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The right time for Mr. Right: How Jason Lewis plans to make the most of a very good time to be a Republican

Freshmen representatives aren’t usually in a good position to do much in Washington. But Republican control of all the levers of the federal government may give Lewis a unique opportunity.

Rep. Jason Lewis: “There are 435 Type A persons in the House of Representatives. The idea that one of them is going to go there and get their way on everything is ludicrous on its face.”
MinnPost photo by Sam Brodey

There are a few things on the to-do list of every brand-new member of Congress: learn your way around, angle for good committee assignments, furnish an empty office with chairs and desks and staffers.

And if you’re Jason Lewis, your to-do list also includes repealing the Affordable Care Act.

Not all freshmen members of Congress get to contribute to their party’s top agenda items from the get-go. But Lewis, the new representative of the 2nd Congressional District, and his fellow freshmen, arrive in a Washington in which the White House and Congress will soon be controlled by the GOP.

The former conservative talk radio host who called himself Minnesota’s “Mr. Right” finds himself in D.C. at the right moment: there might be no better time to be an ambitious freshman Republican. MinnPost caught up with Lewis about what he, and his party, might accomplish.

From AM to D.C.

Before the election, not a whole lot of Minnesota political insiders on either side imagined that Lewis and Trump would be packing their bags for Washington at the same time.

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Both candidates, brandishing their outsider credentials and penchants for controversy, rode a wave of anti-establishment dissatisfaction to improbable wins in November.

In that sense, Lewis is just right for this political moment, which rewarded the kind of controversial rhetoric and partisan warfare that he practiced for over two decades on the radio.

But Lewis has also framed his experience on the radio as a process of engaging with ideas. Indeed, he had hundreds of hours to debate and elaborate on his philosophy of government, which he describes as Constitution-centered, “small-l” libertarianism.

Sitting in his office in the Capitol’s Cannon Building — still in the process of being decorated — Lewis talked about the sharp differences between pontificating from a studio and holding a congressional seat, calling it a humbling and solemn responsibility.

He is aware that any lawmaker, much less a freshman, doesn’t get to run their own show. “There are 435 Type A persons in the House of Representatives,” he said. “The idea that one of them is going to go there and get their way on everything is ludicrous on its face.”

On the to-do list: health care, regulations

Lewis is not only just one of 435 members of the House, but one of 50-some freshmen. A vote is just about all that most first-term members have: they must spend years putting in the political grunt work and forging the connections needed to wield any actual clout on Capitol Hill.

It’s early, but Lewis is off to a decent start, and could have more influence than the average freshman in tackling the policy items that he and his party are prioritizing right now — namely, the Affordable Care Act.

On Tuesday, Lewis was named to the House Budget Committee — “prestigious,” per his office’s press release — which will play a key role in crafting the GOP’s plan to repeal Obamacare. (No other Minnesotan representative serves on that panel.) Because of the GOP’s wins in November, that prospect is a reality now, not a pipe dream.

The committee assignment is a good fit for Lewis, who made health care issues a central element of his winning campaign, and is clearly at home talking about free-market reforms to the system.

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Though he’s a zealous opponent of the law, Lewis is echoing some of his GOP colleagues in urging caution and patience in proceeding with the ACA repeal.

“We’re not going to do this the way Democrats did it Christmas Eve 2009 and March of 2010 when they crammed this thing through,” he said. “We are going to start the process, we’re going to start in the Budget Committee, we’re going to move on that and we’re going to repeal and replace.”

Lewis endorsed the idea, advanced by most GOP leaders, of phasing out what he called the ACA’s most onerous elements through the process of budget reconciliation, and then setting up a transition period to replace the law. “We’re going to do it right so we have a health care reform process that makes health care both more affordable and portable.” (A more portable health care plan means certain benefits may be enjoyed regardless of an individual’s job change or retirement.)

Another key agenda item for Republicans, and a favorite topic for the libertarian-minded Lewis, is easing government regulations across the board. In the first days of Congress, the House GOP approved a bill requiring Congress to sign off on significant federal agency regulations within 70 days, a measure Lewis strongly backed.

Other regulations the Republican hopes to target include the Waters of the U.S. rule, an Environmental Protection Agency regulation that defines which bodies of water are subject to federal regulation.

Republicans and industry interests claim the rule generates unnecessary red tape for land use, and Lewis called it devastating to the agriculture industry in his district.

‘I’m not just going to be a rubber stamp’

Beyond policy, Lewis must also navigate the complex politics of Congress — a task that requires considerable tact.

Lewis was diplomatic on two topics that dogged him during the campaign: his views on Trump, and his relationship with the congressional GOP’s most far-right members.

Trump, shunned in many conservative circles for his disregard of their small-government ideology, is hardly the perfect fit with Lewis’ beliefs.

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In an interview with MinnPost’s Brian Lambert from September 2015, before he announced his bid, Lewis called Trump a “richer and smarter Jesse Ventura,” and said he liked how Trump was shaking things up. During the campaign, however, he did not go out of his way to praise Trump.

These days, like many Republicans, Lewis publicly regards Trump as a largely unknown quantity with the potential to do good. If Trump does not, he says “I’m not just going to be a rubber stamp. I’m not here for that.”

Lewis did say he was impressed by some Cabinet picks, particularly Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, and South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a friend of his who was picked to head the Office of Management and Budget.

“It is a team of rivals approach that is intriguing,” he said, “and nobody knows which way it’s going.”

At one point in the campaign, Lewis also said he would join the House Freedom Caucus, a group of 40 or so Republicans who aggressively push a very conservative agenda, and frequently clash with GOP leadership. (Mulvaney is a prominent member of the Freedom Caucus.)

Now, he says he will not join that group, saying it is important for the district that he remain independent.

That perception of independence will be politically important for Lewis, too. The 2nd District is hardly deep red: it has voted for Republicans and Democrats for different offices in the past, and leans Republican by just two points, according to the Cook Partisan Voter Index.

Lewis’ seat won’t be defended easily: in the 2018 midterm, he will be a top target for Democrats. Soon, party organizations like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will begin hammering him on key votes.

Lewis isn’t worried about that, citing his win in November. “We did it once, I’m confident we’ll do it again,” he said.

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As for now, Lewis is looking forward to his new job. “You talk about this stuff for 25 years, now I get a chance to vote on it,” he said.

“You can talk until you’re blue in the face. Now I get to cast a vote. That’s nice. I like that.”