WASHINGTON – He’s the top Democrat on the Homeland Security subcommittee that oversees America’s intelligence operations, but he’s had little to say about the National Security Agency’s spying on Americans.
He’s introduced fewer bills than most of his peers, and the only ones he’s steered to passage assign new names to post offices and the new federal courthouse in Buffalo.
A Buffalo News survey a year ago ranked him as the area’s second most effective leader – yet a Capitol Hill newspaper once named him to its list of most obscure members of Congress.
Now in his 10th year in the House, Rep. Brian Higgins of Buffalo remains an anomaly: a lawmaker who is every bit as unnoticed in Washington as he is revered back home.
To hear Higgins tell it, that’s just the way he planned it.
“I never came to Congress to be a national leader,” Higgins said in an interview. “My service in Congress is everything about Buffalo and Western New York. I’ve learned that when you do good for your community, you’re doing good for your country, because the most important part of my country is my community.”
Higgins said his Buffalo-first approach has spawned many victories: a settlement with the New York Power Authority that brought $279 million to the Buffalo waterfront, the removal of tolls from the Niagara Thruway and several behind-the-scenes legislative efforts that boosted everything from the local Army Corps of Engineers office to the West Valley Demonstration project.
But to some who think that being a member of Congress is first and foremost a federal government job, Higgins is playing small ball in the big leagues.
“He should be taken to task for acting less like a congressman and more like a city councilman in Washington,” said James E. Campbell, a professor of political science at the University at Buffalo and a Republican.
One thing is for sure: Higgins is not the kind of national political figure that the late Rep. Jack Kemp, R-Hamburg, was, nor has he carved out a role in the House leadership like Republican Reps. Bill Paxon and Thomas M. Reynolds.
He’s more in the tradition of Rep. Henry Nowak, a well-liked Buffalo Democrat who brought home the bacon while moving inconspicuously through Washington for nearly two decades.
Proof of that point can be found in the contrast between Rep. Pete King, the Long Island Republican who chairs the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, and Higgins, that panel’s top Democrat.
In the wake of Edward Snowden’s release of countless documents on the National Security Agency’s collection of data about average Americans, King defended the agency and was quoted in publications ranging from the New York Post to USA Today to the Wall Street Journal. He also went on CBS’s “Face the Nation” to say: “I fully support the NSA program. It’s been effective. It’s done an outstanding job.”
In contrast, Higgins’ only media comments on the issue came in The Buffalo News.
Asked about his low profile on the issue, Higgins said it’s because of his nuanced view of the NSA spying effort.
“I haven’t come down hard one way or the other; I’m simply being truthful and honest about the difficulty of striking the balance between protection of the homeland and protecting individual rights,” Higgins said in a long answer to the question in which he raised and dwelled upon the intelligence that was gathered to thwart an al-Qaeda plot to blow up a train traveling between Niagara Falls and New York City.
What’s more, Higgins said he’s not anxious to go on television talk shows to discuss national issues because he doesn’t like talk shows and doesn’t learn anything from them.
“I could certainly polish myself up and get on those programs, but you’ve got to be able to contribute something to what they’re looking for,” Higgins said.
“And really, what they’re looking for is not a thoughtful, nuanced approach to things. They’re looking for the extremes.”
Higgins says there’s one more reason why he often turns down requests for national television appearances.
“It conflicts with my Buffalo time,” he said.
Slow to fundraise
Unlike members of Congress with leadership aspirations, who often travel the country to raise campaign funds on some weekends, Higgins typically flies back to Buffalo as soon as House votes are done for the week. He doesn’t return to Washington until votes are about to begin the following week.
While in Washington, Higgins has built strong relations with New York’s two senators and with House colleagues on both the Democratic and Republican sides, according to congressional staffers from both parties who described Higgins as smart and collegial and his staff as easy to work with.
Yet they also noted that he has not used campaign donations to win the loyalty of his colleagues in the manner of many ambitious politicians.
Like many of his colleagues, Higgins has a “leadership PAC” to serve that purpose, but his “New Economy PAC” had raised only about $12,000 by the end of last year.
In contrast, the Jobs, Education and Opportunity PAC, sponsored by Rep. Joe Crowley of Queens, who is rising in the Democratic leadership ranks, raised more than $475,000.
“It’s not something I spend a lot of time with or want to spend a lot of time with,” Higgins said of fundraising for his leadership PAC.
Not getting bills passed
More importantly, though, congressional aides said Higgins has not been an especially aggressive legislator on the national level, and the numbers prove that point. As of late March, Higgins had introduced 58 stand-alone measures since joining the House in 2005, fewer than all but one of the eight House Democrats who were first elected in 2004 and who still serve in Congress.
Three of his bills – two naming post offices and a third naming Buffalo’s Robert H. Jackson U.S. Courthouse – have passed, as did a resolution honoring NBC newsman Tim Russert after his death in 2008.
Other than that, though, Higgins’ legislation has either moved along slowly or not moved at all. For example, he’s been winning more cosponsors every year for a bill that would require insurers to more broadly cover anti-cancer drugs, but his 2012 proposal to invest $1.25 trillion on American infrastructure died with only two cosponsors.
None of the other Democrats elected to the House in 2004 have substantial national legislative records, either, and that’s in part a sign of the times. With Congress deeply divided, last year 5,018 bills were introduced in the House and only 66, or 1.3 percent of them, became law.
“The congressional ethos today is about stopping legislation from happening,” Higgins said.
Working for WNY
That being the case, Higgins said he has worked the legislative process through alternate means and brought results for his own congressional district. For example:
• He used the threat of federal legislation not only to win the Power Authority settlement that’s rebuilt Buffalo’s waterfront, but also to persuade the state government to remove tolls from the Niagara Thruway.
• After funding for that Buffalo courthouse was stalled for years, Higgins went to the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee at the time, Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., to press Buffalo’s case – which led to the building receiving federal funding.
• He’s repeatedly partnered with Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, to pass amendments boosting funding for the West Valley Demonstration Project.
• With Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, he won passage of an amendment barring the Army Corps of Engineers from shrinking its operations in Buffalo.
• And in the Homeland Security Committee, he won passage of an amendment blocking the federal government from studying the implementation of a border crossing fee.
That Buffalo-centric approach has won Higgins plenty of praise back home. A Siena College poll last summer found him with an astronomical favorability rating of 77 percent. And even Anthony Gioia, one of the regions’s top Republican fundraisers, thinks so much of Higgins that he hosted a fundraiser for him late last year.
“He is so committed to what is right for Western New York. I couldn’t ask for anything more from this guy,” Gioia said at the time.
Keeping a low profile
There’s a price to be paid, however, for a federal lawmaker whose focus is so strictly local: the price of obscurity.
Asked to comment on Higgins, Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the widely respected Rothenberg Political Report, said: “It’s been 10 years since I’ve even thought about him.”
Gonzales quickly added that the main reason he hasn’t thought about Higgins is because the Buffalo congressman has not had a competitive race since 2004, and Gonzales’ job is to track competitive races.
But Gonzales is by no means alone in not thinking about Higgins. National political reporters don’t seem to be thinking about him either.
Higgins’ name has appeared in Politico, a daily must-read for Washington insiders, only 60 times since the news site’s founding in 2007. Among House Democrats first elected the same year as Higgins, the median number of Politico appearances was 246.
Kathy Weppner, the Republican who is challenging Higgins in New York’s 26th congressional district this November, declined to comment for this story. But Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy said that Higgins hasn’t cut the kind of strong national profile that would be expected of a lawmaker with nearly a decade of seniority.
“I think that shortchanges Western New York,” Langworthy said. “We need the strongest voice representing us on the national level.”
Higgins, however, sees things very differently.
“The members of Congress who are making a name for themselves nationally are the members that are making spectacles of themselves,” he said. “If you say outrageous things on the House floor during the State of the Union, you get notoriety. If you advance crazy ideas, you get noticed.”
Higgins’ low profile has not gone completely unnoticed, though. Roll Call, another Capitol Hill newspaper, named him to its “Obscure Caucus” in 2009.
“Higgins has all but faded into the woodwork and is now just another pretty face,” Roll Call said.
The newspaper removed Higgins from the Obscure Caucus two years later, but for the ultimate of faint-praise reasons.
“Democrat Brian Higgins would have easily kept a spot in the caucus, but the loss of two seats in New York following reapportionment led him to hire a lobbyist in Albany to make sure he holds on to his Buffalo-area district – not an obscure move by far,” the newspaper said.
Asked about those mentions in Roll Call, Higgins said: “It’s not something I put much thought into.”
What he has put thought into, he said, is using his seat in Congress to boost Buffalo.
“I didn’t come here to be a Washington-based congressman,” he said. “It’s not what I do. I’m in Buffalo every single week because my job is through the bully pulpit and whatever resources I have available to me – budgetary, legislative – to help my community. And I think my record in that regard is very substantial.”