Here’s what Republican Fred Upton of Michigan, erstwhile moderate, frequently accused of being a RINO, sometimes faulted for being too friendly to Democrats, said last week to members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, of which he is the new chairman:
We are in the middle of the largest fiscal crisis the country has ever faced. The national unemployment rate has topped 9 percent for 20 consecutive months. No one seriously thinks that we can continue on our current path of recklessness. And that path ends right here, right now, in this committee. This will be the austerity committee in the House of Representatives. . . . If you want to spend money on an entitlement, you need to pay for it with a mandatory spending reduction. . . . You may have a great idea for a new program. That’s fine. Just tell us how you will pay for it by reducing spending. The committee will no longer consider bills that authorize spending of “such sums as may be necessary.” [With that] we simply cede discretion to the appropriators. Well, no more. . . . Every program the committee authorizes or reauthorizes must have a sunset. The committee will no longer consider commemorative legislation. We all support motherhood and apple pie and successful collegiate sports teams. I would submit that none of us needs a congressional resolution to prove it. We as members and our staffs have bigger and better things to do.
My, my! That doesn’t sound like a mushy moderate speaking, much less a Republican In Name Only. Upton, 57, first elected to the House in 1986, has morphed into a ferocious conservative reformer with his selection as a committee chairman. George Will has called him a “Rust Belt revolutionary.” And Upton is not alone among the new Republican committee chairmen in his intense ambition to reverse the policies of President Obama and the Pelosi Congress and end the fiscal profligacy caused by Washington’s unrestrained spending and borrowing.
Spencer Bachus of Alabama, mild-mannered and amiable, is tackling the Dodd-Frank Wall Street regulation bill, every page of it, as chairman of the financial services committee. He is targeting—oops, focusing on—the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Volcker Rule, the “resolution authority” of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the “end user” provision for derivatives—and that’s only for starters.
Which leads us to the Republican hearings strategy. It elevates the role of House committees and makes their public hearings the chief vehicle for attracting attention to the wrongheadedness of Obama’s policies and—to a lesser extent, I suspect—the virtues of Republican alternatives.
It’s not a particularly risky strategy, unless the media decide the hearings are witch hunts or Star Chamber proceedings. But Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the architect of the strategy, insists the hearings and the investigations associated with them will be “very focused and deliberative.” And given the hearings scheduled this week, at least, he’s right.
Paul Ryan, the budget committee chairman, is bringing in an actuary and health care experts to “score” Obamacare, determine how much it will cost, and challenge the lowball figure that Democrats, by imposing gimmicks and omissions, forced the Congressional Budget Office to come up with.
Upton’s committee is taking up the White House review of past regulations, which the president announced in the Wall Street Journal last week. Upton wants a single witness: Cass Sunstein, an Obama pal from his University of Chicago days. Sunstein may not want to appear, but as head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, he’s the appropriate official to answer questions about regulatory policy.
In February, Upton plans to look into the impact of Obamacare, with testimony from governors. Then it’s on to an examination of the Federal Communications Commission’s embrace of “net neutrality,” a policy Upton strongly opposes. After that comes a hearing on energy policy, especially on what drives up gasoline prices. And—we’re still in February—a hearing on the Environmental Protection Agency’s not-so-secret desire to curb greenhouse gases by administrative fiat. Quite an agenda.
There’s a thread that runs through everything the committees are doing. Their investigations—Republicans now have subpoena power—and hearings are expected to concentrate on three broad topics: spurring jobs and the economy, cutting spending, and reducing the size of government (meaning Obamacare and regulations).
Cantor and his aides will make sure the committees don’t stray. Cantor now meets with the committee chairmen (and chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of foreign affairs) at the beginning of each week the House is in session. His policy director, Neil Bradley, meets with committee staff directors. And Brad Dayspring, Cantor’s communications director, meets with committee press secretaries.
Republicans also have a broader goal in mind. That’s to shape issues in their favor and set the stage for a Republican president to be elected in 2012.
Controlling the House but not the Senate or the White House means Republicans have limited power. They have only two ways, in Cantor’s words, “to hold the administration and its activities accountable.” One is to block spending sought by Obama. The other is investigations and hearings that embarrass the administration and shame it into backing off irresponsible policies.
A fair question, however, is how diligently the press will cover the hearings. You don’t hear reporters talk about how they can’t wait to get into a stuffy committee room to cover a hearing. Their coverage of House Republicans so far suggests they’d rather drive wedges between Republicans and the Tea Party, between House and Senate Republicans, and between bold and cautious Republicans.
There are tricks to attracting the media. When I asked Cantor whose congressional hearings had drawn press coverage and thus exerted influence, he mentioned Democrat John Dingell of Michigan, back when he chaired the energy and commerce committee.
Dingell always drew a big media turnout. His trick, at least as I understood it, was to leak the lurid findings of an investigation to a major news-paper just before a hearing on the same subject. Reporters couldn’t stay away. Was it the kind of tactic that Republicans shouldn’t stoop to? Maybe. But a little cleverness never hurts.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.