Bakersfield native Kevin McCarthy will get a better salary, a bigger staff and a lot more clout on his state’s behalf when he becomes House speaker, as all in Congress now expect.
But the old days of bringing home the bacon are now gone, or have at least been put on a diet.
A congressional earmark ban will limit McCarthy’s ability to steer federal dollars toward his San Joaquin Valley congressional district, which encompasses most of Kern and Tulare counties. Republican divisions render all but impossible passage of an immigration bill sought by Valley farmers and immigrants. Special-interest legislation faces stricter scrutiny.
“It goes without saying others will look favorably on trying to promote policies that make the speaker happy,” said John Lawrence, former chief of staff to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, when she served as speaker of the House of Representatives from 2007-2011. She is now House minority leader.
“But how much of that he can do without earmarks and with budget restrictions,” Lawrence said, “I have my doubts.”
Now a visiting faculty member at the University of California Washington Center, Lawrence added in an email interview that McCarthy “needs to be careful he doesn’t appear to his colleagues like he is skimming off the cream for the home state, which would not be well received.”
McCarthy’s political mentor, former Rep. Bill Thomas of Bakersfield, for instance, alienated some fellow lawmakers in 2005 when he used his clout to secure $700 million worth of local projects in a pork-filled transportation bill. In 2011, the House eliminated earmarks.
Even the unprecedented development that McCarthy’s ascension will put Californians in the House’s top two party positions is less than it seems for the Golden State. McCarthy and Pelosi seem to barely know each other. Legislatively, the only things they share are California’s equivalent of mom and apple pie, like love for the wine industry.
Still, a Speaker McCarthy could work his California will in ways large and small. He’ll have unmatched bargaining leverage, control over which bills and amendments reach the floor, a dominant say over committee assignments and a big staff to serve him. He could be cutting deals, one on one, with the president and the Senate majority leader.
“A speaker’s office has additional power, period,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno. “Oftentimes, depending on the legislation and circumstances, a speaker can be very effective in making sure all the follow-through takes place.”
Costa cited, as two possible examples, McCarthy’s greater potential to move a stalled California water bill, as well as legislation to implement a big irrigation drainage settlement for the Westlands Water District. Both measures will test his muscle, as they draw Democratic opposition.
More broadly, Northern California Republican Rep. Doug LaMalfa added that McCarthy “can sure bring a better, stronger focus on California’s and Western states’ more unique needs,” particularly on public land issues. Efforts to roll back environmental regulations, encourage oil-and-gas drilling and speed timber harvesting will likely get a boost.
Silicon Valley, where McCarthy has spent years making contacts and raising money, could also see a return on the investment. But comprehensive immigration reform, to the dismay of some of his farm organization backers, still appears politically untouchable for any speaker fearful of angering several dozen GOP hard-liners.
“On immigration reform,” Costa said, “it’s my sense that his hands are going to be tied.”
As majority leader, a position he’s held since August 2014, McCarthy commands a leadership staff of about 25. The House speaker’s cadre currently numbers 60 or so employees, in addition to the standard congressional office staff.
More loyalists, in turn, extend the tentacles of leadership. They enhance political intelligence gathering and amplify message sending.
“That additional staff helps with member services, and it certainly helps with focusing on all the various committees that are in play,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock.
In the transactional world of Capitol Hill relations, Lawrence of the UC Washington Center elaborated, McCarthy can reward allies and cultivate future favors by bringing members into decision meetings, helping them with fundraising and appointing them to travel delegations and special committees.
It was partly through his close working relationship with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, for instance, that McCarthy ally Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, was appointed chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Nunes, in turn, has covered Boehner’s back.
Through his Republican appointments to the 13-member House Rules Committee, on which the GOP enjoys a nine-to-four advantage, McCarthy will further regulate the flow and shape of legislation. It was the rules panel, for instance, that pre-emptively blocked 21 of 25 proposed Democratic amendments to a California water bill earlier this year.
Currently, no Californian serves on the rules panel.
Some of McCarthy’s colleagues consider him more of a tactician than a policy expert. This Congress, he has only introduced one substantive bill, meant to aid the commercial space industry that’s taken root in Southern California. Tellingly, though, the bill passed the House a lickety-split nine days after McCarthy introduced it.
McCarthy will also get a good-sized raise, to an annual salary of $223,500. As majority leader, he’s been paid $193,400. Rank-and-file House members are currently paid $174,000 annually.