Democrats, relinquishing control of the House, wonder if the Missouri Republican can put small business interests ahead of party and ideology in the new Congress.
Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., has been elevated from ranking member to chairman of the Small Business Committee as part of the Republican takeover of the House, and will likely push a far more conservative political agenda on most issues compared with his Democratic predecessor.
Graves could probably best be described as a “Fox News” Republican. At least he welcomed the reference during a political town hall meeting on President Obama’s health care reform bill earlier this year. He has a hard right voting record that adheres closely to Republican Party lines. In fact, he’s supported the party position on 97 percent of his votes, according to the Washington Post.
Although Graves hails from a largely rural congressional district and is a sixth generation farmer, he’s far from a cloth-coat Republican. He’s become a near millionaire since his election to office in 2000 and has steered an eccentric path in Congress that has put him in the middle of ethics investigations, political controversy at home, intrigue in Puerto Rico and Cuba, a bizarre battle against Goth pop culture among teens, and one embarrassing appearance in the New York Post’s gossipy tabloid pages.
Along the way, he has also drawn the ire of such non-partisan groups as the League of Conservation Voters, which named him one of its “Dirty Dozen” on environmental issues in 2008. The U.S. Humane Society also blasted him for being one of only 96 House members to vote against a bill outlawing the ownership of primates as pets. The bill was supported by Dr. Jane Goodall, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services. He also voted against tougher penalties for dog fighting and cock fighting.
Graves said he opposed government intrusion into the marketplace, but he was instrumental in orchestrating a $235,000 federal grant in 2002 to “combat Goth culture” in the wake of the Columbine shooting. The agency receiving the grant gave back more than half the money after concluding that “Goth culture” was pretty much a clothing fad among teens that most grow out of by their early 20s.
Graves, however, has drawn high marks from the conservative National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) and the equally conservative Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council. The NFIB has named him a “Guardian of Small Business” five times during his decade-long career in Congress and endorsed his re-election in the most recent mid-term campaign, where he faced token opposition. He has also won accolades from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But is he a friend of small business?
He will be replacing outgoing Democrat Nydia Velasquez, who was an activist on small business issues and a champion of the Small Business Administration during the dark days of repeated Bush administration budget cuts, while still riding herd on corruption and waste at the agency. She also championed small business interests on such issues as broadband Internet service, lending, disaster preparedness and SBA veterans and womens’ programs.
Graves has been a tireless opponent of government handouts (at least when it doesn’t affect his interests) and taxes of almost any kind. He made those two points the centerpiece of comments after being named chairman. “Small business owners have been under attack by this administration,” Graves said in a written statement. “We need to get government off their backs and let them do what they do best — create jobs. Government does not create jobs, but it can help set the table for economic growth with the right policies.”
Graves also pledged to root out waste and corruption within government small business development programs, with a special eye on President Bush’s b?te noir, the Small Business Administration. Yet, critics complain that Graves often puts ideology over the practical needs of small businesses.
Most recently, he voted against the $30 billion Small Business Lending Fund (SBLF), contained in the administration’s Small Business Jobs and Credit Act. The measure was widely supported by small business groups, including the National Small Business Association and the Independent Community Bankers of America and scores of other business organizations. The bill also included eight new tax breaks, including a cut in the capital gains tax to zero on certain investments, a new deduction for health insurance and an extension of the 50 percent bonus depreciation.
Graves has been an ardent supporter of efforts by venture capitalists to tap into two key research grant programs reserved for independent small businesses: The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program. Measures have failed repeatedly for almost a decade, but the issue will be back on the front burner with the new Congress.
Graves was also one of 134 House members to oppose H.R. 2, another major Obama administration initiative authorizing an additional $32.8 billion to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Also known as SCHIP, the program was able to cover 4 million more children, many of whose parents work for small businesses that don’t provide health coverage. Graves said he opposed the measure because it included children of legal immigrants. Bush had vetoed the expansion twice.
His vote touched off bitter recriminations from a fellow home-state lawmaker, then Rep. Sam Page, a Democrat and medical doctor. Page criticized Graves, rare among House colleagues even from differing parties, after Graves voted against overriding one of President’s Bush’s SCHIP vetoes.
Home-state political dust-ups are nothing new to Graves, who has a reputation for being a dirty campaigner, thanks largely to his former chief of staff and political consultant, Jeffrey Roe. During the 2006 campaign, Roe was the architect of Graves’ ads suggesting his 63-year-old opponent Sara Jo Shettles was a pornographer. Shettles had worked for a media company a decade earlier that owned Penthouse magazine, although she had no connection to the publication.
In the 2008 campaign, the most hotly contested of his career, Graves was targeted for defeat by the Democratic National Campaign Committee and faced a formidable opponent in former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes. Graves ran ads lambasting her for “San Francisco values.” He said he meant she supported same-sex marriage and reproductive rights for women. He won the race handily.
Graves backed Roe, calling him his “No. 1” person, even after he became a lightning rod in Missouri politics. Roe ignited a feud between Graves and the state’s senior Republican Sen. Kit Bond, after Graves rejected Bond’s request to fire Roe. In retaliation, Bond pressured the Bush Justice Department to fire Graves’ brother, who was serving as a U.S. Attorney. Tony Graves was dismissed in 2006, and Bond later apologized after an investigation uncovered his role in the episode.
Home state politics have also been a source of problems for Graves on Capitol Hill. He was subjected to a House Ethics Committee investigation last year, after he engineered an appearance before the small business committee for Brooks Hurst. He’s a longtime friend and business partner of Graves’ wife, Lesley, in a jointly owned ethanol production plant. The subject -- federal regulation of biodiesel and ethanol production.
Because Graves failed to disclose the connection, the independent Office of Congressional Ethics concluded there was “substantial reason to believe that an appearance of conflict of interest was created” and recommended the case to the House Ethics Committee. But the committee threw out the charges, saying no rules had been violated. Ironically, Graves had apologized in 2007 for a similar failure to disclose when he invited Hurst and his son to testify before the committee in 2004, according to the Missouri newspaper reports.
Graves has strong ties to the oil and gas industry because his Missouri district largely covers that state’s main oil and gas deposits. He supports Republicans’ push for expanded domestic oil drilling, opposes cap and trade carbon emissions legislation and has consistently backed government subsidies for large oil companies, despite his strong opposition to government handouts.
In fact, oil greased Graves’ way into the pages of the New York Post, earlier this month. The tabloid reported that incoming House Speaker John Boehner was urging GOP congressmen “to please stop getting drunk with lobbyists -- especially young, pretty, female lobbyists.”
The story broke after Graves was spotted eating and drinking in a dark tavern with Jill Warren, a lobbyist for the Patriot Group, which represents myriad interests, including gas and oil companies. Photos of the two together at small table in the tavern were widely circulated back in Missouri. Whether it was a working dinner or more is unknown, although in one of the photos Graves appears to be taking notes. Graves has declined all requests to comment on the incident.
As a committee chairman, Graves will have a great deal of responsibility, face far more pressure from lobbyists, must contend with an economy that is still weak, and deal with a host of small business issues.
They include onerous 1099 reporting requirements for small businesses (starting in 2012); repeal the 3 percent withholding requirement for contractor payments, the continuing crisis in small business lending, the unfinished battle over small business research grant programs, the continuing health care crisis and the role small business will play jumpstarting the economy. In short, he can no longer build a career out of voting “no.”