This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Washington • Each armed with a gavel, a prime perch and the title, "Mr. Chairman," Utah Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz drew more than their fair share of cheers and jeers for their high-profile performances in the House in 2015.
They both used their new-found power to take on the Obama administration and dig into their respective pet issues.
For Bishop, heading the Natural Resources Committee allowed him to delay and temporarily kill a 50-year-old land preservation program that he said had gone awry. He summoned government officials to the Hill to explain themselves, and their actions, multiple times. And he frequently castigated agencies for what he said was overstepping their bounds.
Chaffetz, who issued 11 subpoenas as chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, probed Secret Service failures, grilled the head of Planned Parenthood and, in the end, toppled 14 administration officials from their jobs.
In the partisan atmosphere that divides Washington, the two Utahns were often at odds with their Democratic counterparts though Chaffetz marked a new era of cooperation on his committee and both used their new sway to press their agendas.
Pushing back • Eleven months into Bishop's chairmanship, Democrats on the committee couldn't contain their frustration.
More than 200 House members, Republicans and Democrats, had signed on as co-sponsors of legislation to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, established in 1965 to purchase land for preservation, parks and trails using money from oil and gas revenues.
Bishop unilaterally blocked the bill from committee action, arguing that over time the program had been used to pay back environmental special interests, transferred too many acres from private ownership to government control and had become a "slush fund" for the Interior Department secretary.
Arizona's Rep. Raul Grijalva, the top Democrat on the committee, had had enough and demanded Bishop hold a hearing on the bill.
Bishop said he'd comply.
"I asked him which Sunday morning they wanted to have their committee hearing," Bishop joked.
In the end, Bishop's effort to suspend and overhaul the LWCF by diverting some funds to train and educate oil and gas workers and severely restricting how much land the federal government could buy in the West was brushed aside as Congress renewed the program through language tucked into a massive spending bill. But Bishop, who complained about the closed-door deal cutting, says he isn't letting the issue die and will continue pushing reforms in the program, which comes up for renewal in three years.
While Bishop's committee has passed several bipartisan measures he says more than any other committee he acknowledges they are mostly "low-hanging fruit," and not controversial. And while there's always hope for more joint efforts with Democrats, he says such cooperation is difficult in this political climate.
"Often on the minority side they feel … an obligation for defending everything the administration does," Bishop says. "I understand that because I think when we were in the minority and [George W.] Bush was still in the White House, we felt an obligation to defend everything they were doing."
Bishop says he set out some short-term and intermediary goals when he took over the committee in January, but he knew it would be an uphill battle with a Democratic White House and a Senate with enough Democrats to procedurally block legislation. The chief focus, Bishop says, was to push back.
"The biggest thing we probably have to do is minimize the harm the administration does on Western issues," Bishop says. "No, it's not what I want to do but it's probably the most significant thing we have to do is try and mellow them out from going crazy on us, and sometimes just saying no. ... I realize now why we haven't done a lot of new and exciting things in the last eight decades because it's already gooey and messy and we keep stepping into it."
Bishop's agenda can at times be aggressively unsubtle. An example was a committee hearing titled: "Zero accountability: The consequences of politically driven science."
Despite the partisan head-butting, he maintains a good relationship with his Democratic counterpart on the committee.
"Personality wise, civility wise, it's a good relationship," says Grijalva. "On policy and what we think are priorities … it's a fight."
"We want to be effective opponents and," he says," I think we are."
Bishop also uses personal praise and political punches in describing his Democratic rival.
"If I had to pick someone to be a next door neighbor, I would want Raul Grijalva," Bishop says. "I would never want him on the city council because he's wrong on every issue."
Bishop says he's not as rigid as his critics want to make him out to be, citing his soon-to-be-released Public Lands Initiative that seeks to bring all sides of the debate in eastern Utah together for a compromise bill on preserving some acreage while opening other areas to development. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and others have pressed Bishop to unveil his legislation sooner rather than later with just a year left in Barack Obama's presidency.
"If you're willing to come part way and say, 'Great, we'll create wilderness but we'll also release wilderness; we'll have some offset and we'll have some outdoor recreation that will be guaranteed,' then we can move that stuff forward," Bishop says.
That hasn't necessarily worked so far.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which seeks to protect some 1.9 million acres in southeastern Utah, said last week that it would end its attempts to work with Bishop and Chaffetz on the Public Lands Initiative because those efforts had been "to no avail."
Bishop points to endless meetings and negotiations over recent years to reach a compromise agreement.
"Actually, there are a couple things that I did that I hope would be a message out there that I'm not as doctrinaire as some people want to paint me," Bishop says.
Charting a course • In late September, Chaffetz was hosting one of the more high-profile hearings of his tenure as chairman when he asked his staff to display a chart about Planned Parenthood's number of cancer screenings versus the number of abortions it performed annually.
"In pink, that's the reduction in the breast exams, and the red is the increase in the abortions," Chaffetz told the group's president, Cecile Richards. "That's what's going on in your organization."
Richards protested and it turns out the chart was deeply flawed. The number of abortions cited (327,000 in 2013) and the number of cancer screenings (nearly 936,000) were overlayed to make the lower number appear greater than it was.
"I would say Chaffetz did as well with his slide as the following people did with theirs," comedian Seth Meyers noted on NBC's Late Night show, following up with videos of kids crashing down playground slides.
Chaffetz's chart and comments about it earned a "Pants on Fire" rating from Politifact and its readers voted it the lie of the year.
It was one of the more embarrassing moments of 2015 for the Utah Republican.
"In retrospect, I probably should have done two graphs," Chaffetz conceded later. But he defends the underlying figures. "The numbers are accurate," he says, adding that if this flap is the worst his critics can bring, he'll take it.
Chaffetz says he's taken a different approach than his partisan predecessor in the committee chairmanship, Rep. Darrell Issa of California.
During his first year, he's signed 187 letters with top Democrat Elijah Cummings, and issued 14 statements and introduced two bills with Cummings' name attached.
The most substantial investigation by the committee, that of a series of Secret Service shenanigans and security lapses, resulted in a 200-page joint report that was approved unanimously by Republicans and Democrats.
Cummings says Chaffetz ranks among the best chairmen he's seen in his time, and is far superior to Issa, who once cut off Cummings' microphone during a hearing. They may disagree but they haven't had any "unreasonable disagreements," Cummings says.
"I disagree with my wife, and I love her to death," he adds.
Cummings quickly came to Chaffetz's defense when an inspector general's report showed that some 45 Secret Service agents or employees illegally accessed personnel records to find a job application by the Utahn to join the agency in 2003 that was rejected.
That information was later leaked to the news media.
The findings, Cummings said, were "utterly unacceptable and indefensible."
Chaffetz got a series of apologies, though he has yet to get the resignation of the agency's director, Joseph Clancy, who backtracked on his previous statement that he knew nothing about agents accessing personnel records, admitting he had heard about it.
He also has yet to bring down IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, but is pushing for that scalp, claiming Koskinen failed to prevent destruction of evidence in a committee probe of the agency.
Chaffetz was successful in ousting (or forcing into retirement, another job or on administrative leave) several other top administration officials, including several Secret Service executives; Michele Leonhart, the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency; Katherine Archuleta, the director of the Office of Personnel Management; and Daniel Horowitz, managing director of the Chemical Safety Board.
"They earned it," Chaffetz says. "Every one of them earned it."
Sticking to facts • The Utahn says that while his committee is one that is prone to slip into partisan sniping, he's attempted to keep it rooted in the joint goals of transparency and accountability.
"[The] Oversight committee has traditionally been one of the most rambunctious, partisan divides out there," he notes. "Maybe it goes that direction, but I'm trying to stick to the facts."
That may become more difficult in coming months as the presidential contest heats up, especially with former first lady Hillary Clinton as the possible Democratic nominee.
"In 2016, everything will get labeled as politics but that's what we do," Chaffetz said, adding that he thinks the committee has been "too soft on her thus far."
"I told our staff ... I don't want to be harder on her because she's a presidential candidate and former first lady," he says.
"But I don't want to be any softer on her. She shouldn't get a free pass just because she's running for president," Chaffetz added.
Two of the issues that first came up in Oversight the surreptitiously recorded, and highly edited, videos of Planned Parenthood officials talking about the costs of fetal tissue from abortions and the deaths of four Americans in the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi, Libya have now spun off into their own select committee investigations.
Chaffetz fought, and won, an argument with Democrats over requiring committee approval for subpoenas. As is tradition, the Oversight chairman retains unilateral power to issue subpoenas, something Chaffetz did 11 times during the year.
"It's a very important tool but I can't overstep my bounds," he says. "I have to make my case as to why it's necessary. I have threatened more subpoenas than I have issued."
At Cummings' request, Chaffetz says he held hearings on criminal justice reform and plans to hold one this month on prescription drug prices, a top issue for the Maryland Democrat.
Chaffetz says that's how the committee should work.
"I expect him to fight vehemently for what he believes in," Chaffetz says of Cummings.
And no one expects less from the Utah congressman.