EXCLUSIVE: Inside Selection of New House GOP Leaders

House Republicans face tremendous challenges, but also significant opportunities in the 111th Congress. I was a witness to and voted in the leadership organizational meetings held Wednesday, November 19 in the ornate House Ways and Means Committee room, meetings closed to the press and public.  

I left those meetings sobered by the daunting challenges House Republicans face because of Democrats’ increasing their already sizable lead in the 435-member House from 37 votes to about 80 votes, with a few races still to be decided as of this writing. But I am also encouraged by the leadership team that Republicans have chosen both to confront the Democrats and to take the Republican message to the American people.  

Two of the top three House Republican leaders, Eric Cantor and Mike Pence, are new to the highest levels of leadership. John Boehner was re-elected as Republican leader, a position he already has held for a little over one term.  

Boehner was one of the original rabble-rousers, including Newt Gingrich, who successfully worked in 1993 and 1994 to highlight Democrat excesses, leading to a more than 100-vote swing in the 1994 election that propelled Republicans into control of the House for the first time in 40 years. Nevertheless, Boehner was opposed by Rep. Dan Lungren of California, who felt strongly that a loss of 20 or more seats in the November 4 election should automatically disqualify existing leaders from reelection. After a spirited debate, the great majority of Republicans sided with Boehner and disagreed that he was responsible for the losses.  

No Earmark Agreement

In his acceptance speech, Boehner accurately stated that, looking forward, “We will not be encumbered by the White House.” Although it would be unrealistic to place all blame on President Bush, and it would be uncharitable to not credit him for some crucial vetoes and other positive actions in the last two years, it is undeniable that his unpopularity both fueled Barack Obama supporters in November and dispirited some Republicans who stayed at home. Republican candidates in both the House and Senate suffered the fallout.  

Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona pressured both Boehner and Lungren to state their commitment to reforming or even abolishing earmarks. Boehner said he wanted to make the process more transparent, constitutionally valid, and in keeping with conservative principles. Given the wildly different definitions of what an earmark even is, consensus has not yet solidified within the conference, but as it does, it will undoubtedly differ considerably from Democrats’. Flake is pushing for an immediate and conference-wide ban on the requesting of earmarks.   

Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia was promoted to whip from deputy whip without opposition. He has experience working with former Whip Roy Blunt to become a skilled vote-counter and, when necessary, a persuader of the leadership position.   

No GOP White House Pressure

Without a Republican in the White House, the leadership team will not have the unenviable task of being pressured sometimes to support questionable policies such as Wall Street bailouts, higher spending, and expansion of the federal role in areas like education and the welfare state. Supporting such measures in the last eight years was extremely divisive within Republican ranks and has left lingering doubts within the conference and throughout the country whether a leadership team pledging to renew Republican values can be believed. The proof will be in how hard and how effectively the fight is taken to the Obama Administration and congressional Democrats when they inevitably, despite how they campaigned, go liberal.  

Eric Cantor said the right things. He did not agree to be the “loyal opposition,” but said he would be the “honest opposition” — confronting bad policy head on. He said the three hallmarks of his effort would be less spending in the budget, no tolerance for poor behavior by fellow Republicans, and an emphasis on reform, going beyond mere opposition.  

Rep. Mike Pence, in a surprise development no one could have foreseen as recently as Election Day, was unopposed for conference chairman, the number-three spot on the leadership team. This was a dramatic return for Pence from the political wilderness, having challenged Boehner for leader two years ago, but being outvoted roughly six-to-one. His conservative credentials are virtually impeccable, and his strong standing within the religious right has given him a loyal following much broader than his Indiana district.  

One of the seconders of his nomination was Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio, who praised Pence’s ability to work with the more moderate bloc of Republicans in the conference while sticking to his conservative principles.  

In Pence’s acceptance statement, he made three points. Every single member must be highly involved in taking back the House, Republicans need to be happy warriors, and the Republican Party needs once again to be the party of ideas.  

Pence’s acknowledged media skills — he worked previously in broadcasting — make him a natural for the high-profile conference chairman slot. He will not only be working frequently with Boehner and Cantor to fashion and express the Republican message but will be helping individual House members be effective communicators within their own spheres. Pence also has a history of standing up to Republican leadership when he believed they departed from Republican values while he was chairman a few years ago of the conservative Republican Study Committee.  

The unsung hero of the day was Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas. The outgoing chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the largest and some would argue the most powerful caucus in Congress, took what was already a thriving group and made it even stronger. He worked with leadership, including subtly prodding them on occasion, to make sure the conservative perspective was given due consideration at every turn. Hensarling had what was probably an unimpeded path to the conference chairmanship, given that Adam Putnam was stepping down. But in a move rare anywhere, much less in the power-hungry halls of Washington, he voluntarily relinquished his opportunity and called on Pence the day after the election to step in instead. Although Hensarling is not being given a high-profile role at this time, there is no doubt he is destined for greater things.  

There is some grumbling that Boehner had too much control over the entire selection process. He not only endorsed Pence, but also Rep. Thaddus McCotter of Michigan in his successful bid for reelection as Policy Committee Chairman over Rep. Mike Burgess of Texas, and Rep. Pete Session of Texas in his successful bid for National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman over current chairman Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma. He also backed Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, who was unopposed for conference committee vice-chairman.  

Time will tell if any of these individuals lack the independence to oppose leader Boehner if it is ever felt he is making a significant mistake. I believe they should get the benefit of the doubt until they show otherwise. For better or for worse, the conference has solidly thrown its lot in behind the lead of John Boehner. His legacy as an agent of change in the 1994 revolution is undisputed. Critics may wonder if his role as a consensus-builder in the last three years betrays a lessening of his ideological fervor as opposed to a calculated and effective way of building momentum. What is clear is that there is now no unpopular administration hanging as an albatross around congressional necks.  

The path is wide open for House Republicans to be bold and energetic in taking the fight to the congressional majority and the incoming Obama Administration every time Democrats push liberal policy. They will no doubt need to be opposed often. There will be frequent opportunities for the Boehner team, along with the entire Republican conference, to show that promises made now will match results later, even in those times that some would give up or lose hope. America deserves no less.