In a DC delegation of big names and heavy-hitters, South Carolina's Tom Rice forging his own path – Charleston Post Courier

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WASHINGTON — Of all the Republicans in the South Carolina congressional delegation, U.S. Rep. Tom Rice is arguably the least recognizable on the national stage.

He isn’t a highly quotable former presidential candidate, like U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham. He doesn’t have the conservative star power of U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy.

And unlike U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, he hasn’t interrupted a major presidential address to accuse the commander in chief of lying.

Yet since going to Congress in 2012, the Myrtle Beach lawmaker has quietly worked outside of the spotlight to carve out a niche in an environment that often rewards self-promotion over low-key.

This has been especially true since Rice landed a seat on the Ways and Means Committee, one of the House’s most prestigious panels.

Rice says it’s good news for South Carolina, which hasn’t had a representative serve on the committee since the 1980s. But it’s also good news for Rice, who gets a seat at the table for some of the most consequential political debates happening on overhauling the nation’s tax and health care laws.

“I feel like I’m having a really significant impact on some of these national initiatives that I do believe will come to fruition,” he told The Post and Courier.

Just what sort of impact he might have in an increasingly dysfunctional and politically polarized Congress, however, remains to be seen.

‘The way we work’

Rice wanted to be on Ways and Means since before he was elected to Congress.

His campaign manager, Walter Whetsell, recalls a visit to Washington in 2012, when Rice had just won the Republican runoff election for South Carolina’s newly drawn 7th Congressional District covering the Pee Dee and the upper coast. The two men, along with Rice’s wife, Wrenzie, were meeting with then-House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican not known to mask amusement or incredulity.

“The speaker says to Tom, ‘So, what do you need from us?’ ” Whetsell recounted. “Tom says, ‘I want to be on Ways and Means.’ And the speaker audibly laughed and said, ‘Yeah, right.’ ”

On paper, Rice had the qualifications. Born in Charleston but raised in Myrtle Beach from the age of 4, he grew up balancing school with side jobs such as bag boy, fry cook and manager of a local miniature golf course.

He earned accounting and law degrees from the University of South Carolina, but ultimately returned to the coast to start a family — he and Wrenzie Rice have three sons. A certified public accountant and tax attorney, he started his own thriving practice and took on leadership roles in civic organizations including the Myrtle Beach Haven homeless shelter and the local YMCA.

Before he became chairman of Horry County Council in 2010, Rice helped lead a yearly protest against allowing motorcycle rallies to overtake the Grand Strand in the final weeks of every May, arguing they disrupted the local economy and posed a threat to public safety.

On Capitol Hill, landing a seat on a highly competitive committee such as Ways and Means requires more than just a resume that hits all the marks. It’s partly a popularity contest. Members have to ask for and earn support from the members of the Republican Standing Committee, which at that time was made up almost entirely of leadership appointees.

A freshman member has to be truly extraordinary to win a seat off the bat. And Rice — quiet and unassuming with a deep, low drawl that sounds like his mouth is full of marbles — was generally unremarkable.

Rice wasn’t going to give up that easily, though. Over the next three years and on three separate occasions, he put himself in the running to fill slots as they opened up.

“We worked very hard to make sure people knew we wanted it,” said Rice, who turns 60 in August. “We went to all of the decision makers, the members of the steering committee, met with them and talked about qualifications. We sat across from them face to face. We put together a package of material about why we should be on Ways and Means.”

In late-2015, on his third try, Rice prevailed, besting 13 other Republicans, including fellow South Carolinian Rep. Mark Sanford, who lives 90 miles down the coast from Rice, in Mount Pleasant. 

In a time of unified Republican government in Washington, this should be an exciting time for Rice to serve on Ways and Means — especially as the panel turns to tax reform, his specialty.

But things have been rocky so far. The GOP health care bill is now mired in the Senate, and disagreements between congressional leadership and the Trump administration on how to tackle an overhaul of the nation’s tax code has jeopardized an already ambitious August deadline.

If the challenges have been demoralizing, Rice won’t let on. He has, however, been stung at least twice by setbacks.

The first time was in March when leaders were forced to postpone the first scheduled vote on the health care bill and it appeared the effort was dead. Ordinarily good-tempered and quick to smile, Rice looked grim and even angry as he left the Capitol that day as the Republicans had accomplished nothing.

“That was the most disappointed I’ve been in Congress,” he said.

Then in April, the conservative advocacy group Club for Growth launched a $500,000 campaign against four Ways and Means Republicans supporting a controversial “border adjustment tax,” which would tax imports but not exports. One of them was Rice.

“I am for growth: Growth of our economy, growth of jobs and growth of hope and opportunity for your children and grandchildren,” Rice responded in a scathing statement to constituents. “I’m not sure what the Club for Growth is trying to grow outside their own checkbook.”

‘People don’t pay me for smiling’

To get a seat on the Ways and Means Committee, Rice likely had to assure leaders he’d be a team player. He rarely breaks from his party on major legislative issues and is not a member of the rabble-rousing House Freedom Caucus.

Joe Dugan, a leading member of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party, called Rice “a fine man” but admitted he wished his representative would join the Freedom Caucus, a group of about 40 ultra-conservative Republicans in Congress when it comes to government spending.

“There are times where I would prefer the congressman to be a lot more hard line,” Dugan said.

But Rice has balanced his deference to leadership with an appreciation for the political makeup of his district, which voted overwhelmingly for now-President Donald Trump in 2016.

“Donald Trump was backed by an overwhelming majority in my district and in South Carolina,” Rice said recently. “And while I don’t necessarily agree with his tactics, I agree with 95 percent of his policies.”

The successes Rice has had so far in Congress are due in large part to refusing to upset the apple cart, keeping a low profile and not stepping on too many toes.  

In late 2013, he introduced a quirky resolution authorizing the House of Representatives to sue the Obama administration for alleged executive branch overreach. By mid-2014, it had provided the basis for a new measure to allow the House to file a lawsuit targeting the Obamacare mandate postponement, but Rice sought little credit for coming up with the framework.

Rice did admit he’s most proud of his work on local issues, particularly efforts in support of completing Interstate 73, which would traverse northwestern South Carolina and better connect visitors to the Myrtle Beach area.

Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce President Brad Dean said Rice had done more than just use his leverage in Washington.

“In his first term, (Rice) asked me, ‘Who can help us?’ I said, ‘We need to meet the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee,’ ” Dean recalled. “And within a couple months, he had (Chairman) Bill Shuster in a community helicopter to show him I-73 … Usually you’d just show (the chairman) maps, but Tom understood something not everyone does: You got to go up in the air and look at the region and see how much undeveloped land there is along the Grand Strand and Pee Dee.”

Rice has had a harder time making a dent on national issues, like health care and taxes, while also playing it safe. Though Rice insisted he has “helped move the needle” on a number of issues in both arenas, he wouldn’t provide details, fearful that calling attention to his priorities would jeopardize their survival as legislation moves through the pipeline.

An aide later confirmed that the provisions he fought for in the House GOP health care bill were not ultimately included.

There’s no definitive evidence that being self-promotional or aggressive is key to racking up legislative victories. But even if there was, it’s not likely Rice would change his style.

So far, what he’s doing seems to be working well enough — and he’s going to stick with it.

“People don’t pay me for smiling,” Rice said of his constituents. “They pay me to get results.”