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Cover Story

a Steve King year


Steve King introduced 11 bills in 2013, and none advanced to the House floor. Regardless, his ideologically charged measures remain popular with far-right political conservatives.

Steve King introduced 11 bills in 2013, and none advanced to the House floor. Regardless, his ideologically charged measures remain popular with far-right political conservatives.

Iowa’s new 4th congressional district chose its representative a year ago, and here’s what it got: a blizzard of sound bites that sometimes provoked national condemnation, partial successes on conservative priorities, and what could be a crushing failure on one issue, ethanol, that matters deeply to the district’s economy.

Say what you will, Congressman Steve King’s record in Congress is consistent — he represented Iowa’s old 5th district for a decade — and it is emblematic of the Congress as a whole, where victories are measured by political points scored rather than bills enacted into law.

That yardstick serves King well: This year he has introduced 11 bills, and none has even advanced to the House floor. Regardless, this catalogue of ideologically charged measures is quite popular on the far-right edge of conservative politics.

Those bills won’t become law anytime soon, but they do make a point and stoke the audience King wants to address.

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The congressman declined to be interviewed for this article, but he declared in 2002 that his goal was to “move the center of gravity in Congress to the right.”

To the extent that this means grinding the institution to a halt, he can claim to be part of a success story.

On matters that hit closer to home, King has been unable to defend the mandate for biofuels under the Renewable Fuel Standard, a potentially costly loss for the 4th district.

In terms of his own career, it’s unclear where else King might go on the political ladder. Earlier this year, he declined to enter the race for the Senate seat Tom Harkin is leaving next year.

Within the House, it seems like a long shot that he will ever grab the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee despite his seniority (and a spot on the Farm Bill conference committee this year).

King may not be producing new laws or earning important titles, but he may be right where he wants to be.

“He enjoys the kind of platform he has in Washington and he has a safe seat,” observed James McCormick, chairman of the political science department at Iowa State University in Ames.

That may be enough.


Steve King’s kind of year

The first session of the 113th Congress was a banner year for King: He infuriated the animal welfare community and pro-immigration reform advocates and cemented his place as an arch critic of Obamacare and the rest of President Obama’s agenda.

King is a go-to guest in the world of cable network news with his willingness to let rip on illegal immigrants with “calves the size of cantaloupes,” jaunty dismissals of any downside to a default on the federal debt and his defense of dog fighting.

King’s remarks on those subjects were not particularly welcomed by his own Republican leadership in Congress, but they did win him plenty of time on CNN programs. King has made more appearances on that network than on the more ideologically aligned Fox News, actually, according to searches on both networks’ websites.

His clamorous opposition to the type of immigration reform that passed the Senate disconcerted Republican leaders who were searching for an acceptable path forward on the issue, but it certainly cheered and emboldened foes of the legislation both inside and outside Congress.

King earned another burst of national attention in recent days, and probably produced a few winces in the GOP leadership suites in the Capitol, by hinting about the possible need to impeach the president over alleged abuses of power.

Rebukes from Republican leaders and mockery in the mainstream press roll off King’s back — and become fodder for his fundraising efforts.

It was members of the anti-establishment Club for Growth and other conservative activists who stepped in with more than $500,000 in contributions to help King defeat well-funded Democrat Christie Vilsack last year, according to the Center for Responsible Politics.

“The more he gets attacked, the more his constituents are endeared to him,” said ISU’s McCormick.

King has had a dollop of more traditional congressional success this year, too. He scored a spot on the Farm Bill conference and was able to attach anti-Dream Act immigration language and a locally important soil dumping amendment to a couple of annual spending bills.

There is a catch, though: King’s successful amendments are unlikely to ever make it into law because Congress’ appropriations process is a shambles. King and like-minded colleagues helped tear down that most basic of congressional functions — budgeting the federal government — in their multifaceted battle against President Obama.

A Farm Bill is expected to move through Congress early next year, but King’s most notable contribution has been an amendment targeting California’s state law on the treatment of egg-laying hens.

The amendment won the support of the influential Farm Bureau while creating another difficult political hurdle for the Farm Bill to clear, amid the numerous hurdles already blocking the path of any significant legislation in this Congress.

It galvanized opposition from animal welfare and food safety advocates, but more significantly for the Farm Bill negotiations, it kicked up a dispute over the applicability of state laws that threatened to hopelessly entangle the farm legislation.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that 14 law professors, in a recent letter to Farm Bill negotiators, said that if the amendment becomes law, there is “a significant likelihood that many state agricultural laws across the country will be nullified, that public health and safety will be threatened, and that the amendment could ultimately be deemed unconstitutional.”

Flashing a little media savvy, King struck back in an op-ed published in the Tulsa World, a newspaper in the district of House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla.

King wrote: “There is only one state law that I know will be impacted by the King amendment — California’s 2010 law, AB 1437. The language of my amendment is clear; it restores the Commerce Clause in the Constitution, and clarifies that the states cannot dictate the manufacture and means of production of agriculture products raised in other states.”

Despite his desire to protect the Constitution, King said he might be willing to trade the hens amendment for deeper cuts to federal nutrition programs, according to the Sioux City Journal. Of course, the food stamp cuts contained in the House-passed version of the Farm Bill already were the biggest stumbling block to a final agreement.

And then there is the Renewable Fuel Standard. The single most important federal program for Iowa’s ethanol industry faces its toughest challenge ever. But this isn’t the kind of challenge Steve King typically takes on.


Ethanol on the ropes

King knew this was coming. It’s just unclear whether he did anything about it.

A review of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency database shows that King exchanged letters with EPA’s regional administrator about combined animal-feeding operations, certainly an important issue for the 4th district.

His legal petitions to block EPA’s greenhouse gas rules are well known.

But while he was defending dog fights on cable TV, when it comes to the RFS, this was one dog that didn’t bark.

“I didn’t see it coming early enough… you have to be ever vigilant,” King said last February of the repeal of the ethanol blender tax credit, approved by the previous Congress.

Ethanol policy has been under siege for several years, battered by environmentalists on one side and by the booming domestic production of oil and gas on the other. The environmental and national security arguments for ethanol were on shaky legs in the nation’s capital, and everyone could see what was coming next.

Governors and influential lawmakers like House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., papered the EPA with correspondence urging the agency to scale back the RFS, citing its impact on food prices among other issues. The program had a bull’s eye painted on it.

There is no sign that King ever contacted EPA about the standard.

“I’m going to go back and read the statute,” King said at a November press conference, after the EPA’s announcement that it was reducing ethanol goals for the coming year dealt a major blow to the industry. “I’m not sure the administration has the authority to do this.”

King was playing catch-up. He ripped the EPA decision on Facebook and Twitter, and he urged the crowd at that November press conference to activate their “networks” in opposition to the EPA’s move. But he wasn’t well positioned to reverse it.

And, as the benefits of a major federal policy shifted away from his 4th district constituents, King was off in another direction.

He had an urgent new legislative priority: shifting around federal judgeships in retaliation for Democratic changes to Senate filibuster rules.


Consistent, to a fault?

King’s record reflects that of the troubled institution where he serves. The bills that pass the House of Representatives are message-oriented and destined to die in the Senate, which on occasion can pass an immigration or some other notable measure that is simply unacceptable to House Republicans.

The tone on Capitol Hill is unremittingly antagonistic, and compromise is mostly a dirty word.

In that environment, King introduces the same bills year after year. It’s a style attuned to the current Congress — in fact, it helped create the current Congress.

It’s a lock that King will introduce measures mandating the use of the English language, attacking rules requiring union-scale wages on federal construction projects and repealing the 16th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the one that authorized the income tax.

None of his 10 bills or his one proposed amendment to the Constitution have passed the House so far in the 113th Congress; he was 0-for-20 in the 112th Congress and 1-for-15 in the 111th Congress, passing a resolution “congratulating the on-premise sign industry for its contributions to the success of small businesses.”

One King-sponsored, stand-alone resolution passed in the 110th Congress: The House agreed in December 2007 to recognize the importance of Christmas and the Christian faith.

He has had more success over the years pushing amendments to other lawmakers’ bills on the House floor. Occasionally, those amendments address a local issue like the soil-dumping measure or shifting funds to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Many of his amendments focus on illegal immigration, stopping spending on foreign language services, eliminating perceived union advantages  and, of course, repealing or defunding Obamacare.

King will parachute in as a piece of legislation moves across the House floor and offer an amendment that appeals to his most conservative colleagues, then move on to the next political firefight.

But, as noted, the underlying bills usually die before they become law, taking King’s amendments down with them.


Defining success in Congress

King and other tea party-aligned conservatives can lay claim to two tangible successes this year: They continue to make it extremely difficult for their party leaders in Congress to reach any kind of deal with the Obama White House, and, through the so-called budget sequester, federal government spending is dropping dramatically.

Conservatives have achieved a significant victory in their efforts to restrain, and even begin reversing, the direction of the federal budget. But there haven’t been any parades in celebration.

The Republican Party as a whole tends to shy away from the achievement for two reasons: First, sequester is a politically loaded word, and second, they are loath to share any credit for deficit reduction with President Obama.

King is eager to keep the battle raging elsewhere.

With his unceasing verbal campaign against Obamacare, his willingness to begin a discussion on impeaching the president and the ongoing rhetoric against immigration reform, King ensures that the issues closest to the hearts of conservative activists are constantly raised within the House and then echoed throughout the media landscape.

That may or may not benefit the 4th district but it provides a distinct service to the conservative movement.

According to CQ Roll Call’s profile of King: “His service to conservatives includes many media appearances covering a wide range of subjects. King is polite and self-deprecating in individual encounters, but capable of delivering a 30-minute stemwinder on the House floor… He elicits a response. One of his closest friends and colleagues in Congress is Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, and, like Bachmann, King is admired by the like-minded and reviled by opponents on the left.”

The similarities go beyond that: Bachmann, like King, doesn’t move actual legislation, and both members are indifferent to the protocols and niceties of Capitol Hill.

That may discomfort Republican leaders more than it upsets Democrats, but Bachmann and King’s conservative credentials are unquestioned, and they have created a cottage industry championing rightward causes in Congress.

By other measures, King’s role and successes on Capitol Hill are a little harder to rate.

He has risen to a senior position on the Agriculture Committee, winning a subcommittee chairmanship this year. But the subcommittee has been idle; its Web page shows no hearings at all since King took over.

Observers are skeptical that King has much chance to win the full committee chairmanship when it comes open in three years, even though he would have a strong case to make based on seniority.

“He’s probably too much of a lightning rod for a chairmanship,” ISU’s McCormick said. “That would give the Democrats a real person to take aim at and use in the campaign.”

A Republican strategist and former House GOP leadership aide is more blunt, saying: “It’s highly unlikely they give him any (full committee) chairmanship. The design of a chairmanship is to help the Republican Conference and enlarge the majority. King is a very loud talker with little to show for it.”

King has also largely avoided the fundraising game of trying to win friends and influence the agenda with cash contributions to his colleagues.  

That could be viewed as a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”-style rejection of cash-greased, business-as-usual in the capital. Except that King also repeatedly introduces legislation to abolish all limits on campaign contributions.

It could also hobble a bid for a chairmanship because members are expected to contribute hefty sums to the House Republican Conference’s campaign arm if they hope to win the top spot on a committee.

King pays his dues to the National Republican Congressional Committee but not at the level of a would-be committee chairman. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, the current Agriculture chairman, kicked in more than $500,000 during the election cycle before he won the committee gavel.

King is on pace to contribute one-quarter of that amount during the current cycle, although his numbers may look different after he files his next fundraising report next month.

In addition, King’s Conservative Principles PAC has contributed small amounts to other GOP candidates over the past few cycles.

More importantly, perhaps, King’s annual Defenders of Freedom fundraising dinner is a vehicle for hosting conservative luminaries and presidential hopefuls on visits to Iowa. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was his guest for the dinner in Le Mars in October.

Cruz’s visit was bad news for any pheasants in the vicinity; it was unclear whether it might help King in the future on ethanol or other issues of importance to the district.


Voters’ choice

However things play out for King in Washington, D.C., it’s a good bet that candidates for the Republican presidential nomination like Cruz, and Bachmann and Newt Gingrich before him, will make the trek to western Iowa for King’s dinner.

And given that King has changed little or nothing about his approach since moving into a district where he was a new face to half the voters, it’s a good bet that he will continue offering the same bills, pounding the same notes on cable TV and living largely on the periphery of the legislative machinery in Congress.

He’ll turn 65 in May, and he is now a senior member in the House. If there are to be any new twists to his career on Capitol Hill or in politics generally, he certainly isn’t tipping them off.

Lawmakers can choose several paths when they arrive in Congress: Master specific policy issues and rise through the committee ranks to positions of authority on agriculture, for example, or work up the ladder as a political leader who helps their party run the institution and win elections.

A member of Congress also can decide to stay on the outside — independent, some might say, or marginalized.

King’s path doesn’t promise many rewards of the type that lawmakers typically seek on Capitol Hill, whether that’s legislative success or the ability to wield power. But it does come with a cheering section of conservative activists and a chance to be heard on a handful of issues that he is passionate about.

Ultimately the voters of the new 4th district will decide what kind of representative they want. One year after electing him, these constituents now know exactly what they’ll get with Steve King. CV

Charlie Mitchell has covered Congress for over 20 years for Inside Washington Publishers, National Journal and Roll Call. He is the former editor of Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Capitol Hill. He originally reported this piece for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and Jefferson Bee & Herald.

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