Tennessean: Cooper raises profile with bids to 'fix' Congress
July 13, 2012
By Michael Cass
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper has been in Congress all but eight of the past 30 years, spending most of his working life there. One might see the Nashville Democrat as an insider, part of the problem with an institution most people don't think too highly of.
Yet Cooper, a mild-mannered man known for his folksy comments and Rhodes Scholar brain, has positioned himself as something entirely different: an outsider — a grown-up among children — doing everything he can to "fix" Congress.
"I've always been a reformer," he said. "Ask anybody. I've always been a gadfly, a critic. I've never been an old-boy insider."
With early voting in this year's primary elections starting today, Cooper seems like a good bet to win a sixth two-year term representing the 5th Congressional District, which would match his six terms serving the 4th Congressional District from 1983 to 1995. He's unopposed in the Democratic primary and will face one of five politically unknown Republicans in the general election this fall.
"I think America's in trouble, and I think I can do a good job strengthening America," he said. "There are many meetings I go to where I'm the only adult in the room. Tons of people are just partisan. All they care about is their team jersey and their talking points."
GOP leaders have another image for Cooper, which they hope they can present successfully over the next few months: a liberal who doesn't reflect most Tennesseans' values.
"A reasonable Tennessean would not have voted for Obamacare," Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney said, referring to President Barack Obama's health-care reform initiative. "Jim Cooper is totally out of touch with this state and always has been."
But Cooper's supporters say he's a fiscal conservative who's actually in touch with constituents' frustrations about Congress' difficulties solving problems.
"It's something he is passionate about — and educated about and knowledgeable about, which are critical," Metro Councilwoman Emily Evans said. "Congress' challenges are very complex, and to solve problems, you have to be a student of the issues, which he is."
And people in Tennessee aren't the only ones noticing.
'The last moderate'
With Congress struggling to pass budgets, raise the debt ceiling or agree on much of anything, Cooper's national profile has risen. Joe Nocera, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote about him in September under the headline "The Last Moderate."
"Cooper is the House's conscience, a lonely voice for civility in this ugly era," Nocera wrote. "He remembers when compromise was not a dirty word and politicians put country ahead of party. And he's not afraid to talk about it."
Norman Ornstein, a student of Congress who has worked with Cooper on reform efforts, said the congressman stands out for his eagerness to put solutions ahead of partisanship.
Ornstein says Cooper is part of a small group of legislators — a group in which he also includes Tennessee Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker — who are genuinely trying to serve the greater good.
"That's why he's there," said Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a nonpartisan public policy research organization in Washington. "That's why he came back.
"He is a reformer. It's not that he needs this job for self-affirmation. It's not that he needs this job because he'll never get a better one. He's there for the right reasons."
Ornstein said lawmakers like Cooper, Alexander and Corker represent what remains of the middle in American politics, where moderates have mostly disappeared over the past 50 years. The civil rights movement turned many Southerners from Democrats to Republicans, making the South the GOP's "strongest base."
But air conditioning also played a part, Ornstein said. Seniors who discovered they could live comfortably in the South year-round migrated to the region, creating an influx of Republicans who "came of age before the New Deal."
As a result, both parties became more insular and extreme and less interested in compromising.
As Ornstein puts it, the teams aren't anywhere near the middle of the playing field.
"Democrats moved to about their 25-yard-line," Ornstein said. "And the Republicans moved behind their own goal posts. It's created this kind of toxic stew where problem-solving takes a back seat."
Cooper, who calls himself a "nerd" — Ornstein says "wonk" is a more apt term — has made news with several reform efforts in recent years.
He sponsored bipartisan legislation in the 2009-10 term that led Obama to establish the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which recommended long-term changes to federal budget policy. He and Rep. Steven LaTourette, an Ohio Republican, introduced a budget based on those principles this year.
The proposal failed, and the vote wasn't close: 38 for, 382 against. But Cooper saw a silver lining.
"We got tremendous publicity — and an opportunity to do better next time," he said in an interview in his district office at the Nashville Public Library.
He said discussions about reforming the budget process have to genuinely put all options on the table to have any chance to succeed. To get lawmakers out of their partisan corners, tax increases and entitlement cuts have to be real possibilities.
The congressman is now pushing his "No Budget, No Pay" legislation, which would cut off lawmakers' $174,000 salaries for every day that they fail to meet the Oct. 1 budget and appropriations deadline, as he says they have for the past 14 years. Calling this session "the laziest Congress in history," he frames the idea in simple terms of family and income.
"No Budget, No Pay would engage basically the most powerful lobbyists on earth: our spouses. That would light a big fire under Congress."
Cooper's office said 65 House members and 11 senators, mostly Republicans, have signed on as co-sponsors of the legislation, including Corker and three House Republicans from Middle Tennessee: Diane Black, Marsha Blackburn and Scott DesJarlais.
Cooper also co-founded the bipartisan Fix Congress Now Caucus in May. The group has just 11 other members, including Black.
"America is strong," Cooper said. "Congress is broken. Being realistic, Congress will probably always be disappointing. But we have rarely stood in the way of greatness, and right now we are dangerously close to doing that."
He often gives out the number to his personal cellphone, a Verizon flip phone that he says his children call "an antique."
"That's the joy of being an officeholder," he said. "You get to see a lot of people and hear what's on their minds."
Asked about his outsider image after so many years on Capitol Hill, Cooper called himself "an employee," saying voters have made the decision to rehire him every other year.
"I'm grateful to the people of Tennessee for having elected me repeatedly," he said. "But that's their choice every time. I'm on a two-year contract.
"I've been able to voice their concerns at a national level. And they want a better Congress."