Cooper opposed Pelosi’s management style but received key appointment

By: - January 10, 2023 6:01 am
Former U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, photographed Dec. 15, 2022 by John Partipilo.

Former U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, photographed Dec. 15, 2022 by John Partipilo.

When former Tennessee Congressman Jim Cooper voted against Nancy Pelosi multiple times in the House Speaker’s race, it wasn’t necessarily because they were enemies.

In fact, Cooper, who bowed out of the U.S. House of Representatives last week after 32 years in office, says they are “great friends.” Still, he was concerned about her leadership style because it mirrored that of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican.

“I’ll be the first to tell you that these work, but they’re still not the right thing to do, and what those management techniques are is top-down, coercion, you’re told what to do,” Cooper says, during a December interview as he prepared to step away from Congress.

Republicans redrew Cooper’s 5th Congressional District, splitting Davidson County into three districts and making it exceedingly difficult for a Democratic candidate to win facing a 20-point deficit. The Davidson County resident opted against running for re-election because of the district’s configuration.

You see, any party that has a monopoly is gonna get incompetent and corrupt. And Democrats had a monopoly in the House of Representatives for 40 years, and we became incompetent and corrupt. It’s a natural cycle.

– Former U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper

Under Pelosi, Cooper says, House committees were “virtually eliminated” in favor of overnight polling by the Speaker’s office, which decided it knew better what action to take than any committee.

“That’s wrong because we did not get elected to Congress to be ciphers for a national party leadership. We are elected to represent home folks and to hash out compromises ourselves,” Cooper says.

Ultimately, he supported Pelosi in a bid for House speaker, but in previous years he backed others for the top leadership post.

In terms of politics, his “no” vote helped her look more liberal in San Francisco and Cooper to appear more conservative to Tennessee voters.

Pelosi also gave Cooper the honor of serving on the House intelligence committee, which became the focal point of his second stint in Congress from 2003 through 2022. He was first elected in 1982 to the old 4th Congressional District while based in Shelbyville and served until 1994 when he was defeated by Fred Thompson in a U.S. Senate race.

Cooper contends nobody “got hurt” by those speaker votes, pointing out it was all “shading and nuance,” because explaining to people why Gingrich’s and Pelosi’s House rules were wrong was difficult. In fact, few people understand House rules, except for those in the midst of Congress.

Part of last week’s difficulty in electing leader Kevin McCarthy as speaker stemmed, in part, from Republican dissatisfaction with House rules. A group of 20 legislators, including U.S. Rep. Andy Ogles, who now represents the 5th Congressional District, wanted the ability to remove the speaker with only one member’s motion and the opportunity to serve on the House Rules Committee and other key committees, most of which are usually given to experienced lawmakers.

Ogles voted for McCarthy on the 12th go-around. Video showed the Republican leader and Ogles having a spirited conversation last Thursday in the House chamber.

Cooper could not be reached for comment on the gridlock surrounding McCarthy’s election. But there’s little doubt he would be disappointed in the failure of the House to elect a Speaker, especially considering his efforts over the decades to seek political moderation.

Even with Democrats in control over the last two years, Cooper says the House is “degraded compared to what it used to be.”

He calls the late Tip O’Neill, speaker from 1977 to 1987, his “ideal leader” because he got along with former President Ronald Reagan and his best friend was Republican Minority Leader Bob Michel of Illinois.

“I got lucky because I could be the child of a Democratic governor and believe almost the opposite things from my father,” said former U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, whose father, Prentice Cooper, was Tennessee's governor 1939-1945. (Photo: John Partipilo)
“I got lucky because I could be the child of a Democratic governor and believe almost the opposite things from my father,” said former U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, whose father, Prentice Cooper, was Tennessee’s governor 1939-1945. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The nation would be better off if Pelosi and McCarthy had been close friends, he says, “because you need to lock arms and be for America and partisanship is way down the line.”

 

O’Neill’s successor, Jim Wright, whom Cooper calls a “mean SOB,” was too focused on Democrats winning every battle. Ultimately, Wright’s arrogance allowed Gingrich to take over the House, he says.

“You see, any party that has a monopoly is gonna get incompetent and corrupt. And Democrats had a monopoly in the House of Representatives for 40 years, and we became incompetent and corrupt. It’s a natural cycle,” Cooper says.

The positive note is that political change “rejuvenates America,” creating energy, interest and excitement, he adds.

He sees a similar trend taking place in Tennessee where numerous legislators were subpoenaed to testify about alleged political corruption.

That sort of change is inherent to politics.

Cooper’s father was Tennessee’s Democratic governor from 1939 to 1945, a time when the Republican Party was the party for civil rights, women’s rights and the environment, he points out.

“Those roles have reversed, so anybody who stayed with one party the whole time is flipping their beliefs,” Cooper says. “I got lucky because I could be the child of a Democratic governor and believe almost the opposite things from my father.”

Budget hawk

One area where Cooper was clearly conservative was on the nation’s budget, warning Congress for years that it needed to rein in spending or increase taxes to cover expenses. The budget deficit dipped under $1.4 trillion this year as pandemic-related spending fell and revenue increased, yet the national debt is at $31 trillion.

Cooper relates a story about a Treasury official under former President George W. Bush, who described the federal government as a “giant insurance company with its own standing army.”

He points out 70-80% of all government spending goes toward insurance programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which are “on automatic pilot.”

That Treasury official also noted, however, that an insurance company that doesn’t use “real accounting” is not really an insurance company, but “an accident waiting to happen.” Congress is not required to balance its budget as Tennessee’s Legislature is, but instead operates through spending bills.

Cooper on COVID spending: “(The U.S.) did the best job of any nation in the world in keeping our economy going. But it came at a World War II price.”

Cooper on Ukraine: Ukrainians are “doing the fighting for us and for the whole free world,” 

“That’s what America is today,” Cooper says, “and COVID really blew everybody off, because we had to save the economy. And guess what, we did the best job of any nation in the world in keeping our economy going. But it came at a World War II price.”

The nation hasn’t had this much debt since the Second World War, he says, but people were unified and America defeated Hitler and Japan, though the nation had to use nuclear bombs to end the war. The country’s challenge now is to put together another “World War II-size effort” to pay its debt, Cooper says.

Yet he believes the nation is closer than most believe to lowering its debt to a manageable level, and he points out that even President Bill Clinton, “that  rascal,” oversaw three years of balanced budgets with a Republican-controlled Congress helping him.

“This must be done,” Cooper says, because even though the nation appears safe for now, the next pandemic, even more deadly than the last, could be looming.

Weighing in on Ukraine

While many Republicans have criticized President Biden’s and Congress’ decisions to spend billions of dollars helping Ukraine turn back a Russian invasion, Cooper calls Ukraine a “modern miracle.”

He notes that U.S. troops are not involved in the fighting and Ukrainians are “doing the fighting for us and for the whole free world,” showing “more guts” than he’s ever seen by facing down and defeating a 40-mile-long column of Russian tanks, among other victories against a massive army and constant shelling.

Cooper contends Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy should be “the world’s person of the year” because he stood up to “a bloody dictator” like Russian President Vladimir Putin. Time Magazine, in fact, named him Person of the Year for 2022.

“I wish Trump had had that courage,” Cooper says. But he points out former President Donald Trump, instead, held secret conversations with Putin and refused to allow anyone from his administration to participate.

Cooper calls that situation “scary,” especially since it has been revealed that Trump wanted to locate a tower in downtown Moscow and offered Putin a suite at the top.

“That’s called corruption,” he says. “The founders were against that. We should all be against that. But, see, there are some people who value the almighty dollar more than they do the United States of America.”



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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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