House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) recently found himself in an unusual position for the man tasked with herding Members behind his leader’s top policy proposal: He had to tell Speaker John Boehner “no.”
Boehner wanted to rework government funding of highway construction in a way that appealed to conservatives. But with no earmarks to dangle as enticements and a prohibition on hardball tactics, it was clear to McCarthy that the votes weren’t there and that Boehner would have to change direction.
The Ohio Republican initially seemed intent on his plan, which linked energy development to highway funding. But after a Conference meeting in mid-February, it became clear that McCarthy was right. Boehner broke up the bill.
“Lots of times I have to tell him [no] … and many times the Speaker has come to me and said, ‘You’re right. We had to sort of shift gears there,’” McCarthy said in an interview.
He added, “That’s part of my role, to be an advocate for the Members. And sometimes John may take a little longer” to come to the same conclusion.
The breakdown in the once legendary discipline over the transportation bill was a stark example not only of the shifting face of the Conference under Boehner’s leadership, but also of the transformation of the Whip’s role.
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) sympathized with McCarthy’s position.
“It’s clear from the outside that it’s very difficult, and quite frankly difficult in assessing success,” Hoyer said.
“The days of having effective enforcement tools for the Whip job is long gone,” said Ron Bonjean, who served as a top strategist to former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
But Bonjean, as well as numerous Republican and Democratic lawmakers, argued that despite that lack of tools, “McCarthy is performing well despite having less leverage and such a large Republican Conference to manage. I don’t think [former Majority Leader] Tom DeLay [R- Texas] could do any better with the present circumstances.”
While McCarthy has had some notable wins, he has also had a number of moments in which he has found himself simply unable to deliver for Boehner.
According to Republicans, much of this difficulty stems from Boehner himself, who made it a priority to reform how the House operates.
In a September 2010 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Boehner made clear that as Speaker, he would change the House’s top-down traditions.
“The House was designed to reflect our natural contentiousness as a people,” Boehner said. “Yes, we will still have disagreements. But let’s have them out in the open.”
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