Special Report: Senate Commerce Committee

The Leader and the Chairman

How does John Thune balance striking deals atop the Commerce Committee and crafting a partisan message for the GOP leadership? “It’s complicated.”

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) sits down for an interview in his Capitol Hill office on Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015.
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
Add to Briefcase
Fawn Johnson
Feb. 23, 2015, 3:01 p.m.

After the midterm elec­tions handed Re­pub­lic­ans con­trol of the Sen­ate last year, John Thune had to make a de­cision.

Would he step down as the Sen­ate’s No. 3 GOP lead­er, a role that re­quires strict ad­her­ence to party-line mes­saging, so that he could have more free­dom to ne­go­ti­ate with Demo­crats as chair­man of the Com­merce Com­mit­tee? Or would the South Dakotan try to handle both po­s­i­tions at the same time, even though they might pull him in op­pos­ite dir­ec­tions?

“I gave ser­i­ous con­sid­er­a­tion this time around when it be­came clear that we had the ma­jor­ity and I was go­ing to end up, in all like­li­hood, with a com­mit­tee chair­man­ship, [about] the role in lead­er­ship and how those would work out,” Thune said in an in­ter­view. “I thought I’d fig­ure out a way to make them work to­geth­er. But it’s some­times, “¦” he sighed, “it’s com­plic­ated.”

Thune is for­ging rare ter­rit­ory as a le­gis­lat­or in bal­an­cing these dual roles. The law­mak­ing gi­ants of the re­cent past — Sens. Ed­ward Kennedy, Ar­len Specter, Fritz Hollings, and Phil Gramm, to name a few — did not have to deal with the po­lar­iz­a­tion that Con­gress faces now. They all had an in­de­pend­ent streak. They made their caucuses vis­ibly nervous when reach­ing their back­room hand­shakes with the oth­er party. They had no fear of buck­ing their lead­ers to reach an agree­ment that would fin­ish a bill.

Thune ma­tured as a le­gis­lat­or watch­ing this give-and-take. He helped write two of the biggest sur­face-trans­port­a­tion bills of the past 20 years, one in 2005 as a fresh­man sen­at­or and one in 1998 as a House mem­ber. More re­cently, as he has as­cen­ded to Sen­ate lead­er­ship, at least some elec­ted of­fi­cials have come to view the “oth­er side of the aisle” as en­emy ter­rit­ory. Now, one of his biggest chal­lenges is re­as­sur­ing mem­bers of his own party that he’s on their side as he at­tempts to ne­go­ti­ate com­plex le­gis­la­tion with Demo­crats.

“We’ve got people who some­times want to see me be more of a bomb-throw­er, and I think there’s a place for that,” he said. But he ad­ded, “In or­der to get le­gis­lat­ive ac­com­plish­ments, you have to have some bi­par­tis­an co­oper­a­tion.”

Thune has am­bi­tious plans for the Com­merce, Sci­ence, and Trans­port­a­tion Com­mit­tee, all of which will re­quire help from Demo­crats — and some of which will make liber­tari­an-lean­ing Re­pub­lic­ans squirm. He wants to write a new net-neut­ral­ity law that will rein in reg­u­lat­ors who want to clas­si­fy In­ter­net ser­vice pro­viders as com­mon car­ri­ers. Then he wants to go fur­ther and re­vamp the en­tire 1996 Tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions Act. He wants to write new fed­er­al stand­ards for data-breach no­ti­fic­a­tion. He wants new le­gis­la­tion to bal­ance the com­pet­ing de­mands of rail­roads and freight ship­pers.

As a Re­pub­lic­an Party lead­er, Thune also has big ideas. The GOP con­fer­ence is in a “get stuff done” mode, he said in a re­cent speech. He ac­know­ledges, of course, that the first two months of Sen­ate floor activ­ity this year be­lie that state­ment. The stan­doff over fund­ing the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment and a four-week de­bate over a sure-to-be-ve­toed Key­stone pipeline bill look more like petty in­fight­ing than roll-up-your-sleeves le­gis­lat­ing. But, in fair­ness, those battles don’t re­flect the work of ne­go­ti­at­ors this year — par­tic­u­larly Thune’s ne­go­ti­ations. They are, in ef­fect, hol­d­overs from last year’s fights. He is eager to get past those and work on this year’s pri­or­it­ies.

For ex­ample, Thune sees a grand bar­gain that mar­ries a ma­jor tax over­haul with a long-term sur­face-trans­port­a­tion bill. “If you could fig­ure out a way to do tax re­form and fund in­fra­struc­ture, you could get Demo­crat­ic votes for tax re­form that oth­er­wise might not be there. You could get Re­pub­lic­ans to vote for in­fra­struc­ture who might not [oth­er­wise], be­cause of the tax re­forms that you’re do­ing,” he says.

As a mem­ber of the Fin­ance Com­mit­tee, Thune is keenly in­ter­ested in re­du­cing the cor­por­ate tax rate and smooth­ing the over­all tax code. That’s not a hard sell in the GOP caucus, but he finds the en­thu­si­asm for in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment to be weak­er. “I’m just frus­trated that we con­tin­ue to have this dis­cus­sion about bor­row­ing from the gen­er­al fund and do­ing trans­fers [to the High­way Trust Fund],” he says, “be­cause ba­sic­ally what we’re do­ing is we’re say­ing, ‘We’re not will­ing to pay for this. We’re go­ing to hand the bill to our kids.’ ”

The odds are against any of his big plans com­ing to fruition, but Thune isn’t one to shy away from a chal­lenge. After all, he took on the Sen­ate’s Demo­crat­ic lead­er in a statewide elec­tion in 2004 and won, un­seat­ing then-Minor­ity Lead­er Tom Daschle in a nail-biter race. It was the first time a Sen­ate party lead­er had been ous­ted by voters since 1952, ac­cord­ing to The Al­man­ac of Amer­ic­an Polit­ics.

Plus, it’s hard to ima­gine that all of Thune’s pri­or­it­ies will fall by the way­side. True, re­writ­ing the Tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions Act is a heavy lift. But cy­ber­se­cur­ity, re­pat­ri­ation fixes for in­fra­struc­ture fund­ing, and new freight laws — those are all with­in reach this year. And on the big­ger stuff, Thune be­lieves that if you don’t go for it, you might as well not be in Con­gress. “I think you have to buy in­to it. With any­thing around here, you could be dead and gone by the time something hap­pens,” he says. “You have to be pre­pared for a long slog.”

For his hard-line col­leagues, Thune has shown he can be tough when ne­ces­sary, even if it de­rails a deal. Late last year, he re­fused to let Demo­crat­ic Sen. Ed­ward Mar­key, a Com­merce Com­mit­tee mem­ber, make a last-minute change to a satel­lite broad­cast­ing bill on the floor even though com­mit­tee Chair­man Jay Rock­e­feller was beg­ging him to re­lent so the long-stalled bill could fi­nally pass. Mar­key had de­clined to of­fer the amend­ment (on set-top-box se­cur­ity) in com­mit­tee, and Thune didn’t be­lieve he should make an end-run around the pan­el.

“[Rock­e­feller] was try­ing to get me to let Mar­key have his way, and I wouldn’t do that, be­cause I figured if he did it there, he’d want to do it on every oth­er bill that we brought up,” Thune says.

Now he gets to fig­ure out when to stand tough and when to bend in or­der to make a deal, all while run­ning a com­mit­tee and cre­at­ing a GOP mes­sage. He says he can do it with “right-of-cen­ter solu­tions” that at­tract some Demo­crats. The path to­ward be­com­ing a con­ser­vat­ive bomb-throw­er is less ap­peal­ing, for the simple reas­on that he wants to do something. He’s gambling that his fel­low com­mit­tee mem­bers, and his fel­low lead­ers, feel the same way.

“In the end,” Thune says, “people want res­ults.”

What We're Following See More »
DOJ Charges Russian For Meddling In 2018 Midterms
1 hours ago

"The Justice Department on Friday charged a Russian woman for her alleged role in a conspiracy to interfere with the 2018 U.S. election, marking the first criminal case prosecutors have brought against a foreign national for interfering in the upcoming midterms. Elena Khusyaynova, 44, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. Prosecutors said she managed the finances of 'Project Lakhta,' a foreign influence operation they said was designed 'to sow discord in the U.S. political system' by pushing arguments and misinformation online about a host of divisive political issues, including immigration, the Confederate flag, gun control and the National Football League national-anthem protests."

U.S. Cancels Military Exercise With South Korea
3 hours ago

The United States and South Korea have suspended "another major joint military exercise to give the diplomatic process with North Korea 'every opportunity to continue.'" Exercise Vigilant Ace, which last year "involved 12,000 US troops and some 230 military aircraft from the US and South Korea," was due to take place in December. Trump has canceled other operations in the past, which Gen. Robert Abrams said "had resulted in a 'slight degradation' to the readiness of US and Korean troops," but were a "prudent risk" to improve improve relations with Pyongyang.

Mnuchin to Attend Saudi Terror Financing Meeting
5 hours ago

"Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has decided to take part in an anti-terror finance meeting with Saudi security officials and their Middle Eastern counterparts in Riyadh later this month, opting to attend despite growing global outrage over the suspected murder of a U.S.-based journalist at the hands of Saudi operatives, according to three people familiar with his travel plans. The security gathering next week is separate from a Riyadh financial summit that Mnuchin announced on Thursday he would not attend."

Ex-USA Gymnastics CEO Indicted For Tampering With Sexual Assault Evidence
5 hours ago

"Steve Penny, the former president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, has been indicted on a felony count of tampering with evidence" in the sexual assault case against disgraced USA gymnastics physician Larry Nassar. Nassar was found guilty in January of sexually abusing dozens of young gymnasts, and was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison. Penny, who was arrested on Wednesday in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, "is accused of ordering the removal of documents from the Karolyi Ranch in Texas," where much of Nassar's abuse occurred.

Public May Not See Mueller Report
6 hours ago

Defense attorneys involved in the Mueller probe say the public "shouldn’t expect a comprehensive and presidency-wrecking account of Kremlin meddling and alleged obstruction of justice by Trump — not to mention an explanation of the myriad subplots that have bedeviled lawmakers, journalists and amateur Mueller sleuths. ... Perhaps most unsatisfying: Mueller’s findings may never even see the light of day."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.