House Republican Inertia Leads to Irrelevancy
By Chris Stirewalt
“It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, “Peace! Peace!”—but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle?”
— Patrick Henry addressing the Virginia House of Burgesses, March 23, 1775.
House Republicans are huddling in Williamsburg, Va. trying to figure out what to do about their current crisis.
It’s a fitting place for them to be meeting since they are facing the same threat that the legislators in the capital of the Colony of Virginia once faced: Irrelevancy.
Back in the 1760s, the Virginia House of Burgesses would occasionally raise a ruckus over the Stamp Act or the shipping of criminal defendants to England. Patrick Henry would deliver a blistering oration and much wig powder would be lost in vigorous stomping and shouting.
And then the governor would dissolve the body and everyone would mount their horses for the long ride home.
These days for House members, its Town Cars to Reagan National instead of mares down a dusty path, but the effect is pretty similar. When all the shouting is done and tyranny has been thoroughly denounced yet again, the modern-day lawmakers go home with little to show for their excitations.
We all know how it worked out for the boys in breeches back in Williamsburg. Public frustrations grew and grew until the only reason most people bothered getting elected to the colonial legislature was to decry the body’s worthlessness and to talk of treason.
The difference now is that the irrelevancy of the House is self-imposed. As much as he might wish he could, President Obama cannot dissolve the House. Lawmakers can meet, vote and debate anytime they wish. They are even protected from arrest while the House is in session.
The current irrelevancy springs from legislative paralysis brought on by distrust and fear.
When House Republicans stormed back into power after the 2010 Midterm elections, they were all the time passing things. Repeal that. Cut this. Lower those taxes. Censure that Obama factotum.
Even though Republicans retained a stout majority in 2012, the comfortable victory by Obama has left the once effervescent House flatter than a day-old ginger ale.
Part of this is the understanding after two years that the immovable object that is Harry Reid’s Senate will not anytime soon be repealing, cutting, lowering or censuring anyone or anything. It is also in part an expression of grief that the American electorate chose to re-hire Obama, whom House Republicans see as a tyrant on par with George III.
This sad, dire attitude helped lead to the first major defeat for the House Republicans when Obama, with the help of anxious Senate Republicans, routed the House on the question of tax rates. Unable to pass anything on taxes during the Lame Duck session, House Republicans were eventually steamrolled and left to watch the first tax rate increase in nearly a generation go into place, with most House Republicans pouting on the sidelines.
And because it was Speaker John Boehner who let the steamroller roll, there is an open question of whether House Republicans will be able to do much of anything at all. The modern-day Patrick Henrys are stomping and shouting and others are plotting coups against their leaders.
Meanwhile, all the stomping and shouting and coup plotting has left the leaders afraid of letting the rank and file start lobbing up legislation again. The results might look radical or, if Team Boehner tried to suggest a more publicly palatable option, it might result in yet another embarrassment like the failure of Boehner’s “Plan B” tax proposal.
For all these reasons, House Republicans have become what Obama once falsely accused them of being: obstructionist. The Republicans in the previous Congress were activists, passing all kinds of things and promulgating all kinds of big ideas. The House GOP this time around so far seems only to be able to say “no.”
With the toughest tests to face the sophomore majority still ahead – the debt limit, the automatic cuts from the 2011 debt battle and Obama’s crusade for a partial gun ban – it is a poor time to be unable to pass legislation. Without legislation, Republicans look irrelevant and lack bargaining power in negotiations.
The medicine men of the conservative movement have all kinds of advice on what to say, how to say it, who should be saying it and when it should be said. Fine, fine. But without legislation, members of Congress are no more relevant than any other partisan pundit.
Rather than “messaging,” Republicans in Williamsburg should be focused on what they might be able to pass on the big issues. Even if it’s not going anywhere, the measures represent a starting point for conservatives in the battles over big ideas.
If they prefer mental health reform to gun bans, then pass mental health reform. If they prefer to not raise the debt limit without corresponding cuts, offer the cuts. If they prefer revenue-neutral tax reform, make us an offer.
And on guns and debt, House Republicans had better do it quickly because Obama is on the march and not slowing down.
If their paralysis persists, however, House Republicans might as well saddle up for the long ride home because they would be every bit as irrelevant as their colonial forebearers.