WASHINGTON – Rep. Betty McCollum was irritated that the armed forces were pouring tens of millions of dollars into recruitment campaigns featuring NASCAR sponsorships.
In 2012 alone, the National Guard spent $26.5 million on Dale Earnhardt’s race car. The return on investment? Zero new recruits.
McCollum, an understated lawmaker who got her political start on the North St. Paul City Council, was in a position to do something about it. One of the highest-ranking Democrats on the defense appropriations subcommittee, she found a Georgia Republican who agreed with her, and the two joined to push a ban on military expenditures of sponsorships.
Her proposal was defeated in both 2011 and 2012, but this month the issue was at the forefront again when Democrats and Republicans in the Senate rebuked the Guard for futile spending of taxpayer dollars on sports sponsorships.
McCollum said she felt vindicated. “Some days I’m a little disappointed that it didn’t go my way, or that I couldn’t bring enough others along with me,” she said in an interview from her Capitol Hill office. “You keep working on it. … It takes a lot of time but eventually the lights go on and people see the value in it. Or you move on to the next project.”
McCollum has kept a low profile since arriving in Washington in 2001, but she has quietly emerged as one of the most powerful Democrats on one of the most powerful committees in the House of Representatives. Next year, she will be the No. 1 Democrat on the Interior appropriations subcommittee and No. 2 on defense.
On paper, her job can seem a drag. McCollum is in the minority party in one of the most polarized Congresses in memory. The last several budget cycles have seen politicians cutting more than spending — particularly given the mandatory cuts imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011.
“You’re in the minority, [and dealing with] a minority of the budget where decisions are made by Republican leadership,” said Stan Collender, a lobbyist and a former staffer for both the House and Senate budget committees. “You’ve got a Congress that’s not doing much more than naming a post office. It’s hard to say anyone has a lot of power.”
If any of that fazes McCollum, she doesn’t let it show.
In her four years on the Interior subcommittee and two on Defense, McCollum has deftly placed a liberal political imprint on issues that stretch from infrastructure projects in her east metro base to international food security legislation.
She has pushed to preserve powers at the Environmental Protection Agency and fought for cash for national parks. She wants the EPA to study honeybees and the National Endowment for the Arts to keep its $154 million federal subsidy.
In April, she angrily called out the Pentagon for proposing to spend $65 million on a new school in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for U.S. service members’ children when many Bureau of Indian Affairs schools are in deplorable condition.
“I’ve always been a person who is very eclectic,” McCollum, 59, said. “As of yet, I haven’t had a constituent come up and tell me, when I’m working on something that’s national or international, that it isn’t part of my job description.”
While mostly hewing to the far left, McCollum has maintained significant friendships on the other side of the aisle.
“She’s not afraid of anything or anyone,” said Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Cole, who serves with her on Appropriations as well as in the Native American Caucus.
Cole calls McCollum a close friend. “When she’s in a firefight, you want her on your side and not the other side,” he said. “I’ve had it both ways, but she’s thoroughly professional about it.”
Despite their political differences, McCollum and Cole share a certain pride in the work on Appropriations. After last year’s government shutdown, the House and the Senate finally passed a budget. This meant, after years of stalemate, appropriators could start setting priorities by allocating money.
McCollum says her biggest defeat recently was failing to get Republican support for funds to study climate change. Just last week, the GOP blocked a bill that would have given the Defense Department the money to study it as a national security issue.
What does she plan on doing about it?
“Sometimes I’ll go toe to toe with a fellow Democrat or a fellow Republican, but if you really sit down … and listen to somebody and learn about their district, maybe you can find the sweet spot,” she said. “We all really want a better quality of life. We might just have different ways of approaching it.”