The Second-Most Important Election This Season
With the presidential election dominating the headlines, it's easy to lose track of the other significant political contests. And while winning various Senate seats in red and purple states and retaking the Senate majority are high on the priority list, the most important non-presidential election of this season will be the race for the House leadership.
The current House leadership has faced difficult circumstances. House Republicans control just one house of Congress and face a hostile Senate and a doggedly leftist president.
Given the obstinacy on the other side of the aisle, two House bills took on more significance than any others. The Republicans could pass conservative legislation until their voices were hoarse from saying "yea," but those votes meant little as long as the legislation needed Senate support. The two exceptions were the annual budget and the debt ceiling increase. On those two issues, the tables were turned; the Senate and president needed the House's approval. The budget and debt, rather than a handful of symbolic votes, would provide the true test of the Republican leadership's conservative mettle.
The results? Well...
The newly elected House majority was supposed to prevent Obama from doing more damage. To that end, the Republicans effectively stopped additional stimulus spending and passed no new social welfare programs. The problem with the "no more harm" theory is that America began 2011 already on a glide path to financial collapse. By passing the 2011 budget as negotiated and authorizing a higher debt ceiling, both in exchange for no significant policy changes and comically small cuts (a "cut" being defined as a smaller-than-planned increase), the Republicans did do harm.
In the process, the House leadership has co-opted a large majority of the Tea Party freshmen. The most difficult vote of the year was the August 1 roll call on the debt ceiling increase. August 1 was the day before President Obama's drop-dead date for raising the ceiling. Failure to authorize more borrowing would be to test Obama's infamous threat to cut payments to current Social Security recipients. The few remaining Republican no votes forced Speaker Boehner into several very public vote postponements, increasing pressure on conservatives to cast a bad vote for the good of the party. Boehner had also dressed up the legislation (with a guaranteed Senate vote on a balanced budget amendment, for example) to help give conservative holdouts political cover. By the time the vote was collected, just 11 of the 87 Republican freshmen opposed the debt ceiling deal.
Kansas 1st district Representative Tim Huelskamp recently spoke (I was in attendance) about those first 10 months in the Republican-controlled House. Huelskamp is one of the few House freshmen who lived up to his conservative billing, voting no on both the budget and debt ceiling deals. After planned remarks, the congressman took questions. I asked -- given the House leadership's penchant for passing conservative bills only when such votes are meaningless and buckling whenever the House has true leverage -- if America can be saved with the current House leadership.
It's a difficult question. Most of us would avoid drawing such negative conclusions about our co-workers, particularly those we like personally. And, by all accounts, Boehner is a gentleman and likeable colleague. Accordingly, Huelskamp began to offer a broader context to his answer (rather than a simple yes or no).
He spoke of a meeting in the first several weeks of the term. The leadership brought the new House members into a room and told them flatly that the Republicans would not shut down the government. A shutdown meant disaster and would lead to landslide electoral losses. Very diplomatically Huelskamp stated that he considered the leadership's unwillingness to hold firm in the face of a shutdown to be a "strategic error."
At that point I interrupted the congressman and asked, "But the question is, do you believe they will continue to make that same error indefinitely?"
"Absolutely," Huelskamp replied.
Huelskamp's sobering confirmation of conservatives' worst fears throws into perspective how much we need new, braver Republican leadership. Even under the most ideal circumstances, Republicans will enter 2013 with control of the House, a Senate majority with seats numbering in the low to mid-50s and the presidency. Democrats will still have the power and the will to filibuster every attempt at a major reduction in the size, scope, and spending of government. Unless the Republican leadership is willing to stand firm enough to force the Democrats to shut down the government, we are bound to repeat the failures of 2011 over and over again.
It will be very difficult to replace the current leadership. Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), another solid conservative, while speaking at a recent town hall meeting with constituents, estimated that just 45 Republican House members would take a conservative stand even in the face of intense political pressure. We must assume that far fewer still are likely to oppose the reelection of the House leadership. Consistent constituent pressure is needed just to introduce the idea of leadership-change into the Republican caucus.
Though the potential difficulty in electing new leaders is great, it is still more difficult to envision the current leadership living up to the challenges of our time. Europe's near-daily bouts with collapse are ominous reminders of how short our time may be. We have none to waste.
Joseph Ashby is a contributor to Jonah Goldberg's latest book, Proud to Be Right: Voices of the Next Conservative Generation. Joseph can be heard Thursday mornings at 7:35am CST on the KHUB Morning Show with Matt Price.