Rep. McCarthy has political chops but is not a policy maven

By Manuel Quiñones | 10/06/2015 07:23 AM EDT

In 2011, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was engaged in negotiations with the White House over a broad fiscal deal. Washington, D.C., insiders dubbed it the grand bargain.

In 2011, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was engaged in negotiations with the White House over a broad fiscal deal. Washington, D.C., insiders dubbed it the grand bargain.

The deal never materialized, but the negotiations showcased Boehner’s willingness to get dirty with details.

"What we know about that is Boehner sat in the room with the top administration budget people and [Vice President] Joe Biden to try to hammer out the details of a deal," said American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman Ornstein. "Boehner was not uncomfortable sitting there."


Ornstein, a respected congressional expert, says he can’t imagine House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) getting similarly involved in hammering out policy. Friends and observers say it’s simply not McCarthy’s strong suit.

And even though the fractured House Republican caucus may benefit from McCarthy’s networking abilities, others may have to step up to help filter out the details of policy quagmires to come if McCarthy succeeds Boehner as speaker.

"He’s not a policy guy. Never has been a policy guy," Ornstein said during an interview. "His strength has been in his interpersonal relationships."

McCarthy, who represents a drought-stricken district in central California rich in oil and agriculture, started early in both politics and business, opening a delicatessen at the age of 21 with the help of lottery winnings.

He then went to work for then-Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) while going to college at California State University in his hometown of Bakersfield. McCarthy later became a full-time staffer for Thomas, who went on to become Ways and Means chairman until retiring from the House in 2006.

"It has certainly helped that he had a strong position from Bill Thomas," said Stanley Clark, a political science professor at CSU Bakersfield. "So he had all of Bill Thomas’ insider knowledge with a more congenial personality."

McCarthy won his first election in 2000 to become a Kern County Community College District trustee. He joined the California State Assembly two years later, quickly moving up the ranks to minority leader before winning Thomas’ seat in Congress.

"I don’t see him as very policy-oriented," said Clark. "He’s been involved in politics here in the state of California for a long time."

Clark, who thinks fondly of McCarthy, said he’s long been known as a cheerleader and organizer for boosting the Republican Party’s presence in California, a relatively reliable blue state. Ornstein said McCarthy is the type to remember birthdays and seek connections with groups of lawmakers with different ideologies.

In D.C., those political skills catapulted him to a leadership spot during his second term, and in 2009 he helped head his party’s candidate recruitment efforts. The GOP went on to take over the House in 2011. And now, many of McCarthy’s recruits are allies.

"He apparently has done very well in helping members of the House and candidates, and that typically pays rewards," Clark said. "He has spread the wealth using his current position to help others."

McCarthy’s political action committee spent more than $2.7 million supporting GOP candidates during the past election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It has spent more than $1 million so far this cycle.

‘A talker’

McCarthy’s ability to forge alliances may not be able to secure him the speaker’s post, at least not easily, however. Conservative rebels remain noncommittal, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who is also running, may prove a strong rival.

"The fundamental reality here is first, it’s not at all clear that McCarthy is going to be able to win this position on the first ballot," Ornstein said.

Chaffetz has seized on McCarthy’s recent comments on Fox News, where the leader suggested that congressional Republicans were investigating former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s connection to the 2012 Benghazi, Libya, attack as a way to damage her presidential ambitions.

"He’s a talker; he’s not a writer, he’s not a thinker, he’s a talker," said Clark. "That would be his bigger problem."

Clark added, "I think that he’s going to need some help figuring out how to deal with all these disparate factions. I think in the leadership it’s critically important who ends up in second, third place."

Ornstein noted that many House Republicans want to change government through "bludgeons, not scalpels." In other words, the Republican leadership’s most pressing priority is to unite the House GOP caucus and make the chamber function, rather than delve into policy.

At the same time, Ornstein said, Congress will have to deal with thorny issues in the months ahead, including complicated foreign policy questions. It may challenge a speaker who often focuses more on tactics than policy.

"Usually speakers are leaders — it can vary in terms of the depth of understanding — but they have substantive areas of expertise," he said.

Clark said McCarthy needs to come up with "what policies can be enacted with or without this current president, or even after this president."

Yet even if McCarthy wanted to delve into policy complexities, it’s not clear whether House Republicans would give him the latitude to act, especially if they force rules requiring a majority of the caucus to agree with legislation before floor consideration.

Clark, Ornstein and lawmakers say McCarthy can lean on staff or wonks within the House GOP like Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a close ally.

Pledge to America

Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), during a recent stop at the Capitol, said he expected McCarthy to win. "Kevin McCarthy is prepared, deserves it and will be a good speaker," Lott said.

As for substantive achievements, McCarthy’s official biography boasts that he helped reduce California’s budget deficit, overhaul workers’ compensation benefits and make the state more business-friendly.

At the federal level, McCarthy takes credit for helping keep taxes low, cutting government spending and promoting legislation to secure energy independence.

McCarthy was also a force behind the 2010 GOP’s Pledge to America from House Republicans, considered a blueprint for the GOP to retake the majority. But he is not closely associated with a single issue or series of issues as some recent House speakers have been.

But McCarthy is a major player on legislation to address the ongoing Western drought (E&E Daily, Oct. 5). It would loosen environmental restrictions to pump more water to agriculture and facilitate water storage projects.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a fellow California Republican, said during an interview last week that he expected McCarthy to push for more natural resources bills.

House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said, "McCarthy should be good because he’s from Bakersfield, California, and he understands Western issues."

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the panel’s top Democrat, said he hoped McCarthy’s experience would encourage him to address issues like climate change, but he wasn’t too hopeful.

"That whole issue around the environment and energy has been an ideologically driven issue from the beginning," said Grijalva. "It continues to be, and I don’t think McCarthy will change his tune on that at all."

Reporters Daniel Bush and Tiffany Stecker contributed.