Politics & Policy

Guerrilla Congress

The House GOP is fighting the good fight on energy policy.

For all the talk about leveraging new technology for political organizing, Congressman Tim Walberg doesn’t see the need to reinvent the wheel to get across his message that gas prices are hurting his constituents back in Michigan.

Walberg has been carrying around a plastic gas can and asking his constituents to drop their gas receipts into the can with hand written messages telling him how gas prices are hurting their family. Kitschy? Sure — but it’s no doubt an effective prop for getting his message across.

That gas can was certainly been put to good use during the last two days in Congress. Last Friday, after Democrats voted to adjourn for five weeks without passing an energy bill — a motion that carried by a single vote without one Republican in favor — Republicans decided to protest by staying in town and railing against Democratic inaction from the house floor. After C-SPAN’s cameras and the microphones were turned off, Republicans were speaking to anybody who would listen about what’s been going on.

After two days of speaking to a half-full visitors’ gallery — and Congressmen personally leading Capitol visitors to sit in the seats on the House floor — you’d think they’d be running out of things to talk about and losing enthusiasm.

But that’s not the case. All Tim Walberg has to do is reach back into his gas can and he’s got plenty of stories to tell about the price of energy. This day, he starts talking about a voter named Beth from the blue-collar burg of Jackson, Michigan. Her family is coughing up $175 a week to pay for gas.

“We can no longer afford to send our kids to Catholic school,” Walberg says, relaying Beth’s note. “It’s gas or dentistry for my son.” Walberg wraps up his speech on the floor of the House, invoking shades of his former career as a minister by paraphrasing no less an authority than Moses: “Madam Speaker, let my people vote!” Walberg says to a thunderous standing ovation.

Walberg cedes the floor to another Republican congressman — ranking House Ways and Means Committee member Wally Herger who launches into his own passionate oratory about how gas prices are affecting his constituents.

For Herger, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s inaction is almost a personal affront. Herger’s rural district in Nothern California borders Pelosi’s San Franscisco to the south. The median home price in San Francisco is close to a million dollars, so Pelosi’s city stays humming largely because Herger’s poorer constituents are willing to commute to jobs in the city serving Pelosi’s wealthy constituents. Berger than enthusiastically gives out the speaker’s phone number and begs those present to call Pelosi and register their disgust with her decision to adjourn.

Of course one might point out that Walberg and Herger — and the dozens of Republicans to speak in protest over the last two days — have been able to speak to only a few hundred people at a time, mostly tourists that are passing through the Capitol building. There are no TV cameras to be found, so it may seem hard to see how effective this grandstanding will be. (Though you can watch some video of it here.)

But that’s precisely why the spectacle seems to be so compelling. House Republicans don’t seem to care. The American people overwhelmingly agree with them, they have Pelosi’s back up against the wall, and this is almost a celebration of sorts for them. Having talked to numerous Republican House members over the last year, it was nearly an open secret that morale was exceedingly low among the ranks.

Arizona congressmen John Shadegg — beloved by the party’s conservative base — announced his retirement back in February before his party successfully begged him not to go through with it. The guy who wanted to retire was a kid in a candy store last Friday when Republicans kicked off the protest. “I love this,” Shadegg told reporters in the House press gallery. “Congress can be so boring. . . . This is a kick.”

The Republican enthusiasm and the message driving it — that congress shouldn’t be on vacation when high gas prices are forcing ordinary Americans to cancel theirs — is turning out to be irrepressible. Over the weekend, Barack Obama suggested he may not be entirely opposed to more domestic oil exploration after all, something that if he does end up supporting would prove to be yet another major policy reversal by the Democratic nominee. In fact, ABC news reported that House GOP sources said they would not have continued the protest a second day “if the Democratic nominee had not modified his position on offshore drilling.”

Well, on Monday, Obama then gave a major energy address suggesting that 70 million barrels of oil be released from the country’s strategic reserves to alleviate gas prices. As far as Republicans are concerned, that’s a twofer — a bad idea in that it’s not a long-term solution, and it represents another policy reversal for Obama.

The House GOP’s decision to draw attention to the Democratic leadership’s failure to produce an energy bill is also wreaking electoral havoc in at least one Senate race. At a televised debate July 28, Colorado congressmen and Democratic senatorial candidate Mark Udall said he would not vote to adjourn congress until they had an energy bill.

Udall then skipped the vote, which passed 213-212 without a single Republican voting in favor. Had Udall been there and lived up to his campaign promise, the motion to adjourn would not have passed. Udall has been heavily criticized by television and newspapers in Colorado, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee has been having a field day mocking Udall for his broken promise. And it’s been a close race between Udall and Republican congressman Bob Schafer before Udall missed the vote.

With energy issues poised to be big in November, for now the momentum on the issue has swung the Republicans’ way. And the House GOP shows no signs of giving up yet. On Tuesday afternoon, Texas congressmen Jeb Hensarling announced that a number of Republican Senators were on planes ready to join the House Republicans in their fight.

They’re also quite confident that one way or another they’re going to call Speaker Pelosi’s bluff. For one thing, more domestic oil exploration and a new energy bill aren’t exactly issues that have to break along party lines. In fact, they’re confident if an up-or-down vote were allowed on the issue, enough Democrats would vote for it to pass it handily. The only way Pelosi can defeat it is to keep the vote from happening in the first place.

House Republicans don’t think Pelosi can withstand continued pressure. Speaking on the floor of the House, Georgia congressmen Phil Gingrey said he expects to look at his Blackberry anytime, and see a message saying, “ALERT: Speaker of the House has called Congress back.”

If that e-mail arrives and Democrats return, the odds are they’ll find the Republican opposition right where they left them.

– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

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