Delegation dean Emerson is a House voice for pragmatism, civil discourse
WASHINGTON – In the near-vacant U.S. House chamber a few days before Christmas, U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson stepped to the podium and offered a “unanimous consent” motion to accept a controversial Senate compromise on extending the payroll tax cut.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who quickly sealed the House action with a rap of his gavel, had asked the Missouri Republican to take on that task after conservative lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, had complained that they had been “thrown under a bus” by Boehner when he agreed to the temporary deal.
“The personal finances of working American families is no place to play politics,” Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, said that day. Later, she told the Beacon that’s “it’s a shame it had come down to that,” with House conservatives grumbling about the speaker's compromise. “I think the communications could have been a little bit better.”
At a time when ideologues have gained power in the GOP-led House – bolstered by the tea-party backed freshman elected in 2010 – Emerson has shown a willingness to take on politically sensitive tasks and has emerged as a voice for pragmatic actions to keep the government (and Congress) functioning.
“Sometimes you’ve got to take tough votes and do what you think is right – even if it’s not popular with some people,” Emerson said in an interview. The hardest vote for her last year was to support the hotly debated deficit-reduction deal that also raised the debt ceiling. Her comment: “You’ve got to pay your bills.”
Emerson, the dean of Missouri’s congressional delegation, is a go-to House Republican on some funding issues – a consequence of her seniority, her pragmatism and her chairmanship of an appropriations subcommittee. Since early 2011, she’s held monthly breakfast meetings of the state’s delegation in her office on Capitol Hill, including both House members and senators – and most of them praise her efforts.
On a national level, Emerson is also a leader of the Tuesday Group of House GOP centrists as well as an active member of the Center Aisle Caucus, a bipartisan group of House members who try to foster civil dialogue in a chamber where it is often scarce.
As such, Emerson is a strong voice – in Missouri’s delegation and in a wider audience – for greater civility in public discourse, of turning down the volume and listening to reasonable debate on both sides.
“With email and the internet now, there’s so much viral stuff going around – and people actually believe it,” Emerson said, bemoaning how misleading or even false reports quickly dominate public discussion. “You could show them the printed word in the Constitution and they would not believe you if they read [something else] in an email.”
She’s also unhappy with the near paralysis in Congress on key issues, such as deficit reduction and a long-term farm bill. Because some factions refuse compromise, she said the “political season” in Congress – traditionally, in the year before lawmakers' elections – “is now two years instead of one year.”
In the past, Emerson said, “you always knew that in the first year you could get some good legislation done. Politics comes into it way to early now. And I think that’s a disservice to the public and to the people that we serve.”
On top of that, the GOP-led House and the Democratic-led Senate – controlled by different parties and with sharply different sets of rules – means that most bills passed by the House go nowhere in the Senate.
The Senate “has sometimes been a black hole; things just disappear over there,” Emerson said “It is kind of frustrating, to say the least, for those of us on the House side. I realize the Senate is the ‘deliberative body,’ but ‘deliberative’ for three years is not cutting it.”
A couple of years ago, Emerson seriously considered running for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Some political observers in Missouri felt that, if Emerson could win a GOP primary, she might pose the toughest challenge to the incumbent.
Asked if she regretted that she didn’t run, Emerson told the Beacon earlier this year: “There are times that I do.”
But, even after the recent storm over the eventual GOP Senate nominee – her delegation colleague U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood – Emerson hasn’t been putting her name out front as a potential replacement if Akin should step aside.
Others have, though. Some GOP experts place Emerson on a list of Missouri political figures who might have a good chance of defeating McCaskill if Akin steps aside – considered less likely now that Akin reconfirmed his intention to stay in the race.
While she criticized Akin for his recent rape remarks (for which he apologized), Emerson stopped short of calling for him to withdraw from the Senate race and has not commented publicly on who might replace him if he does.
Emerson isn't in Tampa this week. As she told the Beacon last week, "the hotels are expensive. It’s a pain to get there. When you’re young, and it’s fun – that’s one thing. But I’m getting too old for all this stuff.”
In Jeffco, 'back to the future' for Emerson
With 29 full counties and a third of another one, Emerson has “a lot of territory to cover” in keeping up with her remapped congressional district. And a newly added tract – the western third of Jefferson County – brings back a flood of old memories.
That’s because her late husband, Bill Emerson, was from Hillsboro, and the couple lived in De Soto after he was elected to Congress in 1980 – swept into what had been a Democratic district in Ronald Reagan's landslide. In her office, Emerson proudly displays a photo of Reagan posing with the Emerson family in the White House.
Represented by other lawmakers for years as a result of previous remappings, Emerson’s old stomping grounds in western Jefferson County have rejoined her district. “It’s been so interesting to come back to Jeff County and to see people I haven’t seen in 30 years when I used to live in De Soto,” Emerson said.
Her revised district will stretch from the Bootheel all the way north to Festus, about a 45-minute drive from St. Louis. Bill Emerson had represented much of the same region in southeast Missouri from 1981 until his death in 1996, at which time Jo Ann ran for the vacant seat and won.
After her initial election, she won reelection handily every two years. This summer, she defeated a GOP primary opponent with more than two-thirds of the vote, and political observers don’t expect that she’ll have a problem in the general election in the heavily Republican district.
“She’s very popular” in the district, says Rick Althaus, a political science professor at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau. “I would not go so far as to call her unbeatable . . . but last time around, local Democrats got very excited about their candidate … and he ended up getting 30-something percent of the vote.”
While the district may have picked up some traditionally Democratic voters in Jefferson County, Althaus said it’s not likely to make a significant difference.
For her part, Emerson says she takes nothing for granted. “I believe I’ve worked very hard, and I am available” to constituents, she said. Focusing on winning reelection in her congressional district, Emerson was on her annual “farm tour” this month – visiting everything from traditional corn or soybean farms to unusual operations like the alpaca farm she visited this month in Houston, Mo.
“If I go to Sam’s Club or the Wal-Mart or Schnucks back home, it usually takes me two and a half or three hours because people come up and want to talk. It’s fine, and I love it – that’s part of my job.”
Player on appropriations committee
When she’s not visiting Texas County alpaca farmers or chatting up fellow shoppers at the Sam’s Club in Cape Girardeau, Emerson keeps quite busy on Capitol Hill.
Her growing seniority and influence on the Appropriations Committee helped Emerson get emergency funding for the Army Corps of Engineers to repair the damaged Birds Point-New Madrid levee, whose intentional breach during the Mississippi River flood of 2011 flooded thousands of acres of fertile farmland.
As chair of the appropriations subcommittee on financial services, she has gone after spending related to the Affordable Care Act, which she opposes; demanded more public information about the controversial new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an independent agency that is not directly subject to congressional appropriators; and trimmed the budget of the Internal Revenue Service.
“We cut about $1.5 billion last year” from the
“They haven’t had to list line items in the past,” Emerson said. “We now require [the GSA] to break out and break down all of these special accounts they have in their budget, so they have no ability to hide these expenses in the future.”
Among Missouri Republicans in Congress, Emerson has the most moderate voting record, even though she sticks to the conservative line on many issues – notably, her opposition to "Obamacare." For example, the conservative Heritage Foundation’s “scorecard” rates Emerson at 45 percent – considerably more centrist than Akin (82 percent) but much more conservative than Democrat Russ Carnahan (12).
Some of her conservative critics in Missouri refer to Emerson as a
But most rankings place Emerson as a centrist Republican who is conservative on issues such as health care. The 2011 National Journal vote analysis, for example, places her more toward the political right (with a conservative rating of 55.6, the 200th most conservative of 435 House members) than the left (with a liberal rating of 44.3).
Althaus said Emerson is viewed as pragmatic back home, “Locally she’s thought of as being a solid conservative,” he said. “And I think she seems to take pains to vote in a way that represents her district.”