Kevin McCarthy

Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield last month in Washington. At the time of his election last summer to the No. 2 post in the House, McCarthy had spent fewer than four full terms in Congress. He was the most junior person to reach a top leadership post since the early 19th century. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

By Noah Bierman and Evan Halper
June 5, 2015

Rep. Kevin McCarthy celebrated his first election to Congress at an In-N-Out Burger, sipping sodas from paper cups at Formica tables with his wife and children. The understated evening fit perfectly into the Bakersfield Republican’s image as the son of a firefighter who started his first business, a deli, with proceeds from a winning lottery ticket.

Eight years later, as the new House majority leader, McCarthy commands a multimillion-dollar political operation featuring lavish meals, opulent getaways with lobbyists, and privately chartered aircraft.

In the two years leading up to last fall’s election, McCarthy, through his reelection campaign and leadership PAC, spent $140,000 on steakhouses alone. He paid $426,000 to companies that charter private jets, covering 46 trips. And he raised at least $10.5 million for his own and party political committees.

That spending and fundraising have fueled one of the fastest rises to power in congressional history.

At the time of his election last summer to the No. 2 post in the House, McCarthy had spent fewer than four full terms in Congress. He was the most junior person to reach a top leadership post since the early 19th century.

He may lack some of the qualities of previous top party leaders in the House – the grand political vision of Newt Gingrich, the deal-making savvy of Tip O’Neill, the strong arm of Tom DeLay. But McCarthy excels at something else that has become key to leadership in Congress: recruiting candidates and raising money for them.

McCarthy seldom takes sides in the party’s intramural battles over ideology. He has a solidly conservative voting record, but is associated with relatively few legislative causes. The issue on which he has the highest profile is a persistent effort to roll back environmental laws that he says have hurt agriculture in California, particularly rules that set aside water for wildlife conservation.

His rapid ascent hasn’t been the result of his political positions. Rather, it highlights the important role that fundraising plays in Washington.

In a statement in response to written questions, a spokesman said McCarthy’s focus had been on providing leadership for “conservative principles and vision,” a goal that “does include fundraising for the party and for candidates.”

McCarthy’s talent for navigating today’s all-but-unlimited system of campaign finance was on display last month when he hosted a few dozen lobbyists and other Washington insiders at Boston’s Liberty Hotel, a renovated 19th century jail with a granite facade, cheeky jail-themed cocktail bars, views of the Charles River and a lobby with a 90-foot ceiling that becomes a multi-level nightclub. Guests received complimentary flutes of cava upon arrival.

Getaways with lobbyists were at the center of a scandal a decade ago that sent lobbyist Jack Abramoff to prison and brought down House Majority Leader DeLay. New ethics rules passed afterward were supposed to put a stop to them.

But lawmakers in both parties have since found a way to sidestep the rules. Lobbyists no longer bankroll trips directly. Instead, they write checks to a lawmaker’s campaign accounts. Those accounts then pay for the lawmaker’s travel.

One thing hasn’t changed: Lobbyists are not required to disclose expenses of the many weekends they spend hobnobbing with lawmakers.

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