WASHINGTON — There’s no denying U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy will enjoy additional clout at the helm of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Beyond bragging rights, however, it’s not clear whether the Spartanburg Republican’s constituents back home will receive any tangible benefits from his new role.
It's not considered a pork-delivery assignment. Gowdy’s committee — which he was put in charge of with the pending the retirement of U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah — is tasked with policing waste, fraud and abuse in the executive branch and federal agencies.
It has a more abstract mission than some of the other panels with more parochial links, such as the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, or the Committee on Armed Services that during the last century helped build South Carolina into a military might state.
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Mount Pleasant, who sits on the committee and thought briefly about seeking the chairmanship himself, said he would have pitched his constituents on the panel’s ability to “look under the hood and see where taxpayer money is, in fact, spent.
“If there’s robust oversight of Department of Defense, and the fact they don’t have audited books … maybe there would be some savings in North Charleston or some implications for preconditioned ships or fighters out of Beaufort,” Sanford added.
According to congressional expert Norm Ornstein, Gowdy’s chairmanship might be more of a vanity title than anything else.
“As a chair, you’re almost by definition a member of the leadership team, and that means you’re likely in the room when major decisions are made about what priorities you’re gonna pursue, and you kind of have more access to further interests back home,” Ornstein explained. “Maybe it gives you a little bit of an area-wide ego boost, but it’s symbolic more than anything else.”
In an interview with The Post and Courier, Gowdy said his committee’s value to the state “depends on how I handle the responsibilities.”
Ultimately, the committee itself might not matter. Chairmanships across Congress just aren’t what they used to be.
Bringing home the bacon
Until the mid-2000s, committee chairmen wielded a significant amount of power by way of earmarks, the federal dollars a member of Congress could designate for a specific initiative in his or her district or state.
The practice was done away with in 2011, stigmatized by those who had abused the system. But before that time, for most members of Congress, securing an earmark was only as easy as befriending — or actually being — a person in power, be it a member of leadership or, more likely, a chairman of a committee with hometown relevance.
Since 1950, not including Gowdy, there have been seven members of the S.C. congressional delegation who have served as committee chairmen. One, U.S. Rep. John McMillan, was chairman of the now-defunct House Committee on the District of Columbia.
But the six other chairmen wielded gavels of Capitol Hill committees where the issues on the table could directly benefit the Palmetto State.
As chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee between 1973 and 1974, U.S. Rep. William Jennings Bryan Dorn helped secure a major expansion for a VA hospital in Columbia that now bears his name.
U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings was one of Congress’ most prolific earmarkers. He was chairman of the Senate Budget Committee between 1980 and 1981, then the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee from 1987-1995 and 2001-2003.
Three South Carolinians have overseen the House or Senate Armed Services Committees, starting with U.S. Rep. L. Mendel Rivers from 1965 until his death in 1970.
U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond and U.S. Rep. Floyd Spence were both chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, respectively, during the same 1995-1999 window. This meant South Carolina, with its significant military presence, had an outsized influence in the producing the National Defense Authorization Act each year.
In the House, Spence had an additional advantage, according to his longtime chief of staff, Craig Metz. Spence, said Metz, was close friends with U.S. Rep. C. W. Bill Young, R-Fla., who was the senior defense appropriator.
“Young said, ‘Whatever Floyd authorizes, it will be appropriated,’” said Metz, meaning that Young would ensure the Appropriations Committee provided funding for all of the projects Spence prioritized in the National Defense Authorization Act each year.
South Carolina is home to military bases, from Beaufort to Charleston, Columbia and Sumter.
“We would coordinate with other members of the delegation and military people, too, so we could be consistent in trying to do as much as we could for South Carolina, the bases and different missions we had there,” Metz explained. “We were very successful in that.”
None of these members of Congress were in office in 2010, when longtime House Budget Chairman John Spratt, a Democrat, lost re-election in that year’s Republican wave.
He had, in part, become a casualty of the declining interest in committee chairmen and what value they had for their districts when public opinion of Washington had fallen in such low regard.
“Spratt always ran as, ‘as budget chairman, budget ranking member, I've delivered for the 5th District,’” recalled Nu Wexler, who worked for Hollings, the S.C. Democratic Party and Spratt’s final re-election race. “There was a point in the 2010 campaign where we realized that some voters equated ‘delivering for the district’ with government spending ... some voters saw that as just government waste.”
A different kind of chairman
Josh Kimbrell, the Spartanburg GOP chairman and a radio talk show host, said Gowdy was joining the ranks of outspoken conservative congressmen representing the “Fighting Fourth,” the GOP stronghold anchored by Greenville and Spartanburg.
Before tea party star Jim DeMint jumped to the U.S. Senate, he represented the 4th Congressional District. Prior to his revival as a moderate environmentalist, 4th District Rep. Bob Inglis was calling for then-President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
“We’ve always wanted our congressmen to have an outsized influence,” Kimbrell said. “This is a district that wants people to go fight the status quo, fight the way government works.”
Gowdy, a former prosecutor and solicitor, is already a household name thanks to his chairmanship of the temporary committee to investigate the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The panel uncovered Hillary Clinton's private email server and became a partisan lighting rod.
Some South Carolina Republicans might be hoping for Gowdy to take advantage of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee's far-reaching jurisdiction to probe other hot-button issues that get regular airtime on cable news. But Gowdy indicated that his constituents shouldn't expect the panel to be as visible as the Benghazi Committee, or as it has been under previous Republican chairmen.
Instead, he said he'll focus more on the "reform" aspect of the committee's jurisdiction.
He can't offer earmarks or protection of specific parochial interests, but what he can give his constituents is a congressman with a reputation of being fair.
"Success, to me, is having people say, 'That was a fair hearing,' (and) 'even though reasonable minds can differ on how they would address this issue, this was an issue worth highlighting,'" Gowdy said. "What is not successful to me is, 'Go find the most recent headline and then chase it by having a full committee hearing.'"
As for what he’s heard from people back home so far, Gowdy described the response as fairly subdued.
“Everyone is incredibly polite on both sides of the political spectrum," he said. "Those who follow politics closely will say, ‘It’s a difficult assignment.’”