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The handyman putting the GOP's plan in action

By Philip Rucker
Monday, November 15, 2010; A03

In BoehnerLand, the constellation of loyalists and associates surrounding the soon-to-be House speaker, Rep. Greg Walden has become the get-it-done guy.

A former radio station owner from the high desert plateau of eastern Oregon, the six-term Republican tackles every thankless task assigned by House Minority Leader John A. Boehner with the precision that he learned as an Eagle Scout.

Walden's latest assignment: to oversee his party's transition to the majority - and to somehow translate its campaign promises to reform the way Congress works into a practical rule book that, well, reforms the way Congress works.

This is no sexy task. And it will not culminate in a landmark bill that bears Walden's name. This is a matter of floor-vote calendars and committee hearing schedules. Should Congress stream live witness testimony and committee deliberations? Keep printing 200 copies of each amendment? Slash the money spent on the Capitol's underground subway or guards or cafeteria cooks - or all of the above?

"We often get hamstrung about what the existing structure is," Walden, 53, said in an interview. " 'Well, we can't do that, because we have a rule.' Um, guys, we write the rules. Think outside the box. If you were designing this institution starting today, how would you design it? What works? What doesn't? And how would you do it better?"

These are the weighty concerns that have consumed Walden's life since the Nov. 2 elections. If Boehner (Ohio) is installed as House speaker as expected on Jan. 5, his regime will assume control not only of the rules that govern the House but also the shared responsibility with the Democrat-controlled Senate of the vast operations of the Capitol complex.

It falls to Walden's 22-member transition committee to determine what will change - and quickly, since the new rules would go into effect in January. Last week, Walden led days of meetings, seeking ways to trim the size and expense of a bureaucracy that many Republicans derided on the campaign trail as bloated.

The committee members also want to bring more transparency to House operations. What particularly rankled them, and many U.S. voters, was how the Democratic majority pushed the health-care overhaul through last spring.

Walden is hardly considered a partisan bomb-thrower, but he is a reliable conservative, and he acknowledged that he grew agitated during that debate.

"That really put me over the top," Walden said.

In March, he and a handful of Republican colleagues stood over the Capitol balcony holding up signs that spelled "K-I-L-L T-H-E B-I-L-L," stoking a tea party protest.

Republican leaders say that no other lawmaker is better suited than Walden to make the necessary changes.

"He's been kind of my go-to guy here over the last year, and everything I've given him, he's done a great job," Boehner said.

Walden is among about two dozen key advisers who make up Boehner's inner circle. At its core are several veteran staffers, as well as a handful of GOP lawmakers, including Rep. Tom Latham (Iowa) and Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), who serve as Boehner's eyes and ears among the rank-and-file in both chambers.

Sometimes dubbed "BoehnerLand," this orbit also makes up Boehner's social network - his golf buddies and steakhouse companions - and includes some former aides who are now lobbyists.

'Be ready to govern'

This fall, as Walden cruised toward reelection and was preparing for his victory party with supporters in Medford, Ore., Boehner gave him a call. Boehner knew Republicans had a good chance of winning control of the House, and he asked Walden to chair his transition committee - and to be in Washington on election night.

"You're not supposed to 'measure the drapes' ahead of time; however, if you win, you're supposed to be ready to govern the next day," Walden said. "So there's this interesting kabuki dance you do."

So Walden ditched his own party to emcee Boehner's celebration at the Hyatt on Capitol Hill. (He addressed his Oregon supporters via Skype, celebrating through a laptop camera with Boehner at his side.)

By 10 the next morning, a transition office had been assembled in the Capitol basement with phones, computers, desks and the GOP's "Pledge to America" pasted on a freshly painted white wall. Walden's wife, Mylene, helped answer the phones before a full staff was in place.

"There's this interesting switch that gets flipped, and the campaign warfare has to stop and the governing has to start," Walden said. "You have to have that mental ability to pivot instantly, because if you keep up the campaign rhetoric, then you're a bad winner or loser. You park the weaponry of political campaigns and you govern."

Walden said that he is trying to put practicality above partisanship - which has not gone unnoticed by Democrats.

"He takes the institution and the job very seriously," said outgoing Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), whose office is across the hall from Walden's. "He's a man of complete integrity. . . . They didn't have to put someone like that in that position. They could've chosen someone who is a hardball, cutthroat political operative."

Walden has consulted some Democrats, even though they can't set the rules anymore. Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.), who chaired his party's 2006 transition, said he offered this wisdom to Walden: "The majority will not be the majority forever, and the majority should treat the minority as they would want to be treated when they're in the minority."

Some of the changes that Walden's committee is considering were introduced in the "Pledge to America," the Republican House leaders' governing document that was released this fall. Among the priorities: to publish the text of legislation online for at least three days before a floor vote; to require the authors of each bill to cite a specific constitutional authority; to let any lawmaker offer amendments that would reduce spending; and to advance major bills one at a time.

'Over-delivers'

The man who writes the rules in Congress follows the rules in life. When Walden drove himself to Reagan National Airport in his Toyota Prius hybrid the other day, he made calls using his Bluetooth earpiece. He has two BlackBerrys (one attached to each hip), and colleagues say that he is unusually detail-oriented.

Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, called Walden "a low-key guy who over-delivers."

"He's a mainline doer," Sessions said. "Responsibility. Write the plan. Put things together. Determine who's going to be on your team, how you're going to get it done, what the objectives are, what the deliverable is. He has been given a responsibility with no source book, and he's having to write his own code, set his own agenda and determine our direction, and I could not think of another member capable of this."

Walden and Sessions say they are best friends in Washington, and it is Sessions who brought Walden into the leadership. This year, Walden served as deputy chairman of the NRCC, helping implement the campaign strategy that Sessions and Boehner created.

Since before he was elected, Walden has been a doer. Growing up on a cherry orchard near The Dalles, Ore., the son of a state legislator, Walden began working at his family's radio stations as a teenager. He started as a janitor and later played technician, engineer and on-air reporter, covering city council meetings and county fairs, fires and floods.

"I've done it all," Walden said. "The only thing I haven't done is climb the tower - I don't do heights all that well - and I've never done play-by-play sports.

"In a small business, you do it all, and I think that helps here. If something needs to be done, you jump in and you do it. You don't have any pretense: 'Oh, I'm a member of Congress. I can't make the coffee.' The heck you can't! Here, I'll show you how. I filled the pot this morning. There isn't anything you can't take on and do."

Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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