This is the fourth in a series of stories about the roles each member of the Connecticut congressional delegation played in the 113th Congress.
Washington – He has been called Connecticut’s “coolest congressman,” but U.S. Rep. Jim Himes faced some big challenges during the two years of the outgoing Congress. Next year he will find himself in a shrinking pool of centrists.
Representing Connecticut’s 4th District, which includes most of Fairfield County, Himes was slightly less likely to vote with his party than any other member of the Connecticut congressional delegation. The Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advocates for open government, said he voted with his party about 93 percent of the time. The average in the delegation was about 96 percent and the average for House Democrats was 93.2 percent.
One low point in this Congress for Himes was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s decision not to appoint him as the new chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The appointment went instead to Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico. Himes, who served as the DCCC’s top fundraiser, was considered a leading candidate for that job, even as the lawmaker said he never lobbied for it.
Liberals had objected to Himes’s ties to Wall Street. Himes, 48, once worked as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs and is a member of the House Financial Services Committee. He left Wall Street to work for a non-profit that focused on providing housing for low-income Americans.
“If the Democrats are to have any excitement in 2016, they had to have someone (at the DCCC) with an Elizabeth Warren appeal,” said UConn political science professor Ron Schurin, referring to the Massachusetts senator who is a favorite of progressives.
Schurin also said “creating and sustaining a Democratic brand is not Himes’ strength.”
Another challenge to Himes came from Dan Debicella, his Republican opponent in this year’s election, who had run unsuccessfully against him before.
Debicella raised a lot less campaign cash than Himes, but a GOP wave swept the nation on Election Day, and Himes won the election by about eight percentage points, 54-46, a margin that many analysts expected to be wider. The GOP gains were made largely in swing districts that had been represented by moderate Democrats, making their numbers fewer in the next Congress.
First elected in 2008, Himes’ work on the Financial Services Committee provided him with a big legislative win in the 113th Congress.
But it came at a price. As he had been by Debicella, he was attacked by liberal Democrats as being too cozy with Wall Street.
Himes had long sponsored legislation that would lift a provision in the Dodd-Frank reform bill that prohibited bank units that are insured by the federal government from trading derivatives. Derivatives are complex financial instruments that can be risky investments, or help farmers and others protect themselves from fluctuations in commodity prices. Derivatives based on bad mortgage loans were blamed in part for the 2008 collapse of Wall Street that ushered in the latest recession.
At the end of this session of Congress, House liberals almost derailed the $1.4 trillion budget bill with the federal government hours away from a shutdown, because it contained the derivatives legislation.
“Wall Street should not be allowed to return to betting and gambling using insured deposits and other taxpayer subsidies and guarantees,” said ConnPIRG consumer program director Ed Mierzwinski. “Don’t some in Congress remember that five years ago Wall Street’s unregulated casino economy ended badly when millions lost homes, millions lost jobs and millions more lost trillions in retirement savings?”
Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill., who worked on the derivatives bill with Himes, said, “We don’t always agree, but it’s refreshing that he’s open to the give and take necessary to push forward solutions like protecting key financial tools for farmers and manufacturers to plan ahead and weather uncertain times and fluctuating prices.”
In the end, Himes was the only member of the Connecticut House delegation to vote for the budget bill.
“The year-end budget agreement was far from perfect, but I voted for it because we simply couldn’t afford another disastrous government shutdown,” Himes said. “This compromise ensures that federal investments next year will be more robust than we could expect in the next Congress, when Republicans will control the Senate and have an even larger majority in the House.”
Himes says he helped write the Dodd-Frank Act and has defended it. But he also says the law overreached on derivatives, making no distinction between often risky asset-backed derivatives and others based on commodities and other products. His legislation allowed only the less-risky instruments to be traded in bank units that are federally insured.
“It’s a very simple thing,” Himes said of his legislation. “It does not in any way erode…the protections of Dodd-Frank.”
A stand on the NSA
The derivatives legislation was among 13 bills Himes co-sponsored in the 113th Congress that became law.
Others included a bill that allows banks to offer “promotion raffles” in which a chance to win designated prizes is obtained by the deposit of a specified amount of money in a savings account; and another that directed the U.S. Treasury to mint and issue $1 silver coins in commemoration of the centennial of America’s involvement in World War I.
None of the 11 bills he introduced were approved, including a bill named after a 12-year-old New Canaan girl, Christen O’Donnell, who died of head injuries in a horse riding accident. The bill would establish a temporary standard for equestrian helmets while a permanent standard is set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Yet Himes, who also sits on the House Intelligence Committee, was influential in other ways. After revelations that the National Security Agency collected phone information on Americans, Himes helped promote the USA Freedom Act, a bill that sought to end the NSA’s bulk collection of U.S. phone data. The bill won bipartisan support in the House, but was blocked in the Senate.
Himes’ role was to urge moderation as colleagues blasted the NSA for its perceived excesses.
He said he was “quite disturbed” by revelations the NSA violated laws and internal procedures established to protect Americans’ privacy nearly 3,000 times in just one year. But he said some of the data was collected inadvertently by roaming wiretaps.
“I have been assured by the leadership in the intelligence community and by the president that there has been no abuse of these programs,” Himes said after voting to kill legislation that would have been far tougher on the NSA than the USA Freedom Act.
Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, joined Himes is rejecting the legislation that would severely restrict the NSA. Connecticut’s other House members voted for it.
Himes also won approval for an amendment to the Intelligence Authorization Act that requires the president to appoint a Senate-confirmed Inspector General for the NSA.
Transportation problems were also a challenge for Himes in this Congress. As if Metro-North’s rash of accidents and slowdowns and increasing traffic snarls on the main arteries of the 4th District weren’t enough, Himes had to contend with the failures of the Walk Bridge over the Norwalk River. The 118-year-old railroad bridge froze in the open position twice this year, prompting Gov. Dannel Malloy to ask for federal help to replace it.
Himes said he assisted in obtaining a $161 million federal grant that will help the state build a new bridge.
He also cites as victories a number of other federal grants that flowed into his district, including $30 million to revitalize Washington Village in South Norwalk.
“Despite the political paralysis in Washington, I’m proud to have helped secure millions in federal investments that will replace Norwalk’s Walk Bridge, expand Bridgeport’s preschool programs and continue the recovery efforts in Norwalk and Bridgeport following Superstorm Sandy,” Himes said.
Born in Peru of American parents, Himes is the only member of the Connecticut congressional delegation to offer information in Spanish on his official web site.
He also has another distinction.
Business Insider named him one of “15 Politicians Who Are Killing It on Twitter.” The business and technology news website said Himes “is not afraid to make fun of himself” and ”cracks plenty of jokes and makes for an entertaining follow, but he’s also serious about his job. His feed is approachable and amusing while still being politically informative.”
When a follower said he was “the coolest congressman,” Himes offered thanks in a tweet that also said, “On the other hand in the land of the blind…”
|Party loyalty ranking ….93 percent|
|Co-sponsored bills approved….12|
|Missed votes…..1.8 percent|
|Campaign funds raised………$2.7 million*|
|*As of Nov. 24, 2014|