BOISE — Idaho’s famous potatoes helped turn McDonald’s into a global fast-food franchise, but can they unite the partisan warriors in Congress?
Probably not — but one year into his first term representing Idaho’s 1st Congressional District, Rep. Russ Fulcher is hoping they’ll at least get him a handshake and a friendly conversation.
Call it an Idaho experiment in “potato diplomacy.”
When he took office a year ago, one of Fulcher’s goals was simply to get to know as many of his colleagues as possible.
“I want to be able to have a conversation with anyone in Congress, and have them know me on a first-name basis,” he said in a December 2018, interview. “I might not have a lot in common with some of them, but a lot of coalition-building can be done by individuals who don’t necessarily have things in common.”
Fulcher made some progress toward that goal this past year, but now he’s bringing out the big spuds. He’s putting together small gift bags for his congressional colleagues; each one has an Idaho Spud candy bar and some Idaho potato chips, along with a hand-written note saying he’s looking forward to working together in the coming year.
As a Republican, he has an easier time meeting and interacting with other GOP members. Consequently, the gift bags are going to Democrats on his committees first, then to other Democrats.
“It may sound silly, but it’s one of the best things I’ve been able to do,” Fulcher said. “They remember the spud. They remember the Idaho guy.”
And yes, while it might sound silly, his diplomatic initiative is completely in line with expert advice.
During a September hearing on civility and “promoting a more collaborative Congress,” for example, all four speakers highlighted the critical importance of personal interactions. Their No. 1 recommendation? Hold a retreat at the beginning of each session, so lawmakers and their spouses can get to know each other and start building relationships.
A bag of potato chips might not be much of a peace offering in today’s partisan environment, but it’s a start.
“It may be the best expenditure I make all year,” Fulcher said.
Beyond his diplomatic efforts, his first year in Congress has been a mix of good and bad.
One unpleasant surprise, he said, was the realization that so many Midwest and Eastern lawmakers “don’t understand what governance is like in a state that’s primarily federally owned,” when a large portion of the land doesn’t generate property tax.
“So I’ve had to spend a fair amount of time educating others on that issue,” Fulcher said.
The degree to which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., controls the agenda — including what bills come up in committee — has been another unpleasant surprise.
“I probably have 50 bills I’m sponsoring or co-sponsoring, and I think one of them is moving,” Fulcher said. “I can’t get on the agenda. She monitors the subject matter, based on whether they help or hurt the president.”
Similar complaints have been made regarding Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
“It’s a two-way street,” Fulcher acknowledged.
He also agreed that he probably didn’t land on Pelosi’s Christmas list after joining a group of Republicans in storming a secure meeting room during a House impeachment inquiry hearing, to demand that the testimony be made public.
“As much as I believe in building rapport, I don’t regret taking that step,” Fulcher said. “I felt it was the only option I had.”
Despite the frustrations, though, he’s hopeful that the House can make some progress and pass good legislation this year.
“A lot depends on the speaker,” Fulcher said. “Either impeachment is going to be in the rear-view mirror and we can start working on some major stuff, or we’ll remain mired in the build-up to the 2020 elections. I’m cautiously optimistic that it will be the former.”
If not, he may need more potatoes.
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