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.