The Magazine

Meet Kate Upton’s Uncle

How a moderate Republican retooled for the Tea Party era.

Jul 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 43 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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‘All eyes on Upton (Kate, not Fred),” read the headline in the February 14 edition of the St. Joseph, Michigan, Herald-Palladium. Her hometown paper reported that Kate Upton was the cover model of this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, making her instantly more famous than her uncle, Republican congressman Fred Upton. When Kate was the subject of GQ’s July cover story, Uncle Fred got a small mention near the end, a quirky feature of the supermodel’s biography. Perhaps only inside-the-Beltway publications like Politico refer to Kate as “Fred Upton’s niece.”

Congressman Fred Upton at a Capitol Hill press conference

Congressman Fred Upton at a Capitol Hill press conference


At 59 years old, Upton himself doesn’t get cover story-level attention—but perhaps he should. As the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, he’s one of the most powerful members of Congress, and since taking the helm in January 2011, Upton has been the unlikely leader of the GOP’s fight against the Obama administration’s ever-expanding slate of federal regulations.

The consensus among conservatives, both in Congress and out, is that Upton’s chairmanship has been a “pleasant surprise.” For over two decades, Upton had quietly represented his southwestern Michigan district with a familiar brand of Midwestern moderate conservatism. His lifetime American Conservative Union rating is 73, the lowest among Michigan Republicans. He scores 49 percent on the Heritage Action for America legislative scorecard, well below the House GOP average. 

How moderate has he been? Upton has voted against federal funding of abortion but for funding of embryonic stem cell research. He was instrumental in opposing cap and trade in the House but supports environmentalist agenda items like the Endangered Species Act. Upton is for cutting NPR’s funding, but he also voted to increase federal grants to firefighters.

If there’s a symbol for the middle-of-the-road incumbent Republicanism that grassroots conservative activists rebelled against in 2010 following two devastating elections, he’s it. Yet in his current role as committee chairman, Upton may be the Tea Party’s most critical ally in the establishment.

The jurisdiction of the Energy and Commerce Committee is vast, from energy to trade to telecommunications to health care. In all those areas, Upton has been driving the Republican agenda. During his tenure as chairman, he’s fought to overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules, pushed to expedite the president’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, and forced the administration to abandon the long-term-care insurance program set up under the CLASS Act provision of Obamacare.

But Upton and his committee have been most aggressive in reining in federal regulations. “He has made sure the Obama administration does not escape robust oversight,” says Dan Kish, senior vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research. “That’s where Fred Upton has really shown some teeth.”

The list of bills passed out of the committee (several with bipartisan support, Upton likes to emphasize) indicates the extent to which Environmental Protection Agency regulations have dominated the committee’s proceedings: the EPA Regulatory Relief Act, the Energy Tax Prevention Act, the Cement Sector Regulatory Relief Act, the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act, and the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act.

The Obamacare regulations, too, have provided ample oversight fodder for Upton. The committee halted funding for state-based exchanges and restored flexibility to states’ operation of their Medicaid programs. “They’ve pulled the strings and allowed Obamacare to unravel,” says Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee.

And Upton probably deserves much of the credit for making Solyndra a household name; committee hearings helped uncover the full extent to which political cronyism and malfeasance led to the now-bankrupt California solar panel company getting government-backed loans. The mild-mannered, soft-spoken Upton doesn’t get fired up about many things, but talking about the Solyndra boondoggle animates him. In his Capitol Hill office overlooking the National Mall (seniority has its perks), he excitedly flips through the pages of the Wall Street Journal to show me that day’s editorial criticizing certain House Republicans for not supporting Upton’s latest bill, the “No More Solyndras Act.” Upton says the federal government ought to stop spending taxpayer money on venture capital.

“We’ll mark it up and finish the job next week in subcommittee!” Upton beams. This is legislative yeoman’s work, and it isn’t sexy. The wonky Upton, a 25-year veteran of the House who once worked for David Stockman in Ronald Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget, seems eager and able to do it.

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