Deliberately Walking When Others Sprint

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte’s slow pace is maddening to activists who want changes to the law. But it suits him just fine.

Bob Goodlatte
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
Dec. 11, 2013, 3:07 p.m.

All you need to know about Bob Good­latte is that he has a base­ball signed by Hank Aaron. The 11-term Vir­gin­ia Re­pub­lic­an has lots of base­balls auto­graphed by pros, but the one fea­tur­ing the power-hit­ting Hall of Famer is dis­played prom­in­ently un­der glass in Good­latte’s of­fice cof­fee table.

“I al­ways have base­balls with me,” he says. Ges­tur­ing to 20 oth­ers on dis­play along with the Hank Aaron prize, he adds, “These are just the Hall of Famers.”

Good­latte is like that. He has quietly and stead­ily col­lec­ted valu­able base­ball sig­na­tures over the years just as he has quietly and stead­ily ac­cu­mu­lated seni­or­ity and in­flu­ence in the House.

Be­fore he be­came chair­man of the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee in Janu­ary, his na­tion­al pro­file had been re­l­at­ively low. Since then, he has presided over some of the most di­vis­ive is­sues be­fore Con­gress, in­clud­ing gun con­trol, im­mig­ra­tion, and sur­veil­lance by the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency.

The rise was not without its stumbles. Good­latte told one re­port­er in early 2013 that he would not sup­port gun-con­trol le­gis­la­tion. The story went vir­al, and he nev­er made the same mis­take again. He is now po­lite when con­fron­ted by re­port­ers in Cap­it­ol cor­ridors, but he doesn’t talk pub­licly about his le­gis­lat­ive plans be­fore they un­fold as he wants them to.

“I find that it’s bet­ter to have more in­form­a­tion when you an­swer a ques­tion than less in­form­a­tion,” he said. “I like that give-and-take, but some­times I don’t like that it goes down the rab­bit hole, that either there’s a piece of in­form­a­tion that didn’t get con­veyed “¦ or it’s just go­ing in a dir­ec­tion that I don’t think gives the full pic­ture.”

This de­lib­er­at­ive ap­proach is per­fect for the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, where Good­latte, 61, has been a mem­ber since he came to Con­gress. Over and over, he says he wants the com­mit­tee to “get it right,” wheth­er he’s talk­ing about an im­mig­ra­tion over­haul or Con­gress’s re­sponse to the NSA leaks.

The meth­od can look like stalling to people who are eager for changes to the law. He has been ac­cused of slow-walk­ing im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion by ad­voc­at­ing a piece-by-piece ap­proach, re­ject­ing the rap­id pace the Sen­ate took on a ma­jor im­mig­ra­tion bill that was con­ceived, draf­ted, amended, and passed in six months.

Good­latte is fine with that char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion. He ar­gued earli­er in the year that an im­mig­ra­tion over­haul akin to the Sen­ate bill isn’t ready for prime time. His plan for the com­mit­tee to take up smal­ler pieces of im­mig­ra­tion law, such as visas for high-skilled work­ers, is “de­signed to make sure that people fol­low­ing this is­sue un­der­stand all of the is­sues that are un­der­ly­ing this,” he said. “There are hun­dreds of in­ter­lock­ing pieces.”

Walk­ing when the rest of the polit­ic­al world is sprint­ing can be mad­den­ing to ad­voc­ates for change, but it has paid off for Good­latte in oth­er areas. Last week, the House passed his com­plex and care­fully ne­go­ti­ated bill de­signed to rein in “pat­ent trolls,” com­pan­ies that ac­quire low-qual­ity pat­ents for the sole pur­pose of su­ing oth­er com­pan­ies that use sim­il­ar tech­no­lo­gies. The com­mit­tee had been work­ing on the bill all year.

Good­latte brought two dec­ades of work on tech­no­logy is­sues to the pat­ent bill. He was a ju­ni­or Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee mem­ber when the Re­pub­lic­ans took over the House in 1995 and then-Chair­man Henry Hyde, R-Ill., as­signed him to ne­go­ti­ate new copy­right rules for the di­git­al age. The res­ult­ing law, the 1998 Di­git­al Mil­len­ni­um Copy­right Act, is the corner­stone of in­tel­lec­tu­al-prop­erty pro­tec­tion for the In­ter­net today — and it was writ­ten be­fore movies were be­ing dis­trib­uted on DVD.

Good­latte says he isn’t much of a tech­ie com­pared with his son, Rob, a former product de­sign­er at Face­book. But he has joined oth­er Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee mem­bers, in­clud­ing former chair­men Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Jim Sensen­bren­ner, R-Wis., in mak­ing sure that Con­gress doesn’t fall be­hind in pro­tect­ing di­git­al in­nov­a­tions. He has served as the House Re­pub­lic­an chair­man of the Con­gres­sion­al In­ter­net Caucus for vir­tu­ally all of its 17-year his­tory. (Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Cal­if., is the cur­rent Demo­crat­ic House chair­wo­man.)

Hav­ing presided over that caucus since the In­ter­net was in its in­fancy, Good­latte is a fan of Web-based en­tre­pren­eur­ship. “But I’m also very in­ter­ested in the in­tel­lec­tu­al-prop­erty is­sues, and so they come to­geth­er, some­times clash, and some­times work to­geth­er. But either way, I think that is kind of the found­a­tion of the Amer­ic­an eco­nomy. You’re re­ward­ing people for their cre­at­ive­ness,” he said.

Good­latte has built up a lot of good­will among his col­leagues, which is no small feat on a com­mit­tee that has more than its fair share of pub­lic spats. Just last week, Rep. Sheila Jack­son Lee, D-Texas, de­man­ded that Re­pub­lic­ans ex­plain “this con­sti­tu­tion­al gobbledy-gock” dur­ing a hear­ing on pres­id­en­tial re­spons­ib­il­it­ies.

“I think you have to make sure that every­body has an op­por­tun­ity to be heard when we de­bate these is­sues and in the pro­cess treat dif­fer­ing view­points fairly,” Good­latte said.

Good­latte doesn’t shy away from par­tis­an­ship on some le­gis­la­tion — im­mig­ra­tion is a sol­id ex­ample — but he works to main­tain re­la­tion­ships with com­mit­tee mem­bers on both sides of the aisle and reg­u­larly con­sults with the three former chair­men on the pan­el — Smith, Sensen­bren­ner, and rank­ing mem­ber John Con­yers, D-Mich.

Smith, the most re­cent Ju­di­ciary chair­man, said Good­latte is “the ideal chair­man. He’s smart, thought­ful, and per­sist­ent.” They have been friends for al­most 20 years.

Did Smith give Good­latte any ad­vice when he handed over the gavel? “I don’t think he needed any ad­vice,” Smith said.

When asked the same ques­tion, Good­latte char­ac­ter­ist­ic­ally paused. “Let me think about that,” he said. Then, he ad­ded, “Prob­ably the best ad­vice they’ve giv­en me I can’t share with you.”

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