Yes, even congressmen in their first two years in office can indeed make a difference. Bradley Byrne of southern Alabama is proving it.
Granted, I’m biased: He’s my home representative, and I had known and liked him and his whole family before he had the temerity to defeat me in a special election in late summer of 2013. (I endorsed him in the runoff after I finished fourth out of nine in the primary.)
But I think any conservative watching Byrne’s efforts would be heartened to see that a smart and tenacious conservative can start achieving results, even in the 435-member House, rather quickly.
In back-to-back days last week, for example, Byrne secured passage of important amendments — one on a national issue, by the full House, and one on a regional issue, by the key committee working on must-pass national legislation.
The national issue involves veterans’ care. In 2014, Congress wisely passed the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, one important provision of which allows veterans experiencing long wait times or living more than 40 miles from a VA facility to get VA reimbursement for private care instead. There’s no good reason that veterans should be forced to drive an hour or more for bureaucratic care — or wait more than a month for an appointment — when good doctors are available near their home. If Medicare patients can choose their own doctors, why shouldn’t veterans?
The Obama administration, though, immediately started to renege, asking to transfer billions of dollars out of that private-choice account and adopting the most restrictive interpretations of which veterans would qualify.
Enter Byrne. He offered an amendment to forbid the Secretary of Veterans Affairs from shifting money out of the program. The amendment passed easily, and is likely to become law. He also has introduced a stand-alone bill to insure broader interpretations of eligibility for private care. For example, if a veteran does live within 40 miles of a VA clinic but that clinic does not provide the particular medical service he needs, right now the VA still denies him private care and makes him travel however far it takes to find a VA facility that does handle his medical problems. Byrne’s bill would fix that absurd restriction.
On another issue — one unfamiliar to the inner heartland, but a highly emotional and economically important topic throughout the Gulf Coast — Byrne has won the first step of a big battle against federal regulators. Federal management of Gulf red snapper, fabulously popular among diners, is an absolute mess, relying on data that not only fishermen but also marine biologists and other scientists say is stupendously inaccurate. Recreational snapper-fishing seasons are thus limited to the point where they’re ludicrously short, while Gulf ecosystems are thrown out of whack by an excess of snapper, which is crowding out other species.
The federal regulators act under the auspices of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, a fisheries-management law of utmost importance to states along all three major U.S. coasts; this act will expire unless re-authorized this year. Byrne last week convinced the House Natural Resources Committee to adopt his amendment repealing the inflexible snapper quotas and return data collection to regional, more scientifically qualified bodies and away from flawed federal control.
It might not sound like a big deal, but down here in the Gulf, it has been one of talk radio’s hottest topics for at least five or six years. So far, powerful, veteran representatives and senators of both parties have been unable to pass a legislative fix. Byrne, less than two years after arriving in Washington, seems poised to do so.
Of course, not every Byrne effort is successful. On Friday, the Alabaman offered a meritorious amendment, taken straight from a Heritage Foundation recommendation, to eliminate a boondoggle program giving special subsidies to commercial “clean energy” programs. Alas, in proving again just how many Republicans are in thrall to corporate welfare, 100 GOP representatives joined a unanimous Democratic caucus in voting against Byrne’s amendment. Still, conservatives should be heartened to know they have a fighter who is serious about saving tax dollars.
A week earlier, Byrne introduced the Sunset Act, which would require 275 federal agencies and boards to expire at the end of every ten years if not reviewed and renewed every ten years. A week before that, Byrne joined with Terri Sewell, Alabama’s black Democratic congresswoman, to reintroduce the Workforce Development Tax Credit Act, a bill that would provide tax credits for businesses that operate manufacturing apprenticeship programs. (Rather than have government bureaucracies spend a fortune running inefficient job-training programs, why not encourage businesses to do so?)
New blood, if energetic and smart and serious and creative, can indeed achieve results in Congress within a reasonable time frame.
But most important, it was Byrne who authored the stand-alone bill that was used as the vehicle for the new House’s first, clean effort to repeal Obamacare and force a replacement based on conservative, market-based solutions. It passed the House in early February, 239 to 186.
My larger point is not so much to praise Byrne (although conservatives obviously should be pleased with his successes and his solidly conservative voting record), but to show dispirited conservatives that new blood, if energetic and smart and serious and creative, can indeed achieve results in Congress within a reasonable time frame. The nation’s capital is not yet quite so sclerotic as to be utterly immune from republican (small “r”) reform.
Even with a still-problematic Senate and with a hard-Left resident of the Oval Office, Byrne’s red-snapper reform and his protection for veterans both have good chance to become law. If a reformist-right president is elected in 2016, those sorts of successes could become not exceptions, but par for the course.
Early indications are that the House class of 2014 — one year behind Byrne in seniority — might contain an especially large number of particularly promising legislators. (Granted, several of the promising ones voted against Byrne’s budget-cutting amendment on energy programs, so nothing is a sure thing.) If these potential stars can keep their heads straight better than the famous but less-well-prepared class of 1994, then Congress will have a chance, once Obama has vacated the premises, of bringing the federal behemoth to heel.
Conservatives should take heart — and keep fighting.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer.