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Long a GOP voice on health care, U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess seeks a higher post

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U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, speaks to a reporter in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 1, 2017. Allison Shelley for The Texas Tribune

WASHINGTON — For the last seven months or so, longtime U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess of Lewisville has run a quiet campaign to be the top Republican of a House committee that is so powerful that a past chairman kept an enormous photo of the Earth in the committee's offices to illustrate its jurisdiction.

Burgess is running to be the GOP leader of the House Energy and Commerce Committee next term — or, if the 2020 elections break Republicans' way, the chair. The committee is the congressional arm that regulates all interstate commerce, lending to it the power to investigate everything from Major League Baseball to Silicon Valley. But now, thanks to a pandemic and oil bust, the world is falling in on Congress and Texas, and Burgess is running for what is likely to be one of the hardest jobs in Washington next term.

"He’s a quiet leader, but he’s a thoughtful leader, and I think he can handle, frankly, every policy issue in the committee, plus the members trust him," said U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, of The Woodlands, who is the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, which often overlaps with Energy and Commerce on policy.

Practically every Texan who comes to Congress at least considers making a bid for the Energy and Commerce Committee due to the role oil and natural gas plays in the state's economy.

Burgess has long had his eyes on the chairman position. But for now, the open position is the ranking member slot — the designation for the minority party's committee leader. Should Republicans take back the U.S. House, which is a long shot but not impossible in a turbulent political environment, Burgess would be in contention for the top job.

Its jurisdiction is sprawling, handing policy that has affected the oil fields of West Texas, Silicon Valley's tech industry, the Enron accounting scandal of Houston, Motown in Detroit, the refineries of New Jersey and health care across the country. It is in this committee — the oldest standing committee in the House — where lawmakers have litigated issues as varied as repealing a crude oil export ban, former President Barack Obama's 2010 health care law and, now, much of the governmental response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For instance, it was before the subcommittee Burgess serves as ranking member where the ousted government official overseeing vaccine development testified. And most legislation addressing oil and gas is litigated within the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Because of these factors, merely serving on the committee is a top draw to members all over the country. Within the House, only the Ways and Means Committee and the Appropriations Committee (also led by Texas Republican ranking members, Brady and U.S. Rep. Kay Granger) are more exclusive.

To lead the Energy and Commerce Committee is the kind of post often reserved for legends in making in the House, including the late U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn and U.S. Rep. John Dingell of Michigan. The battles to run the committee are often bloody and divisive, and it can take years for wounds to heal. Members aiming to run a committee spend the cycle engaged with House campaigns across the country, offering financial and political help in order to ingratiate oneself to party leadership.

And into these battles comes Burgess, the rare subdued Texan in Congress.

Burgess decided to run for the U.S. House in the aftermath of another cataclysm — the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City and Washington. In his past professional life, he was a North Texas gynecologist — a third-generation physician, a tradition that began in Canada with his grandfather. Ultimately, though, Burgess' father moved to the United States with an aim to avoid the Canadian national health system.

Burgess was born in Minnesota, when his father worked at the Mayo Clinic. The family relocated to Denton when Burgess was a young child. After a bout of reluctance, Burgess eventually attended medical school and spent decades working in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

As Burgess began to consider public service in the months after 9/11, House Majority Leader Dick Armey — Burgess' congressman — fortuitously announced his retirement. Despite the fact that Burgess' Republican competition included Armey's son, Burgess won the seat and has mostly run uncompetitive general election races in the heavily Republican seat since he was sworn in in 2003.

Burgess rose through the ranks and leadership began to lean on him as a party spokesman during the Democratic overhaul of the American health care system in 2009 and 2010. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went so far as to encourage Burgess to write a book outlying his policy views of the American health care system. The book briefly describes his personal life and his path to Congress. But a majority of the tome addresses his opposition to socialized medicine, his support for tort reform, his frustrations with Medicare reimbursements, his concerns about a coming doctor's shortage, an overall worldview that the bureaucracy of medicine is crushing physicians and a litany of other health care policy considerations.

Some colleagues joke he may know a little too much, given Burgess' habit of occasionally becoming lost in the weeds and in bureaucratic acronyms when making his case.

Again, in 2017, the GOP looked to him. As a subcommittee chairman during the GOP effort to unwind the 2010 health care law, he emerged as a top spokesman and legislator. He made the case for repeal to anyone who would listen, be it reporters at the Capitol or even to the liberal audiences on MSNBC.

"Everyone associates me with health care," he said in a recent interview with the Tribune.. “I wanted to be that person.”

Burgess has had his eye on the Energy and Commerce ranking membership for years. But last summer he began to think seriously about his chances for the slot and came to the conclusion there were too many people ahead of him. But then, over the fall, a pair of more senior members retired and an open race developed. Burgess was all in.

"People ask me why I would do it? Am I glutton for punishment?" he said. "Yeah. Some days."

Some Democrats hold a high regard for Burgess. He's seen as a worthy rhetorical adversary, particularly on health care.

And, as one Capitol Hill Democrat described it, they regard Burgess as approachable when common ground does exist. Democrats perceive him to be respected among his Republican colleagues. As such, he's a frequent target to get on board with a bipartisan piece of legislation. Moreover, they say he and his office are up front and honest over whether he will commit or cut bait on a proposition.

For instance, several years ago he partnered with a liberal Californian, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, to push for an audit of Pentagon spending.

But not everyone is a Burgess fan, as other Democrats on Capitol Hill argue he can be a knee-jerk partisan.

It's a sentiment Burgess returns. He was openly critical of Democratic committee leadership in a recent interview with the Tribune, and he laced into his Democratic counterpart in leading the health subcommittee at a recent hearing. At issue was his unhappiness over what he characterized as a Democratic blindside over a hearing involving Dr. Rick Bright, the country's vaccine-point-man-turned-ousted-whistleblower.

"You trampled on minority rights," he said to U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, a close ally of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "You would have never tolerated that when you were in the minority. You neglected the tradition of this committee in the manner this hearing was called."

Burgess is not a backslapper, nor is he a regular at the Capitol Hill Club or other watering holes around Capitol Hill.

But he has leveraged his medical background to help his Republican colleagues. He frequently directs his donors from the medical community toward colleagues and attends his colleagues' fundraisers. And in this pandemic, he is quick to jump on colleague's conference calls in their own communities and on television news to serve as a medial expert.

"I try to accommodate all of those because I think it's important that people hear from us on this," he said.

Over the years, he proved to be a diligent supporter and fundraiser for the GOP effort to hold — and now, retrieve — the House majority. Burgess made clear he hopes this will be a race to be chairman — not ranking member.

Even so, few House race handicappers suggest Republicans have a shot at recapturing the House this cycle. Still, there is a reluctance among political insiders amid ongoing tumult to make grand assumptions about the electoral terrain in the fall.

To get the job, Burgess will need to pass muster with an insular group known as the House GOP Steering Committee, which will likely decide the next Republican leader of the committee. The two primary determinations over who runs committees are seniority and helping colleagues win their races back home. Ambitious members with an eye on a gavel will spend years raising money and traveling to districts around the country, with an aim to ingratiate themselves to colleagues for the moment the position opens up.

If the committee is high enough profile, these races can be an undercurrent to all of the caucus politics. Future chairpersons are known to keep tabs on polling around the country and make the biggest donations to the House campaign arms to use in advertising for candidates in competitive districts. The races to lead committees are usually determined after the November election.

His chief rival for the post, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, is formerly the top-ranking female in the House GOP caucus. She’s a well-known, well-liked presence around the Capitol and is affectionately referred to by members and staffers alike as “CMR.”

Furthering her case is the issue over female representation of the GOP. Republicans bled female members last cycle, and many within the party are eager to have a woman serve as a top energy policy advocate next term.

Burgess is the more senior member running for the post — a quality that tends to matter more than any other in committee leadership races. Burgess has another advantage over McMorris Rodgers: He's all but certain to win reelection next fall because of the GOP makeup of his 26th District. Most analysts rate McMorris Rodgers as a safe bet for reelection, but her margin of victory dropped from 19 percentage points in 2016 to 10 points in 2018. While Burgess can focus his political firepower on the Energy and Commerce race, she will at least have to direct some of her energy back home in Washington state.

Even so, Burgess contends with two obstacles: stiff competition and Texas fatigue.

Many members of the Republican conference are flat sick of Texans running things. It surfaced in Brady’s 2015 successful bid for Ways and Means and Burgess is bracing for a similar pushback.

"I won’t mislead you," he said. "There are some parts of the country that feels like sometimes Texas is overrepresented."

Burgess' counter to this is to remind Republicans that House Republican committee leaders face term limits, and as a result the Texas ranking member slots have shrunk from an all-time state high of seven and the delegation could be in danger of having no chairmanships or ranking member slots at all in a few years.

Despite that urgency and Texas pride, the race so far is relatively congenial. Brady made clear recently while speaking to reporters that he fully backs Burgess, but he at the same time said the party will benefit from strong candidates.

"That committee is blessed with a ton of talent, so it will be a competitive race with rally good people in it," Brady said. "I think he’s got a strong case to make."