WASHINGTON, D.C. - Leader or legislator? That is the question.
Kevin McCarthy -- and his constituents -- face a classic political dilemma.
Taking a top leadership post in any organization requires viewing the big picture, balancing opinions and inspiring disparate groups to pursue a common goal. But what if you also have to keep your day job? And what if that job is to represent just one of many points of view?
That’s the situation in which Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California’s 23rd Congressional District finds himself as he prepares for this week’s House Republican Conference leadership elections.
Can he move up the GOP ladder and also keep in touch with his district thousands of miles away?
Soon-to-be-former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor suffered from an imbalance in what we’ll call Leader-Legislator syndrome. On the day of his fateful primary, in which he spent a million dollars to counter a pesky challenge from little-known college professor, Cantor wasn’t even in his district.
He was in Washington, presumably focused on leading his party in the House. Cantor seemed as stunned as the rest of Washington to find out he’d been beaten. Among the tealeaf-reading crowd, Cantor was accused of “losing touch” with his district, which is less than 100 miles away from Capitol Hill.
Of course, Leader-Legislator syndrome is nothing new. But the increasing polarization of the Congress in the past decade or two has made navigating it more difficult.
To review: the Majority Leader runs the floor of the House of Representatives. That means setting the agenda for what proposed laws the House will take up, scheduling the debate and even deciding just how long that debate will be.
As Majority Leader, you are the focus of every lobbyist, interest group, member of Congress and the White House because you are the gatekeeper of everything the House does. That often includes things far outside the interest of the people who actually voted you into office.
As House Speaker during President Obama’s first term, Nancy Pelosi was in charge of getting the Affordable Care Act through Congress. At the time, the bill was far to the right of what many of Pelosi’s San Francisco voters wanted.
Compromises like this led to Pelosi facing primary challenges from the Green Party and the Peace and Freedom Party (which, in 2004, nominated liberal cause-celebre and jailed felon Leonard Peltier to be President of the United States). Pelosi, now the Minority Leader, represents arguably the most liberal congressional district in the United States, while presiding over a party that includes lawmakers from conservative rural Tennessee and North Carolina.
House Speaker John Boehner has spent so much of his leadership career threading the needle between tea party conservatives and his relatively moderate Ohio district he’s often accused of letting the tail wag the dog. Consequently, his public statements are virtually substance-free and make him sound less like a leader and more like a follower.
The upside to Leader-Legislator syndrome is that with greater power comes greater influence over the content of legislation and the congressional agenda. Unfortunately for Kevin McCarthy, and for anyone leading only one side of Capitol Hill, that only gets you so far.
Earlier this year, McCarthy used his leadership influence as Majority Whip (the person who makes sure the votes are there for the leadership’s goals) to push forward a piece of legislation that would directly impact his California district: a bill to supply emergency water to the drought stricken San Joaquin Valley.
It passed the House in February with almost exclusively Republican votes. The bill then drew a veto threat from the White House and died in the Senate.
Kevin McCarthy can take some comfort in the fact that Eric Cantor’s loss last week was the first time a House Majority Leader has lost a primary race since the position was created in 1899.
But times have changed – things are a little meaner and McCarthy is already facing his own challenge from the Tea Party. Raul Labrador, a congressman from Idaho, is running for Majority leader as well.
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