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From general to Congress: Enyart making an unusual transition

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 11, 2013 - WASHINGTON – Last summer, Maj. Gen. Bill Enyart was overseeing 13,500 Illinois National Guard troops, deploying units to disaster or combat zones, and juggling the complex demands of the Pentagon, lawmakers and the governor.

Today, U.S. Rep. Enyart, D-Belleville, is shuttling back and forth between Belleville and Washington, meeting with constituents ranging from Alexander County farmers to East St. Louis officials, and learning the arcane procedural rules of the U.S. house.

It’s quite a transition for the 63–year-old Enyart, the only former general currently serving in Congress. But, six weeks into the new job, Enyart – a lawyer as well as former Adjutant General, who retired from that post in June – says he is enjoying the challenge.

“I look at it as continuing to serve, but just in a different capacity,” Enyart said in an interview in his office near the U.S. Capitol.

“Having served as Illinois Adjutant General for five years was great training for this job,” he observed. “In that job, you had to be able to juggle a lot of balls, to work on a lot of different big projects at the same time. And you had to make difficult decisions.”

As a Democrat in the GOP-controlled House, Enyart also is functioning in the minority, both in the context of his committees – Armed Services and Agriculture – and in the wider political strategies, which he and other House Democrats discussed last week during a retreat in Leesburg, Va.

But, having survived a hard-fought campaign (“the attack ads … weren’t real pleasant”) last fall, Enyart said he is getting used to Capitol Hill politics. And he is starting to tackle some of the big national issues with implications in his 12th District, which covers a dozen counties from Alton all the way to Illinois’ southern tip at Cairo.

Like former U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, who represented the district for 24 years, Enyart appears to be positioning himself as a moderate Democrat on most issues, with an emphasis on regional economic cooperation.

“The thing I’ve found as I travel through the district is the overriding concern is jobs and the economy,” Enyart told the Beacon. “Whether you live in Madison County or Alexander County or somewhere in-between, what you’re concerned about are jobs.”

“We have very high unemployment rates in parts of the district, but there are also some real bright spots,” he said – including the revival of Alton Steel and the expansion of Continental Tire Corp.’s operation in Mount Vernon.

Tear down ‘Berlin Wall’ to expand cooperation

Taking the view of a geopolitical strategist, Enyart believes that the prosperity of Metro East is linked to the economic health of the Missouri as well as the Illinois sides of the region.

“Sometimes I refer to the Mississippi River as the Berlin Wall. And I think we need to tear that wall down,” he said. “We represent a region, and we have to have that regional cooperation.”

This month, Enyart has talked with St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, met with RCGA officials, and discussed regional cooperation with fellow U.S. Reps. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis; Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin; John Shimkus, R-Collinsville; and Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, Ill.

Given that Scott Air Force Base in Belleville is the region’s fourth-largest employer, and many of its employees live on the river’s Missouri side, Enyart said the region’s congressional delegation is “going to work together for Scott.

“Ann [Wagner] and Lacy [Clay] full well realize that the $3 billion a year [that Scott AFB contributes to the region’s economy] doesn’t all stay on the east side of the river. It’s money that contributes to the entire regional economy.”

And Scott AFB is only one of the installations, issues and firms that bind the Missouri and Illinois sides of the St. Louis region. Some workers at Metro East firms live on the river’s western side, and many employees who spend the workday in St. Louis live in Illinois.

“I was at Alton Steel a couple of weeks ago,” Enyart recalled, “and they said about 40 percent of their workforce lives on the west side of the river. I was at the Afton Chemical plant in Sauget last week, and it was the same story – about 40 percent of their workers. In fact, the plant manager lives in Missouri.

“The health of the region’s economy is important to all of us.”

Scott AFB a key installation

That’s one reason Enyart sought – and got – a seat on the House Armed Services Committee. “Scott is the largest employer in the district and has a huge economic impact. It is also a critical cog in our nation’s defense,” he said.

Last month, Illinois’ senators and Enyart said they were disappointed when the Air Force failed to list Scott among it finalist bases to host the next-generation refueling tanker aircraft, the KC-46A.

But Enyart, who knows well how the Pentagon works, says there is plenty of time for Scott to be considered for the next wave of KC-46A bases. “I have met with senior Air Force generals [who] told me this is a long-term purchase and the initial buy, which runs until 2028, is for 179 aircraft,” he said. The initial allocation is for only 50 of those.

Enyart thinks Scott will be a prime candidate for future basing as the tanker fleet expands. “We’re going to work on that,” he said. “I’ve been talking with the Southwestern Illinois Leadership Council and with folks at the RCGA. It’s going to take a team effort to make sure that Scott remains a vital link in national security.”

The two Armed Services subcommittees on which Enyart will serve – Readiness and  Tactical Air and Land Forces – will make use of his expertise in the National Guard as well as his knowledge of Scott.

Readiness “governs all elements of the military,” he said, “and you can’t have readiness without a ready Guard.”

Agriculture and river issues will be a priority

Corn, soybeans, orchards, wheat and livestock operations – those are the mainstays of agriculture in Enyart’s district. And what he is hearing from farmers is they want a long-term agriculture program that allows them to plan for the future.

“When I meet with the Farm Bureau and people in the ag industry, the leading topic of conversation is a long-term farm bill,” said Enyart. “There’s enough uncertainty in farming and the agriculture industry as it is. They need to have long-term, strategic policy on the part of the government.”

The problem is, Congress wasn’t able to agree on a long-term plan last year, and so the nation’s farm programs are operating under a stopgap spending resolution. The Senate and the House Agriculture Committee passed 5-year agriculture bills, he said, “but then the speaker couldn’t bring it to the floor” for a vote in the full House.

“Both the chairman and the ranking Democrat on Agriculture intend to come back with a long-term bipartisan bill again. Hopefully, we can get a vote this time.”

Enyart said he plans to work toward that goal in his seats on the full committee; the subcommittee on Livestock, Rural Development and Credit; and the subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management.

Of course, tons of those Illinois commodities are exported, requiring transport down the Mississippi River to the Gulf Coast. That’s why Enyart wants to make sure that barge traffic can move efficiently up and down the rivers.

“The locks and dams are a huge topic of conversation,” he said. “We’ve seen with the drought on the Mississippi how important those waterways are to our farm exports. It brings huge dollars not only to my district but to the entire Midwest and the nation.”

Like other lawmakers in the Illinois and Missouri delegation, Enyart wants a greater federal commitment to improve some of the outmoded locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi. “Those Locks and Dams have a big impact on the cost of shipping goods, whether you’re shipping grain out or bringing fertilizer or oil up the river.”

Another key river issue for the 12th District relates to flooding rather than navigation: making sure the Mississippi River levees in Metro East are upgraded and that the FEMA flood insurance maps fully reflect that levee protection.

“I’ve been working with the Corps of Engineers on that,” said Enyart, who as Adjutant General deployed 450 Guard troops to fill half a million sandbags that helped protect Southern Illinois river communities during the flood of 2011.

“When I toured the Afton Chemical plant in Sauget . . . the plant manager told me that  the No. 1 concern of the CEO in Richmond, Va., are the levees protecting that chemical plant,” Enyart said.

If the levees would fail, “the plant could be out of operation for several months, and that would have a huge impact on fuel costs throughout the nation –throughout the world, really, because they make fuel additives there.”

East St. Louis and coal country

Representing the 12th District can be a challenge because its population runs the gamut from urban to rural, from rich to poor, and its resources range from farmland to coal. 

One of the most difficult issues for lawmakers has been trying to better use federal and state programs to ease the poverty, crime and educations challenges of East St. Louis.

“The problems of East St. Louis weren’t created overnight, and they’re not going to be solved overnight,” Enyart conceded.

“I think it’s going to require a multi-pronged approach. In order for East St. Louis to be redeveloped and become successful, the educational issues in the city’s school district are going to have to be addressed,” he said. “The dropout rate is horrendous.”

He hopes that the crime problems can be eased with the recent establishment of the Metro East Law Enforcement Task Force, but he said there needs to be more federal support, given that the government owns the city’s housing projects yet doesn’t pay the city anything for law enforcement there.

“According to the mayor, the vast bulk of the crime in the city occurs in those housing projects,” he said.

“So every time a police call goes out and they go to these projects, it’s a cost to the city, which is not receiving any income” from the federal owner of that property “to help defray those costs. So we need to take a look at some impact fees” from the feds.

Reviving the Southern Illinois coal industry is another priority for Enyart, who joined last week with U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, to co-chair the Congressional Coal Caucus, which aims to promote Southern Illinois coal industry and related jobs.

Last year, Illinois reported a record year for coal production. The lawmakers want to maintain that momentum and work together to advance local coal production, workers, and jobs in the region. Said Enyart:

“Our coal industry in Southern Illinois can provide new opportunity and good jobs that support middle class families and power our communities.”