In his office in the Rayburn House Office Building, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) hands me a bookmark-sized card with a gold, embossed congressional seal and his name at the top. On it are the 24 current members of the GOP Steering Committee, the secretive panel of senior Republicans who will pick the new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the closing weeks of 2014.
The card is a palpable symbol of Chaffetz’s bid for the chairmanship. The Utah Republican is gunning hard for the slot and trying to outwork his more senior rivals.
Unlike many of the lawmakers on the oversight panel who pine for “A committees” like Appropriations and Ways and Means, Chaffetz is perhaps the committee’s most devoted member.
“I’ve been focused, focused, focused on the committee,” he says. “Over the last three terms, that has been my sole focus. I’m the only one on the committee that probably selects it as their number one choice. I think focus helps determine reality.”
Following Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning primary loss, Chaffetz stayed strategically neutral during the leadership shakeup that followed, rebuffing requests for support by telling colleagues “I’m going to be the quiet guy sitting on my hands in the back,” he says.
Most Republicans inside the Capitol consider him the front-runner, although Reps. Mike Turner (R-OH) and John Mica (R-FL), who are higher-ranked in seniority – are also vying for it.
For several reasons, the chairmanship will be one of the most important positions in the GOP during the last two years of President Obama’s term. Obama’s popularity is fleeting and GOP investigators are catching up to his administration’s misdeeds. During the next Congress, both parties will be gearing up for a presidential campaign in 2016, creating a highly charged environment for congressional oversight.
Breitbart News recently interviewed all three candidates running for the spot. This is the second article in a series that reviews their candidacies for the position.
Besides buttonholing the names on his whip card, Chaffetz has spent the last several years living and breathing the oversight committee. He’s traveled “dozens of times” overseas on investigative work, including to Libya shortly after the 9/11 Benghazi attack, work that eventually resulted in Greg Hicks’ bombshell congressional testimony.
Throughout the Benghazi scandal, Chaffetz has been producing a steady stream of headlines and dramatic hearing showdowns, boosting his profile.
In particular, Chaffetz sussed out devastating testimony from retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Lovell at a May 1 hearing, including his admission that the military might have been able to save the lives of injured US officials in the hours after the attack had it tried to do so.
Chaffetz’s successes in high-profile oversight hearings are less about delivery and more about the substance of his questions, which show rigorous preparation and cut to the core of the dispute.
“You have to be able to look at the 800 facts and then figure out how two points connect together,” he said.
A fixture on cable news and with a handful of Sunday show appearances under his belt, Chaffetz notes he formerly ran his own public relations firm and frequently worked reporters when he served as former Utah Gov. John Huntsman’s chief of staff.
The key, Chaffetz said, is “not just going on Fox News, but being able to hold your own on MSNBC and CNN and other stations as well. We do that regularly, it’s not something that we might be good at, I think I’ve demonstrated an ability to actually do it.”
Chaffetz has key allies on the secretive Steering Committee, including Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), who was just named chief deputy whip by incoming whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), another Chaffetz friend, especially since Chaffetz has been an active member of the Republican Study Committee that Scalise chaired.
The hit on Chaffetz, as conveyed by Republicans privately, is that he doesn’t have the experience or stature yet for the job. Chaffetz won a primary battle in 2008, one of the first tremors of the coming Tea Party movement, cruising to victory against former Rep. Chris Cannon despite being outspent 6-1 and support for Cannon from the Republican Establishment, including then-President George W. Bush. His face and demeanor are younger than his 47 years of age.
Another question is how closely he will be associated with the current chairman, Darrell Issa of California, who is regarded poorly by the senior Republicans who will pick the next chairman and said to be privately backing Chaffetz as his successor.
“He’s a mini-Issa,” jabbed one GOP aide.
Chaffetz was careful not to criticize the current chairman.
“Look, anybody who comes into a new role is just going to be different. I’m not trying to be critical of Darrell Issa. In fact I’m very grateful — I wouldn’t be in this position if it weren’t for Darrell Issa. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve got a lot of positive things to say. I will do things a little bit differently,” he said.
Whoever the next chairman is will have to work on keeping antagonistic Democrats from successfully distracting from the investigations with colorful conflict.
Chaffetz recently traveled to the congressional district of Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the top Democrat on the panel who has at times overshadowed Issa. The two visited sites throughout the district and ate breakfast and dinner together.
“I think he wants to have a relationship — a working relationship. I think he was very grateful that I took the time,” Chaffetz said.
As for keeping the Democrats at bay, Chaffetz’s philosophy is “don’t let it get personal.”
“Even though they may want to try to distract, I know they’re going to attack the messenger. I can handle it! Won’t be the first time. [In college,] I was a place kicker, ok? So, I draw out my inner place kicker. When you stand in front of 65,000 people yelling, screaming, swearing at you — I kind of thrive in that situation. I don’t have a problem with that,” Chaffetz said.