It is not a good week to be a Republican in Washington. (Just ask John Boehner.) In the wake of the government shutdown, polls are showing Americans oppose House Republican efforts to tie Obamacare care defunding to a budget resolution by a 72-22 margin (Quinnepac); and only one in four voters believe Republicans are making a good faith effort to work with the president (New York Times/CBS) to resolve the crisis.
As is its nature, TV news is covering events like a ping pong match, with President Obama coming in for a share of the blame for not “reaching out” to Congressional leaders. Whether Republicans have “lost their minds,” as Senate leader Harry Reid claims, or “Washington Democrats have slammed the door on reopening the government by refusing to engage in bipartisan talks,” as House Speaker Boehner puts it, the rhetoric coming out of the both parties does nothing to calm the waters.
At the heart of the dispute is the traditional (and legitimate) tug of war between conservatives who want to rein in spending and liberals who believe the federal government has a critical role to play in providing social services to its citizens, in this case health care. That conflict should get played out every year in deliberations over the various bills that make up the federal budget. But poisonous partisanship has derailed that process. As a result, none of those bills are moving through the legislative process and we are left with a petulant standoff over a “continuing resolution” that, ironically, sets next year’s federal budget at $986 billion –– $217 billion less than President Obama requested and only $19 billion more than House Republican guru Paul Ryan proposed.
A Hapless Speaker
If Speaker Boehner looks a little beleaguered these days, he has brought it on himself. “At any point, Mr. Boehner could have stopped [the shutdown],” the New York Times editorialized. “Had he put on the floor a simple temporary spending resolution to keep the government open, without the outrageous demands to delay and defund the health reform law, it could easily have passed the House with a strong majority –– including with sizable support from the Republican members, many of whom are aware of how badly this collapse will damage their party.”
The New York Times isn’t alone in editorializing against the House Republican obstinance. The Wall Street Journal called it “a kamakaze mission.” “This may be the beginning of the end of Washington as we know it,” Ron Fournier wrote in the National Journal. “The Republican Party may be splitting apart. The divide is between conservatives who want to limit government and extremists who oppose governing.”
“This shutdown, the first in 17 years, isn’t the result of two parties acting equally responsibly,” USA Today chimed in. “It is the product of an increasingly radicalized Republican Party, controlled by a disaffected base that demands legislative hostage-taking in an effort to get what it has not been able to attain by the usual means: winning elections.”
The Hastert Rule
There are any number of reasons why Boehner has not been able to forge a bi-partisan coalition in the House, but none are more obvious than his adherence to the “Hastert Rule”, an invention of his predecessor Illinois Rep. Dennis Hastert, mandating that no legislation will come to the floor of the House that does not have a majority of Republican supporters.
The Hastert Rule is not really a rule; nor is it a long tradition (like the filibuster). It is a convenience to the leadership, a way of building party solidarity. When Hastert was speaker (1999-2006), it was easy to enforce because Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency. In the currently fractured climate, it only serves to limit Boehner’s options for getting out of this mess.
When Boehner came into the speakership, he was riding a wave of new Tea Party Republicans who arrived with the idealistic notion of changing the way people do business in Washington. President Obama––no stranger to the change motto himself––recognized then that the 2010 midterm election results constituted “a spanking.” But he rebounded in 2012. He won re-election by over 5 million votes. Democrats retained control of the Senate against all odds; and the Republican margin in the House narrowed to 33 votes.
A Different Climate
It is a different climate these days from the one that prevailed when Boehner was a Hastert disciple. It requires a return to the fundamentals of legislating–– deliberation, negotiation and compromise––epitomized by Tip O’Neal’s cordial relationship with President Reagan. In the absence of the Hastert Rule, Boehner could call up a “clean” continuing resolution on the House floor in a New York minute, and there’s little doubt in anyone’s mind that Democrats and more than the needed 17 Republicans would support.
But Boehner is mired, instead, in an intra-party squabble where 59 men and 8 women now seem to control the fate of the nation.
“One Faction of One Party”
“One faction of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government doesn’t get to shut down the entire government just to refight the results of an election,” Obama said Monday on the eve of the shutdown. But apparently they do. At least until the voters decide to do something about it.
It’s hard to quantify just how many House Republicans are adamant about linking Obamacare funding to budget approval, or whether they even constitute a majority of the House Republican membership. The caucus meetings are closed, and no formal votes have leaked out (if any were ever taken). But we know there is a Tea Party faction of the party that claims about 55 members and various public statements indicate another dozen House Republicans are firmly in that camp.
For reference, those 59 men and 8 women are:
Look over the names carefully, then let’s make a pact to unelect them. Because until these House members are ushered out of office, this standoff in Washington will continue for years to come.
Most of these Republicans represent districts where they are protected by the redrawing of Congressional borders after the 2010 census. Most have, as a result, comfortably won in 2012 with margins of 60-40 or better. Some are also entrenched leaders of the party. Lamar Smith of Texas has been in office for 25 years and is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee; Texas Rep. Peter Sessions is chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee; and North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx is secretary of the House Republican Conference.
But other Tea Party members are vulnerable. Indiana Rep. Susan Brooks replaced retiring Congressman Dan Burton in 2012, but only won her seat by a 52-48 margin. Michigan Rep. Tim Walberg might also be vulnerable in the 7th district south of Detroit. Second term incumbent Rep. Vicky Hartzler has only a tenuous hold on Missouri’s 4th district which has traditionally been Democratic. And Minnesota’s Michelle Bachmann is thankfully retiring.
Throw the Bums Out
What is needed is a concerted effort to challenge them all, in both the primary and general elections, not because they are too conservative but because they are temperamentally unfit to serve as legislators. The argument––and it is a simple one––is that the debate over social issues has to stop when it comes to keeping the doors of government open or, even more important, honoring our obligation to pay the national debt.
A challenge to these incumbents will be more successful if it comes in a Republican primary (especially in open primary states where Democratic crossover votes can make a difference). It will take money, lots of it. But just as the Koch Brothers put them in office with their SuperPac, someone should organize a SuperPac targeted at getting them out––and both Republicans and Democrats ought to contribute. The challengers can be as conservative as they want (or need) to be, but every candidate, in true Tea Party fashion, should have to take a pledge that they won’t shut down the government.
The enemy of the good is the perfect. There are far too many perfect Republicans in Washington these days, and little good is coming from it. So here are 59 men and 8 women who deserve to be retired, because they’ve earned it.