Ken Calvert, a moderate and mild-mannered Republican from Southern California, wound up at the center of a midsummer debate over the Confederate flag that got so heated it torpedoed the entire government appropriations process.
Not by his own choosing, the 12-term congressman and appropriations subcommittee chairman disclosed in a recent interview with CQ Roll Call.
“We were really right on the verge of passing the bill before this issue that nobody sees coming, comes to bear,” Calvert said, in a rare discussion of the episode. “I think they could have convinced the Southerners to go along [with the spending bill]. I would have rather not done the amendment, but . . . it is what it is,” he said.
The two-year budget agreement (HR 1314) signed into law by the president promises more tough fights for Calvert’s Interior- Environment subcommittee, which is always a magnet for divisive policy riders. But they likely won’t be as ugly as the Confederate flag flap.
In July, the Interior-Environment appropriations subcommittee measure (HR 2822) reached the House floor for the first time in years. But a dispute over the Confederate battle flag broke out, thanks to an amendment sanctioned by House GOP leadership and aimed at shoring up support for the spending bill from Southern Republicans. The amendment would have allowed Confederate flag imagery to remain displayed on graves on federal land in some circumstances.
Ever the good soldier, Calvert introduced the add-on at leadership’s behest, late on a muggy Wednesday evening after most lawmakers and staff had gone home for the night.
The move, first reported by CQ Roll Call, set off a Democratic blitzkrieg the next day as one after another took to the House floor to pummel the GOP for its apparent tone-deafness bringing up the amendment not long after a racially motivated shooting in South Carolina that left nine black parishioners dead.
Calvert initially was caught in the crossfire, taking flak for the amendment. But several members on both sides defended his reputation, including his Appropriations sparring partner, Betty McCollum of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the Interior-Environment panel.
“Mr. Calvert has been wonderful to work with. . . . He’s a gentleman,” McCollum said at the time. “I’ve been very careful not to call it the ‘Calvert amendment.’ I call it ‘the amendment.’”
His spending bill wasn’t so lucky. The measure went down in the maelstrom, pulled abruptly from the floor by Republican leaders.
Just like that, appropriations season was over, until the recent passage of the budget deal (HR 1314), which will spur a rewrite of subcommittee bills.
“That issue would have been on a number of bills after mine,” Calvert said in the interview, calling on a mobile phone from his hometown of Corona, a white-collar town about 45 miles southeast of Los Angeles. “They decided to stop the process at that point.”
All over a flag the native Californian says he’s “not overly concerned” about.
Months later, Calvert put on a brave face as he recounted the demise of his bill — the product of months of appropriations work.
“Well, I’m a big boy. I understand how the game’s played. You know, comes with the territory,” he said.
The 62-year-old chuckled as he added, “But it was frustrating to say the least.”
Calvert is an amiable House member with a record of loyalty to his party — he repeatedly supported former Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, with tough votes on unpopular fiscal legislation, including the two-year budget and debt limit agreement (HR 1314) signed into law on Monday.
That major package cleared some of the thorniest brush from lawmakers’ year-end agenda. But for Calvert, there’s plenty of slogging ahead.
Calvert will need to perform an impressive balancing act to steer the Interior- Environment bill through a Republican Congress intent on confronting the administration’s environmental agenda and a White House set on defending it.
Calvert is clear about which side he’s on.
“EPA’s overreach and these regulatory issues is a big deal throughout the United States,” he said. “That’s why we’ve cut their budget, that’s why we keep pushing the EPA to act rationally.”
The white whale that Republican appropriators want to spear in this year’s battle over environmental regulations is President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which aims to curb carbon emissions from power plants. Calvert said he expects a fierce GOP effort to chip away at that policy.
“You know, I’m in the South Coast Air Quality [Management] District out here. I get it. I mean I played football — you couldn’t see the end zone on the other side of the field,” Calvert said. But “incremental steps where the technology isn’t there yet” do more harm than good, he added.
Democrats aren’t likely to give an inch on that front, a major piece of Obama’s climate change legacy.
Calvert has his sights set on a more achievable target: the administration’s Waters of the United States rule, which clarifies the extent of federal authority over bodies of water under the Clean Water Act (PL 95-217). Calvert’s committee-approved measure would have permanently prohibited the EPA from changing its definition of “navigable waters” under the act.
“We just think it’s overreach by the administration and it’s a threat to jobs at this time for very little benefit,” Calvert said. “So I was going to do everything I could to protect workers and small businesses. And I’m sure when we get into the omnibus, we’ll feel the same way about it.”
After supporting fellow Californian and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to succeed Boehner — and then backing Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin after McCarthy dropped out — Calvert said he hasn’t given much thought to another brewing leadership contest: the race for the Appropriations gavel.
Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said in July he’s likely to give up his post at the end of this two-year term, his third as chief House appropriator. He would need a waiver from GOP leadership to extend his chairmanship.
Calvert said there hasn’t been much discussion of a potential heir, though he had praise for one of his fellow subcommittee chairmen: Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey. Frelinghuysen runs the coveted Defense spending panel, which Calvert also sits on.
“Rodney’s certainly a senior member,” Calvert said. “He’s a great member — great chairman of Defense appropriations.”
Asked if he’s interested in the top job, Calvert — who has never chaired a full committee — didn’t mince words.
“Uh, no,” he said. “Not this time.”
The loyal lieutenant has a tough mission ahead of him already.
Emma Dumain contributed to this report.