Incoming House chairmen are on a mission
They want to repeal the healthcare overhaul, pare back financial regulations, slash federal spending and curtail the reach of the Environmental Protection Agency. In essence, they want to challenge the agenda of the Obama administration at every turn.
The new GOP chairmen of key House committees such as Appropriations, Budget, Energy and Commerce, and Oversight and Government Reform believe they have a mandate to check the size and scope of government.
But their ability to achieve legislative success will be hampered by the divided Congress — Democrats still control the Senate, albeit with a smaller majority — and the threat of a presidential veto.
The result could be gridlock, but that may be the point, said Sarah Binder, an expert on congressional relations for the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank.
“So long as the House is able to pull itself together to vote for these strongly conservative positions, they benefit even if they fail,” she said. “Republicans will see trying as important to the cause.”
“If the House GOP sees bill after bill die in the Senate,” Binder said, “they can certainly blame the Democrats for blocking them,” and draw stark battle lines for 2012 in the process.
Along that line, don’t expect the new House, which will be sworn in Wednesday, to hash out the sort of deals that Senate Republicans reached with the White House over extending the George W. Bush-era tax cuts.
The new speaker, Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, has pledged to return the House to “regular order,” which in his mind means granting the committees and their chairmen more power to craft legislation. By contrast, under outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leadership regularly wrote bills that were then presented to the caucus for an up-and-down vote as a finished product.
If Boehner is true to his word, then bills may move more slowly through the House, with greater input from the rank-and-file.
Obama’s chief antagonist may be Rep. Darrell Issa (R- Vista), who will chair the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Issa has promised not to use the position to mount grandstanding investigations into political arcana, such as subpoenaing the president’s birth certificate, but will instead use his committee to try to uncover fraud and waste within the federal government.
But Issa made it clear that Obama’s legislative accomplishments are a ripe target.
“After a trillion-dollar stimulus that didn’t create jobs, a trillion-dollar bailout of Wall Street and a trillion-dollar healthcare overhaul, the American people believe we need more oversight, not less,” he said in an interview. “But that oversight must lead to reform so that we produce a federal government that serves the people better and without excess spending.... We need to be better stewards of the people’s money.”
Here is a look at some of the incoming House chairmen and where their legislative outlook may bring them into conflict with the president:
Chairman: Harold Rogers of Kentucky
Background: The longest serving Kentucky Republican ever elected to federal office, Rogers has been a member of Congress since 1981.
Coming flashpoints: Once an earnest defender of earmarks and derided as “the Prince of Pork” by Democrats, Rogers has vowed to change his ways and abide by a GOP-imposed ban on the practice. Rogers will be a point man on federal spending and is charged with cutting $100 billion from Obama’s budget for the current fiscal year. He may also work to choke off funding for the healthcare overhaul and other newly passed federal initiatives.
Chairman: Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin
Background: The former congressional aide and speechwriter for conservatives such as Bob Bennett and Jack Kemp was first elected to Congress in 1998.
Coming flashpoints: Ryan is a true budget hawk, drawing up a blueprint last year for entitlement reform that involved partially privatizing Social Security and doing away with Medicare in its current form. Though he may avoid such third-rail issues as chairman, he’ll be a central figure as the GOP seeks to scale back the budget and reduce the deficit.
Education and Labor
Chairman: John Kline of Minnesota
Background: A Vietnam veteran who served as a national security aide to Presidents Carter and Reagan, Kline was first elected to the House in 2002.
Coming flashpoints: Kline will oversee reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act — a crown jewel of the George W. Bush administration — and may propose some radical changes, which may put Democrats in the position of defending the work of a Republican president. Kline favors rolling back federal mandates for testing students and eliminating any national standards for accountability, preferring instead to allow local districts to have more control over curriculum.
Energy and Commerce
Chairman: Fred Upton of Michigan
Background: Once a protege of Reagan budget director David Stockman, Upton has served in the House since 1987.
Coming flashpoints: As chairman of a committee with one of the most sweeping jurisdictions in the House, Upton will be working to stymie two Obama administration priorities: healthcare reform and climate change. He has vowed to pass a repeal of the healthcare law and has called the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate carbon emissions a “power grab.” He also opposes the so-called net neutrality rules recently adopted by the Federal Communications Commission, which enable the FCC to intervene if Internet service providers are accused of unfair practices.
Chairman: Spencer Bachus of Alabama
Background: An advocate of international debt relief for the Third World, Bachus was first elected to the House in 1992.
Coming flashpoints: Bachus has pledged to carve away at the massive financial regulatory overhaul bill passed in 2010 and recently was criticized for telling an Alabama newspaper that banking regulators “are here to serve the banks.” He will have to contend with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the former chairman of the panel and an architect of the financial bill, as ranking member.
Chairwoman: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida
Background: Born in Havana, Ros-Lehtinen is the senior Republican woman in the House and in 1989 became the first Latina elected to Congress. Florida’s new U.S. senator, Marco Rubio, served as an intern in her office.
Coming flashpoints: Ros-Lehtinen is a staunch supporter of Israel and opposes aid to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She takes a hard opposing line on efforts to end the embargo against Cuba.
Chairman: Peter T. King of New York
Background: King, a favorite on Fox News Channel, has served in the House since 1993.
Coming flashpoints: King wants to push for a crackdown on illegal immigration from Mexico, saying the Obama administration hasn’t done enough to improve border security, and seeks tougher sanctions for employers who hire illegal immigrants. He has vowed to hold hearings on the “radicalization” of Muslims in the United States, which drew criticism from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Chairman: Lamar Smith of Texas
Background: The San Antonio native, who has long been active in immigration policy, was first elected to the House in 1986.
Coming flashpoints: Like King, Smith wants to be aggressive in stopping illegal immigration. Defying conventional political wisdom, he has argued that Latino voters favor such a stance. Smith opposes closing the prison for accused terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and is expected to regularly call Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to the Hill to grill him over national security issues.
Oversight and Government Reform
Chairman: Darrell Issa of California
Background: Issa became wealthy through the development of the Viper car alarm, which featured a recording of his voice saying, “Step away from the car.” He was elected to Congress in 2000.
Coming flashpoints: Issa’s ascension has prompted fears among Democrats of a return to the days of Rep. Dan Burton. (The Indiana Republican made life miserable for the Clinton administration in the 1990s by focusing on, among other things, the suicide of White House lawyer Vince Foster, who Burton contended was murdered.) Issa, however, has said that he wants to pursue more bureaucratic targets, such as the implementation of the healthcare overhaul, the powers of the Federal Reserve, and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Issa once called Obama “one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times.”
Ways and Means
Chairman: Dave Camp of Michigan
Background: A legislator who takes pride in personally signing more than 40,000 pieces of mail to constituents each year, Camp has served since 1991.
Coming flashpoints: As chairman of the panel that writes tax policy, Camp also will be on the forefront of repealing the healthcare overhaul. But his real passion lies in overhauling and simplifying the tax code. There, he could possibly find a partner in President Obama, who has made reforming the code a near-term priority.