Patrick McHenry sees his younger self in a lot of the new stars in Congress who have arrived in Washington as political celebrities. He was once a young wunderkind himself.
“When I got elected, I was the classic young man in a hurry. Classic,” McHenry, a North Carolina congressman and the fourth-ranking Republican in the House, said in an interview for the Yahoo News podcast “The Long Game.”
First elected to Congress in 2004, McHenry’s ascent into leadership over the last several years followed a painful learning process, he said, that was a direct result of spending his first few years in office as a publicity hound.
McHenry was the subject of a 5,000-word profile in Washington Monthly during his first year in office. Then just 29 years old, the piece described him as eager to go on cable TV anytime, anywhere, to talk about anything.
McHenry isn’t a fan of the piece, but acknowledges that it captured key aspects of his younger self.
“My first three years I did everything wrong you can do wrong as a member of Congress that is neither unethical nor illegal,” he said. “I was going to be a warrior … Basically, I’m going to fight Democrats.”
“Any [cable TV] request I would take. I would speak on the House floor, it didn’t matter what it was about,” McHenry said. “My first three years in Congress, I spoke more than I did the next eight.”
It took McHenry four years to undo the self-inflicted damage he’d done in his first three years, he said. “I wasn’t picking my battles well, nor did I have expertise in a specific area that I could be a leader in that area, nor did I have deep and meaningful relationships,” McHenry said.
Now, McHenry said, he often counsels new members of Congress through the lens of his experience. Some fellow lawmakers listen, he said.
“Others I’ve had this conversation with and they’ve doubled down on what is a dumb approach,” McHenry said.
McHenry didn’t name names, but on the Republican side, there has been a reliable roster of members who have made a career out of saying outrageous things that get them booked on cable news and that stoke anger among Democrats while riling up their supporters. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas has played this role for years, and more recently Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida has attracted media attention using the same approach.
Conservative intellectual Yuval Levin talked to “The Long Game” about public figures using institutions like Congress as a platform for self-promotion, rather than viewing it as an organization with a mission larger than one person, a mold that forms individuals who commit themselves to serving inside the institution. President Trump, Levin has argued, is the perfect example of someone who uses his office to perform and promote himself rather than submitting himself to the strictures and traditions of the presidency.
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McHenry has become a fan of the larger mission versus self-promotion idea, and he said that moving away from an obsession with the spotlight and focusing on building relationships and trust with other lawmakers — and not being in a rush to do so — was key to putting himself on the path to influence in the House.
It’s a lesson similar to the one learned by a Democrat who was a congresswoman for six years and who was elected just last fall to the U.S. Senate from Arizona: Kyrsten Sinema. In her 2009 book, “Unite and Conquer,” Sinema describes arriving in the Arizona state Legislature looking to wage combat, and then realizing that this approach was unproductive.
“A person who chooses to be a bomb thrower in the legislature is choosing to remove himself or herself from the work of the body: negotiating on bills, working to find compromises, and sometimes teaming up with unusual allies to promote or kill legislation,” Sinema wrote. “This person plays an important role at the capitol because he or she calls out the body on a regular basis … However the bomb thrower has made a choice — whether consciously or not — to be excluded from the actual process of negotiating proposed legislation. You can’t play both roles in the legislature.”
“It took some personal transformation,” she wrote, for her to be effective.
McHenry has undergone his own metamorphosis, he said. He was not pessimistic or dour, however, about the modern Congress or about its new stars. At the same time, he does not think that Congress is going to reach an agreement on border security anytime soon, and he thinks another government shutdown may be in the cards.
“I’m skeptical a deal comes to fruition this early on … in the calendar year and in Speaker Pelosi’s speakership,” McHenry said.
He hopes that Congress passes a series of continuing resolutions to keep the government open while negotiations between the two parties continue, because he does think the expiration of the current debt limit, sometime between March and early summer, will be a lever that puts pressure on both Trump and Democrats to reach a deal.
“Later in this calendar year we have a better opportunity for larger issues to be resolved,” he said.
McHenry also thinks a move by Trump to declare emergency powers to build a border well is not the wisest strategy.
“I don’t think it’s the best first choice,” he said.
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