Jason Chaffetz: Liberals' Accidental Ally

The Utah Republican happens to be teaming up with Democrats on criminal-justice reform, FOIA policy, and even Keystone.

Jason Chaffetz wants Obamacare repealed. He doesn't want Hillary Clinton, let alone Bernie Sanders, to be president. He does want the Keystone XL pipeline built.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman, in short, is nobody's idea of a liberal.

But the Utah Republican has won praise from the Left for focusing on criminal-justice reform, and Chaffetz is using the committee's power to try and strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, a topic near and dear to both liberal and conservative transparency advocates.

On a committee that has been home to brutal partisan fights in years past, Chaffetz is finding areas of common ground.

"He is capturing where there is some unity of concern among liberals and conservatives, and the criminal-justice issue was a top example of that, and FOIA is another one," said Rep. Peter Welch, a member of both the Oversight Committee and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Chaffetz also is winning praise from Rep. Elijah Cummings, the panel's ranking Democrat, who says there's a mutual respect even when they collide. "I'm not saying we agree on everything. I don't agree with my wife on everything," Cummings said in an interview, adding: "When you have respect and trust, it goes a long way."

And they find plenty to agree on. Cummings says they've signed around 200 letters together.

They've agreed on issues such as calling for or supporting the departures of the now-former heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Chemical Safety Board, and the Secret Service. Lately, Cummings said, they've been looking into generic-drug pricing.

Chaffetz chuckled when jokingly asked what it feels like to be a hero to the Left. "Well, I would not phrase it quite like that. Certainly not in my district," he said in an interview with National Journal.

To be sure, not everything on the panel's docket has appeal across the aisle. Chaffetz has continued the committee's probe of former IRS official Lois Lerner's emails in relation to the agency's scrutiny of conservative groups' applications for tax-exempt status.

But he's making a major push on criminal-justice reform, including two days worth of hearings last week, arguing that the nation's huge prison population is unsustainable and too costly, and that more must be done to help offenders reenter society.

While the issue has long been a priority for progressive activists, Chaffetz said that "I am not ready to cede this territory to Democrats," and makes the case that it's squarely in conservatives' wheelhouse too.

Reform efforts are rooted in some bedrock conservative principles, he said. "If you are going to be a fiscal hawk, and pro-law-and-order, you better address criminal-justice reform," Chaffetz said.

The 48-year-old Chaffetz, who is in his fourth term, is one of several lawmakers who are relatively young or new to Capitol Hill—including Democratic Sen. Cory Booker and Republican Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee—who have focused intently on criminal-justice reform.

"Like a lot of younger-generation conservatives, [Chaffetz] just seems to get it that we have to do something different," said Kevin Ring, director of strategic initiatives for the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Earlier this year, Chaffetz introduced the Recidivism Risk Reduction Act with Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy and Democratic Reps. Cedric Richmond and Hakeem Jeffries. It enables some offenders to complete their sentences at halfway houses or home confinement if they take part in programs to reduce their risk of committing crimes.

"Right now, the system churns out people who are better criminals. That's not the goal. The goal is to make them better people, more family-oriented, personally responsible, and not just a ward of the state," Chaffetz said.

Late last week, to confront the "overcriminalization problem," he launched the Congressional Criminal Justice and Public Safety Caucus with Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, Jeffries, and Richmond.

A suite of House and Senate members are involved with bills that, like Chaffetz's plan, address the "back end" of the prison system, as well as "front-end" issues such as easing use of harsh mandatory-minimum sentences.

Lawmakers involved include GOP Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner and Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott. Democratic Senate veterans Patrick Leahy and Dick Durbin also are involved, as are GOP Majority Whip John Cornyn and Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, who have teamed up on a recidivism-reduction bill.

But Chaffetz doesn't have direct jurisdiction. Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and ranking member John Conyers plan to consider various pieces of legislation in the coming months.

House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday that he wants to see floor action on the topic, citing a broad bill introduced by Sensenbrenner and Scott last month. At a news conference, Boehner said there are lots of people in prison that "don't need to be there."

Across Capitol Hill, the timeline for action also is vague. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley hopes to steer a bipartisan bill through the committee, but the timeline is not yet clear, an aide said.

At least at the committee level, Chaffetz has more control when it comes to FOIA reform, which falls under his committee's jurisdiction.

Chaffetz held a high-profile, two-day hearing on FOIA in early June that gave voice to critics—including several journalists—who lambasted long delays and what some call routine overuse of exemptions that allows agencies to withhold documents.

A bill aimed at forcing more and faster disclosure sponsored by former Chairman Darrell Issa and Cummings cleared the committee in March, but Chaffetz and Cummings are seeking ways to make the bill tougher. Chaffetz told National Journal he hopes to steer a revised version through the committee in September.

Chaffetz said they are looking at ways to make agencies face consequences for failing to comply with FOIA requests, and reduce the number of exemptions that agencies can use to justify withholding information. The two lawmakers and staff met to discuss the bill last week.

"It is truly a bipartisan issue. I think that what is in short supply is the opportunity to make transparency stick and force agencies to comply with the laws on the books, and also to strengthen those laws," said Rick Blum, coordinator of The Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media groups.

"I think this year is a great opportunity to get FOIA reform to the president. We were very close last year," he said.

In another case, Chaffetz and liberal opponents of the Keystone pipeline have an overlapping interest, if only a temporary one.

This month, he subpoenaed the State Department for copies of other agencies' input to State on the project—documents that anti-Keystone activists would also very much like to read.