This is the blog of Steve Hochstadt, a writer and a professor of history at Illinois College.
The inability of Republicans in the House to agree on a Speaker has halted the business of governing the country. The media loves the uncertainty, the rumors, the up-and-down candidacies as political theater. The deep politics is more disturbing.
The Speaker holds great power in the House. The Speaker presides over debate, deciding who may speak and controlling the flow of discussion. The Speaker rules on all points of order, selects most of the members of the Rules Committee, and appoints members of select committees and conference committees. The Speaker determines which committee will consider new bills.
In 1792, the Second Congress wrote rules about presidential elections and specified that the Senate President pro tempore would become President in the absence of the elected President and Vice President, with the Speaker of the House next in line. This line of succession was changed in 1886, when cabinet members replaced Congressional leaders. After Franklin Roosevelt died in office, a new Presidential Succession Act was passed in 1947, which restored the Congressional leaders as next in line, but switched their places, putting the Speaker next after the Vice President.
Congress believed that the Speaker in such a national emergency could rise above the politics of his district, of his region, of his party, and lead the whole nation. Speakers have been men, and one woman, Nancy Pelosi, who developed leadership during Congressional careers, faced national issues, and worked with Presidents of both parties.
Now the so-called House Freedom Caucus, representing the people who made his job so impossible that Speaker John Boehner announced that he was quitting Congress, who were uncertain that Kevin McCarthy of California was conservative enough, are demanding a Speaker for themselves. The Freedom Caucus includes about 40 Republicans, enough to prevent any Republican they vote against from winning the Speakership.
Who are these few dozen House Republicans? They are nearly all men, who sit on the far right in Congress. They include most of the most conservative Republicans; their center is far to the right of Republicans in the House. Their founding members had belonged to the Republican Study Committee, which since 1973 has operated within the House as a “conservative watchdog” on the right side of the Party. It now has 170 members, about 2/3 of the whole Republican caucus. That was too big a tent for the Freedom Caucus, who did not want to work with Republicans more moderate than themselves. In January, they announced their split from the Republican Study Committee in the midst of a House debate about funding the Department of Homeland Security. The Freedom Caucus threatened to shut down Homeland Security funding if their demands were not met.
Despite their defeat in that contest, now they are after a bigger goal, the Speakership itself. They prepared a questionnaire for possible Speaker candidates. “Would you ensure that the House-passed appropriations bills do not contain funding for Planned Parenthood, unconstitutional amnesty, the Iran deal and ObamaCare?” was one question. The Freedom Caucus insists on “full repeal of Obamacare” and impeachment of the IRS Commissioner.
They insured that McCarthy could not win the vote by endorsing Daniel Webster of Florida on Oct. 7, who has been in Congress only 4 years. His reelection is threatened, because a court says his district has been gerrymandered to produce a safe Republican district and must be redrawn.
What do other Republicans say about these rebels of the right? During the DHS funding fight, Rep. Peter King, a Republican from New York called them “this self-righteous delusional wing of the party, which leads us over the cliff.” Republican Charlie Dent from Pennsylvania repeated the term “self-delusion”. Trey Gowdy from South Carolina, rated in the middle of the Republican Party, said, “I think the House is bordering on ungovernable right now.”
California Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican whom Heritage Action gives a 90 percent conservative rating, much higher than the average Congressional Republican, recently quit the Freedom Caucus. He characterized their politics as “a willingness, indeed, an eagerness, to strip the House Republican majority of its ability to set the House agenda.”
The so-called Freedom Caucus represents the Republican voters who have put three people with no government experience among them at the top of the polls. They don’t like government, period. With a fervor unmatched in recent American history, they hate everything that our government has done since Barack Obama was elected. They hate anyone who plays any role in governing, even a conservative one.
Should we allow one of them so near the White House?
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 20, 2015