The Un-Radical Freshmen
They have consistently demonstrated the ability to weigh their options.


Andrew Stiles

To hear Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) tell it, House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) is a “reasonable man” tragically beholden to the “extreme” proclivities of his freshmen members. From the moment the 112th Congress was sworn in, Schumer and other Democrats have been imploring Boehner to “abandon the Tea Party” and its unruly representatives in Congress, who are standing in the way of sensible, bipartisan solutions. In their view, and in the eyes of much of the mainstream media, the GOP freshman class is little more than a radical bloc of wanton rabble-rousers intent on, shall we say, terrorizing the country’s political system at any and all costs.

For the Left, it’s a convenient narrative, but it’s simply not borne out by the facts.

It’s true enough that the freshman class has made a significant impact on the spending debate in Washington. Whether by challenging leadership to accept a full $100 billion in spending cuts in accordance with their campaign “Pledge to America,” or securing a vote on the conservative “Cut, Cap, and Balance” legislation and later lobbying for the inclusion of a balanced-budget amendment in recent negotiations over the debt ceiling, new members have certainly pulled the conversation to the right. But veteran members — such as Republican Study Committee chairman Jim Jordan (R., Ohio), as well as Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), Scott Garrett (R., N.J.), and Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah) — have also played an important role. And in truth, the GOP freshmen — 87 of the House’s 240 Republicans — are far more practical than advertised.

When it comes to the issue most dear to their political hearts — reining in government spending — they have consistently demonstrated the ability to weigh their options, and they know to accept a partial loaf when there are no better alternatives. And when the time comes to cut a deal, Boehner doesn’t abandon his freshman members; rather, they typically refuse to abandon him.

In April, when Boehner negotiated a budget deal with the White House to avoid a government shutdown, freshman Republicans were far more likely than their more senior counterparts to refuse the deal: About the same number of freshmen and non-freshmen opposed it (27 and 32 respectively), despite the fact that non-freshmen far outnumber the newcomers. But that’s still less than a third of the freshman class. And while many were left disappointed when scoring from the Congressional Budget Office revealed spending cuts that were significantly less than advertised, but never once was there a real possibility of the “open revolt” many in the press had predicted.

One reason is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the freshman class is not a singular entity indistinguishable from the tea-party movement, which itself is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon. “I’ve always felt we’re 87 individuals,” says House freshman Alan Nunnelee (R., Miss.). “We were all elected from different districts, and there are some common threads, but we’re 87 independent thinkers.”

The freshman class has been reasonably resistant to some of the hard-line members in the caucus. Tensions flared at a recent GOP conference meeting when it came to light that a Republican Study Committee staff member had been e-mailing conservative activist groups urging them to pressure fence-sitting freshman, many of them dues-paying RSC members, to oppose a deficit plan drafted by Speaker Boehner that fell short of the strict requirements outlined in “Cut, Cap, and Balance.” But when it came time to vote on the plan, all but eleven GOP freshmen supported it.

“So many of you like to write about our freshman class [as if] we’re radical, we’re extreme, we’re uncontrollable,” freshman Sean Duffy (R., Wis.) told reporters at a gathering of House freshmen to announce their support of Boehner’s plan. “But today is important because this freshman class is coming together to get around a proposal, an idea. Is it as big as we wanted to go? Heck no! We wanted to go bigger. We were elected to go bigger.” But many had come to realize that there wasn’t a better alternative given the circumstances.

Even the outspoken tea-party favorite Allen West (R., Fla.) threw his support behind the speaker. “One thing they tell you in the military — if you sit around and wait to come up with the 100 percent plan, then the enemy has probably already attacked you,” the retired Army lieutenant colonel told National Review Online. And when his position drew fire from tea-party groups, West pushed back. “One minute they’re saying I’m their tea-party hero, and three, four days later I’m a tea-party defector — that kind of schizophrenia I’m not going to get involved in,” West said on Laura Ingraham’s radio show.