Mental health bill is Ramstad's legacy

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 23, 2008 - 9:39 PM

Whether or not Rep. Jim Ramstad becomes a member of the Obama administration, he will be remembered for having one of the most bipartisan records in an increasingly divided Congress.;

U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad

Photo: Andy King, Associated Press - Ap

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WASHINGTON -- Jim Ramstad capped his 18 years in Congress with one last visit to the Oval Office, where President Bush signed a document representing the Minnesota Republican's life work: a legacy bill opening the door to treatment for millions of Americans suffering from mental illness or chemical addiction.

The two men -- both of whom have publicly acknowledged past drinking problems -- shared a warm moment examining the president's historic Resolute desk, which Ramstad first viewed during the Kennedy administration in 1963. That was as part of a Boys Nation youth leadership group that included former President Bill Clinton.

"I guess we're both flying the coop," Bush told Ramstad. "Except I hear rumors you might be staying."

Indeed, Ramstad's farewell to Washington after nine terms in Congress could be a short one.

Even as he flew home from Washington on Friday, Ramstad's Democratic friends in Congress, chiefly Rep. Patrick  Kennedy of Rhode Island -- his co-sponsor on the mental health parity bill - were pushing to get him into the incoming Obama administration. He is being considered for one of two top-level drug policy positions, one of them "drug czar," or head of the White House office of National Drug Control Policy. The other is director of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

As a member of the new administration, Ramstad would be well positioned to influence the government's implementation of the mental health parity act, which does not go into effect until 2010.

"I'm leading the charge, frankly, from the congressional side," Kennedy said Thursday outside the West Wing, where he fist-bumped with Ramstad at the end of the signing ceremony that climaxed Ramstad's political career.

"It's a happy day, isn't it, brother?" Ramstad said to Kennedy. "It's a very happy ending."

Bipartisan in partisan times

Whether or not Ramstad becomes a member of the Obama administration, he will be remembered as one of Minnesota's leading centrists, a representative with one of the most bipartisan records in an increasingly divided Congress.

"Ramstad is the end of an era," said Minnesota Republican political strategist Sarah Janecek. "He's a fiscally responsible, socially moderate conservative."

A testament to that record could be seen in the company surrounding him in the Oval Office: Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, a lion of the Democratic Party, and New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, one of the Senate's Republican elders. All had a hand in the mental health bill, which is named after Domenici and the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, a close ally of Ramstad on the treatment front.

The celebration was both bittersweet and sober. "I'll tell you one thing I'm not going to do," Ramstad said in the bright sun outside the West Wing. "I'm not going to have a drink."

After the ceremony at the White House, where construction workers are already building the viewing platform for President-elect Obama's inaugural parade, Ramstad attended one more recovery meeting with Patrick Kennedy, whom he has sponsored in treatment for addiction to prescription pain killers.

The two have been recovery partners since Ramstad -- sober since 1981 -- reached out to Kennedy at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota after a disoriented Kennedy crashed his Ford Mustang convertible into a Capitol Hill security barricade in 2006.

"I think Jim is clearly the most outspoken leader on these issues from the mental health and substance abuse community," Kennedy said. "We'd like nobody better in the administration to be our spokesperson than Jim Ramstad."

Rep. Kennedy, aided by his father, Edward Kennedy, said he has made his "personal preferences known" to John Podesta, head of Obama's transition team, and Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel, recently named as Obama's chief of staff. The Obama Cabinet, the younger Kennedy said, "obviously is looking for diversity of opinion."

In Ramstad, political analysts see a congressman who has made his name as a genial, middle-of-the-road Midwesterner who championed largely nonpartisan issues such as the mental health parity act, which gives people with mental health problems the same access to insurance and treatment as those with physical ailments.

His other legislative achievements include the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children Act, a part of the 1994 crime bill that requires convicted child molesters to register with the police after their release. The provision was inspired by the 1989 Wetterling abduction, which remains one of Minnesota's most enduring crime mysteries.

In a break from GOP party orthodoxy, Ramstad has also sponsored climate change legislation, backed measures to increase auto fuel efficiency standards, and sided with the Clinton administration's "roadless rule" to protect national forests, including those in northern Minnesota.

As a member of the influential Ways and Means Committee, Ramstad was an enthusiastic backer of the Bush administration's tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. He also supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, though he later expressed reservations about the Bush administration's handling of the war effort. His legislative efforts, however, were largely directed at humanitarian provisions, such as allowing National Guard and Reserve members to fully deduct out-of-pocket training expenses.

Photographs and memories

Preparing to fly home to Minnesota on Friday, Ramstad spent his last working day in Congress trying to catch up on the flood of correspondence he has received since passage of the mental health parity bill.

"It's a clean-up day," he said in his high-ceiling office, its walls covered with photos of many of the heroes of the recovery movement, including Wellstone and former First Lady Betty Ford. There, too, is an old black and white photo of President John Kennedy in 1963. In the background stand Clinton and Ramstad, then both high school juniors.

"A lot of good memories," said Ramstad, now 62. "I'm very grateful for these friendships."

The photos -- if not the memories -- will be packed and gone by Thanksgiving. If the 110th Congress returns for a special December session, Ramstad will be occupying temporary quarters with bare walls.

"I'm packing up and moving on," said Ramstad, ending a political career that started when he was elected to the Minnesota Senate in 1980. "To what? That's a question mark."

Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753

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