When the Beer Institute discovered that Rep. Jason Chaffetz had introduced a bill in 2011 to change the way states regulate alcohol sales, they knew they were in trouble. They saw the legislation as favoring beer wholesalers over their members, the manufacturers, and needed help explaining their story on Capitol Hill.
The problem was, they didn't know much about the lawmakers who had the most influence on the issue. Like thousands of other niche bills introduced every year, the Utah Republican's legislation was referred to the House Judiciary Committee. And that's one corner of the Hill where even veterans have trouble charting a path.
"Unlike some of the other busiest committees—Ways and Means, Appropriations, Finance for sure, it's all about money—and this is all about a lot of other aspects of people's lives," said Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, who took the helm of the committee in January.
Judiciary Committee staffers and members proudly state that their committee covers just about everything. It has jurisdiction over legislation on the way beer is taxed and a bill to force the Washington Redskins to change their name. The panel also presided over the 1998 impeachment of President Clinton.
While the Judiciary Committee is best known for shouting matches over red-meat issues like guns, abortion, and immigration, the more powerful aspects of the committee are less sexy: intellectual property, state taxation, bankruptcy, and patents. "In the last several years, the tech side of the Judiciary Committee has been emphasized," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, a 26-year veteran of the committee and a former chairman.
It's a broad basket, and not always easy to navigate. In fact, when the Beer Institute confronted the Chaffetz bill, it hired Carl Thorsen and Alec French of Thorsen French Advocacy, a two-person boutique lobbying shop that specializes in the committee.
The need is great enough that the firm attracts clients as diverse as Sprint and PhRMA. As Thorsen put it, "Almost everybody eventually runs into a Judiciary Committee issue."
SLOW AND STEADY
For better or worse, lobbyists and activists can count on a slow and steady approach when they get there. Nothing goes through the committee at a rapid-fire pace, much to the chagrin of advocates for change, like gun-control or immigration advocates.
Goodlatte has been particularly careful on immigration over the last year, deliberately forcing a step-by-step approach to the issue. The tactic is specifically designed to look as different as possible from the Senate's successful six-month effort to pass comprehensive legislation earlier this year.
The Judiciary Committee has produced four smaller bills—on agriculture workers, high-skill visas, electronic verification, and local police enforcement—and the panel has at least three more bills coming. None of this legislation has seen a vote on the House floor, but Goodlatte insists the time is coming ... eventually.
Advocates for a path to citizenship see Goodlatte's method as a way of softly killing immigration reform, a top priority for President Obama. But Goodlatte, if nothing else, is consistent on a subject that he thinks is too complex to take on in one bite.
"To me, it's more important to get it right than to meet any specific timetable," he said. He has said the same thing dozens of times since the Senate passed its bill in June.
On guns, Goodlatte made it clear almost immediately after the Newtown massacre that the Republicans were not interested in enacting new gun restrictions. A year later, he proudly notes that the committee did foster productive discussion about how current gun laws aren't being enforced.
"I think there is consensus there that should take place," he said.
A TECH BATTLEGROUND
In truth, the Judiciary Committee isn't often a House member's first choice. Those interested in technology may get assigned to Judiciary as a consolation prize if they can't land a seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee. But many soon realize just how much influence they can wield in the same telecom world that blankets the Energy and Commerce Committee—and not Judiciary—with lobbyists. On the Judiciary Committee, there is less competition for the top subcommittee slots and more leeway to look into issues of interest.
The Judiciary Committee Is the Most Important House Committee You've Never Heard Of
Goodlatte realized the panel's technology-related potential early on. When he was a relatively junior member, then-Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., assigned Goodlatte to be the lead negotiator on legislation that eventually became the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, the law that is credited with allowing Web-based products to burgeon by creating the oft-maligned concept of "digital rights management."
The Copyright Act was just the beginning of a plunge into technology by the committee. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who chaired Judiciary from 2001 to 2007, aggressively expanded the committee's jurisdiction over intellectual property. He shepherded the Intellectual Property Protection Act of 2006, which expanded the Copyright Act's scope. By the time Lamar Smith took over in 2011, Republicans had established a trend. Smith sponsored the America Invents Act, one of the most significant patent-law overhauls in 60 years. Just last week, the House passed another patent bill designed to rein in "patent trolls," companies that take out low-cost patents and sue manufacturers who use similar technology.
Goodlatte says he runs the committee like Hyde, who assumed the Judiciary gavel in 1995 when Republicans took over the House. "Henry Hyde is really my role model. He took the opportunity to take new members that were virtually ignored. I don't care if they were Democrats or Republicans—they were ignored, … and he gave them opportunities. He gave me opportunities," Goodlatte said.
Goodlatte now makes sure that lots of committee members, even relatively junior ones, have similar chances. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., is only in his second term, yet he chairs the high-profile Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., a freshman, was the lead sponsor on a bill curtailing administrative consent decrees, part of the committee's slate of regulatory reform bills.
Of course, there are plenty of meaty topics to go around—and not all are headline-grabbing political headaches like gun control or abortion. For example, there are state taxation laws. This is where the Beer Institute found itself in trouble. The Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over state taxation on interstate commerce, and Chaffetz's bill would have allowed states to favor in-state beer sellers, making it more difficult for smaller brewers to ship their goods across state lines. The bill died in the last Congress.
An Internet sales tax, an idea that whips both tech and tax lobbyists into a froth, is also a Judiciary Committee issue. So is "administrative law"—which covers just about every federal regulation—and antitrust issues. The failed AT&T/T-Mobile merger and the successful Continental/United Airlines union were all Judiciary Committee fodder.
SCUFFLES AND STUNTS
Of course, the committee is also not above partisanship and theatrical stunts. Last week, the panel held a publicity-minded hearing about various infractions—some of which members claim are impeachable—committed by President Obama. The hearing provided satire for a few Washington publications. Roll Call likened the event to a post-Thanksgiving rant among disagreeable family members.
This year, the committee has had a particularly tense relationship with Attorney General Eric Holder, who accused committee member Darrell Issa, R-Calif., of "unacceptable and shameful" behavior. Later, the committee started an investigation into whether Holder had perjured himself at the same hearing under questioning from another lawmaker. That inquiry appeared to whither on the vine.
When Democrats were in charge, Immigration Subcommittee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., invited comic Stephen Colbert in 2010 to testify about agriculture workers. He begged not to be sent back to the fields. In 2009, Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman Hank Johnson, D-Ga., introduced a committee panel with the following statement: "Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye.... Come forward and assume the position."
The committee also attracts more than its fair share of colorful characters, including anti-Obamacare lawmakers like Reps. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Louie Gohmert, R-Texas. Gohmert recently questioned on a Christian radio program whether Obama's officer corps developed under the Affordable Care Act were being trained with "weapons or syringes." King, also an immigration hard-liner, once built a model of a cardboard border fence on the House floor.
On the Democratic side, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the current ranking member and former chairman who has served in Congress for almost 50 years, is unabashedly liberal and waxes poetic about the civil-rights era. There's also Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who isn't afraid to say exactly what she thinks into her committee microphone, which is often about what the majority is full of. She coined a new term, "gobbledy-gock," at a hearing last week.
Even deciding subcommittee names has been contentious. A Democratic aide notes that when Republicans took power in 1995, they changed the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights to the Subcommittee on the Constitution. When the Democrats retook the majority in 2007, they changed it to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. When the Republicans regained House control in 2011, they changed it back to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, but added "Civil Justice" to denote its tort-law jurisdiction.
"A lot of the issues that go before the Judiciary Committee are highly emotional and highly partisan issues, and you can expect a party-line vote regardless of who is in the majority on most of the stuff," said Sensenbrenner. When he was chairman, he said he reached a deal with Conyers: Staffers for both sides should work out everything they possibly could before a committee markup. "We restricted the debates to things that were really controversial."
In those years, Conyers invoked a phrase he still regularly uses: "We can disagree without being disagreeable."
But while the 200-year-old Judiciary Committee is certainly an arena for intense, partisan discussions related to social issues, including voting and civil rights, immigration, and reproductive rights, it also has been a vehicle for bipartisan discussion and progress in other areas. The patent bill, for example, passed the committee on a 33-5 vote. It passed the House overwhelmingly, 325-91.
"It's been a welcome experience to me, given the general perception the Judiciary Committee is just a place for intense partisan warfare," offered freshman Democratic committee member Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.
"While there are serious disagreements on ideological grounds across a wide spectrum of issues that come before the Judiciary Committee," Jeffries said, "given the jurisdiction [of] intellectual property and Internet space, as well as the bipartisan work on [sentencing reform], … it is also a place where Democrats and Republicans can work together."
Goodlatte describes the committee's focus on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as a draw. "If you love the law, you really want to serve on the House Judiciary Committee," he said.
Others note that issues like abortion, gun control, immigration, and tort reform have little middle ground, giving panel members fewer areas for compromise. "The Judiciary Committee has probably the strongest and most ardent advocates on both sides of constitutional interpretation," said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., a conservative who chairs the Constitution and Civil Justice Subcommittee. "It's tough. It's probably the most partisan committee in Congress."
Still, Conyers, the top committee Democrat who was himself chairman from 2007 to 2011, refrains from directly criticizing Goodlatte or the manner in which he runs the committee.
"The fact of the matter is that we were pursuing a completely different constitutional trajectory," he said. "So it isn't the way it's being run, as much as the subject matter, the legislative subject matter."
Stacy Kaper contributed to this article.