If you want to understand what Harry Reid’s retirement from the U.S. Senate will mean to Nevada, it’s too bad that Helen Dewar isn’t here to tell you. But she once told me, and it involves a story about another Nevada senator, one who resigned in disgrace.
Flash back more than a decade ago: When Reid was having little trouble convincing his fellow Democrats to join him in opposition to the nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, then-new U.S. Senator John Ensign struggled to garner similar support from his Republican colleagues. In the wake of this news, Dewar, who covered the Senate for The Washington Post for 25 years, marveled that Nevada voters in 1998 nearly ousted Reid (who was on the verge of becoming the Democratic whip, making him the No. 2 ranking senator in his caucus) in favor of Ensign.
I remember chuckling and telling Dewar, “Nevadans need a civics lesson.” Dewar replied, “Americans need a civics lesson.”
Reid’s five terms in the Senate meant he would be a major player in D.C., even without any leadership post. Much has changed about the Senate in his 30 years—it used to be much more pleasant, even when racist Southerners populated the place; today, 24/7 cable news has helped heighten the influence of members who once were largely seen and not heard. But even today, seniority—read: power—remains crucial.
Well, Reid had seniority. And because Reid had it, Nevada had it.
You may recall from your high school government class that when the Founding Fathers wrote the U.S. Constitution, they gave each state two senators. California has 38 million residents and 53 seats in the 435-member House, but its two U.S. senators put together have less influence than Reid from Nevada (population: 2.7 million) or his GOP counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky (4.4 million). Being in positions of power, Reid and McConnell can help their states in ways that their House delegations cannot.
With Reid announcing March 27 that he won’t seek re-election when his term expires next year, it means Nevada in 2017 will have a brand-new senator joining Dean Heller (who is in the middle of his first full term). The last time our state was in this position was in 1987. And thereby hangs a tale.
In 1982, Nevadans elected Republican Chic Hecht over four-term Democrat Howard Cannon, then one of the most senior U.S. senators. Nevada’s other senator at the time, Paul Laxalt, was widely known as President Ronald Reagan’s best friend, so the state could feel relatively safe—in theory. Then Laxalt quit at the end of his second term in 1986, opening the door for Reid to move up from his seat in the House.
Soon after Reid took office in 1987, Democratic Senator J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana introduced the infamous “Screw Nevada” bill, which would route nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. Of course it passed: Neither Hecht, who was a latecomer to our anti-nuclear fight, nor Reid, a freshman senator, had the power to stop it. But when Reid got the power, he stopped it.
After the bill’s passage, I met then-former Senator Cannon. I asked him what he would have done about that bill. “It wouldn’t have been introduced,” he replied. “Johnston wouldn’t have done that with a senior senator.” Yeah, but what if he had? With a flicker of wryness, Cannon said, “I would have made Louisiana disappear.”
So where does Ensign fit into all this? He was moving up the leadership ladder, to the point of chairing the GOP Senate campaign committee and planning to visit Iowa before the 2012 elections. Then came news of his extramarital activities, and questions about payments to the family of the woman with whom he had an affair, forcing him to resign. Had that not happened, Ensign would be a leader today on the Republican side of the aisle. Make no mistake: Ensign’s personal problems turned into a big problem for Nevada with respect to its influence in Washington—and that problem will be magnified once Reid returns home.
Speaking of the man from Searchlight, he long ago joined the list of senators from Nevada who used their clout to benefit their state: Key Pittman chaired the Foreign Relations Committee during the New Deal, when the federal government spent more money per capita in Nevada than anywhere else; Pat McCarran headed the Judiciary Committee and delivered major pork projects while blocking federal intervention in the fledgling gaming industry; Alan Bible’s power on the Interior Committee helped him deliver the Southern Nevada Water Project, which made modern Las Vegas possible; and Cannon was the force behind deregulating airlines and getting slot taxes used to Nevada’s benefit.
Besides fighting Yucca, Reid settled a major water issue in Northern Nevada, protected a number of environmental areas, protected the gaming and mining industries, and helped the Silver State become a key player in the presidential selection process. In other words, he’s had power and hasn’t been afraid to use it.
Many Nevadans won’t realize what they’re losing in Reid till he’s gone. At that point, they’ll get their civics lesson.