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.”
This article appears in the April 18, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as A Polarized Congress Tests Upton’s Instincts.