When a young and brash 29-year-old Patrick McHenry first strode into Washington, he likened Capitol Hill to junior high. It had the jocks, the geeks and the bullies.
Ten years later, a full head of premature gray hair, Congressman McHenry has made it to the popular kids table – or in D.C. parlance, the leadership table.
McHenry, a Republican who works in real estate, was reelected last week to his sixth term representing North Carolina’s 10th District. But the more noteworthy move occurred months earlier when he became the final cog of a House leadership shakeup, triggered by Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss, that brought the team more in line with the conservative branch of the party.
His appointment as chief deputy whip could mean more benefits for North Carolina as well as power and money for McHenry, who has established himself as a champion of conservatism, defender of the financial sector, and bane of Obama and the Democrats.
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the newly elected majority whip, tapped McHenry as his new chief deputy this summer, injecting into leadership two Southern conservative voices whose thinking is more connected with those of a younger generation of House members who were elected in the tea party wave of 2010.
“It was a very real concern of a lot of people in our conference, not just the conservative members, that we needed more of a balance both geographically and philosophically,” Scalise said in an interview.
Members described McHenry as a well-prepared and well-liked figure among colleagues, a regular guy in a not so regular job. He has a quick wit, which he has used deftly to draw in friends and agitate opponents. At times, friends say, he can be a little cornball.
“I remember one time he quoted Beyonce,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C.
McHenry will work with Scalise counting votes and cajoling lawmakers to support the leadership’s agenda. McHenry often will be at the table with House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy when important decisions are made. McHenry will help determine the House policy priorities and messages. Now that the Republicans have taken control of the Senate, he’ll have even greater influence in shaping the national agenda and determining what bills make it to President Barack Obama’s desk.
“A position is not important in and of itself,” McHenry said in an interview. “It’s the opportunity to shape outcomes is what is meaningful. And even more meaningful is the outcome. I’m very mindful of that.”
The leadership structure in Washington often is described as a leadership ladder, in which aspirational politicians move up rung by rung. The chief deputy whip position is considered the No. 4 in House leadership. McHenry follows in the footsteps of other Republican leaders, including former long-term Republican speaker House speaker Dennis Hastert, majority leader Kevin McCarthy and former majority leader Eric Cantor, in holding the post.
Eric Heberlig, a political scientist professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, pointed to the fund raising and recruiting efforts of Cantor and McCarthy as an example that rising up the ladder is not only about back-scratching and trading favors, but also about the ability to raise money from favored donors and distribute it to candidates in competitive races.
“McHenry has done that,” Heberlig said. “His relationships with the banks help him do that. The higher positions allow you to do more favors internally, but there are also outside interests. The donors know that it’s more powerful too. That gives you more leverage to extract more contributions from more types of interest groups that want to be known as your friends when you’re in power.”
McHenry has a lot of people who want to be his friend. McHenry is a member of House Financial Services Committee, which has broad jurisdiction over the banking industry - a critical sector of the North Carolina economy. He’s raised more than $2.7 million in this election cycle for his campaign committee and leadership PACs. The highest contributors are from the financial sector.
The benefits for North Carolina may seem subtle. McHenry said in an interview that the job puts him in a position to better influence national policy that has a direct impact on the 10th District and North Carolina, such as the talks about the large Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement among 12 different nations.
“The squeaky wheel gets the most grease,” said Tracy Philbeck, chairman of the board of commissioners in Gaston County, which is part of McHenry’s district. “And when you have one of the most powerful elected officials in North Carolina, we’re going to get noticed.”
Conservatives will be closely watching McHenry and Scalise to ensure they stick to the ideology and are not pulled to the center by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who is often criticized for being too moderate and leaving those on the right out of the discussions.
But the reviews of McHenry and Scalise have been positive so far. One sign is the diminishing calls for Boehner to be replaced as speaker. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, put out a statement Wednesday that he was not going to challenge Boehner for speaker.
Mulvaney said the leadership’s approach has become more grass roots up as opposed to top-down management. He cited the passage of a controversial border bill to finance security and humanitarian missions this year.
“They actually talked to us, which was a nice change,” Mulvaney said. “There was like 20 of us that they brought in together and said, ‘Look, how can we agree on this? What do we need to do make this bill acceptable to conservatives?’ And it worked. That almost never happened in my previous three years in Washington.”
McHenry chairs the Financial Services subcommittee on oversight and investigations. He’s also a member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee’s recruitment committee. His crowd-funding bill easing federal restrictions on raising capital from small investors was integrated into the 2012 Jobs Act signed by the president. He was among the minority of Republicans who voted with Democrats to end the federal shutdown last year.
The National Journal ranks him as the 74th most conservative House member, sixth in North Carolina, according to the magazine's annual analysis of congressional votes.
The knock on McHenry from Democrats is that he’s more of mouthpiece for the far right, practically a de-facto member of the tea party, who is more focused on criticizing President Barack Obama and defending bankers who have contributed to him than working for the citizens of the his district and North Carolina.
“He’s not in it for the people. That is blatantly clear,” said Karen Turner, a vice chairwoman of the Gaston County Democratic Party, “You just have to just look at his campaign finance reports to see who has bought and paid for him.
McHenry’s focused much of his committee work probing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a creation of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. McHenry describes the bureau as a mismanaged, unchecked agency that hurts small businesses and needs to be substantially reformed. A video of him calling the bureau’s architect Elizabeth Warren, who is now a U.S. senator, a liar during a 2011 hearing went viral.
In a letter to McHenry this summer, Democrats accused him and his oversight and investigations subcommittee of failing to give the same commitment to rooting out discrimination and pay disparities in the financial sector as they did within the consumer protection bureau.
“Given your previous commitment to eliminating invidious discrimination, we believe it is vital that the OI Subcommittee devote resources with the same due diligence it has done with its review of the Bureau,” wrote Reps. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and Al Green, D-Texas.
McHenry defended himself and the work of his committee. Discrimination is wrong, and illegal, in any capacity, he said, but that private individuals have methods of recourse through the courts. He said in an interview that his committee’s priority was oversight on other parts of the government.
“When it comes to the government sector, we have enormous purview over what they can and cannot do and how they should act and shouldn’t act,” McHenry said.
No one questions McHenry’s ambitions. At 22, still a college junior, he ran for a state House seat. He won the GOP nomination, but lost the general election. He ran again four years later in 2002. This time he won, but only stayed years before running for Congress.
“A young man in a hurry, said Ferrel Guillory, a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill political analyst. “He’s very partisan. He was always seeking the Republican advantage. My sense of it is looking at him from afar, and remembering him in the legislature, is he likes to be at the point of the spear.”