John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


One Innocuous Tweet And All Hell Breaks Loose

Posted on June 5, 2014
Welcometomississippi i-20

I make one innocuous tweet, and all Hell breaks loose.

As it became clear that Chris McDaniel and Thad Cochran were heading for a run-off and that slightly more Republican primary voters picked McDaniel over Cochran, I tweeted this:  “I guess Mississippi doesn't want Federal money anymore. I betcha there are 49 states that will gladly take it.”

I was kind of joking, but those who populate the Twitterverse didn’t think it was very funny.

Douche-bag was a popular epithet to hurl my way.  Richard Viguerie, the direct mail specialist, accused me of being the reason Republicans lost in 2006 (ignoring the fact that I had left the House in 2005, the unpopularity of the Iraq War, Katrina, etc).

A hundred different “Constitution Conservatives” tweeted at me, calling me a RINO, accusing me of not caring about the 17.3 trillion dollar debt, saying that I was being a bully, and a host of other nice things.

And all because I made the fairly obvious point that when it comes to discretionary spending, it’s a zero sum game.

If a state decides to retire the Appropriations Chairman in an election, that state will lose money during the discretionary appropriations process.

And other states will gladly compete for that money.

This shouldn’t be a new revelation.  It’s been part of the political process since the start of our Republic.

For a state like Mississippi, which has been much more dependent on Federal money than most other states since the Great Depression, this would be a huge shift in what it expects from its political leaders.

You can make the case that crony capitalism has killed Mississippi and that by swearing off all Federal Funds, the state will somehow regenerate itself into an economic powerhouse.

That’s certainly the case being made by McDaniel, and his biggest supporters, the Club for Growth.

I would note that Club for Growth is primarily funded by a libertarian, Peter Thiel, who lives nowhere close to Mississippi.

McDaniel famously was undecided on whether he would have voted for funds that helped Mississippi recover from Hurricane Katrina.

You can make the case that Federal government funding has killed the Mississippi economy.

Or you can make the case that without Federal funding, Mississippi would be in even bigger trouble than it is.

Mississippi remains an economic basket case. It ranks at the bottom of the country in almost every economic category.  It has the lowest medium income for a family of four and has been at the bottom for a long time.   It has the lowest levels when it comes to the health of its citizens and educational attainment.  It ranks last in oral health, the percentage of children under the age of 8 who are read to every day, the number of people who have completed high school and on the index of the best states to live in.

History plays a big role in why Mississippi is in the economic position it is.

Mississippi made a bad bet in the 1850’s when it was one of the wealthiest states in the union.  It bet that it could sustain its agrarian economy, consisting mostly of cotton, by continuing to exploit slave labor.

That was a bad bet on two fronts.  First, the rest of the world was betting on industrialism as the future for wealth generation.  Second, slavery was not sustainable as an economic or political model.

Mississippi then doubled down on one of those bets, and in its post-reconstruction Constitution in 1890, it actually took steps to make sure it would remain an agrarian society.   That’s like doubling down in blackjack when you have a three showing as your face card.

During the Great Depression, it became clear that Mississippi’s economy was in pretty terrible shape.  That’s why about 97% of the state voted for FDR for President in 1932, despite the fact that he was a Northerner and was a proponent of civil rights for African Americans.

The idea that the Federal government could help Mississippi catch up economically probably started then.  And for most of the last century, political leaders that the state sent to Washington worked their way up the seniority system, so that they help steer federal funds back home.

There have been only 5 Senators from Mississippi since the Second World War.  John Stennis and James Eastland held the record for the longest duo to ever serve in the Senate until that record was broken by Strom Thurmond and Ernest Hollings of South Carolina.  Trent Lott and Thad Cochran took over the reigns from those two Southern Democrats, but shared the same bottom line view of their job:  Help their constituents by getting resources back to the state.

You really can’t travel too far in Mississippi without running into some evidence of the work of these four men.  Stennis and Eastland, in their later years, recognized that bad bet they had made when they were younger and vigorous supporters of segregation policies and become much more welcoming to Mississippi’s black citizens.  That might have something to do with the Voting Rights Act, and the fact that black voters became the biggest part of the Democratic base.

As Lott and Cochran moved up in seniority, they became proponents of bringing home the bacon.  They understood that for Mississippi to survive and improve its economic condition, it needed help from the Federal government.

And they were good at it.  For every dollar Mississippi sends to Washington, it gets three back in return.

Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour also understands how important federal resources are to his home state.  And that’s why he lent Thad Cochran his whole political operation to bolster the prospects of the aging Appropriator.

It might be the case that Mississippi can take off the training wheels, eschew money from Congressional appropriators, and become an economic miracle.    I hope that is the case.

I can understand why some voters decided to vote against Cochran.  He wasn’t the most vigorous campaigner and at times he seemed to be out of lunch on the campaign trail.

But voting against him because he is old is one thing.  Voting against him because he is a senior member of the Senate and  because he is doing his job of helping his constituents is something else.

I’ll give an example.  Thad Cochran single-handedly saved the Mississippi catfish industry last year.  Using his clout as the Ranking Member of the Agriculture Committee, he stopped cold in its tracks an effort to allow Vietnamese Catfish to be sold in this country.

You might call that protectionist, and it is, but for those who work in the catfish industry, which is huge in Mississippi, it was a life-saver.

Club for Growth hates protectionism and so they spent a million dollars taking out Thad Cochran.   They hate Federal spending.   So they spent a million dollars to take out Thad Cochran.  They hate the fact that Mississippi’s Senators get three dollars back for every one dollar that Mississippi sends to Washington.   They hate Cochran’s catfish program, and so they spent a million dollars taking him out.

And from an ideological perspective, I appreciate where they are coming from.

But for the people of Mississippi, there’s more than ideology at stake. There is the practicality of just trying to make ends meet. If Thad Cochran loses in the run-off, it will have an impact on a lot of folks who have come to rely on the Federal spending  to keep Mississippi’s economy moving.

Now, certain members of the Tea Party, especially those who live in Mississippi, might have such contempt for the Federal government, that they don’t want any spending projects to be directed back to their home state.

As someone who is not from Mississippi and will never live there, I fully support that perspective.  If you don’t want federal money coming to your state, more power to you.

But in my experience in Washington, that just means that the money will go somewhere else.

Discretionary spending is relatively small piece of the budget pie, and it is getting smaller every year.  Most of the budget is consumed with entitlement spending, which consists of Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, Social Security and a variety of other programs that are on a budgetary autopilot.

It is that discretionary piece that Thad Cochran, as the likely Chairman of the Appropriations Committee next year, would control.  As the Appropriations Chairman, Cochran wouldn’t decide how big that overall piece of pie would be.  He would just allocate where the money goes once the size of the slice is determined in an agreement with the House and the President, and I assume, as Chairman, he would look out for the interests of his constituents first.

Of course, if he loses in his primary, that money would likely be controlled by another Senator, most likely Richard Shelby from Alabama.    My guess is that Shelby, who is a smart guy and a good Senator, will look out first for his constituents, and not his neighbors to the west.

That’s just a guess.

So, to my Tea Party friends, who love to hate me so much, let me say that I appreciate your passion, your energy, and your willingness to engage in a political dialogue, although most your yelling comes at a fairly high pitch.