Wednesday’s bloodless leadership elections for the House Republican caucus were a far cry from the contested races of previous years. Congressional reporters waited in the halls of the Longworth building off Pennsylvania Avenue for hours just to hear outcomes they knew were inevitable.
Still, despite the lack of a serious reshuffle, a few important things looked different for the House GOP by nightfall.
John Boehner (Ohio) retained his position as minority leader without a serious challenge, and his allies took all of the other spots. Reps. Eric Cantor (Va.) and Mike Pence (Ind.) won their races for whip and conference chairman by voice vote after the incumbents in those positions had stepped down. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, who had Boehner’s blessing, was re-elected as policy chairman.
The day began with the expectation of at least one competitive race, for the chairmanship of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). But the incumbent chairman, Tom Cole (Okla.), withdrew from consideration around noon. His opponent, Pete Sessions (Tex.), had both Boehner’s endorsement and about 100 solid votes, according to Republican leadership sources, prompting Cole to accept the inevitable outcome.
“I don’t think Tom would have gotten killed, but he would have been beaten,” said one Republican staffer.
What do the results mean? There are at least a few clear lessons.
For one thing, the conservative Republican Study Committee will have a greater voice in the caucus during the coming Congress. Beneath Boehner and Cantor, all of the leadership officers are RSC members, including Sessions, Pence, McCotter, new Conference vice-chairman Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (Wash.) and conference secretary John Carter (Tex.). The RSC will also carry a larger share of the caucus’s membership. Pending decisions by the incoming members on whether to join, the group will likely lose only a net four seats in the 2008 election, leaving them with about 90 members out of roughly 175 House Republicans.
Leader Boehner also appointed the current RSC chairman, Jeb Hensarling, to the new bicameral committee overseeing the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, known as TARP. Hensarling, who opposed the bailout plan in the House, promised in a statement Wednesday evening to bring transparency to how the money is spent.
The leadership elections also mean that Boehner has consolidated his control of the House GOP. Even his token opponent, Rep. Dan Lungren (Calif.) did not try to make the case that Boehner was somehow to blame for the loss of 50 House seats that has taken place under Boehner’s watch over the last two election cycles.
Perhaps more significantly, Boehner managed to get rid of Cole, the only House leader with whom he had been unable to work. The two men had a private confrontation in September 2007 over perceived incompetence on the part of Cole’s senior staff. In that dust-up, which later became public, Boehner demanded staff changes, and Cole threatened to resign, causing Boehner to back off.
A House GOP insider told NRO that he expects Boehner to play a much larger role in the NRCC with Sessions at the helm, especially in staffing decisions and fundraising strategies. The NRCC, the source said, “has been operating as an island unto itself.” On Cole’s watch, the Democrats’ campaign committee (DCCC) outpaced the NRCC in fundraising by about $30 million. Even more important, the DCCC crushed the NRCC in spending on actual races, by a staggering $83 million to $30 million.
Have any lessons been learned by the House GOP? Perhaps at least one. As one of their first official acts, Boehner and Cantor together proposed a unilateral earmark moratorium by all Republicans until they can draft and propose a serious earmark-reform proposal. “While earmarks are hardly the sole source of waste in the federal budget, the earmark process in Congress has become a symbol of a broken Washington,” said Boehner in a written statement. “Our hope is that adoption of this resolution will be a first step in a much larger process of bringing meaningful change to the process by which Washington spends taxpayers’ hard-earned money.”
Some conservatives have argued that porkbarrel spending is not a viable issue, but it could still become one if the party unites around it in the House — something Republicans have previously failed to do. And there are further reasons to question the need for pork projects in building majorities in Congress: Of the 38 members who swore off pork for their districts in this Congress, only one was defeated — Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R., Colo.). Notably, the refusal of Reps. Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.), Mark Kirk (R., Ill.), and Dave Reichert (R., Wash.) to bring pork projects back to their districts did not prevent them from winning very difficult races for reelection.
“To rebuild the party, the energy has to come from us,” Boehner said in his acceptance speech. “And I will challenge all of you.” With no other hope in sight, Republicans are counting on his willingness and ability to keep that promise, and on the success of a leaner but more conservative-dominated House GOP.