LoBiondo, GOP often divided on key issues

(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Monday, Oct. 13, 2008.)

Few members of Congress have walked a path as independent from their parties as U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo.

Only nine of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted with their party less often this year than LoBiondo, according to Congressional Quarterly. During the full Bush presidency, only 10 have diverted from their party more than LoBiondo, R-2nd.

As LoBiondo seeks an eighth two-year term, both he and his opponents are running on his record. Studies show that record historically has been one of Congress’ most nonpartisan.

On military matters, LoBiondo typically backs the president, and that continued during the 2007-08 term. He voted against timetables for withdrawal in Iraq and for amending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to give U.S. intelligence agencies more power to eavesdrop on foreign suspects without a court order. He opposes closing the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and releasing prisoners into the continental U.S., as a federal judge ordered last week for 17 Chinese Muslims no longer considered enemy combatants. LoBiondo also voted against mandatory minimum rest times for soldiers between deployments, saying it deprived military commanders of flexibility.

On economic matters, however, LoBiondo often opposes the president. He voted against the Bush administration’s recent plan to aid struggling financial markets. He rejected a similar bailout for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, two government-supported corporations holding most of the nation’s mortgages through the secondary mortgage market. Congress passed each, nonetheless.

“I think we’re rewarding loan sharks with a government bailout,” LoBiondo said. “It follows a pattern of giving away government money to people who have badly fouled up.”

LoBiondo believes the Bush administration purposefully hid key knowledge on financial markets’ struggles until it was too late, and he said U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox “failed in their responsibility.” But the bill passed with bipartisan support.

“To vote against it twice was irresponsible,” Democratic challenger Dave Kurkowski said.

During the first month of Democratic control of the House last year, LoBiondo voted with Democrats and against his own party on nearly every key vote. He voted to repeal tax cuts to oil companies and charge them to take oil from the Gulf of Mexico. He backed an increase in the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour. He and 24 House Republicans joined Democrats in voting to allow the federal government to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies for lower prescription drug prices for people using Medicare.

Later, he voted against the Farm Bill, criticizing legislators for directing so much federal funding toward relatively few large companies. He described slightly increased funding for “specialty” crops — vegetables, nursery and other non-grains — as Congress having “pushed a few crumbs off the table.”

“This wasn’t about farms at all,” LoBiondo said. “It was about corporate agriculture. This was a $300 billion bill that gave 80 percent of the subsidies to 10 percent of the congressional districts in the country. Our farmers (in New Jersey) don’t get subsidies. They basically have to make it on the market.”

With votes like that, LoBiondo toed close to the desires of his very agricultural and Democratic-trending district, which spans Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Salem and parts of three other counties.

LoBiondo has not faced a tough challenge here since first winning election in 1994, winning more than 60 percent of the vote each year. Kurkowski, a Cape May city councilman, touts himself as LoBiondo’s first viable challenger in years, but not everyone agrees, even as the state is expected to go Democratic in the presidential election.

“I think David Kurkowski is not a viable candidate in this district,” said David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report. “Frank LoBiondo has compiled a record that is moderate on economic issues, more conservative on social issues. The key to that district is labor issues. That’s why it’s one of the few districts that elects a Republican even though it’s a Democratic district.”

But winning elections, bucking your party and showing good attendance — LoBiondo has missed less than 1 percent of roll calls, 17th least in the House — don’t necessarily translate to influence.

From 2001 to 2006, LoBiondo chaired the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, but he currently holds no ranking positions on House committees or subcommittees. LoBiondo said it’s because Republican Conference rules limit chairmen to three terms. Kurkowski says it reflects LoBiondo’s lack of influence.

“In a highly partisan house, to be in the minority in the House is extremely emasculating, unless you have a large amount of experience, which he doesn’t have,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “To make things worse, he’s a minority in his own party. His own party has moved to the right of LoBiondo.”

Kurkowski says LoBiondo lost standing because of the Deepwater project, a $24 billion Coast Guard modernization that botched renovations of Coast Guard vessels but which LoBiondo calls an overall “success” for other vehicle upgrades. Kurkowski has also criticized LoBiondo for sponsoring less than a dozen bills during his tenure.

LoBiondo says he’s more concerned with results than publicity. Just as he occasionally shows up at community events without advance advertisement, LoBiondo appears content to move legislation through cosponsorships, amendments and other legislative maneuvers.

“I’ve never been one to try to put my name up in lights and say what a terrific person I am because I introduced 4,000 bills,” LoBiondo said.