The Real Reason for the Chaos in the House

It’s not just rebellious GOP lawmakers. It’s what empowers those lawmakers to buck the party leadership.

Reps. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., center, and Patrick Meehan, R-Pa.,
Can any Republican can get elected speaker on the strength of Republican votes alone?

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photos by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call.

First of all, let’s not shed any tears over the fall of Kevin McCarthy. Though the Republican majority leader is well-liked by his colleagues, he seems to have even less of a vision for where the GOP should go than the famously visionless John Boehner. If McCarthy has ever had a deep thought on how Republicans ought to position themselves in the post-Obama era, or the public policy goals the party should champion, he’s done an impressive job of concealing it from the public. McCarthy’s lack of vision could be forgiven if he were a masterful legislative strategist capable of implementing someone else’s vision, but again, there is no evidence that this is in fact the case. Can you imagine McCarthy rallying Republicans around strengthening Congress, an institution that has grown dangerously weak as executive power has grown under Presidents Bush and Obama? Does he know enough about the basics of the federal budget process to get Republicans to try to fix it? Don’t make me laugh.

Nevertheless, McCarthy’s departure from the race for speaker hasn’t led to a collective sigh of relief among Republicans. That’s because everyone is wondering if any Republican can get elected speaker on the strength of Republican votes alone, given the obstreperousness of the House Freedom Caucus, the very same rebels who drove Speaker Boehner to resign. The GOP smart set is hoping that Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and Mitt Romney’s erstwhile running mate, will ride to the rescue. Ramesh Ponnuru, writing in Bloomberg View, makes a strong case that Ryan is the most logical choice for speaker, as he is one of relatively few Republicans in the House with a strong command of policy detail, long experience of legislative deal-making, and a rock-solid reputation for conservative ideological commitment. But even Ryan has his vulnerabilities. Some conservatives, like the influential Erick Erickson, insist that Ryan is not as conservative as you might think, in light of his support for TARP, No Child Left Behind, and other bipartisan measures that are loathed on the right. There are no doubt members of the House Freedom Caucus who agree with Erickson and who will put up a fight should Ryan enter the race. 

But there is more to the behavior of the House Freedom Caucus than ideological zeal. Today’s GOP rebels aren’t the first lawmakers who’ve wanted to rock the boat. What separates them from the rebels of earlier years is that there is almost nothing that party leaders can do to keep them in check. Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has argued that in the bad old days, when pork-barrel spending and earmarks reigned, leadership could bring rebellious backbenchers to heel by threatening to withhold sweet, sweet taxpayer dollars from this or that public project in a member’s district. Such tactics are now frowned upon, and Republicans have gone so far as to impose an outright ban on earmarks—one that at least some Republicans would like to reverse

There’s another factor, which Rauch also references. Successive waves of campaign finance regulation have been designed to limit the influence of money in politics. What these regulations have actually done is quite different. In Better Parties, Better Government, Joel Gora and Peter Wallison observe that today’s campaign finance regulations limit the extent to which candidates can coordinate their fundraising and campaigning efforts with central party organizations, so candidates have to build their own fundraising networks. Building such a network is fairly easy for those who’ve spent their lives around the very wealthy or who are very wealthy themselves. But it is much harder for less wealthy individuals who have dedicated their lives to public service or who for whatever reason aren’t skilled in the art of wheedling money out of strangers.

What does any of this have to do with the House Freedom Caucus? Because central party organizations can’t freely coordinate with candidates, and because candidates have to raise the bulk of their campaign cash independently, the parties have very little leverage over candidates. Members are far less afraid of alienating their leaders and far more afraid of alienating their donors. Who cares if John Boehner is mad at me? What counts is that by declaring war on the GOP leadership, and by declaring that all those who want to avoid a government shutdown are sellouts, I can raise money off of apocalyptic Boehner-bashing emails and Facebook posts.

Imagine a world in which virtually all fundraising for House races was done by an official organ of the GOP, like the National Republican Congressional Committee, as Gora and Wallison recommend. Promising candidates would receive money directly from GOP HQ, so they wouldn’t have to devote all of their time, or indeed any of their time, to fundraising. This would free up candidates to spend more time in their districts or on doing the nitty-gritty work of legislating. Candidates could still raise their own money or spend their own money. The First Amendment protects their right to do so. But candidates backed by the party would have an advantage over those who don’t enjoy official party support, as building one national fundraising machine is so much more efficient than building hundreds of fundraising machines for individual candidates. The appeal of this party-provided campaign cash would be such that candidates would be very reluctant to lose it—so they’d be far more inclined to play ball with the party leaders who control the purse strings. 

There’d be another advantage to this system: If the parties had a freer hand in raising funds and the ability to dispatch those funds to the strongest candidates, including candidates who struggle to raise money on their own, we’d have a far more competitive political system. To be sure, party organizations in this scenario would have to raise funds from wealthy individuals and interest groups. Yet the sheer size and scope of these fundraising machines would ensure that they’d have little choice but to raise funds from a far broader collection of interests than an individual candidate, and in aggregating these disparate interests, they’d be in a better position to limit the influence of any one donor or group of donors. 

Now, if you think that allowing a mutinous minority of Republicans to constantly hold the GOP leadership hostage is a good thing, by all means, let’s celebrate the campaign finance status quo. If you instead think that the party must be more united and disciplined to achieve its goals, whether those goals are those of the Tea Party or the squishy moderates, your first priority should be to strengthen the GOP as a fundraising machine.