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Anarchists of the House

The Republican Congress is testing a new frontier of radicalism—governmental sabotage.


Anarchists of the House

The 45 House Republicans most willing to grind government to a halt, based on an analysis of six votes this year by the Washington Post blog The Fix.
Photos: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom (Collins, Rothfus, Amash, Gohmert, Massie, Mulvaney, Schweikert); Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Newscom (Sensenbrenner, Wenstrup, Desantis, Franks); Pete Marovich/ZumaPress/Newscom (Goodlatte); Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call/Newscom (Salmon, Desjarlais, Labrador); Action Press/ZumaPress/Newscom (Bachmann); Newscom (Chabot); Richard Ellis/ZumaPress/Newscom (Sanford); The Augusta Chronicle/ZumaPress/Newscom (Broun); Michael Allen Jones/Sacramento Bee/ZumaPress/Newscom (McClintock); William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire/Getty Images (Cotton); The Washington Times/ZumaPress/Newscom (Price); Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images (Lamborn); Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images (Posey, Huelskamp)

A few months ago, Eric Cantor was ready to bring his latest brainchild, the “Helping Sick Americans Now” bill, to the House floor. The move was pure Cantor—a smarmy, ultrapartisan ploy. The bill proposed to eliminate funds the Obama administration needs to set up and run the health-care exchanges that are the central mechanism in the health-care law, but then Cantor’s bill would use those funds to help a handful of sick people get health insurance. There was no chance this, or anything like it, would be signed into law, as Obama obviously would not agree to tear down a program to insure millions of Americans in return for insuring a tiny fraction of that number. It was a message vote whose purpose was “embarrassing Obamacare,” as one conservative activist gloated, by forcing Obama to deny immediate aide for the uninsured. As a soulless exercise in disingenuous spin, it was well conceived.

It failed, however, because a crucial faction of ultraconservative House Republicans threatened to vote against it. The trouble was that Cantor’s bill purported to “fix” Obamacare rather than eliminate it. “Why the hell do we want to fix it?” complained conservative pundit Erick Erickson. “We should want to repeal it.” Since they have already voted 37 times to repeal Obama­care, one might think that the House Republicans’ appraisal of the law’s general merits had been made sufficiently clear. But just the pretense of working to improve the law, even while actually crippling it, offended the right. In the face of unmoved conservative opposition, Cantor had to pull his pet bill from the floor. It wound up embarrassing the House Republicans, not Obama­care.

Spectacles like this have turned into a regular feature of life in the Republican House. The party leadership draws up a bill that’s far too right-wing to ever become law, but it fails in the House because it isn’t right-wing enough. Sometimes, as with the attempts to repeal Obamacare, the failures don’t matter much, but in other instances the inability to pass legislation poses horrifying dangers. The chaos and dysfunction have set in so deeply that Washington now lurches from crisis to crisis, and once-dull, keep-the-lights-on rituals of government procedure are transformed into white-knuckle dramas that threaten national or even global catastrophe.

The Republican Party has spent 30 years careering ever more deeply into ideological extremism, but one of the novel developments of the Obama years is its embrace of procedural extremism. The Republican fringe has evolved from being politically shrewd proponents of radical policy changes to a gang of saboteurs who would rather stop government from functioning at all. In this sense, their historical precedents are not so much the Gingrich revolutionaries, or even their tea-party selves of a few years ago; the movement is more like the radical left of the sixties, had it occupied a position of power in Congress. And so the terms we traditionally use to scold bad Congresses—partisanship, obstruction, gridlock—don’t come close to describing this situation. The hard right’s extremism has bent back upon itself, leaving an inscrutable void of paranoia and formless rage and twisting the Republican Party into a band of anarchists.

And the worst is not behind us.

Republicans in 2009 made an intellectual breakthrough of sorts when they grasped that the conventional folk wisdom of Washington, which held that they risked public scorn if they refused to cooperate with a popular new president, had it backward. Americans don’t pay much attention to legislative details, Republicans realized. If some of them supported Obama’s proposals, they would only help the proposals seem more sensible. “It was absolutely critical that everybody be together,” Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell later said, “because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is okay.”

And so the Republican strategy during Obama’s first two years was almost total gridlock. Republican leaders aggressively pressured their members to withdraw support for any major Obama initiative, even denouncing ideas they themselves had previously endorsed. This obstruction strategy was not a novel invention; it was more of a Moneyball-esque ­refinement—one of those situations in which one team realizes how to play by the rules a little bit better.

Since the 2010 midterm elections, though, the Republican strategy has transmogrified from a particularly ruthless version of legislative opposition into one in which incidents of reckless behavior—tactics like hostage-taking, say, or economic or political sabotage—become more frequent each passing month. After they won the midterms, giddy Republicans took their victory not just as a check on Obama but as a full abrogation of his presidency. America had snapped out of the trance Obama had briefly cast over it in the haze of the financial crisis. As John Boehner announced the night he won back the House, “The president will find in our new majority the voice of the American people.”


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