As Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., finishes up his first year as Majority Whip, Post and Courier reporter Robert Behre talked with him about his accomplishments, frustrations and what lies in store for next year.
P&C: What was the highlight of your historic year as Majority Whip?
Clyburn: The highlight was definitely the first Iraq vote. There's no question about that. That was the first real test for me. We had to get 218 votes. A lot of people said we wouldn't do it, and we got 219.
P&C: Congress and the president adopted recommendations from the 9/11 Commission to protect the nation from terrorist strikes. How do you think we're safer today as a result?
Clyburn: I think port security is the biggest (change), in my opinion. It has the biggest impact on Charleston and South Carolina in general. I would saythat above all.
P&C: What gave you more frustration: President Bush's vetoes or the prospect of a filibuster in the narrowly split Senate?
Clyburn: The biggest frustration was the Senate's inability — or unwillingness more than inability — to force a full-fledged filibuster. ... They've allowed a minority to throw bricks and hide their hands. I think that's a real problem for us. ... When the country was grappling with this whole issue of civil rights, broad lines were drawn in the sand over that issue. ... (Republican) Strom Thurmond filibustered in 1957 the Civil Rights Act. He set the Senate record for filibustering. They defined themselves, and we defined ourselves. I do believe we're missing a tremendous opportunity right now of helping to define our party. The way they (Republicans) have stood in the door of the doctor's office denying children's health insurance coverage, they're defining themselves and we ought to take full advantage of that. The American people need to see that, and they can't see that unless we have a full-fledged filibuster.
P&C: What issue proved easier than you expected? Raising the minimum wage? Lobbying and ethics reform, or something else?
Clyburn: The minimum wage thing was easy, in terms of getting the votes for it. I guess the minimum wage vote was the easiest to get. I always knew if it got to a vote it would be big. Between the minimum wage and challenging the president on the water resource and development act, we overrode that veto, the initial passage of that bill might be easier than I thought. ... I thought the water problems were confined to the West and the Midwest, but we've got real serious water problems in the Southeast.
P&C: What issue gave you the biggest challenge as Whip, as far as your role of counting votes or figuring out which way Democrats were leaning?
Clyburn: The motions to recommit gave me the biggest challenge. The Republican Party found out during the debate on comprehensive immigration reform that it was the classic wedge issue, and they used it very, very well (to thwart unrelated legislation). They combed all the legislation trying to find a way to put up a motion to recommit using immigration, and they did that very well. I don't think it's an honorable thing to do ... but that gave me the most angst.
P&C: One of your big goals has been to promote our energy independence and reinvigorate rural communities by developing cellulosic ethanol and other alternative fuels. How is that going?
Clyburn: It's going great. That was one of the greatest accomplishments we passed. ... I think creating alternative energy sources allows for three big things to occur. No. 1, it's a national security issue. To the extent we create alternate sources of energy, we lessen our dependence on foreign oil. No. 2, it allows us to pursue a more environmentally friendly source of energy. And No. 3, it creates new economies, especially in rural areas.
P&C: The people of New Orleans feel a deep appreciation for your work in helping that city recover from Hurricane Katrina. Why did you choose that as one of your top priorities? Isn't all politics local?
Clyburn: I never have bought into that all politics is local business. ... I took my whole staff down to McClellanville after Hugo. I went into those homes, and I saw 80-, 85-year-old people who had lost everything. When you live for 85 years and you keep these things you treasure in the trunk at the foot of your bed and see all of that gone, and this 85-year-old woman sitting there looking into space as if all life is gone, you don't get over that. Well, I don't. When I sat in front of my television set and I saw the same thing happening down on the Gulf Coast, all of those experiences I had down in Awendaw and McClellanville after Hugo came rushing back.
P&C: On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being fully recovered, where is that city today? What still needs to be done?
Clyburn: New Orleans is no more than a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10. I think they're maybe halfway back. There's a lot to be done there. There's so much we don't know beneath the surface. How much damage has been done to the infrastructure? We still don't know. I suspect we'll be paying for that a long time.
P&C: How do you see the debate on the Iraq war playing out in the House of Representatives next year?
Clyburn: We have a pretty stubborn administration. I think any sign of improvement seems to give license to this administration to say, 'I told you so.' The fact of the matter is you've got to be really touched, mentally touched in the head not to know that we have the military might to succeed in Iraq. That's not the issue. The issue is: Then what? At some point in time, we're going to be out of Iraq. Then what? ... We've been there five years now, and there's been no dancing in the street. No one has applied the term 'liberator' to us. Now what?
P&C: Because next year is an election year, are there any issues that you think Congress won't be able to tackle that you really would like to see tackled?
Clyburn: If by middle or end of February, we know exactly who the two nominees will be ... then I think it would allow Congress to do some things. It would allow for some good solid debate to take place. If we're still struggling with trying to get a nominee in May or June, then that's a horse of a different color.
P&C: Do you think 2008 will be easier or more fun for you now that you've got a year's experience as Whip under your belt?
Clyburn: I think so. People were comparing me with (former Democratic Whip Rep.) Steny (Hoyer). Steny had never been in the majority. Here I come in the Whip job, the first African-American to be in that Whip job since 1989 — the only African-American in the leadership. ... In view of the makeup of our caucus and the circumstances we operate under, I've had quite a few members tell me that they don't believe anybody could have done it but me.
P&C: You have worked to solidify South Carolina's standing as an early primary state. What dividend do you expect that will provide the South Carolina Democratic Party?
Clyburn: I think it's paid off big for our party. I think that it's paid off big for our state. To have that big (presidential debate) presence down there at The Citadel in Charleston, at S.C. State, a historically black college, at Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand, that's a big economic engine as far as tourism is concerned. I think these are three tremendous opportunities for South Carolina to really define itself for the rest of the world. I see us as getting great dividends out of this. I hope we don't throw it away.