When Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers first arrived in Washington in 2005, Congress was still known as a Boys Club and she was one of just three Republican women in her freshman class.
But next year, McMorris Rodgers will make history when she becomes the first woman from either party to assume a top spot on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee — and she’ll be taking the reins alongside a record-breaking number of Republican women in the House.
“I’m the 200th woman ever elected to serve in the House,” McMorris Rodgers, of Washington state, said in an interview. “And I mention that because for the longest time, women didn’t have the right to vote, let alone to be serving in Congress. And that’s why it’s still relatively new.”
The rise of McMorris Rodgers, who also served a stint in Republican leadership, reflects a broader shift not only in the GOP, but also in the institution as a whole. More women are running for office — and winning — than ever before. And they’re leveraging their power to lock down prized committee and leadership roles.
“For many, many years, we talked about how women needed to be asked to run for office,” McMorris Rodgers said. “But as more women have been running and have been winning, and as women across the country see more women in these positions of leadership and influence, they’re saying, ‘Well I could do that.'”
The GOP Steering Committee on Wednesday selected McMorris Rodgers to become the ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the nation’s health care, technology, environmental and energy policy. The full Republican conference is expected to approve Steering’s recommendation on Thursday.
McMorris Rodgers, 51, beat out two other candidates in the competitive race: Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), a doctor who had the most seniority, and Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio). In her pitch for the job, McMorris Rodgers touted her past experience in leadership, fundraising skills and desire to empower members. And while gender wasn’t a discussion inside the Steering room, she told POLITICO being elected as the first woman was “just the cherry on top.”
Leading the Energy and Commerce Committee has long been a dream job for McMorris Rodgers. In fact, the reason she left her spot in leadership in 2018 was to lay the groundwork to eventually pursue the top spot on the panel. That opportunity arose shortly after, with Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the committee’s current ranking member, announcing his retirement last year.
And should Republicans win back the House in 2022, McMorris Rodgers would be in a prime position to secure the coveted Energy and Commerce Committee gavel.
“It’s a great committee. It has broad jurisdiction on issues important to my district and my region, as well as the country,” McMorris Rodgers said. “And I’m just super honored to be given the nod by my colleagues to lead this committee for the Republicans.”
McMorris won’t be the only Republican woman with a powerful perch in the new Congress. Rep. Kay Granger of Texas is poised to once again become the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, a panel where female lawmakers have already broken barriers: This Congress, two women served as the chair and ranking member for the first time ever. Retiring Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) currently serves as the head of the Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) is likely to replace her next year.
Meanwhile, the GOP Conference chair, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, will serve another two-year term as the No. 3 House Republican, which was McMorris Rodgers’ old job. And Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) will get another stint as the Republican leader of the House Education and Labor Committee.
A record-breaking number of GOP women — 29 and counting — are poised to join the Republican ranks next year. And some of them are already itching to serve as a counterweight to the progressive “squad” of Democratic women who have gained attention in the House.
McMorris Rodgers is also hoping to use her new position on the Energy and Commerce panel to battle against what she labeled as Democrats’ “leftward lurch” toward “socialism,” while also standing up to China. In a video she sent around to Steering members before her race, McMorris Rodgers took aim at the squad and some of the left’s top policy priorities, such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
But at the same time, she acknowledged that there are plenty of areas that can and will require bipartisan cooperation in the new Congress, including work on a coronavirus vaccine and privacy issues.
“E&C is at the center of the race to win the majority,” McMorris Rodgers says in the video, also referring to the House speaker. “I have a detailed strategy to maximize the Energy and Commerce Committee to counter Pelosi and the squad.”