Virginia Republican Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte is important, but don’t expect him to tell you that.
He’s the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and huge segments of President Barack Obama’s agenda must go through his committee.
That includes bills on the topics of gun control and immigration, both of which are enjoying political momentum that would have been shocking only months ago, when Goodlatte was gearing up to take his new post. Meanwhile, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has vowed to return the House to regular order, elevating the importance of committee chairmen.
But most would be forgiven for not knowing anything about Goodlatte. His reaction to this newfound importance has been to retreat, almost turtle-like, into a shell and away from the spotlight.
In the workweek following the Jan. 28 release of a new immigration framework by a bipartisan group of senators, transforming the political debate on that topic, Goodlatte conducted one television interview with a local station in his district, WSLS. “It’s a great opportunity for me and my constituents to take the lead on some of the key issues of the day,” he said.
If so, he’s not exactly making the most of it. The immigration statements Goodlatte’s staff released on his behalf seem almost designed not to attract attention.
By way of contrast, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the probable 2016 presidential candidate who is a key player in the immigration framework, invited a reporter into his office to watch him conduct back-to-back talk radio interviews and will go further into the mainstream when he participates in the inaugural BuzzFeed Brews newsmaker series on Tuesday.
Part of the reason for Goodlatte’s reticence may lie in local politics. In Goodlatte’s district, the largest tea party group, based in Roanoke, has posted “WANTED” posters with Goodlatte’s visage around town. Goodlatte’s crime, according to the poster, is “impersonating a constitutional conservative.”
In 2012, Karen Kwiatkowski garnered 33.5 percent in her primary challenge to Goodlatte, and activists are pushing for a convention for 2014, which could be a more difficult hurdle for Goodlatte to secure renomination.
“I think people are starting to have a lower tolerance level for incumbents going along with the status quo,” said Chip Tarbutton, president of the Roanoke Tea Party.
“In 2010 when we started, there was nobody that would even primary Goodlatte. We actually helped out a guy that was a libertarian run, and he got about 8 percent of the vote. Two years later, Karen Kwiatkowski ran as a Republican and got about 35 percent of the vote. If we can keep that train going, we’ll have him out of office in a year and a half,” he added.
Elected in 1992, Goodlatte has risen through the GOP ranks through careful diligence and adherence to the party line. He once served as district director for former Rep. Manley Caldwell Butler and then practiced law, including immigration law. Democrats who have worked with Goodlatte describe him as intelligent and well-prepared for hearings and meetings.
His real passion appears to be Internet and intellectual copyright issues, including diligent support for a far-reaching anti-piracy bill that tanked in the 112th Congress amid Web-based protests.
When it comes to Obama’s big agenda items, there’s a significant divide in the House between changes to immigration law, which could easily see House action, and gun control legislation, which is pretty much dead on arrival.
Four days after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Goodlatte told CQ Roll Call that “gun control is not going to be something that I would support.” The remarks took a harder line on the issue than the message coming from House leaders at the time, and Goodlatte has since become more disciplined in his remarks on hot-button issues, as many reporters can attest.
Last week, Goodlatte announced that his first hearing will be on immigration. He plans to tackle the issue slowly and methodically.
As a first step, Goodlatte will be co-hosting listening sessions with Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the chairman of Judiciary’s immigration subcommittee.
Gowdy described the purpose of the sessions, which will be with groups of 20 or fewer members of Congress, as focusing on current law and research on the causes and solutions of illegal immigration.
Although the Senate has taken the early lead on immigration, there are signs of openness to action in the House.
“I would feel comfortable trying to make the argument in my district that real border security and real employment verification should lead us to a real genuine conversation about legal status,” Gowdy said.
Behind the scenes, a bipartisan group of House members is working to craft its own plan. Although participants are highly secretive — members and aides with knowledge of the group refused to discuss its proceedings — there is little indication Goodlatte has played a big role in their discussions.