Illinois Republican John Shimkus is the front-runner to take the gavel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the 115th Congress and will do so as long as two things happen: House Republicans perform as expected Nov. 8 and retain the majority, and Shimkus overcomes a challenge by Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.).
Walden, who has slightly less seniority and declined my requests for an interview, does offer at least one thing Shimkus can’t: years of effort to Republican colleagues elected in his role as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Shimkus tells me he’s confident his slight seniority over Walden will carry the day when it comes to the chairmanship; if he wins he’ll keep one eye on the day-to-day battles but says he has proven he can do so without losing sight on legislation that can take years to develop—such as a reworking of the Toxic Substances Control Act signed into law this year. Or, if he is chairman, reauthorizing the Federal Communications Commission.
A Six-Year Plan?
Shimkus makes no bones about talking in terms of a six-year chairmanship—“long term would be out six years—what we hope we can serve”—if House Republicans stay in power that long, he says. That’s the term limit self-imposed by House Republicans on top committee positions.
“And everything is predicated on what happens with my colleagues” in the election next week, he notes.
Patience Can Be a Virtue
The long road to revamping the TSCA chemical law convinced Shimkus, who admits he isn’t always the most patient lawmaker, that big bills can still get passed in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere.
“With TSCA, I was pretty instrumental on that, but in reality that was a five a half-year project,” he says.
Shimkus says he feels “pretty good” about his chances of winning the gavel; his argument for undecided colleagues goes something like this: seniority pretty much should dictate that who gets the gavel, barring a big misstep or controversy.
Only One Reason Seniority Wouldn’t Matter
“And the only reason [seniority] wouldn’t matter would be if you had done something terrible,” he says.
Does that make him the favorite going into Election Day? “I’m feeling pretty good,” he says.
Besides Walden, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) also has voiced interest. Barton was initially considered a long-shot to overcome the Republican term-limit restriction. But he has since “met with leadership and other stakeholders and the term limit rule will not apply to his bid for E&C chair,” according to a Barton aide.
“As far as Greg [Walden] and Joe [Barton] this has really been an amicable thing, and I have great respect for them. But I’m sitting down with folks and giving them my pitch and it’s been well received,” Shimkus says. While most Republican colleagues “don’t like to be put in the middle of things” in a leadership race, “they do see the importance of regular order” in deciding chairmanships.
‘No Secret’ Reid’s Departure Opens Door to Yucca
Shimkus sees the retirement of Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as game-changer for the Yucca Mountain nuclear storage site, which Reid opposed but Shimkus wants opened to provide a single U.S. site for nuclear waste.
“I think with [Reid gone] there’s a lot of optimism” for opening the Nevada site, Shimkus says. “I don’t believe there are secrets in Washington—a lot of people on both sides want to get this monkey off our back and move toward a solution … and I know for a fact there are some Democrats looking forward” to putting the Yucca site back on the table.
Whether that’s overly optimistic or not—Yucca is still viewed as an uphill battle if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency or if Democrats win the Senate—remains to be seen.
No Relief From Messaging Bills
Shimkus isn’t overly concerned about the seemingly endless number of messaging bills on the House floor—many brought there to roll back environmental rules and passed over and over since Republicans took control of the chamber in 2011.
In 2015 alone, the Republican-controlled chamber took more than two-dozen votes on environmental or energy issues, in many cases passing bills that had no chance of getting a vote on the Senate floor or past a certain veto by President Barack Obama.
Does Shimkus, who has helped shepherd some of those bill as chairman of the energy and environment subcommittee, agree that’s become symbolic exercise given the outcome is nearly always the same?
Yes and no, he says. And both sides, he says, use such votes for messaging.
“I think sometimes yes, sometimes no and here’s why,” the Republican says. “I think it’s like 65 percent of Republicans have been elected the last six years, so even though we may have voted on EPA strangling the manufacturing sector with regulations, not everyone has had a chance to vote for it” in the Republican caucus, he says.
“And if those members are coming from a manufacturing state, they want a chance to vote on it.”
“I think Democrats know this—they did it too,” Shimkus says. “I think you’ll hear Democrats say we know this is a messaging bill—and they vote no. But also, some of these [bills] may get into” other broader legislation, so can be sort of dry run for an amendment or policy restriction that can be added to annual funding bills, Shimkus says.
“Because of that,” he says, “you never say never.”
On his temperament, Shimkus laughs off suggestions that he may have burned some bridges in his 20 years in Congress; here his colleagues—Democrats and Republicans alike—often smile when asked for examples but say essentially that he wasn’t always the easiest to work with.
Over time though, with the rise of Tea Party Republicans and the Freedom Caucus, a group of 40-plus members who wield outsized influence in the Republican majority, Shimkus comes off more and more like an establishment Republican and less firebrand.
Environmental groups aren’t so sure about that; they point out that he votes consistently pro-industry and hasn’t lost a beat when it comes to deploying sharp rhetoric to roll back what he sees as increasing environmental regulatory burdens. Shimkus has been tagged with a 6 percent voting score for the percentage of pro-environment votes he has taken, tallied by the League of Conservation Voters.
Says Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat who has served on the energy committee with both Shimkus as well as Walden:
“John Shimkus is a little bit more aggressive—more combative if you will—on the issues that he feels very passionate about,” the Democrat says.
“I’m smiling a lot,” Shimkus says when asked about comments suggesting he’s a bit more volatile than Walden. “These Democrats I’ve worked with a long time”—he then name checks committee Democrats Diana DeGette (D-Colo.); Michael Doyle (D-Pa.); Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Frank Pallone (N.J.)—“I think there’s respect there,” Shimkus says.
“Frank [Pallone] and I have scratched each other’s eyes out and patted each other on the back” when the battles were over, Shimkus says. “I would hope Democrats would say, ‘yeah, I’ve heard him be very angry but he also supports his members in the Republican caucus,’” Shimkus says.
“As long as it’s not personal—to me, if you don’t get down in the gutter and don’t make personal attacks,” members tend to have short memories of such disputes, Shimkus says.
“But I don’t think anyone can say what a mean guy Shimkus is,” he says, and then pauses. “Now, they might say he’s a tough adversary.”
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