Danger and Opportunity

The Speaker’s Lobby: Danger and Opportunity

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

07 August 2009

It’s folklore. But politicians enjoy invoking the myth that the Chinese character for crisis is comprised of the symbols that also represent “danger” and “opportunity.”

Politicians crave political scenarios that present both danger and opportunity. Those situations offer these individuals a chance to test their mettle and prove their worth as a public figure.

Such is the case when the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) makes its periodic recommendations to shutter under-used military installations. In 2005, BRAC suggested slashing about a fifth of all U.S. bases.

Threatened closures present danger and opportunity for lawmakers. Those bases bring thousands of jobs to their districts and states. A member of Congress risks appearing feeble if they can’t salvage the base. But save the base, and the lawmaker bolsters his or her reputation.

In 2005, South Dakota’s tiny Congressional delegation worked to develop new missions for Ellsworth Air Force Base. At the time, Sen. John Thune (R-SD) said they were working “to BRAC-proof” Ellsworth from future cuts.

During that same round, former Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) and Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-TX) asked former President Bush to reconsider plans to mothball naval air stations in Pascagoula, MS and Corpus Christi, TX. The duo said those cutbacks would imperil a region already decimated by Hurricane Katrina.

Danger and opportunity presented itself again earlier this year when General Motors decided to wean itself from 42 percent of its car dealerships. The theory is that the auto industry is bloated. Trimming dealerships would create a more efficient system with which to sell cars. But the decision to close so many dealerships meant that even some good franchises could be forced to board up.

One was Rose Chevrolet in Hamilton, OH, a fabled dealership in the district of House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH). Boehner wrote to Mark LaNeve, the head of GM’s sales, service and marketing departments.

“Rose Chevrolet has demonstrated, for a quarter of a century, not only their profitability but their outstanding representation of GM and Chevrolet in the community,” Boehner argued.

Hundreds of other lawmakers appealed to GM about plans to close dozens of other dealerships, citing concern about job losses.

Danger for the community. But an opportunity for a Member of Congress.

In the end, even Boehner couldn’t deliver for Rose Chevrolet. It’s still one of 79 dealerships in Ohio targeted for closure. The job of Minority Leader requires Boehner to focus on national and international affairs. But the Rose Chevrolet situation gave Boehner a chance to focus on a quintessentially local issue that impacts his district.

However, the clamor surrounding the military base and car dealership propositions could pale in comparison to the next danger-opportunity nexus for lawmakers: the Postal Service’s decision to consider closing nearly 700 post offices around the country.

That danger is prompting lawmakers to swing into action.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) “cautioned against panic” after seven Washington, DC post offices made the list.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) sought assurances from  Postmaster General John Potter after 16 post offices in the Cleveland area were listed as being under consideration. Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS) published a statement suggesting her intervention with Potter prevented him from closing a post office in Randolph, KS.

The mere threat of closing post offices epitomizes the danger-opportunity sequence for Members of Congress. If a post office is targeted for closure in a lawmaker’s district or state, they’re determined to return that plan to sender.

The Postal Service operates nearly 33,000 post offices around the country. The volume of first class mail is declining. The Postal Service is already debating whether it should repeal Saturday delivery. So the next logical step is to evaluate what it costs to operate some post offices.

“The real issue is about generating income from these facilities,” Potter told a Senate oversight hearing this week.

But consider the process to determine whether the Postal Service should close any of these outlets. First Potter says, they’ll analyze what each facility does. They’ll study traffic patterns. They’ll at combining operations with other post offices. They’ll conduct reviews on the local level and then kick it up to the national level. The Postal Regulatory Commission will then seek input from the community. Finally, there’s a two-month notification period for the public.

And none of this is etched in stone.

It’s almost as though the entire routine is designed for Members of Congress to strut their stuff and get involved.

It’s a gimme for lawmakers to generate positive, local press. I can just envision lawmakers bellowing into a bullhorn on a Saturday morning, flanked by a sign-waving crowd in front of a targeted post office in a strip mall. I can see them firing off letters to John Potter. Maybe even dashing off missives to President Obama. Even if the lawmakers aren’t ultimately successfully at rescuing their post office, they’ve flexed their muscles on behalf of constituents.

But there was a very revealing moment at Thursday’s Senate hearing. When facing questioning from Sen. Roland Burris (D-IL), Potter described the list of the post offices they’re evaluating for closure as “very fluid.”

Danger and opportunity. For fluid means lawmakers can still get involved.

“It (the list) got published. And I wish it hadn’t,” Potter said.

But lawmakers sure are glad.

That’s because the list presents them with much-needed opportunity.

– Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.