Rep. Matt Salmon swims against currents of the Republican establishment

Over the years, Rep. Matt Salmon’s (R-Ariz.) relationships with Speakers of his own party have been decidedly testy.

But short of acquiescing to his fiscally conservative demands, there is not much leadership can do to rein him in.  

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“All I really risk is not getting a plum committee assignment or having [leadership say] the NRCC isn’t going to help me in my next election,” he told The Hill. 

The consequences of bucking leadership, he said, pale in comparison to what the Founding Fathers had to endure to stand up for their beliefs. 

The freshman congressman recently pledged to defy leadership and vote against the rule on any bill that does not hold a majority of support in the Republican conference or that adds to the deficit — something Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has done three times in the past three months. 

Salmon argues that all his efforts are aimed at strengthening the party, and the Speaker, by championing Republican principles. Boehner’s guiding philosophy, on the other hand, seems to be geared toward “mak[ing] the trains run on time,” he said. Salmon hopes that will change.

“I didn’t come to just be a congressman again. I came to make change,” he said. 

There is precedent that Salmon will hold true to his word. 

Though he is a freshman in the 113th Congress, Salmon served three prior terms from 1994-2000, partly under the leadership of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

He was a constant thorn in Gingrich’s side. He called for the Speaker to step aside on numerous occasions, was reportedly complicit in a failed coup against Gingrich and orchestrated defections on some votes. 

One of the most widely reported of these exploits came in March 1997. A group of 11 fiscal hawks, including Salmon, protesting increased government spending, defected on a rule vote on a rather insignificant bill to fund House committee operations. 

The defections were enough to halt the bill and provoke indignation from then-Speaker Gingrich. But Gingrich ultimately had to compromise with the rebels. 

“That just wasn’t done before, you know, in the traditional machinations of the Republican conference,” Salmon said. “And I think that was a good thing. We brought a different way of doing things. And it was a breath of fresh air.”

Returning back to the House today as dissent brews in the Republican ranks is like “deja vu,” Salmon said. And he is back in a parallel role to the one he occupied in the past, sending out a warning to the Speaker not to succumb to the pitfalls of past leaders. 

He abstained from voting for Boehner as Speaker until the last moment earlier this year in order to put leadership on alert, though he did give him his backing eventually. 

“Make sure that the rhetoric you espouse is in line with your actions,” he said, directing a message to the leadership. “You talk about pay-go, you talk about party unity. How is it really strengthening party unity when you pass a bill out of this body that goes out with a handful of Republicans and almost all the Democrats? How is that perpetuating party unity? I don’t think it is.”

The GOP House floor operation has relied on Democratic votes on three recent occasions — on a deal to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff,” on the Hurricane Sandy supplemental and recently on a bill to pass the Violence Against Women Act. 

Salmon and a group of 15 other Republicans earlier this month voted against the rule on the continuing resolution to fund the government, protesting their inability to vote to defund the new healthcare law. 

The House has held more than 30 votes to defund all or part of the law over the last two years. But even in the face of a seemingly hopeless battle, Salmon said the party should be obligated to try. He dismissed the assertion that it would be merely a waste of time.

“The likelihood that the president would end up defunding ObamaCare is probably pretty slim,” he said with a laugh. “But I still think we have the responsibility to try. If we don’t try, then we don’t do. And if we don’t do, what are we on this earth for?”

That guiding principle and the runaway debt are what made Salmon jump into another congressional race last year — this time to replace Republican Jeff Flake, who won a seat in the Senate.

After a narrow win in the GOP primary over Kirk Adams, he defeated Democrat Spencer Morgan easily in the general election.

Salmon retired in 2000 adhering to a self-imposed pledge to serve no more than three terms. By the end, he said he no longer believed in self-imposed limits but wanted to hold true to his word. 

He still supports term limits, as long as they are universal. He plans to sponsor a constitutional amendment to impose them on Congress. 

But Salmon won election this time with no self-imposed commitment.

Recalling his previous voluntary departure, he said:

“At the end of the day, I’m leaving and look[ing] at some of the guys staying and say[ing] ‘what is wrong with this picture?’”