SPOKANE — A year removed from party leadership in the House of Representatives, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers says her focus now is on taking a more prominent role in lawmaking.
“It’s been a year where I have been able to focus more on policy,” said McMorris Rodgers in an interview last week in her office on Capitol Hill.
Once the highest-ranking woman in the House GOP, she stepped down from her role as conference chair shortly after winning re-election in 2018. The congresswoman, who will seek her ninth term in the House this fall, is now looking to become the first woman to lead the party’s membership on the chamber’s Energy and Commerce committee. That panel has jurisdiction over actions by the Energy and the Health and Human Services departments as well as the Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration.
McMorris Rodgers, who will likely compete against at least two other prominent Republicans for the right to be the party’s leader on the committee, said the assignment would allow her to tackle issues that will continue to rise to prominence in the region and nationwide.
“When I look at these issues, I just think they’re at the forefront of our future, and America’s future,” McMorris Rodgers said.
One of those issues will undoubtedly be the role of social media in political messaging, an issue that reared its head in the 2016 election and continues to hound industry giant Facebook. The California-based company announced earlier this month it would continue to allow targeted political advertisements on its service and would not be policing the truth of claims made in those ads, breaking from fellow social media giant Twitter’s pronouncement ending political advertising and prompting backlash from some high-profile users who vowed a boycott of Facebook.
Facebook representatives have testified before members of the House Energy and Commerce committee multiple times, including earlier this month, when the company’s vice president of global policy management detailed its attempts to combat fake photos and videos being shared by users of the platform.
McMorris Rodgers said she supports an approach toward online speech that doesn’t give the government a role in determining what is truth and what isn’t.
“We need to be encouraging more speech, rather than less speech,” the congresswoman said. “I get very concerned about the government coming in and deciding what is allowed or not.”
It’s the reason the congresswoman said she voted against a bill offered by Democrats as a way to curtail foreign interference in elections. McMorris Rodgers said she was concerned about a provision in the legislation that would have allowed the United States attorney general to take corrective action if speech in a political ad was deemed to be “materially false.”
“I’m not sure that the Democrats would want Attorney General (William) Barr deciding what was true, as much as I would have wanted (Attorney General) Eric Holder under the Obama administration deciding if political ads were true,” McMorris Rodgers said.
The bill passed the House of Representatives on a party-line vote in October, but it has yet to be taken up in the GOP-controlled Senate.
McMorris Rodgers said she’s seen some progress from Facebook toward eliminating harmful speech from their platform, saying the company is “inching more in that” direction.
With Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, it would take a shift in party control to give McMorris Rodgers the chairmanship of the committee. She must also win her re-election campaign. So far, Chris Armitage, who locked up the endorsement of the Spokane County Democrats late last year, is the only other candidate to declare.
There are also at least three other GOP congressmen who have expressed interest in taking the top position on the committee following an announcement from Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., that he would be retiring from Congress this year.
If she is selected by her peers to lead the party on the committee, McMorris Rodgers would oversee an area of policy that several other members of the Inland Northwest delegation have expressed interest in: data privacy.
Sen. Maria Cantwell introduced legislation in November that would grant internet users much more ownership of the data they share online, and Sen. Mike Crapo convened a hearing in the Senate’s Banking Committee last year intended to address data breaches and the safety of consumers’ financial information online.
Ed Wood, chairman of the Spokane County Democrats, said he has been surprised that McMorris Rodgers did not angle for a position on the coveted Agriculture Committee, given the district’s legacy on that panel. Rep. Tom Foley chaired the committee for six years from 1975 to 1981, during which time he oversaw a major overhaul of the country’s food-stamp system that tied farm aid to the poverty program.
“Evidently the voters don’t care about that,” Wood said about committee assignments. “I don’t think the average voter cares what committee a representative is on.”
The Energy and Commerce committee does deal with issues related to agriculture, including legislation affecting the Food and Drug Administration and access to broadband connections that are necessary for today’s farmers. A spokesman for McMorris Rodgers also pointed out that the congresswoman helped garner support for a bill intended to make it easier for farms to hire migrant workers that passed the House in December.
McMorris Rodgers said she enjoyed her time in leadership. Her office contains signed copies of legislation she helped move through Congress, several of them in her final year in leadership in the run-up to the 2018 election.
“I was sitting down with the Speaker every day, so that allowed me to bring those issues to the forefront,” the congresswoman said.
Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., who served two years in the Washington Legislature with McMorris Rodgers and has worked with her as a member of Congress since 2015, said he believed the move away from leadership had allowed his longtime colleague to become a more effective – and happier – legislator.
“I was concerned for her, when she had to step down from (leadership),” Newhouse said in an interview last week. “I’ve got to tell you, this past year, I see Cathy as happy and comfortable in her role as I’ve ever seen her.”
McMorris Rodgers didn’t respond to Newhouse’s observation directly, but she did say she believed her time in leadership set her up well should she get a shot at leading the committee where she’s found herself over the past year.
“I think it gives me an advantage, having served in leadership for a number of years, to know what it really entails to pass major pieces of legislation through the House,” the congresswoman said.