Political Hay

Persistence Pays Off

Sen. Pat Roberts' achievement -- even Jay Rockefeller went along.

By 7.13.04

WASHINGTON -- The year was 1967. A young Kansan went to work for Frank Carlson, the senior senator from that state. At the same time, a young Wisconsinite, whose adopted state was Colorado, went to work for Gordon Allott, that state's senior senator. These two young staffers, one around 30 and the other in his twenties, met each other somewhere along the line.

The Kansan, after Senator Carlson retired, went to work as chief of staff (they called them Administrative Assistants in those days) for a member of the House from Kansas. That member, in due course, retired. The still-fairly-young Kansan ran for the Republican nomination for the seat and was subsequently elected to the House. He stayed for quite some time and when Republicans took control of the House after the 1994 elections, this not-as-young Kansan became chairman of the Agriculture Committee. He immediately moved to reform agriculture and helped to pass the most significant reform bill in that arena in decades. It was truly landmark legislation. That is why many were shocked when, upon the retirement of three-term Senator Nancy Kassebaum, the House Ag Chairman declared his run for the U.S. Senate. He was elected in 1996 and was re-elected without meaningful opposition in 2002.

The Coloradoan? After his senator was defeated in the closest Senate election in the state's history, he worked for another member of the Senate leadership. In due course he became the first president of the Heritage Foundation and then founded the Free Congress Foundation, and, of late, came to write this commentary.

When Republicans re-took the Senate after the 2002 elections, due to the term limits on committee chairmanships imposed after the 1994 elections, the newly re-elected senator took over one of the most important committees in the Senate -- considering the era in which we live.

THE SENATOR, OF COURSE, is Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Roberts is remarkable. He is easily one of the funniest men currently in the Senate. In an era when almost every senator takes himself too seriously, Roberts is a master at self-deprecating humor and can do a humorous dialogue better than Dave Letterman. However, he can be serious when he needs to be. Moreover, no other senator now serving could have accomplished what Roberts did this past week.

Roberts slogged through a year of hard work to get a report on intelligence leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Almost no one would have predicted in this highly partisan year that Roberts would have been able to get a unanimous vote on problems with our intelligence system -- the most sensitive of which being the CIA.

True, Vice Chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) wanted to go further and examine how the Administration used that intelligence to make the case to go to war. Roberts and his Republican colleagues knew that in this highly charged, partisan atmosphere he could not come up with a unanimous report on that question, so he postponed final action until after the election. He made clear that the committee needed to hear from witnesses, and that there are only 20 legislative days left until the Senate adjourned. Rockefeller argued that the Senate could work through the period during which the Political Conventions are being held and during the late Fall while the campaigns are in full swing as well. Roberts correctly rejected that as ludicrous. Senators, he pointed out, already have their travel plans for the period of the Political Conventions and if you tried to bring them back, a riot would ensue.

Likewise, to hold a committee session during October when the election campaign was going at a fever pitch would hardly promote non-partisanship. Even though the committee decided not to get into that aspect of the issue, there is time after the election to probe that matter. At that time, Pat Roberts will again be chairman if the Republicans manage to hang on to control of the Senate. If the Democrats prevail, he will be vice chairman and Jay Rockefeller will be chairman.

Senator Roberts said that the President got consistently bad information about the threat that Iraq posed. He is satisfied that no one was pressured to give the Administration that intelligence. Democrats said that the climate was such that agents were fearful not to give the Administration what it wanted. Roberts said only one agent said he felt pressured and that was about Cuba. Rockefeller said the definition of pressure was too narrow.

IT IS AMAZING, CONSIDERING all of this bickering, that the Intelligence Committee could come to a unanimous vote on anything. Even Rockefeller paid tribute to Roberts for his dogged persistence.

Roberts faced a blow-up when documents were stolen from the Republicans. Many of his colleagues refused to continue the effort. Roberts patiently put the committee, and its very partisan staff, back together again. A number of his colleagues suggested at that point that the effort to examine the intelligence system be abandoned until after the election. Roberts would not hear of it and the nation is the better for his efforts.

Roberts is a true-blue conservative. His voting record is hardly distinguishable from his colleague Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS). It has been perhaps more than half a century since Kansas has had two senators as conservative as Roberts and Brownback. Whereas Brownback tends to keep a fairly high profile, Roberts, perhaps reflecting his staff background, tends to keep a much lower profile.

Nevertheless, the nation, in my view, owes Roberts a great debt of gratitude. It is now clear that our intelligence system needs real reform. The President welcomed the report, as well he should. George Bush now has the opportunity to appoint a new director of the CIA, which was the focus of the Senate report. He can make the appointment with this report in mind. He can't just appoint someone who will tread water. He needs someone who will make sound public policy from this report, subsequent reports and the forthcoming recommendations.

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About the Author

Paul M. Weyrich is chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.