Alan Grayson is running 40 minutes late, but his reason is sound. At 11:30 a.m., the House Science Committee started marking up NASA’s funding bill, adding and subtracting whatever they could. At 5 p.m., the committee was still at it. When the members finished a half hour later, the only headline they’d generate would be about the killing of a program to “send a robotic mission to a small asteroid by 2016.”
Grayson, once again, had walked under the radar. The Democratic congressman from Orlando had convinced the Republican-run committee to adopt five of his amendments. One would bar “the federal government from awarding contracts to corporations convicted of fraud,” and another would force NASA to “consider American public-private partnership human space flight” before it partnered with foreign space programs. Each was getting him closer to an unheralded title: The congressman who’s passed more amendments than any of his 434 peers.
“We’ve passed 31 amendments in committee so far,” says Grayson. “Hardly any Democrats who put in amendments put in any effort to get to 218. They just think they’ve accomplished something when it’s ruled in order, and that’s the end of the story.”
The last time the media noticed Alan Grayson, he was a freshman Democrat, a member of the 2008 Obama wave, trying and failing to survive 2010. Grayson joked that Dick Cheney left a “torture rack” in the White House, said that the Republican health care plan was for people to “die quickly”—so on and so on, all very helpful to a press trying to prove that the Tea Party had an ideological match on the left. Grayson went down by 18 points to the blandly conservative former state senator Daniel Webster, or “Taliban Dan,” as a Grayson ad called him. The Washington Post eulogized him as “a controversial liberal icon that many in the Democratic Party weren’t sad to see lose.”
Grayson’s back because the last round of redistricting created a new, safe seat in metro Orlando. He won it, reclaiming a job he says he wants to keep “for a long, long time.” In doing so he’s stopped being a Republican target and started getting along with the majority. In his office, the only evidence that he used to irritate the other party is a plaque on his desk: I Have Flying Monkeys and I’m Not Afraid to Use Them. He doesn’t use them on Republicans anymore. “I don’t think they feel the same sort of glee,” he says. “I don’t see them using me as a fundraising ploy.”
The new strategy is simple. Grayson and his staff scan the bills that come out of the majority. They scan amendments that passed in previous Congresses but died at some point along the way. They resurrect or mold bills that can appeal to the libertarian streak in the GOP, and Grayson lobbies his colleagues personally. That’s how he attached a ban on funding for “unmanned aerial vehicles,” i.e. drones, to the homeland security bill. He swears that they don’t back away from him because of his old persona—well, his relationship with Webster is “strained,” but he points out that Webster won re-election by 5,000 votes and Grayson won with 70,000. Never mind that. Are the members of Congress more forgiving than members of the press?
“It’s either that, or we’re all senile,” he says. “In some cases it’s a short conversation. In some cases it’s a long conversation. In some cases, they’re desperate to talk to somebody. Some members are actually very lonely people.”
This is how he brings members aboard on bills that either keep resources in Florida or enshrine some liberal or libertarian principle in the law. “They might come from the perspective that Barack Obama is a horrible president, and I come from the perspective of being critical of the military-industrial complex.” Grayson added one amendment to the last homeland security funding bill that prohibited “funds in the bill from being used in contravention of the First, Second, or Fourth Amendments.” That was surprisingly easy to do.
“We knew they couldn’t vote against it,” he says. “They wouldn’t want to roll call vote against the Constitution. They’re constantly trying to acquire the Constitution for their own purposes, and claim that they’re the guardians of it, so we knew that couldn’t fail.”
The real prize of passing that amendment was writing the legislative justification for it into the Congressional Record. “The intent of Congress with this legislation,” Grayson wrote, “is to place an absolute prohibition on any DHS involvement of any type or to any degree with any surveillance of Americans without specificity or without probable cause, such as the National Security Agency’s recently revealed surveillance program.” That, he says, was “the benefit of future courts, for the benefit of future administrations.”
Does any of it matter? The Obama administration doesn’t talk to him about these amendments, and he doesn’t clear anything by it. The most high-profile progressive move Grayson made all year was a letter he co-wrote with California freshman Mark Takano, pledging to “vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits” in a theoretical sequestration fix. Democrats never got the chance to act on that threat, because, paradoxically, the Republican House’s inability to cut big deals has kept entitlements off the block.
“You never heard people say—why doesn’t Pelosi do more?” says Grayson. “Some people would say, why doesn’t she do less? There are Democrats who’ve said since then, I wish she didn’t do so much. But now it’s a common feeling even among the lobbyists that the Republican leadership doesn’t deliver for them. All they do is put out these ‘message’ bills.”
Grayson has usually benefited from the way the House is run. His losses have been close-run things. At the end of June, when the House was moving a pair of energy bills, Grayson tried to attach language to enshrine “the right of any state to prohibit the management, leasing, developing, or use of lands” for offshore drilling. He nearly had the votes—one of the amendments failed on a rare 213-213 tie. “I can only imagine what they offered people to switch,” he says. He got close by selling Republicans on the enviro-friendly amendment as a defense of state’s rights.
Halfway through our conversation, Grayson has to trek from his office to the House floor for a series of votes. He disappears into the chamber, emerging after almost everybody else. On the way out he spots Florida Rep. Trey Radel, a 37-year-old freshman who that morning had written an op-ed about his love for hip-hop. “I need to talk to you when you have a moment,” says Grayson.
Radel actually has plenty of time, and the two congressmen stroll back to their offices, just out of earshot. When they’re done, Grayson returns to his staff and informs them that “Radel says yes” on another NSA-limiting amendment. “[California Rep. Dana] Rohrabacher says yes,” he says. “We need four more.” They’re going to be gettable. “These guys despise the NSA.”
Nothing’s stopping any of these Republicans from writing civil liberties-friendly amendments. Plenty of them do. Democrats, say Grayson, are just more inclined to act quickly, less inclined to think that you can whittle the state down if you defund it or ignore it. “The government doesn’t go away if you close your eyes.”