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.”

The task the Republican Congress set itself was not just to oppose the president but to restore the American way of life before it was too late. One can find historical precedent for a Congress seizing control of policy from the president—post–Civil War Republicans running roughshod over a reluctant President Johnson to enact Reconstruction, or the GOP Congress overriding Harry Truman to force through Taft-Hartley anti-union laws. But since 2010, Republicans in the House have lacked anything close to the numbers to override Obama’s veto, and those in the Senate have lacked even a majority. And so, not possessing the conventional tools of governance, Republicans in Congress set out to create new powers for themselves.

In the Senate, the Republican minority retooled the use of the filibuster, leveraging its ability to block presidential appointments into the power to block existing laws. Republicans paralyzed the National Labor Relations Board by refusing to confirm any appointees and blocked the appointment of the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for three years, telling Obama that unless he agreed to handcuff the new agency, “we will continue to oppose the consideration of any nominee, regardless of party affiliation.” This is the tactic that Senate Democrats finally defused last week, when their threat to ban such filibusters altogether persuaded some more moderate Republicans to break rank.

It is the House, of course, where the real locus of the Republican guerrilla war has been located. The first clue that the Republican House would not settle for mere obstruction came when Republican leaders threatened in 2011 not to lift the debt ceiling unless Obama met unspecified demands to shrink the government. The debt ceiling is a formal authorization by Congress to pay existing debts, and voting for it has no effect other than preventing the global economic meltdown that would ensue if Congress somehow decided to let those debts default. Such votes had often been an occasion for the minority party to scold the president for his lack of fiscal responsibility, followed by a preordained vote. Nobody had ever used it before to obtain concessions. Obama naïvely thought he could turn the hostage demand into an ordinary budget negotiation—he would agree to cut spending, as Republicans demanded, if they accepted higher taxes. But as the deadline for the debt limit approached, House Republicans only jacked him up, extracting over a trillion dollars in spending cuts.

Here was an unprecedented model of legislating. When, say, Democrats won back Congress in the 2006 elections, they halted George W. Bush’s domestic agenda. They did not threaten to instigate a global crisis to force Bush to scale back his tax cuts or end the Iraq War.

In retrospect, the most ominous thing about the episode was not that Boehner was carrying out an audacious power grab. It was that the speaker tried to strike a deal with Obama but could not deliver his own caucus. Though in some way a success for the Republicans, the hostage gambit was also the chaotic outgrowth of the party’s own internal dysfunction, simultaneously a strategy and the opposite of a strategy.

The full-scale nature of Republican opposition has harnessed a rage that, while potent, has proved impossible to modulate. Justifying the stance of total resistance has required Republicans to paint Obama not as simply a liberal but a dangerous socialist bent on eradicating the best traditions of America. The caricature justified the hostility, and the hostility, in turn, has authenticated the caricature.

Obama mused last year that his reelection would “break this fever,” but in the months since November, the Republican House has only spun further out of control. After November, the looming expiration of the Bush tax cuts created another moment for a potential deal, which Boehner very nearly struck, only for it to emerge yet again that his party didn’t support the terms he was offering.

The most conservative members didn’t merely drive a hard bargain; they refused to acknowledge any limits on their power at all. A few months before the tax cuts expired, I privately asked an influential conservative aide how he expected his party to deal with Obama, and he told me in apparent earnestness that he expected Republicans to demand the tax cuts’ full continuation, not a penny less, and for Obama to acquiesce. Boehner tried to strengthen the House’s hand by extending almost all the Bush tax cuts except those on incomes of a million dollars a year and above. Obama would never have accepted that deal, but it might have lured moderate Democrats in the Senate, many of whom are rich themselves and were hearing from affluent donors. Arch-conservative Republicans refused to vote for it, leaving a helpless Boehner to pitifully recite the Serenity Prayer in a closed-door meeting.

The House leadership managed to stumble through the tax fiasco by letting Senate Republicans negotiate a bi­partisan compromise, then standing aside to let Democrats pass it through the House. This has since become a model. With the House Republicans effectively on strike, other important bills have passed with Democratic support (the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, Hurricane Sandy relief). In each case, House Republicans have walked away from opportunities to tailor the final versions of legislation more to their liking. In other words, they have chosen not to use their power to pursue their policy interests. They seem to prefer abstaining from the legislative process altogether.

The rational way to view these events is that Republicans have marginalized themselves. But the hard-liners see it differently. In their minds, every bill that passes is a betrayal by their leaders. They know that letting Democrats carry bills through the House has been the leadership’s desperate recourse to avoid total chaos, and since chaos is their leverage, they are now working feverishly to seal off that escape route. This year, an increasing proportion of conservative media is given over to conservative activists’ extracting pledges from Republican leaders not to negotiate with Democrats. In the wake of the tax-cut deal, Republican leaders in both houses had to pledge that they would not engage in any—to quote the ubiquitous buzzword—“backroom deals.” Since all deals get made in back rooms (there is no such thing as a front room, and leaders in Western cultures like the United States habitually transact their business in rooms), this means no negotiation at all.

A recent joint op-ed by National Review editor Rich Lowry and his Weekly Standard counterpart Bill Kristol denounced the bipartisan immigration bill that passed the Senate as “a stew of deals, payoffs, waivers, and special-interest breaks.” This echoed the conservative critique of all major Obama-era legislation—Liz Cheney, launching her Wyoming Senate race last week, called on Republicans to stop “cutting deals”—but it applies just as well to any major bill in American history, including the ones passed by the sainted Ronald Reagan. Crafting a major piece of legislation means cutting some side deals. That’s how lawmaking works. But conservatives have increasingly come to see the entire process as a morally unacceptable compromise of their ideals. “The idea of Boehner’s negotiating with Pelosi over how to proceed is implausible,” a recent story by Jonathan Strong, a National Review reporter, noted as an aside. “It would telegraph weakness.”

Sometimes the paranoid really do have enemies, and in this case, conservative fears of betrayal have a basis in reality. Republican leaders, including staunch conservatives like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, actually do want to pass bipartisan immigration reform. This has only aggravated the base’s fear of treachery and forced the party leadership to ramp up the confrontation with Democrats on other fronts. If Republican leaders are going to try to get their base to swallow an immigration shit sandwich, they’re certainly not going to feed conservatives more shit sandwiches beforehand.

Yet there seems to be no way around it. Congress has to pass some kind of farm bill—failure to do so would, through a bizarre legislative quirk, cause the law to revert to where it stood in 1949, which would wreak all sorts of havoc at supermarkets. Congress will also have to pass bills to keep the government running, or else shut it down. And then it will have to lift the debt ceiling again. House Republicans have ignored constant pleas by Senate Democrats to sit down and negotiate their differing budgets. Instead, they plan to hold off any budget talks until late fall, when we will likely hit the debt ceiling, at which point, they believe, they can force Obama to accept their ransom demands.

Earlier this month, House Republicans issued those demands. They are staggeringly grandiose. If Obama wants to lift the debt ceiling for the rest of his term, they announced, all he has to do is … agree to sign on to Ryan’s plan to cut and privatize Medicare. If that’s too much for him, Republicans have generously offered the choice of letting Obama accept a package of deep cuts to Medicaid and food stamps in return for a shorter debt-ceiling extension. Of course, if he chooses that route, he’ll have to come back again later and offer up further concessions.

The list is utterly deranged—Obama has sworn he won’t bargain over the debt ceiling again at all, and his entire administration would resign before he could agree to anything remotely like these demands. It’s not clear whether Republicans actually expect the president to succumb to their Bond-villain hostage scheme. But it is significant that Republicans are demanding even more from Obama than they demanded during previous debt-ceiling ransoms and will decry the inevitable failure to achieve it as yet another betrayal.

Rubio, who now passes for one of his party’s respected moderates, gives a sense of what a Republican negotiating strategy might look like this fall. The GOP, Rubio says, should shut down the government unless Obama agrees to defund health-care reform. (“If we have a six-month continuing resolution [postponing a shutdown], we should defund the implementation of Obama­care by those six months.”) Rubio has likewise demanded a second confrontation over the debt limit, insisting that failing to cut spending would risk a fiscal crisis: “They will say, ‘You’re going to risk default.’ The $17 trillion debt is the risk of default.”

In the actual world, the economy is recovering and the deficit, currently projected at half the level Obama inherited, is falling like a rock. Yet messianic Republican suicide threats in the face of an imagined debt crisis have not subsided at all. The swelling grievance within the party base may actually be giving the threats more fervor. The reign of the Republican House has not yet inflicted any deep or permanent disaster on the country, but it looks like it is just a matter of time.

Anarchists of the House