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.”
McCarthy has been among those most affected.
Boehner championed the ban on earmarks, which took away a powerful inducement for a Whip. Boehner has allowed the use of other perks — such as plum slots on Congressional delegations — but Republicans said they are fewer and further between than under previous regimes.
Boehner has also resisted pressure from McCarthy, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and Republican old bulls to resurrect the use of penalties to enforce discipline, such as stripping committee slots.
“There’s no earmarks, the Speaker doesn’t punish people. It’s a different philosophy. So it’s harder where you have to grab something ahead of time and work it through the process,” McCarthy said.
Boehner seems to understand what it means for McCarthy.
“Some of the reforms our new Republican majority has made in the House — opening up the debate, welcoming amendments, and banning earmarks — have made the Whip’s job tougher. There’s no doubt about that. There’s also no doubt that Kevin McCarthy has done a terrific job, and the Speaker appreciates all of his work,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.
Those reforms have forced McCarthy to rely much more heavily on relationships.
“He’s like an older brother to the Conference,” one GOP Member said.
McCarthy has held dozens of “listening sessions,” working with committee chairmen to explain legislation to lawmakers and address their concerns.
He holds a weekly Whip dinner in his office open to any member of the Conference, and aides say he constantly works the phones or the floor.
He even has a rotating selection of pictures of Members in his office, which is designed to build camaraderie.
“The whole concept is for Members to hang out here … we want this to be the incubator of the idea gathering,” McCarthy said.
But even his best efforts have been stymied, Republicans said.
McCarthy has been hurt by the “influx of tea party freshmen and conservatives who believe in voting in a certain way. And that is something previous Whips haven’t had to deal with since the “Contract With America.” Most Congresses have been very narrowly split,” a former GOP leadership aide said.
Another factor is age and experience. Unlike Hoyer, DeLay and other Whips, McCarthy is relatively young, 47, and was elected to the House in 2006.
“There are things he just doesn’t know as a newer Member of Congress. … You can’t hand someone the Whip job with very little experience, a very large majority and no weapons in his arsenal and expect him to do a fantastic job,” one Republican said.
“If he had all the tools available to him that previous Whips have had to sway colleagues, then we’d have a good measuring stick,” one veteran GOP operative said.
By traditional measures — say, McCarthy’s ability to pass difficult legislation on strong party-line votes or his ability to tamp down dissent — his record is mixed.
McCarthy has short-circuited Democrats’ use of motions to recommit to trip up Republicans. Starting in 2007, Republicans were able to turn such votes — traditionally party-line procedural votes on the minority’s alternative to a bill — into a political bludgeon, getting Blue Dogs and other Democratic moderates to vote with the GOP.
Then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) lost 21 of 84 MTR votes in 2007, her first year in the majority. Boehner has lost none of the 76 MTR votes the House has taken so far.
McCarthy was also able to persuade a sizable number of Republicans to vote for last summer’s debt-limit increase, despite many Republicans’ pledges to never vote for one.
But nothing has been easy, and almost every major vote — and some minor ones — have been spectacles of Republican strife. The listening sessions have helped, but still, whether it has been continuing resolutions, the debt limit or extending the payroll tax cut, McCarthy has sometimes struggled to get 218 votes.
During the debt ceiling debate, conservatives resisted leadership’s compromise efforts, forcing leaders to agree to votes on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution before ultimately agreeing to a deal with the Senate.
McCarthy faced a revolt over Boehner’s push for a short-term payroll tax cut extension before Christmas. McCarthy and Boehner eventually forced the short-term extension, but the fallout has continued.
Republicans have lost six votes on the floor thus far. And while four of those votes were on suspension bills, which McCarthy does not whip, they all have been hung on his operation.
McCarthy has also had to rely on Democratic votes, including to pass most of last year’s spending bills.
Hoyer said while McCarthy’s troubles have meant he has needed his help, the blame for the GOP’s woes rests just as much on the shoulders of Boehner and Cantor. “The failure of a Whip operation is not the failure of the Whip him- or herself … it’s a team dynamic,” Hoyer said.
McCarthy said he is proud of his team’s efforts, arguing that “if you really judged based on what we’ve had to achieve, we’ve made great strides.”
“I’ll put our Whip team up against anybody else’s, because we’re achieving stuff … it may not be as pretty, but you still get the same results.”
Former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., candidate for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, holds his hand over his heart during the singing of the national anthem as he waits to take the stage for his town hall campaign rally with Sen. John McCain at the Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H., on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014.