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Another voice of reason retires

Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) arrives for a closed-door House Democratic Caucus meeting on Tuesday, June 15, 2021.
Greg Nash

The disparate House Democratic caucus is broken into factions: left-wing progressives, mainstream moderates, old bulls, young turks. Then there is David Price, a wise owl who comes as close as any to winning respect from all. After more than three decades in the House, the North Carolinian this week announced this is his last term.

Price has brought a unique perspective, a practicing politician even before Congress and a political science professor at Duke University. He appreciates the theoretical, the institutional and the practical. Price has written four books on Congress, is an effective legislator, and a Baptist lay minister on the side.

I interviewed Price the day after his retirement announcement. He recalled, with fondness, those salad days when he first arrived in the late 1980s.

Since then, the House, he says, “has changed in major ways: some positive, others not so much.”

The positive is that it’s a much more inclusive, diverse place, especially the Democrats: “We have become small d in that sense.”

The “not so much” is the deep polarization and emphasis on grandstanding rhetoric over legislative achievement. “When I arrived, members came to get something done; now many see the House as a platform for their own pursuits, a stepping stone.”

Price doesn’t exempt some in his own party but believes there’s “asymmetrical polarization.” When Newt Gingrich, in 1995, became the first Republican Speaker in more than 40 years, he adapted the same political guerrilla tactics that were so successful on the campaign trail to the House leadership.

It has gotten worse, Price says, with the Tea Party and Trump takeover of the GOP: “The politics of the Republican base are driving it further to the right; this no longer is a center-right party. They drove away two Speakers, and we have a much more divided chamber.”

This deep division necessitates, he notes, much more “centralized leadership” — at the expense of the legislative committees.

While not pleased with this change, Price is a big fan of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). They have a long history. They were their state chairs at the same time, arriving in Congress the same year: “She is very effective in her individual relationships, very good at reaching out and figuring out how she can help members,” Price said.

He said he marvels that the 81-year-old Pelosi — they’re the same age — “is amazingly energetic. She’s also very tough.”

Price said, “Nancy Pelosi was the ideal Speaker to take on Donald Trump; she understood that, did it effectively, and led us back into the majority.”

The key to the great challenge Pelosi faces over the next month in getting a compromise economic agenda through Congress, he said, will depend on most all Democrats “understanding the balance between individual objectives and institutional performance: You should fight as hard as you can for a point of view and — at some point — have to say, ‘We’ll leave some battles for another day.’”

Price said he still hopes someday House members will be able to selectively work across the political aisle. He has done that for years, starting with New York Republican Sherwood Boehlert years ago, to today with counterpart on an appropriations subcommittee, Florida Republican Mario Diaz-Balart.

Price has many legislative achievements, principally on education, transportation and urban issues. He has delivered for his Raleigh-Durham district, which includes prominent universities and the high-tech “Research Triangle.”

He also has been the major House advocate on governmental reform issues, especially the insidious influence of monied interests. But the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision, opening the money spigots, “was devastating,” Price said, “with consequences very much still with us.” It’s now incredibly hard to get any congressional work-around for real restraint on money in politics.

As alarmed as the veteran lawmaker was at Donald Trump’s presidency, he is more upset about what happened after last November. “The refusal by many Republicans to accept the election results and to stand up to Trump after Jan. 6 is very alarming,” he said. “I thought after Liz Cheney and a few others stood up there would be more anti-Trump Republicans; when a guy like Chuck Grassley kisses his ring, it tells you the story.”

Grassley, the 88-year-old Iowa Senator running for reelection, recently appeared with and praised Trump at a rally there.

“I worry about the future of Democracy,” Price says. “It’s hard to believe I’m saying that. But there are challenges we haven’t had in this country for over a century. There are active anti-democratic forces — allowing state legislators to overturn election results is truly alarming.”

The answer, the temperamentally optimistic Price says, is for more young people to get involved — and for people, of every stripe, to “stop taking shots at all things governmental. We’re going to be governed one way or another.”

I think there’s one other antidote: Elect more David Prices.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags bipartisan Chuck Grassley David Price Donald Trump House Democrats House retirements Jan. 6 Capitol attack Liz Cheney Mario Diaz-Balart Nancy Pelosi Newt Gingrich political compromise political polarization Presidency of Donald Trump

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