Behind GOP House hard-liners' revolt, a 'deeper' frustration

Conservative hard-liners are unhappy with how the House is being run. So are other members, frankly, but for the opposite reasons. 

AP Photo/Steve Helber/File
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio pauses during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015. In a stunning move, Boehner informed fellow Republicans on Friday that he would resign from Congress at the end of October, stepping aside in the face of hardline conservative opposition that threatened an institutional crisis.

House hard-liners have a few questions for the three Republican candidates for speaker when they arrive for their job interview Tuesday night.

Behind closed doors at the Capitol Hill Club, members of several conservative House group will ask the candidates about their policy positions – budget, debt, that kind of thing – and their strategy.

But they’ll also be asked how they plan to run the House – because these conservative hard-liners are most unhappy with the command-and-control style of outgoing Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio. At least, that’s how they see his style.

“I’m looking for a change in the culture and the way things are run,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R) of South Carolina, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, told reporters last week. “The anger and the frustration in our membership runs a lot deeper than you folks realize.”

Their concern is that the GOP leadership is too centralized, too secretive and exclusive, even too punishing of independent-minded members (such as themselves). And yet, observers say, the complainants should be careful what they wish for.

On the one hand, a more open process would create a more democratic (small “d”) place, says Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“But you’re also up against a faction in the Republican conference that doesn’t seem to really believe in compromise,” Ms. Binder says. “If you’re going to open up the process to more voices, there has to be some agreement at the end of the day that you’re going to coalesce around something on the floor, and I think that’s why it may be a recipe for chaos.”

Frogs in a wheelbarrow

Even with the largest House majority since the Depression, Speaker Boehner has had a tough time rounding up enough Republican members to pass legislation. He once quipped about how hard it is “to keep 218 frogs in a wheelbarrow long enough to get a bill passed.”

As speaker, Boehner vowed to be inclusive. But during his tenure, hard-liners have felt isolated, ignored, maligned. They want in on the strategizing. They want more of their amendments offered up on the floor. They want plum committee assignments. They deplore the “pay to play” committee chairmanship system, based on seniority and fundraising prowess. And they don’t like being railroaded at the last-minute with pre-baked bills they haven’t had time to read.

“We would love to be a bigger part of [strategizing]. We would love to have a much larger open mind by leadership,” Rep. John Fleming (R) of Louisiana said in an interview last week. But “we hear nothing – no plans until we’re right up against a deadline, and all of a sudden we’re told what we’re going to be voting for.”

It was actually this very issue – the perceived consolidation of power in the speakership, along with a complaint about punishment of members – that prompted Rep. Mark Meadows (R) of North Carolina to file in July his unusual resolution to “vacate the chair,” i.e., dethrone the speaker. That discontent simmered over the August recess, but before it boiled over, Boehner decided to jump from the cauldron.

Representative Meadows is among several Republicans who have been disciplined for straying from the party line. He was removed as a subcommittee chair after he voted against the speaker on trade, though he was reinstated later.

Two other Republicans, Reps. Daniel Webster (R) of Florida and Rich Nugent also of Florida, were kicked off the powerful Rules Committee – also known as the speaker’s committee – because they didn’t vote for Boehner as speaker in January. Actually, Representative Webster ran against Boehner, and he is again running for speaker, even though he got only 12 votes last time.

The speaker candidates are heeding these complaints. Majority leader Kevin McCarthy (R) of California is reportedly envisioning a more inclusive style that offers weekly meetings with the heads of all the various GOP caucuses, from the right-wing Freedom Caucus to the moderate Tuesday Group. The meetings would be legislative strategy sessions, according to Politico.

Representative McCarthy is being challenged for the speakership by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah, the powerful chairman of the government oversight committee. The underdog speaker candidate says it’s time for a “fresh face” in leadership and promises to have “more respect” for the committee process and to move away from “pre-baked” bills. “Let the will of the body speak,” he said on Monday.

New twist on an old tale

Some of the changes that hard-liners are demanding would require approval from the majority of the GOP conference. But a lot of others in the conference don’t like the idea of handing out benefits to a vocal clutch of disruptors, whom they see as disloyal and uninterested in governing. In their view, these 40 to 50 lawmakers have been given too much leeway, and they say Boehner bent over backward to accommodate them.

“I’m happy to look at any rules change, but the problem here isn’t that too many people are disciplined,” says Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma, with a chuckle. “The problem is they’re almost never disciplined at all.”

Representative Cole is a member of the Rules Committee that determines amendments and how legislation is handled on the floor. He doesn’t have much patience for hard-liners’ clamoring for “regular order” in parliamentary procedure.

“Voting against rules and not supporting the speaker on the floor, and then demanding more participation and regular order, seems to me at odds with yourself,” he says.

The hard-liners’ complaints about being shut out of the process are the same complaints that the minority party has made against the majority party “since time began,” says former House historian Raymond Smock. The difference here is that it’s a minority within the controlling party that is upset.

Should they get their way, “they may be happy for one term, but then they’d find they couldn’t get anything done,” Mr. Smock says. “Nobody would have sufficient power to make decisions because they would be governing by caucus.”

The candidates running for speaker will promise to be more inclusive. If they deliver, Smock and others say, they may have an even tougher time of keeping their frogs in the wheelbarrow than Boehner did.

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