published Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

Chuck Fleischmann bills languish in panels


by Chris Carroll

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U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann enjoys telling voters about legislation he has introduced to freeze government spending, eliminate capital gains taxes and abolish "wasteful" federal programs.

However, the Ooltewah Republican never tells campaign audiences that his legislative output -- six resolutions in all -- has stalled in various House committees.

Fleischmann is finishing his first term in the House, and in Thursday's 3rd Congressional District GOP primary he faces three Republican challengers who have used his record, or lack thereof, to question his effectiveness in Washington, D.C.

But one expert said it's "very hard" to usher significant legislation through Congress as a freshman.

"Seniority has a lot to do with it," said Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University. "You're talking about something that's normally difficult to do."

Still, according to USA Today, more than a dozen of Fleischmann's 91 first-term peers have bucked the trend. Thirteen freshman members have introduced at least two pieces of stand-alone legislation that eventually passed the House, the newspaper reported.

The group includes one Tennessee congressman whose legislation made it into a major bipartisan jobs bill that hit the president's desk. Many more freshmen have suggested successful amendments to House bills.

Meanwhile, records show Fleischmann has yet to suggest a single amendment to any piece of House legislation.

At least one of his opponents sees the inactivity as a sign of weakness.

"He hasn't accomplished anything legislatively," said Weston Wamp, a Republican running against Fleischmann. "I don't think being a freshman is any excuse."

Wamp, the 25-year-old son of former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, declined to make any promises about getting his own legislation passed if elected -- "you don't have any control over that" -- but said he would be "very aggressive" during his first term in Congress, especially on the matter of amending legislation.

Fleischmann rebuffed suggestions that he's had little personal impact as a freshman.

"I've focused on the private sector, getting government regulations stopped and keeping taxes low," he said.

Signs bill

Introduced in June 2011, Fleischmann's first bill would have eliminated a federal mandate for states to upgrade old signs on highways -- a job that would have cost Tennessee $50 million, his office said. Two months later, the U.S. Department of Transportation waived the requirements.

In a news release after the waiver, Fleischmann said his bill "played a role in bringing attention to this particular overreach by the federal government." A Department of Transportation spokeswoman declined to comment Tuesday when asked if Fleischmann had any influence in the department's decision.

Fleischmann's second bill asked for the elimination of taxes on capital gains for two years -- the key idea behind the congressman's seven-point jobs plan that he mentions in speech after speech. The capital gains tax bill hasn't left the House Ways and Means Committee since it was funneled there in November.

Fleischmann's third bill advocated the repeal of a U.S. Department of Energy weatherization program he said was duplicative. It hasn't left committee, and it's the same story with three other bills Fleischmann has introduced.

Other Freshmen

Tennessee's three other freshmen also have confronted legislative difficulties. One exception is U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Frog Jump. House Republicans used legislation that Fincher introduced to be the thrust behind the JOBS Act, a bill aimed at unwinding financial regulations and creating jobs.

The House and Senate passed Fincher's legislation, and President Barack Obama signed it into law in April.

The other two Volunteer State freshmen -- U.S. Reps. Diane Black and Scott DesJarlais, both Republicans -- haven't seen any of the combined 12 bills they've introduced pass, records show.

According to databases maintained by the Library of Congress, Black and Fincher are 2-for-2 in seeing their suggested changes pass. Like Fleischmann, DesJarlais hasn't offered any amendments.

Vanderbilt's Oppenheimer said Fleischmann and the other Tennesseans still are getting their feet wet, adding that it'll be important to monitor their second terms if they win re-election.

"It's very hard to tell in one Congress," he said, "Sometimes you can see who the real players are, but it's harder to tell who's not."

Ron Bhalla and Scottie Mayfield are the other Republicans running against Fleischmann, while Mary Headrick and Bill Taylor are fighting for the 3rd District's Democratic nomination. Independent candidate Matthew Deniston also is in the race.

Primaries are Thursday.

Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6610.

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