nation's largest producer of ethanol, which has been widely excoriated as the most unecological alternative fuel. (Charles Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, a paragon of capitalism, told his 2006 annual meeting, "The idea of subsidizing ethanol use is about as crazy a decision as has ever been made. We want to have a social safety net, yet we have a policy that has the effect of raising the price of food, in order to make driving an SUV cheaper.")

Then there's DuPont, the chemical multinational that the Center for Public Integrity has linked to 103 Superfund sites, of which only 16 have been cleaned up. The United Steelworkers accuses DuPont of "greenwashing," publicizing misleading information about its contributions to fight global warming. McDermott owned more than $29,000 of DuPont stock at the start of 2007.

The future

Seattle and the 7th District seem content with being represented by an impotent congressman who has a history of refusing to compromise. McDermott wants all or nothing: He refuses to have half a loaf when he believes that no loaf is the morally superior position. And his history of poor judgment on issues ranging from health care reform to Baghdad to Boehner settlements remains questionable.

In the meantime, more productive politicians, like state Sen. Ed Murray, who has stated he would be interested in running for Congress, or even newcomers like Linnea Noreen, are stymied. McDermott, with his lawsuit-based financial problems, knows he has a better chance of raising money if he remains in Congress.

It is possible to be an outspoken progressive member of Congress and be effective. Bella Abzug, Phil Burton, Barbara Jordan, Allard Lowenstein, Ron Dellums, Washington's own Magnuson, and even McDermott's predecessor, Mike Lowry, spoke out against injustice and war while maintaining sufficient relationships with colleagues from both sides of the aisle to be productive.

Seattle deserves better.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Don Glickstein

Don Glickstein has lived on Capitol Hill, then First Hill, for more than 20 years. He's a native of Boston and New York and loves urban density—if it's done right with mixed uses that appeal to a wide swath of demographics.