God Help Us

After Kevin McCarthy’s abrupt withdrawal as front-runner to be the next Speaker of the House, Republican strategist Frank Luntz offered a dire assessment of House Republicans.

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“I started working up on Capitol Hill in 1993 under Newt Gingrich. So, it’s been more than 20 years, and it was confused up until the last three or four days. It is now chaotic. And what was, to me, really pathetic, the inability of House Republicans to unite has now become a poison. And those people listening today should understand that when members come out and say, ‘Well, we weren’t respected or we weren’t appreciated’ – House Republicans are not functioning this morning, and they haven’t functioned for some time because there’s a segment there that simply believes that it is better to blow-up the process than it is to fix it. It is better to pull people apart than it is to find some way to collaborate, and to cooperate and to work together.”

Speaking to CBS This Morning news anchor Charlie Rose (Oct. 9), Luntz said, “How are you supposed to govern when you have 247 [Republican] members and it requires 218? It’s simple math… If you can’t get to 218 votes on the floor, you can’t get anything passed. And in the end, Kevin McCarthy, more than anything else, understands his responsibility is not just to his constituents, but the country, that you have to be able to govern. And if you can’t get those votes, then what good is it to be Speaker of the House? …

“They [House Republicans] talk about, ‘we need a new face.’ The problem is this is not a debating society, or the Kiwanis Club. This is Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States of America. You don’t want a new face. You want someone who knows the rules. You want someone who knows procedure. You want someone who knows what regular order actually is, and you want someone who can listen, not just to a narrow group of people, but to the entire Congress.”

The “narrow group” Luntz is referring to is the newly founded (January 2015) House Freedom Caucus. In a press release (Jan. 26), the HFC’s stated mission is “[to give] 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.”

Sounds good in print, but when it comes to action, all that rhetoric boils down to five words: “My way or the highway.”

Who are these people?

The Freedom Caucus is enigmatic. According to the website Vox, Policy & Politics (Oct. 9), “One possible reason for the group’s secrecy is concerns about reprisals from leadership. The group’s size of around 40 members is significant because there are a total of 247 Republicans in the House. Subtract the 40 HFC members, and you’re left with around 207 votes, short of the 218-vote majority needed to pass legislation in the 435-member body.”

According to Wikipedia, current identified members are: Jim Jordan of Ohio, Chair; Justin Amash of Michigan, Brian Babin of Texas, Rod Blum of Iowa, Dave Brat of Virginia, Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Ken Buck of Colorado, Curt Clawson of Florida, Ron DeSantis of Florida, Scott Desjarlais of Tennessee, Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, John Fleming of Louisiana, Trent Franks of Arizona, Scott Garrett of New Jersey, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Andy Harris of Maryland, Jody Hice of Georgia, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, Raul Loudermilk, of Georgia, Cyntha Lummis of Wyoming, Alex Mooney of West Virginia, Gary Palmer of Alabama, Steve Pearce of New Mexico, Scott Perry of Pennsylvanica, Ted Poe of Texas, Bill Posey of Florida, Mark Meadows of North Carolina, Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, Keith Rothfus of Pennsylvania, Matt Salmon of Arizone, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, David Schweikert of Arizona, and Marline Stutzman of Indiana.

Tom McClintock of California resigned from the HFC on September 16, 2015, as did Reid Ribble of Wisconsin on October 9, 2015.

These 36 members, plus an additional unidentified 6 members – many Tea Party supporters – vote as a block, and are willing to vote against all legislation that not only runs counter to their vision, but are willing to hold-up legislation unless is contains additional measures that support their agenda. No cooperation, no concession, no compromise (even with members of their own party), just plain … NO!

Why the Freedom Caucus?

“…in the view of the Freedom Caucus,” Vox writes, “the problem is that Republicans weren’t serious about winning their showdown with President Obama. They point out that the Constitution gives Congress, not the president, the power of the purse. Suppose Congress passes legislation funding all of the government except for Planned Parenthood, and Obama vetoes it. Obama would describe that as shutting down the government to defund Planned Parenthood. But conservatives say it would be just as accurate to say that Obama shut down the government in defense of Planned Parenthood.”

On Fox News Sunday (Sept. 27), Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma said, “Well, first of all, look, on Planned Parenthood — there’s no money in the short-term (spending bill) for Planned Parenthood. Ninety percent of their money comes from Medicaid, not from anything we’re going to do. And the remainder is awarded on what are called grants. They’re all done in about April. There’s none left to do this year, literally none. So, the idea that we’re fighting over money for Planned Parenthood is — it’s a canard. It’s just not true.”

“Members of the HFC,” Vox says, “believe that with more disciplined and effective leaders, the next shutdown can turn out better than the last one did.

“But even some conservative stalwarts think the HFC approach is foolish. One is Tom McClintock, a California Republican who has long been a hero of fiscal conservatives. He quit the House Freedom Caucus in September, arguing that it had proven counterproductive. …

“The HFC’s conservative opponents believe that it’s simply not possible to get more conservative policies enacted so long as Barack Obama is in the White House. They prefer to settle for more modest conservative gains over the next 18 months while laying the groundwork for a Republican to win the White House in 2016. And they believe that constant headlines about infighting among Republicans don’t advance that goal.”

What happens if the HFC continues its current tactics?

“Ironically,” Vox points out, “an ongoing leadership vacuum could push the House to the left instead of the right. John Boehner has said he will continue serving as speaker until his successor is chosen. And, freed of concerns about a conservative mutiny, Boehner will feel more comfortable cutting deals with Democrats if the most conservative members of his caucus won’t cooperate.

“Indeed, this is the larger danger of the Freedom Caucus’s tactics. The group has spent the past nine months systematically attacking the mechanisms that promote party discipline and allow the GOP majority to act as a single, unified group. But it’s far from obvious that the breakdown of party discipline would lead to more conservative governance. There are a lot more Democrats in the House of Representatives than there are Freedom Caucus members. If the House agenda becomes a free-for-all, the result could easily be less conservative legislation rather than more.”

Is there any solution on the horizon?

“I don’t see any candidate [for House Speaker] other than Paul Ryan,” Frank Luntz told Charlie Rose, “who has the capability of doing it. I know that they are talking to him. I know that there’s a considerable amount of pressure on him. But if Paul Ryan says, “No,” God help us if we put someone in there who’s been in office for two or four years, and doesn’t even know the process to run the House of Representatives. … I’m hoping that he changes his mind because he’s the only one who can talk to the conservatives, the moderates. He’s the only one who understands the rules, and he’s got a brain for policy, which is what we need in Washington right now.”

Writing on Ronald Regan in 2012, Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the Enterprise Institute observed, “Ronald Reagan was a very strong conservative with very strong principles — and a pragmatist who was not going to jump off the cliff with all flags flying to stand on principle, and land on the rocks below, or shun opportunities to find appropriate compromises with Democrats in Congress. …

“What Reagan did along the way was to raise taxes multiple times after his initial wave of tax cuts, to keep deficits from looming out of control and to keep government from disruption, and to cut deals with the likes of Henry Waxman and Ted Kennedy on Medicare, Medicaid and other areas of high priority to Democrats.”

What happens next in the House?

God Help Us.

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