Why a minority of hard-line House Republicans wield so much power

© Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
The big news Wednesday was the emergence of a new candidate for speaker, Daniel Webster of Florida, with the backing of a group of hard-line conservatives.

This is a follow-up to my post of Wednesday. That one focused on the possible future course of Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) bid to succeed John Boehner as speaker of the U.S. House. The basic steps, as outlined in that piece, remain the same and should be a reliable guide to the process that will be followed. The first big meeting — a private session of all House Republicans at which McCarthy is expected to be chosen as the Repub “nominee” — occurs today.

The big news Wednesday was the emergence of a new candidate for speaker, Daniel Webster of Florida, with the backing of a group of hard-line conservatives. I won’t speculate on Webster’s chances or how his candidacy changes the prospects of the other two candidates, Majority Leader McCarthy and Jason Chaffetz of Utah. The latest speculation is that Boehner may have to postpone his departure while this story plays out. NBC quotes one unnamed Repub member of the House who says, “’I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t get a speaker until the next Congress.” The handicapping will change every day, until it doesn’t.

But that development underscores the need to explore the emergence and growing role of a group of 40 or so of the most radical-right members of the House Republican caucus. This group, which is backing Webster for speaker, was also able to bring about Boehner’s decision to step down and remains a wild card in efforts to figure out what will happen later.

Politico’s Mike Allen claims to know what McCarthy will have to promise to the hard-liners to allow him to ascend to the speaker’s chair:

“The group — 40 strong — wants McCarthy to commit to giving its members prime committee seats. They want campaign cash from the National Republican Congressional Committee. They want a bigger say for rank-and-file members in picking committee chairmen. And they want more involvement in the chamber’s decision-making process.”

How can a group of that size, holding attitudes that are on one fringe of the spectrum, matter this much in a House of 435 members?

I did discuss that question with American Enterprise Institute Congress scholar Norm Ornstein, largely in the context of my own small obsession with the gridlock-prone nature of the U.S. system of politics and government.

It’s already the case (thanks to the filibuster) that a minority of the U.S. Senate can — at least theoretically — block a law that majorities of both houses of Congress and the president favor. It’s already the case that five members of the U.S. Supreme Court (“unelected lawyers,” as Ted Cruz likes to call them with some accuracy) can overrule the entirety of the legislative and executive branches. There are other instances, about which I’ve previously perorated, in which our democracy provides opportunities for minorities to neutralize or defeat majorities.

But now we are told that a committed cadre of 40 or so of the hardest-right members of the U.S. House can stymie the efforts of the 435-member body to choose a speaker. That’s an awfully small minority to wield that much leverage.

The primary chickens

Yes, said Ornstein when I asked him if this was another example of a way under our system for the tail to wag the dog. He said this tail/dog situation is the unusual American institution of primaries as a way of nominating candidates for office and the small number of people who vote in them.

Most members of the U.S. House have safe seats, in the sense that one party dominates their district and once you become the incumbent Republican in a solid Republican district, you don’t have to worry much about losing to a Democrat (or vice versa).

But there have been a few high-profile instances in which a middle-road Republican incumbent lost in a primary to a harder-line challenger who accused the incumbent of being a sort RINO (Republican In Name Only), or at least not a true fighter for conservative principles or perhaps just not willing to use all means necessary to advance those objectives.

The most famous of these in recent history was the primary challenge by Tea Party-supported David Brat against Eric Cantor in Virginia, which was particularly shocking since Cantor was majority leader at the time and the presumed heir apparent to Boehner.

Brat was an unknown college professor. Cantor had outraised Brat by about $5 million to $200,000. (Yes, those numbers are right.) Cantor was not understood to be in serious trouble for renomination until very late in the primary campaign, or he might have been able to take measures to get his supporters to the polls.

Turnout for that primary was less than 14 percent of the eligible electorate. That’s actually not bad for a primary (which, in itself, says something pitiful about democracy in America) but it’s still such a small percentage that a stealthy surge for Brat was enough to knock off Cantor.

Cantor was no RINO, not even close. But he was a mainstream conservative Republican, not a Tea Party guy, not a shutdown-the-government guy. And his promising career as the likely next speaker of the House is what got shut down.

That a mere 14 percent of the district’s voters could bring about such a result also qualifies in the tail-wagging-dog category. And it got the attention of a lot of other mainstream conservative Republicans who would like to avoid a similar ending to their political careers. Many of them would like to avoid calling attention to their moderate side when the Tea Party guys are looking for targets. There are a lot of House Republican who don’t want to shut down the government but also don’t want to have happen to them what happened Eric Cantor.

To connect this to the peculiarities of the American system, you should know that primaries are almost unheard of elsewhere in the democratic world. The most typical arrangement is that the party itself — not ordinary voters, as in a primary, but party leaders and officials — is totally in charge of who represents the party on the general election ballot. Under those rules, a group of rebels within the caucus openly railing and scheming against the party leadership would soon find themselves out of office.

Ornstein said the problem Boehner faced and McCarthy now faces was not just 40-50 guys who were committed to a shutdown strategy but “another hundred who are terrified of facing a primary challenge.” This dynamic explains how the power of the 40-50 is multiplied by the caution of the mushy middle of the Republican caucus.

The Freedom Caucus

By the way, I have carelessly referred to this hard-line by various terms, including references to the Tea Party, but it’s possible to be much more precise. There is, within the larger Republican Caucus, a subgroup that calls itself the House Freedom Caucus. It was formed just this past January. Its leader is Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, of whom many of you readers have probably never heard. It currently has 37 known members from 25 different states (none from Minnesota). Brat, the guy who ousted Cantor, is a member. One member resigned recently denouncing the Caucus’ tactics as “undermining” its conservative goals.

These are the guys (there is one woman in the caucus, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming) who organized the “motion to vacate the chair” that hastened Boehner’s decision to announce his retirement. The way that came about contains several more versions of tails wagging dogs.

To return briefly to the story of that motion, it was filed by Rep. Mark Meadows, a Freedom Caucus member. Meadows, an obscure second-termer from North Carolina, had played an aggressive role in the previous shutdown story of 2013, circulating a petition to demand that the Affordable Care Act be defunded as a condition of keeping the government open. Boehner avoided that shutdown by relying in part on Democratic votes, which infuriated the hard-liners. Then he used his speaker’s prerogative to remove Meadows from the chairmanship of a subcommittee.

The Freedom Caucus found an obscure rule that enables the speaker’s decision to remove a chairman to be overturned, and Meadows got his gavel back. Then Meadows retaliated by making his “motion to vacate.” Boehner announced his resignation, perhaps because he would have had to rely on Democratic votes again to keep his gavel. But Meadows and the Freedom Caucus are still going strong. (Again, nothing like this could happen under the party discipline more typical of democracies around the world.)

Lastly, if you want to understand how the Freedom Caucus has become so powerful and how it works, you can’t do better than this outstanding profile of the caucus by Tim Dickinson in the latest issue of Rolling Stone. It’s headlined “Meet the Right-Wing Rebels who Overthrew John Boehner.” You will learn a lot.

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Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/08/2015 - 11:07 am.

    Seems rather “democratic” to me

    Which system would you rather have – one where party big shots sit in a smoke-filled room (ok, maybe not anymore) and decide who gets the party’s nomination or an actual election where voters, even if it’s only 14%, decide who gets the nomination? Let the people decide.

    The lesson of Eric Cantor is that political power belongs to those who bother to show up, something democrats know all too well.

    It’s time for Boehner and his cronies to go. Like anyone who’s worked for the same employer for 25 years, their loyalty is more to the company than to their customers (us). The $18 trillion in debt isn’t going to go away by itself, especially when extending the debt limit isn’t even debated anymore without threats and name-calling.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/08/2015 - 11:26 am.

    Short answer–FOX, Glenn Beck, Limbaugh etc., spoon-feeding outrage to the determinedly ill-informed who want simple answers to a complex world.

  3. Submitted by Mike Downing on 10/08/2015 - 12:37 pm.

    Have you ever considered…

    Have you ever considered writing an article on how the far left have taken over the Democratic Party in MN and in Congress. It was the far left who booed God at the 2012 Democratic national convention. The far left does not represent Americans any more than the far right. But such an article would be “fair & balanced” so it would not pass your editorial board.

    • Submitted by Tim Walker on 10/08/2015 - 01:28 pm.

      Such an article would not be printed by MinnPost because it would be based on three totally incorrect premises that you wrote in your four-sentence post.

      There is only one sentence in your post that even has a remote chance of being true: “The far left does not represent Americans any more than the far right.”

      And even that one is debatable.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 10/08/2015 - 01:35 pm.

      They did not “boo God”

      Democrats at the 2012 convention did not “boo God”. They booed when the results of a floor vote were ignored and an amendment was placed against the wishes of the delegates.

      (this clarification appears at the end of the article)

      “Video of the incident bears out this version of events — the delegates did not boo when the amendments referencing Jerusalem and God were introduced, they did not boo when those amendments were seconded, they did not boo during any of the three voice votes on those amendments. They booed only at the conclusion of the entire process, to express their displeasure with the chairman for clearly ignoring the outcome of the vote”

    • Submitted by Sean Huntley on 10/08/2015 - 01:37 pm.

      The “far left” has by no means taken over the democratic party in MN or in Congress. The overwhelming majority of Democrtats in office are center left. Of course you probably think Obama is far left, so readers will need to take that into consideration. As far as “booing god”, that meme was debunked years ago:

      “The Democratic leadership was inserting two changes into the platform: One to assert that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, one to put the words “God-given” back into the opening of the document.

      The chair, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, asked whether the changes — which, it should be noted, had the strong support of the President — should be adopted. He listened for the required two-thirds “Aye” voice vote from the floor. What he heard was much closer to a fifty-fifty split. He asked for another voice voice and heard the same split.

      Then, disregarding these votes, he announced, in the opinion of the chair, the “Aye”s had the two-thirds majority — clearly untrue to anyone watching and listening.

      And so, the “Nay”s booed the procedure, which asked them for their opinion and then ignored it.

      They did not boo Jerusalem. They did not boo God.”
      Read more at http://www.snopes.com/politics/religion/giftbaskets.asp#tb64mqTEI9xDQQ65.99

    • Submitted by David Hanegraaf on 10/08/2015 - 02:51 pm.

      Booed God?

      That has been debunked repeatedly. You are an example of how the GOP doesn’t accept facts.

  4. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 10/08/2015 - 01:02 pm.

    The big news Wednesday….

    …the news today was even bigger. How much more crazy can this get?

  5. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 10/08/2015 - 01:05 pm.

    The party of total chaos

    Kevin McCarthy has pulled his name from the short list of those running for Speaker of the House. His fatal mistake happened before he ever got out of the starting blocks by telling the “truth” about the Benghazi Committee’s real agenda, to take Hillary down. Of course, then there was the artificial damage control that followed, which no one believes. McCarthy says he thinks the speaker’s position should be a position everyone agrees on. Not possible when the GOP is fractured into so many different fringe elements, all thinking they are the way forward for the party. The tea party has effectively destroyed the GOP. To add to their wars on women, Hispanics, blacks, the government, and common sense we can add their crucial war of Republican on Republican. Look at their presidential offerings – no leadership and they can’t seem to solve the Trump problem. That’s a problem because some of the world leaders are far more difficult to deal with than Trump. The GOP circus continues.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/08/2015 - 01:50 pm.

      I’ll take chaos over moldy cheese

      Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Plugs Biden should be running against each other for president of their Washington DC retirement home.

      All the energy, all the philosophical debate, all the new ideas on government reform are coming from a new generation of republicans who’s first challenge is to overthrow the deadwood currently in power.

      You guys should consider doing the same.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/08/2015 - 03:37 pm.

        Are You Talking About Republicans in the US?

        “[A]ll the philosophical debate.” Debate? Those who call themselves Republicans allow no debate–after all, debate implies contrary ideas, or some dispute or doubt (Could a real Republican urge measures to combat global warming? How about a constitutional amendment guaranteeing equality of the sexes before the law?). Republicans have an orthodoxy that must be obeyed. The disobedient will be branded “RINOs,” and cast into the wilderness.

        “[A]ll the new ideas on government reform . . .” Pray, what new ideas are those? Cut taxes, especially on the wealthy? Cut regulations on business? Restrict immigration, especially of those of a “different” culture? Those were old ideas when Teddy Roosevelt (history’s first RINO?) was President. It’s the same old tripe, not even warmed over.

  6. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 10/08/2015 - 02:38 pm.

    Both party’s get their wish

    Apparently both party’s are wishing for chaos in the GOP. Sit back and enjoy.

  7. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 10/08/2015 - 03:12 pm.

    Are primaries good nominating committees?

    Thanks, Eric. At last, someone—you—is/are questioning whether primaries functioning as nominating committees is a wise and democratic idea. In all the rest of our public institutions, whether they be corporations or other non-governmental groups, changes in leadership generally call for and use nominating committees. The purpose of such committees is to vet candidates, seriously consider whether the proposed leader can do the job, does she/he have the knowledge, temperament and courage to do the job, etc. I’m old enough to know that my DFL party has both withdrawn endorsements and not selected people they didn’t think met the qualifications. That makes for strong parties and good governance.

    The original idea for primaries was as a check on parties—the nominating committee. That’s still good. We have enough election rules to allow non-party or opposition party candidates to run, but the parties ought to be able to select and endorse their own representatives and recommend them for election.

    In effect, what primaries do is allow –perhaps a better word is encourage—a small minority of citizens nominating party candidates. That’s because too few people vote in primaries—and in general elections too for that matter. As the advent of the TParty has shown that primaries can create disasters, including gridlock. Voters should realize that. Democracy is not easy and voting should be thought of as a responsibility, not a popularity contest.

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/09/2015 - 12:28 pm.


      The solution to a small minority of citizens selecting candidates is an even smaller and less democratic group doing so?

      Primaries at least give everyone the opportunity to vote, while the caucus endorsement process disenfranchises large groups of people.

      In the case of the DFL, the nominating committees have been completely out of touch with the electorate. We only have a DFL governor today because the primary allowed for the correction of the latest mistake from the DFL endorsement process.

  8. Submitted by Bill Willy on 10/09/2015 - 08:10 am.

    Midterm reminder

    This is one of those things everyone knows, but, after watching yesterday’s episode of this whatever it is, it re-occurred to me this morning that, after winning the Senate and increasing their majority in the House in 2014, every Republican making public statements said they were going to show America how well they could govern because that was what the voters had so clearly said they wanted. They said they were going to prove they were NOT the obstructionists Democrats and the media had been accusing them of being. They said they were going to go to work passing the kind of common sense legislation voters were asking for and send it on to the president’s desk so HE would have the opportunity to show the voters who the “party of NO” really was.

    Future reminder: This morning, after listening to him explain what he REALLY meant when he said the holocaust might not have been as bad as it was if more Jewish people had owned guns, I heard pres candidate Ben Carson roll out (or repeat?) what will probably be his, if not the whole Republican party’s, “signature pronouncement” about the 2016 election:

    “This will be a historic election because it will give voters the opportunity to decide whether they want America to be a nation of individuals, or a nation of government.”

    I wanted to ask him if that included those American individuals we sometimes call corporations but couldn’t because it wasn’t a call-in show.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/12/2015 - 03:33 pm.

      Wasn’t it a Republican

      who talked about
      Government OF the people, BY the people and FOR the people?.
      As Bill points out, the Republicans are pushing the control of government away from people.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/14/2015 - 08:35 am.

    Not democratic at all

    In fact, the big problem with these “republicans” is that on a very basic level they don’t actually believe in democracy, they’d prefer to take over and dictate rather than simply cast a vote. This idea that we don’t have to live with election results, and that a group that doesn’t have the votes to pass its agenda, should shut the government down, is perhaps the most un-democratic, dictatorial impulse on the American political landscape.

    The solution is simple. Forget primaries and all that mumbo jumbo, 40 is 40. 40 people don’t control 450 people no matter how the got elected unless you GIVE them control. This idea that the house can structure itself to let 40 people stall any responsible work and then claim it’s all out of their hands is absurd. The problem isn’t 40 Tea Party republicans, the problem is the republican party in it’s entirety.

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