San Diego Union Tribune
July 3, 2006
Letter from Washington by Dana Wilkie
Perhaps if seniority were not such a big thing in Congress,
might have won his new post on the House
Affairs Committee through sheer persistence and passion.
As it turns out,
seniority is an enormous consideration on Capitol Hill, and it is for that
reason that Filner now finds himself the top Democrat on a panel that
looks after the nation's former military members.
For the past 14
years, the San Diego Democrat has used legislation and rhetoric -- and,
periodically, a bit of theatrics -- to promote medical care, housing,
awards and recognition for
Since his appointment
to the committee
when he was first elected to Congress in 1992, Filner has risen steadily
through the ranks of Democrats on the panel.
Democrat, Lane Evans of Illinois, recently stepped aside because he is
suffering from Parkinson's disease, Filner
found himself at
the head of the minority party's line. His colleagues selected him to fill
Evans' seat, and there is every indication that he will take the spot
permanently after November's election.
Anyone who knows
Filner knows that while this former college professor typically comes off
as cerebral and urbane, he also can fly into brief bouts of passion when
provoked, as he did recently when criticizing the Department of
Affairs' three-week delay in publicizing the theft of personal information
on as many as 26.5 million current and former military personnel. At a
news conference last month, Filner blurted expletives at two top VA
officials who attended the briefing. His outburst was reported nationally.
CHAMPION FOR THE
forcefully, Filner has championed full funding for
health care, eliminating the "widow's tax" and educating
on all the benefits for which they are eligible. One of Filner's
longest fights has been to win benefits for Filipinos who were drafted by
the U.S. Army to fight the Japanese during World War II. The U.S.
government refused to pay them after the war because the Philippines had
become an independent country and was expected to care for its own
Whether it was
during the administrations of Presidents Clinton or Bush, Filner has
protested congressional and administration inaction on bills he has
introduced repeatedly to help tens of thousands of surviving Filipino war
In summer 1997, he was arrested during a demonstration of Filipino
outside the White House who had chained themselves to a fence. He got
upset at how police were handling the aging demonstrators, crossed a
police line and obstructed a police officer.
It was not the
first time Filner had been hauled off for civil disobedience. He also was
arrested during a demonstration in 1961, when he was a pro-civil rights
"Freedom Rider" in Mississippi.
A NEEDED ADVERSARY
As liberal a House
member as California's Barbara Boxer is as a senator, Filner is sometimes
seen as too left of center to work constructively with others to
accomplish major policy change. Some worry that with Filner in the No. 2
Affairs Committee may get less done if Filner cannot soften his
historically contentious relationship with the panel's chairman,
Republican Steve Buyer of Indiana.
But it is likely
that Buyer cannot afford to ignore Filner's thoughts on legislation,
mindful that he often will need Democrats' votes to move bills out of his
committee. And as
member, Filner will have a bully pulpit of sorts, able to draw attention
to his causes and passions because of his standing on the panel.
importantly, if Filner's party should take control of the House -- as
Democrats keep telling themselves they might do in November's election --
Filner no longer would be the committee's
minority member, but its chairman. He would be calling the shots,
directing policy and deciding, essentially, what sort of legislation moves
through his panel and to the House floor for a vote.
While it seems a
long shot that Democrats will seize the lower chamber this fall, there's
little doubt that for the next few years, Filner will make the most of the
No. 2 spot.
Dana Wilkie is a
Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime
observer of California politics and social issues.