The Canary in the House Chamber?
by John Lawrence
“What are the odds,” I was often asked following the collapse of the Boehner speakership, “that Paul Ryan will be more successful?” Without a hesitation, I always answered, “Zero,” because the fundamental problem that Boehner confronted also looms over Paul Ryan. Denied solid support from his own Conference to secure the 218 votes needed to pass legislation, Ryan (like Boehner) has no choice but to solicit votes from Democrats. By collaborating with Democrats, he alienates the same Freedom Caucus faction that compelled him to seek Democratic assistance in the first place. This has been the circular scenario with virtually every major piece of legislation – must-pass appropriations, tax bills, and policy measures – since Ryan reluctantly ascended the podium to the Speaker’s chair.
Freedom Caucus members have fumed furiously about Ryan’s behavior. While the Speaker has little option but to seek the votes wherever he can find them to prevent very bad outcomes (e.g., repeated government shut-downs), the Freedom Caucus absolutists have no such responsibilities, in their view. Not only do they not care if must-pass bills pass, but they embrace shutting down the government and besmirching the reputation of the Congress, which serves their objective of reducing confidence in government. The voices that now chant “Lock her up!” are the same as those that chanted “Shut it down” in the past.
But Ryan, like Boehner or any Speaker, cannot go there. When Boehner bowed to the Tea Party’s demands for a shutdown in 2013, the Republican Party’s favorability plummeted more than 20 points. There is no chance Ryan will opt for that strategy as we head into votes on the Continuing Resolution needed to keep the government functioning just weeks prior to the election. Of course, the Freedomites will insist on amendments to void the Iran nuclear agreement, repeal Obama Care (for the 60+ time), or send Hillary Clinton to Guantanamo. But since such amendments cannot pass the Senate or secure a presidential signature, Ryan will turn them down, and the fury of the Freedom Caucus will be on full display as the September 30th fiscal year deadline – and the election — close in.
This coming conflagration was previewed in Tuesday’s landslide defeat of Tea Party/Freedom Caucus/Boehner-detesting Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KA) in his primary. Numerous other GOP hardline followers of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback in the state legislature also went down to defeat. Boehner had grown so irritated with Huelskamp, a Tea Party zealot elected in 2010, for opposing leadership directives on key votes like Paul Ryan’s budget resolution and the farm bill that he removed the Kansan from the House Agriculture Committee in 2012.
Huelskamp was pounded mercilessly for his failure to secure a reappointment to the Committee and for his extremist, non-cooperative positions. Significantly, as occurred in a Louisiana special election a few years back, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce weighed in on behalf of Huelskamp’s inexperienced challenger, Roger Marshall, a self-described conservative who nevertheless promises to be less irreconcilable than the incumbent, who had the backing of the Club for Growth and the Koch brothers.
Although Donald Trump is getting most of the attention in this political season, the Huelskamp defeat deserves to be discussed. The primary battles illustrate the possible emergence of a division between pragmatists and purists within the GOP, with the former increasingly able to secure financing to successfully compete. The factionalizing of Republican groups providing key financial support to candidates can only complicate efforts to ensure the functioning of the House under Ryan’s leadership.
Ryan, who likely hopes for a productive Congress to boost his standing as a 2020 presidential candidate, must be gratified by Huelskamp’s loss. A leadership staff member who worked with the Kansan recalled that he was “often untrustworthy and rarely worked as a team player.” Party leaders must accept hard-liners in order to ensure a House majority, but they will cut them off at the knees when an opportunity presents itself to replace the dissenter with a loyalist. That opportunity presented itself Tuesday in the case of Rep. Huelskamp. His loss, and the potential setbacks that might affect the GOP this November, are unlikely to make for a collegial or productive lame duck session in November, but they might be the canary in the House Chamber foretelling a reassertion of leadership by more responsible and operational Republican forces, inside and outside the Congress, in 2017.