Thursday, August 22, 2013

Iron Law of Politics? House Republican Leaders Are Always Squishes

There's a lot of good talk this morning about the GOP House leadership's current maybe-plan to trade in the possibility of shutting down the government over Obamacare for the threat of defaulting the government over Obamacare. Regardless of how it plays out, it occurs to me that there may be an Iron Law of Politics: House Republican Leaders Are Always Squishes.

John Boehner, of course, is a well-known traitor to true conservatives. He replaced Denny Hastert, who mostly was a blank slate for most any rate, by the end of his tenure as Speaker, conservatives were quite unhappy with the drift of the House towards earmarks and spending.

Hastert replaced Newt Gingrich, who is sort of an unusual case; his demise probably had more to do with his overly centralized style as Speaker than about his lack of fidelity to conservative ideas. But conservatives never trusted him (and with good reason).

Gingrich replaced Bob Michel, who was clearly chased out as Minority Leader because he was insufficiently conservative and confrontational.

I'm not aware of any significant conservative action against John Rhodes, who preceded Michel. Before Rhodes was Gerald Ford, who everyone seemed to have liked.

Ford defeated Charles Halleck. According to one source I have (Richard Reeves' biography of Ford), the confrontation was along age, and not ideological lines...Halleck wasn't seen as a squish, or not sufficiently conservative, but just out of touch.

Halleck, however, ousted Joe Martin because Martin wasn't aggressive enough.

OK, that's the basic outline. The idea here isn't just about who is more conservative; it's a particular complaint that the current leader is always too accommodating of liberals, too ensconced in the "Washington" culture, not sufficiently confrontational, and other such complaints.

Hmmm...does that make an Iron Law? I'm mostly working from memory here. Hey, House historians! Am I getting these transitions right? The clear cases I see on transitions are Martin/Halleck, Michel/Newt, and Hastert/Boehner, with the current unhappiness with Boehner also a very good fit. I don't really know or remember enough about the pre-Michel leaders, though. I'm comfortable cutting it off with Martin, though.

Granted: at all times in every party, there are going to be moderates and hardliners, and the hardliners are going to find the leaders to be too moderate; that's the nature of an ideological spectrum, at least to the extent that spectrum is real. But I don't really see a similar dynamic happening with the other three Congressional leadership chains, especially within the House and Senate. Tom Foley might fit as someone regarded as insufficiently confrontational. There's a bit of that in the Senate, but I think it's mostly about complaints from outside interest groups and party actors about Howard Baker, Bob Dole, and Trent Lott. I don't think many Republican Senators joined in. And it's important that the complaints are regularly personal; there are (often? usually? always?) a group within the House who believe that Republicans would get much better outcomes with tougher, more confrontational leadership.


  1. I have a better phrasing:

    Republicans believe in tyranny tempered by assassination.

    However, there is another vibrant tradition in the House GOP: the power behind the throne style.

    Hastert might have become president if Clinton and Gore died, but that doesn't mean he was in charge of the House. Tom DeLay was, and everyone knew it. Once DeLay and Armey were out of the picture, THEN Hastert was the Speaker. Tellingly, I can't find any references to the "Hastert Rule" prior to 2003.

    House Democrats, on the other hand, have always been assiduous followers of the "ladder" principle: there's a ladder to the leadership, and until the rung above you is vacated, you don't move up. It's not quite seniority, because tenure doesn't dictate when an MC enters the ladder. But, once on the ladder, there's no leapfrogging--not a single example of Dem leapfrogging or backstabbing comes to mind. The example I keep getting stuck on is Hoyer vs Pelosi for Minority Whip. It was a nasty, bitter contest. Once over, though, Hoyer has been a loyal lieutenant, and when positions opened up above them, each of them rose a rank. A Henry Waxman, for example, while being quite powerful in the House, has never wanted a part in the party leadership, preferring committee work. Hale Boggs' death also works as an example: who was under him when he disappeared?** Tip O'Neill, who rose to Leader then Speaker, etc., etc.

    **I say disappeared, because he was clearly teleported back to the Quijibo dimension by aliens for his role in the Warren Commission coverup of the Kennedy "Assassination." He also had planted a fake birth announcement in a Hawaii newspaper in an unrelated(?) matter! :)

    1. "Committee work..." By that, you presumably mean LEAPFROGGING his way to a subcommittee chairmanship back in the 70's, right? That's a leadership position. That's leapfrogging. Oh, and corrupt too since he bought off everybody on the committee.

    2. It's not a PARTY leadership position. In the current House, I believe there are 105 subcommittees on 21 committees. (I don't recall the numbers from 1978, but I think they were slightly larger...maybe 115 subcomms?) If nobody chairs two, then 126 Republicans (Democrats, if this was 3 years ago) were "in the leadership" by that definition.

      No dispute that Waxman's (at the time, novel) use of a PAC to donate to to other Dems on the committee helped him take advantage of the new rules that made seniority no longer king in determining committee roles. If you want to call that corrupt, fine by me. But my point still remains: Waxman had that subcomm chair, and others, and comm chairs over the years, but he's never been in the party leadership. Powerful, yes, but not through the party directly.

      And, the Democrats, while being MORE interested in seniority for committee roles than Republicans are, still countenance violations of seniority (and imposed term limits on chairs that never got tested, since they lost the House before those terms ended). I distinctly remember the appointment of Silvestre Reyes to chair the Intel Comm...despite a, shall we say, lack of qualifications?

      I'm not defending the Democratic party's practices, either in the old days of COMMITTEE leaders being chosen entirely based on seniority, nor in the new days (where what Waxman did is now considered REQUIRED by BOTH parties for committee leadership positions!) Neither am I attacking the GOP's practices. Rather, I'm noting that the two parties have chosen to go about picking their PARTY leaders in very different manners.

      Both parties have also differed in how much centralization of the chamber they seem to want (party leader powers vs committee chair powers). Republicans have seemed to centralized more than the Dems, but there's a MASSIVE problem in concluding that's purely a party difference, as the Dems have run the show for all of 4 years in the last 20 (during which they were more party-led than they had been under Foley or O'Neill). It really could just be "conditional party government" as a cause, and the GOP happens to have been in control in a more partisan-polarized era than the Dems have been. OR, it could be a fundamental difference in the character of the parties.

      NONE of this says that the Dems or the GOP "do it right." But, there do seem to be real differences in how the two parties prefer to operate, all things being equal.

    3. I would like to second annon's point that Waxman (and thus Jarvis) are history's greatest monsters. Also it's pretty obvious that Boggs was sucked into the Jumanji game.

      On a more serious note I'd agree that DeLay really doesn't have a comparable example on the Democratic side, but the conditions of Hastert's rise, a compromise leader picked in a time of crisis, makes him a poor indicator of anything really. Having said that, "Republicans believe in tyranny tempered by assassination" is a great way of summing it up. To put it another way "when you play the Game of Speaker, you either win or you die or you get dethroned and then go on Fox News."

    4. Hmmm. Chairs aren't PARTY leadership positions. So, when Pelosi stuck it to Harman in favor of Reyes, that wasn't about the structure of party leadership. Interesting. You know, when Waxman bought his subcommittee chair, there were multiple people ahead of him. The most senior was a Dixiecrat that PARTY leaders wanted to bye-pass in favor of... I'm too lazy to look it up but his name was kind of like Richard Prayor. The fact that the most senior was out of the running entirely because of the PARTY's preference for Prayor meant that the position was effectively a PARTY position. And Henry Moneybags LEAPFROGGED his way to it.

    5. "Chairs aren't PARTY leadership positions."

      Yes, that's correct, but there's no need for superfluous capitalization.

    6. Sarcasm aside, that is exactly my point.

      The party is involved in committees, more so today than they were from 1911-1973. But, when Waxman bought his subcomm chair, he did so by getting the support of the Democrats on that subcomm.

      There is chamber leadership and committee leadership. From 1911-1973, the two really were not the same. Since 1973, the leaders of the parties in the chamber have had increasing say in the business of the committees, not the other way around. Being chair of an approps subcomm was to be a "Cardinal" in the old days; now, the Approps bills are going to really strongly reflect directives coming out of the Speaker's office.

      None of this says that Waxman wasn't then and isn't now an influential, powerful member of Congress, for good or for ill. I'm taking no position on that. Rather, this is a discussion of party leadership in the two House parties. Whether Waxman is a good or bad man is irrelevant to the discussion, just as whether Gingrich or DeLay were. I'll toss out a name on the GOP side of somebody with influence through the committee system, but not a member of the GOP party leadership: Jim Sensenbrenner. Former chair of two committees, he only has a subcomm now because of chair term limits. It's hurt his influence, just as Waxman's influence isn't as great outside of the realm of Energy and Commerce (and, of course, as minority member). Party leaders have broad influence on many issues; committee leaders have strong influence, but on a narrow set of issues, and they don't control the floor.

      Democrats seemed to copy many of the GOP's tactics with respect to committees vs the party leadership from 2007-2010, although not AS strongly, as seniority was factor (among many, as Harman demonstrates, but a factor nonetheless: the senior Democrat got the chairmanship in most cases). Maybe, if they had held on to power for the last two elections, January 2013 would have really demonstrated whether the Dems had become truly like the GOP in how they subordinated committees to the party leadership. But, the very fact that committees are subordinated to party leadership indicates that these are not the same things.

    7. Oh, please continue to enlighten me, great and powerful Professor Jarvis. I think I've got it now. A chair is a leadership position. The speaker, who is a party leader, can usually dole out chairs as a rewards for party loyalty. He can also fill chairs with people to acheive control of policy for partisan purposes (like Goodlatte bottling up immigration reform in the judiciary). But it's not a party position. Gotcha. And if Justin Amash wants to chair judiciary, I bet his problems with party leaders won't be a problem cuz its not a party position, right? The jobs are controlled by the party, doled out by the party, used by the party for caucus management, used by the party for policy ends, but their not party leadership jobs. Cool.

      Oh, and I suppose you think that Rush Limbaugh isn't a part of republican party leadership, right? Oh, you mean he is a leader in the republican party? Even though it isn't in his job title? Huh. Weird. So John Boehner can stop Justin Amash from chairing any committee even though committee chairs aren't party leadership positions, but Rush, with no formal authority over party officials and no formal constraints from other party officials is a party leader. This is all so confusing. Please enlighten me, oh great one.

    8. I think it would be helpful for you to think of it in terms of there being a party hierarchy as well as the hierarchy of committee assignments. These systems often overlap, a committee chair can be an important player in the party, but they don't always line up perfectly.

      To use an example from Britain ministers are often very important leaders in their party (hence why they get the job a lot of the time) but there can also be important leaders in the party that aren't ministers and ministers with less influence and importance in their party. If you're the Home Secretary you probably had some importance in your party before you got the job, and you were probably picked by the Prime Minister whose also probably the leader of your party. But that doesn't mean it's a party position.

    9. Um, yes it does. When the PARTY loses enough seats in parliament, the ministers all get the boot. Because their jobs are party jobs. Ina parliamentary system the government is the majority party. That's why people describe installing ministers as "government formation" in such systems. The majority party (or coalition) is the government in a parliamentary system.

  2. Is it just me, or does the continuous Republican grandstanding seem like such a waste of time and opportunity? I see commenters, even here, saying that *of course* Republicans have to wait until they control all four branches of government before they can enact their agenda.....

    How many opportunities for advancing their supporters' interests must they squander before said supporters pull the plug? Are the thinktanks and foundations on such autopilot that they cannot come up with a plan, any plan, to alter how the country is governed?

    How can business interests, and church leaders, just shrug off these failures and continue to support the party?

    1. I'd say that's correct, depending on how you describe the conservative agenda. If it means making current legislation as conservative as possible, Republicans have bogged up opportunities to tweak Obamacare, establish reasonable background checks on gun sales, put a more conservative slant on immigration, and slash government farm spending.

      However, I think for a lot of conservatives, "the conservative agenda" means double-or-nothing. That's pretty clearly how they've been governing in a lot of state governments right now. Minimising problems with Obamacare isn't something they care about, only total repeal. Same with zero immigration bill. Farm spending wasn't enough unless it included SNAP elimination. This agenda, however, does require all branches of government to work.

      Now, I think that's a really stupid agenda, one incredibly harmful to the nation, intentionally divisive, and like all double-or-nothing gambits, quite prone to "nothing." That doesn't change that it seems to be what a great many conservatives want.

    2. Irrespective of what conservatives want, the party is driven by a variety of interested factions. Some support defense, some want to outlaw abortion/regulate sex, some want to make money. A lot of money. Defense and money-making seem to me to be things that are part of the nuts and bolts of governing.

      So if the Republican House passes less than 15 bills this year, there will be almost no change to laws. Does that mean that the dominant faction has every dollar it wants already, and no changes are needed? Or does it mean that they all have to wait? Irrespective of the dominant faction, how happy are the little guys about waiting?

      That's what I mean about squandering opportunities.

    3. Oh, I personally think you're right. But there are two problems as I see it. First, "opportunity" is a personal, subjective thing, as per above, and it's generally the case that a lot of the Tea Party and primary-voting base would view various deals poorly. That alone is going to have a pretty chilling effect, since you can't do rich donors any favors if you get primaried. Second, we all have internal hierarchies to our multiple wants. Big Business types might want more from government, but that all fits into a broader scheme. They might value stopping one set of policies more than enacting another.

      I believe that, however delusional they are, the Republican party is the conservative coalition that conservatives and individual Republicans generally want it to be. By and large, they *do* represent what their supporters have decided are their interests. There are, of course, some folks who are left out, but this is the case with any political coalition. That'll probably drive a few away, as always happens with any movement, but there are also those who have increased motivation, and those who feel there isn't a better option, however flawed.

    4. I guess that when ear-marking was outlawed, a lot of those business interests engaged in private-public activities were shut out. Ear-marking had been a huge power behind compromise. Powerbrokers like Tom DeLay used them very effectively. In one sense, the Tea Party was a purge of the DeLay/Bush mechanisms to distribute power in the Republican party. The reduction of a faction's sway.

      The difference between you and me is that I don't think there is a broader scheme. I think the utter lack of strategy displayed by conservatives in Congress is evidence of that. And I believe that the prideful notion "we can wait til we hold all the rings" is damned expensive. It's working right now in many state houses. I don't see it lasting any longer than Rove's permanent majority.

  3. If Hastert hadn't resigned from boredom, and had instead pulled a Pelosi and stuck around as minority leader through the Dark Times, would he have been easily accepted as Speaker in January 2011 when the Republicans took over again?

    1. Insightful question, Kal. And, I think the answer reveals a lot.

      If, somehow, the Dems had won in 2012, Pelosi would now be Speaker. I don't think Hoyer, or Clyburn, or anyone else would have challenged her. Not because she's Pelosi, but because that's the way the Dems operate.
      I strongly suspect that, had Hastert stuck around, he would not have been the GOP's choice in 2011, or at a bare minimum, would have faced a fight. One of the reasons Hastert resigned, I think, is that, on the GOP side, there really is not this strong expectation that the pecking order at time 1 will be replicated at time 2.

      FWIW, I think the ladder method isn't a particularly good idea. But, the Dems sure seem to think it is.

  4. The point is not that Republican leaders are always squishes - many of them have been fine politicians. The problem is that the incentives of Washington all run one way - compromise and accomodation with the federal bureaucracy, meaning ever increasing regulation and spending. In other words, it's "power corrupts," rather than "born bad." People respond to incentives - a conservative point, if ever there was one - and when the incentives are evil, virtue is snuffed out. You see the same thing in the inner cities - it's not that the people there are incapable of behaving morally, but when incentivised to be shiftless, that is what they become.

    The Iron Law of Politics that we're dealing with is that the interests of the permanent bureaucracy are often stronger than the ideology of temporary politicians, even when those politicians are from a party as noble and determined as the GOP.

    1. Hahaha.

      Or, as the last, squishy GOP presidential nominee would say, ha ha ha.

  5. There was some research done on patterns in House party leadership advancement in the 1970s and 1980s that still seems to hold up. That was when the Democratic pattern of advancement up the ladder was identified. Election results apparently determined the Republican pattern. Large or unexpected losses in House races usually led to the replacement of the Republican leader (Martin, Halleck, Gingrich)


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