The Cabal That Quietly Took Over the House

For 40 years, the Republican Study Committee has prized ideological purity over partisan loyalty. That mindset now dominates the GOP.
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The Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol done is silhouetted by the rising sun on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

On a frigid Wednesday afternoon in January, Speaker John Boehner sat in a conference room at the Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Va., acknowledging the limits of his authority. For the past two years, the Republican Study Committee--a caucus of the most conservative representatives--had defied his leadership, plotted against his policy proposals, and, just two weeks earlier, organized a revolt to dethrone him. A group of RSC malcontents, exasperated with Boehner's stewardship of the House Republican Conference during the previous session of Congress, persuaded 12 members to oppose Boehner in an effort to replace him with a more conservative leader, just five shy of the number necessary to force a second ballot. This would have legitimized the putsch and provided cover for nominal loyalists to abandon their chief.

Boehner survived, battered and humbled, but there was no time to hold grudges. The internal wounds opened in the 112th Congress were bleeding into the 113th, and Boehner knew he wouldn't last long as speaker (let alone help his party block the agenda of a commandingly reelected president) unless he sutured those wounds. Tomorrow, Boehner would appear before the entire fragmented GOP conference at its annual retreat to set the next year's agenda. But first he needed a plan to win back the trust of conservatives. So now, on this winter afternoon, he was meeting with five RSC leaders not to gloat about his reelection but to secure their support.

Four of the guests had at some point chaired the RSC: Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Tom Price of Georgia, Jim Jordan of Ohio, and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who had taken over the committee just weeks before. The fifth attendee was House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a longtime RSC member and the recently defeated vice presidential candidate. They were putting the final touches on a deal with the speaker, weeks in the making, to hide ideological divisions by agreeing on a legislative strategy for the new Congress.

Not long ago, it would have been ludicrous for the House speaker to approach the Republican Study Committee on bended knee, much less to depend on it to restore harmony to the conference. The committee's philosophy of governance would vex any speaker: Members consider themselves conservatives first and Republicans second. They did not come to Washington to play for the Republican team; they came to fight for conservative principles. If that means voting against party interests, so be it. For core RSC believers, ideological purity trumps legislative accomplishment. Period.

For decades, the group was seen as a parasitic anomaly--a fringe organization of hopeless ideologues surviving off the perception of undue moderation among Republican leadership. Several previous speakers had bullied or ignored it, and one even dissolved the RSC in a quest to squelch internal dissent. For decades, the committee's membership rolls were thin, and internal GOP debates didn't matter much anyway, because the party was in the minority.

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But the 2010 midterms--thanks to an influx of ideologically charged lawmakers converging with an increasingly conservative GOP--changed everything. More than 60 of 85 GOP freshmen joined the Republican Study Committee, giving the group a record 164 members. The committee known as "the conservative conscience of the House" was now, for the first time in history, a majority of the House majority.

As a result, its influence grew geometrically, and, today, no single subgroup drives the legislative agenda like the RSC. When its members rally against a bill, it usually fails; when they join to push a proposal, it almost always succeeds. Indeed, since 2010, the RSC's embrace or rejection of any legislative effort has become the surest indicator of whether it will pass the chamber. With 171 members today, the Republican Study Committee is the "largest caucus in all of Congress," as Scalise puts it. If Boehner and his conductors make the trains run, RSC members are the soot-soaked boilermen shoveling coal into the furnace.

Or refusing, as they sometimes do, to shovel. In the last session of Congress, they made life miserable for Boehner as he attempted to exert authority over his caucus that he did not possess. Opponents of the RSC--including some within the GOP's ranks--now see it as a mob of conservative kamikazes willing to hold the government hostage until their demands are met. During the debt-ceiling negotiations of 2011, Vice President Joe Biden allegedly labeled these lawmakers "terrorists."

Everyone knows Washington's policy: No negotiating with terrorists. But back in January, Boehner had no choice. By seeking the RSC's assistance, he was accepting its de facto control of his conference. Supplication was the only way to salvage his speakership. The defenders of the faith--the ones who argue that principles are not bargaining chips--had finally penetrated the innermost sanctum of power.

KINDLING

Before becoming president of Washington's premier conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, Ed Feulner was a congressional aide to Republican Rep. Phil Crane of Illinois. One day in 1972, Feulner says, his boss was meeting with several fellow House conservatives, including Ed Derwinski of Illinois, John Rousselot of California, and Ben Blackburn of Georgia. The discussion turned to a club of liberal House members who convened weekly and called themselves the Democratic Study Group. "Look at what they've done in terms of making sure the Democrats in control of the House are always under pressure from the left," one member said. "Why can't we do this on the right?"

An idea was taking shape. These conservative House members decided in the long term to target Minority Leader Gerald Ford, whom they saw as a moderate deal-maker rather than a principled conservative. (Ford, foreshadowing the frustration to be felt by future House leaders, fancied himself a conservative but found it impossible to earn the trust from his right wing.) "We said, 'If Jerry Ford isn't getting any pressure from the right, the only way he's going to go is left,' " Feulner recalls.

First, though, the conservatives went hunting for bigger game. President's Nixon's welfare plan contained a provision to guarantee Americans a certain annual income--a notion that horrified right-wingers in both chambers of Congress. So Crane had Feulner reach out to conservative aides in the Senate in the hope of joining forces to defeat Nixon's plan. Soon, Feulner was working with Paul Weyrich, a young staffer for Sen. Gordon Allott of Colorado, and other conservative Hill aides. The group persuaded the governor of California--a popular conservative named Ronald Reagan--to testify against the plan before the Senate Finance Committee. The measure eventually failed, and Reagan rewarded Crane by coming to meet with him in the Capitol. Looking back, Feulner says his work with Weyrich, who later founded the Heritage Foundation, laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the Republican Study Committee.

In the months following the welfare episode, Crane and company worked to formally launch the group. But members soon realized that pressuring leadership required real resources--staff members to churn out studies, charts, and memos, and to organize the logistics of a new, independent caucus. To accomplish this, Crane and his staff designed a system to hire apparatchiks for their new organization by putting them on multiple payrolls. That way, say, five lawmakers might split the cost of one operative. In 1973, the RSC launched with this model. "Sharing staff members was easily done under House rules then," says Feulner. "By the time I became executive director in 1973, I was on, like, four different payrolls at any one time."

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Tim Alberta is editor of Hotline Last Call!, the afternoon newsletter of National Journal Hotline.

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