WASHINGTON — As of last week, Rep. Bradley Byrne is no longer the most junior member of Congress.
Byrne’s bump up the pecking order can be credited to Rep. David Jolly’s (R-Fla.) defeat of Democratic congressional candidate Alex Sink in a special election contest, which determined the late Bill Young’s replacement for Florida’s 13th congressional district.
One down, 533 to go.
But overcoming the possibly impending doom of the Littoral Combat Ship — which Byrne’s predecessor Jo Bonner may or may not have seen coming — is something that should be weighing more heavily on Byrne’s mind. Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made it official: The Obama administration is going to succumb to congressional pressure and show it is willing to scale back the LCS program.
For the majority of Bonner’s term as Alabama’s First Congressional representative, he faced an uphill battle promoting EADS’s failed bid for the U.S. Air Force KC-X tanker contract. EADS would eventually win, but only to have Boeing challenge the Pentagon’s decision and have it go Boeing’s way.
Having learned from the KC-X experience, Bonner went on to employ those tactics to bolster Austal USA’s standing in the U.S. Navy’s procurement of the Littoral Combat Ship’s development. Bonner, however, resigned to take a job in the University of Alabama system, and along with that left behind any clout and seniority he had in preventing the downsizing of the Littoral Combat Ship program.
Enter Bradley Byrne.
Byrne faced a difficult campaign against a crowded primary field, a nasty campaign against a runoff challenger masquerading as a Tea Party challenger. An irrelevant, inconsequential contest against a Democratic opponent followed.
The former state senator and two-year college chancellor won, but despite that victory, very seldom has he faced questions about the prospect of the Obama administration’s Department of Defense downsizing efforts, which would include the Littoral Combat Ship prototypes, already unpopular behind the scenes with U.S. Navy brass.
Seventy-something days after his eventual swearing in, it isn’t ObamaCare, the IRS scandal, Ukraine or anything hot-button issue of the day. Instead the Department of Defense’s ultimate decision of the Navy’s LCS craft is Byrne’s apparent most important fight.
As of last week – that fight appears to be lost.
And unfortunately Byrne doesn’t have the behind-the-scenes committee seniority Bonner had.
In an op-ed for al.com that was published for Sunday’s edition of the Press-Register, Byrne suggested the best way for him to get things done in Washington was to “fly under the radar.”
“I’m learning in Washington that the best way to achieve results is to put my head down, work hard, and be respectful of others,” Byrne wrote. “If we can avoid pettiness and focus on working on areas where we share common ground, I am hopeful we can achieve more than we thought possible. I’ll continue working as I said I would in my inauguration speech, ‘as a problem solver, not a problem maker.’”
Compared to Bonner, however, Byrne is hardly off the radar.
One of the most glaring differences between Byrne and his predecessor is the amount of day-to-day communication.
Since being sworn into office on Jan. 8, Byrne’s communications director Jack Pandol has dispatched about a news release a day. The content of these attention-seeking missives have run the gamut from announcing a town hall meeting to revealing Byrne’s official position on the turmoil in the Ukraine.
On Capitol Hill, there are two types of members of Congress: those who go out of their ways to get media attention — colloquially known as “show horses” — and those who are — as Bonner seemed to be and Byrne strives to mimic — “work horses.”
There is a time for not flying under the radar, however. In the midst of the BP oil spill, Bonner wasn’t as outspoken as he could have been. When then-CNN contributor James Carville took to the airwaves to blast the Obama administration’s response to the oil spill for Louisiana, the administration moved resources from Alabama to Louisiana.
At that time, the Alabama Gulf Coast needed a spokesman that could counter Carville. Bonner obviously didn’t have the personality to fill that role. So while it’s good to put your head down, there’s a time and place to push that button and do what it takes to effectively communicate a message.
It wouldn’t be fair to give Byrne a poor grade for these first two months. He and his staff, under the direction of Alex Schriver — an exceedingly green chief of staff — have handled the LCS situation as best they could.
To be sure, Byrne has had a small victory. According to his office last week, he was able to confirm through Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus that at least two more LCS ships would be built at Austal USA’s Mobile facility.
Looking forward, there will be some big fights ahead that go beyond just Mobile. One of the big votes that could come before the midterms is a vote on immigration reform. After last fall’s special election cycle, Byrne got a big boost from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Will there be an expectation of payback for the Chamber’s help in his primary with Dean Young?
That might be one to watch.