Opinion

Clean Up in Aisle Chaffetz

Utah Rep could have blown up the GOP strategy of killing Garland nomination

Rep. Jason Chaffetz reportedly wanted to interview Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland about the handling of an investigation of another federal judge. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Republicans on Capitol Hill may have just side-stepped what would have been an epic political blunder.  

On Tuesday, Politico reported that House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, wanted to interview Judge Merrick Garland about the handling of an investigation into another federal jurist, Richard Roberts, who abruptly retired from his post as chief judge for the federal district court in Washington, this month after being accused of raping a then-16-year-old witness decades ago.  

Never mind that Garland had immediately recused himself from the judicial complaint against Roberts, for which Garland had oversight power as the chief judge for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.  

The point is that Garland is President Barack Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, and Republican leaders in the Senate have said he won’t get so much as a hearing, never mind a cloture vote on the floor or an actual shot at being confirmed. The case against Roberts presented an opportunity for Chaffetz, a smart, media savvy and ambitious lawmaker to nose his way into the biggest fight on Capitol Hill at a time when election news is drowning out almost every other story.  

The media circus that would have been drawn to a public hearing featuring Garland —or even an interview with the committee behind closed doors—would have put Chaffetz front-and-center on national television and at the top of print and digital news pages for days. He would have been the guy leading the charge to delegitimize Garland.  

It might have played well back home in Utah, the native state of the accuser. And, whether Chaffetz was thinking this or not, it would have allowed Chaffetz to contrast himself with longtime nemesis Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, who has said kind things about Garland in the past. Chaffetz, who considered and decided against a primary run against Hatch in 2012, is looked upon as a potential candidate for that seat in 2018.  

Those are all good political reasons for Chaffetz to use the handling of the judicial complaint as a route into the Garland story.  

But there were bigger reasons to stay away from it, and that helps explain the clean up in Aisle Chaffetz on Wednesday.  

First and foremost, Chaffetz would have blown up Senate Republicans’ strategy of killing the Garland nomination on the “principle” that the president shouldn’t appoint a Supreme Court justice in his final year in office. Imagine how much more difficult it would be for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to maintain that inaction while Chaffetz acted to undermine Garland.  

The other reason, and I doubt this factored into the decision-making process, is the indecency of sticking Garland’s name into print and television stories alongside the name of a judge who was accused of raping a teenager 35 years ago.  

Chaffetz changed course faster than Apple when Taylor Swift threatened to boycott its music platform.  

Now, rather than targeting Garland by name, he is asking the administrative office of U.S. courts to provide a briefing to explain the process by which the chief judge of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia handles misconduct complaints, disability determinations and the selection of an acting chief judge when he recuses himself from a complaint.  

It's a subtle distinction but an important one in terms of patting down the flames of what could have been an explosive story.  

Like many successful politicians, particularly those who have a knack for finding the limelight, Chaffetz is prone to asking for forgiveness rather than permission. And this appears to be a case of him doing just that. After all, Republican leaders intervened earlier this year when he suggested Hillary Clinton might be a target of an investigation into the government’s handling of federal records. They told him no then, and he backed off.  

I don't know if anyone spoke to him this time.  

But whatever the case, the change in Chaffetz’s course appears to have diminished the chances that he will burn the Senate GOP on Garland.

Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography "HRC" and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.