Washington • Rep. Rob Bishop ran for re-election on the promise that it would be his last. That’s because he looked forward to having one last lap as chairman of the Natural Resources Committee under term limits imposed by the Republicans.
While Utah voters were happy to oblige and returned him for a ninth term by an overwhelming margin, voters in other states had different plans. With the Democratic takeover of the House in the midterm elections, Bishop will be relegated to the minority, stripped of his gavel and much of his power.
It won’t be a first for the Utah conservative. He has been in the minority before.
He didn’t like it.
“I was somewhat naive as to what I was going to anticipate after losing the majority after the ’06 election,” Bishop, who first took office in 2003, says. “I was shocked, and I was negatively surprised. So I’m not going in with a whole lot of anticipation of something being very positive [but still with] hope that I can be positively surprised this time.”
Democrats swept into the majority in that election and elected Nancy Pelosi as the first female speaker of the House. It is expected she will be returned to the speaker’s chair in January, although there may be other Democrats vying for the post.
Every change of power is different, Bishop says, but he laments how Pelosi, D-Calif., governed with a heavy hand — a charge that, of course, was leveled at Republicans when they won control of the House in 2010 and installed John Boehner of Ohio, and later Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, as speaker.
Being in the minority is an experience most Republicans in the House haven’t had, including Utah Reps. John Curtis and Chris Stewart. (The re-election race of Rep. Mia Love remains too close to call.)
“They’re going to have to experience that for themselves,” Bishop says when asked what advice he’d offer his colleagues.
It’s a position that definitely is not as fun as being in charge, he adds.
Bishop, for example, will not only surrender his chairmanship of the Natural Resources Committee, but he’ll also lose power on the House Rules Committee, which decides how bills will be handled on the floor.
Curtis and Stewart didn’t have the seniority to lose a position in the forthcoming shift, though being in the minority means less of a chance to pass legislation or control agendas. That includes, for example, the Intelligence Committee, where Stewart has been a fairly vocal skeptic of intelligence agencies' view that Russian interference in the 2016 election was aimed at helping elect President Donald Trump.
The biggest impact could be in legislation that Utahns want to push that may be blocked under Democratic control, specifically bills introduced by Curtis and Stewart to codify Trump’s shrinking of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
Curtis, who has been in Congress about a year, says there is no rush to get those bills passed and believes he can work with Democrats to advance them.
“We've tried to be sensitive and really haven't moved that bill forward for some time,” he said last week. “I want broader support.”
Curtis, who replaced Rep. Jason Chaffetz midterm, says he will be fine in the minority because he feels he’s worked across the aisle as a newbie.
“I’ll continue that track of working in a bipartisan fashion," he says, “and look forward to still being able to accomplish things that we can do when we work together.”
While Bishop has recently worked on legislation in consultation and cooperation with Democrats on natural resources, he has often infuriated environmentalists on public lands issues. Those groups hope to have a much more sympathetic ear in Arizona Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva, who is expected to take over as leader of the committee.
Grijalva already has indicated that under his leadership the committee will want to investigate accusations of abuse of office against Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
While Bishop says he holds out hope for collegial relationships with the incoming majority, he doesn’t have much good to say about Pelosi.
“If she follows through what was announced as her agenda, then it will be, at best, gridlock,” Bishop says. Then, he jokes, “At worst, the Second Coming hits and the entire nation is destroyed.”
When the new term begins after the pending retirement of Sen. Orrin Hatch, Bishop will be the longest-sitting member of Utah’s congressional delegation.
He knows that Democrats will go after Trump with investigations and that Cabinet members will be hauled before committees to probe actions under this administration. Still, he hopes for a better across-the-aisle working relationship than he encountered during the last Democratic majority.
“We’re going to have to see it,” he says. “I’m skeptical, but they could totally change. It depends on the tone and tenor.”
That said, with the White House and the Senate still controlled by Republicans, a Democratically controlled House means Americans can’t just blame one party if things go awry.
“That is a silver lining when it comes to finger-pointing,” he says. But, Bishop adds, “I’d rather be held accountable for getting something done.”