Rep. Doug Collins is quietly laying the groundwork to run for House Judiciary Chairman next year, buttonholing colleagues who choose chairmen and showcasing his legislative acumen.
The conservative Georgia Republican is the first to officially jump in for the powerful post, which is coming open with the retirement of Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) at the end of the year. He’s notified leadership of his intention to run and he's going public with his sales pitch.
While Collins is not next in line in seniority on the panel, the significant number of departures on the committee and his close ties to GOP leaders give Collins a strong shot at the job, according to senior Republican sources.
“The best thing I can offer is my work ethic and to make sure that we’re legislative while we’re here,” Collins said in a recent interview. “I think the issue we’ve got to deal with is: How do we get to the art of finding legislation that helps people and moving it forward? Instead of focusing on what we can’t do, we should focus on what we can.”
Collins is already trying to demonstrate his lawmaking chops on two major bills that could see floor action this year. The 51-year-old former lawyer has been working with President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner on a criminal justice reform bill that Trumps supports. And as vice chairman of the panel’s intellectual property subcommittee, he's spent the last 18 months meeting with music industry executives and song writers and has written a complete overhaul of music industry copyright laws.
Perhaps most importantly, as vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, he’s already part of leadership and enjoys a close relationship with many of the senior lawmakers on the Republican Steering Committee that selects chairmen.
Collins also hails from a deep-red district but has made allies across the conference by campaigning for more vulnerable, moderate Republicans, including Brian Mast of Florida and Don Bacon of Nebraska. He’s also sought to boost the GOP in special elections this Congress, making trips to Pennsylvania to help struggling candidate Rick Saccone and Georgia to support now-Rep. Karen Handel.
Collins' early move to climb the ladder comes as a series of top Judiciary Republicans have announced their retirements, including Goodlatte, Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Ted Poe (R-Texas). Rep. Raul Labrador, an ex-immigration lawyer on the committee, is leaving Congress to run for Idaho governor. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the most senior lawmaker after Goodlatte, has already held the gavel.
Collins could face some competition in Ohio Republican Steve Chabot, who is far more senior than Collins. Chabot expressed interested in the job in a statement for this story. "I have had productive conversations with Members who have encouraged me to pursue the chairmanship and I am exploring the possibility," he said.
Seniority, however, is not the only factor in picking chairmen in the House GOP conference. The steering committee also chooses based on relationships with leadership, ability to fundraise and how generous members are with the National Republican Congressional Committee.
That's largely why Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Steve King (R-Iowa) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) — who are ahead of Collins in seniority but are frequent political bomb-throwers — are unlikely to win support with the broader conference under the current steering process.
Before Collins was elected to Congress in 2012, the Gainesville, Ga. native owned a scrapbooking company and ran his own law firm. He attended divinity school at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, joined the Air Force Reserves and deployed to Iraq as a military chaplain. He also served in the Georgia statehouse.
As Judiciary chairman, Collins said his approach would be to move legislation that can pass, not wait for perfection. Case in point: His criminal justice reform bill. Collins’ proposal would give prisoners an opportunity to gain skills while serving their sentences, in hopes of making them more marketable to employers upon release and reducing recidivism rates.
Many Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), also want to decrease mandatory minimums for certain non-violent drug-related offenses — an idea Collins supports. But it’s a non-starter with this law-and-order president.
Instead of trying to advance what Trump won’t sign, Collins worked with Kushner and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) on prison overhaul legislation that doesn’t touch mandatory minimums. The bill has the backing of the White House, which has asked Goodlatte to take up the legislation, and Trump gave the idea a shout-out during his State of the Union address in January.
“For me this is simply a money and morals issue: We’re spending a lot of money incarcerating these people but they also need a second chance from whatever background or mistake that [they] got themselves into,” Collins said.
Collins also has spent much of the past year writing a massive bill modernizing music copyright laws, which would simplify the digital licensing process and ensure music rights holders get paid for the use of their work. Goodlatte is expected to package the bill with several others and pass it out of his committee in the coming weeks.
If Republicans end up losing the House this fall, Collins’ job would look very different of course. In that case, the next top Judiciary Republican could become Trump’s No. 1 defender in potential impeachment proceedings. Asked about that possibility, Collins demurred.
“At this point, I’m one of those who thinks we won’t lose the House,” Collins said. “So I’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”