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

It’s another example under our unique system of the tail wagging the dog.

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.
© Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

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:

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“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.

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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.

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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.