The Most Conservative Member of the Senate Isn’t Who You’d Think

National Journal
Michael Catalin
See more stories about...
Michael Catalin
Feb. 5, 2014, 4:47 p.m.

The most con­ser­vat­ive mem­ber of the Sen­ate has his of­fice not far from the Rus­sell Ro­tunda, where many of his col­leagues reg­u­larly ap­proach the mic un­der the lights and go on na­tion­al tele­vi­sion.

But you won’t find James Risch, the high-en­ergy, low-vis­ib­il­ity ju­ni­or Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­or from Idaho, any­where near the cam­era. That also ex­plains why you may not have heard of him.

Yet it was Risch — not Sens. Mitch Mc­Con­nell, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, or Marco Ru­bio — who com­piled the Sen­ate’s most con­ser­vat­ive re­cord, ac­cord­ing to Na­tion­al Journ­al’s newly re­leased 2013 vote rat­ings. And he did so for the second straight year and third time over­all since he took of­fice in 2009.

Risch stands in con­trast to his Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate col­leagues, not so much be­cause he’s more con­ser­vat­ive but be­cause he doesn’t seek the spot­light like some, in­clud­ing three pos­sible pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates. Risch cedes the point. He may in­deed have the low­est name re­cog­ni­tion com­pared with his col­leagues.

“I’m not run­ning for pres­id­ent, and I don’t have a book that I’m selling,” he said.

“So giv­en that, there’s a lot more work to be done right in this room than there is to walk­ing over to the ro­tunda and get­ting on Fox or what have you.”

So who is James Risch?

Those who know him say he’s a strict con­sti­tu­tion­al­ist, a be­liev­er in small gov­ern­ment and states’ rights. His vot­ing re­cord is more con­ser­vat­ive than those of Minor­ity Lead­er Mc­Con­nell (No. 25) and tea-party stars Cruz (No. 4), Paul (No. 19), and Ru­bio (No. 17). In a state like Idaho, where Mitt Rom­ney won by 32 points in 2012, Risch’s re­cord merely re­flects the views of most voters.

“Idaho loves two things,” said Gov. C.L. (Butch) Ot­ter. “They love a per­son who is a con­sti­tu­tion­al­ist, who tries to fol­low the Con­sti­tu­tion, and they love a per­son that uses the Con­sti­tu­tion as the prin­ciples that guide their polit­ic­al de­cisions. And that is Jim Risch.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, as Risch tells it, that means there’s little com­mon ground for him to find with Demo­crats, whose views he can’t square with his prin­ciples. “I want to work with any Demo­crat, in­clud­ing Barack Obama. I want com­prom­ise with him,” Risch said. “I want to deal with him. I want to do bi­par­tis­an things with him — to re­duce the size of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, to lower fed­er­al taxes, to get rid of reg­u­la­tions, and to re­duce the in­tru­sion of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment in­to our lives. So far I haven’t found any­body that’s in­ter­ested in work­ing with me on that.”

Des­pite that, Risch in­sists he knows how to com­prom­ise, point­ing to what he said was a top ac­com­plish­ment dur­ing his time in the state Le­gis­lature: chan­ging how the state en­acted reg­u­la­tions, which pri­or to re­form did not re­quire the Le­gis­lature to weigh in. After the re­forms, any reg­u­la­tion not af­firmed by the Le­gis­lature ex­pired. That res­ul­ted in a le­gis­lat­ive rush to clear reg­u­la­tions that law­makers wanted to see kept on the books.

“In the le­gis­lat­ive pro­cess, you nev­er get what you want,” Risch said. “It is al­ways a mat­ter of give and take.”

Risch came to the Sen­ate in 2009 after Larry Craig, charged with so­li­cit­ing sex from an un­der­cov­er cop, de­cided not to run again. Risch spent nearly three dec­ades in state gov­ern­ment, in­clud­ing a year­long stint as gov­ernor (he filled a va­cant term), two terms as lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor, and two dec­ades in the state Sen­ate, much of the time as ma­jor­ity lead­er.

His friend and col­league of 30 years, Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho (No. 10), says he and Risch have the “highest level of trust” between them, and he de­scribes Risch as res­ults-ori­ented.

But when you’re a con­sti­tu­tion­al con­ser­vat­ive who val­ues less gov­ern­ment, what do res­ults look like?

Crapo poin­ted to the Ow­yhee Ini­ti­at­ive, a pub­lic-lands ef­fort that des­ig­nated more than 500,000 acres of wil­der­ness in the state. But that was passed and signed in­to law nearly four years ago. In­deed, with a Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate, com­mon ground and land­mark le­gis­lat­ive ac­com­plish­ments are hard to come by.

Be­hind the scenes in the Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence, Risch has earned a repu­ta­tion as a quiet but earn­est col­league.

“He’s a work­horse,” said his friend and fel­low West­ern­er, Sen. John Bar­rasso (No. 6) of Wyom­ing. Bar­rasso said Re­pub­lic­ans have con­sul­ted Risch on reg­u­lat­ory ques­tions as well as is­sues in­volving the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency. “When Jim Risch talks, every­body listens,” he said.

Risch faces reelec­tion this year, and in deep-red Idaho seems poised to win, ac­cord­ing to polit­ic­al strategists. He won’t face a Re­pub­lic­an primary op­pon­ent. A Demo­crat­ic chal­lenger, Boise at­tor­ney Nels Mitchell, re­cently entered the race and won the back­ing of former state Sen. Mike Bur­kett, who de­feated Risch in a 1988 state Sen­ate con­test. (Risch still re­mem­bers the sting of that de­feat “like it was yes­ter­day,” he said.) Ot­ter, a Re­pub­lic­an, is back­ing Risch.

“I will do whatever I can to help him,” he said.

Risch came to Idaho from Wis­con­sin, where he grew up and stud­ied forestry be­fore go­ing on to law school at the Uni­versity of Idaho.

He also es­tab­lished him­self as an ac­com­plished ranch­er. Be­fore he and his wife of more than four dec­ades, Vicki, were mar­ried, Risch bought a beef cow, and has since grown the herd to more than sev­er­al hun­dred cows. His eld­est son, James, largely runs the op­er­a­tion now, but Risch reg­u­larly helps with brand­ing — the met­al brand is a sym­bol com­bin­ing his ini­tials, JR — calv­ing, and oth­er du­ties, his aides say.

“He’s quite a cat­tle­man,” Ot­ter said. “We don’t brag how many head we have. I’ve been a cat­tle­man all my life and a horse per­son all my life, but Jim’s got a lot more cattle than I got.”

What We're Following See More »
STAFF PICKS
After Wikileaks Hack, DNC Staffers Stared Using ‘Snowden-Approved’ App
8 minutes ago
WHY WE CARE

The Signal app is fast becoming the new favorite among those who are obsessed with the security and untraceabilty of their messaging. Just ask the Democratic National Committee. Or Edward Snowden. As Vanity Fair reports, before news ever broke that the DNC's servers had been hacked, word went out among the organization that the word "Trump" should never be used in their emails, lest it attract hackers' attention. Not long after, all Trump-related messages, especially disparaging ones, would need to be encrypted via the Snowden-approved Signal.

Source:
WARRING FACTIONS?
Freedom Caucus Members May Bolt the RSC
2 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

The Republican Study Committee may lose several members of the House Freedom Caucus next year, "potentially creating a split between two influential groups of House conservatives." The Freedom Caucus was founded at the inception of the current Congress by members who felt that the conservative RSC had gotten too cozy with leadership, "and its roughly 40 members have long clashed with the RSC over what tactics to use when pushing for conservative legislation." As many as 20 members may not join the RSC for the new Congress next year.

Source:
SOME THERAPIES ALREADY IN TRIALS
FDA Approves Emergency Zika Test
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

"The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday issued emergency authorization for a Zika diagnostics test from Swiss drugmaker Roche, skirting normal approval channels as the regulator moves to fight the disease's spread." Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that a new study in Nature identifies "about a dozen substances" that could "suppress the pathogen's replication." Some of them are already in clinical trials.

Source:
MONEY HAS BEEN PAID BACK
Medicare Advantage Plans Overcharged Government
4 hours ago
THE DETAILS

According to 37 newly released audits, "some private Medicare plans overcharged the government for the majority of elderly patients they treated." A number of Medicare Advantage plans overstated "the severity of medical conditions like diabetes and depression." The money has since been paid back, though some plans are appealing the federal audits.

Source:
DESPITE CONSERVATIVE OBJECTIONS
Omnibus Spending Bill Likely Getting a Lame-Duck Vote
5 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

"GOP leaders and House Democrats are already laying the groundwork for a short-term continuing resolution" on the budget this fall "that will set up a vote on a catch-all spending bill right before the holidays." As usual, however, the House Freedom Caucus may throw a wrench in Speaker Paul Ryan's gears. The conservative bloc doesn't appear willing to accept any CR that doesn't fund the government into 2017.

Source:
×