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.
As for the new members who routinely buck party leadership, even they are quick to jump to Boehner’s defense. “I would not take [Boehner’s] job for quintuple the salary,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R., S.C.), echoing a common sentiment among freshman conservatives. While they may be disappointed with the end result, they do not envy the task of negotiating with President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.).
In fact, Boehner’s resilience and willingness to go toe-to-toe with the president served to rally freshman behind the speaker. They were, after all, elected as a rebuke to Obama and his policies. “Do we want to stand with the president, or do we stand with the speaker of the House?” Rep. Reid Ribble (R., Wis.), a freshman member of the House Budget Committee, told NRO. “If those are my two choices right now, I’m going to stand with the speaker of the House.”
“Everyone in that room loves him,” Rep. Joe Walsh (R., Ill.), a frequent and outspoken critic of party leadership, told reporters after a recent conference meeting. And when Boehner held a conference call with members to announce the final deal, sources say, the outpouring of support from freshman members was overwhelming.
The feeling is mutual. Boehner told members on the conference call that without the input and influence of the freshmen, “we never would have gotten this far.” Even those who voted against the final deal — 66 Republicans, including 28 freshmen — acknowledge this much. “This is clearly a win for all these troublesome conservative Republicans who came here to change the world,” Walsh joked.
“I think the freshman class has been very valuable to this process,” says Rep. Dennis Ross (R., Fla.). “Without them, without us, I don’t believe we’d be where we are today.” Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R., Ind.) concurs. With “the most liberal president we’ve ever had” occupying the White House, he tells NRO, the Tea Party and the conservative movement have done all right for themselves. “I think the Tea Party needs to take credit for changing the dialogue in Washington to be about cutting spending.”
If Chuck Schumer and the media’s portrayal of the freshman class were at all accurate, such change would never have been possible. They may be tough to satisfy, but they’re not crazy. “Look, I’m a former federal prosecutor,” Gowdy said. “We’re not the caricature the press would like us to be. We’re not a bunch of knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing Neanderthals.”
— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow.