U.S. Rep. Andy Harris confuses the heck out of me.
Most of the time I hardly think about the conservative Republican from Cambridge. He represents Maryland’s 1st District in Congress, which covers the nine counties of the Eastern Shore, plus Harford County and part of Baltimore County.
But now, he’s become someone to watch. He’s Maryland’s only member aboard the Republican clown car going nowhere in Washington — the whole shut-down-the-government, boot-the-Speaker thing. It’s drama, drama, drama with this crowd.
I wanted to hear what the 66-year-old Harris had to say about the state of affairs. Not from a tweet or a press release, but from an actual conversation. So after more than a week of asking, I got the call Thursday morning. Come to Washington, his office said.
I like Washington. So, I drove the 28 miles from my Annapolis house to the seat of national power. I had a really good ham-and-cheese croissant while listening to accordion and piano music flowing from a speaker, then walked the few blocks to Harris’ fifth-floor office in the Longworth House Office Building.
While waiting in his office for the congressman to walk over from another closed-door, what-do-we-do meeting, I tried to decide what kind of stuffed duck was hanging above me on the wall. One of his aides looked it up — a canvasback. Then I started counting decorative Fisher’s Popcorn and Dolle’s Saltwater Taffy containers to pass the time.
Before I could finish, Harris bounded in with a long-legged gait and, frankly, I was surprised. I expected sweat. I expected a furrowed brow and weary demeanor of someone dealing with a House of Representatives in disarray.
Israel is reeling from a horrific terrorist attack, Gaza and Ukraine are burning. The federal government will shut down Nov. 17 if Congress, specifically the GOP-led House, doesn’t act. It’s a crisis, right?
How could he look so, well ... happy?
“The Senate’s on recess this week, so to somehow pretend that, you know, the world is going to end because the House is not meeting … it’s not valid,” Harris said.
Harris has been on both sides of the Republican meltdown since it started in January when the GOP took control of the House by the slimmest of margins. He waited until the 13th vote to flip from Freedom Caucus rebel to a yes for California congressman Kevin McCarthy, who had long aspired to the post.
A former physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital and state senator, Harris had predicted there would be smoother sailing thanks to the hard-fought agreement on House rule changes.
Surely, he must now see how wrong he was? One of the rule changes won by conservatives allowed just one House member to sponsor a motion to remove the speaker. After McCarthy bucked House conservatives to back a continuing resolution to keep the federal government running, he got the boot.
So, Congressman, things aren’t really better, are they?
“They ran better,” he replied. “We passed four appropriations bills … out of the House. My agriculture bill came to the floor. It didn’t pass. But I mean, we put five bills on the floor. This is the first time maybe since I was here that five appropriations bills came to the floor before October.”
Harris didn’t join eight Republicans and the Democrats in voting to remove McCarthy.
On the search for a new speaker, Harris voted for U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the Trump ally and conservative bomb-thrower, in this week’s caucus meeting. But Louisiana congressman Steve Scalise, the House majority leader, edged out Jordan in a closed-door meeting of House Republicans on Wednesday to be nominated for the top job.
But when Scalise couldn’t line up the 217 necessary votes, he ended his bid for speaker Thursday evening.
Hours earlier, Harris seemed to hint that Scalise was in trouble.
“I’ve said that I will support Mr. Scalise on the first vote on the floor,” Harris said Thursday afternoon. “Now, if he can’t win on the first vote on the floor, we can’t drag this on. We have to move on.”
How long before it’s someone else’s turn to try?
“It could take into early next week. I would hope by the weekend, you know, we could have this resolved. But then again, I thought by today we’d have it.”
Harris must see that he helped precipitate this moment.
He voted to keep McCarthy, sure. But he rejected the continuing resolution McCarthy passed with the help of Democrats to keep the government open. It was called “clean,” with no money for the Republicans’ beefed-up border demands or the Ukraine aid that is supported by President Joe Biden and a coalition of Democrats and Republicans.
Folks following along at home could see what was coming next and, sure enough, there it was. McCarthy was the first speaker fired in U.S. history.
“I mean, we can’t do business like that,” Harris said. “That was a leverage point. And the leverage point is when you have to go and you have to say look, you know … put border security in it. … I would gladly have voted for the border security.”
He voted against raising the debt level, too, back in May. That would have sent the nation into default, unleashing who-knows-what on the economy. Not worried about economic fallout?
Nope. Harris sees it as another leverage point.
“We just didn’t propose a good enough deal,” he said. “So that’s why I voted against our deal coming out of the House. It was not a good enough deal.”
Harris would have rather seen Biden veto a Republican debt package that included significant cuts to spending, and then defend the default that followed.
“Let him make that argument to the American people. Because I’d be willing to go to the American people on the other side, say whoa, timeout, simple math — $33 trillion in debt with an average interest rate of 4%. And now, mind you, what they’re going to have to float next year is gonna be above 4%. It’s $1.2 trillion in interest alone.”
Cutting spending has long been one of Harris’ primary goals. And yet it continues to go up.
Last month, he took the Republican agriculture budget bill that he helped shape as a subcommittee chair to the House floor for a vote. He said it cut spending back to 2018 levels. Democrats called it more like 2006.
Even his own party wasn’t buying. The measure failed.
“I think that there are too many members who don’t understand the process fully,” Harris said. “The process is the Republican House, we send over a conservative bill which has restrained spending. We go into negotiation with the Senate.”
A friend of mine who worked for Republicans in Congress told me there are three or four ways to judge the effectiveness of a member. One is how well they get along with other members. It was the same in the state Senate in Annapolis, where Harris represented Baltimore County before going to Washington.
If you ask the Democrats in Maryland’s congressional delegation, they’ll quietly say they rarely, if ever, hear from Harris. The only time I regularly see their names connected is when they celebrate funding for his district.
Harris seemed surprised to hear it. He comes to the delegation meetings when called. Maybe it’s because D.C. is so much bigger than Annapolis.
“You go to the floor of the House; if you’re not voting, it’s empty,” Harris said. “You know, you’re not mingling with your fellow colleagues. And of course, the fellow colleagues here are about half Democrats, half Republicans, so the opportunities to interact with the Democrats are more limited than they were in the state legislature.”
There have been some famous moments of not getting along. Like that time in November 2021 when he started shouting at Biden White House COVID adviser David Kessler about the effectiveness of vaccines during a hearing.
Or the confrontation, hours after insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol, when a member was giving a passionate speech about what had just happened. As members disagreed over the speech, Harris and another congressman got into a shouting match in the background.
“No, you sit down!”
Some called it a scuffle, some didn’t. But everyone agreed it required a bench-clearing intervention.
“Look, I don’t take BS from anyone, you know?” Harris said. “If they’re trying to sell me a little BS, I’m not tolerating that. I am old enough to know better about what’s going on.”
Legislation is only a tiny bit of what Congress does, so criticizing Harris for passing just one bill since being elected to Congress in 2010 isn’t really fair. He clearly takes pride in pointing out that his real influence is on the House Appropriations Committee, where he can direct spending.
“We were the ones who got an increased number of H-2B temporary foreign worker visas through language we got in the bill really, ever since I’ve been on the Appropriations Committee,” Harris said. “We think that the offshore windmills have to be studied far more than they are because of their effect on sea mammals. We got language in the appropriation bills on that.”
Democrats have accused Harris of taking credit for things he didn’t do. In 2022, he touted federal money for a dredging project in his home county. Except the money was in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill negotiated by Biden. Harris voted against it.
Using a word I had to look up — fungible, meaning it’s budgeted but can be moved around — Harris said the funding was coming regardless of the president’s signature legislative achievement.
“People make this up out of whole cloth because, I will tell you, that if there is a specific thing in that bill that was not something where the money is completely fungible, I didn’t take credit for it,” Harris said. “Because you’re right. I didn’t vote for it and I wouldn’t do that.”
I don’t want to judge Andy Harris just on any one moment in Washington. The Democrats don’t seem to like him much. Neither do left-leaning political groups. His staff has stopped talking to some journalists because, well, they think they don’t like him.
His constituents do, however — he was re-elected in 2022 with 54.4% of the vote — and that’s important.
So more than anything else, I wanted to know how this shamfuggery in D.C. is going down back in Cambridge, or Easton or Ocean City.
“They kind of assume that there’s dysfunction in government,” Harris said. “They assume it. They certainly assume it at the federal level; most assume it at the state level, too. But this is just background noise to them.
“What they’re worried about is, gee, you know, my kids aren’t learning in school, by the way.”