As a farmer, Dan Newhouse worries that the federal government hasn’t done enough to deal with the nation’s farm labor shortage by allowing the use of more foreign workers.
Now he’s hoping he’ll have a chance to do something about it, as possibly the newest member of Congress from Washington state.
The race is still officially undecided. Newhouse, a Republican, narrowly leads Clint Didier, also a Republican and a tea party favorite, in the race to replace GOP Rep. Doc Hastings, who is retiring after 10 terms.
Both candidates were invited to House freshmen orientation this week, but only Newhouse accepted. He was eager to begin meeting the other 434 House members who will be part of the new Congress in 2015.
“You’ve got to start at the bottom,” Newhouse said in an interview. “This is a very people-oriented business, and so you’ve got to build relationships and work with people. I’m excited to do that. The overwhelming thing is the numbers.”
First there are a few logistics to handle, including finding a place to live.
Newhouse said he has yet to hire a single staffer, but he’s looking at potential candidates between events. Wednesday night featured an opening reception for newly elected members. On Monday newcomers will gather for a class photo and study ethics guidelines. On Wednesday they’ll participate in an office lottery, which the congressman-elect said he has come to understand is “a really big deal.”
“There’s a lot to take in, “ Newhouse said. “I’ve been to Washington before, but not in this role obviously. So there’s just a lot of things coming at me.”
He said he’s optimistic that Congress can improve its image: “I believe in the system...You can’t find many things that are less popular than Congress today, so we have nowhere to go but up.”
The contest for the state’s 4th Congressional District seat made history, marking the first time that two Republicans faced each other in a general election in Washington state. Under the state’s primary law, the top two finishers advance.
Newhouse, 59, is a former Washington state legislator from Sunnyside. Didier, a former professional football player and member of the Washington Redskins, has yet to concede. Earlier this week, Newhouse led by 2,614 votes, with about 2,800 left to count. The Associated Press called the race for Newhouse a week ago and that was good enough for him.
“That’s the gold standard,” he said.
Todd Donovan, professor of political science at Western Washington University in Bellingham, said that Newhouse has survived “the tough first election,” but now needs to build seniority in a House that will have a much larger GOP majority next year.
“If Newhouse stays around for 10 years or so, he could end up quite influential as he works his way up the committee system,” Donovan said.
Newhouse wants a seat on the House Agriculture Committee, saying it would help him fight for changes in immigration laws to ease the agricultural labor shortage.
“I’m hopeful we can finally get to a solution on immigration and come up with the right answers,” he said.
If that doesn’t work out, he’s eyeing the Natural Resources, Appropriations and Armed Services committees as possible assignments. The latter two, he said, would allow him to focus on the Hanford nuclear waste site, the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site, located in the district.
His top goals include cutting federal spending and getting rid of the health care overhaul passed by Congress in 2010, derided by Republicans as “Obamacare.” Newhouse said his hope is that the new Congress will spend less time bickering and more time trying to work together.
“People are yelling at each other and over each other instead of actually talking to each other,” he said.
Two of Washington state’s current freshmen House members had some advice for their new colleague.
Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer said that the late Tom Swayze, who served as speaker of the Washington state House in the early 1970s, once told him that “neither party has a monopoly on good ideas and both sides occasionally have dumb ones.”
“His advice was this: Vote for the good bills and vote against the dumb ones,” Kilmer said.
And Democratic Rep. Denny Heck said Newhouse should get to know “as many members from different political backgrounds and from other regions” as he can.
“A good place to do this is on your committee,” Heck said. “Find places you agree and see what you can get done. And go home every chance you get.”
Newhouse said he wants to make the long coast-to-coast commute home as often as possible, but he’s not sure if he’ll do it every weekend.
“That seems to be the norm,” he said. “I understand the need to stay in touch with your folks at home. But on the other hand, that also detracts from your ability to build relationships with the people you work with.”