Madison Weeps: Neither Barton nor Upton Should Chair Energy and Commerce Committee

To paraphrase an old saying, you can learn a lot about a man by seeing how he acts when no one is paying attention. A corollary to this works for Congressmen. In any given year there are, at most, three or four “big” issues that dominate Congressional debate and culminate in dramatic floor votes that will define future reelection campaigns. For example, the current Congress can be distilled to essentially four votes; stimulus, cap and trade, Obamacare and the bank bailout. The next Congress will likely be defined by tax policy, federal spending and repeal of parts of Obamacare and the banking bill.

How a Congressman votes on these “big” issues will tell you a lot about his basic philosophy of government. But, it is an imperfect snapshot. The overwhelming majority of lawmakers will line up with their parties on the “big” votes. These few votes don’t tell you a lot about the individual lawmaker’s comprehensive philosophy nor their specific views on the powers and limitations of their office. For that, you have to look at their work on the thousands of bills that wind their way through the legislative process every year and, more importantly, their own specific legislative proposals. In other words, we have to look at the work they do when no one else is looking.

It is on this that the bids of both Rep. Joe Barton and Rep. Fred Upton to chair the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee fail. Each has promoted specific and personal legislative proposals which are impossible to square with any belief in restrained, limited government. Worse, their initiatives betray the absence of what is perhaps the most important quality in a lawmaker, humility. Not personal humility, but rather an appreciation that there are limits to what Congress or the federal government can or should do. Both Barton and Upton seem convinced that absolutely every problem, perceived problem or general annoyance can, and should, be addressed by Congress.

This should disqualify them from the Chairman’s gavel. Should either of them be entrusted by their colleagues with the gavel, then the meaning of the midterms will be greatly diminished. The great tea party wave will have finally crashed on the rocks of the go-along-get-along DC GOP establishment.

The case against Joe Barton and Fred Upton is very, very simple. It comes down to exactly one data point against each. Joe Barton believes that Congress should regulate how a certain group of America’s colleges select a ‘national champion’ in football. Fred Upton’s most recent legislative ‘victory’ was securing the power of Congress to mandate which lightbulbs Americans can purchase to light their homes.

Admittedly, I’m not a close follower of college football’s BCS system. I know there is a lot of controversy over how the NCAA selects teams for individual bowl games and dictates which two teams will play for the National Champion title. I understand that there are whole acres of the Internet devoted solely to arguing over this issue. I get that feelings are often hurt and egos bruised. I also get that this has absolutely nothing to do with Congress or the federal government.

Imagine you are shivering in the cold at Valley Forge, fighting for your country’s freedom. An angel from the future appears and reassures you, “Hang in there. If you win this fight, in just a couple hundred years, your heirs will be able to absolutely determine which bunch of 18 and 20 years olds playing a game can authoritatively state that they are ‘national champions.’ Booyah!”

By some philosophy of government that I can’t imagine, Joe Barton thinks Congress should regulate college football. In fact, he is the leading proponent of this in Congress. Last year, he wrote this in an op-ed:

The one thing that can never be forgotten in this debate is that college football is more than a game; it’s a multibillion-dollar industry. That makes it interstate commerce and a legitimate candidate for congressional oversight. And let’s not forget that many of the schools getting shut out of the bowl cash bonanza are taxpayer-funded institutions.

An interpretation of the interstate commerce clause that includes regulating a college game can regulate absolutely anything. And, Barton’s crusade shows no sign of abating.

In October of this year, just a month before the midterms, Barton sent a letter to the IRS, urging them to go after certain college bowl organizations. Again, because he doesn’t like how they run a certain tournament. It is impossible to argue you are a limited government conservative if you are willing to leverage your office to release the hounds of the IRS on a private organization with whom you have a disagreement. About…a…game…played…by…teenagers.

What’s next for Barton? Which genre of music Miley Cirus sings? What Justin Bieber tweets? In Barton’s world, those are clearly issues of interstate commerce, right?

Aside from this silliness, Barton’s bid to chair the Committee faces a more serious, existential problem; it violates House GOP rules. Barton spent one term as Chair of the Committee and two terms as ranking member. Three terms as either Chairman or ranking member.

In the wake of the 1994 GOP takeover, the House GOP caucus passed the following rule, which is still in effect:

No individual shall serve more than three consecutive terms as Chairman or ranking member of a standing, select, joint, or ad hoc Committee or Subcommittee

Barton and his supporters claim the rule is “ambiguous.” I’ve never met that definition of ambiguous. If Barton can interpret that simple language in a way that benefits him, there is no telling what he can do with actual ambiguous language.

The Energy and Commerce Committee is one of the more powerful in Congress. But for the humility of its members, it has the ability to regulate everything in our lives. The only defense we have against its intervention is the restraint of its Chairman and members that certain issues are beyond the authority of Congress.

Barton thinks the committee can do whatever Barton wants. Again, he believes the power of the federal government should be brought to bear on how colleges play a game. This is not what the founders intended. He may vote “right” on “big” issues, but he has lost his way on the issues that really matter, the issues that give you a measure of the man. He is disqualified.

Tomorrow, I will address Rep. Upton’s bid. As a preview, he is also disqualified and Rep. Barton makes a cameo appearance.

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