“I think the House is bordering on ungovernable right now,” said Congressman Trey Gowdy this week in an interview with NBC’s Kristen Welker. In the wake of John Boehner’s sudden resignation as Speaker, Gowdy’s assessment has proven to essentially be true. When Boehner, who had been set to pass the torch to Eric Cantor before his stunning primary defeat, stepped down as Speaker last month, many were left wondering if a consensus candidate could possibly unite the increasingly disparate factions of the House GOP.
This remains a shockingly open question given the fact that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who was expected to easily replace Boehner even amid conservative opposition, dramatically withdrew his name from the race – under fire for both the manner in which he was expected to govern and questions about his “moral turpitude.” This has led to a situation under which Boehner has reluctantly agreed to continue as Speaker while party leaders scramble to encourage an acceptable replacement to run.
Most media assessments place the blame for this present dysfunction on the party’s right-wing, encapsulated by the House Freedom Caucus (HFC); a group of approximately 40 lawmakers, many of whom were ushered into Congress during the tea party wave of 2010. These individuals, who were elected by their constituents to serve as a bulwark against President Obama’s desire to expand government, hoped to use their position in the House to do just that.
This is largely why the HFC is regularly referred to as “bomb throwers” who are “taking the House hostage.” It’s true that legislatively speaking, the “no-compromise” attitude held by many of its members makes life difficult for GOP leadership. But it can be equally stated that leadership has made it virtually impossible for these members to make their voices heard, given their top-down approach to which bills are given a hearing and who is allowed to sit on various committees.
Amid all of this chaos, there’s a narrative present in the conservative movement that seemingly conflates the legitimate process concerns put forth by HFC and the level of discourse exercised by social media trolls who gratuitously deploy creative insults such as “SHAMNESTY, RINO, LIBTARD, and OBUMMER.” In a blog post that was passed around in conservative and libertarian quarters this week, the author wrote:
“We’ve all been listening to the ‘Freedom Caucus‘ news, and most are wondering what the ever-loving debacle is about. The heroes of the underground GOP ‘fight club,’ representing all that is good and decent. Bla, bla, bla… We’ve spent the last few months hearing ‘establishment RINO’ more times than we’ve heard our own name, and ‘amnesty’ is now a word that has no real definition. Everyday I troll through Twitter and, without fail, find at least one ‘real conservative’ that I dislike a little more today than I did yesterday, and a little less than I will tomorrow.”
On this, I admittedly share the author’s pain. The indiscriminate anger present in many people who claim to want reform yet never seem to unite around any tangible solutions gets old, particularly to those of us who got involved in the liberty and/or tea party movements early on because we were ready to actually work, not just whine. While I agree with the basic premise my friends who shared this piece were making in doing so, it quite unfairly tarnished the actual “Freedom Caucus” in the context of its present demands.
When it comes to the Speaker’s race, these members of Congress aren’t running around parsing through Kevin McCarthy, Jason Chaffetz, or Paul Ryan’s voting records, calling them RINOs. In fact, they’ve united behind Congressman Daniel Webster for Speaker; a man who has a 64% lifetime rating from FreedomWorks and a 66% score from Heritage. As HFC member Congressman Mick Mulvaney explained on NPR:
“(Webster) is an institutionalist, he isn’t even a conservative. If you look at his voting record, he’s one of the more moderate members of our conference. But what he’s been pushing is a more open and fair system where more amendments are allowed, more debate is allowed, and Congress is allowed to work as a legislative body.”
As Webster, who previously served as Speaker of the House in Florida’s state legislature, explains in this video promoting his candidacy for Speaker:
“Are we going to just change personalities in the Speakership? Or are we going to fundamentally transform the way we do business here in Washington DC? Just like when I was in Florida, the pyramid of power exists here. If you’re in leadership (you’re up top), if you’re not (you’re on the bottom). To me, we push down the pyramid of power and spread out the base so every member can be a part. When I was Speaker of the the Florida House of Representatives, this is what we did.”
Webster is speaking to the process issues that HFC is hoping to solve. While there will always be a requisite number of hard-headed conservatives on social media hurling insults rather than working for change, the members that make up the HFC and those supporting them in the grassroots ought to be given credit for uniting around a replacement for Boehner and making the case for him.
In fact, Congressman Justin Amash, a darling of the tea party and liberty movements who was elected in 2010, spent time this week doing just that at a townhall meeting in his Michigan district. As Politico reported, “Rep. Justin Amash insists the group that pushed John Boehner to the exits isn’t just a bunch of bomb throwers. They want real reform in how the House works.” Amash’s statements echo those of Mulvaney, and of Webster himself. As Jake Sherman from Politico wrote:
“‘The problem isn’t that he isn’t conservative enough,’ Amash told about 40 people here during a town hall meeting Wednesday evening, referring to John Boehner, who announced his resignation amid growing pressure from Amash’s group. ‘The problem is he doesn’t follow the process. He operated a top-down system, and still operates a top-down system because he hasn’t stepped down yet. Which means that he figures out what outcome he wants, and he goes to the individual members and attempts to compel and coerce us to vote for that outcome.’”
This speaks to the ultimate problem and the root of vast conservative unrest. As many HFC members and sympathizers have pointed out, they’re continuously blamed by the media, Democrats, and even their fellow Republicans for inviting government shutdowns. Yet it’s the arcane rules, different in the House versus the Senate but ultimately responsible for the same result, that lead to last minute budget brinkmanship and a governing-by-crisis model. Amash, Mulvaney, Webster and their colleagues simply want a “return to normal order” and a seat at the table. It’s really not an asinine request.
Whether Webster, a little-known Congressman who isn’t part of the GOP’s inner leadership circle, can actually pull off a victory remains to be seen. Clearly, he’s not the choice of House leaders considering the fact that Boehner has been cajoled into staying until they find a suitable replacement. Reports indicate that Paul Ryan is reluctantly considering the position, but only if he’s able to shore up support from the entire conference.
Jim Jordan, the HFC’s chairman said that the group would “look favorably” upon Paul Ryan, and he has been complimented by several caucus members; with the caveat that to earn their support he’d have to commit to the type of decentralization Webster is promising. This is why Webster’s candidacy, whether he wins or not, is valuable. It serves as a bargaining chip put forth by the HFC that will have to bring a consensus candidate, whether Paul Ryan or somebody else, to the table. If he wants to earn HFC’s support, he’ll need to make at least some rules concessions to them.
Hopefully, whoever the next Speaker is, he or she will be able to restore the order that conservatives are rightfully requesting. It won’t be a silver bullet; policy disputes will inevitably continue, and showdowns with the White House might tread dangerously close to government shutdowns. But “flattening the pyramid,” as Webster has suggested, will help to restore good will among Republicans who have long been alienated by leadership’s top-heavy approach. Whether these changes will be ushered in sooner rather than later remains to be seen, but there’s more reason to be optimistic that now is the time than at any other point in recent history.