Tonight, we turn our lonely eyes to the first Democratic debate. But before that, there is a brief opportunity to consider just what will occur when Congress returns from a break, and John Boehner leads his fractious army back to Washington.
First order of business, we need a new Speaker. We don’t have one because a) Boehner was sick and tired of being sick and tired, and b) his first choice, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, has withdrawn because of an acute case of foot in mouth disease, a hint of personal scandal, and c) a new skunk at the party—the House Freedom Caucus, a determined band of roughly 40 Members who expect to be the new Politburo come this November.
Who and what is the House Freedom Caucus? Why haven’t we heard more about them? They are newly formed (January) and they are committed to a mission: “The House Freedom Caucus gives a voice to countless Americans who feel that Washington does not represent them. We support open, accountable and limited government, the Constitution and the rule of law, and policies that promote the liberty, safety, and prosperity of all Americans.”
Rather noble sounding—so noble that not everyone will admit to being a member, and two have just resigned, so when I say “roughly forty” I mean, “roughly.” But these are, after all is said and done, the conservative conservatives—so conservative that they had to split off from the House Republican Study Group, which is the more conservative group of Republicans in the House.
What do they want? The short answer is the power to pick the next Speaker, and set the nation’s agenda. These are not people with modest ambitions—they truly believe their mission statement about the countless unrepresented they speak for.
They think they have the numbers to do it. Forty is not only more than 12, which is the number of Republicans who refused to vote for John Boehner in early 2013 (don’t faint, they didn’t choose Nancy Pelosi). But more importantly, it leaves the GOP, currently with 247 Members, 12 votes short of the 218 needed to have a majority vote for Speaker.
In fairness to the Freedom Caucus, they are frustrated to distraction. It’s been ten months since they were sworn in, and the GOP hasn’t accomplished all that much in turning back Obama’s agenda. They have run into a surprisingly resilient wall—one created largely by the Founders, and reinforced with decades of procedure.
You start with the peculiar dynamics of the Senate and its fundamental differences from the House. The Senate is supposed to act with careful deliberation—in James Madison’s words “to consist in its proceedings with more coolness, with more system and with more wisdom, than the popular branch." Firebrands elected every two years might be radical, but George Washington told Jefferson “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it."
Senate rules include unlimited debate (which can technically be limited by a cloture motion) unlimited amendments, and the Senatorial “hold” which allows even a single Senator to object to an appointment or piece of legislation.
The structure is designed to force compromise, if people use it in good faith. Ideology counts, but relationships matter. One of the most unusual long-term friendships was between Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, and showed you how the Senate could work—rather than seeing each other as the enemy for all things, they cooperated on legislation they had common interests in and took opposite sides when they didn’t.
There are other factors in the Senate that have a tendency to moderate legislation. Roughly half the states have at least one Senatorial seat that could flip over a few election cycles. Wrong year, wrong candidate, and even a safe seat (like Kennedy’s seat lost to Scott Brown or Indiana’s Richard Lugar’s seat lost to Joe Donnelly) can be at risk. Lose a seat, and it’s gone for six years. Just as in the House, where a successful politician is an acute counter of noses, in the Senate, you also have to know, and play to, your audience—and you can’t gerrymander a state. This creates two opposing forces within the Senate. In the hardline states (Utah, or Oklahoma) the same primary forces that seek purity send the Ted Cruz types into battle. But elsewhere, Senators have to watch their backs, which is why you see Lisa Murkowski of Alaska occasionally voting with Democrats and Joe Manchin of West Virginia siding with Republicans. And you see Senate leadership in both parties not asking them to take one for the team—the seats are far more important than any particular piece of legislation.
But the House is a different animal altogether. The individual Member has essentially no power under the House rules to start or stop anything. Procedurally, the authority is at the Committee and leadership level. So, the Freedom Caucus wants a commitment from the incoming Speaker for “regular order” which, to their way of thinking, is a closer adherence to Robert’s Rules of Order—and which would allow any Member to able to introduce a Bill or Amendment, and get it called up rather than buried by leadership. For Democratic-sponsored legislation, they expect the Hastert Rule to be applied. And, they want far greater access to the Republican Steering Committee, which hands out committee assignments and chairmanships.
The hard-liners in the House also see a different reality when it comes to actual voting on legislation. To their way of thinking, the respective size of the delegations is almost the only determiner, and discipline should be applied to achieve the maximum result. In this, they are probably on the cutting edge. The number of swing voting Members is declining as more sophisticated gerrymandering and the disproportionate impact of large private donations draw more Districts into ideological silos. Get a solidly Republican District, and the greatest danger is losing the nomination, not losing the general election after you have the nomination.
That is the reality they see, not beyond it. They don’t understand the practical—that there are two chambers in Congress and three branches of government. Unlimited numbers of amendments in the House can kill bills that are already big wins for conservatives, by including additional provisions that make them anathema to anyone not hard right. And forcing votes can be even worse, by putting everyone on record. And, to what end, if you don’t have a President willing to go along or a veto-proof majority?
They scoff at this. This logic is old man’s logic, the logic of the Establishment. It doesn’t comport with the reality they think they see at home, doesn’t match up with the calls they are getting from their constituents and their contributors. They see it all as possible, so long as there is the will to do it. Why not be ultra-conservative, when you have the votes? Why shouldn’t McConnell use his majority to deliver the votes on anything that passes out of the House, without Amendment or even discussion? Finally, if Republicans just stick together, and refuse Mr. Obama everything, why shouldn’t he bow to the will of the people?
Of course, this all starts with the Speaker. Paul Ryan is demurring (for now, while I expect he quietly negotiates terms) and other eager conservatives have had their hands up, all ready to sacrifice themselves for the good of the country. Newt said he had a “moral obligation” if asked.
But, I find myself intrigued by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton’s suggestion—Dick Cheney.
Dick Cheney? Ultra-conservative? Check. Ruthless? Check? Experienced in being in line for the Presidency? Double-check.
Dick Cheney and the Freedom Forty. Let it linger on the tongue like a fine vintage of castor oil.
October 13th, 2015
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
Please join us on Twitter.