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Ambition, Achievement, Tenure: House’s Team of GOP Rivals Long on Just One

Scalise, right, and McCarthy, have scant few legislative achievements. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Scalise, right, and McCarthy, have few legislative achievements. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

This much has become clear about the still-evolving scramble to reconfigure the House Republican leadership: Only white males will end up occupying the top three positions of power. They’re all going to hail from the Sun Belt. At least two, but perhaps all three, will have been in Congress for fewer than a dozen years.

And not one of them will have an established reputation for either legislative accomplishment or expertise in any particular area of public policy.

As a group they’ll reflect their party’s continuing gender gap, its newfound dominance in the warmer climes and its generational changing of the guard at the Capitol. But they will represent neither the leading edge of lawmaking prowess nor the vanguard of intellectual conservatism.

In this era of so many partisan standoffs and so much internal GOP discord, maybe it should come as no surprise how the men now looking to move up in their hierarchy have collectively elevated their reputations through dedicated fundraising and immersion in intraparty intrigue.

But it’s nonetheless worth noting that, in light of modern history, the new team is going to have a much lower level of wonkishness than what’s come before.

Outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner inevitably refers to himself as “a regular guy with a big job,” and on the cigarette-and-cheap-red-wine surface he’s got the demeanor to back that up. But it also took him fully two decades, and a couple of false starts, to maneuver into the top job. Resilience in the inside game was undeniably crucial. But Boehner also served long enough to attain a prime committee chairmanship and then used his Education and the Workforce gavel to engineer the No Child Left Behind law, one of the biggest domestic policy changes of this young century.

All his recent predecessors had similar legislative experience and comparably strong policy calling cards to accompany their motivational skills and political chops. Nancy Pelosi of California carved out a niche as the top Democratic player on both national intelligence and foreign aid. J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois first became visible as a central GOP spokesman on health care. Newt Gingrich of Georgia was an outside-the-box thinker on a broad array of issues as well as GOP political strategy. Thomas S. Foley of Washington chaired the Agriculture Committee, and fellow Democrat Jim Wright of Texas spent his first two decades in office focused on public works policy.

It’s been almost four decades, in other words, since someone attained the pinnacle of House leadership without any tangible legislative bone fides: Acting as a leadership handmaiden on the Rules Committee was the singular role Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. of Massachusetts played for 18 years before starting up the leadership ladder and then becoming speaker from 1977 through 1986.

It’s also been 124 years since someone became speaker during his first decade in the House: Georgia Democrat Charles F. Crisp got tapped in 1891 after eight years in office. (He lasted four years before a GOP takeover.)

The overwhelming favorite to get the job next, California’s Kevin McCarthy, has been a congressman for eight years and nine months. He’s been on the leadership track since his second term, when he was appointed chief deputy whip, but has never been chairman or ranking member of so much as a legislative subcommittee. (He rose to only 13th in GOP seniority on Financial Services, where he was assigned from 2009 until becoming majority leader last year.)

His long-shot rival, Florida’s Daniel Webster, may have some support among his like-minded tea party confrontationists, but he’s in only his third term and sits halfway down the GOP side of the dais on Transportation and Infrastructure.

The race for majority leader is for now a faceoff between the incumbent whip and an incumbent committee chairman. Each has chaired the Republican Study Committee, but with limited success in advancing conservative alternative policy proposals. And neither has seen much legislative success on his own, either.

From his seat on Energy and Commerce, which he had to give up after being elected whip 15 months ago, Louisiana’s Steve Scalise was able to put his fingerprints on an important law, albeit one providing mixed results back home. It gave Gulf Coast states most of the federal fines levied after the historic BP oil spill, but only in return for a significant cut in the states’ Medicaid payments.

Tom Price of Georgia took over the Budget Committee only this year and, despite its prominence in the public eye, under current circumstances the panel is responsible for producing nothing more than a nonbinding resolution that amounts to a fiscal policy messaging document for the GOP conference.

The most veteran lawmaker joining the leadership sweepstakes, and also the most junior member potentially in the mix, have their eyes on replacing Scalise in the No. 3 job.

Pete Sessions of Texas is a demographic outlier in the GOP power shuffle in one respect: He’s the only candidate for any of the jobs who’s won more than six House elections. In fact, he’s now into his 19th year in office, four of which were spent running the campaign operation that won and held the House for the GOP in 2010 and 2012. He’s also in his third year as Rules Committee chairman, but that’s a position more about advancing bills on the leadership’s terms than about shaping their content.

His main rival is Patrick T. McHenry, who was first elected in North Carolina in 2004 and so did gain enough seniority on Financial Services to become chairman two years ago of its Oversight Subcommittee, which he gave up after being appointed to his current post as chief deputy whip.

Conservative outsider Dennis A. Ross of Florida has been on Financial Services since 2011 and a potential fourth dark-horse candidate, second-termer Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, is on Energy and Commerce.

Since both have come to the Capitol only in this decade, they have little to show for themselves legislatively despite those plum committee assignments. But, given the rhythms of today’s Capitol, such traditional measures of tenure and accomplishment may have indefinitely become beside the point.

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