As Idaho GOP Rep. Raul Labrador seeks re-election for a second term in Congress, he's made a name for himself in Washington, D.C., as a tea party favorite and hard-line conservative. He's frequently appeared on national TV and has been prominent in helping GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney court Hispanic votes around the country.
Yet his legislative record for his two-year term is light -- he's introduced and passed fewer bills than his first-term predecessors in the 1st Congressional District.
Labrador has sponsored seven bills and one amendment; one bill and one amendment passed the House. By comparison, his predecessor, Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick, sponsored 27 bills or amendments in his two years in Congress, and 10 passed. Before him, GOP Rep. Bill Sali sponsored 16 bills and four amendments in his two years in office; one bill and two amendments passed.
"I don't think that your legislative career is measured by how many bills you pass," Labrador said. "In fact, one of the problems in Washington now is that we pass too many bills. We have a bloated government and we need less of it."
His Democratic challenger, former NFL football player and first-time candidate Jimmy Farris, sees it differently. "He's had a lot of harsh rhetoric about Democrats," Farris said. But Farris said if he went to a football team and said he was a good player and the team should sign him, "They'll say, 'That's great -- let's look at the numbers.'" He maintains the numbers show Labrador to be a weak player.
Labrador's profile is so high that he appeared on "Meet the Press" his very first week in office. He's gotten so many invitations to Sunday political talk shows that he's had to turn many down so he can return home to Idaho on the weekend to be with his family.
He was the first member of Congress to publicly call for the resignation for Attorney General Eric Holder over the "Fast and Furious" gun debacle. He launched a monthly "Conversations with Conservatives" event that draws national press to question him and other conservative House members while enjoying complimentary food.
He co-signed a letter to all 50 states' governors urging against setting up state-based health insurance exchanges; Idaho hasn't yet decided which way to go.
"I kind of have a big voice," Labrador said modestly.
But Jim Weatherby, emeritus professor of public policy at Boise State University, said Labrador would have bristled at such a letter when he was an Idaho state lawmaker. "I can't see him being impressed, as a member of the Idaho Legislature, what a member of Congress would be doing in sending letters to all 50 states," he said.
Farris, a Lewiston native and former University of Montana football star who retired from the NFL in 2009, returned to his home state in 2011 with an eye toward running for office. He's raised nearly $70,000 for his campaign, but that's not enough to get his message out on statewide TV. Instead, he's put 27,000 miles on his BMW driving up and down the 1st Congressional District and meeting with people.
Farris released 10 years of his tax returns and called on Labrador to do the same; Labrador ignored the request. Farris' returns showed during his most successful years as an NFL player, he gave as much as a quarter of his income to charity.
"I think it's so important that we do what we can to provide opportunities for people that don't have them," he said.
Though Labrador has studiously disregarded Farris throughout the campaign, he did respond when Farris noted that Labrador's missed nearly 5 percent of votes during his term, twice the average rate for House members.
Labrador acknowledged that he'd missed a lot of votes, in part because his 8-year-old son was in the hospital for a week. He pledged to improve his record, though he missed more votes that same week while campaigning for Mitt Romney among Hispanic voters in Florida.
"In a race with an opponent who had resources to make an issue, it could be a potential area of vulnerability for Labrador, with few legislative accomplishments combined with a relatively high absentee record," Weatherby said. But, he said, "In this conservative Idaho district, in a presidential election year where Democrats don't do well generally anyway, I can understand why it's hard -- against a very conservative congressman who has an engaging personality and who is a pretty effective campaigner."
Though Labrador, who's raised nearly $800,000 in campaign funds, could afford TV ads for his campaign, he's chosen not to bother.
"I think we're doing everything we need to do to get re-elected," he said.
Also on the ballot are Libertarian candidate Rob Oates, of Caldwell, and Pro-Life, an independent candidate formerly known as Marvin Richardson. Neither has been actively campaigning.
Labrador's legislative record shows he's co-sponsored 138 bills proposed by other House members. Among those, seven were to repeal all or part of the national health care reform law; five to restrict abortion rights, including a bill to grant full constitutional rights at conception; and five to expand gun rights.
"Those reflect concerns that I have as a legislator," Labrador said, calling those issues "very significant."
But he said his top priorities are cutting spending and reforming the tax code and immigration. Though immigration reform was a top issue when he ran for office two years ago, he's not proposed any big fixes.
One of the seven bills Labrador sponsored, the STEM Jobs Act, related to immigration; it would have canceled a program that now grants 55,000 visas a year by lottery to immigrants, and instead given those visas to master's-level graduates of U.S. universities in science, technology, engineering or math-related fields who have U.S. job offers awaiting them. That would allow them to get green cards without having to first return to their home countries.
Labrador said he sees no benefit in the lottery system "when we have needs in the United States for STEM and other fields."
The bill came to a vote in the House but failed. Farris contends that's because Labrador was in Florida the day before the vote stumping for Romney instead of drumming up support for his bill.
Two of the bills Labrador co-sponsored relate to immigration; one would declare English the national language and require English testing for naturalization; the other would reduce the number of visas for family members while narrowing priorities to immediate family members such as parents and children.
Labrador said, "Comprehensive immigration reform -- I don't think that's ever going to happen." Instead, he said, he wants to go after "chunks," from border protection to improved guest worker programs.
The two bills he sponsored that passed the House were to extend grazing permits from 10 to 20 years; and to exempt small-scale geothermal test wells from environmental impact statement requirements. Labrador serves on the House Resources Committee and says he's committed to helping Idaho's traditional resource industries, to build economic vitality in the state. "Mining, timber -- I want them to thrive," he said.
Labrador's most controversial vote came in June, when he voted for a failed amendment to eliminate more than $500million a year in federal nuclear research and development funding -- even though that would endanger thousands of jobs at eastern Idaho's largest employer and Idaho's largest federal installation, the Idaho National Laboratory. His vote stunned Idahoans because he'd run on promises of strong support for nuclear energy.
Farris decried the vote as a disservice to Labrador's state and a betrayal of campaign promises.
Labrador said, "I'm a huge supporter of nuclear. But why should government be funding them?"
He said, "If we got rid of that funding, you would have the private sector take care of that. ... The private sector will actually create more jobs, because you have less people being taxed."
He says he's not sorry about the vote and he'd vote the same way again. If the nation is going to balance its budget, he said, "We've got to stop having sacred cows in Washington, D.C."
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