The USA's Strange New World Part 1. House Party
The American political landscape changed on Tuesday, November 2. Not as much as some had thought, more than others had predicted, and certainly not as drastically as many in both wings of the blogosphere believe, but it has changed nonetheless. In this strange new world, we see a Republican controlled House of Representatives, a whole wacky cast of Tea Party members of congress, and the serious possibility of a long due civil war on the American right. Over the coming articles I will present an overview of what these changes are to America's political system and what they mean for the future of the country. This first installment is dedicated to the most obvious change, the new leadership in the house of representatives.
In a couple months time, America will most likely celebrate its diversity by swearing in its first orange Speaker of the House, the current Republican minority leader and fake and bake enthusiast, John Boehner of Ohio's 8th. The big question of his speakership will be which John Boehner will we get? There is the Boehner that everyone left of center has come to despise over the past two years, who most notably refused work with President Obama on the stimulus bill the contents of the bill were even known to Obama. On the other hand, there is the John Boehner of the previous 10 years who was instrumental in drumming up much needed republican support for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which despite much maligning (particularly by Boehner and the rest of the Republican leadership), will probably go down as the best government program of the past decade, as it both saved the American financial system and turned a profit and worked with Democrats in a very public and very bipartisan manner to write no child left behind.
While Boehner will clearly play a powerful role in the new congress, he will likely be a less powerful speaker than Speaker Pelosi. Boehner is known as somewhat of an easy going guy, who loves a good round of golf and a good hard drink. I want to be clear, that I do not actually see this as a bad quality, particularly in a split legislative branch. For anything to get done, Boehner will have to be able to play nice, and the image of the easy going speaker will certainly make it easier for him and President Obama to start over again (particularly over a round or two of golf, and maybe a beer summit of sorts). Boehner will also have to cede some power over to the Tea Party movement, who played a very important role in the Republicans taking back the house. Because of this, a lot of power will be given to the new majority leader and new majority whip.
With Boehner in the speaker seat, it is almost guaranteed that the current minority whip Eric Cantor will become the first Jewish majority leader in the house of representatives. While it is possible that he might challenge Boehner for the position of Speaker if the House, it is unlikely as Cantor is young enough (he is only 47) to have his eyes on the presidency in either 2016, 2020 or 2024. This means he won't want to have a rift with influential Ohio conservatives when the primaries come around.
The biggest question of this new congress will be who will be the new majority whip? The role of the whip is to make sure that there are enough votes for key legislation and to push party members who are either on the fence or not planning to vote along party lines into doing what's needed. Eric Cantor will probably go down as one of the most effective whips in house history. He managed to keep the party unified on almost every issue that came through. There are several possible candidates to step into this position:
Kevin McCarthy is a Californian who is one of the 'Young Guns', a group of young energetic Republican house members who are pushing for a new set of right wing policy positions. He will have the support of fellow influential Young Guns Eric Cantor and the GOP whiz kid Representative Paul Ryan. He was also a member of Cantor's whip team, acting as the deputy minority whip giving him plenty of work experience
Michelle Bachman will be a formidable candidate as she has positioned herself as the leader of the Tea Party in the house. She has a very public profile, known as much for being a leader of the Tea Party as saying crazy things, such as suggesting that the media should investigate members of congress for anti-American sentiments. If she is not chosen, the GOP will have to either put her into a prominent leadership position or risk insulting the tea party who believe that it is because of them that the GOP now controls the house, and who have shown an almost eagerness to fight with other Republicans. That said, the outright crazy things she has said may be a weakness. Promoting her to a leadership position will tie her to every Republican in the House, a possibility that may seem be toxic to those in moderate districts.
Pete Sessions is a republican from Texas who was chair of the victorious National Republican Campaign Committee. His success in that post is enough to make him a heavy favorite for whip. His job for the past year has been to raise and pass out money to republican house campaigns. It was also his job to recruit promising talent to challenge democrats. This means that many of the new house members that are not of tea party stock will be indebted to him, giving him a large initial power base.
One name that did not appear on this list is GOP Conference chairman Mike Pence. Not only is Pence not running for a new leadership position, but he is stepping down from his old one. This is a clear sign that he is getting ready to run for president in 2012.
The Republicans may have the most interesting machinations right now, but there will be no less interesting shifts within the Democrats' camp. While the number of republican leadership positions increases by one allowing for new blood to come up the ranks, the democrats have had a seat taken away. This means that even if no one tries to move up into the upper echelons of democratic leadership, at least one member of the leadership will have to step down.
The most likely scenario for this is that Nancy Pelosi is will step down with very little fanfare, and eventually announce that she will not seek another term. While some believe that Pelosi will remain on as leadership due to her many accomplishments as Speaker (health care reform, financial reform, the bailout, TARP, etc...), this is unlikely as she has become the embodiment of partisanship that the democrats need to move away from. She will be replaced with the current majority leader, Maryland's Steny Hoyer, who is far more to the center than Pelosi, and does not have to carry around San Francisco along with him. Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a popular fixture of cable news, is also thought to be considering the position. However Hoyer was one of the largest to various democratic congressional races this cycle and will be very hard to beat out for the position assuming Pelosi steps down.
The last major position is that of minority whip. The current whip, James Clyburn has said that he would like to keep that job, However it is possible that the civil rights legend may be make a move into the Obama administration opening up the position. If Pelosi decides to not step down, it is possible that Hoyer will challenge for this position instead regardless of whether Clyburn stays in congress. If she does step down, it is also possible that Wasserman-Schultz may challenge to be the minority whip instead of as the minority leader.
Regardless of how the chips finally land, what is clear is that there will not be enough leadership positions for the democrats. This is a big game of musical chairs, and as of yesterday the music stopped. We will see who wins the scramble for the few remaining seats.
How this new Congress will behave will be very dependent on what Boehner shows up, and how the republicans decide to deal with the Tea Party. In the unlikely event that we see both a John Boehner willing to work the Democrats, and a Republican party willing to compromise, then it is quite likely that we will see a US government similar to that of the congress during the late 90's. That's where President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich were able to bring some serious fiscal responsibility to DC and balance the budget (thanks to the booming dot-com industry). On the other hand, if Boehner remains confrontational and the Republicans to dance to the tune of the Tea Party, it is more than likely that this will be one of the least effective congresses in the history of the US.
Stay tuned Saturday for Strange New World Part II: Nuts with Guts, where we will meet the newly elected supporters of the Tea Party movement.
UPDATE: Since this article was written, it appears that representative Bachmann has decided to run for the Republican House Conference Chair, the 4th highest leadership position just below majority whip.
David Katz is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist.