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Roll Call

Griffith Likes to Go His Way, Even if It’s Odd

Douglas Graham/Roll Call
Freshman Rep. Morgan Griffith is adjusting to life as a backbencher in Congress after serving as Majority Leader in the Virginia House of Delegates. Still, he’s among the group making life harder for GOP leaders by holding the line on spending and the debt ceiling.

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Morgan Griffith was the first Republican to ever serve as Majority Leader in the Virginia House of Delegates, and he loved every second of it.

The attorney from Southwest Virginia would bounce a bit on his heels as he commanded the attention of 99 Delegates on the House floor. It was playtime for Griffith, who wore a big smile arguing about the constitutionality of legislation and scoring points with political maneuvers.

Now, as a freshman Member of Congress, Griffith is "dead last" to speak at hearings. And he has virtually no say in his party's agenda, even though his unseating of a Democrat in the 9th district last fall helped usher the GOP into power.

Six months in, Griffith is the kind of Republican who is making life harder for party leaders. He's insisting he'll oppose the debt ceiling increase unless it comes with major cuts, and he refused to support the last continuing resolution to keep the government funded.

He said it doesn't matter that he empathizes with his fellow Virginian, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, because of his own many years in charge of a caucus.

"I'm just in a different role," Griffith told Roll Call on a recent Thursday morning in his office. "Leadership has to make sure that they keep things running, but I'm not leadership. I'm a backbencher who was sent here to try to change this place."

As he gets amped up about spending, Griffith, who turned 53 last week, points to a framed photo of his three children and focuses on 11-year-old Abby.

"Under the plan that Democrats want to tell everybody is too conservative ... we don't stop borrowing money until she's 40," he said. "Exactly how do you justify that?"

That's one reason he opposed the final CR, a move he said was his toughest vote yet. But he's prepared to cast an even tougher one.

"If it's not enough, I vote 'no' on the debt ceiling," Griffith said. "It's got to be systemic change and cuts now. Both."

He said he would be glad if a compromise passes but that leadership shouldn't count on his support for a lukewarm plan. He won't budge: "Some of us have to mark a post on the outskirts and say we're taking our stand out here."

History Buff

Griffith's office tells you everything you need to know about the man.

A large piece of coal is prominently featured on the wall with a plaque reading: "A friend of coal is a friend of America." An aide said it was the first thing the team hung in the office.

There's the Roanoke Times front page declaring his defeat of then-Rep. Rick Boucher (D) by 5 points, one of the earliest races called on election night and one that signaled Democrats were about to be swept from power in a wave.

On the wall not far from three Winston Churchill books and a copy of "Atlas Shrugged" is a caricature of the British journalist John Wilkes. In 1768 Wilkes had enraged King George III, who used general warrants to search every home to find the printing press. The way Griffith tells it, the incident led the new U.S. government to require search warrants with a specific reasoning, and Wilkes' fight is one reason he opposed the USA PATRIOT Act extension: "The Founding Fathers would never have wanted us to go so far."

He's one of the Capitol Hill office dwellers.

"It's not the most comfortable accommodation," Griffith admitted, gesturing to the black leather couch that doubles as a bed on nights the House holds votes. "I'm perfectly fine with the floor, but it was a little dusty."

The four-hour drive home isn't an option, and he can try to make his children's lives "a little more normal" instead of getting an apartment in Washington, D.C. "I just couldn't justify spending $2,000 for a place to live for what is essentially nine nights a month, so here I am," Griffith said.

He sometimes looks like a man who sleeps in his office. He's a little red-faced, with tussled patches of graying hair. His simple blue suit is coupled with a salmon-colored striped tie that could have been purchased in 1987 when he was chairman of the Salem Republican Party.

It's on the couch at night, under the elephant-print wall tapestry he picked up on a trip to Indonesia, that Griffith hunkers down to read legislation. He said he was annoyed when he found a specific "buy American" provision that would cost his district jobs buried in a 900-page bill. "By the time I found it, it was too late to do amendments," he said.

Big Fan of Bats

Griffith is a little, well, odd.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) said that when the two served together as Delegates, Griffith's colleagues knew his hobbies were more unusual than most.

"Sitting in caves in Bangladesh looking at bats is not what I like to do in my free time," McDonnell said in a phone interview. "He sent me a card when he was traveling in some country with some pictures of bats and I thought, 'Well, this is a little different.' But as they would say, that's Morgan."

The whole getting-married-in-a-cemetery thing has been blown out of proportion, Griffith said.

He and his wife, Hilary, had just an 80-day courtship before tying the knot in 2005. They wanted a small, private affair, but when he and his future father-in-law surveyed Lake Spring Park the day before the wedding, they found "a roving band of seagulls, ducks and geese" leaving droppings all over the "cute little bridge" for the ceremony.

"I said to her dad, 'I know this other spot that's really pretty,'" he said, grinning.

That spot just happened to be in East Hill Cemetery, near the grave of his hero, Revolutionary War Gen. Andrew Lewis, whom Griffith has been known to dress up as.

Griffith's first political battle had been an attempt as student council president in 1976 to persuade the Salem City Council to name the new high school after Lewis. He failed, but he made up for it decades later with a General Assembly bill soon after he became Majority Leader. Now a long stretch of Interstate 81 around his hometown boasts Lewis' name.

But those were the good ol' days.

Chances are Griffith won't get a bill passed into law anytime soon, and he doesn't get much of the floor time that really gets him excited. So he uses his role on the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations to engage. He liked a tit for tat with Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) — when he charged that the Little Engine That Could wouldn't make it up the mountain today because it would be over-regulated — so much that he had the video posted on his website.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) remembers Griffith being "the designated hitter taking shots at me" when he served as governor. "He loved the back and forth, but it was never personal," Warner said.

Griffith said he thinks GOP leaders understand his cross-examination skills and recognize that "this guy likes to play."

There's no playing this day. With a green bottle of his favorite beverage (Dr. Enuf, an "elixir" of caffeine and sugar bottled on the Tennessee line) by his side, Griffith said nothing before becoming one of 31 nay votes to defeat a Democratic amendment dealing with regulating pollutants from tugboats.

McDonnell wasn't surprised to hear about Griffith's work ethic, remembering all-nighters they pulled writing state budgets. "I'm sure there are a lot of other late nights that people never see with Morgan getting things done," McDonnell said.

Griffith looked wistful as he compared constantly "being on" in Virginia to the lulling pace of the "backbencher" in Washington.

"But I was a backbencher in the minority before I became Majority Leader," he said. "It will happen with time if I keep doing what I do, which is work hard."

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