In 1989, Gary Palmer founded the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think tank. By the time he resigned as its president last year, API had become a powerful force on state issues, everything from pensions to prison reform to politics. Palmer led the successful fight against a lottery—Alabama is among the few states without one—and organized the drive that defeated Republican governor Bob Riley’s bid for a whopping tax increase.
Last year, Palmer, 60, changed jobs. When Republican Spencer Bachus announced he would retire from his House seat, Palmer jumped in the race to succeed him. He finished second in the crowded GOP primary, then won the runoff with 63.5 percent of the vote. The general election was a snap. The district, based in the Birmingham suburbs, is one of the most Republican in the country. Palmer got 76.2 percent of the vote.
His election raised this question: Can a think tank wonk, an expert on state issues, find success on Capitol Hill? The tentative answer in Palmer’s case, after roughly 100 days of the new session, is yes.
Palmer had a threshold problem. In his campaign he promised to vote against another term for Speaker John Boehner. When he arrived in Washington, he privately told Boehner he didn’t want to start his time in Congress by breaking a promise. He kept it, voting for Alabama senator Jeff Sessions for speaker.
By early March, Palmer had become something of an insider. He was one of five members of the Budget Committee who refused to go along with a 2016 budget that wasn’t fully paid for because of a hike in defense spending. That halted the committee’s deliberations. Palmer, Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, and David Brat of Virginia adjourned to Palmer’s barely furnished office to find a solution they could agree on.
They talked to Tom Price of Georgia, the committee chairman, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, and Jim Jordan of Ohio, the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, whose members are among the most conservative Republicans in Congress. With Jordan’s guidance, they approved a strategy of voting on two budgets, the difference being an additional $20 billion for defense in the second.
The first one, which deficit hawks favored, lost 319-105. The second passed, 228-199. Palmer voted for both.
Stutzman, elected in 2010, was impressed with Palmer’s ease in dealing with the budget. “He always has a list of notes,” Stutzman said. “He knows the numbers. He knows a lot of the history of these policy efforts. I’m impressed with his knowledge. He’s definitely willing to speak up.”
Reticence is not Palmer’s style. Nor is deference to Obama administration bigwigs. At a hearing of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, he faced a panel of Environmental Protection Agency officials. He said EPA proposed new standards for curbing ozone and “has not been able to identify how [they] will be met.”
He went on: “If the EPA can’t even point to controls capable of almost half the emission reductions in the East or all the reductions required in California to meet those stringent proposed standards, this sounds like shoot first, ask questions later rulemaking. Should we be imposing this much burden on the American people when the EPA doesn’t even know how this rule can be accomplished?” The EPA group didn’t have a clear, much less persuasive, answer.
As he questioned the panel, Palmer was armed with a copy of “Environmental Indicators for Alabama and the U.S.” in front of him. The Alabama Policy Institute that he headed for a quarter-century publishes a new version every three or four years. “It’s nice to have a think tank at your disposal,” he told me.
When Shaun Donovan, the White House budget director, appeared before the budget committee, Palmer followed up on Donovan’s comment that Obama’s immigration policies would generate revenue. But since the president’s budget surely won’t pass, asked Palmer, “how much of this does the president intend to do through executive order?” Donovan looked puzzled for a few moments, then said Obama acts “within the power the law grants him.” Palmer replied, “He’s taken action beyond what the power of the law grants.”
Palmer has also taken on energy secretary Ernest Moniz. His department is “investing enormous amounts of money in trying to make renewable energy economically viable. You are the Department of Energy. You are not the EPA.” Shouldn’t oil, natural gas, and coal be treated similarly, especially by efforts to make fracking more economically viable? The private sector can do that, Moniz said. His department is focusing on things like the “reuse of water.”