The last time POGO met with Representative Walter B. Jones Jr. (R-NC), he had asked us to gather to present our findings on how to help him pursue his dying wish. He had called a few weeks earlier and said, “I’m afraid I’m going to die before being able to force the Congress to allow me to exercise my constitutional duty to vote on whether to send our men and women into war.” His fears were well-founded, and he passed away on Sunday.
It was clear from our first meeting with Representative Jones how tenacious he was about doing what he knew was right. We met him for lunch in the Members’ dining room, and—in a highly unusual step for a Member of Congress—he had brought with him a massive binder with all his documentation. After 19 Marines died in a V-22 Osprey crash in 2000, the Marine Corps said pilot error by Lt. Col. John Brown and Maj. Brooks Gruber was the cause, rather than acknowledge any weakness in the troubled aircraft or in the Marine training program. After doing some digging and uncovering evidence that the pilots were being blamed unfairly, Representative Jones promised the widows he would clear their husbands’ names. The Marine Corps had blamed the wrong people and he wasn’t going to let them get away with it.
He ultimately succeeded, after giving more than 150 speeches on the floor of the House of Representatives on the issue. And he didn’t stop there—a year after the pilots’ names were cleared Representative Jones and the widows filed a lawsuit to uncover why the Marine Corps incorrectly blamed the pilots.
Most people know Representative Jones for his work fighting to end endless wars. His regrets over voting for the Iraq War made him tireless in his efforts to bring the US military home. By his estimate, he signed over 12,000 letters to the families who lost their loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. He kept a tribute wall outside his office with photos of all the Marines from his Camp Lejeune district who were killed in the wars. As he told Roll Call, they would not have the chance to become old men because they had given their life for their country.
Declaring war and conducting oversight are core constitutional duties of Congress that Representative Jones took seriously. He understood that respecting the military meant taking generals to the mat when they screwed up. He also took on causes most would shy away from, like defending and fighting for the exoneration of Marines falsely accused of committing war crimes.
Representative Jones’s earnestness could be unsettling to some in Washington. He had a kind of moral clarity about right and wrong that made other politicians uncomfortable, and many misread that clarity as a sign of naïveté.
The ire he drew from the leadership of both his own Republican party (they removed him from one of his committees because of his unwillingness to vote with his caucus on some issues) and Democratic leadership for having left their party meant that establishment Washington knew no way of categorizing him.
The importance of persistence in oversight is often overlooked. In many instances, federal agencies are happy to wait out requests for information or action, knowing that many Members of Congress are likely to be distracted by another story and forget to follow up. Representative Jones’s tirelessness made him exceptional, and was why he succeeded on causes most would consider unwinnable.
He has left the rest of us with clear marching orders. And we will not forget Representative Walter Jones or his drive to force the Congress to do its job.