Maryland’s sole GOP member of Congress says he is determined to make sure that House Republicans stay faithful to conservative policies, even as they welcome the populist presidency of Donald Trump.
Rep. Andy Harris is running for chairman of the House Republicans’ think tank, a caucus known as the Republican Study Committee, which considers itself the last line of defense for those who worry that Trump could compromise conservative values.
The election on Thursday comes as Republicans strategize about how to leverage their White House victory as well as majorities in the House and Senate, and Trump supporters such as Harris, 59, jockey for a seat at the table.
Harris, a member of both the RSC and the more hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus, said the relationships he has formed over three terms representing the rural Eastern Shore in Congress make him the right person to unite House Republicans.
“The fact of the matter is for years the RSC was the conservative voice on the Hill,” he said in an interview. “Under the best circumstances, two years from now, no one perceives the need for the Freedom Caucus.”
Six past chairmen of the RSC and the current chairman, Rep. Bill Flores (Tex.), are backing Harris for the two-year post over freshman Rep. Mark Walker (N.C.) — a show of support that might be more reassuring had the nation not just elected a president backed by virtually none of the political establishment.
Harris, an anesthesiologist who specializes in obstetrics, was the first member of Congress to endorse retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson during the Republican primaries. Both men are social conservatives who spent part of their careers at Johns Hopkins University. Both eventually embraced Trump.
A military veteran, father of five and grandfather of four, Harris spent 12 years as a conservative contrarian in the Democratic-controlled Maryland legislature before he was elected to represent the state’s rural, conservative Eastern Shore in Congress.
He planned to run for RSC chair two years ago but withdrew from consideration when his wife died suddenly.
Harris was one of the last holdouts during the 2013 government shutdown, continuing to vote against a proposed spending plan even as federal workers — in Maryland and elsewhere — endured a 16-day furlough.
He had a high-profile spat with the District over marijuana in 2014, when he led the opposition to legal pot shops in the nation’s capital. He has likened the proliferation of medical pot to telling patients to chew on mold instead of taking penicillin.
“I’m sorry that in contradiction to the best new medical evidence that states decide to go ahead and approve recreational marijuana which has proven to be incredibly detrimental to developing brains,” he said of votes in California, Massachusetts, Nevada and Maine last week to approve recreational marijuana. “I think we should very, very carefully consider the expansion of what has to be considered a dangerous drug.”
The congressman is also determined to fight D.C. efforts to achieve statehood — even though voters in the city overwhelmingly approved a statehood referendum last week.
“I still think founders got it right in making a federal enclave that is not a state,” Harris said. “Go back and read the Federalist Papers that deal with it. . . . People have a choice. They can move to any of the other 50 states.”
During the interview, Harris displayed the type of loyalty that he would bring to the RSC when asked to weigh in on criticism that Trump’s new chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, is a racist, an anti-Semite and a white nationalist. In his answer, Harris invoked the debate over mandated insurance coverage of birth control, which he has compared with the government burning churches in his mother’s native Ukraine.
“The postelection rhetoric has been pretty hot,” he said. “It’s very interesting that the same people who would be very willing to deny religious freedom to people who hold deeply held religious beliefs on certain issues all the sudden want to criticize others with very little evidence. That’s pretty hypocritical, if you ask me.”
Turning to the economy, Harris said his top priority is reducing the deficit, which debt hawks say could be a challenge if Trump pushes a big infrastructure bill at the same time he tries to cut taxes.
Harris said that he sees no conflict and that he expects Trump’s plan to rely on private funding and tax credits, unlike what he describes as the Democrats’ deficit-busting stimulus bill. He noted that the president-elect is emphasizing expanding military installations and creating jobs, focuses that are popular on the Eastern Shore.
“Large parts of my district really do look like the parts of America that supported Donald Trump and gave him his electoral college victory,” Harris said. “His message of ‘Make America Great Again’ resonated with large portions of this country.”