A sign hangs above the side exit to Rep. Kevin McCarthy's office. "Full Cry," it reads.
Nobody would blame the California Republican—who for the past two years has been the majority whip, tasked with counting and corralling Republican votes—if his unwieldy caucus sent him into paroxysms of snot-nosed, throat-catching sobs. They've left him short on plenty of votes.
But that's not what the sign means. While that description might make sense for House Speaker John Boehner, McCarthy is a laid-back and cheerful California boy through and through. In this case, full cry—the whip's office mantra since the House GOP spent a January weekend reevaluating itself in Virginia—comes from the genteel world of foxhunting. When a hound picks up the scent of its prey, a hunter will let out such a cry, sending his team of dogs all galloping together after the same soon-to-be-bloodied prize. You can see how it appeals to House leadership.
Last week, the House Republicans achieved an elusive Full Cry moment. After being embarrassed in June when it failed to pass a comprehensive farm bill that dealt with food stamps and agricultural programs, the GOP put on the floor an agriculture-only version of the bill that stripped out the food-stamp component that traditionally accounts for 80 percent of the legislation's outlays. The decision was universally opposed: Conservative groups like Heritage Action told members to vote against it, the most powerful farm lobby group issued statements opposing it, and Democrats spent hours accusing the GOP of putting rich agribusiness ahead of poor people in need.
When the bill passed with only GOP support, McCarthy says it was one of his biggest accomplishments of the year.
"Sometimes when a challenge is tougher, it makes you work harder," he told National Journal in an interview from his office. McCarthy's eyes are a little close together, which you can't help but notice because he makes such consistent eye contact--and his teeth are pearly white. You would buy a car from this man. A good quality in a whip. "It makes the end a little sweeter to be able to get through it."
It's one of those only-in-Washington paradoxes that drive insiders and outsiders to distraction. Why are they so happy about a bill that everyone seems to hate? Especially one that, because of a Democratic Senate and White House, will never become law. Especially when knowing that the GOP's best chance at making cuts to the food-stamp program disappeared with the failure of the first bill.
The answer to that question lies with the fact that Congress can't get anything done, and the job of whipping up votes has gotten harder than ever. Historically, the whip had plenty of weapons in his arsenal to try to achieve this kind of party unity. There were earmarks and threats of losing committee posts. It was a position that earned Tom DeLay the nickname "The Hammer," and it is the position of the cold and calculating Frank Underwood in the hit Netflix show House of Cards. But in reality, the only thing House of Cards gets accurate about the job these days is how the office looks. Nowadays, there is no pork to distribute, and sotto voce threats don't rattle anyone.
"It's a much different world than it used to be," McCarthy said about the process. "There was something like $1 billion in earmarks the last time there was a farm bill. This time it was purely about the policy."
But that doesn't mean McCarthy and his team are without tricks. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., a libertarian with a streak of voting against leadership, told National Journal he wants to write a book for next year's freshman class called "20 Ways to Be Whipped."
He did not want to give away all of his material, but he was willing to give the top three ways leadership has tried to get his vote.
1) The "Whip-A-Dope": Send 10 of the lawmaker's friends over to his office to chat about legislation. "They act like they're interested in what you have to say, but really they are just trying to wear you down. Eventually, you realize you're being whipped the whole time."
2) The "You Promised You'd Vote With Us": In which they tell you that earlier you whipped a certain way, when you know for sure that you never changed your mind.
3) The "You Better Vote Now": Wherein leadership pretends to be doing you a favor by telling you to vote early, instead of being one of the last votes in a close vote, so they can watch over your shoulder and put the pressure on.
McCarthy won't talk about tactics like this, focusing more on the relationships he builds with all of his colleagues. He wakes up early for bike rides with members and stays up late with others in the House gym. Whipping, he says, isn't about intimidation, but about educating members--building a sense of team unity, and earning trust.
"McCarthy is not burdened with being terribly ideological," said Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger from California who has known McCarthy since their days as college Republicans (McCarthy says the characterization of him is false). "He's always been a relationship-based politician. His form of whipping is to look at everyone individually, figuring out what influences that person, who his friends and allies are, who he has drinks with, who his donors are."
But when it came to passing a farm bill, it's not clear whether any of these methods had much of an impact. "I think they got the votes because the ideology aligned up," Massie said, who voted against the first bill but supported the second. "I don't think it was any sort of heroic whip effort, by any means."
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., agreed: "I didn't get any arm-twisting. Why would they need to? They gave me exactly what we asked for."
Getting rid of the food-stamp component certainly made McCarthy's job easier from a vote-getting perspective. It's easy to see why Republicans would be in favor of stripping nutrition from the bill: This way none of them would be seen as compromising on cuts in any eventual deal. But in reality, cuts to food stamps may only be feasible as part of a broader bill where each side feels like it's getting something.
But even doing that did not make passage a sure thing, said Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, McCarthy's chief deputy. The best way to persuade members on the fence to vote for it was to convey what a "train wreck" it would be politically for the party to leave this hanging over August, he said.
"By communicating declaratively that we needed to get this done, we were able to bring some people on board," Roskam said.
Some might view it as a cynical strategy. Give conservatives such as Massie and Mulvaney what they want to get them on board--because in the end, it doesn't cost anything. As for more pragmatic moderates who might be alienated, ultimately they'll still be team players down the road when they are needed.
But that doesn't mean they're happy about it. "We definitely missed a near term opportunity to reform food stamps," said Rep. Mike Conaway, a deputy whip from Texas. "It's just not going to get to the president's desk anywhere near as quickly as if left in [a] combined bill. In my opinion, I don't think we'll change food stamps at all at this stage."
Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, also believes the GOP squandered a golden opportunity by not passing the first bill.
"If we don't end up with substantial cuts to food stamps, we can thank Club for Growth and Heritage for that," he said, referring to two groups that opposed the bill. "They took a bill that could cut $20.5 billion from food stamps, and we could end up getting zero. That would be the irony of ironies."
But they may get another chance. "It's still the House's issue to deal with," contends Mary Kay Thatcher, a lobbyist at the Farm Bureau. "Sure, they took the most recent whack at the ball. But they're like a golfer who just took the worst shot. It's still their turn."
If the farm-bill saga were to be judged solely on what the bill will ultimately look like, it's hard to know now whether McCarthy can lay claim to any success. But there's a lot more at play here. With big pieces of legislation coming around later this year (immigration, debt ceiling, funding the government) there's something to be said about keeping the team together.
"This whole process has given leadership a lot of credibility with us," said Mulvaney, a guy who was so upset with leadership that he refused to vote for Boehner to be speaker in January. "As a conservative, I cannot complain about the gentlemen's leadership this year. And now I'm more likely to figure out a way to work with them going forward. How can I complain?"
This article appears in the July 19, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.