Lauren Victoria Burke/AP

Here's Why McCarthy’s Résumé Matters

The likely next speaker never chaired a committee and his legislative record is thin.

Over the next few months, the na­tion’s bor­row­ing au­thor­ity and many of its pop­u­lar but ex­pired tax be­ne­fits will need to be ex­ten­ded. Fed­er­al trans­port­a­tion fund­ing has to be re­plen­ished. And mem­bers of both parties want a budget deal for the next two years while avert­ing a gov­ern­ment shut­down fueled by abor­tion polit­ics. If House Speak­er John Boehner re­tired to­mor­row in­stead of at the end of Oc­to­ber, could his re­place­ment helm the ne­go­ti­ations with Mitch Mc­Con­nell, Harry Re­id, Nancy Pelosi, and Pres­id­ent Obama?

The re­cent past is a weak guide: House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Kev­in Mc­Carthy will likely be the least-ex­per­i­enced mem­ber to be­come House speak­er in about 125 years. He rose to the top of D.C. in a flash—about eight years—up the lead­er­ship lad­der, fo­cus­ing less on ne­go­ti­at­ing com­prom­ises and more on build­ing the ranks of Re­pub­lic­ans (tak­ing the House in 2010) and his re­la­tion­ships with them, al­though in his role as his party’s primary vote-counter there were a hand­ful of high-pro­file face-plants. Oth­ers—wheth­er it be Boehner or com­mit­tee chairs Paul Ry­an or Har­old Ro­gers—have been more in­flu­en­tial on spend­ing is­sues, but in the fu­ture, Mc­Carthy will prob­ably need to step up.

Those who have known him for a while—from his days lead­ing the GOP minor­ity in the Cali­for­nia State As­sembly—say Mc­Carthy is up to the task.

Tony Strick­land, a former GOP mem­ber of the state As­sembly and Sen­ate, re­calls go­ing in 2003 to Denny’s after play­ing pickup bas­ket­ball and ask­ing the then-fresh­man if he was in­ter­ested in lead­ing the state GOP in the As­sembly. In the middle of the night, Mc­Carthy agreed. They mapped out their strategy on a nap­kin, and Mc­Carthy be­came the first fresh­man to win the post.

“He brings people to­geth­er,” says Strick­land. “He sits and talks to people about what their goals are. … In Sac­ra­mento, he would get groups of people to­geth­er to go to movies, play bas­ket­ball [and] soft­ball, whatever, just to build ca­marader­ie among folks.

“Likab­il­ity goes a long way,” he ad­ded. “It really felt like you were there as a team in­stead of just there as an in­di­vidu­al.”

As a mem­ber of the state’s “Big 5”—the in­form­al group in­clud­ing the gov­ernor and le­gis­lat­ive lead­ers—Mc­Carthy was in­volved in a series of budget ne­go­ti­ations, as well as a ma­jor work­ers’ com­pens­a­tion over­haul, which Strick­land cred­its as Mc­Carthy’s greatest achieve­ment, while ac­know­ledging that then-Gov. Arnold Schwar­zeneg­ger’s threats to work around the Le­gis­lature and push a bal­lot ini­ti­at­ive played a ma­jor role in get­ting Demo­crat­ic mem­bers to the table.

“The fact that we got it through was a huge vic­tory be­cause it was dead on ar­rival for many years,” says Strick­land. “I would say that Mc­Carthy and Schwar­zeneg­ger de­serve a lot of cred­it for that.”

But oth­ers say Mc­Carthy’s greatest strength was in polit­ics in­stead of le­gis­lat­ing. Those in the gov­ernor’s of­fice at the time paint a pic­ture that many Re­pub­lic­an House mem­bers would wel­come: a bot­tom-up ap­proach to gov­ern­ing.

“This is why I think Kev­in is go­ing to make a great speak­er: It’s not so much what Kev­in’s policy ac­com­plish­ments were, it was the fact that he em­powered his caucus,” says Richard Costigan, who served as the li­ais­on between Schwar­zeneg­ger and the Le­gis­lature. “Kev­in didn’t have to be the one out front. Kev­in was the one … who pushed his caucus and let his mem­bers have the suc­cess.”

“It was a dif­fi­cult po­s­i­tion for him to be a driver on policy, just be­cause he’s in the minor­ity party and [work­ing] for a Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor,” adds Rob Stutz­man, a former top com­mu­nic­a­tions aide to Schwar­zeneg­ger.

Of course, some may prefer that style. And Ron­ald Peters, a pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Ok­lahoma spe­cial­iz­ing in the speak­er­ship, notes that while speak­ers such as Tom Fo­ley, Sam Ray­burn, and Boehner all chaired com­mit­tees, “more of­ten than not” the 20th-cen­tury speak­ers didn’t, rising through the party lead­er­ship in­stead.

Dave Camp, the re­cently-re­tired Ways and Means Com­mit­tee chair­man who dropped a ma­jor tax-re­form bill on his way out, says that the speak­er should be hands-off. “The role of the speak­er shouldn’t be to write le­gis­la­tion,” Camp says. “You really want a speak­er that em­powers the com­mit­tee chairs and the com­mit­tee mem­bers to go to work and to craft le­gis­la­tion. That’s how you build con­sensus. That’s how you de­vel­op a work­able agenda that can ac­tu­ally be im­ple­men­ted.”

Camp, Strick­land, Costigan, Stutz­man, and oth­ers see Mc­Carthy’s abil­ity to con­nect with di­verse mem­bers in­side the con­fer­ence as one of his ma­jor selling points as speak­er. Camp says that is his “his greatest strength,” and that his ex­per­i­ence help­ing elect many of the mem­bers he now leads will be an “in­valu­able” as­set.

Mc­Carthy’s de­sire to re­cruit oth­ers traveled well from Sac­ra­mento to Wash­ing­ton. In 2009, Stutz­man re­mem­bers see­ing Mc­Carthy at the Den­ver air­port in the United lounge. “He is por­ing over all these files of can­did­ates and he starts telling them to me, talk­ing about chal­lengers that he’s helped re­cruit, people he’s helped raise money,” Stutz­man says. “This was be­fore any­one who was sober was even ima­gin­ing the Re­pub­lic­ans could take the House.

“His charm helps him,” Stutz­man adds, “but he works his ass off.”

The ques­tion now is wheth­er that sun­shine de­mean­or can turn in­to votes in a suc­cess­ful agenda. Mc­Carthy’s re­l­at­ive in­ex­per­i­ence will be tested by the same forces that di­vide the Re­pub­lic­an Party, as well as Con­gress and the White House. Cal Dooley, a Demo­crat who used to serve a Cali­for­nia dis­trict near Mc­Carthy’s one-time boss Bill Thomas, says that the ma­jor ques­tion isn’t Mc­Carthy’s back­ground but his con­fer­ence.

“The com­pos­i­tion of the Re­pub­lic­an con­fer­ence hasn’t changed,” says Dooley, who now runs the Amer­ic­an Chem­istry Coun­cil, a power­ful trade group. “The ques­tion will be, does Kev­in have the abil­ity through per­haps stronger per­son­al re­la­tion­ships to hold the Re­pub­lic­an con­fer­ence to­geth­er on really dif­fi­cult, chal­len­ging is­sues? I think any­one is go­ing to have a very dif­fi­cult time uni­fy­ing the Re­pub­lic­an con­fer­ence, but I think Kev­in prob­ably has the skills to do it as well [as]—if not bet­ter than—any­one else in the Re­pub­lic­an Con­gress.”