Caldwell Butler was famous but not powerful. The Republican who represented the 6th District from 1972 to 1983 made a name for himself by breaking with his party to vote for Richard Nixon’s impeachment in his first term, and then was promptly given the cold shoulder by his party’s leaders. In any case, he was a member of the minority party, which further limited his influence in Washington.
Jim Olin was neither famous nor powerful. The Democrat who represented the 6th District from 1983 to 1993 was a member of the majority party, but his strict views on debt put him at odds with a more liberal leadership. He never got the important committee assignments he craved.
When Olin retired and Bob Goodlatte was elected in his place, there was no expectation that he’d become a major player in Washington. For one thing, he’d never been elected to anything before, so had no track record. For another, when he took his seat in the House of Representatives in January 1993, he was a freshman member of a Republican Party that had been in the minority for 38 years — and was expected to be in the minority for years to come.
What no one could foresee was the cataclysmic election of 1994, when voters reacted harshly to the administration of Bill Clinton, flipped 54 seats and brought to power the first GOP-led House since 1955. Suddenly Newt Gingrich was speaker and Republicans set about making procedural changes to fulfill the party’s “Contract With America.”
One of those rules was a six-year term limit on committee chairmen, who previously had held onto power for as long as they wanted it — and their party stayed in power. Decades later, that rule helps bring an end to the unexpectedly influential career of Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County.
Goodlatte announced Thursday he won’t be seeking re-election next year. Those who pay attention to such things weren’t surprised: His six-year term as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee ends then. Where else was there to go? After nearly three decades in Washington, Goodlatte thought that seemed a good time to move on. Goodlatte turned 65 in September. “I want to leave the Congress young enough to do something else,” he said. “I don’t know what it will be.” It’s easy to imagine many post-congressional careers for him —a policy adviser in a think tank, a constitutional law professor, perhaps something else academic and wonky.
Historically speaking, the fascinating thing is that Goodlatte became one of Washington’s power players, amassing more power than all of his predecessors in the 6th District put together. He served first as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee —perhaps not a flashy role but important to the agricultural interests of the Shenandoah Valley and to anyone who likes to eat. Now he wields the gavel over the Judiciary Committee, a panel that handles a disproportionate amount of the legislation that moves through the House, from anti-trust law to terrorism. So far this year, nearly 1,000 bills have been referred to House Judiciary. Goodlatte’s work took him on fact-finding missions to the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan — hardly junkets. A few weeks ago, he led a delegation inspecting checkpoints along the Mexican border.
Because he’s such a policy wonk, Goodlatte never seemed a natural politician — that’s meant as a compliment, by the way. Originally elected in a time before social media, he was one of the first members of Congress to take an interest in the internet and went on to become co-chairman of the House Internet Caucus. Who would have expected a congressman from the Blue Ridge Mountains would become a technology expert?
While other members of Congress got patted down with make-up for their television appearances, Goodlatte immersed himself in the details of copyright law, and the push-and-pull between Hollywood, artists, and consumers over who owns what in the computer age. One of the most unlikely photos ever taken shows Goodlatte with Steven Tyler, the lead singer of the rock band Aerosmith, who had come to Congress to lobby from the point of view of a copyright-holding musician.
Goodlatte was loath Thursday to talk about his legacy, pointing out he still has 14 months yet to serve. Still, when prodded, he pointed to his bill that prohibits taxing internet access — and the revisions to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that his committee is working on. Those are hard things to fit onto a bumper sticker, but Goodlatte could talk for hours about the details there.
He also became a good politician in the retail sense of the word. Even as he contemplated retirement, he ventured to Highland County — the least populous in the state — to shake hands at the annual county fair. That wasn’t unusual at all. Goodlatte eschewed town hall meetings, but was a frequent presence at events around the district.
Liberals, of course, never much liked anything Goodlatte did. He entered politics as a mainstream conservative and leaves office in the same place — although the spectrum has red-shifted so much to the right that in recent years Goodlatte has drawn primary opposition from Tea Party challengers. The liberal glee at Goodlatte’s retirement will not last long. Even in a bad year for Republicans, that party’s candidate for governor took 60.2 percent of the vote in the 6th District on Tuesday — a shade higher than the 59.7 percent that Donald Trump polled there a year ago. There’s no reason to think a Democrat can easily win the 6th District next year.
Nor is there reason to think that even a non-partisan redistricting plan in 2021 will create a more competitive district. Given the polarized voting patterns we’re seeing, it’s simply impossible to draw anything other than Republican congressional districts on this side of the state. That’s why, after the news about Goodlatte’s retirement broke Thursday morning, probably every Republican between Cave Spring and Front Royal looked in the mirror and saw a future congressman or congresswoman staring back at them. This is a very valuable nomination to be had. It’s unclear how much role the public will have in picking their next representative. If Republicans opt for a convention, then a roomful of party insiders will effectively be picking our next member of Congress.
Whoever that is will face lofty expectations that Goodlatte never did, but achieved anyway.