If there was ever any doubt about it, yesterday removed it — the Tea Party has arrived on Capitol Hill.
The revolt of freshman and conservative Republicans over spending cuts for this fiscal year ended almost before it began, because it prevailed so rapidly. The rebellion started in rumblings back in the lawmakers’ districts; gathered in the defiance of Republican dissenters on the appropriations committee; and reached full force at yesterday’s conference meeting, knocking GOP leaders back on their heels and quickly convincing them to give in to the Tea Party’s demands.
“We may be freshmen, we may be rookies in this game,” says Rep. Steve Womack (R., Ark.). “But there is no question that the leadership respects our opinion.”
GOP freshmen were frustrated when, earlier this month, House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) released his proposal to cut $58 billion in non-security spending for the remainder of the fiscal year. Perhaps more than anything, they were confused. To begin with, it wasn’t exactly clear how much money they were planning to cut — in addition to Ryan’s $58 billion, the numbers $74 billion, $43 billion, and $32 billion were floating around. It seemed that few could agree, because it depended on what baseline and category of spending you were using.
Whatever the actual figure, it was short of the $100 billion Republicans had promised to cut in the “Pledge to America.” And when new members were dispatched to their districts to explain how the GOP plan “technically” did cut $100 billion — the resolution covers only seven-twelfths of the fiscal year, and $58 billion is seven-twelfths of $100 billion — they grew more confused and frustrated.
This was the prevailing attitude when House members returned from last week’s district-work period. Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio) and other members of the Republican Study Committee promised to introduce an amendment that would tack on an additional $42 billion in cuts in order to hit $100 billion. Then came the first rumblings of a genuine revolt. On Tuesday evening, the House Appropriations Committee voted to move forward with a continuing resolution drafted using Ryan’s $58 billion in cuts. Even though the proposal passed the committee 27–22, two Republicans — Reps. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) and Cynthia Lummis (R., Wyo.) — cast “no” votes to protest the inadequacy of the cuts. In a further act of defiance, Flake filed a dissenting view in the committee’s report, a move that members of the majority party rarely make.
That contentious atmosphere carried over into Wednesday morning’s closed conference meeting, where Flake and Lummis were joined by dozens of freshmen in urging the party leadership to include further cuts in the continuing resolution — if anything, to make it easier to defend, and to remove all ambiguity regarding the Pledge. A GOP source tells National Review Online that a number of members rallied around Flake’s argument that “if you’re explaining things after the fact, you’re probably losing the battle.” In other words, “technically” fulfilling a pledge just wouldn’t cut it.
Representative Womack, a freshman member of the Appropriations Committee, says Flake’s comments really struck a chord. Womack admits to being rather confounded by the less-than-straightforward rhetoric surrounding Ryan’s numbers. At first, he chalked it up to being new and unfamiliar with the ways of Congress, but he soon found that he wasn’t alone. “I think most of us realized that the numbers we’re reporting and the budgets we’re referring need to be articulated in such a way that the American people can understand and that we can understand,” Womack says. “Even though there’s an argument for [adjusting the numbers to reflect the fiscal year], there’s still a demand for cuts that would match the Pledge.”
A House aide confirms there was a feeling of “confusion in the ranks” about the spending numbers that, combined with a growing sense of frustration, really drove the effort to get an unambiguous $100 billion included in the CR. “The goal was to make a clear statement and make sure that nothing would be open to interpretation,” the aide says.
Party leaders heard that message loud and clear and quickly took action. The Appropriations Committee scrapped a number of scheduled hearings and called a meeting of the subcommittee chairmen on that afternoon. “It was very apparent that freshman members in particular were not pleased,” an appropriations aide familiar with the situation says. “There was pretty strong guidance from leadership: You’ve got to find more to cut.”
The already-tense atmosphere was exacerbated by a series of failed votes on measures that many expected to comfortably pass the GOP-controlled House, such as an extension of certain provisions of the Patriot Act and a “YouCut” proposal to secure repayment of money the United Nations owes the U.S. This created an entirely new impetus for party leaders to seek out a unified strategy on spending, a GOP source tells us: “We have to know what the outcomes are going to be when we got into a vote.”
As it stands, the dissenters appear to have prevailed with astounding speed. House Appropriations chairman Hal Rogers (R., Ky.) announced Thursday that additional cuts were in the offing. “After meeting with my subcommittee chairs, we have determined that the CR can and will reach a total of $100 billion in cuts compared with the president’s request immediately — fully meeting the goal outlined in the Republican ‘Pledge to America’ in one fell swoop,” Rogers said in a statement.
Aides tell National Review Online that party leaders are working diligently behind the scenes “trying to right the ship” before the CR is brought to floor next week. Freshman members have been signing on to a collective effort led by Representatives Flake, Jordan, and Tom Graves (R., Ga.) to engage the leadership and set the stage for next week’s debate. Amendments are being prepared, the details of which will be ironed out in the coming days, and there could well be additional intramural showdowns ahead. In particular, expect a push from members who believe that even cutting $100 billion relative to President Obama’s request is a cop-out — they’d prefer to see cuts based off the 2010 CR levels, which are lower.
House Speaker John Boehner told reporters Thursday that all bickering and confusion aside, Republicans were on the verge of a significant achievement. “Next week, we will bring to the floor a CR that contains the largest discretionary spending cut in the history of our country,” he said. “This resolution will be marked not by what it continues but by what it ends — and that is Washington’s spending binge.”
That was true of Ryan’s initial numbers, and it’s truer now.
— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow.