Several months after winning a competitive race to be ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. wants to downplay the drama.
The New Jersey Democrat said last year's "showdown" with Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, the California Democrat with whom he shares a corridor in the Cannon House Office Building and whom he calls a friend, wasn't nearly as bruising as outsiders perceived it. "I never thought it was bitter because I don't think it ever got personal, you know? ... I don't want to say it was easy," he said, "but I think it really kind of was easy."
Half a year into his tenure as the panel’s top Democrat, the 63-year-old lawmaker says he doesn't feel a need to blaze new trails on a committee where his two immediate predecessors, retired Democratic Reps. Henry A. Waxman and John D. Dingell, left indelible marks on policy.
“I like to think I’m following in Henry and John’s footsteps,” Pallone said. “There are times when I will say to myself, ‘What would they have done? And let’s not do anything differently, you know, if we can avoid it.’”
And his stated top goal as a leader on the committee — defending the 2010 health care law against Republican attacks, a mission of every loyal Democrat — is hardly revelatory.
It may be that Pallone, elected ranking member by only 10 votes, feels he still has something to prove to fellow Democrats.
But the low-key lawmaker is beginning to carve out a unique legacy for himself as a bipartisan deal-maker and partisan fighter.
He sat down recently with CQ Roll Call in his Cannon Building office to talk about his first 100-plus days on the job. Against the backdrop of an impressive floor-to-ceiling collection of Native American pottery — amassed during years of working on American-Indian affairs — and a single poster of Garden State hero Bruce Springsteen, Pallone said things were “going pretty well so far.”
He has some evidence to back that up.
Pallone helped Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., get members from both parties on board earlier this year with a legislative package to repeal the “sustainable growth rate” used to calculate doctor’s Medicare payments.
The two lawmakers followed up in mid-May with the long-anticipated 21st Century Cures Act to boost funding to streamline research and innovation for certain health treatments.
The committee markup was delayed over disagreements about offsets, but Upton worked with Pallone to incorporate Democratic priorities and the finished product was approved 51-0. One of the bill’s sponsors, Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health Chairman Joe Pitts, R-Pa., said he didn’t think he’d seen a unanimous vote on a major bill in 28 years.
The achievements have been good for Upton, who is working on cementing his own legacy during his last term as committee chairman. Upton said Pallone’s been a good partner so far, and attributes his counterpart’s cooperative spirit partly to his lack of ego.
“Henry was a former chairman,” Upton said of Waxman, Pallone’s immediate predecessor as Energy and Commerce's most senior Democrat. “No one likes to move from chairman to ranking member. Nobody. I wouldn’t want to go back either. And so I guess it’s good for me that Frank has not been in that position.”
Geography also plays a part. Take a bill to overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act.
In the 113th Congress, California Democrats were incensed over Republicans' proposed rewrite of the decades-old law, arguing language would undermine existing state chemical and environmental safety regulations. Waxman was not a willing participant in moving the bill through the committee. Another California Democrat, Sen. Barbara Boxer, fought against the legislation as then-chairwoman of Environment and Public Works, ultimately undermining a deal negotiated by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., in the months before his death.
Pallone, not preoccupied by California concerns and perhaps even looking to finish what his late home-state senator started, worked with Upton last week to advance a new TSCA overhaul bill. The committee voted on the measure 47-0; Eshoo voted "present."
Of course, this working relationship has also benefited Pallone, who’s shown he can not only get things done collaboratively, but also has the juice to facilitate deals Democrats feel good about supporting.
“If I just sit in this position and attack the Republicans, it doesn’t move the needle in terms of what I want to accomplish,” Pallone reflected, “so if I see an opportunity where I can work with them to actually move things in a pretty positive direction, I’m gonna take it.”
Still, Pallone acknowledged he feels compelled to rebut the other side frequently. A self-described progressive, Pallone says most Republicans “don’t really see a purpose in government,” whereas Democrats “are looking out for the little guy” — one of his most repeated phrases. As ranking member, he said, it's crucial he take a stand for his party.
For all the committee's bipartisanship this year, inter-party cooperation is still rare, he said, “The majority of things that come before the committee are issues where we can’t agree, where Republicans are trying to tear down government regulations and act on behalf of corporate interests."
When Pallone campaigned for the ranking member job last year, he sold himself as a practiced messenger of Democratic talking points, having long served as the person responsible for lining up House Democrats to give “one-minute” speeches on the chamber floor.
He said he wanted to bring that sensitivity to his committee leadership role to help members translate complicated subject matter into powerful political arguments, especially in a presidential election year when legislation coming before the panel could resonate on the national stage, from health care to climate change.
“It’s a logical extension,” he said. "That is one of the things I said when I was running. I said, because I was the leader of the messaging group I would be in a better position to develop a message for the committee and the House."
Making sure that process — thinking about how voters outside Washington perceive congressional Democrats — doesn't get lost in the legislative grind is critical to Pallone.
"That's a very important part of what I do."
Related: Pallone Defeats Eshoo for Energy and Commerce Slot (Updated) Pelosi Downplays Seniority System in Endorsing Anna Eshoo for Committee Assignment Eshoo Wins Backing of Steering and Policy Committee Over Pallone See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.