Cliff Bentz, an Ontario attorney, will be sworn in as a U.S. representative on Sunday, Jan. 3. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

ONTARIO – Congressman-elect Cliff Bentz, with trips to Washington since the election, is focusing on seeking appointments to committees he believes will best serve his sprawling Congressional district.

Bentz, an Ontario lawyer and former state legislator, defeated Democrat Alex Spenser of Klamath Falls to replace U.S. Rep. Greg Walden.

Bentz will be one of a large crop of newly-elected Republican congressmen who will be sworn in on Sunday, Jan. 3.

“My primary focus has to be getting on the right committee,” Bentz said.

That means he must lobby Republican Party leaders to grab a spot.

Committees drive the legislative process. Bills begin and end in committees and after each congressional election, each political party assigns new congressmen and senators to a specific committee.

Typically, a newly-elected representative will serve on one or two committees. 

Each political party uses a steering committee to assign party members to House committees.

For Bentz one of the most important boards for his district are committees on natural resources and transportation and infrastructure.

Though Bentz has a strong background in natural resource issues – his primary expertise as a lawyer are water issues – he said there is no guarantee he will be selected either committee.

“If I get on the transportation and infrastructure, then we are talking about all kinds of infrastructure and water space and a whole lot of other spaces,” said Bentz.

Now, he said, there are just three slots on that committee that will be filled by freshmen.

“It will be very challenging for many reasons, including there are so many of us,” said Bentz. “I am really fortunate in that I have a lot of experience in the transportation space, the carbon space and a lot of experience in the natural resources space.”

Bentz said Republican leaders also tend to give such committee slots to newly-elected congressmen who won by a narrow margin.

Bentz said Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District won by just six votes.

That means political leaders want to enhance her chances for reelection.

“She is the kind of candidate you want to keep and on an important committee where she is doing things she can talk about when she gets home,” said Bentz.

Bentz, in contrast, won his seat by more than 25%.

Bentz said committee assignments will be finalized sometime in January.

Bentz said his other goals for his first session in the Congress include “trying to help people get through the next six to eight months on the Covid deal,” he said.

Bentz said many people are losing their life savings and their businesses because of the pandemic.

“I will do everything I can to help out,” he said.

Another priority, said Bentz, will be work on reducing the massive and destructive wildfires that rage across the West each year.

He also will focus on water issues, he said, including the ongoing crisis in the Klamath Basin.

The Klamath Basin water dispute began during a drought in 2001 when the federal government decreased irrigation water to the basin’s farmers and ranchers to help endangered fish. Eventually the irrigators sued, asserting their water from the federal irrigation system was unconstitutionally snatched from them without payment.

The legal battle made it to the U.S. Supreme Court but it refused to hear the case in June.

“I will do my best to help move the Klamath situation forward,” said Bentz.

Bentz said he received feedback from constituents about the presidential election and that “the assumption is by many there were a lot of irregularities and there may have been.”

“What I have been saying is we make sure we pursue every one of those angles to find out if there were irregularities,” said Bentz.

Bentz recently signed a letter with 24 other newly elected Congressmen urging a congressional investigation into alleged election fraud.

In the letter, posted on Bentz’s Facebook page, the Ontario lawyer wrote, “(House) Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi has the power to initiate such investigations and we will see if she is willing to help rebuild faith in our election process – the foundation of our Republic – by exercising Congress’ power of oversight to determine if our elections were fair, transparent, and legal.”

He said there are “always people who somehow want me to make sure the president wins.”

“But I have done what I can do. I did everything I could do during the election. I used his name in thousands of mailers,” said Bentz.

Bentz traveled to the Capitol before Thanksgiving for orientation, returned home for the holiday and then flew back to Washington, D.C.

“It was the better part of three weeks,” said Bentz.

Bentz said he was able to rent an apartment about 10 blocks from the Capitol. His office, he said, is on the second floor of the Longworth House Office Building, one of three office buildings used by the House.

“It’s a sizable office and the view you look out onto is the interior of the building and it looks like a prison yard,” said Bentz.

He said his orientation covered the basics of working as a new congressman - “learning how you vote, where do you meet, how do you get together to discuss issues.”

Bentz said he was especially grateful for the help of Walden.

“He has been great,” said Bentz.

Bentz said one of the most interesting things about the orientation was “suddenly everyone you’ve seen or read about in the newspaper are right there.”

The sudden access to the national press was also a surprise, said Bentz.

“If you want to be interviewed by Fox or anyone else, you can say I have something to say and they will set up an interview,” said Bentz.

Bentz said he has a new chief of staff, Nick Strader, and is preparing to open district offices in Ontario, Medford, Bend and a city between La Grande and The Dalles.

Bentz said his wife, Lindsay, who practices small animal medicine in Ontario, will remain in eastern Oregon while he is Washington.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].

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