UPDATE: All four Iowans received coveted committee assignments on January 11, which are discussed here. Original post follows.
The U.S. House spent most of last week mired in the longest-running attempt to elect a speaker since before the Civil War. Iowa's four Republicans stood behind their caucus leader Kevin McCarthy from the first ballot on January 3 to the fifteenth ballot after midnight on January 7.
Iowa's House delegation lacks any long-serving members; three are beginning their second terms, and Representative Zach Nunn was elected for the first time in 2022.
As House members receive committee assignments later this month, where the Iowans land could signal how much influence they have with GOP leadership.
Traditionally, members of Congress who publicly oppose their party's leader are punished. But McCarthy's team made so many concessions in search of votes for speaker that several Republican holdouts could be rewarded with prime committee assignments—arguably at the expense of those who were loyal to McCarthy throughout.
MILLER-MEEKS WANTS TO SERVE ON ENERGY AND COMMERCE
Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks (now serving Iowa's first district) told Politico reporter Joshua Siegel in December that she's angling for a spot on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. That's often considered the third most-coveted assignment, after Ways and Means (the tax-writing panel) and Appropriations. It is an "exclusive" committee, meaning its members usually don't serve on any other House standing committees.
Energy and Commerce would be a big step up from Miller-Meeks' assignments during her first term (Homeland Security, Veterans’ Affairs, and Education and Labor). She told Siegel she hopes to be a leading voice on climate issues, having attended the last two United Nations climate summits. (Bleeding Heartland covered Miller-Meeks' message at the most recent global summit in November.)
It would be unusual but not unheard of for a second-term House member to land a spot on Energy and Commerce. Democrat Bruce Braley was assigned to that committee for his second term, after he was a leading advocate of giving that chairmanship to Henry Waxman instead of John Dingell, who had seniority.
Miller-Meeks has displayed her support for McCarthy on many occasions. For instance, she sat behind the Republican leader through much of his November 2021 speech that went on for eight and a half hours as he tried to delay passage of a spending bill.
This past week, Miller-Meeks has publicly backed McCarthy several times. On the second day House members failed to elect a speaker, she spoke at a news conference featuring House Republicans who are also veterans. I pulled this clip of her remarks from C-SPAN's feed.
"We don't question the hearts of our colleagues who are voting no," Miller-Meeks said. She acknowledged that they feel the country is on the wrong track. She urged them to listen to "their brain" as well as their heart. She asked constituents to "trust in us" who believe McCarthy is the best candidate for speaker, and to contact their representatives to urge them to support McCarthy so the Congress can get to work.
Miller-Meeks again praised McCarthy in a January 5 interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, where she downplayed the ongoing dysfunction in the majority caucus. She declared a successful vote to adjourn until the next day as a victory, and argued, "No good thing comes without failure."
During the roll call votes, Miller-Meeks was often animated as she shouted, "Kev-i-i-n McCarthy" or (during the tenth ballot) "All day, every day, McCarthy."
And in the final roll call, Miller-Meeks shouted, "Round 15 the win goes to Kev-i-i-n McCarthy!"
Miller-Meeks has also defended what she called a "transparent" process, which—while "messy"—was "out in the open" without, in her words, "smoke-filled backroom deals." That's not accurate; closed-door negotiations led to some concessions that remain unclear. For instance, who from the House Freedom Caucus will be seated on the Rules Committee? Was Representative Matt Gaetz promised an Armed Services subcommittee chairmanship in exchange for providing the decisive "present" vote?
Another concession seems to skate close to the legal line. McCarthy is not supposed to direct the activities of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super-PAC aligned with him. Yet as the week unfolded, that super-PAC agreed not to spend money in open primaries in GOP-held House districts, which was a sticking point for some self-styled anti-establishment members.
UPDATE: Melanie Zanona reported on January 12 about another undisclosed concession to the holdouts. According to Representative Matt Gaetz, McCarthy promised "to release all the security camera footage from the Capitol on January 6."
HINSON HAS CLOSE TIES TO LEADERSHIP
If anyone from Iowa gets the committee assignments they want, it should be Representative Ashley Hinson, who now serves the second district. She's close to the ambitious, malleable Representative Elise Stefanik, the third-ranking member of the House GOP leadership team. Hinson and Stefanik have even done some joint fundraising.
Republicans pegged Hinson as a rising star right away, giving her a spot on the Appropriations Committee during her first term. The last two Iowans to rise to senior positions on House Appropriations—Republican Tom Latham and Democrat Neal Smith—had to wait until their second terms for that assignment.
Furthermore, Hinson received a waiver to serve on the Budget Committee as well, even though Appropriations is usually an "exclusive" assignment.
I have not seen any public statement from Hinson about her desired committees. (Perhaps she mentioned it during a January 6 press call, from which I was excluded.)
In the runup to this week's drama, Hinson was loud and proud about her unwavering support for McCarthy.
There would be no GOP majority without the relentless efforts of @GOPLeader.— Ashley Hinson (@RepAshleyHinson) December 18, 2022
He has my full support to be our next Speaker — first ballot to final ballot. He is the only person who will ensure our Conference delivers on the promises we’ve made & holds the Admin accountable.
She echoed those sentiments in a statement released shortly after McCarthy's late-night victory.
Congratulations to Kevin McCarthy on becoming Speaker of the House. We would not have a House Republican majority without the tireless efforts of Kevin McCarthy – he will make an incredible Speaker and ensure our Conference delivers on our historic agenda. The Biden Administration’s biggest fear is a House Republican Conference that is united and ready to hold them accountable for their failures – under Speaker McCarthy’s leadership, that accountability is finally coming and we will put our country back on the path to prosperity. Let’s get to work.
The speaker's ability to deliver on anything must be questioned now, since he can't afford to lose more than four Republicans on any given vote and could barely muster the votes to adjourn on a couple of occasions this week.
As for McCarthy's "relentless efforts," the consensus view among election analysts is that House Republicans underperformed in 2022, considering relatively high inflation and President Joe Biden's low approval ratings. Many forecasts anticipated GOP gains of 20 to 40 House seats. The net Republican gain of nine seats was small by historical standards.
In any event, Hinson should be able to take on some high-profile role on a desirable committee in the new Congress.
ZACH NUNN HOLDS AN AT-RISK SEAT
New House members in competitive districts often receive good committee assignments, so they can show constituents results as soon as possible. Former Representative Cindy Axne, a Democrat who narrowly won the third district in 2018 and 2020, was able to serve on the Agriculture and Financial Services panels.
Nunn defeated Axne by about 2,100 votes, hardly a dominating display in a Republican wave year. In fact, the Split Ticket website's analysis of House candidate performance found that the GOP was expected to win IA-03 by about 2.9 points. Nunn won by about 0.7 points (50.35 percent to 49.65 percent), meaning that Axne overperformed despite an unfavorable environment. Nunn's seat must be considered at risk if a well-funded opponent runs in a presidential election year with higher Democratic turnout and perhaps a Libertarian candidate on the ballot.
I haven't seen any public statements from Nunn about House committee assignments. When WHO-Radio host Simon Conway asked his during a January 4 interview what committees he might be on, Nunn tactfully replied, "I am committed right now to getting a leader elected." He said what's important to Iowa is fighting against "government overreach," an "unsecure southern border," and trying to "hold government accountable."
Perhaps Nunn (a former chair of the Iowa House Judiciary Committee) would like to serve on the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over immigration. Or maybe he will seek a position on the Oversight Committee. Given his background in the Air Force and the Air National Guard, he could end up on the Veterans Affairs committee, like Miller-Meeks before him.
Or maybe he will want to follow Axne's example by serving on Agriculture and/or Financial Services. Nunn promised in a January 6 Facebook video to be "fighting for ag the entire way through our next two years," and Des Moines is a major insurance center.
Nunn isn't as active on social media as Hinson or Miller-Meeks and didn't maintain a high profile during the battle to elect a speaker, but he was a reliable vote for McCarthy. In his January 4 interview with Conway following the first six ballots, Nunn said McCarthy has "done some phenomenal things," getting back the House majority just four years after losing it.
Criticizing his colleagues who were holding up the speaker election, Nunn noted that Republicans can't start passing important bills until the House has a presiding officer. In his words, "91 percent of the members are being held hostage in the majority" by the last 9 percent of the caucus, which is "very frustrating."
When Conway asked whether McCarthy should step aside after six failed votes, Nunn pointed out that Jim Jordan is better suited to chair the House Judiciary Committee, which is the job he prefers anyway. He also characterized the Freedom Caucus holdouts as "obstructionists" who are more interested in themselves than "the common good."
Nunn told Conway that a "small group" had demanded certain committee assignments, and he didn't agree with "giving crybabies what they want." In addition, he criticized some of McCarthy's detractors for fundraising off the speaker votes.
RANDY FEENSTRA FOCUSED ON AGRICULTURE, BUDGET
Iowa's fourth district has enormous agricultural output, and those who have represented the northwest part of the state have long served on the House Agriculture Committee. It was Feenstra's first choice for an assignment in 2021, and it will be more important than usual this year, as Congress works on a new Farm Bill.
Speaking to Elijah Helton of the N'west Iowa Review, Feenstra said "he is looking forward to building on the work he has done on the House Agriculture Committee."
Among the goals Feenstra is targeting are support for biofuels, chiefly ethanol availability and production, and disruption of the “Big Four” meat packers, which control about 90 percent of feedlot cattle.
Bipartisanship can be relatively easy to find on ag policy, he said, which will be key given the red-blue makeup elsewhere on the federal level.
In the last Congress, Feenstra also served on the House Budget Committee and the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Given his frequent public comments about the federal budget, I anticipate he will try to serve on the budget panel again.
Many of the Republican holdouts represent deep-red districts like Feenstra's, where Republican candidates routinely win by margins of 20 to 30 points. But in contrast to his predecessor Steve King, whom he defeated in the 2020 GOP primary, Feenstra has not rocked the boat within the GOP caucus or tried to make a name for himself as an anti-establishment figure. He also isn't building a national profile the way King did.
In a January 6 interview with WHO-Radio's Conway, Feenstra put a good spin on the happenings the Republican caucus. He said he views the Biden administration's policies as chaos, and characterized Democrats as willing to follow a "dictator" (Nancy Pelosi), while Republicans argue more because they believe in democracy.
Feenstra's excited about the new rules package, which, he claimed, will help move the country toward a balanced budget, since there will be no debt ceiling increase without spending cuts. He said the rules will be "the greatest change in the House and how it will operate ever," ensuring that representatives will be responsive to "the people" rather than "the swamp."
Feenstra tweeted the morning after McCarthy's election that he's confident Republicans will "deliver a strong economic agenda for #IA04 and America." I'll be surprised if he doesn't retain positions on the Agriculture and Budget committees.
Top photo: Screenshot from C-SPAN video of Mariannette Miller-Meeks speaking at a January 4 news conference in support of Kevin McCarthy.