What does the election of Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as House majority leader and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) as majority whip mean for the House? The irony is: practically nothing.
House hotheads such as Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) don’t like the winners because they aren’t hotheaded enough. Their complaint is not with “the establishment,” but with the entire caucus. The backbenchers are a small minority of the House GOP. When they don’t win (most of the time), they pitch a fit. They are happy when there is dysfunction and gridlock. If they were really the dominant voice in the House, they’d have a candidate who’d win the confidence of a majority in the caucus. They don’t.
The agenda and tone are unlikely to change anytime soon since House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) remains ensconced and popular with the conference. The House was running out of time for immigration reform anyway. If it has a chance at all, reform will most likely need to await a new president. Moreover, the House has already passed legislation on jobs, energy and more — mounds of it — but the Senate sits on it. So, no change there.
What about Scalise, a respected conservative reformer? As head of the Republican Study Committee, in essence a conservative policy shop within the House, he has been impressive. Former Hill staffer Quin Hillyer has known Scalise for 25 years:
Scalise summed up his approach to me by saying legislators “need to actually advance the conservative agenda. We need to actually focus on implementing conservative solutions.”
Scalise is a rare breed — a genial fighter. He will charge at his goals, and then not back off, like a bulldog. But, to borrow a line from Mike Huckabee, he knows how to be a conservative “without being mad about it.”
Scalise has taken on tasks such as reforming the farm bill and coming up with an Obamacare alternative.
Unfortunately for conservatives interested in the battle of ideas and the creation of effective policy, Scalise is now the whip, a tactical job that requires him to count noses and corral the caucus. It isn’t clear that he’ll be allowed free rein in the policy arena. If there is a policy chief in the House, it is Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), whose influence will continue to grow as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
In fact, no GOP office with which I spoke could think of a concrete change that would occur because of Rep. Eric Cantor’s ouster as majority leader. One ex-staffer, however, had an interesting observation: “Over the next six months, I think the leadership team and the broader membership will be shocked at how big of a work vacuum Cantor being out leaves. He took on a TON of responsibility, doing the legwork that Boehner or Kevin often wouldn’t do. Someone has to make the trains run (to the extent that they do) and I’m not sure how this new team will do that.”
Yeah, governance is really a drag.
The episode encapsulates much of what is wrong with the right wing, the conservative media and the mainstream media. The first can, on occasion, take down an incumbent, either a diligent and conservative one such as Cantor or an inept one like Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, but it has no bench of its own capable of leading and governing. The conservative media by and large assist in stoking the fires on the right, without considering the consequences or putting their own standard-bearers through a vetting process. (Anyone ask David Brat a hard question?) And the mainstream media vastly exaggerate the influence of the other two because it neatly fits the narrative that the GOP is filled with lunatics. Meanwhile, the average GOP member takes the media storm seriously, applies the lessons incorrectly (e.g. seeing the Virginia 7th Congressional District race as a referendum on immigration) and become timid.
The energy and push for reform on the right must come from outside Congress. Either the reform conservative movement, the GOP governors and the more capable presidential contenders in 2016 will seize the initiative to present a winning agenda and an inclusive message to attract a center-right agenda, or the racket of right-wing groups that have slapped the tea party label on their money-making machine and fringe candidates will drive the party into obscurity. I am confident the former will win out, but it’s always possible a brutal 1964-style election wipeout is in the offing. Republican voters should choose wisely.