Dems: Goodlatte is GOP’s new guardian of gridlock

The House Judiciary Committee is bottling up the top Democratic priorities of immigration reform, gun control and voting rights under Chairman Bob Goodlatte.

Tackling a complete overhaul of the broken immigration system would result in “too many unintended consequences,” the Virginia Republican warned in an exclusive interview with The Hill.

{mosads}He’s rebuffed calls to revamp the Voting Rights Act, saying he’s seen no new evidence of discrimination at the ballot box. 

And after a TV news crew from his hometown was gunned down during a live broadcast, the chairman argued that tougher background checks would be futile since current gun laws aren’t being enforced.

For two decades in Congress, Goodlatte has burnished a bipartisan reputation.

Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.) who, like Goodlatte, arrived in Congress in 1993, said he always viewed the Virginia Republican as “being pretty reasonable, a relatively moderate person.”

But Democrats on his panel say the bespectacled, self-described “policy wonk” is now playing the role of partisan obstructionist on the top social issues of the day.

“The leadership of the Judiciary Committee is run very partisan and very politically. It hasn’t reached out to build consensus and see where we can work together,” said Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), a liberal firebrand who organized a pro-immigration protest in Goodlatte’s district in 2013.

Goodlatte, who turns 63 next week, disputes Democrats’ portrayal of him as some sort of guardian of gridlock.

He said he’s worked across the aisle on issues that typically receive little media attention, from his fight against patent litigation abuse, or “patent trolls,” to a review of U.S. copyright law and legislation ensuring email privacy protections.

He co-chairs the Congressional Internet Caucus with two liberals, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.).

And he’s won kudos from Democrats on criminal-justice reform by teaming up with ranking member Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and others to bring forward a package of bills this fall focused on things like prison and sentencing reforms.

While Goodlatte and committee Democrats often have “different approaches,” said a GOP Judiciary Committee aide, that hasn’t prevented the chairman from “finding common ground and working constructively with members of the Democratic Party to implement solutions to many of these issues.”

Democrats, however, say that they’ve seen a change in Goodlatte.

When he first grabbed the Judiciary gavel two and a half years ago, Gutiérrez said hearings were much more balanced.

“But now it just seems to have such a sharp, ideological edge,” he said.

Clyburn argues that Goodlatte’s inaction on several issues demonstrates “some real disappointments to me and a lot of other people.”

On immigration, Goodlatte calls Democratic demands for a complete overhaul of the system, including a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a wrongheaded approach. He’s pursued a “step-by-step” approach, where lawmakers first deal with immigration enforcement, then tackle “legal immigration,” such as an agricultural guest-worker program.

Four enforcement bills cleared the Judiciary Committee this year, including legislation focusing on mandatory electronic verification for employers. But those bills so far have been ignored by GOP leaders, who’ve been pressured by immigration hard-liners to pass legislation favored by the far right.

An aide to Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had no update on the status of the bills. Goodlatte, a former immigration attorney, wouldn’t speculate why they’re stalled but said he’s still encouraging leaders to bring them to the floor. “The sooner the better,” he said.

Pro-immigration voices say Goodlatte is doing leadership’s bidding.

“The calculation of leadership is that gridlock is the best thing that can happen,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the pro-immigrant National Immigration Forum. “It perpetuates the status quo.”

On gun control, Goodlatte has been singled out by Andy Parker, the father of Roanoke reporter Alison Parker, 24, who along with cameraman Adam Ward, 27, were killed by a gunman while broadcasting live from Smith Mountain Lake, just outside Goodlatte’s district.

Andy Parker says Goodlatte has “refused to lead” in the fight against gun violence. Parker and Goodlatte huddled on Friday, but the GOP aides had no comment about the private meeting.

Goodlatte had been interviewed by Alison Parker and Ward before and said he was “very much affected” by their murders. He took over the Judiciary panel weeks after a deranged gunman went on a shooting spree at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

But Goodlatte turned to statistics to argue that universal background checks and more gun-safety laws aren’t the answer: 76,000 people lied on a federal background check form in 2010, but only 62 were prosecuted, Goodlatte said.

“It does not make sense to add more laws that also are not going to be enforced,” he said during the interview in his Rayburn building office.

On voting rights, Goodlatte has balked at bipartisan legislation co-authored by former Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Conyers that would restore certain voting protections gutted by the Supreme Court last year.

This year, President Obama and Congressional Black Caucus leaders seized on the 50th anniversary of the civil-rights march in Selma, Ala., to push Republicans to update the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Specifically, Democrats want Congress to restore requirements for states with a history of racial discrimination at the polls to receive federal approval before changing their voting laws.

“I’ve really been a bit surprised” at Goodlatte, said Clyburn, who was elected after his district was redrawn as a majority-black district. “On voting rights, it just seems to me too basic — it’s what Virginia is all about — for him to be taking the position he’s taken.”

That earlier practice, known as preclearance, was based on old evidence of voter discrimination, said Goodlatte, who added that he invited a number of civil-rights groups to present new evidence of discrimination.

“There was precious little of it,” the chairman said. “We’re trying to move forward, to move ahead, and make sure there is not discrimination.”

Tags Bob Goodlatte Gun control Immigration voting rights

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