By David Catanese | Senior Politics Writer | US News and World Report
The opening months of Donald Trump's frenetic presidency have ushered a fresh cast of colorful characters into America's ongoing political drama.
Figures like Sean Spicer, Michael Flynn and Sally Yates have already taken prominent supporting roles in what's often seemed like a high-octane reality show with the future of the American republic at stake.
Among those who have seen their profiles elevated are members of the legislative branch. Still, only a handful of congressmen and women are able to break through the Beltway pack of politicians and exert real influence. It just so happens that the largest state in the union, California, is producing the preponderance of them.
Though they represent only a small slice of the population, these are voices from the people's house that have flourished nationally for a variety of reasons: In pursuit of truth, in vehement opposition to Trump or even to serve as a vital bridge to policy goals. What they share is that they all stand more influential now than they were at the start of the year, and stand poised to have an amplified voice in the national debate going forward.
Here's the U.S. News list of the four most ascendant U.S. House members in the age of Trump.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.
The Prudent Prosecutor
In 1991, Richard Miller was the first FBI agent in U.S. history to be convicted of espionage.
While carrying on an affair with a Soviet agent, he passed his paramour a secret manual containing counterintelligence methods.
The young federal prosecutor on the case in Los Angeles, Adam Schiff, called it "a betrayal tinged with hypocrisy" and asked for a sentence without mercy: Two life terms plus 50 years.
Miller ended up getting 20 despite Schiff's hard-nosed request.
But the experience carries a striking parallel 26 years later as Schiff takes a leading role in the probe of potential Russian collusion with the Trump presidential campaign.
As ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the 56-year-old Schiff has largely become the face of the investigation consuming Trump's presidency.
"It's an investigation that's global in reach with a number of witnesses who are not eager to cooperate and documents that are difficult to obtain, so it is going to take time," Schiff says. "It's not going to be easy or quick. At the same time, we feel a real sense of urgency."
Schiff is carefully measured, even-keeled and mild-tempered. In the red hot churn of daily developments on Russia, the nine-term congressman representing Hollywood exudes the same unflappable calm before the microphone as he does in private.
"He can be firm and a touch prosecutorial when someone messes something up, but he holds himself to such high standards that it doesn't rankle," says Parke Skelton, a Democratic consultant in California who has worked for Schiff for decades.
At this year's rowdy California Democratic Party state convention that featured f-bombs and exposed raw hostilities between rival liberal factions, Schiff called for unity and said division was unaffordable. And while his pursuit of the Trump administration has been dogged, he is cognizant of retaining the scrupulousness of a staid prosecutor.
But his pastoral demeanor shouldn't be confused with a lack of ambition or calculus.
When he first came to Congress in 2001, he joined the Blue Dog Coalition– a group of moderate and conservative Democrats who identified as fiscal conservatives. He abandoned the group in 2013 as his party lurched leftward. "As the Blue Dog Coalition moved into a lot of non-budget related issues, I found it wasn't the right fit for me anymore," he explains, while still describing himself as a fiscal moderate.
Schiff wants to be a U.S. senator one day, but the timing may not be in his favor.
If Sen. Dianne Feinstein decides on another campaign in 2018, Schiff may be better off looking to climb the rungs of House leadership than holding his breath for that vacancy. Even if Feinstein were to retire before the end of her six-year term, there would be significant pressure for the governor to appoint a woman, minority or true-blue progressive in her place.
Schiff would have trouble fulfilling any of those requirements, but it's clearly something he's trained his eye on. He knows the notoriety he's accrued would give him a ticket to ride, but it won't be eternal.
"If the right opportunity were to open up down the road, that's something I'd certainly want to consider," he says.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif.
The TV-Ready Resister
Eric Swalwell's staff would prefer he didn't do Fox News Channel appearances, especially with the philosophic conservative provocateur, Tucker Carlson.
But when bookers from the powerhouse cable network call, the 36-year-old Democratic congressman insists on suiting up and heading into the studio. "Most [Democrats] are too afraid to come. Swalwell isn't and I appreciate that," says Carlson, who has griped about the inability to lure elected officials onto his program.
A former college soccer player and county prosecutor, Swalwell relishes the competitive sparring – but also feels adamantly it's important to talk to those who see the world differently.
"I come from an all-Republican family from my parents, to my brothers. My wife is from Indiana, so we have a lot of Republican relatives. I grew up understanding the perspective of the other side," Swalwell says. "It's important to talk to the Fox audience. I enjoy the back and forth and having my positions challenged, challenging others. You get to do that on Fox."
Swalwell's become an omnipresent figure across cable news programming this year, due to his perch on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which is conducting one of the investigations into Trump's Russia ties.
Last year, he did a total of 30 national television appearances. Through the end of May this year, he had already logged 120. It's been a sudden thrust into the spotlight for a San Francisco area House member who was previously unknown outside of his district.
"It's capital you can spend. When you're on TV twice a day for a month, you have the country's ear. You've got to use it wisely," notes a Swalwell aide.
But Swalwell had a keen sense for the gravity of Russia story early.
Even before he began his third term in January, he had introduced legislation to create an independent, 9/1 style commission to probe the Kremlin's role and reach in the race for the White House. The bill has acquired just two Republican sponsors, but Swalwell's decision to take the lead on it looks more prescient by the day.
"I foresaw this was going to get messier, going to get hyper-partisan," he says.
Swalwell just welcomed his first child and was expected to dial back his breakneck public schedule for the next few months as he tends to fatherhood. But not even his staff think that'll last very long. "This is a guy who can't sit still for 15 minutes," says the aide.
Swalwell says his wife gets it.
"If there was a health care vote and she went into delivery, she said, 'You better be there to vote against repeal.' Of course I wouldn't have missed our birth. But she actually is pretty fired up about it," he says.
Plus, if he disappears from Fox News too long, his ardent conservative parents might wonder what happened.
"It's probably the only way my parents would be able to see me on TV," he says.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.
The Conservative Gatekeeper
The soft, genial southern presentation of the chair of the House Freedom Caucus belies his stirring impulse for rebellion.
Mark Meadows was only in his second term representing North Carolina's western-most district when he took the extraordinary step to initiate a rare motion in the summer of 2015 to "vacate the chair" and dislodge House Speaker John Boehner from his party's leadership.
The gambit was immediately unsuccessful but injurious to the speaker in the near-term, foreshadowing the demise of his clout with rank-and-file conservatives, who heralded Meadows as a "profile in courage." Boehner waved the white flag two months later and resigned.
Meadows, 57, issued no regrets and two years later, with Boehner in retirement and Trump as president, he finds himself at the center of another intraparty schism: how to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
"Any time you tell the president of the United States you're not there, is it difficult? I would say extremely difficult," Meadows says. "The last thing you want to do is go up against someone in your own party and certainly your own president. That was not a good day for me."
He's referring to March 24th, the day House Speaker Paul Ryan yanked from the House floor GOP leadership's legislation to repeal Obamacare. Despite pledges to the contrary, the votes weren't there and Meadows was the driving reason.
The conservative Freedom Caucus wanted most of the mandates stripped out of the legislation, viewing them as the fundamental cause of rising premiums.
It took almost another six weeks, but Meadows served as a key conduit between the roughly three-dozen Freedom Caucus members and the White House. Through daily conversations with the president, Vice President Mike Pence or a senior White House official, he helped paved the way for the administration's first legislative feat, cramming through a bill to repeal and replace much of Obamacare by a 4-vote margin.
Despite their dissimilar negotiating approaches, Meadows says he shared with Trump a singular desire to improve the original legislation and get it passed. He's sensitive to the critique that he's simply there to say "no."
"As critical as it was to say 'no' to the president, it was as critical to find a way to 'yes,'" he says.
Even now as the fate of the bill sits in the tenuous hands Senate, Meadows remains a fundamental player in the path to ultimate passage.
He says he is still in touch with Trump at least a couple times each week and has also been in contact with Senate leaders, who have crafted their own version of the health care bill, in order to keep tabs on the differences that will ultimately need to be ironed out between the two chambers in conference.
At the same time Meadows finds himself smack in the middle of negotiations over the tax reform package being developed in the House and spearheading opposition to the Border Adjustment Tax that's become a sticking point with Ryan.
It's made him, perhaps, the most influential conservative lawmaker during Trump's reign, not only due to his fierce ideological spine but because of his direct pipeline to the president and irreproachable credibility with conservatives.
Meadows is cognizant that his party and his president are desperate for legislative victories on health care and tax reform and remains optimistic that they will get to the finish line despite the harsh headlines surrounding their prospects.
"Before we leave at the end of July, I'm optimistic we'll have something on the president's desk that repeals and replaces the Affordable Care Act," he says. "On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd say I'm at an eight and a half [on confidence]."
But if the pressure is rising to a boiling point, it will be hard to detect it on the calm, affable Meadows, whose sly good cop-bad cop approach has yielded more gains than meets the eye.
"He's not a firebreather," says George Will, the conservative columnist and commentator. "That makes him more effective because it's hard to stigmatize him as a fanatic."
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif.
The Unfiltered "Auntie"
Long before Maxine Waters boycotted Donald Trump's inauguration, incinerated the credibility of former FBI Director James Comey on national television and propelled calls for the president's impeachment, she was already one of the most polarizing acts in American politics.
It's just that the rapid virality of the internet has catapulted the most senior African-American female in Congress into her own stratosphere of hyper-resistance.
"2017 Maxine Waters is 1991 Maxine Waters. She's just been given a modern media platform," says a former staffer.
If Schiff represents the sober, long-term, methodical slog against Trump, the 78-year-old Waters is the sassified soul and spirit, proudly falling at the most theatrical end of the oppositional spectrum. It's made her an instant progressive icon of the moment.
Impromptu and irascible, the 26-year veteran Democrat representing southern Los Angeles has materialized as a GIF-able sensation for her acerbic tongue and unforgiving glare. A top draw for liberals across the country, in recent months she's appeared at events as diverse as the Emily's List annual gala and the MTV Movie Awards.
Her millennial-inspired message remains constant no matter the venue: Fight like hell and 'stay woke.'
"For Democrats looking for someone to say what they've felt in their head and heart, along came Auntie Maxine," says Mike Trujillo, a Democratic political consultant in Los Angeles, referring to her nickname, bestowed on her by a writer for Elle.
In reality, this auntie has been a rhetorical bomb-thrower for decades.
In 2009, she gleefully told TMZ that if California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's tenure was a movie, it would've rated "minus zero" stars. "Gimme a break. Can you be minus one star?," she chuckled.
At times, her flamboyancy has yielded results. In 2010, her blistering critiques of the NBC-Comcast merger placed pressure on then CEO Jeff Zucker to prioritize diversity hiring and led to NBC's "30 Rock" doing a parody of a combative Waters played by Queen Latifah.
And in 1992, when President George H.W. Bush convened a summit about the Los Angeles riots that didn't include Waters, she marched down to the White House unannounced and forced herself in. Despite 50 deaths and a billion in property damage, she recently defended the riots as a "defining moment in the way black people resisted."
"She's not a diplomat or consensus builder. She's impulsive and not artful. She's stubborn and she puts her foot in her mouth. You can imagine trying to prep her with talking points," says a former staffer.
That partly explains why her staff experiences such a high turnover rate. Some say her burn-the-house down posture serves to mask a defective office that's always at the mercy of her volatile outbursts.
"It's a very dysfunctional environment from the member on down," says a second former aide. "The World Bank president came in once and had to wait two hours because she was late. She's doing her own thing. There's an arrogance there. There is a staff member who has worked for her for 15 years and she still calls her by the wrong name sometimes. I don't think she's very much 'woke' at all."
Waters' office did not respond to several requests for an interview, but Trujillo says, "Just like your own auntie likes things a certain way, Auntie Maxine likes things a certain way. If you're not at your best, you will be watered."
Still, her fresh stardom has helped counter the lingering embarrassment from a 2009 ethics investigation that even allies acknowledge tarnished her reputation. In 2008, Waters helped set up a meeting between Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and top executives of OneUnited, a bank her husband owned stock in.
Waters claimed she had facilitated the meeting because OneUnited was seeking help for all minority banks, not just its own. Congressional investigators ultimately cleared her of a conflict of interest ethics violation and she remained ranking member of the Financial Services Committee, but it cost her considerable political capital and landed her on watchdog lists of the most corrupt members of Congress.
Trump has essentially injected her with a new mission that plays to her forte of being the galvanizing opposition, unafraid of crossing conventional political lines. Her party may be privately divided about how effective she is for their cause nationally, but few are willing to rebuke her publicly. They don't want to risk being "watered."
Article: US News and World Report