Rep. Trey Gowdy has leadership’s blessing to take the House Oversight Committee gavel, but House Freedom Caucus members think leaders asked Gowdy to run in order to spite one of their own.
Conservatives are fuming this week that leadership is passing over Rep. Jim Jordan in favor of the less-senior Gowdy for the prize committee gavel.
Jordan, the founding chairman of the Freedom Caucus, showed interest in leading the committee in the wake of Chairman Jason Chaffetz’s announcement that he will resign in June. But several members say leadership asked Gowdy to run instead.
“If it were a vote of the committee members, it would be Jordan,” said one Freedom Caucus member, who agreed to speak anonymously to discuss internal conference decisions. “That Gowdy has been asked to do it in light of that … should be obviously problematic.”
Indeed, almost half of the Republicans on the Oversight Committee are members of the Freedom Caucus. But unfortunately for them, and for Jordan, chairmanships are decided by the Steering Committee, an administrative panel packed with leaders and leadership loyalists. Jordan saw the writing on the wall and passed on an unrealistic bid.
“You don’t want to exercise a process that is futile from the start, which is why Jordan said, ‘If someone else is getting appointed, then I’m not the anointed one,’” said Rep. Mark Sanford, a Freedom Caucus member who has also considered running for the chairmanship.
For HFC members, the incident is yet another reminder that for all the power the group has wrested from leadership, it still is and will for the foreseeable future be structurally hamstrung when trying to take the leap into formalizing its power.
In fact, it is exactly because of the group’s adept use of its size and its tendency to vote as a bloc, which it often does to force leaders down a preferred legislative path, that individual members of the group will be passed over for promotions. Leaders reward team players, and the Steering Committee, which chooses chairmanships, is full of them.
“People can want something all they want, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to get it,” said one member of the Steering Committee. “There’s more resentment of what the Freedom Caucus has cost our brand in the Steering Committee that the last thing you’re going to want to do is hand the power of the Steering Committee to the damn Freedom Caucus.”
That’s not exactly breaking news to the Freedom Caucus, either.
“Jim had seniority on it, and he’s a fighter against the swamp and the establishment. So leadership will make their call. But I don’t think anyone’s shocked,” Rep. Dave Brat said. “It’s a leadership call. It just comes down to that.”
The offices of Speaker Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy both declined to comment for this story.
Leadership has ample reason to install a more loyal member atop the Oversight Committee. It is the only committee with the power to compel depositions by subpoena, and to hand that power to someone leadership cannot trust nor control could prove to be a mistake, especially as questions swirl around the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
Jordan served dutifully on the Benghazi Committee, which Gowdy chaired, but after the investigation, Jordan and then-Rep. Mike Pompeo released a report separate from Gowdy’s because he believed the chairman did not go far enough in drawing conclusions. Jordan has bucked leaders on oversight matters elsewhere as well. He was one of the members spearheading an ultimately failed attempt to force a House vote to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen last year, despite the fact that leaders and relevant committee chairs wanted nothing to do with the effort.
Gowdy, on the other hand, is viewed as a team player, but he still has the conservative bona fides and qualifications to appease members of the Freedom Caucus. A former prosecutor with an acerbic wit, his chairmanship of the Benghazi Committee catapulted him into conservative celebrityhood, and he is close with members of the Freedom Caucus.
In fact, HFC members believe he is so qualified for the job and has such a high profile among the Republican base that he is the only person leadership could encourage to run instead of Jordan who wouldn’t be met with total outrage from the group.
“Leadership‘s going with somebody that’s got a lot of juice in political terms,” Sanford said. “That’s just Political 101. He’s respected by the Republican base. He presents very well on television, making the case.”
Gowdy declined to comment for this story, but his spokeswoman, Amanda Gonzalez, said he has not yet formally jumped into the race. “Rep. Gowdy is continuing to speak with members in the conference about the qualities they believe are most important for the next chairman to possess,” she said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Steve Russell said Tuesday he is also running for the gavel. Russell said he asked Gowdy’s advice on the subject before Gowdy himself was in the running for the post, and that he was under the impression as recently as a few weeks ago that Gowdy was not running.
“He said he would not be pursuing it. However, he did tell me honestly, as he always does, that he was being asked and pressured by a lot of people to consider it,” Russell said. “Before he had decided to enter the race, he had encouraged me to do it. After he decided that he would be in it, he still encouraged me to stay in it, to present my ideas.”
Russell said he understands he would probably be a long shot next to Gowdy, but noted that with Gowdy’s high profile, the chairmanship could be vacant again in a few years and in that case, he could get a second look.
“Mr. Gowdy is a man of incredible intellect and capacity, and he’s also in high demand. Because of that, I think we have to look long-range-strategically as well,” Russell said. “Do we really think this will last six years? That’s the question we don’t know. So what I want to convey here is, ‘Hey, coach, you’ve got people that can play here.’”