Hammond: Capitol Hill GOP must challenge Dems with roll call votes
The Kansas City, Mo., native credited with inventing the Senate parliamentary tactics that empowered Republicans to block liberal legislation and usher in a modern conservatism on Capitol Hill spoke to The Cloakroom.
“I came to Washington out of law school in 1975,” said Michael B. Hammond, who now works at the Washington-based Gun Owners of America as their legislative counsel.
“I came to work for one James L. Buckley—I’d gone to law school in Greenwich Village in New York City, and I went to work for my senator,” he said. “Buckley was elected to the Senate in 1970 on the Conservative Party ticket, but he caucused with the Republicans. He was defeated in 1976 by Democrat Daniel Patrick Monahan.
The legend goes that Hammond went to Washington without an appointment and when he crossed paths with Buckley on the Capitol steps said, “I want to work for you—for free.”
The senator told him the price was right.
Within a few months, Hammond had memorized the Senate rules and was out-arguing the chamber parliamentarian.
Hammond, who is also a regular contributer to RedState.com, said in the days after Watergate, there were few Republicans in the Senate and fewer conservatives, a much more desperate situation than the Republicans and conservatives find themselves in now. “It was a very low and depressing time.” The GOP held 38 seats in the Senate and 144 seats in the House.
“The conventional wisdom at that time was that because of demographics, Republicans would never get control again of the levers of government,” he said. “They would never win the House. They would never win the Senate—and they would never win the presidency. “
It was in this nadir that Hammond set to work, he said.
“Rather than wallow in the situation, a bunch of us decided to take a series of issues and turn them into significant issues,” he said.
“Carl Anderson, who now heads the Knight of Columbus, was the fresh-faced social issues aide to Jesse Helms, so I started writing amendments to these apparently non-controversial bills on the Senate calendar dealing with things like abortion,” he said.
“Karl would write the speeches and Helms would get up, and we would lose with 10 or 20 votes, but all of sudden, we’d begin getting votes on abortion.”
Hammond said another area he would also write amendments dealing with regulatory reform.
“Up until then, Ralph Nader had gotten everything that he wanted,” he said. In addition to killing new agencies and regulations, they fought the nomination of Michael Pertschuk to be the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. Pertschuk, who was one of Nader’s closest acolytes, was opposed by wide coalition of trade groups, who had begun to feel the pinch of heavy regulations in the 1970s.
Eventually, the Senate Republicans were able to reverse the tide of Naderism, he said.
“We went after the Legal Services Administration and fiscal conservatives started going after taxes,” he said.
“In the wake of Watergate, we began putting together those strategies, and began getting those votes and that was successful in turning the country around,” he said.
By 1978 to 1979, the movement of conservative Senate staffers Hammond was leading had changed the expectations and morale of the Republicans on Capitol Hill and signaled to conservatives outside of Washington that there was a fight going on that they needed to join, he said.
“We had a series of issues and grassroots revolving around those issues, which created a movement that Ronald Reagan did not create, but rather he rode on top of it like a surfer on the crest of a wave,” he said.
Twice in 1994 and 1996, Hammond ran for a seat in Congress from New Hampshire, where he bought a colonial-era home with a mountain view. Both times, he lost in the GOP primary.
“When he heard I was running for congress, Paul Weyrich told me most congressman love to go to parties and hate to do legislation, you love doing legislation and hate going to the parties, “ he said.
The experience of shaking hands, knocking on doors and marching in small town parades taught the Capitol Hill insider to appreciate retail politics, he said. It helps he understand better how the conservatives in Washington can help and encourage those on the retail side of the business.
Having won and lost at politics, Hammond said he knows conservatives can turn things around.
Republicans today should take stock of the situation and begin the program of regaining the intellectual and political momentum, he said. “1975, ’76, ’77 were horrifically worse than what conservatives are looking at today.”
After Obama’s election in 2008, when the Democrats controlled both chambers in Congress, the situation was worse than it is today, he said. But, in March 2009, Hammond and others convinced Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.) to step away their flirty overtures to the Democratic health care reform agenda.
When Capitol Hill Republicans, although they were in the minority, stood up to the Democrats on principle, the grassroots activists responded, he said.
“The opposition to Obamacare created a massive red surge in 2010, I mean the demographics in the country have not changed that much in two years,” he said.
It was a lesson not followed in 2012, he said. I predicted in a column on RedState.com more than a year ago that if the Republicans nominate somebody, who stands for nothing, and who runs to the Left, just like Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole or John McCain, that person is going to lose,” he said.
“That strategy never wins,” he said. “Furthermore, it’s going to take out people down the ticket as well.”
It was another mistake for GOP Minority Leader Sen. A. Mitchell McConnell Jr. (R.-Ky.) to tread water for the last year without trying to retake the initiative, he said. “It was a terrible mistake for McConnell not to get votes on the things that would create a ground game for Republicans—by convincing Republican constituents that they had an interest in actually electing Republicans.”
Hammond said watching President Barack Obama operate while the GOP watched was a reversal of roles from what worked in the past.
“Obama knew how to play the game we invented, but we didn’t know how to play the game we invented,” he said.
“What everybody knew in 1978 as universal wisdom, nobody knows in 2012: If you are going into an election, you’d better get votes on your issues—and you better not do what the House has done, and settle for symbolic votes on issues, but continue to fund the president’s programs.”