The Legend of the Safe-Seat Sensenbrenner

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Recently Wisconsin Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-5th District) announced plans to retire at the end of his current term. By the time he leaves office, Rep. Sensenbrenner will have served 42 years in Washington, making him the longest serving member of Congress from Wisconsin in history.

What’s been fascinating about the coverage of Rep. Sensenbrenner’s retirement is how little of it focuses on his legislative legacy. Almost every print, online, and broadcast story places the emphasis on what Republican will run to replace the man whose great-grandfather invented the Kotex napkin. Will it be Scott Walker’s 25-year-old son Matt, who apparently yearns to be the Right’s answer to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

James Sensenbrenner
The young James Sensenbrenner originally represented the 9th Congressional District, much of which became the 5th District that he currently serves.

As noted in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, here’s how Rep. Sensenbrenner himself defines his legacy:

“I have held over 100 town hall meetings each year; I have helped countless individuals when they have encountered difficulties with the federal government; I’ve taken 23,882 votes on the House Floor; been the lead sponsor or co-sponsor of 4,299 pieces of legislation; ushered 768 of them through the House for passage, and watched as 217 of them have been signed into law by six different presidents.

“I think I am leaving this district, our Republican Party, and most important, our country, in a better place than when I began my service.”

For me, what’s most remarkable about Rep. Sensenbrenner’s long tenure of service is how unremarkable it is. In no way do I wish to minimize his impact, because any honest look at his record has to acknowledge his critical role in some of the most important and difficult issues ever to face the nation. Some examples:

*Sensenbrenner was one of the members of the House chosen to manage the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.

*Sensenbrenner is widely considered to be one of the “architects” of the Patriot Act, the post-9/11 legislation that civil libertarians across the political spectrum have lambasted as an onerous overreach of federal power. Much to his credit, Sensenbrenner has been critical of NSA, FBI, and CIA actions under the Act, and said that “seizing phone records of millions of innocent people is excessive and un-American.” And instead of just verbally condemning the intel agencies, in 2015 he introduced the “USA Freedom Act” to correct some of the abuses.

Representative Sensebrenner was at his best when he took on the National Security State or called out excesses within his own party. Unfortunately such moments were too few during his many years in office.

*Just this year, Sensenrenner was one of only a handful of Republicans to vote to keep health care protections for people with preexisting conditions, and he’s generally been against GOP attempts to gut Obamacare. In 2014 he even called out as a “political stunt” Republican Senator Ron Johnson’s frivolous lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act.

But for most of his career, James Sensenbrenner has pretty much been a mainstream Republican, largely following the dictates of party leaders on issues like immigration, gun safety, taxes, a range of social issues, and the environment. Because he’s always represented a safe Republican district, Mr. Sensenbrenner has rarely had to worry about defending his views and votes against Democratic opposition. In fact since 2009 (the year that give birth to the Tea Party movement), he’s probably been more concerned about facing Republican primary opposition from the Right.

For more than 40 years Mr. Sensenbrenner has served in districts comprised mostly of Milwaukee’s northern and western suburbs; probably the most safe area in the state for a Republican. Safe districts, Republican or Democrat, do not generally produce maverick, independent legislative leaders willing to take political risks to lead on behalf of the people. More typically, safe-district representatives are very much like Mr. Sensenbrenner: the occasional vote on principle drowned out by an overriding allegiance to political self-preservation. That doesn’t make safe-seat legislators evil; it makes them human.

Some years down the road, after citizens are finally able to overcome the folly of extreme gerrymandered legislative districts, historians will write chapters explaining how there once was a time when a politician could get elected to 20+ consecutive terms no matter what they did. In such chapters, Rep. James Sensenbrenner might be identified as an icon of what electoral politics had become in the late 20th and early 21st century United States.

Perhaps that chapter will be titled “The Legend of the Safe-Seat Sensenbrenner.”

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About Author

Tony Palmeri

Tony Palmeri is a Professor of Communication Studies at UW Oshkosh. He teaches courses in rhetoric and public advocacy, freedom of speech, the rhetoric of rock and roll, and the communication career capstone. He maintains a blog called "Tony Palmeri's Media Rants." Tony served two terms on the Oshkosh Common Council and ran for state legislature in 1996 and 2004. You can find more information about him at www.tonypalmeri.com

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