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Johnson fills senior-staff ranks with leadership newbies

Speaker Mike Johnson has loaded up his senior staff with a crew of leadership neophytes as he gears up to run the House.

Give Johnson credit here. Within a week of winning the speakership, the Louisiana Republican has filled every key position on his leadership team. But unlike previous speakers who sought seasoned hands in such roles, Johnson has mostly eschewed experience in favor of political allies and fellow conservative travelers.

This is an incredibly busy time for Congress. Government funding runs out in 16 days. And Johnson is trying to pass an Israel aid bill today that’s coupled with $14 billion in cuts to the IRS — something that the GOP leadership is split on and is nervous about passing.

This is the team Johnson’s going to battle with.

Take Johnson’s new top communications hand, Raj Shah. Shah is a former Trump White House deputy press secretary who also worked at Fox Corporation and the RNC — all entities that sought to and succeeded in tightly controlling their message.

Unlike previous communications directors for speakers such as Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner, Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy, Shah has never worked on Capitol Hill, where 535 members and their countless aides feed a hungry press corps news and gossip. The speaker’s communications director typically relies on years-long relationships with Hill reporters to help limit the damage when the majority inevitably fails on something.

Shah will also be counted on to court right-wing media, some of whom view him with heightened suspicion. In addition, he will be working for a speaker whose history has been left largely unvetted by the news media. Reporters in Washington and across the country are only beginning to dig into Johnson and his past.

Johnson’s new policy director is Dan Ziegler, the former executive director for the Republican Study Committee. The RSC serves as a think tank for some of the most conservative members of the House.

Since leaving the Hill, Ziegler has been paid to influence members of Congress on behalf of giant corporations. Ziegler has been lobbying for Williams and Jensen, where he has sought to influence policy on behalf of Amgen, the biotechnology company; Bloom Energy; Elevance Health; Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical giant; Ford Motor Company; Merck; the News Media Alliance; Novo Nordisk, which makes Ozempic; Pfizer; PHRMA; Sanofi; the Vanguard Group; and Visa.

Ziegler’s lobbying profile is still online and touts his connection to Johnson — precisely the kind of thing the right in the House rails on.

“This includes two years working for current Speaker Mike Johnson during his tenure as the RSC Chairman during the 116th Congress,” the profile reads.

Johnson’s office didn’t have an immediate comment on whether Ziegler will recuse himself from involvement in energy, health care or financial services policy.

Ziegler donated $1,000 to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign for president. Johnson, however, hasn’t endorsed former President Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House.

The Trump campaign didn’t have immediate comment on Ziegler’s appointment.

The appointment of Ziegler also robs Johnson of his best downtown ally. But since he was elected as speaker, a broad swath of lobbyists has been laying claim to this title.

Rounding out Johnson’s senior staff is Hayden Haynes, Johnson’s personal office chief of staff; Chris Bien, a McCarthy staffer who will run the floor; and Courtney Butcher, a former aide to the House Republican Conference will run the member services shop.

— Jake Sherman

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Editorial photos provided by Getty Images. Political ads courtesy of AdImpact.