A Prairie Populist Leaves the Senate


February 16, 2010
Yes! Magazine


Browse in Politics Washington

It’s going to take a while to get used to the thought that the “Senator” part of Senator Byron Dorgan soon will be in the past tense. For most of my adult life, Byron has been an elected official of exceptional conviction and resolve. He also has been an employer and friend of mine. Name a fight that pitted global corporations and entrenched financial interest against the little guy in the U.S. economy, and Byron probably has been there. He has also sought to address global hunger and bring some sanity to foreign affairs.

Byron’s retirement, which he announced recently, isn’t just a loss for the Senate. It marks the waning of a political outlook that took shape in the farm states more than a century ago and that has given spine to the nation’s politics for decades. Byron is probably best known today for opposing the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which since the Depression had held the speculative urges of the banking industry in check. In a prescient speech on the Senate floor in 1999, he warned that Congress would “look back in ten years time and say we should not have done this.” He called it practically to the year. (Only seven other senators voted along with him.)

That instinct about money-center bankers—that you have to keep them on a tight leash—was not accidental. It is warp and woof of who Byron is and the milieu in which he was raised. Byron grew up in a small farming community in North Dakota, “out there on the prairie” as Garrison Keillor says. It was the kind of place where farmers spent long dreary winters brooding about debt, and the way the financial system is designed to keep the people who do the work under the thumbs of those who lend the money.

The atmosphere was thick with the memory of the Nonpartisan League, the farmer protest party that won majorities in the state in 1918. The NPL had created new institutions—for example, a state-owned bank and grain elevator—to free farmers from the grip of bankers and other corporate powers. It established a state income tax that favored work and enterprise over passive investment. During the Depression, NPL governor William “Wild Bill” Langer had called out the National Guard to stop farm foreclosures. Langer once lay bodily across the railroad tracks to prevent grain shipments from leaving for Minneapolis until North Dakota farmers got a decent price.

Byron soaked up this tradition. His father managed a Farmer’s Union Co-op store, and he went to a Farmer’s Union summer camp. (The Farmer’s Union represents genuine family farmers, while the National Farm Bureau is tilted more towards corporate producers and agribusiness.) To this day, when you drive across the state, you see Farmer’s Union gas stations—CENEX—“Where the customer is the company,” as the signs proclaim.

The political drama here was not the urban New Deal liberalism that looked to government as a font of remedial programs. Rather, it saw government as the tough cop and referee who stood up to the bankers, railroads, grain companies, and the rest in order to ensure the small producer a fair shake. (The Farm Bill is an exception, of course. But free market nostrums just don’t work in the context of modern agriculture, and attempts to apply them—such as the Republican “Freedom to Farm” Act of 1996—have failed.)

I first met Byron in the 1970s when I was working with Ralph Nader in Washington. Byron, who was barely thirty, was the elected tax commissioner of his state. He had discovered that multinational corporations were cheating systematically on their state taxes, and their federal taxes too. It was basically an accounting shell game: they attributed their U.S. income to other countries (for U.S. purposes at least; what they told those countries was another story). They ended up paying taxes nowhere, and small taxpayers had to make up the difference.

The U.S. Treasury was enabling this avoidance by using an antiquated audit method that bought into the premise of the shell game. (It still does.) Byron and a group of colleagues in other Western states embraced a more modern and effective method that recouped millions of dollars. He challenged the corporations with drama and flair, and became something of a local political hero. He ran for Congress as a Democrat in 1980, and won North Dakota’s only seat—in a year in which Ronald Reagan carried the state in a landslide.

I worked on that campaign, and then joined Byron’s Congressional staff. He did not observe the rule that freshmen should be seen and not heard. He argued (without much success) that the farm bill should support family farmers and not big corporate operations—that it should be a farm bill and not the commodity bill it is now. He had more success with another issue: the way railroads were abandoning branch lines that ran to small communities. At the time, this practice was rampant in the Farm Belt. Railroads were cutting off service and farmers on those lines had to truck their grain many miles as a result.

Byron reminded people that the railroad corporations had received much of the land under those branch lines in the form of grants—that is, as gifts from the public. The grants were to enable them to provide railroad service; if they weren’t going to provide the service, they should have to give back the land. I forget exactly how the fight turned out, but I think there was an accommodation of some kind. The issue definitely got the railroads’ attention.

I left in Byron’s second term to become a journalist, but I rejoined his staff a couple of times during his three terms in the Senate. During those years, he was an often lonely voice on the side of the little guy in the face of corporate behemoths. He opposed the takeover of media by a handful of corporate chains, as well as “free trade” agreements that were Cinderella’s slippers expressly designed for the corporations that promoted them.

He pushed hard to enable Americans to buy prescription drugs in Canada, where prices are substantially lower than in the U.S. . If corporations can go abroad to buy cheap labor, why can’t ordinary Americans cross the border to buy inexpensive drugs? (That effort has failed, most recently because of an Obama administration deal with the drug industry regarding the medical insurance bill.)

Nor did Byron forget the issues that brought him to Congress. He ordered General Accounting Office studies of tax avoidance by multinational corporations, and worked persistently to repeal tax breaks for US corporations that shift jobs abroad.

Years before he was fighting against the repeal of Glass-Steagall, Byron was raising questions about derivatives, the complex financial instruments that helped turn the finance industry into a risk circus. The populist distrust of bankers, which is ridiculed by sophisticated economists, turned out to be a pretty good compass. Even Ralph Nader, who is not easily impressed, spoke highly of Byron.

There were also issues that were less appealing in what are considered progressive quarters. Byron has been a big supporter of ethanol, for example, and “clean coal” research. Some people forget that a senator from North Dakota represents North Dakota.

It is often the case on the Hill—and elsewhere—that the most ardent advocates are not the most admirable human beings. This was not the case with Byron. He is civil and decent without fail, in a quiet North Dakota way. He made a point of finding common ground with supposed ideological opposites such as Sam Brownback, the Kansas Republican and favorite of the church-based right. Most recently, they co-sponsored an official apology to Native Americans.

In over five years with him, I never saw Byron make a personal attack, nor even raise his voice with staff. This is not always the case on the Hill. The way politicians deal with staff when no one else is watching is a mark of character that reporters tend to overlook. A former staffer on the Republican side recently told of the time Byron and this staffer’s boss were engaged in heated debate on the Senate floor. The staffer had prepared some statistical charts, and Byron walked over and pointed out quietly that the charts were incorrect.

“I wanted to fall through the floor,” the staffer recalled later. “I told Senator Dorgan he was right, slipped a note to my boss telling him the chart was wrong, and awaited the further public humiliation.

“Senator Dorgan went back to his place and did a vigorous rebuttal to my boss—and conspicuously didn’t mention the error on our chart. He could have made us look idiotic—he didn’t. Sort of thing a staffer never forgets.”

I have been asked numerous times why Byron has decided to resign. I don’t know for sure, but I doubt it’s because he would face a tough challenge from the current governor. He is nothing if not competitive, and has won tough races before. I do know he’s been thinking about this for a long time. He did not want to become a geezer who had to be carried out. He has interns now who weren’t even born when he was first elected to the House. The fights against tax-evading multinationals on which he made his name have drifted into distant memory.

North Dakota has changed as well. There are about a third as many farms as there were in the days of the Non-Partisan League. Only ten percent of the state’s population still farms, and the farmer populism that once defined the state—and that he has represented—is waning too. I can’t say how much this affected Byron. He’s adapted and spent increasing amounts of time on such concerns as high tech jobs. But the trend has made the state more suburban and Republican, and he had to be aware of that.

Also, believe it or not, there really are other things to do. Byron has written two books now—one on trade, another on deregulation and debt—and he wants to write more. Maybe the question isn’t why he’s going, but why so many in Congress just go on and on and on.

My enduring memory of Byron is not on Capitol Hill. It’s back in North Dakota, when he was state tax commissioner. He would give talks all over the state; and I remember tooling across the prairie with him, wheat as far you could see, pizza box open, and the future bright and full of promise.

Byron, we are going to miss you. Use this next future well.

Jonathan Rowe wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jonathan is a contributing editor for YES! Magazine, a fellow for On The Commons, and founding co-director of the West Marin Commons.