Intra-party fights for political spoils are one of the dark sides of legislative politics.
These battles are divisive and unproductive. They destroy party morale, political efficacy and even lifelong friendships. Fortunately, the incoming Republican House majority kept most of these internal squabbles to a minimum when it came to selecting their new leadership team.
The incoming House majority, however, will face some challenges when it comes to picking the leaders for key committees and other organizational decisions.
This is a time for the party to follow its leaders.
There will be numerous opportunities for lawmakers – new and old -- to show their independence in the months ahead. But during these first critical days of organization, the smart move is for all Republicans to rally around their leadership team’s recommendations on these committee leadership questions.
This isn’t a call for blind faith. The transition process has been transparent and inclusive.
But failure to follow on these first critical decisions will set the team off on the wrong foot and jeopardize success on the all important work of creating jobs, shrinking the government and cutting spending.
Four years ago Speaker Nancy Pelosi began her tenure with some unforced errors dividing the political spoils. She worked behind the scenes to block senior Michigan Rep. John Dingell from becoming the Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Instead Pelosi – with liberal interest groups serving as her amen chorus – ousted Dingell and replaced him with Rep. Henry Waxman of California.
The politics of the Dingell/Waxman fight were ugly but at least made sense at one level. Dingell was perceived as too close to the auto industry. His preferences for a more balanced approach to environmental regulation bothered the fiery eyed elements of the Democratic Caucus that saw the election as the dawning of a new progressive era where liberals authoritatively ran the show.
There was no place for anything but strict ideological orthodoxy with this group. Those exhibiting even the slightest degree of non-conformity were banished.
Fortunately incoming Speaker John Boehner doesn’t play those games. But others do.
Consider the case of Congressman Fred Upton from Michigan. He is next in line to become the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee – an important panel with jurisdiction over parts of health care, energy and communications. Despite Upton’s long tenure on the committee – even stints as a subcommittee chair while Republicans were in the majority -- some are blistering him as “not being conservative enough” to chair the Committee.
I don’t get it.
In over 20 years in Congress, Upton has no doubt cast some votes that might diverge from the strictest definition of conservative orthodoxy. But the selective attacks are unfair and do not reflect the conservative lawmaker I’ve know from when I was on the White House staff for President George H.W. Bush and he was a Congressman.
From 1989-1993, Upton was an active and effective member of Newt Gingrich’s House Republican Whip team. I worked with him daily. In that job he was responsible for helping corral GOP votes on every issue – from spending cuts to tax cuts to protecting pro-life positions. There was no more reliable conservative in the group. He worked tirelessly – often advocating conservative positions that might not be that popular in his district – to help us pull the party together.
We actually won votes -- while Republicans were in the minority – on tax cuts and spending restraint by holding all the Republicans together and mustering enough conservative Democrats. Upton was key to the party’s success on all those issues.
We also sustained over thirty presidential vetoes with his help – fighting labor unions, big spenders and a very aggressive pro-choice lobby. He helped make that happened as well.
More recently his ideology has not shifted. Just to mention some highlights. He wants to lead the charge to repeal Obamacare; he supports a host of new initiatives to cut federal spending; and, he advocates codification of pro-life language to ensure the federal government doesn’t pay for abortions.
Upton also coauthored an essay last week on spending restraint strategy with conservative activist Grover Norquist.
The House Republican Steering Committee will meet the week after Thanksgiving to make its recommendations to the full GOP conference on committee chairs. Many believe Upton will get the nod from Boehner and the leadership team.
Former Chairman and current ranking Republican member Joe Barton is also a possible contender, but needs a waiver from the GOP conference term limit rules(he previously served six years as either chair or ranking minority member). Barton was an effective chairman and committee leader, but it doesn’t look like the Steering Committee will grant his waiver request.
The only thing that could derail Upton’s chairmanship would be if some of his colleagues try to organize an ill conceived public rebuke of the Steering Committee’s recommendation when the full Republican Conference ratifies these choices in December.
That would be a mistake for a number of reasons. Denying a veteran and effective lawmaker this position, based on a handful of cherry picked votes he cast over two decades, is a needless distraction from the real work that lies ahead. Republicans and conservatives should stay focused on the simple tasks at hand – shrink government, cut taxes, reduce spending and protect life. Don’t get distracted by the dark side of petty political gamesmanship that so many Americans hate about this city.