Michele Bachmann is swarmed by media and adoring fans as she blazes the campaign trail in Iowa seeking the Republican presidential nomination. But there is still a place where the three-term Minnesota congresswoman looks lonely — Capitol Hill.
The telegenic politician has reached a national audience largely without the aid of the party apparatus, and that strategy has not endeared her to many of her colleagues. Her attempt to break into leadership failed. She works closely with a small group of like-minded conservatives, but rarely forms alliances outside of that network. Her legislative record is limited, highlighted by passage of noncontroversial resolutions (honoring Minnesota’s 150th anniversary) and early introduction of hot-button conservative proposals that seize the spotlight.
President Obama, who ran for the White House during his first term as a U.S. senator from Illinois, was also accused of having a scant legislative record. With its firm hierarchy, Congress is a difficult place to rack up accomplishments quickly — or to launch a presidential bid. But what sets Bachmann apart is how her legislative colleagues view her.
It is difficult to find Republicans willing to discuss her on the record. House leaders have kept their distance and rarely rewarded her with legislative responsibilities. Bachmann was recently criticized by other Republicans in a private meeting where members blamed her near-constant cycle of television appearances for undermining the House Republican message.
Bachmann embraces her outsider status and appears not to be concerned about what other party members think of her. Her attempts to influence Congress are rooted in what many in Washington dub “the outside game,” perhaps best illustrated by her role in bringing “tea party” protesters to the Capitol. On the campaign trail, she aligns herself with conservatives who feel the Republican Party has lost its way.
“Our problems don’t have an identity of party — they are problems created by both parties,” Bachmann said in June as she announced her bid for the GOP nomination. “In Washington, I am bringing a voice to the halls of Congress that has been missing for a long time.”
Bachmann’s office declined an interview request. Asked to describe the congresswoman’s chief legislative accomplishments, Bachmann spokeswoman Becky Rogness pointed to her votes in opposition to major legislation — the Wall Street bailout passed during the George W. Bush administration, and the stimulus package, auto industry bailout, cap-and-trade regulation and others.
Rogness noted that Bachmann was first to introduce legislation to repeal the healthcare law and has since introduced another piece of healthcare legislation that has broad GOP support. In Minnesota, she has tried to clear the way for a new bridge in her district.
“Despite spending her first four years in Congress in the minority, Rep. Bachmann distinguished herself as a strong voice for reform,” Rogness said. “She remained true to the things she campaigned for and stood her ground repeatedly against the Democratic majority, and at times, even against her own party.”
Bachmann arrived in the House in 2006, as part of a new wave of socially conservative Republicans eager to take on a GOP establishment they viewed as complacent. As a junior lawmaker in the minority party, she had little hope of passing significant legislation. But members and former aides say she made little effort to find Republican support.
As gas prices soared in summer 2008, she introduced four energy bills aimed at easing access to domestic oil and gas. Two found no other support from House members.
Just before Obama signed the landmark healthcare law in 2010, both Bachmann and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) drafted similar repeal bills. Bachmann immediately introduced hers on the floor, while King — one of her allies — sought broad support from his colleagues first. She got the publicity, King said in an interview, because “she doesn’t feel bound by tradition.”
“She has an instinct for the possible that goes beyond what’s been done before,” said King, who like other close Bachmann allies has not yet endorsed her presidential bid.
In the end, neither lawmaker would get their names on the bill when the House, then under Republican control, voted in January of this year to repeal the law.
Former aides, current staff members in other offices and lawmakers said Bachmann’s legislative office had been hampered by a constant churn of staff. Eight people have served as Bachmann’s chief of staff (three in an interim capacity) since 2007, according to employment records. Though turnover on Capitol Hill is common, former Bachmann aides say the congresswoman can run through them because she seems to act on impulse and is reluctant to follow counsel.
In July 2010, after hearing of Senate candidate Rand Paul’s idea for a Senate tea party caucus, Bachmann declared she would form a House version — giving her staff two days to get organized and recruit reluctant members. Bachmann won a flurry of headlines but few friends on Capitol Hill.
Emboldened by the tea party’s role in the GOP victories in November, Bachmann sought the No. 3 spot in the House leadership — Republican conference chair. She dropped the bid after lining up public commitments of support from just five other members. Since that effort, members say she rarely speaks at the regular closed-door strategy meetings. Her tea party caucus, which has 60 members, has met sporadically and has made no major effort to take a role in policy debates.
As a media figure, Bachmann has managed to make life difficult for her leadership. When Bachmann went on television in March and declared that the healthcare law had “secretly” hidden $105 billion in spending, leadership aides spent days trying to convince their members, particularly freshmen, that no hidden fund existed.
In April, two days after she dismissed a Republican effort to support a budget deal, frustration among her colleagues boiled over. At a private meeting of Republicans, New Jersey Rep. Jon Runyan, a former Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle, issued a broad warning about how a showboat can divide a team — bringing up the notorious loudmouth wide receiver Terrell Owens. North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx called out Bachmann by name for undermining GOP aims.
When Bachmann answered the critique, she noted that she didn’t take Foxx’s charges personally.
“You should,” Foxx interrupted, according to a member at the meeting.