In January, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt’s (R) staff gathered for a retreat at a lodge next to a frozen lake in Missouri. On the last day, the four-term lawmaker gave his assembled aides a pep talk on the importance of teamwork that included a tough message: There are plenty of people out there who want your jobs if you don’t.
Teamwork might be the key to an effective leadership operation, but for the past several months it has been well-known in House Republican circles that Blunt’s office was not running as smoothly as it should.
Last week, David Hebert resigned after less than a year as Blunt’s chief of staff and was immediately replaced by Brian Gaston, a well-respected leadership veteran who the Majority Whip and other Republicans hope will be a better fit than his predecessor.
“I think the work he’s done with our policy team over the past year has been particularly good,” Blunt said in an interview Wednesday. “As the relationships developed between the various leadership offices Brian has been very effective. He’s going to be a good chief of staff for our team.”
Gaston has been on the Hill for 20 years, joining Blunt’s staff last year after long stints with then-Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio). Hebert, in contrast, had been off Capitol Hill and in the lobbying world for several years before taking over Blunt’s office in June 2003 following the departure of longtime top aide Gregg Hartley.
Hebert was hired only after Blunt was turned down by several other prospective candidates.
Many Hill Republicans said privately that they saw Hebert’s departure without another job lined up as proof that Blunt was dissatisfied with his performance and that Gaston should have gotten the post in the first place. But Blunt contended that Hebert’s tenure was always meant to be temporary.
“I think both he and I saw it as [a placeholder job] for several reasons,” said Blunt. “This would not have been the right job for Brian in my view a year ago. … Dave was a good friend of mine and still is. He agreed to come in on pretty short notice and help the transition, and he did that and I’m grateful to him.”
While he was well-liked by many on a personal level, Hebert’s lack of leadership experience clearly hurt his standing.
“Dave did not come out of the leadership environment, so there was a lot that he had to overcome in that job,” said Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who added that Gaston had “already hit the ground running.”
GOP lawmakers and aides who worked closely with the Whip operation said that Hebert was prone to micromanaging, a style that did not work on a staff full of experienced aides with strong personalities.
As a senior Republican aide put it, “It’s a really hard job to learn on the job.”
Despite those personnel issues, Blunt has continued to excel in his second year as Whip in the category that matters the most. As was the case when current Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) had the job, Blunt has never lost a whipped vote.
“The one difference about the Whip’s job than any other job in the leadership is that we actually do keep score,” Blunt said. “We’ve done harder things in this Congress than we’ve done before partly because [the leadership] has more confidence in our Members to be able to do hard things than we may have had in the past.”
Blunt pointed to the reauthorization of the Head Start program as an example of a difficult bill that went through this year after being deemed unpassable three years ago.
Although it has not yet emerged from conference, the House’s version of the fiscal 2005 budget passed the House relatively smoothly compared to last year’s nail-biting vote.
“We put a budget task force together to work on the budget in ways that we had never done before in the Whip’s office,” Blunt said. “I think we took a better product to floor this time, frankly, than we did last time. Last time we had to make too many accommodations on the floor on issues that we did not have to accommodate this time.”
Yet even the perfect record on whipped votes doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.
“We’ve won every vote we needed to win, but some of them were a little harder than they should have been,” said a GOP lawmaker close to the leadership.
The most oft-cited example of such a victory was last year’s Medicare prescription drug measure, which passed after the vote was held open for three hours. Blunt acknowledged that he had learned a lesson from that episode.
“I think if that ever came up again we would make a greater effort, though it may not be more successful, to get our Members who didn’t want to be with us to vote later in the process,” Blunt said. “It would have let the Democrat votes that we ultimately had come out sooner. I don’t think our Members appreciated how much of an impact their early [votes] would have on the whole process.”
It took the efforts of several members of leadership — and their staffs — to get the Medicare bill passed, and afterward some grumbled privately that Blunt needed to be more aggressive in his Whip efforts.
“You can intimidate [Members] or you can draw them with honey. You can’t be in the middle,” said a senior GOP lawmaker, adding that arm-twisting “is just not in Blunt’s nature.”
At that suggestion, Blunt laughed and said, “I suspect you could find a number of Members who would say I could hardly be more aggressive than I’ve been on occasions with them.”
One of Blunt’s perceived assets when he became Majority Whip was his ability to engage the media and help drive the Republican message. Smoother and more camera-friendly than Hastert or DeLay, Blunt was seen as a palatable public face for the House GOP leadership.
But in his time on the job, Blunt has instead maintained a relatively low profile, doing some television appearances but generally not playing a decisive role in crafting the GOP message or dealing with the Hill press corps as much as he did when he was Chief Deputy Whip.
“I think a lot of people expected him to take a greater role in messaging, being out on TV and in print, but … he’s clearly stepped back and it appears that he’s laying low,” said a senior Republican aide.
His low profile is partly attributable to the fact that, with a Republican in the White House, there is less need for House GOP leaders to try to be the face of the party. Cantor also suggested that, in Blunt’s job, it was more desirable to be seen as a “workhorse” rather than a “showhorse.”
“The approach has been that his first responsibility is as Whip,” Cantor said.
Blunt has not reduced his profile on the campaign trail. Despite being temporarily sidelined last summer after undergoing surgery to treat prostate cancer, the Missourian has still made more than 20 trips to campaign for his colleagues and raised millions of dollars for himself and others.
On the policy front, Blunt plans to speak out more on foreign policy issues. He recently took leave from the Energy and Commerce Committee and took a seat on the International Relations panel, and he plans to be vocal on European trade issues.