Politics is a team sport. Except the way House Republicans have played it for the past few years.
At the root of the problems that afflict the majority party in the House is that there are simply too few members willing to occasionally set aside personal interests and ambitions for the broader goals of the party. They just won’t take one for the team.
“The founders’ vision of seeing consensus and compromise in a party conference, let alone on the floor of Congress, appears to be a thing of the past,” said Tom Reynolds, a former congressman from New York who spent two elections as chairman of the House GOP’s campaign arm.
“It is every man for himself,” added another Republican former lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about internal party differences. “House Republicans need to recognize their destinies are intertwined.”
Examples of this go-it-alone approach are everywhere. The surprise failure of the farm bill last month was a result of the rebellion of five dozen Republicans who thought the legislation cut too little. The collapse of House Speaker John Boehner’s alternative proposal during the “fiscal cliff” negotiations late last year was caused by conservative Republicans’ unwillingness to get behind it. (Worth noting: While Boehner (R-Ohio) eventually voted for the compromise deal that averted the fiscal cliff, neither House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) nor House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) did.) Then, of course, there was the quasi-rebellion against Boehner at the start of the 113th Congress, when he barely avoided being pushed to a second ballot in his quest for a new term as speaker.
The farm bill was perhaps most illustrative of the lack of team spirit in the House GOP. Among the 62 Republicans who voted against the bill, five were committee chairmen — positions they hold thanks to the very party leaders they bucked in voting “no.”
“We have younger members [who] seem incapable of following and who constantly make the perfect the enemy of the good,” explained one GOP lawmaker, who spoke candidly on the condition of anonymity. “We have chairmen . . . who seem to think they have no obligation to the majority that gave them gavels or even to their fellow chairmen.”
House Republicans’ lack of cohesion on important votes is made all the more clear when you compare it with the recent unity displayed by Democrats in the House and the Senate. On the farm bill, for example, just 24 Democrats — primarily from agriculture-heavy states — voted for it, while 172 voted against it. On the Senate side, not a single Democrat opposed the comprehensive immigration proposal put forward by the “Gang of Eight” last week.
House Republicans’ unwillingness to play team ball is beyond dispute. But the reasons for that lack of unity — and who is to blame for it — are a more open question.
Conservatives who make up the rump group in the House insist that they were elected to be true to their principles and their constituents, not to a party leadership that many believe is responsible, at least in part, for the current state of affairs in Washington. Their reluctance to go along with the GOP team, then, is a natural outgrowth of strongly held beliefs — which, after all, is what voters always say they want in their elected officials.
Others point to the effects of redistricting, the decennial drawing of congressional lines across the country that, over the past several decades, has made the vast majority of House members untouchable in general elections because of the clear partisan lean of their districts. The only thing they fear, politically speaking, is a challenge from the ideological right in a primary, and they protect against that possibility by hewing as closely as they can to the desires of the conservative base. “For survival in a primary, voting against the leadership is a badge of honor back home,” explained Dan Mattoon, a longtime senior adviser to former speaker Dennis Hastert.
The end of earmarks — the plums, usually involving federal dollars spent in a certain district, that Republicans banned when they retook the House in 2010 — also is cited as a reason for the every-man-is-an-island attitude among GOPers. In years past, an earmark dropped into the farm bill here or there would usually persuade a wavering lawmaker to get on board with his party’s leadership. That tool is gone, and with it some of the persuasive powers of people like Boehner and Cantor.
Viewed more broadly, the Republican Party finds itself in a bit of a political wilderness. By 2016, the GOP will have controlled the presidency for only eight of the past 24 years, a streak — and not the good kind — reminiscent of the one Democrats experienced in the 1980s and early 1990s. Why does that matter? Because it’s much easier to stay on the same team when there’s a single captain or coach pointing the way. Republicans lack that presence now and won’t have anything approximating that sort of leader until the 2016 presidential primary process concludes — at the earliest.
In short: Don’t expect an increase in team play from House Republicans — on immigration, the debt ceiling or any of the other contentious fights that will come before Congress in the coming months. There will be lots of (political) isolation plays for the foreseeable future.
“Wrestlers and golfers don’t see the value of a sacrifice fly, but sometimes it’s what the team needs,” said another GOP lawmaker.