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The House Winner and Loser of the Year — and Other Notable Members’ Highs and Lows

At the end of the first session of the 113th Congress, it’s hard to call anybody much of a “winner,” as no one got close to everything they wanted. Republican leaders had an ambitious legislative agenda that was repeatedly squelched by a rebellious rank and file — or by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s circular file. Democrats hoped for more relevance, given the GOP leadership’s precarious grip on its conference, but Democratic “victories” were mainly a result of Republican meltdowns.

For the power players in the House of Representatives, it was mostly a year of lows, with not-so-very-high highs, and few lawmakers emerged unscathed from the heartburns of 2013. But when 218 took up the daunting task of designating the year’s “winners” and “losers,” it was hard to fit members into that binary, which felt overly simplistic, anyway.

So in the very first, year-end wrap-up post since the blog’s inception, 218 is offering up, for your consideration, one “winner” and one “loser” of 2013 — with a few runners-up. The rest of the the lawmakers profiled here defied those clear-cut characterizations, and are instead viewed through the prism of simply their wins and losses.

In 218’s estimation, the one clear winner of 2013 was … 

Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis.

One year ago, the House Budget chairman was the just-defeated vice presidential candidate and, though long-referred to as a GOP “thought leader,” hadn’t proved he could translate his respect within the conference into something tangible.

This year changed that. Ryan is now a deal-maker. He got the budget deal — a small one, granted — across the finish line, and proved he could work across the aisle when it mattered. He was also instrumental in helping to end the shutdown. Though he kept quiet for months leading up to the battle over the continuing resolution, his Wall Street Journal op-ed was a turning point for Republicans: It signaled that the fight over defunding Obamacare was over, and that the GOP ought to refocus on entitlement spending.

Of course, Republicans didn’t really get any concessions on entitlements in any of the big deals at the end of this year. Ryan’s ability to sway the conference, however, even when he can’t deliver the moon, shows he is going places. His first stop might be the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, and from there the speaker’s gavel — if he doesn’t make a run for the White House in between.

When pressed to pick the “loser” of 2013, 218 settled on …

Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla. 

Busted cocaine user and member of Congress are two things that generally don’t go together. Until now. Radel was already a bit of a joker in the House, tweeting about Jay-Z, calling himself a “Hip Hop Conservative” and sharing bizarre Vines about “rolling deep” with his entourage. But Radel became the butt of many more jokes when he was arrested and charged for cocaine possession, adding a bit of buzz to his professed love for Cartagena, Colombia. The media circus chased him around D.C. and down to his Florida district, where he held a 10:30 p.m. news conference to announce he was taking a leave of absence from Congress — in his first year in office — to head to rehab. While he emerged from rehab and plans to return to Congress, he faces a tough road ahead, including an ethics review.

A few others had standout years:

Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C.

Watt gets points for scoring a one-way ticket out of the most dysfunctional Congress in memory. Watt was the House’s biggest beneficiary of Senate Democrats’ vote to “go nuclear” on nominations, clearing the way for him to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency. His confirmation was also a victory for the Congressional Black Caucus, which had long been pushing for the White House to diversify the executive branch — especially with one of the CBC’s own. When Senate Republicans blocked Watt’s confirmation, Watt kept quiet, letting fellow CBC members lobby on his behalf and cry foul against GOP obstructionism that the CBC said was at least, in part, racially motivated.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa

The Iowa firebrand is a one-man wrecking ball smashing the GOP’s Latino outreach efforts — he most memorably said undocumented immigrants were, by and large, drug mules with “calves the size of cantaloupes.”  But say what you will about Steve King, he got his top priority this year: keeping anything with a hint of amnesty off the House floor and far from the president’s desk. Indeed, the only immigration vote taken by the full chamber this year was on an amendment he sponsored to resume the deportation of DREAMers.

Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C.

Ellmers was criticized for calling Obamacare the “real” war on women, but she should get the “Right Place at the Right Time Award” for relaunching the Republican Women’s Policy Committee just as her male colleagues were beginning to come to terms with the party’s problems with women. The highlight of her tenure as RWPC chairwoman so far was when she shamed Speaker John A. Boehner into appointing one of the House’s 19 Republican women to sit on the budget conference committee after an all-white-male GOP negotiating team posed for the cameras during the shutdown.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.

Cole gets the “Oracle at Norman Award” this year. He has emerged as, perhaps, the most sought-after hallway interview in Congress. And unlike his main competition for that distinction — Paul D. Ryan — Cole doesn’t shy away from holding court for 20 minutes and answering reporter questions — and he does it with style. Leading up to the shutdown, Cole was presciently critical of the shutdown strategy and emerged as perhaps the key public surrogate for the speaker. Cole also became an Appropriations subcommittee chairman this year, and he’ll have more money to play with in drafting appropriations bills next year because of the budget deal — something he was part of as a budget conferee.

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich.

Amash could get the “Live Free or Die Award.” He’s from Michigan and not New Hampshire — but he’s made a name for himself by embodying that type of libertarian spirit. Amash was a constant thorn in the side of GOP leaders this year, first with a coup attempt to unseat Boehner as speaker, and then when he came within seven votes of getting an amendment adopted that would have ended the National Security Agency’s blanket collection of phone metadata.

Here’s our look at other high-profile lawmakers’ years that were:

Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio

Perhaps the best thing you can say about the speaker is that he survived — something that at times was in doubt. His year started with an attempted coup on his speakership, followed by repeated revolts among his flock culminating in a disastrous government shutdown he was steamrolled into backing. But 2013’s trials have solidified his support in his conference, especially after the shutdown, when his one-time critics walked away feeling that their leader finally had their backs. He ended the year on an especially strong note, taking it to outside groups that have stymied his legislative agenda and rallying a big GOP majority for the budget deal. On a sour note, his treasured “Boehner rule” may have joined the ash-heap of history, but Boehner did hold firm on what turned out to be the GOP’s top priority of all this year: not raising taxes.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

House Republicans went on their Williamsburg, Va., retreat at the start of this year looking for a way forward, and Cantor gave it to them. His floor agenda, he said, would focus on energy issues, the failings of Obamacare, the Senate’s failure to pass a budget and legislation aimed at “making life work” for the American people. But some of his best-laid plans came crashing down at the hands of his own party — like a bill that would redirect Obamacare funding to high-risk pools. The farm bill, which he opted not to take off the floor, ended up going down in flames, though this low point actually became his redemption story this year: Cantor made the bill his baby, ultimately splitting it into two measures and personally ensuring that both passed — including food stamp provisions aimed at enforcing work requirements for able-bodied adults — through the chamber without relying on a single Democratic vote.

Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

If McCarthy were to win a distinction this year, it’d be for “Mr. Congeniality.” He hasn’t always been the most effective whip, but he has gotten better at taming the wild GOP conference this year. On spending bills, he has to somehow please Republicans who think sequester numbers need to be lower, as well as appropriators and Armed Services members who say sequester numbers are wholly inadequate — and he has to do it without old whip carrots like earmarks or a Republican in the White House. Once seeming to be the guy rushing to the TV cameras, McCarthy now appears to enjoy working behind the scenes and focusing on his personal relationships with members. It didn’t help prevent the shutdown or any number of embarrassing GOP defeats, but the unruly conference may have learned some lessons coming out of the shutdown — and that could make McCarthy’s job a lot easier next year.

Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.

The first-term chairwoman charged with fostering the public image of the House GOP started 2013 with big ideas about how to broaden the party’s base. She urged members to embrace new media strategies, turning the conference on to the world of Twitter hashtags, Google Hangouts and Vines. She also sought to forge new bonds with nontraditional GOP constituencies, inviting delegates from various cultural backgrounds to meet with Republican leaders to find common ground. McMorris Rodgers’ urging that members make inroads with the Latino community fell short with members like King, however, and, memorably, an outdoor news conference with Hispanic pastors ended in the guests being heckled by anti-immigration activists holding their own demonstration just yards away. Her year also had a sweet ending — she gave birth to her third child.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. 

So close, and yet so far. House Democrats’ hopes that Pelosi might return as speaker in 2015 briefly surged during the GOP’s shutdown fiasco – but the Democrats’ own fiasco with the Obamacare rollout quickly overwhelmed those dreams. And the budget deal for which Pelosi helped rally the votes wasn’t what she and her fellow House Democrats had in mind — at one point urging the caucus to “embrace the suck.” But in her favor, the California Democrat repeatedly forced the majority into awkward positions by holding a rock-solid grip on her minority, proving again that Boehner sometimes needs her more than he’d like.

Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.

The Democratic whip again proved a formidable tag-team with Pelosi, his longtime rival. The Democratic leaders repeatedly kept their members in line on many of the toughest fights of the year. Among the highlights was Hurricane Sandy relief, the Violence Against Women Act and the deal to reopen the government. Hoyer ended the year, though, as the only Democratic leader to vote against the budget deal — it didn’t have an unemployment insurance extension, it wasn’t the grand bargain he was looking for, and it took a whack at the federal employees and military retirees who disproportionately populate his district. But it did provide $63 billion in sequester relief, and Hoyer, perhaps more than anybody in Congress, became known as the sequester’s opponent-in-chief.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.

The ranking member of the House Budget Committee and rising star within Democratic leadership had high aspirations for 2013. He wanted to be known as the Democrats’ voice of reason against the sequester: check. He wanted to be the House Democrats’ loudest champion for convening the first bicameral budget conference in years: double check. The Marylander ultimately got significant notoriety, a budget and a smattering of sequester relief to boot. The cut to federal worker pensions is a loss, but ended up being much lower than had been considered by the White House and top negotiators in part because Van Hollen pushed back, and President Barack Obama called him to promise his budget wouldn’t include a new round of cuts to federal workers.

Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky.

The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee had a tough year, though through little fault of his own. He tried desperately to pass spending bills through “regular order,” only to be thwarted by a conference at war with itself. Though he attempted to be a good soldier for his leadership, he finally unleashed a screed against sequestration that became a rallying cry for Democrats. But the Kentucky Republican’s fortunes are due to change in 2014, when the budget agreement’s new higher spending levels will empower Rogers and other appropriators to take back Congress’ “power of the purse.”

Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich.

If there was a “Sisyphus Award,” it would go to Dave Camp, the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Like the protagonist of the Greek myth, Camp has been tasked with trying to roll an enormous boulder (tax reform) up a hill (Capitol Hill) only to watch it roll back down again – and again and again. Camp promised at the end of 2012 that he would rewrite the nation’s tax code by the end of 2013, a goal on which he has made significant headway, but one that is still far from finished. The challenges ahead of him in 2014 are magnified by recent news that his closest ally, Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., is expected to resign soon to accept a gig as ambassador to China. Camp has a lot to be thankful for this year on a personal level, however: He’s been cancer-free for a year.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

The Oversight and Government Reform chairman has been searching desperately for the issue that will tarnish the Obama legacy. He may have finally found something he can sink his teeth into: The Obamacare rollout. There’s no doubt that Issa has continued to raise his personal profile, but the richest member of Congress also came under fire for his partisan approach to investigating the administration, and his efforts to target the White House itself in the assorted scandals du jour have tended to fall flat.

Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va.

As the first-term chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Goodlatte set an ambitious legislative agenda in 2013. He followed leadership’s directions to tackle an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system in a “piecemeal” fashion that wouldn’t alienate the anti-amnesty base, facilitating passage of four stand-alone immigration bills through the committee that met these criteria. They never made it to the House floor, however, and even if they did, they probably wouldn’t have gotten support from Democrats, nor would they have survived in the Senate. Goodlatte also endured criticism for waffling on whether he supported providing a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.

The ‘Hell No’ Caucus

The contingent of hard-line conservatives and tea party sympathizers started off the year strong, fighting — and often winning — battles with GOP leadership against bills that they believed strayed too far from far-right principles. Any clout it might have had to dictate the House’s legislative agenda, however, diminished after the shutdown, when the push to tie government funding to administration concessions on Obamacare proved thoroughly unsuccessful. The unofficially labeled “Hell No Caucus” — or is it the “Tortilla Coast” Caucus? — ended 2013 with little to show for all its sound and fury.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.

Bachmann gets the Icarus Award. A tea party favorite and a 2012 presidential candidate, Bachmann used to be a player. Unfortunately for her, all that stardom may have finally caught up to her: She flew too close to the sun. She is still being investigated by the Ethics Committee for a number of potential violations, mostly stemming from her failed presidential bid, and she announced this year that she won’t be seeking another term in office, making her a lame duck. Still, she was at center stage when a group of Republicans were blocking an immigration overhaul — “amnesty,” as she prefers to call it — and she once again upped her tea party creds by making the IRS scandal one of her constant talking points.