(Opinion column) — I owe John Boehner an apology.
For years I’ve thought the former House Speaker was responsible for the obstructionism by Republicans in that chamber. It turns out a small coalition of extremist conservatives were able to undermine Boehner at almost every turn.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think he was a terrible leader. I don’t feel sorry for Boehner because he allowed the Freedom Caucus to sabotage and oust him, but I do worry about what happens next in the House and how much damage a small bunch of GOP rebel lawmakers can inflict on our nation.
It’s not overstating the case to say the fractured Republican Party may never be the same again due to the fighting among its government-hating Tea Party members, the slightly less crazy conservatives and the comparatively more moderate factions of the GOP establishment. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s a war.
The party is already dealing with the embarrassing process of picking its next presidential nominee from among a pack of batty candidates. While it decides who can capture the hearts and minds of the ultra-conservative Republican base, the soap opera being played out in the House is just as bizarre, albeit in an entertaining way for Democrats who could benefit if they defeat caucus members next year.
A band of about three-dozen right-wing Republicans who belong to the Freedom Caucus — including Wyoming’s congresswoman, Cynthia Lummis — turned the U.S. House into chaos last month when their behavior forced Boehner out of the Speaker’s chair. He resigned, but only because he couldn’t stand the pressure of working with them anymore.
Since she joined the caucus, Lummis has stated she believes it can finally bring transparency and openness to governing. Maybe it could start by releasing its official membership list. While the media has identified about 38 members, several other House members have refused to say if they are part of the movement. So much for pride in their cause. Why hide?
The power of the Freedom Caucus is based on the relatively thin margin the Republicans have in controlling the House. With 246 of 435 House members from their party, the GOP needs 218 votes to win on any issue. That 28-vote difference means if the 38 known caucus members vote as a bloc against what the Republican leadership wants, they can keep the House from approving any measure — unless the speaker gets the most conservative Democrats to back his position.
Working with congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama to compromise on any measure is seen by many Republicans — not just the Freedom Caucus — as borderline treason. Even though poll after poll shows the public is disgusted by the refusal of Congress to compromise on nearly every issue, many Republicans still view it as political suicide.
The majority of her constituents don’t seem to mind that Lummis has aligned herself and Wyoming with such extreme-right politicians. I think that’s because voters don’t really understand the mission of the Freedom Caucus. It’s not that the members just want to run the federal government differently; they want it to run it into the ground so it effectively disappears.
It’s pure nuttiness. The caucus formally began in January when nine representatives took up arms against all types of immigration reform, especially proposals that would provide a path to citizenship for any of the millions of illegal immigrants living in the United States.
That unifying and winning effort quickly morphed into opposition to health care reform, all environmental regulations and any bill the coalition believes gives too much power to the federal government they serve as lawmakers. Its latest target has been Planned Parenthood.
When a conservative group leveled phony charges that the organization sells tissue from aborted fetuses for profit, it was a godsend to the Freedom Caucus, which used the controversy to hold congressional hearings. The members, including Lummis, never let the facts get in the way of their insidious attempt to take away all federal funding from a nonprofit health organization that provides essential medical services to millions of women, including cancer screenings and mammograms.
How far is the Freedom Caucus willing to go to defund Planned Parenthood? The group vowed to hold up an essential budget deal unless it included taking away all of the group’s federal funding. It also promised to block raising the debt ceiling for the same reason, even though for years Republicans routinely supported that action. Refusing to do so this year would have been the first time the U.S. ever reneged on its debts, which could lead to economic chaos.
The caucus members’ hatred of abortion, a legal medical procedure, clearly cannot be limited by any catastrophic result for our country as long as it would bring down an organization whose abortion services constitute only 3 percent of its health care operation. The caucus promised to lead a federal government shutdown, even though the last one Republicans staged in October 2013 resulted in a loss of $24 billion in economic output, according to the ratings agency Standard and Poor’s.
Caucus leaders went ballistic when Republican leaders like Boehner joined congressional Democrats and the White House to cut a budget deal that delays voting on raising the debt ceiling until 2017.
Boehner said a government shutdown never had a chance this time and amounted to “a fool’s errand,” and Lummis supported his removal as Speaker. She told Fox News that one of her main concerns was Boehner’s unwillingness to let “better ideas” other than his own to come from Republicans on the House floor.
A more likely reason Lummis wanted Boehner gone was the fact she and two other members had been publicly dumped by the Speaker from his leadership team for voting against his position on a rule governing debate on a trade bill. Lummis had been one of three “deputy whips” whose job was to line up support for whatever the leadership proposed.
That betrayal cost her the much-coveted position. Her spokesman, Joe Spiering, told the National Journal that Lummis understood the decision and that she “knew going into the rule vote last week that being a member of the whip team has certain parameters.”
One truly humorous aspect of other Republicans’ reaction to the way the Freedom Caucus works is the ripping its members have received from right-wing radio. Rush Limbaugh and others have lambasted the caucus for not standing up to Boehner before they forced him to quit and telling him to shove his budget deal.
The Freedom Caucus has positioned itself to the right of the very conservative Republican Study Committee, which has 172 members who jump whenever told to by the Heritage Foundation, the National Rifle Association or other sacred groups. Yet the caucus hasn’t passed Limbaugh’s nut-wing litmus test for being “real conservatives.”
A funny unintended consequence of the rebellion by the caucus is that establishment Republicans are talking about getting more reasonable GOP candidates to oppose them in next year’s elections. The practice of “primarying” is what got many of the Freedom Caucus members elected in the first place.
Something that has always puzzled me is why some politicians who work so hard to get elected to Congress spend so much of their time trying to slow down, disrupt or end the federal governmental system they have been chosen to lead.
I wonder if Freedom Caucus members were told by their civics teachers that the only way to make a difference in a political system you disagree with is to work from within to change it. That familiar lesson was meant to encourage students to be part of the democratic process.
Note that the advice is to “change” the system, not “destroy” it.
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