Voices: Texas and South Carolina have just shown us the two most useless lawmakers in DC

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Election 2022 House Fundraising (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Election 2022 House Fundraising (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

In normal times, Tuesday evening’s elections might have been incredibly sleepy affairs. But instead, the primary in South Carolina’s 1st District and the special election in Texas’s 34th district wound up being incredibly consequential for both major parties.

In South Carolina, GOP Congresswoman Nancy Mace looks likely to avoid a runoff despite the fact that former president Donald Trump endorsed her primary challenger. Meanwhile, Republican Mayra Flores won the race to represent Texas’s 34th district, which in 2020 voted for Democrat Filemon Vela by a margin of 13.5 points.

There’s plenty of insight to be gleaned from both races. The South Carolina race showed once again that Trump’s endorsement doesn’t guarantee a victory, while the result in Texas is yet more proof that the Republican Party is steadily making inroads with Latino voters. But the races also revealed a great deal about the shameless opportunism of both the enduring Mace and the outgoing Vela – and that’s why both members deserve this month’s Most Useless People in Washington award.

Vela’s case illustrates how easy some officials find it to give up their job of serving constituents when given the chance to make a quick buck instead. Initially, he seemed to be an incredibly principled member; in his first term, he quit the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in 2013 over the Senate’s proposed immigration legislation at the time, which tied a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants to border security. That was a virtuous stand that reflected the interests of his district, which includes part of the US-Mexico border. (Similarly, in 2016, he told Trump to “Take your border wall and shove it up your ass.”)

This term, Vela said he would not run again, and instead endorsed fellow Representative Vicente Gonzalez to succeed him in his redrawn district. That is a justifiable thing to do, and members of Congress often handpick their successors. Similarly, he and would-be inheritor Gonzalez were part of the “unbreakable nine” Democratic members who called on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill without also passing Build Back Better. Again, it is totally justifiable for members to have different legislative priorities.

The problem is that Vela abandoned his constituents instead of seeing his elected term through. Earlier this year, he resigned from his seat early in order to join Akin Gump, the largest lobbying firm in the country — this, even though he will be banned from lobbying for a year (as all retiring members are). That triggered the special election, which in turn allowed the GOP to pick up a seat.

Democrats can rightly be criticized for failing to do enough outreach to Latino voters, and longtime readers know this reporter has pilloried the party for its poor campaigning on that front. The latest Quinnipiac University poll shows only 24 per cent of Hispanics approve of Joe Biden’s job performance. Still, it was Vela’s decision that set his party up to lose a seat, and which left voters in South Texas without a member of Congress for several months – all so he could get a better job.

But if Vela’s abdication of his duties shows his integrity had a price tag, Mace’s victory fully sacrificed her dignity in order to keep her Congressional lapel pin.

Mace has a truly incredible story that anyone could admire. After surviving rape at 16, she dropped out of school. But then she worked to get her GED a few years later, and then became the first woman to graduate from the Citadel, a respected military college in South Carolina. She is not always a lockstep Republican footsoldier, advocating for decriminalizing marijuana among other things.

And yet, much of her time in Congress has been defined by her relationship with Trump, on whose campaign she worked in 2016.

The day after the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill, Mace explicitly said that Trump’s “entire legacy was wiped out” by the insurrection. She went on to vote against impeaching the then-president, but advocated for a censure. Yet after Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described her harrowing experience that day, Mace accused the New York Congresswoman of fabricating her story. (Last week, as the January 6 committee held its first primetime hearing, AOC said she confronted Mace over her remarks).

This was part of a larger pattern. In December, Mace praised “natural immunity” to Covid-19 on Fox News while simultaneously touting vaccines on CNN. Then, when Trump endorsed Katie Arrington, she famously shot a groveling video outside Trump Tower, delivering her best impersonation of John Cusack in Say Anything.

What makes Mace’s self-abasement even more jarring is the spectacle of South Carolina Representative Tom Rice, who voted to impeach Trump, being utterly routed in his primary against the Trump-endorsed Russell Fry. Whatever one thinks of the merits of the failed second impeachment, Rice stood for what he believed in and paid a price. That’s the exact type of person who should be in public service.

So: Vela, for giving up on your community to secure the bag, and Mace, for surrendering your self-respect to hold onto a Congressional seat, you earned this month’s dubious honor. Hope it was worth it.

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