‘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.”
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.
But back in November 2010, in the wake of the GOP’s historic electoral victory, some conservatives started sounding the alarm on Upton before he had even assumed the chairmanship. FreedomWorks, Dick Armey’s grassroots operation, launched a website called DownwithUpton.com, saying Upton’s record is “full of votes for more regulation, more spending, and more taxes.” Rush Limbaugh said it would be a “tone-deaf disaster” if Upton were tapped as the committee’s chairman. “This is exactly the kind of guy Republicans need to avoid,” Glenn Beck warned on his radio show, “or they’ll destroy themselves.”
Several pointed to Upton’s support for the 2007 law that effectively bans the incandescent light bulb in favor of the more expensive “green” compact fluorescent bulb—some even reported he coauthored it. During the chairmanship election, Upton reversed his position and promised to repeal the law. When I ask him about the hated light bulb ban, he bristles.
“Now wait,” Upton says. “This was the [California Democrat Jane] Harman bill, passed on a voice vote. President Bush signed it. And the industry supported that. And I, you know, and as we prepared for the chairman race, I said publicly, lots of times, we’re going to readdress this.” A repeal of the ban was attached to a couple appropriation bills, he adds, but, like most of the committee’s work, died in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
That sort of Washingtonese explanation probably offers little solace to those who looked at Upton as an insider, a go-along-to-get-along Republican just itching to cut a deal with Democrats. Upton’s primary opponent, former state representative Jack Hoogendyk, calls Upton a “squishy moderate” and says he’s “not convinced” the congressman got the message of 2010. Others say that’s just not true.
“There’s an old expression,” says Tim Walberg, a fellow Republican congressman from Michigan. “You use the levers of power that you have.” Upton’s voting record, Walberg says, reflects the sentiments of his mildly Republican district, but as Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, Upton is using his considerable power to represent a much more conservative conference. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, thinks Upton’s critics are looking at the wrong statistic. Says Norquist, “You don’t ask a pitcher what his batting average is.”
Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.