Skip to comments.The Cabal That Quietly Took Over the House
Posted on 05/25/2013 4:23:40 PM PDT by neverdem
For 40 years, the Republican Study Committee has prized ideological purity over partisan loyalty. That mindset now dominates the GOP.
An interview with the author
On a frigid Wednesday afternoon in January, Speaker John Boehner sat in a conference room at the Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Va., acknowledging the limits of his authority. For the past two years, the Republican Study Committeea caucus of the most conservative representativeshad defied his leadership, plotted against his policy proposals, and, just two weeks earlier, organized a revolt to dethrone him. A group of RSC malcontents, exasperated with Boehners stewardship of the House Republican Conference during the previous session of Congress, persuaded 12 members to oppose Boehner in an effort to replace him with a more conservative leader, just five shy of the number necessary to force a second ballot. This would have legitimized the putsch and provided cover for nominal loyalists to abandon their chief.
Boehner survived, battered and humbled, but there was no time to hold grudges. The internal wounds opened in the 112th Congress were bleeding into the 113th, and Boehner knew he wouldnt last long as speaker (let alone help his party block the agenda of a commandingly reelected president) unless he sutured those wounds. Tomorrow, Boehner would appear before the entire fragmented GOP conference at its annual retreat to set the next years agenda. But first he needed a plan to win back the trust of conservatives. So now, on this winter afternoon, he was meeting with five RSC leaders not to gloat about his reelection but to secure their support.
Four of the guests had at some point chaired the RSC: Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Tom Price of Georgia, Jim Jordan of Ohio, and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who had taken over the committee just weeks before. The fifth attendee was House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a longtime RSC member and the recently defeated vice presidential candidate. They were putting the final touches on a deal with the speaker, weeks in the making, to hide ideological divisions by agreeing on a legislative strategy for the new Congress.
Not long ago, it would have been ludicrous for the House speaker to approach the Republican Study Committee on bended knee, much less to depend on it to restore harmony to the conference. The committees philosophy of governance would vex any speaker: Members consider themselves conservatives first and Republicans second. They did not come to Washington to play for the Republican team; they came to fight for conservative principles. If that means voting against party interests, so be it. For core RSC believers, ideological purity trumps legislative accomplishment. Period.
For decades, the group was seen as a parasitic anomalya fringe organization of hopeless ideologues surviving off the perception of undue moderation among Republican leadership. Several previous speakers had bullied or ignored it, and one even dissolved the RSC in a quest to squelch internal dissent. For decades, the committees membership rolls were thin, and internal GOP debates didnt matter much anyway, because the party was in the minority.
But the 2010 midtermsthanks to an influx of ideologically charged lawmakers converging with an increasingly conservative GOPchanged everything. More than 60 of 85 GOP freshmen joined the Republican Study Committee, giving the group a record 164 members. The committee known as the conservative conscience of the House was now, for the first time in history, a majority of the House majority.
As a result, its influence grew geometrically, and, today, no single subgroup drives the legislative agenda like the RSC. When its members rally against a bill, it usually fails; when they join to push a proposal, it almost always succeeds. Indeed, since 2010, the RSCs embrace or rejection of any legislative effort has become the surest indicator of whether it will pass the chamber. With 171 members today, the Republican Study Committee is the largest caucus in all of Congress, as Scalise puts it. If Boehner and his conductors make the trains run, RSC members are the soot-soaked boilermen shoveling coal into the furnace.
Or refusing, as they sometimes do, to shovel. In the last session of Congress, they made life miserable for Boehner as he attempted to exert authority over his caucus that he did not possess. Opponents of the RSCincluding some within the GOPs ranksnow see it as a mob of conservative kamikazes willing to hold the government hostage until their demands are met. During the debt-ceiling negotiations of 2011, Vice President Joe Biden allegedly labeled these lawmakers terrorists.
Everyone knows Washingtons policy: No negotiating with terrorists. But back in January, Boehner had no choice. By seeking the RSCs assistance, he was accepting its de facto control of his conference. Supplication was the only way to salvage his speakership. The defenders of the faiththe ones who argue that principles are not bargaining chipshad finally penetrated the innermost sanctum of power.
Before becoming president of Washingtons premier conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, Ed Feulner was a congressional aide to Republican Rep. Phil Crane of Illinois. One day in 1972, Feulner says, his boss was meeting with several fellow House conservatives, including Ed Derwinski of Illinois, John Rousselot of California, and Ben Blackburn of Georgia. The discussion turned to a club of liberal House members who convened weekly and called themselves the Democratic Study Group. Look at what theyve done in terms of making sure the Democrats in control of the House are always under pressure from the left, one member said. Why cant we do this on the right?
An idea was taking shape. These conservative House members decided in the long term to target Minority Leader Gerald Ford, whom they saw as a moderate deal-maker rather than a principled conservative. (Ford, foreshadowing the frustration to be felt by future House leaders, fancied himself a conservative but found it impossible to earn the trust from his right wing.) We said, If Jerry Ford isnt getting any pressure from the right, the only way hes going to go is left, Feulner recalls.
First, though, the conservatives went hunting for bigger game. Presidents Nixons welfare plan contained a provision to guarantee Americans a certain annual incomea notion that horrified right-wingers in both chambers of Congress. So Crane had Feulner reach out to conservative aides in the Senate in the hope of joining forces to defeat Nixons plan. Soon, Feulner was working with Paul Weyrich, a young staffer for Sen. Gordon Allott of Colorado, and other conservative Hill aides. The group persuaded the governor of Californiaa popular conservative named Ronald Reaganto testify against the plan before the Senate Finance Committee. The measure eventually failed, and Reagan rewarded Crane by coming to meet with him in the Capitol. Looking back, Feulner says his work with Weyrich, who later founded the Heritage Foundation, laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the Republican Study Committee.
In the months following the welfare episode, Crane and company worked to formally launch the group. But members soon realized that pressuring leadership required real resourcesstaff members to churn out studies, charts, and memos, and to organize the logistics of a new, independent caucus. To accomplish this, Crane and his staff designed a system to hire apparatchiks for their new organization by putting them on multiple payrolls. That way, say, five lawmakers might split the cost of one operative. In 1973, the RSC launched with this model. Sharing staff members was easily done under House rules then, says Feulner. By the time I became executive director in 1973, I was on, like, four different payrolls at any one time.
The group quickly won adherents. When other conservative members saw the sharp materials RSC researchers produced, they asked to join. What began as an informal club ballooned within a few years from four members, to 12, to 20. The new strength in numbers allowed the RSC to contemplate how it might shape the broader GOP agendaand, by extension, the national one.
But that wouldnt work with Republicans out of power. At best, the RSC could have only as much influence as the House GOP had. When the conference is weak and stuck in the minority, the RSC becomes an afterthought on Capitol Hill. The mission of the RSC is always more important when youre in the majority than when youre in the minority, Hensarling says. In the majority, youre actually passing legislation; in the minority, youre mainly in the communications business.
This helps to explain why the committee was irrelevant during the 1980s. Between the groups founding in the 1970s and its resurgence in the 1990s, longtime RSC observers say, it had a negligible impact. Democrats controlled the House, and President Reagan was a kindred spirit whose policies they had little cause to protest. Eventually, the tide of history would turn and conservatives would reestablish their reputation as predators. But first they would become prey.
To fathom the psyche of Congresss most conservative lawmakers, its useful to study the ferocity with which they protect the RSCs autonomy. Whenever the House leadership has even hinted at meddling with the grouprumors swirled last fall that Boehner would try to oust Executive Director Paul Teller at the start of the next sessionthe reaction has been swift and sharp. In this case, conservatives successfully lobbied to keep Teller on as a counterbalance to Scalise, whom some RSC members saw as too cozy with leadership. This history of insulating their group from external interference dates back two decades, when someone the committee considered a friend betrayed it.
After Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in 1994, ending a four-decade stint as the permanent political underclass, the ambitious new speaker, Newt Gingrich, planned several shake-ups. Among his first priorities was to get rid of the Republican Study Committee, which he viewed as a threat to the harmony of the House Republican Conference. To eliminate the RSCwhile avoiding the appearance that he was singling out conservativesGingrich devised a plot to abolish all Legislative Service Organizations, the 28 groups that functioned with the shared staff model perfected by groups such as the RSC and the Congressional Black Caucus. The new speaker spoke craftily about the need to save taxpayer money and eliminate unnecessary expenses, but the message was clear to every conservative in Washington: Gingrich was determined to eliminate the group that could endanger his speakership.
He began immediately after the 1994 election by convening a meeting of the next House Republican Conferenceall returning members, plus the incoming freshmen. Numerous newbies, having heard about the RSC, were devastated when Gingrichs staff announced it was going away. Two of them, John Shadegg of Arizona and Steve Largent of Oklahoma, spoke up. The entire freshman class was there, and we were taking over the majority, Shadegg recalls. Largent and I got up and argued it ought to be saved.
When the meeting adjourned, Majority Leader Dick Armey yanked Shadegg and Largent into an adjacent room. Nice try, but its gone, Armey told them. By abolishing the RSC, the new speaker neutralized a potential menace. But in doing so, he also provoked some GOP members who were incredulous that their self-styled conservative leader would attack a bastion of conservative activism. One of them was Ernest Istook, an outspoken sophomore from Oklahoma, who whispered to a colleague during that meeting, It cant be healthy for all the resources to be concentrated in the hands of party leadership. Istook wanted to know where rank-and-file members would turn for objective analyses on leadership-endorsed legislation.
He wasnt alone. Having arrived in Washington together in 1990, GOP Reps. John Doolittle of California and Sam Johnson of Texas shared a friendship and political philosophy. RSC members both, they were stunned by the power play. Almost immediately, they began plotting to revive the organization. To circumvent Gingrichs restrictive language, they needed someone with intricate knowledge of both the old RSC infrastructure and the House itself. No one was better qualified than Dan Burton of Indiana, who was RSC chairman at the time of its dissolution. Burton, too, had been scheming to resurrect the committee.
As these three began strategizing around the new House rules, they recruited Istook. He suggested that rather than spend House resources on RSC employees, lawmakers should instead hire part-time staffers who could roam between offices working for different members on RSC projects. We set up a structure of rotating the payroll for these employees from one office to the next, so that everyone was, in effect, sharing the cost but working within the new rules, Istook explains.
Now the four members could reboot the RSC, but they wanted a fresh start and a new name to emphasize aggressive ideology over passive partisanship. Istook suggested CAT, for Conservative Action Team. The others approved, and soon Istook was printing lapel pins featuring a roaring mountain lion and distributing them to conservative members curious about rumors of the RSCs resurrection. The rechristened group had returnedwith a new generation of leaders.
This foursome, known since as the founders, nurtured the group with weekly meetings to discuss policy and strategy. (Today, the weekly RSC meeting, which is still part debate forum and part strategy session, is considered the cornerstone of conservatism on Capitol Hill.) Each of the four founders served as chairman on a rotating basis for four to six months. But that proved too chaotic. It got to the point where we felt it had become an organizational weakness that we didnt have a single chairman, Doolittle recalls. Their unanimous choice as CATs first chairman was Rep. David McIntosh of Indiana, who had earned a reputation since arriving in 1995 as unafraid to challenge party leadership. But when Republicans lost seats in 1998 and Gingrich stepped down, McIntosh retired to run for Indiana governor and passed the chairmans job to his class of 94 colleague, Rep. John Shadegg, a combative conservative with a talent for taking the temperature of his colleagues.
Shadegg had, in his first term, become an invaluable resource for Gingrich, who liked to summon him and ask, What are conservatives up to? But everyone knew where Shadeggs loyalties lay. He had not come to Congress to advance the Republican agenda but to promote conservative principles. So when the founders approached him, Shadegg jumped at the chance to become the de facto leader of House conservatives. I was a natural, he says of their choice. He took the group from 40 members in 2000 to 72 in 2002. He also carved out an antagonistic new role for the chairman, fighting party leaders over everything from budgets to committee assignments. And he restored the groups old name, the Republican Study Committee. The people who founded it [back in 1973], they created the Republican Study Committee to study the issues, he recalls. I thought it should have more gravitas than it had by calling itself CAT.
The founders continued to fret over conservative fealty, so they had retained the power to choose their groups chairmen. Elections, they feared, would allow moderates to infiltrate the organization at the behest of leadership and push a party loyalist for the chairmanship. But after the controversial pick of Rep. Sue Myrick of North Carolina, their choice to succeed Shadegg in 2003, they tweaked the selection process to include RSC members. Now the founders (expanded to include all past chairmen still serving in Congress) would nominate a candidate, and any member could challenge them with signatures from 25 percent of the RSC to force a group-wide vote. After the tenure of Rep. Mike Pencewho took the RSC in an assertive new direction on fiscal policy and famously proposed steep domestic spending cuts to offset new government outlays in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrinathey got their first challenge. Members had expected Pences right-hand colleague, Jeb Hensarling, to get the nod; when he didnt, he rounded up signatures and defeated the founders choice, Todd Tiahrt of Kansas. The Republican Study Committee was now run as much by its members as by its founders.
And as everyone soon found out, that didnt mean backsliding: Hensarling, who took over as Democrats won control of the House, chaired the group during some defining moments for the conservative movement. Under his leadership, the RSC rankled the Republican establishment by opposing major policies being pushed by President George W. Bush, such as the Troubled Asset Relief Program and the automaker bailouts. After Hensarlings chairmanship came Price, whose task was made doubly difficult when Republicans, still in the House minority, lost the White House in 2008. Price describes his tenure as exhilarating because the RSC was in attack mode. Members pounded Presidents Obamas policies, such as the economic stimulus and health care reform, and spoke for conservative orthodoxy. Still, Price says, we were not able to blunt many of the horrendous policies coming out of the administration. When 2010 arrived, they would get their chance.
Im always asked back home, Are there others up there like you? Price pauses and smiles, savoring the punch line. The fifth-term lawmaker, who occupies the seat once held by Gingrich, says his constituents are curious about the culture of Capitol Hill. Specifically, they wonder if hes lonely as a Republican working in a town dominated by Democrats. They want to know, Price says, you got any friends up there? Thats when Price tells them about the Republican Study Committee.
The RSC today is much more than an affinity group; its a fraternity, a place where kindred souls come together to trade political ideas and share life experiences, Price says. Members go to dinner, play golf, and attend Bible studyactivities that strengthen relationships forged by former strangers with a shared political philosophy. Its a clubhouse. The thing I like most about it is, you get a chance to work with people who believe in the same things you do, Jordan says. My best friends are in the RSC.
In theory, this was a great setup for the 112th Congress. House conservatives had formed bonds. Reinforcements had arrived in abundance. Boehner was taking back the speakers gavel. And Jordan, a Boehner ally who represented a neighboring Ohio district, was taking over the RSC. Yet the bonhomie wouldnt last.
Traditionally, the leadership initiates incoming members, but with so big a freshman class, this was easier said than done. Besides, these rookie lawmakers werent interested in the how its done in Washington speech. They were intent on shaking things up, not playing the pawns in Boehners chess game. When more than 60 of the new Republican members enlisted in the RSC, it became clear that Jordan, not Boehner, would have to corral them (even though two former RSC chairsHensarling and Priceworked on Boehners leadership team).
Soon, two warring factions had formed: the moderates loyal to Boehner, and the conservatives led by Jordan. They collided in increasingly ugly fashion, climaxing during the July 2011 debt-ceiling negotiations. Boehner pitched a plan to offset debt extensions with spending cuts. But many conservatives thought Boehners cuts didnt go far enough, and some RSC staffers began e-mailing outside pressure groups, such as Heritage Action, to turn committee members against the deal. The e-mails leaked; Teller, who hadnt written them himself, was nonetheless identified as the chief culprit. Furious conservatives felt betrayed by their flagships own crew. At a conference-wide meeting called the next day, some members chanted, Fire him! at Teller.
Jordan, who remembers the incident as pretty heated, apologized for the e-mails but remained opposed to Boehners proposal. Look, its politics, Jordan says of the episode. Its a game for grown-ups. Its supposed to get intense. Teller is unapologetic about the incidentor about the RSCs other run-ins with leadership. Were not there to smile and nod, he says of his group.
The internal acrimony reached its zenith with an end-of-session failure to rally behind Boehners Plan B for avoiding the fiscal cliff, which proposed to extend the Bush tax cuts for those earning $1 million or less. Conservatives argued against raising taxes on anyone. That episode ended in December with Boehner reciting the serenity prayerGod, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot changeto members of the GOP conference. Republicans had reclaimed the majority with a mandate to fight the Obama agenda, but they had spent as much time fighting each other. Two weeks later, in the opening days of the new Congress, 12 RSC members attempted to overthrow Boehner.
Thats when the speaker convened the Williamsburg summit on that cold January afternoon.
RSC chairmen are always surprised to learn about the guidelines for the jobnamely, that there arent any. The supremo enjoys what Price calls a lot of latitude to determine the groups strategic direction.
Scalise knew that full well. The groups current chairman, a soft-spoken man of Sicilian heritage who carries a fava bean in his pocket for good luck, had a front-row seat for the internecine battles of the 112th Congress. He knew Republicans could not effectively battle Obama until they called an internal cease-fire. So when he met with the founders last November to ask them to nominate him for the chairmanship, Scalise posed a simple question. As conservatives, he asked, how do we define victory?
His message was straightforward: The RSC should focus less on preaching conservative values and more on passing conservative policy; it should emphasize actions over words. He ran for the chairmanship of the group against Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia (the founders choice) as the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling, the sequester, and the continuing resolution all loomed, and he won by promising RSC members that he would work to secure a series of victories, giving House Republicans momentum and putting Senate Democrats and the White House on the defensive.
At the annual retreat in Williamsburg, after conservative leaders had come to terms with Boehner, Scalise lobbied skeptical RSC members to join the ideological armistice. In exchange for approving a temporary extension of the debt limit in January, Boehners leadership team would support a series of conservative policy solutions to the upcoming list of legislative challenges. Many RSC members doubted the durability of this agreementsince dubbed the Williamsburg Accordbut were persuaded to give Boehner one final chance to earn the trust of the conservative rank and file.
Four months later, both Boehner and Scalise have delivered. Consistent with the Kingsmill Resort compromise, the sequester cuts went into effect; the continuing resolution was passed with lower spending levels; and the Houses proposed budget would balance in 10 years. Meanwhile, thanks to the RSC-favored No Budget, No Pay provision attached to the debt-ceiling deal, Senate Democrats were forced to come up with their first budget in four years. Were not a think tank, Scalise says. Were a group of 171 legislators who all came here to fight to pass conservative policy into law.
The Republican Study Committee has, throughout its history, been ideologically pure yet often impotent to achieve legislative results. In the minority, it lacked power or numbers to drive the agenda; in the majority, it focused on infighting over policy. Now, for the first time in its 40-year history, the stars have aligned. Not only is the RSC still emphasizing ideology over partisanshipand passing conservative policy in the processbut it is also pulling the entire conference rightward. Were hitting our stride, says Teller, whos worked for the group since 2001.
There is, of course, a certain irony. The Republican Study Committee has gained size, strength, and influence by preaching that leadership must always be pressured and never be trusted. Now the RSC finds itself more powerful and accomplished than it has ever been, mainly because its members decided to set aside their suspicions and strike a deal with leadership. Its still a fragile relationship, likely to shatter at any sign of ideological betrayal. But, according to many conservatives, Boehner has finally earned the trust of the Republican Study Committee. God bless the speaker, says Jordan.
Somewhere, Gerald Ford is smiling.
This article appears in the May 25, 2013, edition of National Journal as Defenders Of the Faith.
That's the URL. We need a Republican Study Committee in the Senate too!
The only cabal in DC is the one which snuck a woefully under-qualified hack into the Whi te House in 2008
And that extension was probably the critical piece of legislation because it did not include a provision for defunding obamacare. It gave it just enough more life that the thousands more regulators and enforcers got hired and the thing is unkillable now. Certainly the RSC won't get rid of it.
"The only cabal in DC is the one which snuck a woefully under-qualified hack into the Whi te House in 2008"
This article appears in the May 25, 2013, edition of National Journal as Defenders Of the Faith.
Someone changed the title. Did you read the story?
This is a great feel-good article. Bump for later finishing.
Good article. We do need an RSC in the Senate, but moreso we need good conservatives to run and win. We lost a bunch of races that should have been easy. We’re short at least 4 Senators.
Great article! A must read! Tea Party members should work their hardest to support the RSC members. That’s the new GOP!
Let us pray that Cruz is a member. I wonder why they always forget to mention the impact that the work of Sarah Palin had in 2010?
The amnesty bill is poison to America. DEFEAT IT, start throwing some bums out of congress like cry baby, and the gang of 8.
Donna Fargo- "Battle hymn of the Republic"
Keep voting RINOs in and you will lose the republic they gave us and over a million men and women have died to defend.
Bob carol ted and alice.......nuff sed
The question, considering that we haven't and aren't likely to have a real conservative make it through the Primaries, is which does more damage and does it faster? In lieu of a RINO, or other unacceptable candidate, does it make sense to allow an Obama a second term? He has stretched so many anti-Freedom tentacles so deep and wide into the infrastructure of government that it would take a decade to clear them out even if we we fortunate enough to have solid majorities in both Houses. Left unchecked through this term, the machine that is under construction to squash conservatism may be too big to take down.
I found the piece to be very interesting and heavy on actions of specific dedicated Congressmen. It paints a picture not previously seen.
As the day goes on I expect to see the interjection of sanctimony on Free Republic as the lack of Christ like purity in the RSC is decried.
-——does it make sense to allow an Obama a second term——
The question I would ask is “is he going to have a second term”
It seems to me that Obama is already thwarted on many issues. He apparently is not going to be an overwhwlmning success. Given his treachery, he might not even last the four years
bump for later
Very informative and somewhat uplifting. Thanks for posting this.
After reading what Gingrich did to the RSC I don’t think I can ever trust his leadership again.
Boehner may have gained back some trust earlier in the year but he is seemingly now blowing it out with his ready-to-pounce stance at the first opportunity at bringing immigration to the floor. So far we have a stalemate at best.
This game of politics never sleeps nor does it stay the same. A friend and supporter today may be a betrayer tomorrow.