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The view from Washington: From budgets to Benghazi, Utah's lawmakers packed a punch

WASHINGTON ­— Rep. Jason Chaffetz was shouting as he challenged a claim made by a U.S. State Department witness appearing recently before his House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

“That is absolutely not true. You are so full of it, I can’t begin to tell you,” the Utah Republican, at 48 the chairman of one of Congress’ most powerful committees, told Gregory Starr, assistant State Department secretary for diplomatic security.

Starr was attempting to defend his statement that the nation's overseas embassies had adequate night vision equipment, but Chaffetz cut him off.

Officials at the embassies he's visited as chairman, Chaffetz said, have told a different story about security upgrades promised after the deadly attack in 2012 on an outpost in Benghazi, Libya, including whether they can monitor nighttime threats

“One of the most recent embassies I walked into, they said, ‘Well, if the lights are on,’ ” he said. “I said, ‘What happens if it gets dark, what happens if they shoot out the lights?’ (They said,) ‘No, we couldn’t see a thing. We’d be in the pitch dark.’ ”

Before ordering Starr to return with a list of equipment requests from security officers at the embassies, Chaffetz slammed the Obama administration official as “beyond, beyond belief here. This is why you keep coming back.”

Following the hearing, set to review ongoing issues with the construction of the new a U.S. Embassy in London, an energized Chaffetz huddled with key members of his committee staff and told them to follow up on the night vision issue, among others.

“Pull out those gems,” he instructed. He also assured a staffer headed to check out the security at the embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, that he won’t have to worry about having the access he needs to sensitive areas.

“We’re the oversight committee,” Chaffetz said with a grin. “We can do anything.”

Rising influence

Beating out several more senior members for the coveted oversight chairmanship after just three terms in office and conducting hearings into the U.S. Secret Service, the Internal Revenue Service, Planned Parenthood and other entities has raised Chaffetz’s profile in Washington, D.C., in the past year.

So did his surprising decision to make a bid for House speaker this fall when then-House Speaker John Boehner unexpectedly announced he was leaving Congress. His short-lived run ended up being parodied on "Saturday Night Live."

But Chaffetz is not alone among Utah’s six-member, all Republican, congressional delegation in wielding power that exceeds what’s expected from a small state since the start of the 114th Congress last January.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, first elected in 1976, is the Senate president pro tempore, a position that puts him third in line of succession to the president, behind the vice president and the House speaker.

As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Hatch spent the final days of the session deeply involved in critical bipartisan budget negotiations that led to a massive end-of-year spending and tax deal.

Still in his first term, Sen. Mike Lee, once a leader in the fight against President Barack Obama’s health care law that resulted in a federal government shutdown, now advocates a conservative agenda on a broad range of issues.

Lee, who this year became chairman of the Senate Steering Committee, a conservative caucus, recently met with the president in the White House to discuss bipartisan efforts on a key element of that agenda, criminal justice reform.

In the House, Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is getting closer to unveiling his long-awaited initiative aimed at settling the battle over federally owned public lands in Utah and other states.

Rep. Chris Stewart holds positions on both the House appropriations and intelligence committees. Much of Stewart’s work on national security issues is done behind closed doors and can’t be talked about publicly.

The newest member of the Utah delegation, Rep. Mia Love, was expected by many to play a more prominent role since being sworn in as the first black Republican woman in Congress in January. Instead, she’s toiled quietly on the House Financial Services Committee, largely avoiding the limelight, although that may be changing.

Stewart said Utah "has really been blessed" with leaders, both in Utah and Washington, working to serve their state and their country. "I think ultimately that shows up and bears a lot of fruit. I know that sounds Pollyannaish."

Utah's delegation, the two-term congressman said, gets along better than most.

"Each of us plays a slightly different role, but we're good at the role we play," Stewart said. "They're all important but because they are different, we don't step on each other's toes."

Former Utah Rep. Jim Hansen, who served more than two decades in Congress and was there when the Republicans won control of both the House and the Senate in 1994 for the first time in 40 years, marveled at the current delegation's overall strength.

“I have never seen a time when we had that kind of clout. I served 23 years in Congress and I was the first full chairman ever from Utah,” Hansen said. “I didn’t think we’d ever see that again.”

Michael Barone, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a private, nonpartisan think tank focused on government, politics, economics and social welfare, said Utah may have benefited by sending only members of the GOP to Washington.

“The Utah delegation is continuing to punch above its weight — and it helps that it's all-Republican in a Republican-majority Congress,” Barone, an analyst for the Washington Examiner and Fox News, told the Deseret News.

“Jason Chaffetz has been prominent as a committee chairman; ditto Senator Hatch, who has been a big player on many issues. Senator Lee has also taken a lead role in advancing various conservative ideas and proposals. And Congressman Bishop has been active on Interior issues,” Barone said.

Bishop said the small size of the delegation, combined with every member being a Republican, does help but isn't the only factor.

"It makes it easier. But I think maybe it's just the personalities and the decision we wanted to try and work together more than we had in the past," he said. "It's actually been very pleasant."

Lee said the delegation's actions over the past year, including Chaffetz's run for speaker, have elevated Utah's standing in the nation's capitol.

"It creates buzz," Lee said. "Anytime you hear the word Utah, I think it reminds people of the fact that our delegation is having an impact."

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., a conservative leader in Congress who heads the panel investigating Benghazi and is close to both Chaffetz and Love, agreed that Utah has outsize influence in Washington.

He said while Chaffetz has had “kind of a meteoritic rise in terms of profile,” Love’s time is coming.

“For those who don’t like the path Mia has taken, they honestly should blame me and (House Speaker) Paul Ryan. That’s the advice we gave her,” Gowdy said. “It takes a lot of discipline to do that. I admire the heck out of that discipline.”

He said while Love is “sure plain smart enough” to accept the many national media requests on a wide variety of topics that come into her office, she’s chosen to do what her mentors have suggested, “find out what you’re good at and shut up about the rest of it.”

Love's first year

Love, who so far faces the toughest race next year among the five members of the delegation up for reelection, saw her first bill advanced from the Financial Services Committee earlier this month, a measure raising the limit of assets a small bank can have and qualify for relief from the Federal Reserve from $1 billion to $5 billion.

The same day, she participated in congressional commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery alongside Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate and President Barack Obama. Her dramatic reading described slavery being practiced by some pioneers in the settlement of the West.

Afterward, Love told a reporter that she’s now embracing what has made her stand out in the freshman class, being the first black woman Republican in Congress. It’s a subject she’d always deflected before, saying her race had nothing to do with her election.

“This is probably the first time I’ll say this,” Love said. “As you remember, from the beginning, I always wanted to make sure that people knew I consider myself no different than anybody else. We raise our children not to check a box.

“But what I realized in a year of being here is that it’s OK to be a little different. Because there are ways I can represent my state that no one else can do,” she said. “It’s OK for me to be a little different. It’s OK for me not to fit a narrative. I’m embracing that. I’m embracing the fact that I can add a different perspective.”

Love has always had plenty of national attention, starting with her nearly successful 2012 run against the last Democrat elected to Congress in Utah, then-Rep. Jim Matheson, who chose not to seek reelection in 2014.

Not only did big-name Republicans, including Ryan, come to Utah to campaign for her in 2012, she had a prime speaking spot at the Republican National Convention that nominated Mitt Romney for president.

In her 2014 race against Democrat Doug Owens, who’s challenging her again, Love downplayed those connections. She said she’s been deliberate in doing the same since taking office.

“I think a lot of people were wondering whether I was going to be a workhorse or a ‘show pony.’ By showing up, showing up on time, doing my homework, knowing my stuff, I gained the respect of my colleagues,” Love said. “My colleagues are looking at me like, ‘OK, she’s not here just to show off. She’s here to do the work.’”

She’s still, however, getting help from high places.

Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, became Love’s official mentor in Congress before he became speaker. A colorful bouquet of flowers on a table in her private office with a note from Ryan attests to how close they are. The note, wishing her a happy 40th birthday, is signed, “Your bro, Paul.”

David Magleby, a Brigham Young University political science professor, said Love’s position as the first black GOP woman in Congress has made her “more of a player on the national scene than any other freshman,” as evidenced by the attention her recent endorsement of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential bid received.

“I think she will continue in Utah to not necessarily call attention to it, but I think in Washington she’s learned that’s something people pay attention to,” Magleby said.

In South Carolina, where GOP Sen. Tim Scott is the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction, Love is well-known, according to University of South Carolina pollster and political science professor David Woodard.

“I hear a lot about Mia Love because there are conservatives down here who look to her voice,” Woodard said. “There’s a feeling that if these black voices get heard then we’ll get more black faces in the Republican Party” in a state where African-Americans account for about 30 percent of the population.

Love, Woodard said, “has a real big upside. Maybe not right now, but down the line. … My point is, there are tremendous opportunities for a black woman” who’s also conservative.

A fellow freshman, Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., said he has seen firsthand walking through the halls of Congress with Love “how Americans from across the country will see her in passing and want to stop her and be able to say hello and want to take pictures with her.”

Hatch's influence

Chaffetz and Love may be getting the most attention, but it’s Hatch, the senior member of Utah’s delegation, who has the most influence in Washington, said Kirk Jowers, the former head of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.

“On the substance level, it’s hard to beat Hatch,” Jowers said. “I think Hatch is the most productive person in D.C. That stems from a few things. One, his seniority as Senate president pro tempore and, as Senate finance chair, that gives him a perch only a handful of people could compete with.”

Magleby said Hatch is playing a much more active role than past Senate presidents pro tempore, who have often been frail and unable to exert much influence or even regularly attend floor sessions. Instead, he said, Hatch was “a central player” in budget negotiations that concluded just before Christmas.

At the signing ceremony earlier in the month for the sweeping rewrite of the controversial No Child Left Behind Act, Hatch was quietly talking with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., about what she wanted to see in the stalled spending bill needed to keep the government functioning.

“This is sort of a magical moment for somebody like Hatch,” Magleby said.

Before Hatch launched into a description of his accomplishments over the past year with a reporter shortly after the bill signing, he made it clear he was prepared to do whatever it takes to get a budget deal.

“I’m used to it,” he said of the pressure of being in a position he described as “pivotal” on tax and finance issues. “If we have to be here to Christmas, I’m game. I’ve been there before.”

He noted that under his chairmanship, the Senate Finance Committee has passed 37 bipartisan bills, the most since Ronald Reagan was president. Bills he cited included the first five-year highway funding plan since 1998.

“I’m not bragging. I’m just saying that’s a fact,” Hatch said in a soft voice, strained from “using it too much. That’s the problem.” When an assistant tried to remind Hatch he’s missing other appointments because of the interview, he waved her off, and kept talking.

Since becoming Senate president pro tempore, Hatch has a Capitol Police security detail, similar to the president’s Secret Service protection. A member of his detail stood watch outside the entrance to his office suite, a sign to those in the know that Hatch was inside.

“They’re great guys,” the senator said of his security. “They watch over me really carefully as one of the few people who has been threatened from time to time. …it’s nice to have them with me.”

Hatch said he’s proud of Utah’s delegation.

“I think it’s a good delegation. We’re a conservative delegation. I think we all fight for Utah principles,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for our delegation.”

Going for it

Chaffetz, who famously leg-wrestled Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central as a freshman, said seeing himself parodied on “Saturday Night Live” in October “was just another surreal moment” of recognition.

“I’m still pinching myself that I get to do this and have such an impact. It is a very high-profile role. That’s the nature of the oversight committee,” he said. “You play that part. It’s definitely better to be chairman than not be chairman, I’ll tell you that.”

Securing the chairmanship is a “lesson that focus determines reality. Because I really did focus on it. My colleagues knew I had been preparing and working toward that goal unlike any other,” Chaffetz said. “But that’s kind of the story of my life. Just throw in for it.”

That strategy didn’t work in the speaker’s race, he acknowledged. When Boehner announced his resignation, Chaffetz challenged his apparent successor, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who later dropped out of the race.

Chaffetz stayed in until Ryan agreed to accept the speakership but said he has no regrets about his run.

“I’m glad I did that as well. It was short-lived, but that was the point. It was politically of little risk. And who knows where that might lead to in the future. But right now, I really like being the oversight chairman,” Chaffetz said.

His list of accomplishments by the committee that his office distributed begins with a list of more than a dozen administration officials who have resigned, retired or been reassigned, including several from the Secret Service.

During the committee’s hearings this spring, the Secret Service leaked information about Chaffetz applying to join the agency in 2003 and being rejected. Chaffetz said he’d still like to see a special prosecutor appointed to investigate the breach.

He said as chairman, he’s one of the few people in the country with unilateral subpoena authority and a multimillion dollar budget to conduct investigations into both government and private entities.

“The House rules literally say I can investigate anything at any time,” Chaffetz said. “I’m a kid in a candy store, and I like candy.”

At the committee’s holiday party, Chaffetz stressed bipartisanship.

“We’re Republicans and Democrats,” he said as members of the committee and staff munched on food from Café Rio and sipped soft drinks. “But at the same time, I know in our hearts, we want what’s best for the Untied States of America. We want what’s best for the American people. And that’s what we all fight for.”

The festivities included an exchange of gifts with the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. The two have formed a friendship that Cummings said is built on mutual respect and shared fundamental beliefs in telling the truth and acting on a foundation of integrity.

“I think that has taken him a long way, and I do believe in my heart of hearts it will continue to guide him,” Cummings told a reporter. “I like him. We don’t agree on everything. With Chaffetz, I listen to his point of view. He’s able to listen to mine.”

Chaffetz, a former BYU football player, chose to give Cummings a University of Utah football jersey with Cummings’ name and the number 15 for the first year of Chaffetz’s chairmanship.

“My second favorite team is the University of Utah. I like them. I want them to win most of the time. But when they’re playing BYU, I want them to come in second,” Chaffetz told Cummings.

“Just so you know, I want you to come in second,” he said.

Key accomplishments of Utah's congressional delegation in 2015

Sen. Orrin Hatch

Identified funding for first long-term highway bill in a decade

Co-authored Trade Promotion Authority bill

Delivered series of religious liberty speeches on Senate floor

Sen. Mike Lee

Co-sponsored USA Freedom Act

Co-sponsored Sentencing and Corrections Act

Added amendment preserving National Guard Apache helicopter fleet

Rep. Rob Bishop

Welcomed F-35 operations at Hill Air Force Base

Allowed for greater mental health care resources for HAFB troops

Continued work on public lands initiative

Rep. Jason Chaffetz

Introduced impeachment resolution for IRS commissioner

Pushed U.S. Secret Service reforms

Got NFL to voluntarily waive tax-exempt status

Rep. Chris Stewart

Helped keep sage grouse off endangered species list

Secured $8 million for military technology

Stopped regulations from being imposed on seasonal recreation businesses

Rep. Mia Love

Introduced four bills, co-introduced The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act

Only freshman named to select committee investigating Planned Parenthood

Gave rebuttal on House floor to motion on Obamacare repeal