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Why only obsess on 'Republican Rebels'? An instructive reminder from recent American history

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published Oct. 19, 2015

Why only obsess on 'Republican Rebels'? An instructive reminder from recent American history

Memo to Democrats apoplectic about the sort of demands the Republican rebels are making in the House: Calm down. Take a deep breath. We've been here before. In fact, you've been here before.

It is true that the questionnaire the House conservatives circulated to those contemplating a campaign for speaker calls for the abolition of Obamacare, the end to the Export-Import Bank, the defunding of Planned Parenthood and the impeachment of a commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service. They've talked about these things for weeks.

But let's put aside the policy objectives. All parties have them, and some of them are outside the box. That's what makes them subject to politics. Let's look instead at the structural adjustments sought by these House rebels affiliated with the Freedom Caucus.

Their demands amount to the election of House chairmen without regard to seniority and to weakening the power of House leaders. House rebels have always wanted those things. They are, in fact, precisely the same demands made by the so-called Watergate Babies, elected in 1974 after the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, with the explicit approval of a remarkable body called the Democratic Study Group, known as the DSG.

The DSG was an umbrella group of liberals just as impatient with the Southern potentates who then comprised the Democratic congressional establishment as today's Freedom Caucus insurgents are with the Republican regulars symbolized by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. Just as those Democratic rebels were furious at how antiquated House rules thwarted their policy initiatives, the conservative rebels of today have the same feeling of frustration. The Democratic mutineers of the 1970s chafed under the go-along, get-along byways of the House, no more or less than the Republican renegades of 2015 do.

Writing in last winter's edition of The American Prospect, Julian Zelizer, a Princeton professor of history and public affairs, examined the DSG and its extraordinarily powerful leader, Dick Conlon. He found that the Democratic rebels wanted to decentralize power in the House, allow backbenchers to challenge the speaker and sought, as Mr. Zelizer put it, "to support only legislators who voted with the position of the Democratic Caucus majority."

In short, the Democratic liberals of the period wanted their voices heard and not squelched. That is precisely what the Republican conservatives of today are demanding.

There are, to be sure, contradictions at the heart of the rebels' demands. They worry about concentrating power in the speakership, and yet they apparently would consider Paul Ryan of Wisconsin an acceptable choice as speaker. The idea of a weak speakership is incompatible with a strong lawmaker such as Mr. Ryan, who was the GOP's vice-presidential nominee in 2012 and already has chaired two of the most powerful institutions on Capitol Hill, the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Budget Committee.

Former Rep. Gerry Sikorski, a liberal Democrat from Minnesota, notes that members of the Freedom Caucus are afraid of the very thing that, he said, "often happened to us under Speaker [Tip] O'Neill," explaining: "He told us leftist Democrats that as speaker he was leader of the House Democrats but was also speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, so he would give us three or four or six months to cut our best deal or go to the floor that would likely be controlled by conservative Democrats and the GOP minority."

Another former liberal Democratic lawmaker, James M. Shannon of Massachusetts, a protege of Mr. O'Neill, offered this view: "I do not understand how anyone can become a successful speaker of the House if he gets there with a gun like this held to his head. Look, these are all subjects that individual members can talk to a candidate for speaker about before committing their vote, but there has to be a certain level of trust. The speaker's obligation to the country involves keeping the wheels moving and that means compromise with the Senate and the president much of the time."

So what is being debated here — what is at stake — is the character of the House itself. The Democratic liberals of the 1970s tried to reshape it, and the Republican conservatives of the second decade of the 21st century are trying to do much the same, with many of the same goals.

But every adjustment in the structure of the House has implications, not only for the current Congress but also for those that follow. One former Republican House member — no liberal — told me last week that he fears the Freedom Caucus may be miscalculating: "Some of these things aren't tools you want to take away from a speaker," he said, "especially your own speaker."

The Watergate Baby rebels sent to the House in the 1974 election tended to be politicos en route to bigger careers in the Senate (Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, Paul Simon of Illinois, Tim Wirth of Colorado and Max Baucus of Montana) or steely intellectuals headed for long careers as serious legislators (George Miller, Norman Mineta and Henry Waxman of California, Abner Mikva of Illinois, James Oberstar of Minnesota, Les AuCoin of Oregon and Tom Downey, John LaFalce and Steve Solarz of New York).

The political destiny of the Republican rebels is as yet unknown, but establishment figures inside the party worry that the Freedom Caucus and its allies would rather create chaos than legislation. There's a long conservative tradition of preferring inaction in Congress. But the lesson of the rebellion of the Watergate Babies is that, through environmental, campaign-finance and social-welfare efforts, they reshaped the country.

Many of them became establishment figures themselves — after changing the nature of the congressional establishment.

Right now the question on the table is whether the Republican rebels will follow that pattern, and whether they believe they can have more lasting impact by striking out on their own or by persuading others on Capitol Hill to go along with them. The answer to that question will tell us a lot about the shape of our politics for the rest of the decade, and perhaps beyond.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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