Minority-party affiliation emboldens junior members

As the majority party, members of Congress on the lower rungs of the leadership ladder are mainly seen and not heard, subject to the authority of, and largely showing deference to, their seniors.

But instead of retreating to the sidelines in the minority, several junior Republicans are stepping out of rank-and-file anonymity and into the spotlight to embrace their new role as watchdogs. 

Or pit bulls. On Jan. 3, when several Republicans held a press conference to decry the Democrats’ decision to bar the minority from reviewing new rules, many of those at the podium were on their second or third term in the House.

One, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), said the minority role gives low-ranking members the opportunity to speak out because the focus for a minority party shifts away from getting bills on the floor to promoting policy goals.

“When you are a freshman member you hope to work things out with your leaders,” he said, referring to older members in committees and elsewhere. “Junior members are in the minority even when [their] party is in the majority.

“We can go toe to toe with the Democrat majority.”

During the 109th Congress, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), who was then a freshman, kept a low profile, but he stood with McHenry at the podium last week and has begun to issue press releases decrying “broken promises” by Democratic leaders.

Price, who was also recently named a member of the whip team, said many of the new members are drawing on their experience in state legislatures to adapt to the new legislative atmosphere.

“I served four terms in the state senate — the minority provides different opportunities and has a greater latitude in terms of clarity for accountability for the other side,” said Price, who served as minority and majority leader in the Georgia legislature.

When asked about the class of 2004, Price acknowledged that members of the class had hit the ground running in the 110th Congress.

“It’s a different role. Many of us had voiced concerns about the process and our ability to affect that process in the end,” he said.

On both sides of the aisle, working hard as a junior member is not a thankless position. Junior member Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) was recently rewarded for her work on behalf of the caucus last year with a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) echoed Price, saying that he too was drawing on the lessons he learned in the state legislature to adjust to the minority and use the position to the party’s advantage. 

“A lot of us came from the minority in the state legislature and are comfortable being in the opposition,” he said.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who is in his third term, also had minority experience in the state legislature, and said, “It’s an issue of how you best get things done.”

Diaz-Balart said to be successful in the majority, less senior members accomplish things by sitting down with chairmen and leadership with the hope that leaders would allow them to contribute.

He added that as the minority Republicans have a responsibility to hold Democrats accountable and to “highlight serious differences” between the parties.

When in the minority, rank-and-file members have the ability to exercise more freedom and speak up individually, especially to criticize the majority, without fear of retribution from their leadership.  

“We have the luxury of attacking in all directions,” Republican Study Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas)  said, quoting Gen. Chesty Puller, who was referring to a battle in the Korean War. “We are surrounded by a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House.”

Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), said that the rank-and-file members are always encouraged to speak out, but that the minority offers them a unique opportunity to really become involved in issues they believe to be important.

“Junior members are always encouraged to be as engaged and active in the debates as possible, but there is definitely an element to being in the minority that enables them to stand out a bit more — to carve out a niche and become an authority on it,” he said.

Susan Crabtree contributed to this report.

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