WASHINGTON — There’s a life cycle for politicians, especially in swing states, that goes something like this: Start out as a reformer. Accuse the incumbent of being a career politician who is out of touch with voters, part of a broken government, beholden to special interests, and desperately afraid to face a challenger on a debate stage. Declare it’s time for a change.
Win, then become every bit the same sort of lawmaker as the politician who was just deposed.
This election cycle — roiling with anti-incumbent, anti-Washington sentiment — offers an especially apt example, at least judging by the campaign ads that the incumbent in question ran more than 20 years ago.
The race is in North Carolina, where Republican Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is facing perhaps the most surprising challenge of the election cycle. He is tied or even trailing Democratic former state Rep. Deborah Ross, who once headed the state American Civil Liberties Union.
Ross gets the role of eager reformer. Burr dons the garb of compromised pol.
That might sound unfair, but a look at Burr’s old campaign ads tells the story.
He first ran in 1992 against Democratic Rep. Steve Neal, who himself was elected in the anti-corruption post-Watergate wave in 1974. After 18 years, Neal was deeply entrenched in Congress, and he took some of the perks of power for granted. Among other things, he ran up a poor attendance record and got ensnared in the House banking scandal in which hundreds of lawmakers were caught over-drawing their checking accounts with no consequences.
Burr pummeled Neal hard, according to transcripts of his old TV spots provided by the University of Oklahoma’s Julian Kanter Political Commercial Archive.
“Many members of Congress can’t balance their own checkbooks, let alone our nation’s budget. Our own Congressman Steve Neal was caught in the check-balancing scandal,” one of Burr’s spots said. “This is a part of his record he doesn’t want you to remember, just like he doesn’t want you to remember that he accepted a $40,000 pay raise.”
There was no danger of Burr getting caught in another checking scandal, since Congress eliminated the House bank. But that $40,000 raise he excoriated Neal for accepting? For one thing, Burr didn’t note any of Neal’s opposition to raises or the restrictions that ongoing reforms placed on lawmaker incomes. For another, since Burr has been in Congress (Burr won after Neal ducked out before the 1994 Republican revolution), Burr has enjoyed seeing his salary hiked from $133,600 when he started to $174,000 now — yes, just a bit more than $40,000, and Burr has accepted it.
What else did Burr complain about? The federal debt and deficit was a big target, although Burr was running against a guy who repeatedly proposed balanced budget amendments. “I’ll fight to force government to live within its means, as we must in balancing the family budget,” Burr said in one ad. Of course, before the Great Recession, the worst deficit years after Burr was elected came when Republicans controlled the White House and Congress.
There were also lots of complaints about special interests and Congress not functioning. “If you believe Congress is working and are satisfied with the way things are, then you should re-elect Steve Neal,” Burr decreed.
But within a decade of getting elected, Burr was regarded as the top recipient of special interest PAC money. With the profusion of donor groups since then, it’s a little harder to track, but Burr still ranks high, and takes hits for alleged favors he does.
As far as Congress working, lawmakers are on pace to be in session fewer days than any year since 1952, and likely to pass the least legislation in decades.
Then there’s the perennial issue of the challenger who demands debates. Burr was true to form. “Congressman Neal, it’s time you stood toe to toe with me and debate the issues,” Burr said in one spot. “Election Day is around the corner and still you won’t talk about your 18-year record.”
There’s another topic Burr was big on in 1994 that he hasn’t exactly delivered on. “I stand for cutting taxes, by reducing wasteful spending, and for term limits to rid Congress of professional politicians,” Burr said.
Burr’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
He now says if he wins this one last time, he will retire at the end of his next term, which would give a man who ran on a platform advocating term limits a Capitol Hill career that spans 28 years.
Unless the latest reformer can keep it to 22.