Sartrean Agony for Frelinghuysen in the Trump Era

These are tough times for Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen.

Hailing from one of the state’s most prominent political clans, Frelinghuysen, R-Harding, up until now has had a fairly easy time in public life.

He was first a Morris County freeholder and then quickly moved to the state Assembly. And when Rep. Dean A. Gallo gave up his reelection bid in 1994 because of illness, he personally selected Frelinghuysen to replace him.

Gallo was so popular among Morris Republicans that no one in the party disagreed. Frelinghuysen easily won a convention to replace Gallo on the ballot. He won election in 1994 and has been reelected from the
11th District in northwest New Jersey ever since.

Popularity and family lineage aside, a congressional seat is a pretty nice job to get without breaking a sweat.

In Congress, Frelinghuysen basically minded his own business, voted the party line, and moved up the ranks through the House’s seniority season. He recently ascended to chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, a very important and powerful job.

Things certainly seemed to be going swimmingly. Frelinghuysen would use his new post to help both his district and the entire state.

Then came Donald Trump.

Frelinghuysen and Trump both were born in 1946, but the similarities between the two end quickly
For starters, Frelinghuysen served a stint in Vietnam. Trump infamously avoided military service because of a mysterious foot ailment.

I was in the House press gallery as a reporter for the Morristown Daily Record when Frelinghuysen took the oath as a member of Congress in January, 1995, and have periodically covered him since. Over the
years, he always has been a gentleman. I can’t recall him saying anything mean or nasty about anyone. Nor is he one to blow his own horn. Years ago, he helped chase down a would-be mugger on the streets
of Washington, but was reluctant to talk about it.

Trump, of course, has a penchant for self-promotion and personal attacks, which are often indiscriminate, vile and just plain kooky.

You have to think that Frelinghuysen in his private moments is mortified that a man like Trump is president of the United States.

But president he is and as chair of an influential House committee, Frelinghuysen must support Trump’s agenda – or risk losing the chairmanship he waited more than 20 years to get. Or possibly face a
White House-backed primary challenge next year.

That really puts Frelinghuysen in a tough spot. This is not meant as a defense, but as an explanation.

We first saw the problem with one of the House Republicans’ recent attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or if you prefer, Obamacare. Of the five Republicans in the House from New Jersey, only
Frelinghuysen and South Jersey representative Thomas MacArthur, who had a hand in drafting the bill, voted yes. If approved, the bill would have hurt the state by causing many to lose health insurance
coverage. It also would have rescinded a Medicaid expansion that has helped low-income residents.

Some may give Frelinghuysen a pass on health care. It is, after all – as the president belatedly acknowledged – complicated. There are many moving parts here and Frelinghuysen could argue that some of what the GOP wanted to do would have been good for the state.

That was health care.

The president’s tax cut bill is another story.

This bill would eliminate the ability of state residents to deduct what they pay in local taxes on their federal income tax returns. Tax brackets would be changed and the standard deduction increased, but in
most cases, state residents would pay more in federal taxes. Which is why all House members from New Jersey regardless of party opposed a recent vote on the federal budget that was seen as a precursor of the
eventual vote on tax reform.

All except Frelinghuysen.

He was, shockingly, standing with Trump and against average New Jerseyans.

The tax bill always could change between now and when a final vote is taken. Suffice to say, a lot of people will be looking at Frelinghuysen.

Frelinghuysen clearly dislikes the attention.  For years, this was a man who worked  behind the scenes.

That may explain why Frelinghuysen has acted most of this year like a man driving a car on three wheels.

A few months ago, he abandoned all common sense and wrote a letter to a bank official identifying a bank employee who had joined regular protests against him outside his Morristown district office.  The
employee lost her job. He has adamantly refused to hold face-to-face town hall meetings. Such meetings can be troublesome for all politicians, but they are part of the job. Talking to people on the phone, as Frelinghuysen has done, is hardly the same thing.

Frelinghuysen never has been extroverted with the press, but of late he has said nothing at all, preferring to communicate with bland statements.

His office did not return a phone call about Trump’s tax plan.

Years ago, a Frelinghuysen staffer suggested that the congressman’s aristocratic background dissuades him from making too much of a public spectacle of himself. His philosophy seems to be, just do what needs to be done. There’s no need to brag about it. That’s well and good, but as the tax cut vote, not to mention Frelinghuysen’s reelection bid next year, dawns, the spotlight is going to be shining ever more brightly on Rodney Frelinghuysen.

And there’s nothing he can do to get away from it.

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2 responses to “Sartrean Agony for Frelinghuysen in the Trump Era”

  1. It almost seems as if Paul Ryan is playing with Rodney. First Ryan launches a plan which would take away New Jerseyans federal tax deduction for property taxes and Rodney is the only member of the NJ Congressional delegation who votes for it which has to damage his potential for re-election. Then, today, that portion of the tax plan is revised to put most of the deduction back. But the damage has been done. The position he sought for so many years is now his, but it is meaningless. Rodney wields no power; he simply follows orders. His career will end with a whimper.

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