Rep. Brian Baird Recalls Highs, Lows of 12 Years

Posted May 26, 2010 at 5:12pm

When many Members of Congress are first elected, they vow to spend very little time in D.C., pledging to head home to their districts whenever possible.

But for retiring Rep. Brian Baird, living on Capitol Hill with his family was actually a highlight of his dozen years in office.

“We like living on the Hill very, very much,” the Washington Democrat said. “Frager’s Hardware store is a national treasure. … We’ve kind of gotten to know people [and made] friendships, neighborhood relationships.”

It isn’t surprising that Baird made a home in D.C. during his six terms: His southwest Washington district is thousands of miles away. And while Baird hasn’t yet decided whether he will leave D.C. following his impending retirement — or isn’t saying publicly, at least — he is reflecting on his time in office.

In an interview, Baird looked back at his accomplishments, his failings and his most memorable moments.

Many retiring Members, like Baird, are likely to recall the tense hours following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the aftermath, including the time when Members stood together on the steps of the Capitol and sang “God Bless America.”

For Baird, that moment is especially memorable, considering he played a part in making it happen.

Baird was standing beside Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) as Congressional leaders gave speeches responding to the attacks, he recalled. The pair began chatting about what else Members could do to show their unity, and Rohrabacher came up with the idea to sing.

So Rohrabacher began, Baird joined in and soon everyone was belting out the patriotic anthem.

“There was a time period when people just interacted differently with one another,” Baird said. “That has obviously changed.”

A licensed clinical psychologist, Baird was elected to Congress in 1998. He quickly became a popular figure in the Congressional halls, serving as president of the Democratic freshman class.

These days, he serves as a senior regional whip and is the co-chairman of the Democratic Caucus Task Force on Health and Medicare.

Baird tackled an eclectic range of issues in Congress — from local sales tax matters to ocean acidification — but he said his record post-9/11 is among his proudest legislative accomplishments. Baird notably voted against authorizing the Iraq War, but several years later he voted for the surge in troops, citing a need to give the military a chance to achieve victory.

It was not exactly an easy position for a Democrat to take, he recalled. “That was very difficult politically both here and back home, but I think history has vindicated both positions, actually,” Baird said.

“There’s nothing more important we do than issues of war and peace,” he added.

Baird also is proud of getting changes into the state tax code back in Washington, he said.

In his downtime, Baird is an avid outdoorsman, and he enjoys kayaking on the Potomac River while he’s in D.C.

That love of the outdoors made a “very significant trip to Antarctica” to see the effects of global warming even more special, Baird recalled.

“It was incredibly important in ways you just don’t get if you just read about it,” he said. “You have to be there. See it, feel it.”

Not every memory is so fond, however.

Baird failed to get one of his biggest legislative goals through — ensuring the continuity of Congress in the event of a major disaster.

There’s no denying the level of the problem, Baird noted. Should a 9/11-level attack take place on Capitol Hill and hundreds of Members die, there isn’t a plan in place to quickly replace them and keep the government running.

Baird and several Members tried to fix the continuity system in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks. But the political will to tackle the issue isn’t there, Baird said.

One reason is that there’s no fundraising benefit to the issue, preventing Members from putting it at the top of their to-do list. Plus, “there are abundant examples of psychological denial,” Baird said.

“It is beyond disappointing,” Baird said. “I just can’t put into words the level of disappointment and dismay.”

But overall, Baird looks back on his time in D.C. with fondness, noting he was particularly honored to serve alongside Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) — “Goodness gracious, to serve with John Lewis,” he said — as well as with friends such as Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), James Oberstar (D-Minn.), Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and several of his fellow Members from the Northwest.

One more thing he’ll miss, he joked: “those cross-country flights and fundraising calls.”