Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, was in front of a live Fox News TV camera Saturday when he heard through his earpiece that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had been shot in Tucson, Ariz. In the tumultuous hours that followed the parking-lot massacre that both enraged and subdued elected officials, it was easy to forget the reason that King was in unusually high demand for media interviews.
On Friday, King had been denied the chairmanship of the House Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee, a post he had very publicly predicted he would hold as soon as the GOP took control of the House in November. King was the ranking Republican on the Immigration Subcommittee for four years.
“I’m going to be OK with it. I’m going to be OK,” King told National Journal in a 40-minute interview. Even in the wake of the “unbelievably tragic” news of the Arizona massacre, King was obviously still smarting from the subcommittee rebuff. He didn’t mince words in placing the blame directly at House Speaker John Boehner. “The speaker holds the big gavel, and he decides who gets the other gavels,” King said. “It makes it very clear that it’s not a meritocracy.”
The public reason for King’s demotion was a reorganization of the committee. The post was given to Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., a senior member to King who is considered conservative enough on immigration to satisfy tea party Republicans but not as outspoken as King. But it was also clear from GOP aides that House leaders worried about King and his tendency to press on immigration issues that angered more moderate members of his own party.
“John Boehner isn’t very aggressive on immigration,” King said, noting that the GOP "Pledge to America" barely mentions immigration or border security. “It’s the tiniest section,” he said.
Immigration advocates had been steeling themselves for a subcommittee led by a member adamantly opposed to any path to citizenship for illegal immigrations, a representative who has built a model border fence on the House floor and proposed ending automatic citizenship for babies born on U.S. soil. The immigration advocacy group America’s Voice called King an “outlandish and outspoken anti-immigrant zealot.”
King said the public hatred of him by immigrant advocates wasn’t worth his respect or his attention. “It’s the militant left, and I don’t lose one second of sleep,” he said.
But when it comes to his job as a congressman, King has some regrets about his choices now that he knows he won’t hold a subcommittee gavel. “I’ve invested eight years to get to this point,” he said. “I have to ask whether my investment in the political apparatus is wise, and then decide whether you can build with new tools.”
The new tools are likely not going to be found inside the Capitol, although there is no indication that King intends to abandon his office. Like other rabble rousers such as former Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., King said he plans to turn to constituents—both in his district and in other members’ districts—to make his point. Tancredo, who ran for president on a staunchly conservative immigration platform, made no friends in the Republican caucus when he was a member. But he is considered a hero to a large quantity of people in the United States for his tough stance on illegal immigrants.
King said members listen to their constituents more than they listen to their colleagues. “I’ll say, ‘Sign on to King’s anchor baby bill’ for example. That’s how you get things done,” he said. “Then the guy with the gavel hears it.”
This article appears in the January 10, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.