State of the Union responses are masochistic affairs. After the president addresses the congressional chamber to thunderous applause, the camera cuts to a dimly lit room in a local funeral home, where the respondent speaks to a stoic audience of mahogany furniture. The members of the minority party watch this, praying their champion doesn’t suffer a sudden bout of narcolepsy or make a voracious lunge for a Poland Spring bottle. The outcome is determined on the same principle as “The Most Dangerous Game”: You can’t really win; you can only survive.
Cathy McMorris Rodgers survived. The congresswoman, relatively unknown outside Washington state, beat the rigged format and garnered mostly positive reviews by telling her life story: She grew up on a farm, worked at her parents’ fruit stand, was the first in her family to go to college, and splits her time between Congress and raising three kids. It was a salve for the Republican Party. After months of “War on Women” nonsense, suddenly the GOP’s public face was an affable conservative woman who personifies hard work and family values—the sunny side of the Republican philosophy.
“We all are a product of our experiences,” she tells me, “but mine is one that I think really complements that message.” John Boehner, who asked her to deliver the response, had some simple advice: “‘Cathy, just be yourself. Don’t overthink it.’” She laughs. “Which is kind of easier said than done. You’re like, ‘Oh, just be myself. Huh.’”
We’re sitting in the room where she delivered the State of the Union response, which, in contrast to its haunted mansion appearance onscreen, now seems bright and comfortable, with tall windows looking out on the snow-swept Capitol building. A picture on the wall shows McMorris Rodgers and Dick Cheney touring Fairchild Air Force base in eastern Washington, with a few kind words from the former vice president scrawled below. It feels like a living room for her workspace, albeit with a couple crystal chandeliers hanging overhead.
This is a leadership office, after all, and McMorris Rodgers is a relatively new inhabitant. She arrived at the House of Representatives nine years ago. Before that she was a fixture in Evergreen State politics. She was first elected to the Washington state house at the age of twenty-four, rose to minority leader, and worked behind the scenes to try and close the GOP’s two-seat deficit. “I thought that was how I was going to turn Washington state around—recruit that farm team to run for the state house and get them a little bit of experience,” she says.
Instead she got a call from George Nethercutt, congressman for Washington’s Fifth District, which covers the heavily rural eastern third of the state. Nethercutt was a political legend who famously won his seat in Congress by unseating Speaker of the House Tom Foley in 1994. Now he had his crosshairs on Senator Patty Murray. He asked McMorris Rodgers to consider running as his successor in the Fifth District, and she agreed. Nethercutt ended up losing to Murray by twelve points. McMorris Rodgers fought her way through a competitive primary and general election, and won. Nine years later she’s the fourth-ranking Republican in the House, chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, and one of the most powerful women in Congress.
Journalists in D.C. are forever on the hunt for humanizing moments. We understand politicians by their votes and their quotes, as weights on a scale shifting our policies in one direction or another. But who they are as flesh-and-blood human beings is more elusive. Of McMorris Rodgers, the opposite is true. We’re familiar with her backstory thanks to the State of the Union response. But what has she done over the past decade in Congress?
The answer is she’s been a fiscal hawk, publicly advocating big-ticket items such as a balanced budget amendment while working to make the government pennywise as well. She took a one-year break from earmarks in 2008 (though she did bring home $20 million the next year as part of an omnibus spending package). As the public fury over pork grew, she was appointed head of the GOP Earmark Reform Committee, where she labored until the House finally banned earmarks outright in 2010.
She also distinguished herself on the arcane subject of the International Monetary Fund, which has been bailing out bleeding European economies since the recession began. In 2009, she noticed that the president’s stimulus package contained provisions that doubled America’s obligation to the IMF and extended a further line of credit amounting to $100 billion. She teamed up with Congressman Mike Pence to introduce legislation blocking the giveaway. The head of the IMF, Christine LaGarde, later praised the Washington congresswoman as someone “who understands these issues very well.” McMorris Rodgers continued to fight for the bill after Pence went home to run for governor of Indiana.
Against gigantic international money houses, one must constantly be on guard. With the recent upheaval in Eastern Europe, Ukraine is poised to tap as much as $18 billion in loans from the IMF to plug up the holes in its sinking economy. McMorris Rodgers caught Democrats playing a shell game with America’s contribution. “The Senate, in the package with Ukraine, they are calling it ‘IMF reforms,’” she explains, but they’re actually trying to sneak in that doubled IMF quota. She and Congressman John Campbell are authoring a bill to repeal both the quota and the $100 billion line of credit.
That’s Cathy McMorris Rodgers the backbencher, free to select her causes and work on them in relative peace. But now that she’s a member of leadership, she’s also expected to represent the GOP on more visible issues. Like immigration, where she shares Paul Ryan’s desire for change—“comprehensive reform” to its supporters, “amnesty” to its conservative critics. Asked about this, a reflex kicks in: “I think most people recognize that we need to secure the border,” she says. But she also says increased enforcement should go hand-in-hand with a guest worker program and workable agriculture visas.
That’s a tough sell, especially during an election year when Republicans seem hesitant to talk about anything other than Obamacare. With the president’s health law slicing up both insurance plans and Democratic political fortunes, the House GOP political strategy sometimes looks like: Clear the decks, dodge the flotsam, and ride the wave into November. I put this to her, and after a brief detour through talking points—some of which, like a job giving you “purpose and dignity,” are recycled from her State of the Union response—she mentions that Obamacare merits unique attention because it’s crushing employment. “Within the context of how do we get the economy growing again in this country, Obamacare plays a very big role in that,” she says.
It’s a perfectly sensible argument, both politically and economically. But then why jettison other GOP achievements, like deficit reduction? Why cancel sequestration in exchange for the consolation prize of military pension reform, as the Ryan-Murray budget did, and then cancel military pension reform too? “For Republicans the biggest concern we had with the way the sequester was being implemented was the impact it was having on defense and the military,” she says carefully. She also notes that Republicans have brought down spending for three years in a row, which hasn’t happened since President Eisenhower was in office. That’s true, but sequestration was responsible for some of those reductions. And while the deficit has shrunk a bit, the Congressional Budget Office predicts it will begin swelling again in 2016.
Our musings are interrupted by her communications director, who says she’s needed on the House floor to introduce a resolution.
“Something big?” I ask.
“A Steering Committee resolution to get David Jolly on this committee,” she says.
We walk down a corridor cacophonous with clacking high heels and shouted phone conversations, through the Capitol building’s Statuary Hall, where a group of official-looking men are having their picture taken. Senator Chuck Grassley is among them. He isn’t smiling.
It must be taxing, this life. When they enter the Capitol, congressmen immediately surrender their personal freedom to their staffs, which then steer them between committee hearings and photo ops with visiting firefighters, all day long, all year long. McMorris Rodgers does this, and tends to her leadership responsibilities, and raises her son Cole, who has Down syndrome, along with two other children, and advocates for the developmentally disabled, and recently founded the Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus. Her schedule doesn’t seem to leave room for other priorities, such as sleep and digestion.
What’s her philosophy on balancing home life and work? She tells me that she doesn’t dwell on Sheryl Sandberg’s thesis that women can’t “have it all” because she’s too busy dealing with the challenge of the moment. “Every family has to figure it out for themselves!” she says over the din. “Some days you might be able to do some of it! Whether you’re doing it all and doing it all well is another question!”
Then she’s excusing herself and entering the House chamber and preparing to confront the next challenge: Getting David Jolly on that committee.