By Jordy Yager - 03/27/13 09:00 AM EDT
A House committee chairman who is handling two of the most divisive issues in this Congress is attracting a surprising amount of praise from Democrats.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) heads the Judiciary Committee, which has earned its partisan reputation for decades under the rule of both parties.
The odds are against it, to be sure. But Democrats and Republicans who have worked closely with Goodlatte say he possesses a rare set of attributes that could make the impossible possible.
First of all, Goodlatte listens, they say. He seriously considers opposite points of view, weighing them on merit, not politics. And most importantly, it’s Goodlatte — not just his staff — who knows the policy nuances, positioning him perfectly to see where compromises can be made and principles overlap.
“It’s a natural thing,” said Goodlatte in an interview on the new committee inflection he has established. “Almost anything you want to accomplish, anything you want to get passed, you need to have Democratic support.
“If you stay focused on the substance of the issue you can avoid some of the partisan rancor, which I found — no one’s ever been completely successful in doing this — but I’ve found when you can avoid that, you have the opportunity to maybe get a little more trust and a little more ability to talk about things where you do find common ground.”
In his two decades on Capitol Hill, the 60-year old lawmaker has firmly staked out his conservative positions, earning a steady “A” rating from the National Rifle Association and a rolling endorsement from the American Conservative Union.
Yet he’s resisted lobbing verbal bombs at his liberal colleagues and lacing debates with politically charged diatribes. Goodlatte points to his days as a lawyer, when he was forced to “zealously represent” his clients’ interests in a fair and even-keeled way.
As the top-ranking Republican on the Agriculture Committee from 2003 to 2009, Goodlatte was instrumental in passing the always-thorny farm bill. His track record of working with Democrats on tech issues goes back many years.
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), told The Hill it is a welcome change from the panel’s former chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who constantly sparred with Democrats, holding hearings with titles such as “The Obama administration’s abuse of power.”
“The skill in this business is to be able to disagree without being disagreeable and he’s good at that,” said Conyers. “We work together quite well, as a matter of fact. He has a very definite philosophy about things but he does it in a way that is not offensive or hostile, and that’s the difference.”
While Goodlatte isn’t a regular on the Sunday talk shows, he is very accessible to the media. The congressman has provided his opinions on guns and immigration on C-SPAN and at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast last month. In making his case, the low-key Goodlatte regularly cites studies and doesn’t raise his voice.
As vice chairman of the Agriculture Committee, Goodlatte worked closely with Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) in the last Congress, both as an ally and an adversary. Welch said Democrats have good reason to be hopeful.
“As the Judiciary Committee has hearings on these issues, his temperament will de-escalate the temperature of the rhetoric and focus on what’s real, concrete and practical,” said Welch. “When you’re around Bob, you just get the sense that he’s listening, he’s genuinely interested in your point of view, and that his objective is to come to an outcome that is going to move things forward.”
That’s not to say that Goodlatte isn’t firm about certain areas on guns and immigration.
The former congressional aide wants to improve the national gun background check system to include more mental health and state criminal records, but does not support a universal check requirement on private gun sales.
He favors offering some type of legal status to certain people in the country illegally, but has stopped short of embracing a blanket “pathway to citizenship” option.
That hasn’t stopped one of the staunchest pro-immigration voices in Congress and fellow Judiciary member, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), from lauding Goodlatte’s openness.
“We do not agree with each other, Chairman Goodlatte and I, on all issues, or probably on many issues, but if you can have a civil legislative environment where there is growing trust across the aisle — even with sharp differences — that is what you want in a chairman from either party,” said Gutiérrez, who called Goodlatte “fair and evenhanded.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who has been working with Gutiérrez and Democrats as the panel’s Immigration subcommittee chairman, can’t say enough nice things about the chairman.
But he chalks the committee’s shift up to Republicans’ poor performance in the last election and Congress’s dismal approval rating.
“I don’t disagree that the committee may be different, but I don’t think it’s the difference between Chairman Smith and Goodlatte,” said Gowdy.
“We didn’t do terribly well in the 112th Congress and that did not translate into much success. Honestly, if Lamar was still the chairman we probably would have met and said, ‘Maybe we should try facts and persuasion, and empathy in some instances.’ ”
Asked about the difference in tone that the Judiciary Committee has struck and whether he feels he led the panel in a partisan manner, Smith declined to say, opting instead to praise Goodlatte’s leadership.
“Bob is both a good friend and a great colleague,” said Smith, who was term-limited as chairman under Republican rules. “He’s a very thoughtful and deliberative legislator, and he brings that to his role as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.”