As a baby boomer, I grew up in times when the Evergreen State was represented in Congress by the legendary United States Senators Warren G. Magnuson and Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, or the “Gold Dust Twins” as they were known from Washington, D.C., to Washington State.
They served together for twenty-eight years. Each chaired a powerful committee. Each left a legacy: As Senate Interior Committee chair, Jackson wrote the National Environmental Policy Act. Maggie caused the great second powerhouse at Grand Coulee Dam to be built. It is helping heat us on this cold snowy winter day.
Washington is now represented by two solons, Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, who have been seatmates for twenty years. With Democrats now running Congress’ upper chamber again after over a half-decade of Republican control, each veteran senator chairs an influential Senate committee.
Murray is “Madam Chair” of HELP, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Cantwell heads the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Magnuson wielded the gavel at Commerce from 1955 to 1977, when he moved up to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee.
What’s the difference of being in the majority?
In 2017, then-Chair Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a Republican, held a HELP confirmation hearing on President Trump’s nomination of billionaire donor Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education. The rushed hearing was held before DeVos had submitted her financial disclosure information to Congress.
Although the committee’s ranking Democrat, Murray had exactly five minutes to question DeVos. No second round of questioning was allowed for. The five minutes were well spent. Murray went on to marshal fifty “No” votes on the DeVos nomination. V.P. Mike Pence broke the tie and sent her into the Cabinet.
At Commerce, Maggie relied on gut instinct – but what a gut it was.
He supervised drafting of the public accommodations section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, deftly turning back assaults by segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond, R‑South Carolina. He also presided as automobile giant General Motors apologized to Ralph Nader for spying on the author of Unsafe at Any Speed, an expose of the Corvair that triggered auto safety legislation.
Cantwell is a wonk’s wonk, serving on three “A” list committees – Commerce, Finance and Energy & Natural Resources. In taking the gavel, she promised that Commerce will “operate in a collegial fashion,” noting Coast Guard reauthorization legislation that has broken the ice on getting new polar icebreakers.
She recalled meeting Magnuson in retirement at his home in Magnolia when he was entertaining Senator Dan Inouye of Hawaii.
“We live in an information age, and we just have to own up to it,” she said. “To me it’s better to prepare for that information age, so everything from privacy to broadband to AI to cybersecurity to STEM. “
As the first woman to chair Commerce, she added: “To my fellow colleagues, all of you but particularly the women, I hope that we can do a better job on strategies to help women in the workforce, particularly in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.”
Washington is one of five states (along with Nevada, Minnesota, New Hampshire and California) to have been represented by two women in the Senate.
During much of the reign of Maggie and Scoop, the total was one or two women in the whole Senate: Now there are twenty-three female senators.
Our state’s new “gold dust twins” have flexed muscle already.
The Trump regime ignored Governor Jay Inslee’s request for a federal emergency disaster declaration for counties and reservation land hit hard by last summer’s wildfires. Probably a function of Trump’s calling Inslee “a snake.”
Murray and Cantwell wrote to President Biden two days after he took office.
Biden came through with a disaster declaration within two weeks.
Senator Cantwell managed to be a productive legislator while Trump held office. She worked with Senator Lisa Murkowski, R‑Alaska, to get Coast Guard cutters under design and construction. She secured permanent authorization and funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, under provisions of last year’s Great American Outdoors Act. A big deal.
The Trump years were more frustrating for Murray, a member of the Senate Democratic leadership. She bombarded the president and Cabinet secretaries with letters that went unanswered and introduced legislation that Republican committee chairs sat on. But she never let DeVos out of her sights.
Chairing HELP again will, hopefully, reignite Murray.
She has lately assumed all the trappings (e.g. multiple offices, staged meetings, protective handlers) of an entrenched U.S. Senator, to which she used to be a refreshing exception. It has been years since Murray held a town meeting. Plain speaking has given way to press release boilerplate and canned quotes.
Once upon a time, however, Magnuson had a close election scare, as someone described by Time magazine as “a skilled politician with few pretensions of statesmanship.” The 1962 election transformed him.
Magnuson became Congress’ foremost consumer champion, and the legislator whose “little amendment” to an obscure law kept supertankers off Puget Sound. Young aides, nicknamed “the bumblebees,” refashioned his staff.
“Maggie Has Soil” buttons decorated his 1968 campaign.
Murray has shown her stuff backstage, notably as an early critic of Trump regime lethargy on the COVID-19 pandemic. She belongs back out front, with a staff transfusion akin to Maggie in later years.
On Commerce, if they haven’t experienced this already, staff aides will go through preparing Maria Cantwell for a hearing. The exercise involves collecting everything there is to know on a subject and getting that knowledge deployable by Cantwell. She’s been known to master subjects from derivatives used by Wall Street speculators, to a proposed mine’s catastrophic consequences for the Bristol Bay fishery, to the intricacies of NOAA’s coastal weather radar.
Of course, spontaneity has a role.
Magnuson was famous for his bloopers, but one was deliberate. Arrogant, overbearing International Olympic Committee boss Avery Brundage came before Commerce in the midst of a feud with American athletes.
Magnuson memorably brought him to the witness table saying the committee would now hear from “Mr. Average Brundy.”