At the national level, political pundits look at Rep. Jason Chaffetz and see a conservative Republican who has made his mark by launching investigation after investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Within Utah’s 3rd Congressional District and beyond, though, the four-term congressman says he’s developed a reputation for working well with representatives from both sides of the aisle on broad, bipartisan legislation.
“It’s one of the reasons why I’ve been able to pass so many bills,” he told the Moab Sun News.
While he’s best known nationally as the chair of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Chaffetz reflected on some of his lesser-known work during a low-key visit to southeastern Utah two months ahead of the Nov. 8 general election.
That includes his long-standing partnership with Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-California, to secure more federal funding for the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Project.
Crews are currently just over halfway through the process of moving an estimated 16 million tons of uranium mill tailings from the old Atlas Mill site along the banks of the Colorado River north of Moab to a long-term disposal cell near Crescent Junction.
The project’s funding levels have been subject to the whims of Congress and federal officials, while acts of Mother Nature have also brought the project to a crawl at other times.
In a further blow to the project, lead contractor Portage, Inc., laid off 31 crew members earlier this year, and now that it’s faced with the possibility of additional delays, Chaffetz said he’s eager to “get this thing done and over.”
“I’ve made it a priority in our office,” he said.
Along with Napolitano and other congressional allies, Chaffetz said he obtained $2.8 million more than President Barack Obama’s administration originally proposed for the coming federal fiscal year. Yet just weeks after a top U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) official reiterated her agency’s commitment to the Moab project, the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management announced that it was seeking a “modest” $3.8 million cut to its budget.
That announcement came around the same time that the DOE’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C., received an 80 percent funding boost, and Chaffetz pushed back against the agency’s claims that Moab UMTRA funding is in short supply.
“It’s fiction to suggest it was a funding problem,” he said.
In addition to teaming up with Napolitano, Chaffetz cited his work with Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Arizona, to increase funding for critical school bus routes on the Navajo Nation in southeastern Utah and northern Arizona. Their collaboration marked the first time in three decades that those funding levels went up, he said.
More recently, Chaffetz intervened on behalf of Moab-area constituents who will likely cast their ballots for his Democratic challenger, former Overstock.com senior vice president Stephen Tryon – if they haven’t done so already.
When Arches National Park informed local guides and outfitters that it planned to eliminate commercial guiding services within the park’s Fiery Furnace area as of Jan. 1, 2017, Chaffetz formally called on the park to reconsider its decision.
In response, park officials hit the pause button on the proposal and announced that they planned to engage in further discussions to address the issue of growing competition for a limited number of commercial permits for the Fiery Furnace.
On the other side of the country, Chaffetz remains busy as the head of the U.S. House’s watchdog committee that works to prevent and expose government waste, fraud and abuse.
His chairmanship follows the controversial tenure of former House Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa, R-California, and continues his bipartisan working relationship with ranking committee member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland.
The political odd couple strengthened that partnership during tours of their respective congressional districts in 2014, and together, Chaffetz said, they have jointly signed more than 300 letters on issues that come before their committee.
From college Democrat to congressional Republican
Two decades before he walked onto the national stage, Chaffetz was a college Democrat who had family ties by marriage to former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis: His father was once married to Dukakis’ wife Kitty.
After he graduated from Brigham Young University in Provo, he launched his own communications firm, and he later went on to work as a campaign manager and chief of staff to former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. In 2008, voters in the overwhelmingly Republican 3rd Congressional District sent him to Washington, D.C., and during the next three election cycles, he was re-elected with more than 70 percent of the vote.
Today, any traces of his Democratic past vanish when the subject turns to Hillary Clinton, his former party’s nominee for president.
Chaffetz said he “knows” that Clinton lied about her use of a private email server during her time as U.S. Secretary of State. His views have been largely shaped by his committee’s investigations into her actions and statements before and after the September 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.
“I’m 100 percent certain that she’ll look into the camera and lie at any minute,” he said.
But he’s still hopeful that he can work with President Obama’s administration on the eastern Utah Public Lands Initiative (PLI). Along with Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, Chaffetz finally unveiled the bill in July.
After four years of working on the proposal, Chaffetz said he can look everybody in the eye and tell them that he’s trying to resolve those disputes in a bipartisan way, without sacrificing any of his principles.
“I feel for the fifth-generation Grand County resident who’s tired of seeing the constant fighting and all of the uncertainty that goes along with it,” he said.
While environmentalists and conservation groups have widely condemned the PLI, Chaffetz said that as an “eternal optimist,” he’s believes the bill could become law with some help from the White House.
“It is one of the largest land deals that would have ever been done in the history of the U.S.,” he said.
However, it doesn’t take a seasoned political observer to question whether the bill has a realistic shot at becoming law during the waning days of President Obama’s administration, and in the midst of an especially contentious election year. The bill is also competing with a rival proposal from conservationists, environmentalists and some tribal members that calls on the president to set aside 1.9 million acres of public lands in San Juan County as the Bears Ears National Monument.
Democratic challenger sees Chaffetz as part of the problem in D.C.
The issue of public lands is one where Chaffetz and his Democratic challenger part ways.
Tryon opposes the PLI, and supports the Bears Ears National Monument, because he doesn’t believe that the bill’s authors represented key constituencies, such as tribal members – or their interests.
“I don’t think that everybody’s had a fair seat at the table on the PLI,” Tryon said.
Tryon, who tried to meet with Chaffetz in Washington, D.C., several years ago to discuss some of the ideas he raised in his self-published book “Accountability Citizenship,” said he doesn’t believe the congressman listens to his constituents. He said he considers Chaffetz to be a big part of the failure on Capitol Hill, and if he’s elected, he said he would work to restore voters’ faith and confidence in a Congress whose public approval rating currently hovers at around 11 percent of likely voters.
Tryon, a self-described “budget hawk,” said he wants to control the deficit and rein in federal spending – tasks that Chaffetz has failed to accomplish during his time in office, he said.
“We need Jason Chaffetz to do his job and balance the budget, and he hasn’t done it for eight years,” Tryon said. “I’m sick of it.”
Grand County Democratic Party chair Bob Greenberg said he believes the congressman is more committed to right-wing causes than to his constituents in Moab.
“I don’t know what he really stands for, other than that ultra-rightist ideology,” Greenberg said.
Perhaps not surprisingly, though, Grand County Republican Party chair Curtis Wells doesn’t see it that way.
“Never in the history of this congressional district have we had a representative that has parallel tracked battling federal corruption and overreach, while simultaneously being present and available to discuss local issues with his constituents in our community,” Wells said. “I’m thankful for Congressman Chaffetz’s willingness to continue to serve Grand County in the U.S. House of Representatives and I look forward to two more years of his exceptional service.”
Republican is running for fifth term in U.S. House
This is the second of two profiles about the candidates for Utah’s 3rd Congressional District seat. A profile of Democrat Stephen Tryon appeared in the Oct. 6-12, 2016 edition of the Moab Sun News.