This is the second in a series of stories about the roles each member of the Connecticut congressional delegation played in the 113th Congress.
Washington – When Congress considered legislation that would give President Obama authority to train and arm Syrian rebels last summer, Rep. Joe Courtney was the only member of the Connecticut delegation to support it. It was one of several instances in which the lawmaker split with his colleagues in the 113th Congress.
“I believe that this measure strikes a sensible balance between providing the authority and support the president has requested, and establishing a narrow scope of operations with robust Congressional oversight,” he said at the time.
Courtney, 61, is a loyal Democrat. The Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advocates for open government, said he voted with his party nearly 95 percent of the time in the outgoing Congress. Yet he represents the 2nd Congressional District, an area heavily dependent on the New London Naval Submarine Base and sub builder Electric Boat. Courtney also sits on the House Armed Services Committee. He is more likely to differ with his Connecticut colleagues on some issues, especially when it comes to military matters.
In the last Congress, Courtney helped keep federal money flowing so Electric Boat could continue to build two subs a year and worked to win approval of a special fund he hopes will pay for a new class of nuclear subs to replace the aging fleet of Ohio-class boats.
The National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund would be a Defense Department account separate from the Navy’s shipbuilding budget and would finance the new subs, projected to cost about $5 billion each.
Electric Boat President Jeffrey S. Geiger said Courtney “has established himself as one of the most effective legislative proponents of the nation’s undersea fleet.”
“We are grateful for the leadership Congressman Courtney has provided to sustain the company’s irreplaceable submarine design, construction and maintenance capabilities, specifically through his advocacy for the Virginia-class submarine program and the Ohio-replacement program,” Geiger said.
Courtney also had a big win last year when Congress approved a bill modeled after his legislation that aimed to prevent a sharp rise in interest rates on Stafford college loans. Once again, more liberal members of the Connecticut delegation, in this case Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, disagreed with Courtney on the issue because they said the bill did not provide enough relief, or security, to struggling college students. They voted against the bill in the Senate.
While he’s glad Congress stopped the increase in Stafford loan interest rates, Courtney said the 113th Congress failed by not reauthorizing a higher education bill “which is just screaming for attention.” The bill governs all federal aid to education and is usually re-examined and reauthorized every five years. It was sceduled for review this year.
First elected to Congress in 2006, Courtney is known as a low-key lawmaker. But he did soar briefly into national prominence when he noticed an inaccuracy in Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln last year. The film wrongly depicted two Connecticut congressmen as voting against the 13th amendment to abolish slavery. Courtney asked Spielberg to correct the mistake in the DVD release of the film.
A horse you can jump on
Courtney introduced nine bills in the 113th Congress. Three of them became law, but not because he was able to win approval of them as standalone legislation on the House floor, but because he managed to get then included in must-pass legislation.
“Legislatively, the name of the game was trying to find horses that you could jump onto,” he said.
A bill reauthorizing the Quinebaug and Shetucket Rivers Valley National Heritage Corridor in eastern Connecticut and renaming it “The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor,” was approved as part of a massive defense bill. Courtney’s plan for reforming the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dairy program became law as part of the farm bill.
But Courtney said approval of legislation is not the only way a member of Congress can be effective.
There are “defensive victories,” he said. One was an attempt to redefine “rural areas” to eliminate underpopulated areas within a certain distance from an urban area. That would have stripped much of Courtney’s district of a designation that allowed its residents to apply for low-interest USDA loans and other help.
Courtney teamed up with other lawmakers from rural areas, many of them Republicans, and prevented any change in the definition.
“We were able to raise enough of a stink that people decided to leave it alone,” he said.
Gary Rose, head of the political science department at Sacred Heart University, said Courtney can often work well with GOP members because “he knows how to be a partisan, but he’s not a hyper-partisan.”
“He’s not a (liberal) soldier in the tradition of Reps. Rosa DeLauro and John Larson,” Rose said.
That moderation also helps Courtney win easy re-election in a district that is home to gun owners and conservatives, Rose said.
Courtney has common interests with Republicans who are fellow members of the Dairy Caucus and the Shipbuilding Caucus. The lawmaker is a co-chairman of both groups.
“Obviously you are looking for allies in Congress that you can team up with,” Courtney said.
According to Govtrack.us, Courtney’s bills had 821 cosponsors in the 113th Congress, an indication of widespread support. Of the 234 bills Courtney cosponsored last year, 38 percent were introduced by a Republican, an indication of bipartisanship.
Legislation he co-sponsored that became law ranged from a massive Hurricane Sandy reconstruction bill to a resolution awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the Monuments Men, a group of U.S. soldiers whose mission was to protect works of art and artifacts of cultural importance during and after World War II.
Courtney said the government shutdown in September of 2013 was “absolutely the lowest-of-the-low moment” in this Congress.
Personal disappointments include Congress’s inability to approve his bill that would change the Medicare law so that patients who are hospitalized for a serious injury or disease can no longer be considered under “observation” status, and thus be denied coverage of subsequent care in a skilled nursing facility because their time in the hospital was labeled “outpatient,” not “inpatient.”
There were a couple of similar bills, but the Center for Medicare Advocacy said “only Courtney’s has immediate promise.”
Another low point, Courtney said, was the failure of a bill that would require the U.S. Treasury to create new $5 gold coins and $1 silver coins to honor the Coast Guard and use the proceeds to design and build a National Coast Guard Museum in his district.
Courtney may lose a committee assignment in the new Congress because the number of Republicans will grow. Besides his seat on the House Armed Services Committee, Courtney serves on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. But he said he might lose his third committee assignment, a seat on the House Agriculture Committee.
Yet Rose said he did not believe Courtney “is going to be marginalized” in the new Congress.
“He’s not going to push a left-wing agenda, but will also try to get some legislation passed,” the professor said.
|Party loyalty ranking…94.7 percent|
|Co-sponsored bills approved…17|
|Missed votes…1.2 percent|
|Campaign funds raised…$1.4 million*|
|*As of Nov. 24, 2014|