When Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy was handed the gavel after 15 touch-and-go ballots, the sense of history being made was palpable on the floor of the venerable House chamber. One person who’d had the proverbial front row to that history was Machalagh Carr.
As Speaker McCarthy ascended to the position held by several giants of American history (Henry Clay and Sam Rayburn, for example, spring readily to mind—am I missing anybody truly great? Thought not.), Machalagh (pronounced Ma-kay-la) Carr transitioned from General Counsel to the Republican Leader of the House of Representatives to General Counsel to the Speaker of the House.
“My largest takeaway was watching speaker-elect, now Speaker McCarthy, walk through that crucible with grace and dignity and show the world the leader that we know him to be.”
If anyone knows the complicated ins and outs of how the U.S. House of Representatives operates, it is Machalagh Carr. Before joining Leader McCarthy’s staff, Carr served as General Counsel and Parliamentarian for the House’s powerful Ways and Means Committee. Before that, she was the Committee’s Oversight Staff Director and the Director of Oversight and Investigations for the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
She is married to Brendan Carr, the senior Republican on the Federal Communications Committee.
Throughout her professional life, Carr has operated on a piece of advice handed down from Michael Powell, former Chairman of the FCC, who told Brendan, then an FCC intern, “Opportunity often knocks for many people, but many don’t have their bags packed.” Machalagh Carr has made it a point to be ready when opportunity beckons. When she joined the law firm of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, she had never been out of the United States. She nevertheless immediately obtained a U.S. passport. She figured people who worked for fancy law firms might need a passport. She was right.
“I had been at the law firm for maybe four or five months when a partner called and said, basically, do you have a passport, can you go to Budapest on Tuesday?” she recalls. She said that “of course” she had a passport. Although Machalagh’s bags were packed, she had left out an item: “I’m with a partner in the law firm at the airport, and the airport official tells me you can’t use this passport. You have to sign your passport. It had never been signed. I didn’t know to sign it. I was so embarrassed.”
She was allowed to sign the passport on the spot and then to jet off to what she recalls as “a fabulous learning experience working with really smart lawyers on a lot of anti-corruption cases, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases. And that’s kind of how these careers happen, right?” Well, that may be the case, if you are ready to jump at new and unexpected opportunities.
Throughout her professional life, Carr has operated on a piece of advice handed down from Michael Powell, former Chairman of the FCC, who told her husband Brendan, then an FCC intern, “Opportunity often knocks for many people, but many don’t have their bags packed.” Carr is always ready.
Machalagh was born in Reno, Nevada, and grew up in a house on the banks of the Truckee River. She has one sister, who is two years older. “We would go and splash our muddy feet in the river, and we raised baby ducks and baby chicks at Easter and had lots of pets. And my parents were loving, wonderful, phenomenal people. They got divorced pretty early on and managed to keep a pretty good relationship for a divorced family of the eighties and nineties. We’d get to spend time with both parents.” Both parents worked in the casino industry. Her father “had a philosopher’s heart and was always analyzing and trying to get us to analyze things and ask questions and then ask more questions. I think that my father’s mental restlessness is what drew me to politics ultimately.”
“I went to public schools until high school, and I went to my mom, and I said, ‘Hey, I think I’d get a better education if I went to the local Catholic school. Do you think that we can afford that?’ And she said, ‘let’s figure it out.’ I was able to get scholarships and go to the only Catholic high school in Reno at the time. I got a really good education at Bishop Manogue, and I found some forever family. I got baptized at Bishop Manogue and the mother of my best friend in high school became my godmother. We’re still close.”
After Bishop Manogue, Carr attended the University of Nevada in Reno, working at several jobs, including waiting tables at Johnny Rockets, bartending, and working at REI, the local backpackers’ outfitting store. “I knew that I needed to do really well in school to get out of Reno,” she recalls, “and getting out of Reno was important. I didn’t dislike Reno, but I did want to get out and have a great adventure.” She was the first person in her family to go to law school. Carr applied to a number of law schools and had a system for selecting the one she ultimately would attend: the one that offered the most scholarship money. That turned out to be the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
When Carr arrived at law school, her ambition was to be a prosecutor. When she spotted a posting for a gathering of students who planned to pursue careers in public interest law, she innocently assumed that included would-be prosecutors. “I remember telling the advisor that I wanted to be a prosecutor, maybe even a prosecutor back in Reno, and they were like, this is not the room for you. And I just felt so dejected and kind of mortified. How could being a prosecutor working for the government and getting criminals off the streets not be in the public interest?”
While at Catholic’s law school, she enjoyed the classes of “brilliant professors” and began dating a fellow CUA law student named Brendan Carr. Brendan Carr had graduated from Georgetown University. They were eventually married in Georgetown’s beautiful Dahlgren Chapel of the Sacred Heart on campus. The couple has three children, all born at home. “I’m the home-birthing hippie Republican lawyer, I guess,” jokes Carr. “I was born at home and had my babies in a condo in Dupont Circle, all three of them.” The Carrs now live in the Virginia suburbs. She loves to take the children back to the house on the banks of the Truckee River in Reno, where she spent her own formative years.
Instead of becoming a prosecutor, Carr accepted an offer of a clerkship for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces as her first job after law school. She had impressed the Chief Judge, the delightfully named Judge H.F. Sparky Gierke, when he taught classes at Catholic. “He said ‘you should come and clerk for us,’ and I said ‘okay’. So, I went and interned for the Chief Judge ,and then I got a full-time clerkship the year after graduation. And I kept in close contact with them until he ultimately passed away several years ago, but it was just an absolutely great year. Being a clerk is a continuation of your legal education. You write briefs, you attend oral arguments, and you do the legal research. It makes you a better writer, it makes you a better thinker, and it makes you analyze things differently.”
Next, she went to work for the law firm that gave her a taste of anticorruption defense and international travel. After that, she went in-house to Weatherford International, a multinational oilfield services company. “The Department of Justice was aggressively pursuing different industries, and this particular company said, well, let’s build up a little oversight and anti-corruption shop in-house, so we’re not paying outside law firms. And so, they built what they called an Office of Global Compliance, and they brought in some attorneys and some forensic accountants. That job was really interesting. I would fly into a location; the first one was Indonesia. Actually, when I accepted the job, they said, ‘well, I know you’re supposed to start on Tuesday, but can you fly to Jakarta on Sunday? Because it’ll take you a day to get there and then you can actually start on Tuesday.’ I was like okay.”
“I’m the home-birthing hippie Republican lawyer, I guess,” jokes Carr. “I was born at home and had my babies in a condo in Dupont Circle, all three of them.”
“So, I would go spend a month in Jakarta and then go spend, you know, a month home writing the report and working on it, and then go spend a month in China and then go spend, you know, a month in Nigeria, and then come back and go back to Jakarta. So, it was a really intense job. I was there for two years, and I spent more than 45% of my time outside the country. Not just on travel, not like in Des Moines, Iowa, but in Jakarta or Nigeria. So, really another just phenomenal education experience. I learned a ton.”
Meanwhile, Brendan Carr was clerking for a federal judge on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. He was in South Carolina for the job. They saw each other on weekends, but after two years at Weatherford, she said, “This is not sustainable. I had a husband who had his own brilliant, amazing career. So, I really just applied through USAJOBS to a bunch of different jobs. And Doc Hastings was the Chairman of Natural Resources, and they had just taken back the majority. He wanted to do important investigations. I said I didn’t know anything about the Hill, but I knew a lot about investigations and oversight, and I knew a thing or two about the oil industry. So that was my first gig on the Hill, and Doc Hastings was the best first boss you could ever have on the Hill. He wore his cowboy boots, and I appreciated that because my first boss after law school, Judge Gierke, wore his cowboy boots under his robes. For me, the boots represented good, honest, western values, true, not snobbish, not pretentious but people wanting to do good work, and that was Doc Hastings. And so, I was at natural resources doing oversight investigations for three years.”
Carr worked briefly for then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz when he chaired what used to be called the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, O.G.R., and was working for then-Rep. Kevin Brady on the House Ways and Means Committee when the call from Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy’s office came. It had been decided that the Leader needed a general counsel. She had never met McCarthy and was happy working for Brady. And she was expecting a third child. Eventually, however, she was persuaded to take the job. She was at home on maternity leave when things got really exciting on Capitol Hill.
“I told then-Leader McCarthy, now Speaker McCarthy, I said I want to come back and he said, ‘well you can’t. This is sacrosanct. You’ve got to spend time with your baby.’ I said, ‘no, I’m not.’ You know, at the time I thought impeachment was a once-in-a-generation thing. I didn’t know we were going to do it immediately again. I insisted on being in the office. And the Leader said, ‘well, what do you need?’ And I said, ‘well you just need to be really cool when the baby cries, when you’re in an important meeting, or saying something really important to a lot of people.’ He’s like ‘that’s fine.’ So, we put a little pack and playthings in my office, and I strapped the baby to my chest and carried on.”
You mean there was a baby in the Republican leader’s office during the impeachment proceedings? “Well, yes,” Carr replies nonchalantly. “Unless the baby was in the impeachment room, which happened a lot. When the impeachment proceedings went public at the Committee on Judiciary, there was often a baby in the back room, or in the Ways and Means Committee room, in the library, in a chair, sleeping or snuggling, or whatever. He was really good for the office. Babies are like that; they get serotonin levels up, make you happy, calm people down.”
When opportunity knocks, you can count on Machalagh to have her bags packed—even if sometimes the bags are packed with nappies so mother and son can have a front-row seat to history. And we can expect that through hard work and an uncanny ability to always be ready for the next challenge, Machalagh Carr will be not just a witness but a powerful behind-the-scenes actor in what could turn out to be a consequential Speakership.