The Republicans in the United States House of Representatives are very fortunate that a Presidential election is right now distracting the American public from their utter disarray. To recap, these legislators are the ones who went before the American electorate three times after the election of President Obama—in 2010, 2012, and 2014—and argued that, if given control of Congress, they would preside over a more responsible government, or at the very least present a coherent alternative vision to which the president and his party would have to respond. Just a year after their colleagues finally won control of Senate, the House GOP is now engaged in a bizarre spectacle of political cannibalism, having driven out both a Speaker and his heir apparent over a supposed lack of conservative credentials.
That John Boehner was deemed not conservative enough for the caucus is surprising to say the least. In a 24-year career, his legislative rating from the American Conservative Union has only once dropped below 85 percent, and for last year was 94.3. For today’s Freedom Caucus and the growing GOP right-flank, however, Boehner’s record was simply not good enough.
If Boehner’s unexpected departure was the tragic consequence of a Republican Party at war with itself, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s quick decision to withdraw from the Speaker’s race was a farcical repetition of the kind of leadership woes that have plagued Congressional Republicans since the 1990s. Of course, the faux pas that immediately precipitated McCarthy’s withdrawal was his moment of honesty about the true purpose of the hearings on the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi—to inflict political damage on Hillary Clinton. Even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi flagged such political ill-discipline as immediately disqualifying. Moreover, McCarthy also suffered from the same accusations of insufficiently conservative values.
But soon after McCarthy exited stage center-right came the rumors that he and Representative Renee Elmers of North Carolina had been having an affair. Both strongly deny these rumors, which may very well be the product of a smear campaign, as Elmers has said. Even so, House Republicans must have had an eerie sense of déjà vu at even the thought of such indiscretions.
Republican Speakers and Speakers-designate have something of a history with these issues. We now know with certainty that former Speaker Newt Gingrich was having an extramarital affair while he was overseeing the impeachment of President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In the aftermath of Gingrich’s resignation due to Republican losses in the 1998 midterms, his heir apparent, Representative Bob Livingston of Louisiana, also resigned. The reason: extramarital affairs.
This odd phenomenon leads me to a proposal: that we suspend the first amendment for long enough to ban the term “family values” from American political discourse. The party of endless Planned Parenthood hearings and a seemingly insatiable appetite to legislate other peoples’ sexual morals might object, but I think American voters would appreciate an end to the condescension and hypocrisy.
In the meantime, the ever so slightly more substantive political soap opera continues. Perhaps Representative McCarthy is probably lucky not too have too deal with one of the most unruly caucuses in American political history: he would have been the least experienced speaker since 1891, when Georgia Democrat Charles Frederick Crisp became top dog in the House. As McCarthy considers what sorts of public humiliation he avoided, the Republican right is now busy tarring Representative Paul Ryan, of budgeting fame, with the “not-conservative-enough” label, apparently because he had the audacity to seek a temporary compromise on spending with Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington.
This issue of compromise on actual legislation gets to the crux of what has gone so badly wrong in today’s House Republican caucus. Legislating has never been as romantic as some make it out to be—witness the Clinton impeachment and the foibles of the House Republican leadership 16 years ago—but even in the 1990s, people came to Washington with some intention to govern. In 1996, a Republican House compromised with President Clinton to pass what would now be apostasy: a minimum wage hike. The Gingrich-era Republican Party may have pioneered government shut downs as a negotiating tactic, but it seemed to realize that governing was its primary duty, and that it might even be good politics now and again.
In short, today’s House Republican caucus has worse problems than its 1990s predecessor, in areas far more serious than its generation of sexual rumors. One can only hope that the American electorate remembers that these people actually work for the people. Many great legislative programs in American history—Woodrow Wilson’s “New Freedom,” the New Deal, the Great Society, President Obama’s first term achievements—required legislative majorities of the President’s party to accomplish. A year from now, American voters should look to the House’s current mayhem when they decide which party has shown that it can responsibly govern the United States.
Nelson L. Barrette '17, a Crimson editorial executive, is a history concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
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