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Congress: Reign of the Implacables

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Evan Vucci/Associated Press
Representative Jim Jordan, Representative Raul Labrador, both Freedom Caucus members, and others, leave a hearing room on Capitol Hill after a nomination vote to replace House Speaker John Boehner fell apart, Washington, DC, October 8, 2015

The House Republican Caucus is coming to resemble an animal that devours itself. (Such creatures exist.) Time after time, one highly conservative subgroup of the House Republican party is swallowed up by another more radical one. The mayhem that has ensued since the not-as-startling-as-it-seemed decision of Speaker John Boehner to resign is the illogical result of the Party’s relentless move to the right and toward an increasingly rejectionist view of the existing powers. That this bears a close resemblance to what’s happening in the Republican presidential contest is of course no coincidence. Both present the dangers of anger at the status quo run amok.

It’s not difficult to understand why, on Thursday, shortly before the House Republicans were to meet to decide on Boehner’s successor, Kevin McCarthy took himself out of the race (even if no other reason is confirmed): Whoever became the new Speaker was likely to face the same forces that took down Boehner. McCarthy had seen up close the agonies that Boehner suffered at the hands of a new radical force in the House, the Freedom Caucus. But in case he hadn’t noticed the difficulties it would have presented him, the members of the Freedom Caucus made that clear by deciding Wednesday night they would oppose him en bloc and favor their own candidate, Daniel Webster of Florida, in the party meeting the next day. This alone could have blocked McCarthy from becoming Speaker. The Capitol was of course awash with rumors that McCarthy had been having an affair; this is becoming a tradition. In 1998 Bob Livingston suddenly abandoned his promotion to the Speakership, acknowledging that he’d had an affair. Livingston was also next in line to Speaker, in this case Newt Gingrich, who was being thrown out of his job for costing the Republicans House seats for his reckless pursuit of the impeachment of Bill Clinton and because of his own well known extra-marital affair with a Hill staffer (whom he later married and is still married to).

How did the House Republicans get here? Still in formation, the Freedom Caucus is the newest and most conservative group yet, and though its membership is relatively small it has in effect a veto on whatever the rest of the party wants to do. The Republican Conference (House Republican caucus) has 247 members, and this rump group now counts about forty members—sizable enough to prevent the Republican leadership from having the requisite 218 votes, the majority of the House required to do almost anything. Which also raises the question, Can this party govern? (A question that also applies to the candidates in the presidential race.)

The Freedom Caucus is the latest iteration of the Republican congressional right wing, which is more prevalent in the House than the Senate, just as the Tea Party has been. This is because of the far greater number of members of the “lower body” and the fact that Senators by definition represent a more heterogeneous constituency – though there have been some suggestions, mainly from outside the Senate, that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should watch his step. But—one hesitates to make any such statement these days—McConnell is under no immediate threat.

The Freedom Caucus has supplanted and largely absorbed the Tea Party, a group that has faded in importance and which has received too much emphasis in accounts of what’s happened in Congress in recent years. But whereas previous conservative groups (including the Tea Party) may have been primarily concerned with substance (of a limited nature), the Freedom Caucus members are more focused on structure. They seek to dilute the power of the party leadership, in particular the Speaker’s, devolving it to committee members. Vin Weber, a Republican lobbyist and former member of Congress now among the most respected people in Washington, said, “The Freedom Caucus redefined conservatism to be strategic rather than ideological.”

That is of course another recipe for chaos, but if there’s a bit of self-interest here on the part of more junior members who want to change the rules to benefit themselves, it is a trend that began in the 1980s when Newt Gingrich was a back bencher in the House, and with the aid of his allies propelled himself to the Speakership by 1994. In recent years, with each election the congressional Republican Party has become more conservative, often as a result of intra-party fights in primaries in overwhelmingly Republican districts. (With no opposition party to contend with at the next election, an incumbent’s greatest fear is to be “primaried” and therefore takes precautions in the way they vote to prevent that fate. It’s almost unheard of for a Republican to be successfully primaried from the left.)

As a result of this process, the Republican successes in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014 brought in new kinds of politicians to Congress who were not only very conservative but also to whom the word compromise was anathema. In 2010 these extreme conservatives were part of a new group, the Tea Party, whose victories that year propelled John Boehner into the Speakership. Its organizing principle was to kill the Affordable Care Act, which had been passed in March of that year. From then on, in the most right-wing ranks, the fantasy never died that Obamacare could be repealed. As a result of the failure to kill the Affordable Care Act despite the more than fifty House roll calls (which were more for show than serious expectation) as well as to slash the federal budget, many Republican voters grew frustrated with their party and rank-and-file Republicans rebelled against the leadership. (A recent Bloomberg News poll showed that by two to one Republicans objected to their party leadership.)

While the Tea Party, was made up of extreme conservatives the Freedom Caucus members are the Implacables. Raul Labrador of Idaho—who was elected to Congress in 2010 after a major upset of an incumbent in a deeply conservative district, and who is the unofficial spokesman of the group—told the National Review Online, “We are trying to push the entire conference [the Republican caucus] to the right….You can only do it effectively if there are no surprises, if we go ahead and sit down with leadership and let them know what we want, why we want it, [and] what ideas we have to improve…the process.”

The Implacables have balked at just about everything Boehner tried to do, whether it was to adopt the rule for floor debate on the nuclear deal with Iran or continue to fund the government without holding it hostage to their latest ideological fixation. They were about to force a government shutdown over the social issue du jour, defunding Planned Parenthood. (Though the role that Planned Parenthood plays in providing abortions is a golden oldie for the Republicans, the right wing Republicans now consider the issue and the group so hot and so politically promising that just last week the Republican House established a special committee to examine the organization. This initiative has been inflamed by some doctored videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood workers happily negotiating the price of baby parts; in fact they are discussing fetal tissue essential to pioneering health research and they’re talking about transportation costs, not trying to make a profit.)

An important reason Boehner had been in a bind in getting legislation passed was that he was obliged to follow the “Hastert rule.” When Dennis Hastert was Speaker, for self-protection he adopted the practice that nothing would come to the House floor that wasn’t supported by a majority of Republicans. This approach both reflected and intensified the polarization between the two parties. Members of the Freedom Caucus want to make it a formal rule. But the Hastert rule is a convenient myth perpetrated by the right: in 2013 Hastert himself said, “The Hastert rule never really existed. It’s a nonentity as far as I’m concerned.”

And it was the Freedom Caucus that in effect overthrew Boehner. Though Boehner is very conservative, he’s a realist. The realists understand that there are limits to what they can accomplish and they also believe in governing. Boehner is an old-style dealmaker in a party in which the most powerful faction abhors surrendering “principles” to make deals with the other side. A “grand bargain” on federal spending and taxes Boehner came close to reaching with Obama in 2012 was nullified by Boehner’s own caucus, who so mistrusted him from then on that it forbade him from ever again negotiating with Obama alone. The Implacables are less interested in legislating than in making a statement. To them, the rhetorical meat thrown out at election time to appease the angry masses—which they’ve done their bit to stir up—is invaluable as an organizing and fundraising mechanism. Thus there’s now a circular system in which a large portion of the public, encouraged by opportunists and cynics as well as some true believers to get “mad as hell” votes for people who promise to go to Washington and not compromise. This, in turn, leads to paralysis and further anger on the part of the public that “nothing gets done in Washington.”

To the extent that substance is involved, the Freedom Caucus opposes the big-business-oriented Chamber of Commerce, which among other things favors loosened immigration laws. Thus the major immigration reform bill passed by the Senate by a large majority in 2013 hasn’t been brought up in the House. In 2014, the previously unknown Dave Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon college, a smallish college in Virginia, stunned the political world by toppling then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Virginia primary. This was an omen. Though Cantor, a bit of a cold fish, spent relatively little time in his district (assuming that he was safe), preferring expensive dinners in Washington with Chamber of Commerce officials and other lobbyists. Now Brat is a member of the Freedom Caucus. Boehner used to have to worry about Cantor, the next in line for Speaker, having a knife at his back. Brat was among those who plunged it in.

One might wonder how Boehner survived as long as he did. It’s no small thing to take on a Speaker, and had Boehner chosen to see it through, he would have survived the pending motion, offered by the heretofore unknown Mark Meadows, of North Carolina, a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, to remove him from his position. (It may be recalled that an unusually large number of Republicans—twenty-five—voted against Boehner as Speaker early in this congressional session.)

But by this fall, Boehner had had it. All he could see ahead was one battle after another within his own party. He might well have been forced to preside over yet another government shutdown as of October 1. The only way to avoid the humiliation of losing his troops once again and seeing a shutdown he opposed come to pass, was to say, the hell with it, throw in the towel, and let the Democrats bail the Republicans out of another shutdown by voting with some Republicans for a “clean bill” to extend the debt ceiling—something he wouldn’t have gotten away with if he wanted to remain Speaker. Boehner had been considering quitting for some time but his decision was undoubtedly spurred by the unprecedented visit to Capitol Hill by Pope Francis, a development that Boehner, a devout Catholic, had been trying to arrange for a long time. It would never be better than this, and so the day after Pope Francis’s historic speech to the congress, Boehner resigned, stunning Capitol Hill.

John Boehner isn’t a large enough figure for his story to be tragic. An amiable get-along guy from a blue-collar background in Cincinnati’s exurbs, the second of twelve children who worked his way up from salesman to chief executive of a small packaging and plastics company, Boehner hasn’t been a leader of much distinction. (Neither have a number of preceding Speakers.) He ended up as Speaker because he was in line to the leadership, over time advancing to positions left open by higher officials who were thrown out by the Republican Caucus (Newt Gingrich), or resigned (Dick Armey), or indicted (Tom DeLay). House speakers are second in line, after the vice president, to succeed to the presidency, but most of them have been quite a distance from seeming presidential. Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader and Boehner’s would-be successor, is an affable lightweight who had helped get many of the newer members of the House elected in the first place. But in politics, gratitude takes second place to self-interest, and the Freedom Caucus considered McCarthy, as they put it, “Boehner 2.0.”

Though the turmoil over the House leadership will end at some point, and there will be a presidential election in November 2016, less clear is whether this country will be governable, or whether the inchoate rage felt by so many will be contained. Vin Weber says, “People are angry at where we are but they don’t know where we are.” Meanwhile, John Boehner, the obviously unhappy but responsible caretaker of the institution he respects, will remain on duty as Speaker as long as it takes to find a successor.