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Pyle: You gotta know the territory

Published May 31, 2013 4:50 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

[Above: This is not the friend I am writing about. It's the Hollywood version of the scene he was in.]

A good friend of mine was in a lot of community theater musicals, even though he was the first to admit that he couldn't sing a lick. He figured out that most musicals either have one character who doesn't sing much or can be played quite well by someone who can't sing but can patter (today they'd call it rap) with the best of them, as he can.

He did, for example, knock 'em dead as the traveling anvil salesman in "The Music Man." The one who says repeatedly in the opening number, "You gotta know the territory."

Jason Chaffetz, whose politics my friend shares, knows the territory.

When he's on Fox News, the young congressman from Utah does flawless tea party stand-up. He can be counted on to insist, among other things, that the horrible events of Benghazi mean something other than the Colin Powell (if not Sun Tzu) dictum of war: The first reports from the battlefield are always wrong.

He's riding the Fast and Furious and IRS scandals hard and putting them away wet.

Actually, there probably is something to the IRS matter, whether it can be tied to the White House or not. But a big part of the something is the fact that the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling made it possible for high-roller political donors of both parties to hide their influence behind alleged "social welfare" funds like Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS.

Groups that make such claims should be audited. Republicans such as Chaffetz would be right to object that similar groups on the left apparently weren't included in the IRS dragnet. But they probably won't, because rich people using deceptive means to influence the path of government isn't what they are against.

But, when Chaffetz is on about such things, it seems mostly for show. Raw hamburger for the base. Keep your name on the blogs and your face on TV.

A different Rep. Chaffetz occasionally pays a visit to The Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board. Again, he knows the territory. He presents himself, credibly, as a serious-minded policy wonk who is more interested in doing the math than in playing a partisan game of gotcha. It makes him look good to us. And it flatters the heck out of any clutch of journalists when a public official treats them as equals who can understand complicated policy matters.

Not that long ago, Chaffetz brought us a well-thought-out plan for saving Social Security that, while it didn't do enough to shift the burden to the wealthy, would have worked. And he had the written report from the Social Security Administration's own actuary to prove it.

Why, we asked, didn't you include the single most effective tool for rescuing Social Security, subjecting higher incomes to the withholding tax instead of only taxing the first $113,700 of income? Because, he straightforwardly answered, I'm a Republican, and Republicans never begin their negotiations with a tax hike.

That idea hasn't gone anywhere, yet. Entitlement reform is still too hot.

But last week Chaffetz dropped by, with former U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman in tow, with a detailed and documented proposal to change the way the U.S. Bureau of Prisons treats its inmates. It would use established scientific methods to determine which prisoners pose the least threat to society, and shift them to lower security,and much lower cost, options such as halfway houses, house arrest or ankle bracelets. It would save the government billions and do a better job of reintegrating to society the 99 percent of federal inmates who will eventually be released.

We liked it, but we asked Chaffetz if his fellow conservatives, who say they like to cut spending but never want to look soft on crime, would go for it. He was ready for that. The idea, he said, comes from Texas.

I told you he knows the territory.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, is a pop culture trivia trove posing as a policy wonk. Email him at gpyle@sltrib.com.