WASHINGTON – As U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis’ fellow House Republicans struggled last week to resurrect a controversial bid to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, Minnesota’s newest congressman staked out far less controversial territory.
“Ensuring our young people grow into productive members of society is essential to building a strong and prosperous nation,” Lewis said as he championed one of his first legislative initiatives, a measure meant to improve the nation’s juvenile justice policy.
Approaching 100 days in office, Lewis’ new congressional career is unfolding during an unusually chaotic era in Washington. He’s among the most nationally prominent freshman representatives, given his decades as a conservative talk radio host and thanks to his upset win last year in the Twin Cities’ southeastern suburbs.
Even as the conservative movement consolidates power in Washington, Lewis is carving out his own identity. He declined to join the conservative House Freedom Caucus and highlighted the bipartisan nature of his juvenile justice initiative. He spoke out in favor of allowing states to set their own marijuana laws, as the Justice Department under President Trump considers stricter federal oversight. And in response to Trump’s decision to launch missiles into Syria last week, Lewis publicly cautioned that “any escalation of military action must get approval from Congress.”
“I want to maintain my independence,” Lewis said, acknowledging that he has to be mindful of representing a swing district. Democrats nationally and in Minnesota are already eyeing Lewis’ Second Congressional District, and his 2016 DFL opponent Angie Craig is leaning toward running again.
The House Education and Workforce Committee passed the proposal from Lewis and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., without dissent. It was a small victory for Lewis to promote after the controversial health care overhaul — which he loudly backed — collapsed amid internal Republican dissent.
Lewis, who lives in Woodbury, said there’s an assumption in Washington that freshman members of Congress should be seen and not heard. But House Republicans got him involved quickly. During the House floor debate on the health care bill, Lewis was asked to speak and delivered an impassioned defense of the measure. Republican leadership pulled the measure from consideration soon after, but have since been working on retooling it. Congress is now in a two-week recess.
After campaigning on a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, Lewis has continued to stand by the Republican proposal as an effective replacement. He said lawmakers need to come up with the most conservative, free-market health care legislation that can pass Congress.
On the wall of Lewis’ new U.S. Capitol office hangs a Wipline float, a large pontoon-like device manufactured by Wipaire Inc. that helps seaplanes stay afloat. Another wall is adorned with pictures, some from the 1980s: Lewis posing with prominent Republican Jack Kemp, and another with President Ronald Reagan. He just secured a one-bedroom apartment near the Capitol, relieved to no longer be sleeping on an air mattress in his office.
A member of the House Budget Committee, Lewis will help shape a federal government spending plan; he hopes to set a “glide path” toward a balanced budget. Trump’s initial budget blueprint is already drawing controversy from not just Democrats but many Republicans, and some of his proposals would hit the Upper Midwest hard. Trump wants to cut 21 percent of spending at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and practically eliminate a program to restore the Great Lakes.
Lewis said he’s concerned about the $20 trillion national debt. But he’s opposed to eliminating entire programs, or massive cuts in one area. Lewis would rather have smaller across-the-board reductions.
“I think everyone needs to have skin in the game,” he said.
Long before his congressional campaign, Lewis criticized the war on drugs and called for marijuana reform. He’s taken that up in Congress just as the Trump administration has indicated that the federal government might target states that legalized marijuana for recreational use, stirring both liberal and conservative pushback.
Lewis recently joined other lawmakers in signing a letter, initiated by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., to leaders of the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations subcommittee advocating a ban on funds that would be used to prosecute people complying with their state’s medical marijuana laws.
Lewis co-sponsored the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act, which would exempt people from some provisions of federal drug policy if they follow the marijuana laws in their own state. Lewis also co-sponsored a law directing the government to change the classification of marijuana to allow for more research on its medicinal uses. Medical marijuana has become legal in half the states now, including Minnesota in 2015.
“Is that a conservative position or is that a liberal position?” Lewis asked. “Depends who you talk to, I guess, but I want to be free to be able to adopt those positions.”
He added: “People say, ‘What kind of conservative are you?’ I’m a Jason Lewis conservative.”
Angie Craig questioned whether Lewis is as independent as he suggests. The DFLer from Eagan who narrowly lost to Lewis in November said last week that she is “strongly considering” a rematch next year. She plans to decide for sure this summer.
“[Lewis] promised during the last election that he’d be an independent voice for Minnesota, and my view is that he’s been anything but that so far,” said Craig.
On Facebook, Craig posted an ad attacking Lewis’ support for the health care legislation. The ad was part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s first ad buy of the next election cycle. It targeted 14 Republicans, including Lewis’ fellow Minnesota Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen, who voted for the bill in committee and who also represents a largely suburban district in the west metro.
Lewis said he was disappointed with the ads, and acknowledged he would have a tough reelection.
“We just got done with the campaign, guys,” he said. “Now we’ve got to govern.”
Lewis’ early efforts on issues facing at-risk youth involve the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act, which was passed in 1974 to coordinate the federal government’s work to improve state juvenile justice systems. Lewis and Scott have worked to boost support for prevention services, and to require use of strategies based on evidence and reliable data to reduce risky juvenile behavior.
Lewis appears to be trying to tone down his reputation as a bombastic commentator.
“There’s a difference,” he said, “between being a talk-show host and a legislator.”