Crisis in Congress – Who Will Be the Next House Speaker?

Kevin McCarthyThis week Republican wunderkind Kevin McCarthy abruptly withdrew from the race for House Speaker just before the vote was to be taken.

His boast on Fox News about the Republicans putting together the special committee on Benghazi to discredit Hillary Clinton seems to have done him in. Opposition to his comments by Republican leaders was swift and severe.

McCarthy would need to receive a majority of 218 votes in the House to be elected as Speaker. The Democrats can all be counted on to cast their votes for Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader. With 247 Republicans in the House, that leaves a margin of less than 30 dissenting votes on the Republican side to achieve a majority. (Remember that John Boehner narrowly survived a leadership vote earlier this year when 25 fellow House Republicans voted against him.)

Daniel WebeterBut on Wednesday the House Freedom Caucus (with appx. 40 members) announced that it was backing Daniel Webster for speaker, with one of its members, Rep. Paul Labrador, informing CNN that the group would be voting as a block for their candidate instead of for McCarthy. Sensing that he could not unify the party behind him, McCarthy quickly withdrew his name.

But there is more to the story than that. It is possible that McCarthy was blackmailed into withdrawing from the race.

The previous day (Oct. 6) Rep. Walter Jones of N. Carolina sent a letter to the Republican Conference Chairman

asking that any candidate for Speaker of the House, majority leader and majority whip withdraw himself from the leadership election if there are any misdeeds he has committed since joining Congress that will embarrass himself, the Republican Conference, and the House of Representatives if they become public.

Then, just after 8 am on Thursday morning (the morning of the vote) McCarthy received an email from Steve Baer, a well-known conservative GOP donor with the subject line: “Kevin, why not resign like Bob Livingston?” (a reference to the Republican candidate who was set to replace Newt Gingrich as House Speaker in Jan 1999 until it was revealed that he was having an extra-marital affair; he resigned from Congress a few months later). The email contained a series of links to stories alleging that McCarthy was having an affair with Rep. Renee Ellmers of N. Carolina, and was copied to 91 influential conservatives both in and outside Congress.

Although both Ellmers and McCarthy have stated that these accusations are unfounded, it may nevertheless explain McCarthy’s abrupt withdrawal from the Speaker’s race without further explanation.

YoungGuns_Cover_DV_20100831125157Until McCarthy’s now infamous statement on Fox News, he was seen as one of the fast-rising stars within the Republican Party. He was one of the celebrated “Young Guns” who, along with Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan in the book they co-authored in 2010, became the standard-bearers of a new generation of conservative Republican leaders.

McCarthy rose rapidly through the ranks of party leadership. He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2006, served as Republican Chief Deputy Whip from 2009 to 2011, then as House Majority Whip from 2011 to 2014.

Eric Cantor became House Majority Leader in 2011, but lost his seat in 2014 to a more radical Tea Party ‘outlier’ in the primaries who then replaced him in the House. McCarthy took over Cantor’s vacated #2 position as House Majority Leader in August 2014, and was until this week poised to assume the top position as Speaker of the House.

But much like Cantor, McCarthy has had his political future torpedoed by a discontented, vocal, and more radically conservative faction within his own party. It was the House Freedom Caucus specifically that took the lead in orchestrating McCarthy’s leadership demise.

Capitol Hill Re-Groups One Day After Surprise In Speaker's RaceMembers of Congress have historically divided into different party caucus groups to work together in promoting specific agendas. In 1973 the Republican Study Committee was formed as part of a rising conservative movement within the Republican Party to oppose the moderate Republicans who dominated the House at that time.

With the Republican Party’s swing to the right in recent years, more than three-quarters of House Republicans (some 170 members) now belong to the RSC, far outstripping the less than 50 House Republicans belonging to the moderate Main Street Partnership.

But many of the recently elected House members (largely from the Tea Party faction) have come to see the RSC as not conservative enough for their taste. After many months of planning, in January of this year they formed a splinter group called the House Freedom Caucus to pursue a decidedly right-wing agenda.

The HFC keeps its membership list secret, but is known to number around 40 members. With such a large voting block, they exert considerable weight, and can keep any proposed legislation in the House that does not have Democratic support from passing. A month after its formation, members of the HFC pushed the House majority close to a partial government shutdown in opposing President Obama’s executive order on immigration.

An angry John Boehner struck back, relieving some HFC members of their House duties. This led to near open warfare between the HFC and Speaker. Over the summer one of the affected HFC members, Rep. Mark Meadows of N. Carolina, filed a motion to oust Boehner from the speaker’s chair. Boehner ended up announcing his resignation before the motion could be voted on.

Now that the House Freedom Caucus has achieved Boehner’s resignation, and has turned against Kevin McCarthy as the front runner to replace him, Republicans are scrambling for a new candidate who can receive the required majority – which means satisfying both the conservative and extreme right-wing factions within the party. With the House Freedom Caucus holding the decisive block of votes, that appears to be a near impossibility.

Paul_RyanSome party conservatives have pleaded with Paul Ryan, the remaining “Young Gun,” to stand for nomination, but he has steadfastly refused. He knows that the speaker will face enormous pressures in the weeks to come. As Alexander Bolton noted this week in The Hill,

Congress has less than a month to raise the nation’s debt limit and only two months to find a deal to avoid a government shutdown.

If the new speaker cooperates with Democrats or the President to avoid a shutdown, he will face the wrath of House ultra-conservatives who will likely demand his immediate resignation. And if he allows a government shutdown to take place, he and other Republicans may incur the wrath of the entire nation. Either way, such a step could easily ruin Paul Ryan’s political career.

The House Freedom Caucus is playing a strong hand. On Thursday Politico published a “questionnaire” distributed by the HFC that seeks a commitment from any new speaker that any increases in the debt ceiling would be tied to cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Cutting these benefits is viewed negatively by the public at large and even by some Republicans. But so would be refusing to increase the debt ceiling and causing America to default on its debts.

The questionnaire also asks,

Would you ensure that House-passed appropriations bills do not contain funding for Planned Parenthood, unconstitutional amnesty, the Iran deal and Obamacare?

In other words, it asks the House Speaker to commit to not funding the government unless Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, Obama’s immigration orders and the Iran deal are all defunded in the process. As Judd Legum notes in an article in ThinkProgress,

This is essentially the Ted Cruz strategy which prompted at 16-day shutdown in 2013. This would now be enshrined as the official policy of the Speaker Of The House.

It would be dangerous for any untested Speaker to shepherd such radical legislation through the House. There is sure to be an enormous backlash as well as some unforeseen casualties.

But right now the House Freedom Caucus holds all the cards. And it will be difficult to elect a new speaker without their cooperation.

Interesting – and perilous – times lie ahead.

Photo credits: Scott Applewhite/AP; Andrew Harnik/AP; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Guess Who’s Running for President

Republicanlogo.svgThere are now 10 Republicans who have announced their candidacy for president in 2016 and another 9 who whose announcements are pending, are exploring their candidacy or who have publicly expressed interest in running.

That number may grow in the weeks to come. It’s a “deep bench” and it will be interesting to see what will happen in the upcoming primary debates as they each try to convince voters that they are more right-wing in their views than their opponents.

DemocraticLogoOn the Democratic side there is now a total of 4 Democrats who have declared their candidacy for president: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Lincoln Chafee.

Hillary Clinton is the uncontested front runner, and it remains to be seen whether O’Malley and Chafee can get any traction. They may just be positioning themselves for the 2020 elections. (Looking back over the history of both parties one sees how often the successful nominee in a given year was an ‘also-ran’ in the prior election. That’s the usual pattern.

As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Lincoln Chafee and Hillary Clinton were at one time both committed Republicans. I wonder what happened to make them go over to the other side. Was it that the Republican Party has no room for ‘moderates’ any more? Just asking.

Bernie Sanders2The Democratic candidate who continues to receive the most attention apart from Hillary Clinton is Bernie Sanders. He has been regularly speaking to packed houses at his public events.

Yet the mainstream media continues to cast him as a fringe candidate who has little credibility. The fact that he is a self-declared “democratic socialist” (along the Scandinavian model) seems to be enough to guarantee that he will be dismissed as a serious contender in the presidential campaign.

It is difficult to understand what is so “extreme” about democratic socialism. It exists as a practical option in many European countries where socialist, labor parties, and (gasp) Christian Socialists abound. Even in Canada, which shares a 4,000 mile long border with the U.S., the (pro-labor socialist) New Democratic Party forms the official opposition in government.

The fact that there is only one ”democratic socialist” to be found among the 535 members of the U.S. Congress speaks volumes. It shows just how far to the right American government is compared to other Western democratic nations.

Bernie Sanders’ ideas have been broadly dismissed as both “extreme” and impractical. He is said to be out of touch with the American populace. Yet how extreme are his views really?

Sanders says that he wants to get big money out of politics. The vast majority of Americans agree with this, and a good half of Americans are in favor of federally financed political campaigns (such as exist is several states) to level the playing field.

Sanders strongly criticizes the growing gap between the richest 1% and the rest of the population. Polls show that some 63% of Americans also view the current distribution of wealth in the US as unfair.

Sanders has proposed raising taxes on the ultra-rich to fund government programs that will reduce this wealth disparity; 52% of Americans agree with this idea.

Sanders wants to take action to alleviate high student debts and make college education more affordable. 79% of Americans agree that education beyond high school is not affordable for many people, and 57% of those under 30 see student debt as a serious problem.

Bernie Sanders warns of the dire effects of global warming and wants to take effective action to combat it; 71% of Americans agree that global warming is a fact, and 57% are convinced that human activity is causing it.

So much with Sanders’ ideas being “extreme” and “out of touch” with the American public.

Rick PerryMeanwhile, I see that the mainstream media has no trouble treating former Texas governor Rick Perry as a credible Republican candidate for the presidency.

Perry has denounced both Social Security and Medicaid as unconstitutional. He has also denounced Obamacare and other federal health programs as unconstitutional. He sees federal education programs as unconstitutional as well as federal clean air laws and federal laws protecting workers.

Yet somehow the mainstream media doesn’t see Perry’s views as “extreme” or dismiss him as being “out of touch” with the views of the average American.

This is utterly bizarre!

Wake up people! The dangerous fringe candidates are all on the right. The extremists are all in the Republican Party. Get to know your candidates. And take care when you cast your ballot.

photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty

7 Takeaways from the U.S. Midterm Elections

Americans votingThe 2014 U.S. mid-term elections are being portrayed as a huge win for Republicans and a stinging defeat for Barack Obama and the Democrats. But closer analysis shows other significant factors at play that helped determine the outcome of this election.

  1. House Gains

It is an established fact that the party of the sitting president almost always loses seats in the mid-term elections. In the last 19 mid-term elections (since 1938) the president’s party has lost an average of 4 seats in the Senate and 30 seats in the House. At the last report, the Democrats have lost 12 seats in the House with 7 still undecided. That is a fairly small number.

GerrymanderingOf course, the Republicans already had a sizeable majority in the House so there were not too many additional contested seats for them to pick up. Thanks to extensive gerrymandering after the 2010 elections, 85% of the seats in the House were considered to be “safe” for Republicans.

In the 2012 election gerrymandering meant that although Democrats received 1.4 million more votes than republican candidates in the House elections, the Democrats secured only 201 seats compared to the 234 seats that went to Republicans.

Prior to the mid-term election, Lee Fang, a political researcher for Moyers and Company, forecast that

As the results from this year roll in, we see a similar dynamic [to 2012]. Republican gerrymandering means Democratic voters are packed tightly into single districts, while Republicans are spread out in such a way to translate into the most congressional seats for the GOP.

  1. Senate Gains

The real contest, of course was for control of the Senate. If one looks the map of Senate seats up for grabs this election cycle one immediately notices that the seats are heavily concentrated in the American Midwest and the South – traditionally very conservative areas of the country.

Absent from this mix are many of the Pacific and Western and the Northeastern states which tend to be more liberal. In other words, the majority of Senate seats to be decided on were predisposed to go to Republicans regardless of the candidates involved.

Senate election mapSo far the Republicans have picked up 7 seats, with 2 more still to be decided. The Louisiana run-off is almost sure to go the Republican candidate, so let’s call it a gain of 8 for sure. How does this compare to other years?

For the president’s party the loss was as just great as that for Bill Clinton in 1994 and for Ronald Reagan in 1986, but it still pales in comparison to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s loss of 13 Senate seats in 1958 and Harry Truman’s loss on 11 seats in 1946.

The expected wave of Republican victories has been touted as a tsunami by some political pundits. It was certainly a victory wave. But a major tsunami? Hardly. Both parties have undergone more sweeping changes in other years.

  1. Lower Voter turnout

midtermTurnoutIt is an established fact that voter turnout is much lower in midterm elections than in presidential elections – as much as 10 to 15 percent lower. In recent midterm elections less that 40 percent of the eligible population has voted. [Steven S. Smith, The American Congress, Cambridge University Press (2013), p. 86.] This year it was only about 36 percent.

Of those who voted, 70% were white Americans who, more than any other demographic group, tend to vote Republican. Since 2010 many Republican-held states have enacted restrictive voter ID laws that have been shown to disproportionally exclude poor, black and Hispanic voters. [See the very informative interactive posting from PBS’s Frontline website: Why Doesn’t Everyone Have a Voter ID?] Members of these are groups that are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates.

Did these voter restrictions affect the election results? The data is still being analyzed, but according to the Brennan Center for Justice the number of voters impacted by these new restrictions exceeded the margin of victory in close races for the senate and state governors in North Carolina, Kansas, Virginia and Florida.

  1. Lower voter motivation

Supporters cheer as U.S. President Obama speaks during a campaign event in Columbus, OhioIn both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections Obama received his strongest support from young people, women, blacks and Hispanics. Those demographic groups were noticeably absent from this year’s mid-term election.

Many have speculated that this was because of disappointment with President Obama’s performance over the past 6 years. There is certainly some truth to this.

Obama has not been able to get legislation passed through Congress to lessen the burden of student debt or raise the minimum wage, which affects many younger wage earners. He has been noticeably slow to speak out on women’s reproductive rights and equal pay issues for women. He has been remarkably silent on issues of racism, consistently trying to avoid “the race card.” And he has backed off sweeping immigration reform, an issue that is of great concern to Hispanic voters.

The president knows that if he presses for movement in any of these areas Republicans will attack him without mercy, and the entire Democratic Party will suffer as a result. So he has tried to steer a moderate (non-offensive) very “presidential” course. But it has not saved him or his party.

Obama a disaserThe campaign ads in his election cycle have attacked Obama at every turn, accusing him, not of being ineffective or weak as a president, but of being dangerous, dictatorial, and un-American. He has been vilified along with every one of his early accomplishments – especially the Affordable Care Act.

Anything connected with Obama has become poisoned, and Democratic candidates in this election cycle knew it. They were forced to distance themselves from him. In close contests they sent the message that they didn’t want him around. Once again negative campaigning proved to be more effective than any positive message could ever hope to be.

Fear is a powerful motivator. It brought out the conservative base of voters who felt they had to stop Obama and his agenda at all costs, and it put the Democratic candidates on the defensive.

  1. Biased Reporting

Press-conference.-TV-cameras.-July-9-2014The Republican attack machine effectively defined the message in this election cycle, and the Democrats were unable to get traction with any message of their own. In an article on The Hill, Democratic strategist Doug Thornell is quoted as complaining,

“Over the last year Democrats’ message on the economy, fighting for the middle class, and Republican dysfunction either hasn’t broken through or has been drowned out by outside events” [most recently by ISIS and the ebola scare].

That started me thinking. Why didn’t the Democrats’ message find traction with American voters? Polls have shown that the top issues among all voters are (in decreasing order): Jobs, health care, the budget deficit, education, domestic security, and immigration.

The perennial Republican favourites of abortion, same-sex marriage and gun control don’t even make the list. So why weren’t Democratic candidates able to rally voter support on these priorities? Why didn’t their message get through?

ISIS ebola disappearThe answer, I believe, lies in how much media coverage was given to positive assessments of these issues and how much coverage was given to negative coverage or to other issues instead (neglecting these issues completely).

Conservatives repeatedly claim that there is a “liberal bias” in the media. But if the national media really does have a liberal bias, the airwaves should have been filled with this positive message favouring the administration and the Democratic candidates.

I’m not talking about campaign ads here. I’m talking about real news coverage. But I strongly suspect that this was not the dominant message. I suspect that one didn’t have to search very hard to find an outpouring of negative assessments of Obama’s policies and the core issues identified in the Democratic platform. That pretty much squelches claims of the media’s “liberal” bias.

  1. Opposition to Obama

Finally, the following question needs to be asked: Were these mid-term elections really about voting for Republican candidates or voting against Obama?

In Canada we have seen our Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper skilfully destroy two successive opposition leaders by quickly establishing a negative narrative that defined them in the media and that they were never able to get out from under. It destroyed their leadership ability and the electorate’s confidence in them, and ultimately it destroyed both their political careers.

ObamaScareRepublicans have been doing this from day one with Obama. They have denounced everything he has attempted to do, they have obstructed his agenda at every turn, they have made it nearly impossible to get anything done, and then have criticized him for not accomplishing anything.

Republicans have aggressively defined the narrative about Obama and he has not been able to shake it. Even his fellow Democrats had to run from it in their most recent campaigns. Their tactic succeeded.

It has been widely reported in the media that Obama’s approval rating has now “plummeted” and “plunged to new lows.” Yet when one averages all the various polls one finds that his overall approval rate fell from 42.6% on January 1, 2014 to (wait for it) 42% on October 30, 2014. That’s 0.6% – hardly a precipitous decline.

Obama’s lowest approval rating was 39%. This, by the way, is still higher than the lowest rating of any president since John F. Kennedy. Ronald Reagan once hit 35% and George W. Bush once hit just 19%. Nevertheless, the narrative has become firmly established, and many Americans believe that Obama is more unpopular than any previous president.

  1. A Cautious Warning for Conservatives

Narratives, once established become hard to shake. But here is another narrative for the Republicans to consider as they prepare to lead the House and the Senate for the next two years.

According to a Rasmussen Reports national survey published on October 28, 2014 only 8% of likely U.S. voters thought that Congress was doing a good or excellent job, while 62% rated Congress’ performance as poor. A separate Ramsussen poll published on August 27, 2014, showed that John Boehner remains Congress’ most unpopular leader. Those perceptions will be hard to shake.

Do-nothing CongressAre we to expect that this (until now) “do-nothing” obstructionist Congress will actually decide to start governing constructively? It seems to me very unlikely that the Republican majority of both houses of Congress will try to reach a compromise with Obama to get their legislation passed into law. Instead I expect they will seize their newfound majority to pass a host of legislation that they know Obama will not approve of just to see him veto it. And, of course, they will loudly criticize him for doing so.

Until now harry Reid has acted as a “shield” for Obama in keeping unpopular legislation from passing through the Senate, thus deflecting attention away from the president himself. Now Obama will be much more exposed. I expect the Republicans to make the most of it. Conservative House members will certainly be clamouring to see new versions of the stalled bills they had previously approved now pass through the Senate.

What is going to be Republican members’ highest priority – to work with Obama in getting legislation passed, or to finally “take Obama down”? I suspect the latter.

Here is a short list of what we might see happen in the next session of Congress:

  • The Tea Party will flex its muscles once again. House members will renew their demands that Obamacare be repealed and/or defunded. They can’t afford to abandon this tactic, as to do so would enrage their conservative base and expose them to being ‘primaried’ out of the next election
  • Impeachment proceedings will begin against Obama on some contrived charge (abusing his executive powers, perhaps). There will be no legal case for these charges, but Republicans have trumpeted this cause enough that they will be unable to back away from it. Their reputations are at stake.
  • Factions will emerge challenging the leadership of both John Boehner in the House and Mitch McConnell in the Senate. Both will survive, but it will leave the party membership fractured.
  • Certain prominent members (Ted Cruz and others) will push their own agendas as they seek to increase their profiles in preparation for a run for the President’s office in 2016. This may conflict with the agendas of the House and Senate leaders causing additional tensions.

113 Congress1The perception of serious dysfunction in Congress is likely to continue over the next two years. Blame can fall in either of two ways. If Obama gets blamed for “obstinacy” and “obstructionism” – well, he is on his way out anyway and the Democrats will get to promote a fresh face and a different approach. But if the sitting members of Congress are the ones judged to be obstinate and obstructive, they will be the ones facing an angry electorate in 2016.

The 2016 election will not be nearly as easy for the Republicans to win. That large voter base that stayed home from this year’s election will be out again to vote for a new president. And Republicans are not likely to gain any more traction with younger voters, women, and racial minorities that they did last time.

The Senate seats in play this time were disproportionately from conservative states. Next time the West Coast and New England States will favour Democratic wins. And so far polls show Hillary Clinton still leading any potential Republican nominee by double digits.

The significant gains in the 2014 election were sweet for the Republicans, but they will no doubt be quite short-lived.

Credits: Courtney Collins, The Associated Press, Postmedia News; Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters; Dan Wasserman, Tribune Media Services