The 'farmer from Iowa' fights back

Greg Nash

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) could become the first member who has not practiced law to lead the Judiciary Committee if the GOP wins back control of the Senate this year. 

And he is pushing back on the idea he is unqualified for the job. 

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That question got new light on Tuesday when video surfaced of Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), who is running for Senate to replace Sen. Tom Harkin (D), warning a group of lawyers that "you might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee" — referring to Grassley — if the GOP wins back control in the midterms. 

Braley contrasted that with his own record and described himself as "someone with your background, your experience, your voice."

A GOP majority in 2015 has become increasingly plausible as Democrats face a tough landscape, protecting their six-seat majority. 

Braley later apologized for his remarks, but not before Grassley, the ranking member of the committee, pushed back hard in a statement later in the day. Grassley received a master’s degree in political science but did not attend law school. 

“By the logic expressed on this recording, a trial lawyer shouldn't be involved in policy making about agriculture, or energy, or health care," a spokesman for Grassley said. 

Grassley has been a member of the committee since he was first elected in 1980. His office touted his work to strengthen the False Claims Act and effort to curb class-action lawsuit abuse. His office also pointed to his work on whistleblower protection and his dogged work to expose the botched "Fast and Furious" gun-walking operation. 

"Sen. Grassley’s work on the Judiciary Committee exposed the illegal gun-trafficking operation known as Operation Fast and Furious," the spokesman said in a statement. "It was Sen. Grassley’s persistence that pressured the current administration to provide Congress with the legal rationale for using drones on American citizens."

His office made sure to point out that he is only one of two farmers in the chamber. 

Law, however, is the chosen profession in the Judiciary Committee, and the Senate in general. 

Fifty-seven senators hold a law degree, according to the Congressional Research Service. The number of lawmakers with a law background has never dipped below 30 percent in congressional history, though it is down from its peak in the 1970s. 

A review of past chairman of the Judiciary Committee finds that every leader has attended law school or passed the bar exam going back to its creation in 1816. 

The record spans Sen. Dudley Chase who passed the bar in 1793 and led the committee in the 14th Congress to current chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who received his degree from Georgetown University.  

Only four current members of the committee do not hold law degrees: Grassley, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

Feinstein unknowingly offered her own defense of non-lawyers on the committee last year during a heated exchange with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) about her proposal to ban assault weapons, which ultimately failed. 

"I'm not a 6th grader. I've been on this committee for 20 years," Feinstein said at the time after Cruz posed a long-winded questioned to her in which she accused him of lecturing her. 

"I'm not a lawyer but after 20 years I've been up close and personal to the constitution. I have great respect for it," she continued. 

Her words a year ago nearly mirrored those from Grassley's office Tuesday. 

"Sen. Grassley has served on the Judiciary Committee since he was first elected to the Senate, and he’s got a strong record on the committee," his spokesman said. 

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