Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican Majority Whip, may have the hardest job in Washington.
As the House GOP’s No. 3 leader, behind Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, McCarthy is responsible for wrangling the Republican caucus — an unruly group with hardline Tea Parties, libertarian gadflies, and a dwindling corps of Establishment moderates all competing for air time.
But McCarthy — a laid-back 48-year old Californian who once won the lottery — has a surprisingly zen attitude about his willful charges.
Unlike his predecessors — and unlike the Whip caricature played by Kevin Spacey on the buzzy Netflix series House of Cards — McCarthy has largely forgone the backroom dealings and knuckle-breaking tactics commonly associated with the Whip’s office. Instead, his role, as he describes it, sounds like a cross between a camp counselor and a 20-something startup founder.
His office, he says, is more like an “idea factory” than a smoke-filled room.
“It’s a place for members to come, hang out, participate, talk about different solutions. I try to drive my office more as a start-up of ideas,” he told Business Insider.
They jury is still out on whether McCarthy’s approach is working — Republicans ended the last Congress in disarray, with McCarthy and Cantor unable to whip the votes necessary to place Boehner’s “Plan B” for the fiscal cliff. And two months into the new session, congressional Republicans remain deeply unpopular, with a ratio of 24 per cent favourable to 72 per cent unfavorable sentiment, according to a March Washington Post/ABC News poll.
Still, McCarthy is optimistic. In an interview last week, he told us how House Republicans are making their comeback, giving us a preview of what to expect from Congress after the Easter recess.
Below is our lightly-edited Q&A with McCarthy:
BI: Have you seen House of Cards? How accurate is Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of the Whip job? Is that really what you do?
McCarthy: [Laughs] No, it’s not really accurate. We don’t murder animals or members or anything like that. And we would never be sitting in our office when a vote is going on on the floor….
That is Hollywood – people are not doing what he’s doing. Being Whip is working with members, educating them, and trying to move legislation forward.
I met with Kevin Spacey a few times — and if you watch it, there’s one thing in the show that he did take from me. The thing that we tell – that I tell — members is “vote your district, vote your conscience, just don’t surprise us.” He used that in one of the shows.
BI: So do you talk to him often?
McCarthy: Spacey called me the other day and he leaves this message, he goes ‘Congressman? This is Congressman Frank Underwood.’ We’ve talked a few times, he hung out with me for a few days.
When he first wanted to talk to me, I didn’t want to talk to him because I knew how it was going to be portrayed, it was going to be Hollywood. But then I found out that he was supposed to be a Democrat and I had no problem.
BI: The common perception of the Whip’s office is that its a lot of backroom dealing and knuckle-breaking. Is that accurate? How do you Whip?
McCarthy: No. The Whip’s office is much different than the Whip offices of the past. America has changed. You don’t have earmarks, you have greater transparency. The Whip’s office is almost more educational — educating members on the bill itself, listening to members ahead of time.
Like, before [House Budget Chair] Paul [Ryan] crafted the budget, we had a lot of listening sessions in the office with the members to talk about where we could go with the budget, and where we should go.
It’s trying to solve problems, providing the information, gathering the information, and then helping craft the legislation to best reflect the whole House as we move forward.
…It’s like an idea factory. [The office] is a place for members to come, hang out, participate, talk about different solution. I try to drive my office more as a start-up of ideas.
BI: And that’s different from past Whips?
McCarthy: Yes, from what I’ve seen in the past. In my office, you’ll also see a Nerf basketball hoop. My artwork is about historical figures, but painted in a different way — more modern.
In my conference where we always meet, I’ve got a painting Washington crossing the Delaware [by beloved conservative painter Steve Penley]…But in that famous picture, if you look, the second rower happens to be Scottish, the second happens to be an African-American. There’s a woman, there’s a Native American — they’re all in the boat.
Whip’s OfficeThey probably were not all in the boat that night — but it depicts America as a melting pot. And I wanted it to be in that room where we talked about ideas, try to find solutions — and the reason why is that we are all in this boat together, and we all need to go ahead to victory.
And here’s Washington, leading our first victory as a small country — it shows that we can overcome a lot.
That’s the tone that I want to set inside that room.
There’s a lot of history in that office. There’s an opportunity to take the tradition of the past and apply it to a changing future.
BI: It sounds like you’re having fun. Are you?
McCarthy: Oh, a lot. I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to do this. The reason to sleep in my office is that I want to work all the time — I enjoy this job.
BI: What do you say to those who argue that there is no leadership among Republicans in the House? And to those who say that Congressional Republicans — and particularly the emphasis on spending — is hurting the party in national elections?
To that I say, we’ve had the second-largest majority since World War II. The House majority is larger than any majority that Newt Gingrich had in the ’90s. We are the only body with a majority — the Senate has missed the opportunity to win the majority twice. Any time there is a national election a party loses a presidential race, you reflect. There are two ways to handle a loss — you either can deny it, or you can learn from it.BI: There’s also been a lot of buzz about the disunity in the House Republican Caucus.
McCarthy: About how unified we are?
BI: No, about how not unified you are.
McCarthy: You might have been able to make that argument at the end of the year . But I would say, looking at us in our break right now, we are more unified than we’ve been in quite some time.
BI: So how did you regroup?
McCarthy: I believe our Williamsburg retreat was a time of regrouping for the House Republicans.
And look at what has transpired from then until now: We had three major issues before us — the sequester, the debt ceiling, and the funding of government with the CR — and every single one of those has been moved forward on, and they’ve all lead through the House.
We did all this without much fanfare. We didn’t wait until the deadline. At the same time, with “No Budget, No Pay,” we forced the Senate to act on something that they had not done in quite some time.
None of this was theatrical in engaging with the President. We went back to regular order.
So if you look back at the last few months, I think you’ll see that 1) it shows we are unified; 2) I think it shows the pattern for the rest of the term — that the House and the Senate are going to go back to regular order…
That is much more efficient – that’s the direction that the founding fathers crafted it. And I think that’s what we’ve learned from the last two years. Have the House do their work and have the Senate do their work.
BI: So practically speaking, how did you reunify your members and address their concerns post-fiscal cliff?
McCarthy: The one big thing was to bring all of the members together and listen. Sit there and listen and develop the strategy together. And in doing so, everybody has a part in it, they have ownership in it.
The one thing that the conference realises as well, is that that if we can’t pass it — because the minority party in the House, led by Nancy Pelosi, they will never help to vote to pass anything, so we have to get to the vote on our own. Knowing that, we have to take the lead, we have to get to 218 [votes], we have to pass the bill to move the Senate to do so. And if we’re not able to do that, it’s hard to have a direction in where the process will end up. As long as we are doing that, then we’ve been successful.
…Inside our budget, we laid out a framework for what the rest of the term is going to look like too. Energy reform, which will be coming to the floor; tax reform, which Ways and Means is starting to process.
I am always a believer in crawling before you walk, and walking before you run. And the last few months have shown us the ability to start the crawling into the walking.
BI: What kind of chance do you think immigration reform has after the recess?
McCarthy: I think there’s a very good chance we can move immigration reform. We’ve been doing immigration listening sessions — not talking about any solutions, but about the current system today and looking at where the failures are. We have a broken system, so we have to solve the system, and the only way you solve it is by passing legislation.
We have had a working group in the House working on this longer than the Senate has, and I think that they’ve been moving in a very positive direction. And the members themselves have been analysing the current broken system too, and coming up with ways to solve it.
BI: What are the roadblocks to passing immigration reform in the House?
McCarthy: Some of the biggest challenges are making sure borders are protected. The key here is that we are a country of immigrants and we are a country of law. You’ve got to keep those two principles into consideration while you solve it. So members re looking at what was the past immigration law, why did that create more problems.
We don’t want to come back and have to address this same thing later, we want to solve this once and for all, and have the accountability and the checks and balances to make sure that it is being solved as you move forward.
BI: How necessary do you think it is for Republicans to pass immigration reform if they want to win national elections?
McCarthy: I always believe its wrong to pass policy for political reasons — I just think its always good to pass good policy. There is no one in this country who doesn’t believe our current immigration system is broken.
So if you want to continue a broken system, you do nothing; if you want to fix a broken system, you have to have legislation.
I think that’s important: You have a system that people in America think is broken, that people on both sides of the aisle think is broken. We may have different beliefs, but how can we find a solution? That’s what we need to come to — a solution that has good policy so you don’t have to come back to readdress this issue.
BI: What about gun control? Will we see the House move on any legislation to prevent more gun violence?
McCarthy: I know the Senate has had some real difficulties with passing anything. In the House, the most important thing you can do is look at all the problems that are in the system before you just write legislation.
The House is having their hearings — I think there’s a very important part with mental health, and how it’s treated in America today. Congressman [Tim] Murphy [R-Pa.] is looking at that.
BI: Can we expect another fight over the debt ceiling in the spring?
McCarthy: I firmly believe that we have a big fiscal problem and you can’t keep spending more than you have. If you look at the two budgets, Republicans passed a budget that balances in 10 years; the Democratic budget never balances and raises a trillion dollars in taxes. So you’ve got to deal with your fiscal problems if you ever want to solve this issue.
If you want to keep writing a check, you’ve got to first show the American public where you’re going to spend the money and where you’re going to make the cuts.
Whenever you bring up the debt ceiling, there is going to be a debate on how you’re spending money in the future, and can you produce a balanced budget.
BI: So basically, you’re saying that yes, there is going to be another fight over the debt ceiling.
McCarthy: There doesn’t have to be! If we produced a budget that balances over 10 years, there’d be no problem with passing a debt ceiling. So no, there doesn’t have to be a fight.
The challenge will be that, when I see the President, he doesn’t seem to have changed his mind when he says that he wants to tax more. He’s never produced a balanced approach. There doesn’t have to be [another fight] — but when I look at his current messaging, it seems like he wants one.
We have tried to show a path to put us on to growth and opportunity and a balanced budget.
The difference between the Republican majority and maybe the President is that we will keep our promises, we will fight for prosperity, we believe Washington needs to be reformed, and we will continue to do it.
BI: One last question: Do you have an actual whip?
McCarthy: Yes. If you look at that show [House of Cards], Spacey took a picture by my Whip, and then he has one framed like that in his office too. My whip is actually in a frame, given to me by Eric Cantor, and he put his like that too.
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