Rep. Bob Goodlatte is loved by some, disliked by others for blocking laws on civil rights issues

Nov 16, 2015
In The News

WASHINGTON — A 9/11 first responder thinks he's an "a--hole."

The grieving father of the Virginia reporter killed on-camera in his community says he's a "coward."

And he's been a lead obstacle on a number of civil rights issues with bipartisan support.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) is well-liked personally by congressmen in both parties. But he's been a major roadblock on a bevy of issues, leaving his colleagues frustrated and advocates enraged.

The powerful chairman recently undercut a bill giving 9/11 first responderssuffering from illnesses and their families permanent healthcare and financial support.

He's refusing to even hold a hearing on gun control after two reporters from his area of Virginia were murdered on live TV.

Goodlatte also played a key role in killing legislation to fix the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court gutted a key provision, and helped make sure immigration reform did not get to the House floor.

All those issues have at least some bipartisan support, and many would likely pass into law if Republican leaders ever let the House vote on them.

Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), a member of House Democratic leadership and a longtime civil rights leader, described the Judiciary Committee under Goodlatte as "a graveyard on issues of justice and equality."

"Maybe he's doing the job he thinks his constituents want him to do. But if that's true they all have my prayers," he told the Daily News.

Goodlatte has a long track record of working across the aisle on issues from Internet and patent reform to passing a Farm Bill when he was Agriculture Committee chairman.

He helped reform the PATRIOT Act, worked with Rep. Carolyn Maloney's (D-Manhattan) to move legislation that is reducing the rape kit backlog, and has shown some willingness to work with Democrats to move criminal justice reform.

But members privately say he's undercutting his fair-minded reputation with some of his recent moves as chairman — and with sentencing reform and money for 9/11 first respondents on the line, how he acts in the coming months will have a huge impact on many lives.

Goodlatte recently told reporters on gun control that "we need to have greater enforcement of the myriad of gun laws that we already have on the books" rather than new laws.

He argued to The Hill in September that immigration reform would result in "too many unintended consequences." And he said in early 2015 that he wouldn't allow movement on a bipartisan bill to fix the Voting Rights Act backed by a previous Republican chairman because he did not see it as "necessary."

"Back in my early days up here he was one of those people who I had a certain feeling of admiration for. But maybe he thinks his constituency changed or something," said Clyburn, who has served with Goodlatte for more than two decades.


Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a leading voice on immigration reform and a Judiciary Committee member, said there's a "stark difference" in how Goodlatte began as chairman and in recent months, ripping him for taking a more autocratic approach to running the committee during recent hearings on Planned Parenthood and lamenting his refusal to hold gun control hearings.

"Politically he maintains the door closed, got the gates closed, locked up, padlocked to anything," he said.

Goodlatte's recent heavy-handedness came into full display a few weeks ago.

After 9/11 advocates showed they had comfortable majorities in both chambers of Congress for a permanent extension to the Zadroga Act, a law that provides health benefits and money for those who helped at the sites of the 9/11 attacks and are now suffering major illnesses and can't work, Goodlatte introduced competing legislation that extended it for just five years and dramatically reducing the programs' promised payouts.

He did so after refusing to meet with advocates of the bill, hold a hearing on why it needs to be extended or talk to the bipartisan delegation that has worked for 14 years on the issue.

"He suddenly takes it upon himself to introduce a different bill on the same topic without talking to anybody who's been involved in it.... That is wrong. He should have talked to people," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan, Brooklyn), a Judiciary Committee member who's long been active on the Zadroga Act. "There's tremendous frustration on the inside and the outside."

Advocates — especially those whose lives have been personally affected by the issues Goodlatte is dragging his feet on addressing — are even more fiery in their criticism.

John Feal, who was injured during the World Trade Center cleanup and is a leading advocate for passing a full extension of the Zadroga Act, made a point to call Goodlatte an "a--hole" at a recent press conference, making the congressmen behind him squirm.

"What he did was an a--hole move by blocking a life-saving piece of legislation," Feal told the Daily News. "You have a responsibility as a member of Congress. You can't pick and choose which Americans you help and which you leave behind. He's failed, as a congressman and as a human being."

Andy Parker got involved in gun control efforts this year after his daughter, Alison Parker, was gunned down on air while broadcasting for a TV station in Goodlatte's district.

The congressman, who knew the Parkers personally, offered his prayers and agreed to meet him a few weeks ago, but told him he wouldn't hold a hearing on background checks or any other gun-related proposals unless Parker agreed to put out a statement calling on the Justice Department to more rigorously enforce existing laws.

"He's a coward," Parker told CNN after the meeting.

Goodlatte has refused to talk to the Daily News since his moves on the Zadroga Act and, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this story.

As members of both parties point out, it's hard to tease out how much Goodlatte is personally an obstacle to movement and how much he's just following the lead of GOP leadership and bowing to the will of the very conservative members on his committee and conference.

The House Judiciary Committee features some of the House's most ideologically rigid members. A quarter of the Republicans on the committee hail from the House Freedom Caucus, the fire-breathing conservative group that helped force John Boehner from the speakership.

More than two-thirds, including Goodlatte, are members of the hardline conservative, if less anti-establishment, Republican Study Committee.

"He wouldn't stand out as any different from, I would say, most Republicans, most of the Republican conference," said Rep. Peter King (R-L.I.), who's been working hard to try to pass a permanent Zadroga Act reauthorization. "That's part of the problem."

Goodlatte's more conservative colleagues love his work.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), a Freedom Caucus member, described Goodlatte as "a quiet giant" and a "keeper of the Constitution and the flame of liberty."

"His role in keeping legislation that is detrimental to the country off the floor I think is a vital one," he said. "If you'd have had some gutless chairman who just went with the contemporary politically correct flow it might be markedly different, but the country and the conference are very fortunate to have Bob Goodlatte where he is."

Whether Goodlatte is willing to break with hardline members like Franks in the coming months will go a long way in determining if issues like the Zadroga Act and criminal justice reform get real movement — or if they suffer the same fate as gun control, the Voting Rights Act and immigration reform in this Congress.

"The Judiciary Committee tends to attract the most extreme right-wing elements of the Congress and that's the crowd that Bob Goodlatte has to preside over," said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn), a committee member. "It's a leadership moment for him. Hopefully he'll step up."