This year’s House GOP freshman class, with 85 members, is one of the largest in decades. Even more remarkable is the fact that more than a third of them have never held elected office. They are military officers, small businessmen, pilots, FBI agents, auctioneers, nurses, pottery makers, pizzeria owners, an NFL offensive tackle, and even a rodeo announcer/bomb technician (Rep. Rick Crawford of Arkansas).
The Republican leadership under House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) knew it would have its hands full once this crew of status quo–busting “citizen legislators” marched into town. For one thing, they would be arriving under extraordinary fiscal circumstances: The government was operating under a continuing resolution set to expire in a matter of weeks, the president was about to release his budget for 2012, and a vote to raise the federal debt ceiling loomed. Federal budget issues being complex even for experienced politicians, the incoming class would need to be brought up to speed, and fast.
Fortunately for the GOP, they had just the man for the job in Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee. Ryan teamed up with Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) to conduct a series of “listening sessions” with new members to discuss issues regarding spending and the national debt — essentially Budget 101 for freshmen. Three times a week, Ryan would deliver 15-minute PowerPoint presentations to a group of eight to ten freshmen, followed by an extended question-and-answer period. “It’s very much a two-way dialogue,” a senior GOP aide explained. “It’s not about convincing the new members, it’s about showing them where the problems are.”
This emphasis on communication was part of the new tone that Boehner hoped to set for the 112th Congress — in stark contrast to the rigid and often haughty leadership style of his predecessor, Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.). “As the chamber of our government closest to the people, the House works best when it is allowed to work its will,” Boehner would often say.
The effort to bring new members into the fold began on Day One, with the addition of two “freshman liaison” positions to the party leadership, and continued with the unprecedented selection of freshman members to coveted positions on such powerful committees as Appropriations and Energy and Commerce. In addition to the sessions with Ryan, party leaders kept new members constantly abreast of the issues, whether through face-to-face meetings or conference calls.
But in the end, no amount of foresight or due diligence could prepare GOP leaders for the full magnitude of the freshman wave headed their way. Perhaps unencumbered by the measured cynicism that years in Washington can instill, these proud tea partiers were not inclined to wait around for change. Nowhere was this more prevalent than in their effort to make good on a simple promise they made during the campaign: to cut federal spending.
As part of their campaign “Pledge to America,” Republicans promised to cut federal non-defense spending by $100 billion over the course of the fiscal year — a number based on President Obama’s (never-enacted) budget request for 2011. But when Ryan, on February 3, announced his spending guidance for the remainder of the fiscal year, he was short by nearly half. In fact, it wasn’t entirely clear how much the GOP would actually be cutting — $58 billion? $43 billion? $32 billion? — because the numbers kept changing, each time getting further from the $100 billion pledge.
Aides say party leaders favored a cautious, more long-term approach to the federal budget, not wanting to reach too far, too fast on spending cuts. Also, they could explain the discrepancy: They noted that the fiscal year was already halfway through, and that the continuing resolution passed during the lame-duck session was already $40 billion below Obama’s request. All things considered, they argued, Republicans were “technically” on track to fulfill their pledge. “If anyone thinks we’re afraid to cut $100 billion they got another think coming,” Ryan said in response to critics.
Nevertheless, this did not sit well with new members, not least because Ryan’s announcement coincided with a district work period, and many found themselves confronted by angry constituents demanding to know what had happened to the $100 billion figure. “Technically” fulfilling a pledge just didn’t cut it.
Freshmen weren’t the only ones brimming with dissent. Veteran members of the conservative Republican Study Committee, led by Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio), had politely warned party leaders in a letter to stick to the $100 billion, regardless of extenuating circumstances. And no sooner did Ryan announce his $58 billion plan than Jordan began drafting an amendment to cut an additional $42 billion.
Thus, when members of Congress returned to Capitol Hill on February 7, the stage was set for an intramural showdown. Rep. Hal Rogers (Ky.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, was in the final stages of drafting a seven-month spending resolution that would cut non-defense spending by $58 billion. But in a defiant move, Reps. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), a perennial fiscal hawk, and Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.) voted against the bill in committee, demanding further cuts.
Tensions boiled over into a closed-door conference meeting the next day, where members had what one source described as a “very respectful, but also very blunt” discussion about the need to remain true to the Pledge and cut a full $100 billion. Flake rallied members to his side by arguing that “if you’re explaining things after the fact, you’re probably losing the battle.”
Boehner and company heard that message loud and clear, but had clearly been caught on their heels. Into the sudden disarray stepped Rep. Tom Graves (Ga.), an Appropriations Committee member and self-described “freshman in spirit,” having won office in a June 2010 special election. Graves made the most of his unique standing within the party to help bring the leadership and the freshmen to an agreement. He convened a series of meetings with new members in his office, where he gave them a rundown of the appropriations process and gradually built a consensus to get to $100 billion in cuts — before the amendment process would begin. “We knew this was going to be the opening kickoff to a long season,” Graves said. “The thinking was: ‘Let’s kick it deep and start off with the strongest field position we can.’”
That afternoon, he brought that message of a unified freshman class to a meeting with Republican leaders, with whom he had already established relationships as a result of his six-month head start. “I told them: ‘We’ve got to get to $100 billion if we want this CR to pass,’” Graves says. “That’s what these freshmen want.”
Following their consultation with Graves, party leaders called an impromptu evening conference session to iron out the details. Sure enough, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) emerged from that meeting to announce that the GOP would make good on its $100 billion promise — no caveats, no qualifications. Not only that, but the open amendment process Boehner had promised would allow members to propose even further cuts, which they didn’t hesitate to do — to the tune of $620 million.
For the freshman class and their Tea Party backers, it was a groundbreaking triumph. They had officially arrived in Washington, making clear that they were not content to follow, but were more than ready to drive the debate on critical issues. “We may be freshmen, we may be rookies in this game, but there is no question that the leadership respects our opinion,” Rep. Steve Womack (Ark.) told National Review.
GOP leaders were eager to embrace what they saw as the emergence of a new mindset in Congress. “We said we were going to change the culture in Washington,” said Majority Leader Cantor. “And I don’t think any of us can really remember a time in which we were really bickering about the levels of spending cuts.” Leadership had done its part by setting the right tone, but it was the freshman class that provided the extra push, translating tone into action. And they weren’t done yet.
The $100 billion brouhaha, together with the feedback gleaned from Ryan’s budget sessions, ultimately pushed GOP leaders to reconsider their course of action on further important budget issues. While it had always been a matter of when, not whether, Republicans would tackle the politically dicey but fiscally imperative challenge of entitlement reform, the conventional wisdom had argued for later rather than sooner. As one senior GOP aide explains, the freshman class was not well-versed in the thorny issue of entitlement spending. On the campaign trail, many were reluctant to embrace specific reform proposals like those outlined in Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap,” for example.
Nearly all of them, however, expressed earnest commitments to a balanced federal budget — a Tea Party axiom. Ryan’s sessions helped make clear that balancing the budget was a fool’s errand absent meaningful reform to entitlement programs. And once it became clear that President Obama intended to punt on the issue, skirting entitlements altogether in his 2012 budget, GOP freshmen were champing at the bit; party leaders therefore decided to take on the issue sooner. Ryan immediately got to work crafting a budget that would finally dare to address the primary drivers of the national debt: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
For members of the freshman class, it was the only practicable course of action. “This is about leadership,” says Rep. Allen West (Fla.). “If we don’t deal with entitlements, then we are not serious.” Nobody who knows West can accuse him of a lack of seriousness. Nor should anyone doubt that when it comes to this year’s crop of new members, the hard-charging Army colonel is the rule, rather than the exception. As Republican leaders can attest, those who underestimate this freshman class do so at their own peril.
– Mr. Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow with National Review Online.