Kevin McCarthy, Ben Ray Luján Among Capitol Hill’s Big Winners in 2014
Not every member of Congress had an A+ year.
Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., became the first majority leader in decades to go down in a primary; Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., only barely avoided being explicitly implicated for campaign finance fraud.
New York Republican Rep. Michael G. Grimm almost had a good year: He won re-election despite a 20-count federal indictment. But then a month later he pleaded guilty to tax evasion — and just two days before the end of 2014, he announced his resignation.
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., freshly elected the House Majority Whip, was on track to ring in 2015 with an unblemished record from the previous 12 months, but an embarrassing revelation that he might have addressed a white supremacist group in 2002 marred an otherwise stellar score.
The list of House lawmakers who failed to hit their strides in 2014 is long and winding, made up of casualties of congressional dysfunction, those who got hit with pure bad luck and members who simply had no one to blame but themselves.
But in the holiday spirit of compassion, charity and generosity, the 218 team presents a list of 10 members — five from each side of the aisle — who were able to rise above the fray and take some “wins” while their colleagues were suffering losses.
Disclaimers apply that this list isn’t exhaustive, but rather just a sampling. Here they are, Republicans first, then Democrats:
1. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. Fairly or not, McCarthy historically has had to stave off criticism that he’s “too nice” to be in leadership. But after Cantor’s primary defeat over the summer, the majority whip handily won his bid to be the next majority leader. McCarthy’s elevation to that role was a clear sign that his colleagues trust him to articulate a vision for the House Republican Conference going into a presidential election year, and to find the elusive sweet spot between building consensus and keeping members in line. McCarthy gets to prove himself in the 114th Congress, helping guide the legislative agenda alongside a GOP-controlled Senate.
2. Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis.
Some Republicans wanted the 2012 vice presidential nominee to run for leadership when Cantor lost his primary; others hoped he would use his influence to push for House consideration of comprehensive immigration overhaul legislation. But Ryan kept his powder dry and steered clear of any controversy and feather-ruffling in 2014. Aside from releasing his memoir-cum-policy manifesto, the lawmaker focused on one goal: Scoring his dream job in the 114th Congress of being the Ways and Means chairman. He got it.
3. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore. After the National Republican Campaign Committee, chaired by Walden, was out-earned and out-spent by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, there were rumblings that the Oregon Republican might face competition for a second term from some Republicans who thought they could do the job better. Walden quieted the grumblers, though, when he helped the House GOP win a larger majority in the midterms than the party had enjoyed in nearly a century. He’ll have the gig now through the next cycle.
4. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. House GOP term limits for committee chairmen meant it was time this fall to choose a new leader for the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. It also offered a chance to choose a successor to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., whose hyper-partisan tactics had become a distraction for the party, many members agreed. Enter Chaffetz, who campaigned for the post on a promise to hold truth to power but do so on a more cooperative, bipartisan basis. He even courted Issa’s longtime foe, ranking member Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md. In the most competitive Republican committee chairman race of the year, Chaffetz ultimately prevailed against three challengers.
5. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. King continues to be vilified by Democrats, mocked by immigrant rights activists and isolated by the House GOP establishment. In 2014, however, he was also successful in staving off any meaningful congressional overhaul of the nation’s immigration system. Though Republicans reiterated again and again that King did not speak for the party’s position on immigration, they also were prone to giving King exactly what he wanted when they couldn’t find the votes to advance certain priorities. It was King, after all, who said in August that revised legislation to stem the child migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border was “like I ordered it off the menu.”
6. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M. The 42-year-old lawmaker of Latino heritage was not one of the obvious contenders for chairman of the DCCC, and his selection by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sent a powerful signal: One needn’t be the loudest and most outwardly ambitious to secure a plum leadership assignment. For Luján, all the years of playing the happy warrior in the rank-and-file, of helping his colleagues and playing with the team, of being amiable and congenial, paid off big-time.
7. Rep. Linda T. Sánchez, D-Calif. She was already starting to take a higher profile in 2014, serving as the leadership-appointed top Democrat on the House Ethics Committee and getting a coveted seat on the special Benghazi investigative panel. Sanchez had actually thought 2016 would be the year when it all came together and it would be her turn, in the seniority system, to run for chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. That moment came much earlier, when Lujan, next in line to lead the CHC, was unexpectedly tapped to run the DCCC. Sanchez threw her hat in the ring this fall and won the job unopposed.
8. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J. Rep. Henry A. Waxman’s retirement announcement in late-January set off a bitter, 10-month race between Pallone and Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., to be the ranking member on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. The competition was fierce, with each candidate trying to top the other with the most campaign contributions, the highest-powered endorsements and some stinging personal attacks. Pallone ultimately came out on top, but it was a nail-biter: He was only elected by his colleagues in the House Democratic Caucus by 10 votes.
9. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md. Being the ranking member of a committee is ordinarily a thankless job when one’s party has little influence over the legislative agenda, but Cummings emerged from 2014 as one of the most relevant of that league. As the top Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Cummings drew plaudits for his measured response to getting his microphone silenced by Issa, during a hearing; his criticism of Secret Service Director Julia Pierson — a member of the Obama administration that counts the Maryland Democrat as one of its fiercest defenders — led to bipartisan calls for her resignation. Republicans, and not only Chaffetz, learned this year that Cummings was someone worth working with and listening to.
10. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. One of the last “Watergate babies” retired at the close of the 113th Congress, but not before securing one last legislative accomplishment: a bipartisan deal to address troubled multi-employer pension plans by allowing cuts to some benefits, via an amendment folded into the “cromnibus.” It was not a popular solution among the staunch liberal’s core constituency of unions and employees advocates. It also forced Miller to vote in favor of a spending bill he might not have wanted to support otherwise, given the myriad “poison pill” amendments for progressives. But, as Miller said of retirees with pension plans in peril, passage of his provision was “their last best chance.”