Insulting Andrus: Risch’s temper tantrum lets us peek behind the curtain of Idaho politics

Statesman staff explains the tense buildup to Andrus' and Risch's political rivalry

Community Engagement Editor Bill Manny and Environmental Reporter Rocky Barker sit down to discuss why Sen. Jim Risch stalled the spending bill on Thursday, March 22.
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Community Engagement Editor Bill Manny and Environmental Reporter Rocky Barker sit down to discuss why Sen. Jim Risch stalled the spending bill on Thursday, March 22.

It would be easy to simply view the dustup over the bill naming the 2015 central Idaho wilderness for former Gov. Cecil Andrus as simply the petty and embarrassing episode that it is. But that would miss several potential lessons, the ripple effects of which cannot be known today.

The first should not be overlooked. Creating the Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds Wilderness is a perfect memorial to the legacy of Andrus, who also served as an influential secretary of Interior. Within the area’s borders is Castle Peak, the mountain that Andrus himself said “made a governor” when he ran and won opposing a molybdenum mine there in 1970.

So, credit Congressman Mike Simpson for proposing and shepherding the name change into law. If Sen. Jim Risch had followed the wise advice to let sleeping dogs lie, this would have been the brief and transient headline on this story. Alas, Risch briefly tried to stop the name change, which also meant trying to stop the giant spending bill the Senate ultimately passed.

Second is that the late-night episode overshadowed the pros and cons of legislating massive budget bills into law with little review or oversight. As Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse observed, silly missteps come from “a ridiculously dysfunctional process.” Are there true outrages lurking in the 2,200 pages of this monster bill?

Third is what we learn from the political fight itself. Such contretemps always excite political journalists eager for anything to enliven a story about a federal spending bill. Such a self-inflicted black eye delights those who dislike the offender (Risch) and who like the offended (in this case, a beloved Idaho icon).

So, the point beyond the pugilism: Politics is about relationships. And relationships matter.

Risch and Andrus feuded for years, and Andrus kept it public with barbs about Risch, whom he called “that little guy.”

But Andrus, a Democrat, got re-elected in the 1980s with GOP support. That led to an alliance with Republican Simpson. Simpson in turn worked with Risch to get the wilderness bill through the Senate in 2015; Risch had stopped an earlier version. The wilderness soon to be known as “The Cec” (lovers of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness call it “The Frank”) wouldn’t exist if Risch had let antipathy toward Andrus halt Andrus’ last great dream. And Risch is now working with some of the same environmentalists and other parties to fashion a coalition for a proposed wilderness at Scotchman Peak. Powerful reminders about how relationships shape real issues and causes that matter to real people far beyond the cloistered chambers of Congress.

So what happens to these relationships?

▪  Between Risch and his put-out Senate colleagues? Risch is in line to chair the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, a post that requires diplomacy and tact to be successful. Will his Senate colleagues remember his threat to derail a bill to keep the federal government in business?

▪  Between Risch and Simpson? Simpson, a powerful House Appropriations subcommittee chairman, can help get money attached to your idea, as the bill’s long list of Idaho appropriations shows.

▪  Between Risch and Idaho’s vast legions of Andrus fans? They are likely to remember this slight far longer than will Risch’s fellow senators.

▪  Between the four members of the Idaho congressional delegation? Already there is deep antipathy between Simpson and Rep. Raul Labrador, whose dislike for each other has bubbled to the surface several times in recent years. Labrador is running for governor, so a new member of Congress will represent western Idaho in Congress next year. That woman or man will need to work with Simpson. And the relationship between the state’s governor and the state’s most powerful appropriator also is important, so this election has potential to reshape multiple dynamics.

Relationships can produce surprising alliances and successes, or grievances that fester into decades-long grudges. These often are masked by the bromides of politicians’ official statements and press releases. They play out behind the scenes, whispered rather than spoken aloud. This eruption gives us all a rare public peek behind the curtain of Idaho politics.

It has significance beyond the schadenfreude that Risch’s enemies are enjoying right now. We can’t know today the lasting effects of a temporary temper tantrum.

Unsigned editorials represent the opinions of the Statesman Editorial Board.