WASHINGTON — Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., now has a law to his name.
It’s pretty modest. But when President Barack Obama recently signed a McClintock bill transferring federal land to an Indian tribe in California’s El Dorado County, it was a milestone of sorts.
The one-page bill transferring 40.8 acres to the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians marked McClintock’s reaching the White House finish line. More often, the 58-year-old conservative is a voice in opposition, decrying a government gone bad. It’s a distinctive approach, strictly principled and at times, some say, uncompromising.
“I think you’ll find colleagues that like me, and colleagues that don’t like me,” McClintock said in an interview, “but they’ll always know where I stand.”
Presently in his sixth year in the U.S. House of Representatives, representing a sprawling and mountainous district that spans 10 California counties, McClintock does sometimes stand apart. He belongs to the House majority. He’s also a natural dissenter, shaped by years in the legislative minority.
The resulting tension is between governance and ideals, between deal-making and holding firm. It’s a balancing act, for which McClintock gets both praise and criticism.
“There’s no question that he’s a conservative,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. “And when he gets engaged and really tackles an issue, there’s no one better than him. I think he’s a good member.”
Critics, including some within his own party, counter that McClintock sticks to his guns to the detriment of legislating.
“I’ve known him since we were in the state Assembly together in 1982, and he’s never changed his stripes,” said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif. “He’s been a contrarian...a true, right-wing conservative.”
McClintock’s distinctive political style is now at the center of a challenge brought by fellow Republican Arthur Moore, a West Point graduate and Iraq War veteran. Moore is underfunded, having only $4,269 on hand as of June 30, and a political novice.
McClintock, by contrast, had $425,568 in the bank as of June 30, and he’s seasoned by some 15 prior state and federal campaigns. Moore’s challenge is thus a kind of exploratory drilling, seeking voter discontent in a district where Republicans enjoy a 45 percent to 29 percent voter registration advantage over Democrats.
For critics and fans of McClintock alike, his opposition to a farm bill presents a Rorshach’s test of sorts: principled, or rigid? McClintock in January voted against the farm bill package, which includes farm funding as well as the Payment in Lieu of Taxes for rural counties with federal timber lands. The 10 counties represented in whole or in part by McClintock are receiving about $9.2 million this year through the PILT program he voted against.
Some of his colleagues, not all of whom are willing to discuss McClintock on the record, scratch their heads at his being one of 166 House members to oppose the farm bill. McClintock, though, calls the vote a principled stand against a bill that funds what he termed “bloated subsidies” for crops and an “out-of-control food stamp program.”
“I strongly support PILT, but cannot support the overall bill into which it has been placed,” McClintock explained at the time.
Other times, McClintock makes his stand through amendments, particularly to appropriations bills. Of 18 amendments authored by McClintock to get a floor vote since Republicans gained control in 2011, 14 have been rejected, some times by large margins of both parties.
“He doesn’t get the support of his own caucus,” Farr said. “It’s hard to lead, if you can’t rally your team.”
Some measures succeed quietly, however. In June, by voice vote, the House adopted a McClintock amendment forbidding Defense Department funds from being spent to meet the Obama administration’s “Green Energy” mandates. McClintock, moreover, notes that lost votes can still serve a purpose.
“Even if they fail, they signal to the Appropriations committee that more care needs to be taken,” McClintock said, adding that amendments “put pressure” on other lawmakers.
The jury is still out on several other key measures.
A California water bill that passed through McClintock’s subcommittee, initially written by Nunes and now carried by freshman Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., is the subject of quiet negotiations. McClintock’s chief subcommittee staffer is taking a key role in the discussions now underway with Senate staffers.
A Yosemite-area timber salvage bill passed by the House, but not the Senate, remains stuck in limbo. The reasons why are in dispute. McClintock said he has already compromised on the language, and said it is now up to the Senate to move.
“He’s great,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who worked with McClintock on the timber bill at the House Natural Resources Committee. “He’s very blunt, he gets to the point very quickly and he does his homework. He has the data down.”
A fellow Californian who also tried to negotiate with McClintock on the timber salvage bill expressed frustration over McClintock’s role.
“He wouldn’t take any suggestions that could actually become law,” said Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat who beat McClintock in the 2006 California lieutenant governor’s race. “He wanted to take the bill too far toward the position of removing environmental protections.”
Congressional effectiveness can elude easy measurement, and legislating is only one test. Another is constituent service. On this, some give high marks to McClintock and his local team, led by district staff director, retired Navy officer Rocklun “Rocky” Deal.
Deal and McClintock, for instance, have helped the South Tahoe Public Utilities District navigate the federal bureaucracy and obtain needed permits, the district’s assistant general manager, Paul Sciuto, said in an interview. McClintock’s tone with civil servants can sometimes sound harsh or lecturing _ at a June hearing, he denounced absent Forest Service officials as being “fatuous and wholly unresponsive” _ but he’s also gained some allies.
“He’s really taken a lot of effort to get to know the park,” Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said. “He’s been putting a lot of time and energy into it. It’s been great to get to know him.”
This month, during the congressional August recess, McClintock will be back in the 4th Congressional District, giving more constituents and voters the chance to know him, as well.
“It has great challenges,” McClintock said of his congressional job, “but boredom is not one of them.”