A Polarized Congress Tests Fred Upton’s Instincts

Amy Harder

In the final days of the last Congress, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton spoke out against a bill to provide roughly $50 million to aid the victims of superstorm Sandy.

He didn’t oppose the bill, just the timing. And his stance angered New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a friend of Upton.

When the House ultimately passed the aid bill weeks later, it was Upton—one of just a handful of lawmakers Speaker John Boehner has designated to sign bills in his absence—who laid a signature on it. The Michigan Republican mailed a copy of the bill to Christie, with a handwritten note. “Governor,” Upton wrote. “I know we traded calls & thought you’d appreciate my signature here-Fred.”

“We’ll see if he cuts it up and sends it back,” Upton said with a laugh as he penned the olive branch.

That’s Upton for you—influential, persistent, and friendly. “Fred kills people with kindness,” said Michael Beckerman, a former deputy staff director for the committee—now president of the Internet Association—who has known the chairman for a dozen years. “He’s fiercely competitive in everything he does, and he wins battles with a smile. It’s harder to hold a grudge against an opponent if they’re being nice and smiling throughout.”

Upton, who celebrates his 60th birthday next week, grew up in St. Joseph, Mich., a town of fewer than 10,000 people. Before the recent recess, he was looking forward to returning to get his hair cut and watch his alma mater, the University of Michigan, play in the NCAA basketball tournament.

“Big Blue” ended up losing the championship game to Louisville. But Upton did get his hair cut at Aire-Wae Barbers, the same place he’s gone for the last 40 years.

“There’s three chairs there, no appointments,” Upton said. “You just gotta wait your turn like everybody else.”

The chairman knows how to wait.

Upton comes from a wealthy Michigan family that made its fortune in the appliance industry. His grandfather was one of the founders of Whirlpool, and the inheritance made Upton a multimillionaire, listed as the 36th-richest member of the House by the Center for Responsive Politics. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Michigan and came to Washington after that to work for Republican David Stockman, both when he was a congressman from Michigan’s 4th District and when Stockman was leading the White House Office of Management and Budget during the Reagan administration.

His Washington experience in the 1970s and ’80s, paired with Upton’s well-known family name in southwestern Michigan, and a tenacious campaign helped propel Upton to win the election for Michigan’s 6th District seat in 1986. But it wasn’t until 2010—long into his 14 terms in Congress—that he took over the gavel of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

The committee is the oldest standing committee in the House and has the broadest jurisdiction in Congress, overseeing everything from health care and energy policy to product safety and international trade. Upton ran for the chairmanship after the tea-party faction of the GOP helped put Republicans back in control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections.

Upton was always favored to win, given his close relationship with Boehner and years of loyal party service. But he was pitted against the more conservative Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who was ranking member and a previous chairman of the committee. Upton faced criticism from both clean-energy advocates and conservative groups for a whole host of things: being too moderate, flip-flopping on climate change, and, perhaps most famously, denouncing a light-bulb efficiency bill he had once championed.

He won the gavel. But it was no easy time to be a chairman.

For years, committee chairs have seen their power decline, a trend that began in the mid-1990s when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich shifted power to a top-down structure run out of the leadership office.

With the tea-party wave of 2010, Congress also became more conservative and more partisan—and consequently more gridlocked than ever on big national issues, including health care, global warming, and broad fiscal issues. All are changes that make running an effective committee more difficult.

“The division is no longer between regular Republicans and moderates,” said former Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who chaired the Energy committee from 2001 to 2004. “It’s more between hard right and regular Republicans.”

At his core, colleagues say, Upton is a bipartisan, relatively moderate Republican. But he is now operating—and indeed leading—in a House whose new members possess much less of both those qualities.

“The Republican Party has moved further to the right, and he’s had to make that transition. He’s probably found that challenging,” said Bill McBride, D.C. director for Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. McBride has known Upton longer than almost anyone in Washington. They grew up in the same town and worked as staffers in Congress at the same time. “He really came out of a very moderate base in the Republican Party. If you go back and look at his voting record over the last 26 years, I think you’ll see a trend where it has moved rightward in recent years. But he’s had to adapt to a changing environment in the party.”

Indeed, Upton’s legislative record has vacillated, according to an analysis of National Journal’s annual vote ratings. In 2008, he was the 185th most conservative member of the House. In 2010, the year of the tea-party wave and his fight with Barton for the chairmanship, he had his most conservative year ever: He ranked the 114th most conservative. He now seems to be moderating again. In 2012 he ranked 185th again.

“In order to succeed, you need to work with the environment as it exists,” said former Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., who worked closely with Upton while on the Energy subcommittee on climate change and other issues. Put another way, Upton needed to adapt to his surroundings. Some critics call that flip-flopping; others just call it politics.

Visit Upton’s office and he’s apt to do two things right away: insist you call him Fred and introduce you to his staff’s dogs. There are usually three small breeds running around on any given day. “Gideon’s blind, so you just gotta be careful,” Upton says about the silky terrier owned by his chief of staff, Joan Hillebrands, who has worked for Upton since he first ran for Congress in 1986.

On one recent day, Upton juggled meeting with constituents concerned about the sequester cuts with counting votes on the continuing resolution bill to help Boehner ensure its passage and managing his committee responsibilities. He also reads and signs all his legislative mail. “I sometimes question why I voted against cloning because I have so many different activities where I should be,” Upton quipped.

But managing Energy and Commerce is no joke.

Upton’s job as chairman is threefold. He must unify the members on his committee, a group that is widely thought to be more conservative than ever. In fact, 24 of the 30 Republican members on the committee are more conservative than Upton, according to NJ’s 2012 vote ratings. He also must ensure he is in lockstep with the House GOP leadership, which is often looking at the national political implications of the committee’s actions. Upton’s third big job is to make a good-faith effort to move bipartisan measures when possible, a task that is sometimes in conflict with the first two.

When he became chairman, Upton instituted a rule that allowed any bipartisan amendment to get first priority in a markup. This encourages members to work across the aisle, but because the committee has fewer moderate members from both parties than in years past, there aren’t as many opportunities for bipartisan amendments.

“It’s clear the politics of the House and on the Republican side have moved to the right; as such, Fred has a responsibility to his caucus,” said former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., who has known Upton for two decades and was one of Upton’s closest colleagues when they served in the House together. “The key test of a leader is that when they turn around and look behind them, there is actually somebody there…. Fred is leading in a way to make sure that he can get done what he needs to get done.”

Upton’s quest for bipartisanship is also made difficult by ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who acknowledges that, in his role as leader of the minority party on the committee, he often comes off as partisan. When asked about how he works with Waxman, Upton seemed at a loss for words.“You know, he’s a, he’s a tough guy,” Upton said. “I know he’s not happy that we pick off a number of Democrats with us.”

In fact, most of the bills related to the Environmental Protection Agency and Obama’s health care law have little bipartisan support. But there has been enough for Upton to make the claim.

Of course, there has been legislation passed with bipartisan effort in the committee that eventually became law, and Upton counts these as successes. A pipeline-safety measure and a telecommunications bill on broadband and spectrum policy are two examples. But in the two years he has been chairman, he has had limited success authoring big-ticket items that eventually become law. Some of that is due to the party’s focus trying to undo Obama’s policies. Term limits in committee leadership posts that the GOP created under Gingrich also make it difficult for Republican chairs to make lasting changes. Legislative victories take years, sometimes decades—as longtime chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., recalls.

“There was one time I put a clean-air bill on the floor,” he said. “Everyone patted me on the back and said, ‘Oh Dingell, you’ve got this bill through in 13 hours. How’d you do it?’ I said, ‘Oh it was really simple, it only took me 13 years to get that damn thing to where I could get it through in 13 hours.’ ”

Dingell was referring to the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, the most recent and significant reform of the landmark air-pollution law. Upton doesn’t yet have such a big legislative victory he can call his own (he has a limit of four years left as chairman), and it’s unclear if such a partisan Congress can produce such a bill.

But Upton is relying on a classic formula, used by generations of lawmakers: hearing from stakeholders, holding a hearing, drafting a bill, marking it up, and whipping votes to ensure it can pass. As he put it, “I’m a regular-order guy.”