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Cathy McMorris Rodgers voted top Republican on powerful Energy and Commerce Committee

Incumbent U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers is shown at a debate with congressional candidate Dave Wilson at KSPS, Mon. Oct. 19, 2020.   (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

WASHINGTON – House Republicans elected Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers on Wednesday to lead the party on the influential Energy and Commerce Committee, making her the first woman to lead either party in the 225-year history of the panel with broad jurisdiction that includes health care, technology, energy and the environment.

The Spokane lawmaker, elected to a ninth term in November, will take over for retiring Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon as the committee’s ranking member, the top legislator from the minority party. In an interview, McMorris Rodgers said she plans to use the position to find common ground with Democrats wherever possible while pushing back on other Democratic priorities.

“So much of commerce, which really means the economy, comes through this committee,” McMorris Rodgers said. “It’s telecom, technology, health care, energy, environment. A lot of issues, and certainly issues that are at the forefront for Eastern Washington and Washington state, the Pacific Northwest. I’m very honored today to have received the support of my colleagues.”

Energy and Commerce is the oldest standing committee in the House of Representatives, though its name, power and purview have changed several times since it was founded in 1795. Its sweeping jurisdiction includes all interstate and foreign trade, the internet, consumer protection, food and drug safety, and public health and research, among other things.

“The Energy and Commerce Committee has its fingers in a whole lot of areas that have an impact on Americans,” said Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C. “So it’s no wonder that it’s considered to be one of the key, prized committees for its members.”

Like Walden, who represents all of Eastern Oregon, McMorris Rodgers said she intends to leverage her new role to advocate for issues that affect rural areas, including broadband access, health care and hydropower.

“From Eastern Washington’s perspective, this is the committee that will take the lead on closing the digital divide,” she said. “Bringing doctors to rural areas, telehealth, tele-mental-health, keeping energy rates low.”

McMorris Rodgers is the top Republican on the panel’s Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee, where she has been a vocal critic of social media and tech firms’ content moderation policies. Republicans contend companies like Facebook and Twitter unfairly censor conservative voices on their platforms, and McMorris Rodgers said challenging that will remain a top priority as she ascends to lead her party in the full committee.

“In my personal priorities, I would put at the top of the list holding Big Tech accountable and protecting free speech online,” she said. “I believe that we need to pass a national privacy standard for the country. That’s only been underscored during COVID, that there is not trust with tech, and we need that privacy standard so that people have more confidence as to how their personal information is being collected and potentially shared.”

Improving the transparency of health care costs and ensuring access to coronavirus vaccines, she said, will also be high priorities. The committee’s purview also includes the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as health insurance.

Ornstein, who has chronicled the rise of partisan extremism and congressional dysfunction, said McMorris Rodgers will have to decide whether to work with Democrats to get legislation passed or to use her committee perch primarily to obstruct and criticize the Democratic agenda. Choosing the first option, he said, may leave her out of step with GOP leadership.

“If you have a ranking member in the minority who decides that it’s better to try and find bipartisan agreement on a bill where you can have some significant input into it and so that you can actually do things that will be good for the country, that’s a big deal,” Ornstein said.

“Instead, if you have a minority party strategy which is … we’re just going to vote no on everything, obviously that affects the attitudes of the majority, but also the nature of the legislation that emerges,” he said, adding that if Republicans hold onto their majority in the Senate, bipartisan cooperation will be even more crucial.

Mike Bloomquist, who served as the committee’s GOP staff director until October, said McMorris Rodgers shares key traits with her predecessors, Walden and Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan.

“I think by demeanor and instinct, she’s a lot like Upton and Walden,” Bloomquist said, “in the sense that she wants to see where the middle ground can be found, where you can work across the aisle.”

Because the committee is responsible for contentious issues like health care and issues that enjoy bipartisan consensus, Bloomquist said, members need to be able to work together even after fighting over hot-button topics.

“You could fight it out in the morning on Medicare for All or the Green New Deal,” he said, referring to progressive health care and climate change proposals, “and in the afternoon you’re working on broadband deployment and energy efficiency and weatherization. There’s things that, I think, both sides will want to try to get to ‘yes’ on.”

McMorris Rodgers said she sees a dual role for herself, looking for compromise while also serving as a check on the priorities of the Democrats’ progressive wing.

“I’m certainly going to look for the opportunity for common ground,” she said. “I will also be leading in pushing back against the Democrats’ socialist agenda that may come in this committee, whether it’s the Green New Deal or Medicare for All.”

While it’s too early to tell, President-elect Joe Biden’s victory could augur greater bipartisanship in the next Congress, said Dennis Fitzgibbons, a former staff director under the committee’s longtime top Democrat, the late Rep. John Dingell of Michigan.

“We have a new incoming administration that has made commitments to try and get back to working in a bipartisan way, and that tone is very important,” Fitzgibbons said. “How it will play out is something we can’t see. Politics right now are very polarized.”

Biden has good relationships with Republicans in Congress, Fitzgibbons said, including Upton, the former Energy and Commerce chairman who remains on the committee.

The 30-member GOP steering committee picked McMorris Rodgers over two other contenders, Reps. Michael Burgess of Texas and Bob Latta of Ohio, despite both men having more seniority. She previously served as the fourth-ranking Republican in the House before opting to leave party leadership in 2018 in favor of a bigger role in legislation.

The vote will be ratified by the full House Republican conference, largely a formality, in the coming days.

Ornstein said the selection of McMorris Rodgers bodes well for bipartisan action, while Burgess – who called for President Barack Obama to be impeached in 2011 and recently declined to condemn the QAnon conspiracy theory – “would have been a catastrophic choice.”

“It’s not that Cathy McMorris Rodgers is a moderate. She’s not,” he said. “But I think she’s much more capable of figuring out a way that maybe they can find some common ground on at least some issues.”

Fitzgibbons said her ability to get things done as ranking member will rely on striking a balance between comity with Democrats on the committee and keeping the loyalty of Republicans.

“You have to have a good relationship with the majority,” he said, “but you’re also answerable to your side of the aisle.

“Your leverage, when you’re in the minority, starts with being able to keep all of your people together. That’s not the same as lockstep. It’s being able to arrive at a consensus and being able to use what leverage you have to get provisions you want into legislation that is likely to pass.”

McMorris Rodgers said she has built a rapport with Democrats on the committee, including New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone who will continue as chairman in the next Congress.

“Relationships are key, and I’ve built relationships through the years with both Republicans and Democrats that are on the committee,” she said. “It’s important to build a working relationship built on trust. We recognize that we may not always agree on every issue, but it’s important to keep lines of communication open. It’s important to be able to go to one another and talk through these issues.

“That’s the approach that I’ve always brought to Congress. What I find is there’s a lot more that unites us than divides us.”

The choice of McMorris Rodgers, Ornstein said, is in part a recognition of the GOP women who drove their party’s better-than-expected performance in this year’s election. Seventeen Republican women were elected in November, more than doubling the party’s female representation in the House.

“They’ve had a paucity of women in the House, a paucity of women in leadership positions,” he said.

“She’s going to be in many ways a more visible person in this role than in a formal party leadership role, because you’re so directly attached to policy. It’s going to be an interesting role for her.”