Negotiating a minefield

As Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his team prepare for the next Congress, they are wrestling with a number of leadership and committee leadership contests that create a minefield for all involved.

Any House Speaker hopes his committee chairmen and leadership team will be made up exclusively of hardworking, competent colleagues who share one additional attribute that trumps all others: loyalty. They rarely manage to put together such a team, however, for a variety of reasons. Politicians being what they are, allies are prone to putting their own interests first when the chips are down. In leadership elections, winners are chosen not because they are the Speaker’s favorites but because of personal popularity, competing interests within the party caucus, or because of pressure from outside interests.

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Boehner’s challenges are complicated. The Republican majority he leads was elected by voters who really do want change in Washington and tend not to trust “establishment” Republicans, nor anyone with whom they are less than familiar. 

In addition, Mr. Boehner famously said after the election that he and his team heard what the voters were saying and would act on the message being sent. That means House Republicans have to try to “repeal and replace” ObamaCare and really try to tackle the out-of-control spending that scared so many Americans into their first political activism. Granting an earmark lover and big spender like California’s Rep. Jerry Lewis a waiver so he can chair the Appropriations Committee would be seen by many as selling out the principal message of the election — regardless of how loyal to Boehner he might prove to be.

At the same time, it has to be recognized that congressional leadership and, now, chairmanship contests resemble club or high school elections more than anything else, and that the motivation of those who choose one candidate over another are often indiscernible to anyone outside the club.

Sometimes opponents are demonized or outside support is leveraged to persuade colleagues that those running deserve support. That’s what’s happening in the contest to succeed liberal Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.) as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The former chairman of the committee, Rep. Joe Barton (R) of Texas is trying to persuade, cajole or force Mr. Boehner to grant him a waiver of term limitations, such that Barton may chair the committee again. 

Barton, as it turns out, has decided to portray his most likely replacement as a “part-time” Republican who would, as chairman, sell out the leadership and the voting public on everything from healthcare reform to cap-and-trade. His allies are circulating a 22-page indictment of Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) designed to make him unacceptable to conservatives — and especially to those conservatives who are new to Congress and don’t know him. 

It is perfectly true that Upton is more moderate than Barton or Illinois Rep. John Shimkus (R), Upton’s main competition should Barton fail to secure a waiver, but he is no devil and might well make an excellent chairman.

Upton is no right-winger, but he is a fiscal conservative with a 72 percent rating from the American Conservative Union (ACU) in 2007 and an 80 percent the Congress before. He might not always vote with conservatives, but he’s a team player and “plays well” with the right. He’s voted right and wrong, but tends to get very high ratings from business and tax groups and mixed reviews from groups like the National Right to Life. He was an original co-sponsor of the ban on taxpayer-funded abortions, supports the repeal of ObamaCare and believes strongly that the solution to the nation’s fiscal problem lies in cutting spending rather than raising taxes.

Upton has cast some non-conservative and even goofy votes as a member of Congress and, even worse, is a Cubs fan, but his stated agenda, should he win the chairmanship, is almost identical to that being articulated by Shimkus, a good man who has also cast a non-conservative vote or two during his time in Congress. 

What’s perhaps just as important is Upton’s experience, his grasp of the issues, his likability and work ethic, which along with his ability to bring others along could make him a valuable member of an effective GOP leadership team.

Members should remember that it’s the nation, and not their high school class, that’s at stake this time.

Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental 
consulting firm.



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