Does Rick Nolan need Schoolhouse Rock?

September 30, 2014

Incumbency has many advantages that make it difficult for election challengers, and that an incumbent can exploit for political gain.


Eighth District Representative Rick Nolan has taken this to a whole new level, repeatedly introducing extreme and unpopular proposals, then misleading the public about their provisions and popularity.


As a fourth-termer (he served three prior terms from 1975-80), Nolan is well aware that a successful bill requires support from the majority party and a companion bill in the other chamber of Congress. But judging by his press releases, one would think he is oblivious to these realities.


His most recent proposal isn’t even an actual bill. On July 31, Nolan introduced the Restore Democracy Resolution (HRes. 695), which encompasses a wide variety of issues, from campaign finance to gerrymandering—but a resolution is not a bill.


A simple House resolution addresses internal matters in the House of Representatives. It has no authority over the Senate. Most House resolutions address rules of procedure within the House, but can also be used to express the sentiments of the House, like congratulating an Olympic gold medal winner or advising the president.


Unlike a bill, a House resolution is not sent to the Senate for approval. It does not go to the president for a signature—and passing it does not create a law. But Nolan proceeded to refer to it as an “Act,” implying it was a piece of legislation and had much more far-reaching effects than it ever possibly could.


He spent the entire August recess hyping the “Restore Democracy Act” to Eighth District voters as destined to “bring about a new golden age of bi-partisan democracy—a model for the world and a reaffirmation of our great American experience.”


Meanwhile, back in Washington, the resolution has no cosponsors. A September 10 press conference unveiling the proposal was so sparsely attended that Nolan’s legislative director was deployed to stand next to him holding a sign in support.


And this is not an isolated example. The very first piece of legislation Nolan introduced in his current term was House Joint Resolution 29: “Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States providing that the rights extended by the Constitution are the rights of natural persons only.”


This was an effort to overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court decision on campaign finance, but the resolution extends far beyond that, stripping all “artificial entities” of constitutional rights.


In addition, a joint resolution must pass both the House and the Senate, yet HJ Res. 29 is so extreme—potentially compromising First and Fourth Amendment protections for businesses, unions, non-profits, churches, etc.—that it has only three co-sponsors and no companion bill in the Senate.


The lack of support for these proposals by other members of Congress is too stark to be explained away as Nolan being optimistic.


The No Government No Pay Act of 2013 would have prohibited Congress from receiving pay during a government shutdown. However, by law, any change in pay can apply only to the next Congress.


In the midst of the unpopular government shutdown that year, Nolan gave voters the impression that his bill would apply to the current Congress. He also claimed it had momentum and bipartisan support, when it had few co-sponsors, all of them Democrats, and no companion bill in the Senate.


Just this April—when the current Eighth District race was starting to heat up—Nolan introduced the American Pipelines Jobs and Safety Act of 2014 (HR4441), which goes far beyond requiring pipelines to be built with American steel.


HR4441 would require that the steel be made from iron ore and taconite that was mined and processed in the US unless a waiver is granted. This made for a great election-year talking point on the Iron Range, but it was never going to become law.


Congress won’t even debate the issue until next year; like Nolan’s Citizens United amendment, it would wreak havoc if enacted; and a similar requirement had already been removed from a bill previously introduced in the Minnesota legislature.


HR4441 is so extreme that not even a single member of the Congressional Steel Caucus has signed on as a cosponsor. There is also no Senate companion proposal.


But Nolan’s PR campaign on it continues apace, leaving voters with the impression that support is building for HR4441, when in fact the proposal will die when the current Congress ends.


Introducing reasonable ideas that may or may not advance is one thing; introducing extreme proposals and palming them off as legitimate is quite another. The advantages of incumbency in an election year should not be abused by manipulating the legislative process or misleading the voters.


And voters should be careful never to confuse motion with actual progress.


A member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Shelly Mategko is a trade unionist, former lobbyist, and a political activist from 1974 to 2010, with expertise in campaign finance and communications strategy.

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