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During the eight years she was Michigan’s secretary of state, Republican Rep. Candice S. Miller helped craft election policy that became the model elsewhere after the 2000 presidential race’s Florida recount debacle.
She joked, however, that her legacy in that office might be tied to another accomplishment: shortening the average wait time for services at the state Department of Motor Vehicles from more than four hours to under five minutes.
“One of the reasons I was one of the highest vote-getters in Michigan history, I think!” she said, laughing.
But she isn’t kidding. In an interview with CQ Roll Call last week, Miller brought up both examples as reasons Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, tapped her to serve as the next chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, the panel that oversees election law as well as day-to-day operations of Congress.
Miller’s appointment to one of the least well-known congressional committees made national news after Republican leaders installed only men in the chairman slots for the other standing committees of the 113th Congress. Some political watchers also saw her selection as a consolation prize for the race she’d lost a few days earlier to serve as chairwoman of the Homeland Security Committee, where she has made her legislative mark.
However, Miller has a strong case to dispute the kinds of speculation that would demean her selection. She maintains that her tenure as secretary of state, one previous term on the House Administration Committee and her record as a fiscal conservative were all appealing reasons for Boehner to pick her.
In many ways, by virtue of her experiences and her political temperament, she has a lot in common with outgoing Chairman Dan Lungren, R-Calif., who was able to advance the values and goals of his party as chairman of the committee.
Boehner pledged to make the House under his leadership more transparent and technologically advanced. Incidentally, Miller said she already has “a number of ideas” about how to use technology to improve member services. She wouldn’t elaborate, but she said she was drawing from her Michigan initiatives to think about what might work well on Capitol Hill.
“I think about the processes that I go through as far as filing bills ... all the things you want to have at your fingertips which would make you more productive, just like having a BlackBerry makes you more productive,” Miller said. “There’s been a change in the culture, and I really think it’s going to be an exciting time for this committee to really be at the forefront of all of these kinds of things.”
Miller will also allocate the budgets for all of the House committees with an eye on fiscal realities and sensitivity to the significance of “leading by example” in the broader campaign to cut spending. She could be telling chairmen to do more with even less should the sequester come to pass and committee budgets get slashed by as much as 11 percent.
“I come out of ... Southeast Michigan, where we have gone through the most painful economic transition in my lifetime as a state,” she said. “We were No. 1 in all the categories you don’t want to be No. 1 in ... so I don’t think there will be much sympathy for members of Congress to tighten their belts.”
Last week, she pointed to the chaos of her desk as proof that she’s hitting the ground running — it was scattered with PowerPoint printouts, memos and files she was reviewing to prepare for the new job. She also said she was setting up meetings with representatives from various legislative branch agencies.
But the hallmark of Miller’s leadership on the House Administration Committee will probably not be institutional overhauls as it was during Lungren’s tenure, but rather election law. It hasn’t had much of a spotlight in previous years in terms of committee action, and Lungren recently described election issues as “about 15 percent, at best, of what we do.”
“This committee previously, particularly after the 2000 election through the Help America Vote Act, was very influential [on election law], and, in fact, I remember some of the staff from the House Administration Committee came out to interview me in Michigan when I was secretary of state about various systems we had,” Miller countered. “There’s a natural flow of ebb and tide of various issues, but I certainly think there might be a lot more of those now, and I intend to push that.”
The first piece of legislation she intends to push, she said, would make it easier for servicemembers to vote in U.S. elections while deployed overseas and would also better ensure that their votes are counted.
That effort will likely supersede any close examination of some of the institutional changes her predecessor made during his early months as chairman, Miller suggested, such as ending the House composting program and replacing costly biodegradable dishware with controversial Styrofoam.
“I’m much more interested in making sure our military members are able to exercise their franchise from a voting standpoint than I am in Styrofoam cups,” she said.
But both functions of the committee are significant, and Miller said she expects them to carry equal weight among constituents back home, who remember her as their chief elections officer as well as a pillar of fiscal discipline.
In this way, one of the lowest-profile committees in Congress could boost Miller’s own profile.
“My constituents know that I’m very fiscally conservative, but they know I’m not one of those who just bashes government all the time either,” she said. “I think government has a role to play, I think it can serve well, and I think this committee assignment is really going to allow me to utilize my skill sets to really move ahead here.”