Speaker John Boehner tried to assure House Republicans yesterday that the decision to dump four Republicans from key committees didn’t represent a “conservative purge.” “The committee’s decision had nothing to do with ideology,” Boehner told a closed-door meeting, according to one member in the room. “The Steering Committee this week decided to remove committee assignments from four members, and replace them with other members,” he continued. “This was not done lightly. This is something the committee took seriously and hopes never to have to do again.”
Several members who attended took Boehner’s word “hopes” as a veiled threat that members should toe the line or also suffer demotion. “He basically said there were other people he would have to be talking with,” one member told me. Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina, who was dumped from the Financial Services Committee, told reporters that Boehner said “there were other names that could have been discussed.”
A GOP aide was far more blunt, telling the newspaper Roll Call that the message being sent was “You want good things in Congress and to have a good career? Better play along nicely.”
The four dissidents had displeased leadership in the past. All of them had voted against the 2011 deal extending the government’s borrowing authority in exchange for $1 trillion in budget restraint. Three of the four had also voted against Paul Ryan’s budget blueprint, which the House passed last March.
It’s one thing for House leadership to play roughly, but it’s quite another to claim the moves don’t represent a purge of conservatives when they clearly do. “Show me where any Republican has been punished for voting way to the left,” an angry member of the Republican Study Committee told me. “You can vote for every pro-union bill, you can vote with the National Education Association, which gives millions to defeat GOP candidates, you can vote to raise budget targets set by GOP chairmen, and nothing happens to you,” he said. “Punishment is only directed to the right.”
Representative Tim Huelskamp of Kansas received a standing ovation at yesterday’s meeting of conservative activists held at Grover Norquist’s office. “Removing me and other conservatives from the Budget Committee will only confirm our convictions that the budget is out of control,” Huelskamp told me after the meeting. “Their demand for blind obedience is a sure sign the leadership can’t manage disagreement properly.”
Aides to Speaker Boehner point out that committee assignments are usually made at the request of committee chairmen, but most of the purged members were skeptical that that’s what happened this time. Jeb Hensarling, incoming chairman of the Financial Services Committee, says he had nothing to do with the removal of Jones or Arizona congressman Dave Schweikert from his panel. Representative Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, has declined to comment on the two members removed from his committee.
“I voted with leadership 95 percent of the time this last term,” Representative Justin Amash of Michigan told bloggers at a Heritage Foundation meeting this week. “For a party that needs to attract young people and libertarians this is a slap in the face and a return to old politics.”
Representative Schweikert is more measured in his comments. “I used to be treasurer of Maricopa County, the third most populous county in America,” he told me. “I had something to contribute to Financial Services, which is why I was put there. I would have thought our smaller majority would have led to an emphasis on family unity. This move isn’t the way you start a family meeting.”
Outside conservative groups are vowing they won’t forget Boehner’s move when it comes to evaluating any deal he cuts with President Obama to avert the fiscal cliff. “We are mindlessly rubber-stamping trillion-dollar deficits and the bankrupting of America,” says Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks. “Silencing critics isn’t the way to address that.” Several conservative leaders told me they were especially concerned that Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the incoming head of the conservative House Republican Study Committee, had been largely silent on the purge. “If it’s not his time to lead, when will it be?” one asked me.
But conservatives also should avoid overreacting to the purge. Erick Erickson of RedState wrote this week: “As the sun rises this morning we can look at John Boehner, [Majority Leader] Eric Cantor, and [Majority Whip] Kevin McCarthy and know the opposition is not just across the aisle, but in charge of our own side in the House of Representatives.”
Declaring the GOP leadership in the House to be the enemy will do little to improve matters leading into the fiscal-cliff negotiations. That said, this is a time for conservatives to express their displeasure and warn that risking a civil war by punishing conservative members is no way for House Republicans to hold the confidence of their base. They are going to need all the help they can get from that base in the coming weeks.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.