All you need to know about Bob Goodlatte is that he has a baseball signed by Hank Aaron. The 11-term Virginia Republican has lots of baseballs autographed by pros, but the one featuring the power-hitting Hall of Famer is displayed prominently under glass in Goodlatte's office coffee table.
"I always have baseballs with me," he says. Gesturing to 20 others on display along with the Hank Aaron prize, he adds, "These are just the Hall of Famers."
Goodlatte is like that. He has quietly and steadily collected valuable baseball signatures over the years just as he has quietly and steadily accumulated seniority and influence in the House.
Before he became chairman of the Judiciary Committee in January, his national profile had been relatively low. Since then, he has presided over some of the most divisive issues before Congress, including gun control, immigration, and surveillance by the National Security Agency.
The rise was not without its stumbles. Goodlatte told one reporter in early 2013 that he would not support gun-control legislation. The story went viral, and he never made the same mistake again. He is now polite when confronted by reporters in Capitol corridors, but he doesn't talk publicly about his legislative plans before they unfold as he wants them to.
"I find that it's better to have more information when you answer a question than less information," he said. "I like that give-and-take, but sometimes I don't like that it goes down the rabbit hole, that either there's a piece of information that didn't get conveyed … or it's just going in a direction that I don't think gives the full picture."
This deliberative approach is perfect for the Judiciary Committee, where Goodlatte, 61, has been a member since he came to Congress. Over and over, he says he wants the committee to "get it right," whether he's talking about an immigration overhaul or Congress's response to the NSA leaks.
The method can look like stalling to people who are eager for changes to the law. He has been accused of slow-walking immigration legislation by advocating a piece-by-piece approach, rejecting the rapid pace the Senate took on a major immigration bill that was conceived, drafted, amended, and passed in six months.
Goodlatte is fine with that characterization. He argued earlier in the year that an immigration overhaul akin to the Senate bill isn't ready for prime time. His plan for the committee to take up smaller pieces of immigration law, such as visas for high-skilled workers, is "designed to make sure that people following this issue understand all of the issues that are underlying this," he said. "There are hundreds of interlocking pieces."
Walking when the rest of the political world is sprinting can be maddening to advocates for change, but it has paid off for Goodlatte in other areas. Last week, the House passed his complex and carefully negotiated bill designed to rein in "patent trolls," companies that acquire low-quality patents for the sole purpose of suing other companies that use similar technologies. The committee had been working on the bill all year.
Goodlatte brought two decades of work on technology issues to the patent bill. He was a junior Judiciary Committee member when the Republicans took over the House in 1995 and then-Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., assigned him to negotiate new copyright rules for the digital age. The resulting law, the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, is the cornerstone of intellectual-property protection for the Internet today—and it was written before movies were being distributed on DVD.
Goodlatte says he isn't much of a techie compared with his son, Rob, a former product designer at Facebook. But he has joined other Judiciary Committee members, including former chairmen Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., in making sure that Congress doesn't fall behind in protecting digital innovations. He has served as the House Republican chairman of the Congressional Internet Caucus for virtually all of its 17-year history. (Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., is the current Democratic House chairwoman.)
Having presided over that caucus since the Internet was in its infancy, Goodlatte is a fan of Web-based entrepreneurship. "But I'm also very interested in the intellectual-property issues, and so they come together, sometimes clash, and sometimes work together. But either way, I think that is kind of the foundation of the American economy. You're rewarding people for their creativeness," he said.
Goodlatte has built up a lot of goodwill among his colleagues, which is no small feat on a committee that has more than its fair share of public spats. Just last week, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, demanded that Republicans explain "this constitutional gobbledy-gock" during a hearing on presidential responsibilities.
"I think you have to make sure that everybody has an opportunity to be heard when we debate these issues and in the process treat differing viewpoints fairly," Goodlatte said.
Goodlatte doesn't shy away from partisanship on some legislation—immigration is a solid example—but he works to maintain relationships with committee members on both sides of the aisle and regularly consults with the three former chairmen on the panel—Smith, Sensenbrenner, and ranking member John Conyers, D-Mich.
Smith, the most recent Judiciary chairman, said Goodlatte is "the ideal chairman. He's smart, thoughtful, and persistent." They have been friends for almost 20 years.
Did Smith give Goodlatte any advice when he handed over the gavel? "I don't think he needed any advice," Smith said.
When asked the same question, Goodlatte characteristically paused. "Let me think about that," he said. Then, he added, "Probably the best advice they've given me I can't share with you."