‘The difference between the Senate and the House,” Lyndon Johnson famously said, “is the difference between chicken salad and chicken shit.”
There are a few sobering realities about being a freshman in the U.S. House. For all of the esteem of being a member of Congress, Westerners especially reside too much on a commercial jet. When I covered those men and women as a Washington, D.C., correspondent, I often wondered which time zone their body clock was in. In that often weekly commute, they take a beating.
The second reality is that being a freshman means you’ve only been given access to a coffee klatsch or cocktail party with 435 others. Once inside, the challenge is to move through that population and make deals and alliances. To get ahead in the House demands shoe leather and relentless energy.
And that gets to my initial skepticism about Cliff Bentz’s decision to succeed Greg Walden, who represented Oregon’s vast 2nd Congressional District for 22 years. Walden was a freshman at the age of 42. Bentz is 69, which gives him relatively little time to gain seniority. Oregon’s most consequential freshman congressman, Ron Wyden, became a House freshman at the age of 32, half Bentz’s age. In his first term, Wyden tore up the track.
If you talk to people who watched Bentz in the Oregon Legislature, you gain the impression that he runs very deep. Thoughtful and smart are the adjectives you hear about the man.
The leap from a statehouse to Congress is profound. Congressman Les AuCoin, who represented Astoria in the House for 18 years, told me: “Congress is not a bigger version of a state legislature.” Going from the state capitol to the national capitol “is like moving from chess to three-dimensional chess.”
Given that first impressions are everything in politics, it was surprising to see the newly minted Congressman Bentz join the House Republicans who tried to keep alive President Donald Trump’s illusion about widespread voter fraud in the November election.
Bentz has said he cast that vote — to object to the electors from Pennsylvania — because many of his constituents had those kinds of sentiments about the presidential election. Fair enough. But every member of the House had an appointment with history on Jan. 6. After the violent incursion of the Capitol, many Republicans wised up and realized that abetting the president’s fiction had become a dangerous choice.
Bentz also voted Wednesday against impeaching Trump for inciting the insurrection.
In this era, the velocity of change in national politics, and especially in Congress, is especially rapid. Suddenly the senators who fomented the drive to abet Trump’s lost cause — Josh Hawley, of Missouri, and Ted Cruz, of Texas – are not hot commodities. They are outcasts.
Oregon’s Richard Neuberger had a rocky beginning as a freshman senator in 1954. But he quickly recovered and turned in a consequential term before his death in 1960. That was in a much different era, but it makes a certain point. In politics, it’s all about what you will do tomorrow.
It will be interesting to see how Bentz navigates the Class V rapids in front of him.