WASHINGTON — Life in the U.S. House of Representatives isn’t quite what Virginia’s two rookie Republican congressmen had hoped for.
Their Democratic counterparts are enjoying some of the perks of the majority, like subcommittee chairmanships, a leader who’s setting the legislative agenda and a better shot at getting their own bills passed in the House.
But for GOP Reps. Denver Riggleman, 5th, and Ben Cline, 6th, joining a chamber that’s bitterly divided along partisan lines has been frustrating, to say the least.
“It is diplomatic to say it’s frustrating. Frankly, it stinks,” Cline told the Virginia Mercury in a recent interview.
He spoke outside the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing room, which has been the epicenter for heated political spats over how aggressively the chamber should react to snubs by the White House in response to Democrats’ oversight efforts.
Cline, a lawyer who served in Virginia’s House of Delegates for 16 years, scored a seat on the powerful Judiciary Committee — a prized position for a newcomer to Congress — where he’s accused his colleagues in the majority of wasting time on political stunts.
“They’re obsessed with impeachment,” Cline said of House Democrats. “They understand that the American people don’t want impeachment so they’re trying to cloak it under the rubric of oversight, but it’s not working and all it’s doing is distracting from policy priorities like immigration reform,” he added.
Things work differently back in Virginia, Cline lamented.
“In Richmond, we search for ways that we can work with our minority and allowed their bills and their issues to get hearings, to get discussions and to pass,” he said. “If you talk to any delegate or senator in Richmond, they’ll tell you that they get bills passed every year, whereas here, the only bills that move are the ones that [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi wants to move.”
Cline has sided with the Trump administration’s positions on 96.4 percent of his key votes in Congress, according to an analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight. Riggleman has sided with President Donald Trump on 92.9 percent of those votes.
They have both voted against most of House Democrats’ top priorities, like sweeping voting rights legislation, a bill to block Trump from withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, legislation to require background checks for all firearm sales, and an effort to halt emergency funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Riggleman — a former Air Force intelligence officer-turned distillery owner — did vote with Democrats in April on a resolution that rebuked the Trump administration on health care policy. He was one of just eight House Republicans to support the resolution, which condemned the Justice Department’s decision to urge the full repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Critics of the Trump administration’s move warned that invalidating President Barack Obama’s signature health care law in its entirety would in turn remove existing protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
Riggleman cited health care — and protecting those with pre-existing conditions — among his top policy priorities in a recent interview with the Mercury. In addition to finding a “free-market policy solution to health care,” he said he’s interested in crime-fighting initiatives and policies to bring more migrant workers to his district, due to “massive labor shortages and the population loss.”
Riggleman’s massive and largely rural district reaches from the North Carolina border in the south all the way to the Washington exurbs in the northern part of the state.
Riggleman also landed a seat on a powerful and polarized House panel. He’s on the Financial Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over housing, banking, insurance and real estate. Its chairwoman, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) has been on a mission to obtain Trump’s tax returns.
“We’ve been actually getting some things done,” Riggleman said, noting that his committee hasn’t been at the center of the partisan drama surrounding impeachment proceedings. But, he added, “we’ve definitely had some fireworks” and there is “a divide on how some people look at the world.”
He noted that Democratic freshmen Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) also serve on the panel. “There are differences in policy, what we think America is about. But there hasn’t been any screaming or yelling,” he said.
Riggleman is sick of the impeachment talk, too.
“I believe sometimes when people don’t get what they want, I think there’s a temper tantrum about to come on down the line and I just find it amazing,” he said. “I’m here to try to get something done. … I think people who come from a business or military background are scratching their heads right now, [saying] let’s get something done, let’s move on.”
Virginia Democrats have largely been cautious about calling for an impeachment inquiry. Rep. Don Beyer (D-8th) became the first member of the Virginia congressional delegation last month to call for impeachment proceedings.
“Endorsing such a course is not easy, and I do not do so lightly, but I believe that the president has left Congress no other option but to pursue it,” Beyer said, according to the Washington Post.
Cline and Riggleman both noted that, despite their divisions, they’ve been able to find common ground with the Democrats in their delegation.
“We get along,” Cline said.
“We have a bipartisan delegation lunch every month and we all come. I’ve been impressed that the two senators have made their way over here a couple times. … When you’re talking about the port and you’re taking about transportation and infrastructure, there’s not a partisan angle to that as much as there’s a Virginia angle to it and we need to work together, so we’re doing that.”
Riggleman said, “There is still the Virginia way of meeting together.”
Still, the freshman Republican — who calls himself a “free market guy” who errs “on the side of liberty” — said he disagrees with some of the Democrats’ legislation.
“We do sometimes say, ‘What the heck are you doing, why are you voting that way?’ But I do believe we’re all doing it for the best interests of our constituencies and our districts,” Riggleman said.