Political Hay

Upton Theater

Conservatives, the Energy and Commerce Committee, and the battle over Fred Upton.

By 11.22.10

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Conservatives are in a fighting mood. First they came for the establishment Republicans, too cozy with power, in this year's primaries. Then they helped unseat large numbers of Democrats, in a stunning electoral rebuke. Now they are setting their sights on the incoming GOP leadership, which is why Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) has a target on his back.

Upton is next in line to chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee. (The panel's current ranking member, Texas Republican Joe Barton, is term-limited out of the top spot, though he is trying to get House Republican leaders to grant him a waiver that would let him assume the gavel.) The Michigander finds himself in conservative crosshairs because he is a notorious moderate seeking to run a committee with one of the largest domestic-policy portfolios.

Like many a Republican who lost a primary this year, Upton voted for the $700 billion TARP bailout. But he was one of just 18 Republicans to vote a year later for Rep. Barney Frank's (D-MA) bill to give the Obama Treasury Department wide latitude in spending the remaining $350 billion in TARP funds. In 2005, he was one of only three House Republicans to vote against extending the Bush tax cuts on capital gains and dividends. He was one of just 11 Republicans to subject tax cuts to a 60-vote threshold in the Senate. And he was one of nine Republicans who voted against substituting tax cuts for the $787 billion stimulus plan.

On spending, Upton was one of only 16 Republicans to vote for the Pelosi omnibus spending bill in 2009. He voted against slashing $355 billion in spending from the stimulus package. He has been a backer of the government SCHIP health care plan, the National Endowment for the Arts, and wasteful public subsidies for Amtrak. All aboard!

Upton has occasionally thrown pro-lifers from the train. He has a number of votes in favor of federal subsidies for Planned Parenthood, the country's largest abortion provider and advocate. He voted to overturn the first President Bush's ban on federally funded abortion counseling. He is a proponent of taxpayer-supported embryo-destructive research.

D.C. conservative activists have been circulating a 22-page document detailing Upton's moderate-to-liberal votes on issues ranging from gun control and school vouchers to environmental regulations and missile defense. Not all of them are germane to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, but they do add up to someone to the left of the median House Republican on a wide range of policies. Upton is accordingly under fire from a broad cross-section of the conservative movement.

Last week, Upton started shooting back. He fired off a letter to incoming House Speaker John Boehner and the rest of the Republican conference promising to repeal the national health care law. He followed up with another missive vowing to grill White House energy czar Carol Browner about the Obama administration's drilling moratorium, which Upton said was imposed "despite the fact that thousands of American jobs would be lost, the offshore oil and gas industry would suffer, and that it would have negative ramifications." Attacked by Rush Limbaugh for his support for a ban on some incandescent light bulbs, his allies began quietly circulating a transcript showing that many of Upton's opponents didn't protest very loudly during mark-up.

Upton also sought outside help in burnishing his conservative credentials. Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) argued for the congressman from a pro-life perspective. American Conservative Union head David Keene and Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes penned supportive columns. "I know Upton quite well," wrote Barnes. "He's not as conservative as I am. But he is especially well suited to be chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee." Americans for Tax Reform chief (and TAS contributing editor) Grover Norquist didn't endorse Upton, but he did co-author a Politico op-ed with him. The subject? The need to shrink government.

Some of Upton's character witnesses are more dubious, however. After the 2008 election, Upton boasted to reporters that he had palled around with members of Obama's inner circle, including incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, with whom he dined -- "The wine flowed, the food was good and we all talked candidly" -- and Chicago Cubs games. "[Emanuel] said, 'Fred, don't think that we're going to stop having these dinners,'" Upton told a local newspaper. "He also said something to the effect of, 'You're the guy we're going to be looking to' to help build coalitions with Republicans."

Now Upton is trying to show he can build coalitions with conservatives, promising to repeal much of his old buddy's handiwork. His supporters don't try to pretend he is the most conservative candidate for the chairmanship. Instead they argue that he would be a more experienced chairman -- with more knowledge of the players under the committee's jurisdiction -- than either Reps. John Shimkus (R-IL) or Cliff Stearns (R-FL) and one without the BP spill-related baggage of Barton. That, they claim, would enable him to win the PR battles with the White House more conservative Republicans would like to wage.

When Democrats took control of Congress, the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee was also contested. Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) had the seniority but the caucus sided with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) who was more liberal. Upton's backers are hoping that their struggle will end up more like then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter's bid for the Senate Judiciary Committee chairmanship after the 2004 election. Specter made enough promises to conservatives to claim the gavel. He also kept them, before becoming a turncoat in 2009.

That is ultimately what the contest between Upton and his colleagues is about -- who will keep their promises to conservatives and who will be a turncoat? These are always open questions with the less-than-incandescent bulbs burning in the Republican Party.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.