It started in earnest at the start of the Congress. After two dozen of his own members voted against his re-election as Speaker, John Boehner and the House GOP leadership team starting punishing recalcitrant members.
The second wave reached Capitol Hill last week, when House Republicans shook up their whip team, dumping three members who opposed the leadership’s position on a procedural vote the week before.
More retribution came yesterday when House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) took a subcommittee gavel away from Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), again because of the June 11 procedural vote.
Politico reports that the tensions among House Republicans are on the rise.
A key bloc of conservatives is laying plans to throttle legislation on the House floor and will meet privately this week to discuss a shake-up of GOP leadership.The group is irate at what one called a “culture of punishment” that Speaker John Boehner’s leadership team has instituted against dissenting members.
Meadows, who helped create the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, has quickly become a ringleader of sorts, challenging GOP leaders’ tactics, and his faction will reportedly meet today “to discuss their next move.” The North Carolina Republican decried the very idea of members facing “retribution” based on their voting record.
There’s also reported chatter about targeting Boehner’s gavel, but we’ve heard similar scuttlebutt repeatedly in recent years and it’s tough to take the talk seriously.
The broader point, however, is important. Why is the Speaker playing hardball and why are rank-and-file Republicans throwing such a fit?
On the former, don’t underestimate the significance of the House Republicans’ sheer size. There are now a whopping 246 GOP lawmakers in the chamber – the largest number in generations. Why didn’t Boehner create a “culture of punishment” during his first four years as Speaker? Perhaps because he didn’t have a large enough caucus.
But on the latter, part of the problem here is that many House Republicans are fairly new to Congress and have no real appreciation for how the institution has traditionally worked. Meadows, for example, was only elected in 2012.
He told Roll Call yesterday, “There is a culture of fear and retribution that is prevalent here on Capitol Hill. It encourages people to vote certain ways, it encourages people not to speak out.”
Well, yeah, that’s kind of how Congress has always worked. For nearly as long as there’s been a federal legislative branch, there have been party leaders trying to enforce party discipline, usually by trying to intimidate members into obedience. Individual lawmakers are supposed to worry about potential consequences when they ignore their own leaders.
Not to put too fine a point on this, but this is largely how every legislature in every major democracy on the planet operates. Party members rarely vote in complete lock step, but leaders expect their followers to, well, follow. Those who routinely buck their leadership can expect a very different career trajectory.
Some of the Tea Party types, elected in 2010 and 2012, don’t appreciate this dynamic because they’ve never really experienced it before. They may have worried about what Fox News said, or what the Koch brothers’ political operation said, or what Heritage Action and the Club for Growth said, but they’re accustomed to looking at the GOP leadership as nice guys whose opinions are easily ignored.
And now Boehner is taking some fairly obvious steps to change that, dishing out the exact same punishments previous Speakers have relied on for quite a while.
Or put another way, quit your bellyaching, House Freedom Caucus. This is how Congress is supposed to work.