In 1995, Jan Meyers, a five–term Representative from Kansas, became the first Republican woman to chair a standing House committee in more than 40 years. That milestone capped Meyers’s long tenure as a public servant that began on the Overland Park (Kansas) City Council and included more than a decade in the state senate. Reflecting on a political career that sometimes saw her take a stand against her party on major social issues, Meyers advised would–be politicians, “Listen to your conscience and your constituents—both. Most of the time they’ll agree. If your conscience is different than your constituents’, then you’ll have a hard time.”1
Janice Lenore Crilly was born on July 20, 1928, in Lincoln, Nebraska, the daughter of Howard M. Crilly, a newspaper publisher, and Lenore N. (Hazel) Crilly. Janice Crilly and her brother, Donn, were raised in Superior, Nebraska, where her father ran the local newspaper, The Superior Express, beginning in the mid–1930s.2 In 1948, she graduated with an Associate Fine Arts degree from William Woods College in Fulton, Missouri, and with a B.A. in communications from the University of Nebraska in 1951. Following graduation, she worked in advertising and public relations. Crilly married Louis “Dutch” Meyers, who eventually became a Kansas City television station executive, and they raised a daughter and son, Valerie and Philip.
Jan Meyers’s career in Kansas GOP politics began in 1966, when she served as Overland Park’s chairwoman for Edward Lawrence “Larry” Winn, Jr.’s campaign for a U.S. House seat representing suburban Kansas City. Two years later, she was district co–chair for the first of Senator Robert Dole’s string of five successful Senate races. In 1974, Meyers chaired Republican Bob Bennett’s gubernatorial campaign in Johnson County. From 1967 to 1972, she served as a member of the Overland Park City Council, presiding for two years. In 1972, Meyers won election to the Kansas state senate and served there for the next 12 years, rising to chair the public health and welfare committee as well as the local government committee. In 1978, Meyers entered the GOP primary for one of Kansas’s seats in the U.S. Senate but garnered only 10 percent of the vote and finished fourth in a race eventually won by Republican Nancy Kassebaum.
When Representative Winn retired in 1984, Meyers entered the GOP primary to succeed him. By that point, the district was a narrow north–south sliver nestled in the northeast corner of Kansas across the river from the metropolis of Kansas City, Missouri. Geographically the smallest of the state’s four congressional districts, it was dominated by two counties—Wyandotte, which encompassed Kansas City, Kansas, with a large blue–collar and working–class population and, to the south, Johnson County, a white–collar, suburban, affluent address which included the city of Overland Park. Meyers began the race with the best name recognition but her support for legalized abortion alienated many among the conservative Republican base. In a five–way race she won the party nomination with just 35 percent of the vote; her nearest opponent, Russell Leffel, captured 28 percent. In the general election she faced a formidable opponent in the Democratic candidate, Kansas City Mayor John Reardon. Though Reardon supported a nuclear weapons freeze, he distanced himself from most Democratic economic programs and supported a ban on abortions. Meyers hewed to budget and military issues, running on President Ronald W. Reagan’s platform, calling for strong defense and a balanced budget amendment. She emphasized her long experience in state politics and plastered the district with “Jan Can” posters.3 Benefiting from being on a ticket that featured Reagan and the popular Kassebaum (who received more votes than Reagan in the November elections), Meyers won with 55 percent to Reardon’s 40 percent (the district went for Reagan by a nearly 2–to–1 margin).4
Meyers faced little opposition in her subsequent general elections; indeed, in 1988, she defeated a Democratic challenger by a 3–to–1 margin. Meyers faced only one serious primary challenge. In 1992, a conservative Kansas state representative tried to capitalize on anti–incumbent sentiment by questioning Meyer’s use of franking privileges for campaign mail. Meyers prevailed 56 to 23 percent in the primary and won the general election by a margin of 20 percentage points.5
When Congresswoman Meyers arrived in the House, she was determined to work her way into a position of power through traditional routes. She sought a seat on high–profile committees such as Ways and Means and Appropriations, but was unable to secure a spot on either. Instead, she was appointed to the Committee on Science and Technology, the Committee on Small Business, and the Select Committee on Aging. In the 100th Congress (1987–1989), she transferred from Science and Technology to the more prestigious Foreign Affairs Committee.
Meyers was most active on the Small Business Committee. She introduced a number of legislative measures to protect small business interests and to ensure that they had fair representation in government. She worked to bring permanent tax cuts for small businesses and exempt them from minimum wage laws and to increase the health care deductions for the self–employed to 100 percent. In 1993, Meyers opposed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which required employers to provide unpaid leave for employees tending to newborns or sick family members; she believed it would disproportionately affect small businesses. She supported the North American Free Trade Agreement, arguing that by lifting trade barriers between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, policymakers could prevent European countries from forming a trade bloc with America’s northern and southern neighbors. More importantly, she noted, her constituents supported the measure.6
When Republicans took control of the House in the 1994 elections, Jan Meyers was promoted to chair of the Small Business Committee. It marked the first time that a Republican woman had chaired a House committee since Edith Nourse Rogers headed Veterans’ Affairs in the 83rd Congress (1953–1955). “Leadership positions come as a result of seniority,” Meyers said later. “I sincerely hope that women continue to run and continue to get elected, and I think that will ultimately result in more women being elected to leadership positions.”7
In 1995, the House leadership briefly considered disbanding the Small Business Committee. But Meyers pointed out that small business owners were a major constituency of the GOP and that they deserved a forum for their interests. She introduced legislation that would have created a Cabinet–level post for the Small Business Administration.8 Meyers often referenced the “ingenuity and can–do attitude” of small businesses in America and the fact that by the 1990s, women and minorities represented the fastest growing segment of that business sector.9 In 1994, during the debate over universal health care, Meyers advocated small business opposition against government mandated programs. “Small business owners, including those currently offering health care, still believe that the government that governs best, governs least,” she said. “Let us heed their wisdom and real world experience.”10 Reflecting on the Congresswoman’s work on behalf of small–sized employers, Kansas Senator Dole later said in a tribute on the Senate Floor, “Jan Meyers never stopped fighting to reduce the regulatory and tax burdens on America’s small businessmen and women.”11
Rising through the committee ranks via her seniority, Meyers also attempted to ascend the party leadership ladder. She often volunteered for bottom–rung partisan positions, such as serving on various task forces and policy groups. Meyers won a spot on the Republican Policy Committee (chairing a panel which helped overhaul the GOP Conference rules) and served on the Republican Task Force on Health Care Policy. In the 101st Congress (1989–1991), she also served as a vice chair of the Energy and Environment Study Conference and, two years later, Minority Leader Robert Michel of Illinois appointed Meyers to his Economic and Health Task Force. Yet, her dutiful approach to such chores did not earn her the political capital needed to break into the elected leadership ranks. In late 1988, Meyers lost a contest for the Republican Conference Secretary’s post to Representative Vin Weber of Minnesota, a protégé of Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia.12
Meyer’s fiscal conservatism contrasted with her moderate social positions, especially on reproductive issues and gun control. She was a regular defender of a woman’s right to seek an abortion, particularly in cases of rape or dire medical threat to mothers. Meyers criticized the George H. W. Bush administration in 1992 for legislation prohibiting women’s health counselors at federally funded clinics from discussing a range of options, including abortion, with patients. “It is a family planning issue. It is an issue of equity for poor women, and of free speech,” Meyers said on the House Floor. “They should be able to get full information about that health care.”13 She voted against proposals to require parental notification for minors’ abortions and supported funding for U.S. family planning efforts overseas. Both positions put her at odds with many GOP colleagues. From her seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Meyers also advocated anti–drug efforts on both the supply and the demand side of the illegal drug trafficking problem. “We must make the user’s life so difficult, and the use of drugs so socially unacceptable, that people will not start drug use,” she said.14 Meyers approved of Republican efforts to overhaul the welfare system in the mid–1990s—arguing that the emphasis should be shifted from federal– to state–based aid and that those receiving entitlements should shoulder more responsibility.15
Meyers declined to run for re–election in 1996, noting that she wanted to spend more time with her family. “There are other things in life I want to do, and being a Member of Congress, if you take the job seriously, simply does not leave time,” Meyers told the press.16 She also said she believed that Members of Congress should serve no more than 10 to 14 years.17 Meyers returned to Overland Park, Kansas, where she joined foundation boards for a local library and a community college.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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