I had to admit to a little nostalgia, even though the ornate U.S. House of Representatives committee room largely represented a history of professional defeat. As the chandeliers sparkled and the portraits of past committee chairmen appeared to stare down at me, it occurred to me that I had been on the losing end of countless votes in this room as a congressional aide a quarter-century before.
Back then, I was an idealistic young staffer for U.S. Congressman Bob Smith—a staunch supporter of Western communities that depended on timber and grazing for their livelihood. This was in the era of the spotted owl, and we all know how that turned out.
But now I was back as a lobbyist, awaiting a House Resources Committee vote on H.R. 3144—a common-sense bill to take the Federal Columbia River Power System out of the courtrooms and return it to the professionals who know how to operate the river.
From the gallery, I watched a new generation of bright-eyed staffers confer with their bosses. I knew it was heady times for these young men and women. Like them, I wrote talking points and speeches. I would beam as Congressman Smith read my statement during a congressional hearing. Other times, I would be brought back to earth when my carefully crafted speech served only as a coaster for his Styrofoam cup.
But this is where I—a kid from a small town who never believed he’d have a career in Washington, D.C.—learned politics.
The members of the committee have nearly all changed, but what hadn’t changed was the hyperbole, as opponents of the legislation charged that passage of H.R. 3144 would lead to the extinction of Columbia River salmon species. There were speeches and amendments, but on this day, we had the votes. The bill passed with bipartisan support.
When the gavel came down, I departed the committee room, well aware of the long path ahead for a proposal that could bring a timeout to the fish wars that divide the Northwest. However, a room that had given me many memories of defeat had finally yielded something else: a victory for small communities in the West.