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updated: 4/24/2011 8:21 AM

'Wonderful, frustrating, challenging': Hultgren reflects on first 100 days

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  • U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren describes his first 100 days in office as a "wonderful time, a challenging time, a frustrating time."

      U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren describes his first 100 days in office as a "wonderful time, a challenging time, a frustrating time."
    CHRISTOPHER HANKINS | Staff Photographer

  • Rep. Joe Walsh, left, chats with Rep. Randy Hultgren in the hallway of the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C.

      Rep. Joe Walsh, left, chats with Rep. Randy Hultgren in the hallway of the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Randy Hultgren and his wife Christy.

      Randy Hultgren and his wife Christy.
    RICK WEST | Staff Photographer

and Projects Writer

As a freshman state representative in 1998, a colleague gave Randy Hultgren a piece of sage advice.

"Keep your mouth shut for four years," Hultgren, now Illinois' 14th District congressman, recalls with a chuckle. "And I think it was probably good advice, but it's completely different here Washington."

Wrapping up his first 100 days in office, Hultgren, of Winfield, describes his months thus far on the hill as a "wonderful time, a challenging time, a frustrating time."

The former investment adviser, husband and father of four voted for the successful passage of a budget with massive spending cuts -- just hours away from a federal shutdown.

He's learning to work with the 86 other members of his massive freshman class -- collectively using their size as muscle.

And, just as he's beginning to come into his own, Hultgren is eyeing not just his current two-year term, but the next. With filing for the 2012 election coming up in six months, he's already started fundraising again.

Hultgren defeated Batavia Democrat Bill Foster in November, after upsetting Ethan Hastert, the son of iconic former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, in the 2009 Republican primary.

As a Milton Township precinct committeeman, DuPage County Board member, lawmaker and now a congressman, Hultgren has followed Wheaton Republican Congressman Peter Roskam into just about every level of politics he's ever achieved. Hultgren says he respects Roskam, but notes that Judy Biggert -- a Republican with a much more socially liberal voting record than Roskam's or his own -- is his mentor.

At 45, Hultgren is considered an up-and-coming "young gun" by Republican Party leaders. During his election campaign, Hultgren repeatedly said that Congress had not worked quickly enough to reverse the recession and called on Washington to operate in a more bipartisan way.

Yet, with the majority now on his party's side, the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate did just the opposite -- fighting over a budget until just hours before a government shutdown would be in effect.

"With the situation we're in, what (Republicans) have control over, it was as good a deal as we could have gotten," Hultgren said.

"Do we get more if it shuts down? I was convinced we probably would have gotten less."

Hultgren follows in the footsteps of scientist-turned-one-term-lawmaker Foster, who was a centrist in practice, voting against every budget offered by his Democratic Party and siding with the GOP on cap-and-trade limits.

Hultgren is undoubtedly less of a centrist, but there have been instances when Hultgren has stood firmly apart from the Republican Party.

A member of the Republican Study Committee -- a conservative caucus founded by former 6th District Rep. Phil Crane, Hultgren voted against the committee's aggressive budget plan on the basis that it would have cut programs available to the elderly residents in his district, including roughly $700 billion from Medicaid over the next decade.

"I made a commitment to seniors, folks of retirement age in my district. What I like of this budget is that it has no impact on those 55 or older," Hultgren said of the current Republican budget proposal that passed the House from the next budget year.

In mid-February, Hultgren also was one of 26 GOP members who broke from the party line on a vote to extend provisions of the Patriot Act, on the basis that they'd had concerns but not enough time to make up their minds.

"There was no debate," Hultgren said. "I was frustrated with that, and voiced my frustration. Just in the business of everything I think (leaders) thought this was something that passed easily other years. And a few of us said, when it comes to the Constitution, and freedom, and this balance between freedom and security, we need to be careful. We need to take our time."

He's also echoed some of the same frustrations as his predecessor.

In a recent interview looking back on his time in Congress, Foster tells what he calls a typical story of how legislation is passed or defeated. The America Competes Act provided ongoing funding for the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department's Office of Science, and the National Institute for Standards and Technology. But for a short while, the act would have done something much different, Foster said.

"We were watching Republicans torpedo the America Competes Act by attaching a provision that gutted the bill and said that nothing in the bill shall provide funding for employees who watched porn on their government-paid computers," Foster said.

Hultgren also expressed frustration with what he calls "Christmas tree bills" where unrelated items get attached to pieces of legislation, including anti-abortion rights measures to budget proposals.

"I would have preferred for the other issues to be separated out. If they're important enough to people, then they hold their senators and reps accountable for how they vote," Hultgren said.

Like Foster, Hultgren also promises to be an advocate for Batavia-based Fermilab.

"My biggest frustration is really the inequity within the science budget," he said, "and the focus on climate change sciences. And yet we're seeing basic scientific research being cut."

Hultgren, who says he communicates with Fermilab representatives weekly, calls that "backward." Fermilab, he says, is a perfect example.

"You wouldn't get private funding to do what they're doing. For other areas of scientific study, he said, "I think there's an opportunity for private sector dollars to flow there."

Hultgren says he believes, that though he is a freshman, there's strength in numbers. Because of their sheer number, the 87 GOP House freshmen, have to be heard.

Hultgren says he's frustrated about how long it takes to pass a budget deal, so he recently proposed a law that would withhold Congress members' salaries unless a budget was passed.

"It's too early to tell," he said of the proposal's chances. "Don't know if it's going to pass or not, but we'll try. Right now, there's more acceptance of it because (members) are so frustrated that there are so many crises going on around the world and so much of our time has been on the 2011 budget.

Looking forward, Hultgren says he plans to focus on a few causes he held dear during this time in Springfield, including the Graduated Driver's License Program, which gradually phases in driving privileges for teens as they gain experience. At Geneva High School last week, he announced he would be the lead Republican co-sponsor of legislation that would urge all states to adopt graduated driver's license laws within three years.

He says congressmen are more successful when they get a sharp focus on key issues important to them. But, like many new lawmakers, Hultgren worries about having enough time to get everything he wants to get done.

"Certainly there's more resources than I've expected," he said, "but there's just not enough time to get all you want to have done."