In late February, Speaker Paul Ryan and his leadership team went to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte with a request.
With a White House deadline fast approaching to address the fate of Dreamers facing possible deportation, the leaders wanted to put Goodlatte’s conservative immigration plan on the House floor, but needed him to make changes to win more votes. Goodlatte, an immigration hard-liner, assured Ryan he would be flexible.
But weeks later, Goodlatte’s legislation is still languishing. No substantive changes have been made to the measure, according to multiple senior House GOP sources. And House Republicans have done nothing to deliver on President Donald Trump’s promise to do right by young immigrants brought to the United States as children.
“The chairman’s efforts undermined all of the work that the White House has done and that many of us have done here to try to build a bipartisan coalition,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), one moderate who opposes the current version of Goodlatte’s bill. “I don’t get the sense that he actually processes the feedback he asks for or tries to incorporate it.”
Curbelo added: “He hears but he doesn’t listen.”
Goodlatte has long posed an imposing hurdle even for House Republican leaders who should, in theory, be able to pull rank on him. They’ve spent more than five years trying to cajole the 65-year-old Virginia Republican to take up consequential legislation. Instead, Goodlatte has moved slowly or not at all, his GOP colleagues say, often stalling until lawmakers move on.
At times, his tactics have created tension and ill will with leadership and Republican members of his own committee. In the process, they say, Goodlatte has squandered the power of the Judiciary Committee, which has among the most expansive jurisdictions of any committee in Congress.
In interviews with more than a dozen lawmakers, aides and White House officials, the same phrase was used to describe Goodlatte’s tenure, which will come to a close when he retires at the end of this year. His committee, they said, is where "bills go to die.”
“I’m not trying to kick him in the shorts on the way out the door, but there were a lot of missed opportunities,” said former House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who served with Goodlattee for years on the Judiciary Committee. “It was very frustrating because people wanted to move forward. But on some of the more difficult issues, Chairman Goodlatte chose to stay silent and not do anything.”
The complaints abound. Some Republicans are unhappy that Goodlatte hasn’t had a hearing on his own DACA bill. Others are upset he hasn’t done more to respond to Russia’s election meddling or the FBI’s investigation of the matter, as his Senate counter, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, has done.
In recent months, some Republicans wanted a hearing to publicly examine bump stocks, the device a Las Vegas gunman used to mow down dozens of country concert-goers last October. Democrats also pleaded with Goodlatte to hold a hearing on domestic terrorism following the neo-Nazi rally last summer in Charlottesville last summer, a city in his own state.
But nothing happened.
“This guy just refuses to move legislation,” said a senior Republican lawmaker. “I can’t think of a single thing he’s actually accomplished,” added a top GOP Republican aide.
In the wake of the Florida school shooting last month, GOP leaders implored Goodlatte to hold a hearing on how the gunman, who’d been flagged by the FBI and local police, slipped through the cracks. Goodlatte initially hesitated to schedule one, according to two sources familiar with the matter. That prompted Republican leaders to ask Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy to consider holding a hearing if Goodlatte refused, even though the Judiciary Committee technically has jurisdiction.
Shortly before this story published, Goodlatte's office told POLITICO that he would, in fact, conduct a hearing on the shooting.
Goodlatte, in an interview, rejected the notion that he hasn’t done enough with his chairmanship. He argued that he can’t possibly take up every lawmaker’s pet legislation. Rather, Goodlatte said he’s focused on holding hearings on issues that will yield concrete results.
His committee has been “one of the busiest, most productive in the House,” Goodlatte said.
“I’ve had over 300 hearings … so we’re not short of hearings by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “We have to gauge what we think is going to be most likely to yield a productive change in policy. … I respect people wanting to [take action on] issues, but if they don’t have a majority to move that issue, then I’m not interested in having a platform for something that isn’t going to change public policy or result in legislation.”
Goodlatte also denied that he wasn’t willing to negotiate on how to deal with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for Dreamers. The chairman pointed to changes he’s made recently to try to win over the agriculture sector. And his committee staff sent POLITICO a list of changes he’s made to the bill since the legislation was introduced in mid-January.
Goodlatte also ticked off legislation the committee has passed over the years, including a permanent ban on taxing internet access and an overhaul to the nation’s intelligence-gathering programs. He said his committee passed about a dozen criminal justice reform bills only to see them die in the Senate.
Just last week, Goodlatte joined with Gowdy to ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions to appoint a special counsel to investigate any potential FBI bias against Trump — a move to mollify conservatives on his panel who have become more vocal in pushing him to subpoena former FBI officials. On Tuesday, Goodlatte also held a news conference with conservative immigration groups and said he will continue to work on DACA.
Goodlatte has some defenders, who praise his temperament and smarts. They say he never raises his voice and rarely tells colleagues “no” to their faces. They say he’s only deliberate because the matters his committee deals with are so controversial.
“Everybody knows he thinks about the issues and that may leave people to say he’s too cautious,” said Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), a longtime friend of Goodlatte’s. But “he thinks the issues through for good cause and he’s just trying to move the ball forward.”
Goodlatte’s supporters also note that arch-conservatives on his panel make it all but impossible for him to easily advance leadership’s priorities. On some matters, they said, Goodlatte wouldn't have the votes if he tried to round them up.
A native of Holyoke, Massachusetts, Goodlatte had a modest beginning, working at Friendly’s and painting buses to make ends meet. He became politically active at Bates College in Maine, leading the College Republicans before graduating from Washington and Lee University School of Law.
In the late 1970s, he worked as district director for the late GOP Rep. Caldwell Butler (R-Va.) before running for another House seat. He has won reelection handily since.
Goodlatte took the reins of the Judiciary Committee in early 2013. President Barack Obama had just won a second term, all but assuring that any partisan bill Goodlatte passed would be vetoed.
But tensions over Goodlatte’s tenure flared early because some of his own party's members felt he wouldn’t even try. Chaffetz said he tried for years to persuade Goodlatte to take up his online sales tax bill. The issue of how to tax online purchases had long stumped states and retailers, and many lawmakers, including GOP leaders, wanted the matter resolved.
But Chaffetz said Goodlatte would regularly cancel or fail to show up for meetings he’d scheduled on his bill.
“He was trying to avoid it, and he was trying to be nice and polite about it, but it was frustrating,” Chaffetz said. “It is a difficult, thorny and complicated issue. But Congress is supposed to deal with those things.”
Chaffetz said he also felt the panel relinquished its oversight authority over the FBI and Justice Department. When the bureau didn’t respond to a joint request from Chaffetz and Goodlatte to look into whether Hillary Clinton lied to the House Select Committee on Benghazi, Chaffetz said, Goodlatte “just sat on his hands.”
Goodlatte’s staff contends that the panel has spent “literally thousands of hours” on the online tax issue but has argued that ongoing litigation has complicated negotiations.
Goodlatte’s alleged intransigence came to a head in 2015, when Republican leaders were deciding whether to reappoint their committee chairmen to another term. Then-Speaker John Boehner lashed out at Goodlatte, warning him that he needed to do more with his gavel.
“Boehner just kind of took him on for everything he promised to get done," and he didn't, said one Republican who witnessed the exchange. Goodlatte, the person added, will “give you a white paper on [an issue], but he never plans to produce anything."
Goodlatte acknowledged the upbraiding but dismissed Boehner’s remarks, arguing that he has a “very good” relationship with leadership.
“Sometimes you can do [what leadership wants] and sometimes you can’t,” he said. "You know, the committee has its own jurisdiction, its own structure. And we have to work the will of the committee.”
Most recently, Goodlatte’s work has come to the forefront on immigration. He, like many other House Republicans, was strongly opposed to the Senate’s plan to provide a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.
But Goodlatte's bill went even further right than Trump’s plan. It included a controversial provision requiring all employers to certify that their workers are here legally — a burdensome mandate for many businesses, according to critics of the idea. Multiple House GOP and White House sources told POLITICO that the administration tried to persuade Goodlatte not to include so-called E-Verify in his bill.
At one point, the White House also tried to help facilitate negotiations between Goodlatte and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a leading moderate who tried to bridge the divide within the Republican Conference.
But Goodlatte rejected the changes. To the chagrin of a number of Republicans, he later left town for a congressional trip instead of staying in town to work on the bill. (A House Judiciary spokeswoman noted that staff continued to pursue a compromise and that Goodlatte worked the phones with members, who also were out of town during recess.)
“I would say there has been a very closed-minded approach” to DACA, said Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), another moderate who’s asked Goodlatte to make changes to his bill. “We have talked about regular order as well as an open process in front of the American public. We’ve had neither.”
Goodlatte, in his interview, refuted the notion that the White House encouraged him to change his bill and said he is in the process of making the text more “generous” for Dreamers who are not granted a path to citizenship under his legislation.
Goodlatte says he can’t easily accommodate demands from moderates because then he could lose conservative votes.
“My job is to find 218 votes,” Goodlatte said, adding that that “we’re listening” to Republicans who have concerns. “Obviously any change that’s made has to grow votes, not be a net loss of votes. So if I make a change somebody wants, and I lose people who are already supporting the legislation, I can’t do that.”
Asked what his legacy issue as chairman would be, Goodlatte said he didn’t necessarily have one because he's taking on so many causes. Before retiring, he plans to tackle intellectual property, copyright law and perhaps patent and criminal justice reform.
“I’m going to sprint to the finish line,” he said. “I have a huge agenda.“