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
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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.”

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