SALT LAKE CITY — He's often on CNN, Fox News, CNBC and MSNBC, not to mention the Glenn Beck show. He has his own Internet reality program on CNN.com. National newspapers quote him regularly. He is the ranking Republican on a subcommittee. And he has been entrusted by party leaders with some prime slots for debate and committee questioning.
And he's only a freshman.
And Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, says, "I'm having the time of my life" after his first year in Congress.
No House freshman in Utah history, and maybe U.S. history, has attracted so much positive media attention (although a few may have attracted it negatively for scandals, such as when the husband of former Rep. Enid Greene, R-Utah, was exposed for fraudulently claiming to be a millionaire, or former Rep. Douglas Stringfellow, R-Utah, falsely claimed he had been an heroic spy).
After all, House freshmen have been historically told to "go along to get along," and to be seen and not heard as they worked for future power. Chaffetz, 42, broke that mold with a bang.
"When I set out, I knew if we worked hard, voted right and did a great job communicating that we would be very successful. And I think we have done all three of those," he said.
But communicating has been his strong suit, as he has found ways to attract and keep the attention of national news media.
He says he didn't intentionally set out to do that. In fact, the first time he was called to be on a national news show, he called party leaders to see if that would be OK.
"They laughed," he said. "They said until we do a great job of communicating, we won't be in the job of legislating because we're in the minority. So take every opportunity to share our message."
He added, "After the first year, I think even they're amazed. I get teased because I get maybe more interviews than they do sometimes."
That started innocently enough when he attracted attention for sleeping on a cot in his office to save money, and for taping "cot-side chats" for the Internet to talk about issues. He volunteered to go on the comedic "Colbert Report," and took a ribbing for losing leg wrestling matches with the host.
That led CNN to decide to use him as one of two members for an online Internet show, "The Freshman Year," featuring him learning and pushing through his first year and as Chaffetz says, "making fun of my lifestyle, or lack thereof."
When he became the ranking Republican on a less-than-coveted subcommittee that oversees District of Columbia operations, local media in Washington sought him out for comment on issues there — and all members of Congress and reporters covering it saw his quotes because they live in D.C.
Chaffetz soon became known as one of the few members of Congress who gives reporters his personal cell phone number, making it easy to reach him without going through a press secretary. In a world where cable TV news shows constantly need interviews, he became known as someone always willing to appear and say something pithy.
He said his success comes from "being so accessible. It's so rare in Washington, D.C., I'm still amazed at how insulated most members make themselves. They're so scared of going on television and having a YouTube moment."
He says the national media "has been fascinated by someone who is so accessible — no preconceived negotiations for an interview. I'm one of a handful who do that."
Chaffetz notes that TV producers call "and say, 'We've got this spot, can you be on?' I'll say yes, then ask what the topic is. They love that." He says they tell him, "You're so easy to work with, we can count on you, you show up on time. That has worked really well."
Chaffetz said, "The goal is to be as influential for Utah as possible. So any chance you have to go out and speak to millions of people at a time is one that I want to take. I believe that if you can laugh and smile with somebody, then when you want to talk about serious public policy, you have that open door."
More than most members, he also likes to use social and new media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to communicate with voters.
"At one point they did a study, and of all the 435 members of the House, I was No. 6 in terms of friends on Facebook. I had more than some of the leadership in our own party, and I teased them about that. … That's because I do it (writing on Facebook). I don't let anyone else do it. I'm the one that posts," he said.
He said, "If you had told me, 'Jason you're going to be on national television twice in your first year as a freshman,' I would have said, 'Really, do you think?' And now, last week I had to turn down five in one day. I couldn't help it, I had to travel home that day" after the House adjourned for the year.
Chaffetz says there has been more to his first year than getting a lot of air time on national TV.
He started by being a bit of an irritant to other members of the Utah delegation. He did that by such things as opposing a bill that would give heavily Republican Utah a fourth House seat as political counterweight to allowing Democratic D.C. to have full-voting rights in the House. He said the Constitution only gives House seats to states, and D.C. is not a state.
He loudly criticized earmarks and was the only member of the delegation to refuse to seek any this year.
Many in the right wing called for him to challenge Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, next year, or perhaps Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah in 2012. Chaffetz has said he's happy in the House for now, but won't preclude the possibility of running for the Senate at some point. "But I'm happy if I never run for the Senate. I can have influence in the House," he said.
As examples, he said party leaders let him lead out in some questioning of the chairman of the Bank of America in Judiciary Committee hearings. "I pinned him into a corner. … They were pleased," he said. He adds he has been pleasantly surprised that party leaders have allowed him to take key or leading roles in full House debates on some bills, including allowing him to be the next-to-last speaker (followed only by the Republican leader) to oppose a bill raising the public debt limit.
But he has hit a bump or two along the way this year, too.
One came when he had a run-in with Transportation Security Agency officials at Salt Lake City International Airport. At first, some, including a union representing some TSA agents, said Chaffetz intentionally headed for a "whole-body imaging" machine so that he could cause a confrontation. He sponsored legislation to ban such machines he says show people as naked.
Videos and reports obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests eventually showed that TSA officials instructed Chaffetz to leave a regular line to go through the "strip search" machine. Chaffetz refused, so he had to undergo a "pat-down" search. He complained to supervisors, cussed and asked them, "Do you know who I am" — words that brought criticism.
Chaffetz also did a partial about-face on earmarks. After refusing to seek any this year, he announced he will accept "good" earmarks in the future. He defines those as for projects that serve the public good, are fully vetted by committees and do not go to for-profit companies.
He says it's a middle ground between those who think all directed spending is bad, and those who can see no problem with current earmarks.69 comments on this story
At the end of his first year, he says, "I'm sleeping surprisingly well" on his office cot. "But the latest thing is we have a mouse problem in the office," so he has to keep his blankets from touching the floor. He says he loves his work, but misses being away from his family so much — but he has had no second thoughts about leaving them in Utah and commuting home on weekends.
While he says he's enjoyed the successes of his first year, "We're just getting going. I have greater expectations for year two than I did for year one in terms of legislation and things we are going to be doing in the media."
He says to look forward to an announcement from conservative Glenn Beck about a project the pair hope to do together, and legislation about campaign finance reform and public lands issues.
This story was reported from Salt Lake City.