San Diego Union Tribune

July 3, 2006

Letter from Washington by Dana Wilkie


Perhaps if seniority were not such a big thing in Congress, Bob Filner might have won his new post on the House Veterans 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 veterans. 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. 
When the committee's ranking 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 Veterans 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.
Consistently and forcefully, Filner has championed full funding for veterans' health care, eliminating the "widow's tax" and educating veterans 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 citizens.
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 veterans. In summer 1997, he was arrested during a demonstration of Filipino veterans 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.
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 spot, the Veterans 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 ranking 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.
Perhaps most 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 ranking 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.