California Republican Kevin McCarthy’s Thursday announcement that he would not stand for Speaker of the House was described by both Republicans and Hill-watchers as a shocker — hard to understand and harder to predict.
“I did not see that coming,” quipped Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who has himself expressed interest in the Speakership.
“All the members [of the GOP caucus] were shocked,” said Rep. Darrell Issa as he exited the meeting at which McCarthy had dropped his bombshell.
But while the exact timing of Thursday’s meltdown might have been jarring, it represented, in may ways, the logical next chapter in a story the Republican Party has been writing for the better part of a generation.
Allusions have been made to the last time the House saw such a dramatic leadership battle, when — after Republican Newt Gingrich was forced out in 1998 — Republican Robert Livingston seemed poised to be the next speaker. But accusations of marital infidelity sidetracked Livingston, allowing a relative unknown at the time, Dennis Hastert, to grab the gavel.
In 1998, however, the House GOP was marshalled by an iron-fisted Majority Whip in the person of Texas Representative Tom DeLay, who used the fealty and fear he had engendered in his caucus to impose a compromise. House Republicans have no such enforcer today — nor would any of the party’s upstarts tolerate one — and that, ironically, is in no small part because of the environment DeLay helped create.
'A power-based system'
DeLay, a former pest-control executive who was nicknamed “The Hammer,” used an unrelenting assortment of carrots and sticks to enforce strict discipline within his caucus. He leapfrogged traditional seniority rules to award committee chairmanships to junior House members who did leadership’s bidding, while those that broke ranks were stripped of their posts. DeLay was also a prodigious fundraiser, and was known on occasion to finance primary challenges to Republican representatives that had defied him on floor votes.
But Rep. DeLay — who was elevated to Majority Leader in 2003 — is as famous for his fall as he was for his rise.
Ten years ago, he was indicted for campaign finance violations stemming from a scheme to change the makeup of the Texas State legislature in order to influence congressional redistricting.
Parts of that case are still winding through the courts, but the redrawing of the Texas congressional map and the resulting shift in representation — though also the subject of legal scrutiny over the years — boosted the Republican majority in the Texas delegation and became the blueprint for a kind of hyper-partisan gerrymandering that spread across the United States.
It is those increasingly lopsided maps — drawn to protect conservatives and drive out opponents from across the aisle and even inside the party — that helped enable the rise of the ideological “purists” that not only make up the Tea Party and Freedom caucuses, but also sizeable parts of the broader House. And today’s resistance within the GOP to any leadership that would enforce party discipline can trace it roots to the naked favoritism and destruction of the seniority system exercised in the DeLay era.
But that shift came not only from within the GOP leadership, but also from outside groups funded by corporate lobbies and deep-pocketed donors capable of funding robust primary challenges to representatives that fail to toe the conservative line, or are deemed to have compromised on a campaign promise or cooperated with Democrats.
The result is a Republican caucus largely bereft of members who might have been labeled “moderate” in DeLay’s day. There are fewer senior members with longstanding intra- and interparty relationships, and fewer with experience in the legislative process. More of them come to office having ousted an incumbent for failing to keep conservative promises. And there are more who expect power and a voice, even in their first term.
Listen to Rep. John Fleming, a member of the Tea Party caucus, as he emerged from the meeting at which McCarthy stepped aside: Asked about his preference, the Louisiana Republican did what many in his ideological camp are doing this week — avoiding naming any leader and instead questioning the very idea of leadership.
“Do we have a power-based system where the decisions are made at the top,” said Fleming to the assembled press scrum, “or do we have one that is much more principle-based, much more grassroots-based?”
A leader who follows
“Grassroots” is a word common to this week’s debate, but when used by Fleming and his cohort, it is not referring to voters — not exactly. Instead, House conservatives are indicating that the next speaker should not attempt to exert any kind of control over representatives who might have once been considered backbenchers.
The goal, Fleming told the Washington Post earlier in the week, is to give “power to individual members" to prevent the Speaker from "dictating the agenda.”
As Paul Singer of USA Today observed, the Freedom Caucus is asking for a leader who follows their lead.
In a line that sounded more like a parody critique of millennials, Fleming on Thursday proudly proclaimed, “We want every Republican to be our Speaker.”
Such populist rallying cries may resonate with a portion of the base, but it creates numerous problems for the GOP's ability to operate. First up might be electing new leadership. After that, however, the party looks set to struggle even more than it did during John Boehner’s tenure as Speaker to pass any legislation at all — in a year when electoral challenges require Republicans to demonstrate their ability to govern effectively.
Take, for example, Wisconsin Republican Reid Ribble, who says he has been a member of the House Freedom Caucus since its inception. (Unlike most similar groupings, the Freedom Caucus does not make its membership public, though they claim to have about 40 members in the House). Ribble announced today he’d be leaving the Freedom Caucus.
“I don’t want to vote en bloc,” Ribble said when asked on MSNBC about his decision. “I don’t want to give my card [to leadership]. I gave my card to the citizens of my district.”
It’s a good line, which should serve him well in next year’s primary. But the idea of not wanting to be part of any club on Capitol Hill that would have you as a member sounds perilously close to the ideology of Marx — Groucho Marx.
When the comedian resigned from the Friar’s Club in 1959, he famously wired, “I don't want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.”
For Rep. McCarthy, hailing from what is arguably California’s most conservative district, and himself once viewed as part of the GOP critical of its establishment, the choice may have been forced on him. With rightwing media hinting at a personal scandal, and ideologically conservative members blaming him for helping Boehner compromise the House GOP agenda, the votes he'd have needed to win the Speakership appear to have evaporated.
The episode highlights the tough choices facing the rest of the Republican caucus — and choosing a new Speaker of the House may be one of the simpler ones. Before the end of the year, Congress will have to raise the national debt limit, pass a spending bill, move on a transportation bill and decide whether to renew the charter for the Export-Import Bank.
All of those votes represent the specter of ideological compromise to House conservatives, but not being able to legislate on any of those issues could mean even tougher times for those representatives — and for the people they represent.
“We have to have a family discussion,” said Utah’s Chaffetz, looking toward the future of his party. “Our conference has to do a lot of deep soul searching.”